Whether you’re looking to learn more about Australia’s Aboriginal beginnings, its unique flora and fauna, Sydney’s roots as a first stop for British convicts, or the country’s increasingly open relationship with cutting-edge art, there’s a museum in town that will satisfy you. In recent years, Canberra has given the city a run for its money as it scoops up an increasing number of internationally renowned, exclusive-to-the-city exhibitions. Nonetheless, Sydney still welcomes an impressive number of shows on a regular basis, and they bring out a huge number of locals keen for a spot of culture. Added bonus: the buildings that house these collections are real works of art themselves, so if you plan a visit, be sure you take some time to walk around. For a city with so much to do outdoors, you’ll be happy you spent at least a few hours indoors nosing around Sydney’s world-class museums and cultural institutions.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales is your first port of call if you want to see a wide range of art both classic and contemporary, and admission is free to peruse its permanent collection. I’m most excited for the Pop to Popism exhibition opening November 2014; the largest-ever exhibition of pop art to hit Australia will feature more than 200 works by brand names including Warhol, Lichtenstein, Koons, and Hockney.
A recent overhaul transformed the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is located on the western end of Circular Quay just across from the Opera House. It nabs world-class exhibitions (a 2014 survey of Yoko Ono’s work was a hit) and feature great activities for kids. On the last Friday of each month, it hosts ARTBAR, a party featuring live music, performances, and a crowd looking to see out the work week surrounded by thought-provoking art.
The oldest museum in Australia keeps its focus on natural history and anthropology, with popular exhibitions covering off dinosaurs, native birds, and international finds. It also has a strong program of activities and exhibitions for the young ones.
Museum of Sydney
Learn all about the rich history of Australia’s biggest city at this well-curated museum, built atop the remains of the first Government House. It does a particularly good job with digital presentations (video walls!), houses a huge array of artefacts from the city’s convict-laden past, and you’ll be hard-pressed to leave the gift shop without some choice loot.
Hyde Park Barracks Museum
Australia’s bleak history as a penal colony comes to vivid life inside this historic site, where convict men and boys were housed once they arrived in the city. It’s kind of like Alcatraz meets Ellis Island, and there’s a palpable sense that ghosts haunt the place. The tour includes an innovative audio narration that helps visitors understand what life was like behind bars for the thousands of men who passed through in the first half of the 18th century.