The Sydney Opera House is arguably Australia's most recognizable landmark, alongside its neighbor, the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The building's dramatic white sails and controversial history make it an essential stop on any visitor's itinerary, in addition to the wide variety of events and performances that take place inside. Read on for a complete guide to visiting the Sydney Opera House.
History and Architecture
The Sydney Opera House stands on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The idea for a world-class performing arts venue in Sydney gained momentum the 1950s, when Australia was undergoing an economic boom largely driven by high levels of post-war migration from Europe.
In 1956, NSW Premier Joseph Cahill opened a competition seeking designs for a National Opera House. The following year, an unconventional, expressionist plan by Danish architect Jørn Utzon was announced as the winner.
Construction began in 1959, despite concerns about the huge cost of the project and some unresolved architectural details. It quickly became obvious that the Sydney Opera House would almost certainly take longer to build and require much more money than had previously been planned. (It eventually came in 14 times over budget and 10 years late.)
As the building began to take shape though, Sydneysiders were won over by its ambitious scale. Its distinctive spherical shells, for example, are covered with over a million specially-made tiles.
After almost two decades of discussion, planning, and political disputes (including the resignation of Utzon, the original architect, over budget concerns in 1966), the Sydney Opera House was finally opened in 1973 by Queen Elizabeth II.
The first production was a rendition of Prokofiev’s epic "War and Peace" by the Australian Opera. Since then, the Opera House has hosted iconic figures including Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald in the late 1970s, Pope John Paul II 1987, and Nelson Mandela in 1990.
In 2000, the Opera House was front and center of the Olympic Arts Festival. Then in 2009, Sydney's largest culture festival, Vivid, first projected its now-famous light show onto the Opera House's sails. In 2019, more than 8 million people visited this impressive venue, taking tours, attending performances, and admiring the building itself.
What to Do
Depending on your interests and the length of your visit, there are three main ways to experience the Sydney Opera House. Whatever you choose to do, you will likely start your visit at the Welcome Center on the Lower Concourse. If you're short on time, you can check out the structure from the red-granite steps, then walk down the Western Boardwalk for unbeatable harbor views.
For a deeper understanding of the building and its history, take an official tour through the Concert Hall, Joan Sutherland Theatre, and smaller theaters. Along with the standard one-hour tour, experiences tailored to families, foodies, and theater fans are also available. Tours run daily and should be booked in advance.
If you'd rather catch a performance, you'll have plenty to choose from. The Opera House hosts 2,000 shows across 363 days each year, from musical theater to dance and contemporary music. The Australian Chamber Orchestra, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Opera Australia, Sydney Theatre Company, Bell Shakespeare, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and Australian Ballet are all based here.
How To Visit
You won't have any trouble spotting the Opera House in central Sydney. It can be found at Bennelong Point on the southern side of Sydney Harbour, in between the Royal Botanic Gardens and Circular Quay.
It's situated close to many of the city's main attractions, so you are likely to pass it during your stay. The Opera House is a five-minute walk from Circular Quay, a public transport hub, and is surrounded by restaurants and bars.
Fine dining restaurant Bennelong serves some of the city's best modern Australian cuisine, while the more casual Portside offers light meals, coffee, and sweet treats. Sitting side-by-side on the harbor, Opera Kitchen and Opera Bar are perfect for a glass of wine or some pre-theater snacks. (It goes without saying that all the dining options also have stellar views of the Harbour Bridge.)
Paid parking is available around the clock at the Opera House, starting from $13 per hour. The car park can be busy before popular performances, so we recommend allowing extra time or taking public transport if possible.
Entry to the Opera House foyer and welcome center is free, but the only way to see farther inside is to take a tour or see a show. Tours start from around $30 per person, while performance tickets vary.
On weekends and during the summer, you can avoid the crowds at the Opera House by arriving early. Tours early in the day also have a better chance of seeing all the performance spaces before they are closed to visitors for the nightly shows.
If sunsets are more your thing, visit in the evening and take in the free Bada Gili daily light show. The welcome center is open from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week, and tours run daily from 9 a.m to 5 p.m.
Things to Do Nearby
For the best views of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, make your way across the Botanic Gardens to the eastern edge of the Domain (a 20-minute walk). Here you'll find Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, a large bench cut into exposed sandstone by convicts in 1810. The bench was originally created for Elizabeth Macquarie, the wife of the Governor of New South Wales, but has since become one of the most popular photo spots in the city.
The Opera House is located at the eastern end of the Circular Quay entertainment precinct, dotted with restaurants and cafes. Once you've worked up an appetite, stop in at Sydney Cove Oyster Bar for fresh seafood or Messina for the city's most inventive gelato flavors. Circular Quay is also the city's ferry hub, so you can easily take a scenic ride across the harbor to Manly or Watson's Bay.
On the other side of Circular Quay, you'll find the Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as the Rocks, the city's oldest neighborhood. Take a weekday stroll through the Rocks to check out the pubs and boutique stores, or visit on the weekend to enjoy the open-air markets under the Harbour Bridge. For sweeping views of the whole bay, you can even climb the bridge itself!