Sydney might be famous for its beaches, but a visit to one of its many cultural institutions provides a deeper insight into the city's traditions and history. Sydney is a family-friendly city and many of its museums are too, offering tours, events and hands-on activities targeted at little ones. From art to science to seafaring, you'll find a museum to suit you.
If you plan on visiting multiple museums during your stay in Sydney, the Sydney Museums Pass is a good deal. It allows access to 12 museums and historic houses, including the Museum of Sydney, Justice & Police Museum, and Elizabeth Farm, for AU$24 for adults and AU$16 for kids aged 5 to 15.
Art Gallery of NSW
Sydney's leading art institution, the Art Gallery of NSW, showcases international and Australian works in a stunning 19th-century building overlooking Sydney Harbour. Alongside dedicated spaces for Asian, colonial, European, modern Australian, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, the gallery also hosts temporary exhibitions. The most beloved of these, the Archibald Prize, features portraiture of well-known Australians and runs from mid-May to early September.
The Art Gallery of NSW is open daily, except Christmas Day and Good Friday. On Wednesday, the gallery stays open until 10 p.m., often hosting events that offer an alternative perspective on the works. General admission is free but special exhibitions may have an additional cost.
Museum of Sydney
In 1788, Governor Arthur Phillip founded the British penal colony in Australia and built his official residence in the heart of what would become the thriving city of Sydney. Today, the Museum of Sydney stands on this site, where the ruins of Government House can still be seen.
The museum hosts permanent and temporary exhibitions focusing on the city's history, the lives of its residents and the Aboriginal peoples who are the traditional owners of the land beneath it. Entry costs AU$15 for adults, AU$12 for children over 5 and free for children under 5. The Museum of Sydney is open every day except Good Friday and Christmas Day.
Museum of Contemporary Art
The Museum of Contemporary Art holds Australia's premier collection of painting, photography, sculpture and multimedia work by living artists, both international and Australian. Current exhibitions include surveys of the work of Destiny Deacon, Michael Armitage and Shaun Gladwell. The museum occupies the former Maritime Services Board Building, an imposing art deco space completed in 1952.
There are a couple of fun and informative free guided tours each day, so make sure to check the MCA website for details. The MCA is open every day except Christmas Day. Admission to the museum is free, although admission fees apply to the major summer exhibition.
As part of the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Sydney's Powerhouse Museum certainly lives up to its name. Featuring exhibitions that deal with complex ideas about creativity, architecture, perception, history, design, technology, and fashion, the Powerhouse is especially recommended for families.
The Fantastical Worlds exhibition, running until June 2020, highlights objects from the museum's collection that spark wonder, including recent acquisitions from Timothy Horn, Alexander McQueen, Kate Rohde, and Timorous Beasties. Entry costs AU$15 for adults and is free for children 16 years and under. The Powerhouse Museum is open every day except Christmas Day.
The Sydney Observatory is worth a visit just for the views across the harbor of the iconic Harbour Bridge and the city skyline. Completed in 1859, it was initially used for timekeeping and evolved to play an essential role in charting the southern sky.
If you visit during daylight hours, you can use a solar telescope to see the Sun, some of the Southern Hemisphere's brightest stars, the Moon or Venus. Tickets on this tour cost AU$10 for adults and AU$8 for kids. 90-minute night tours, including the use of telescopes, are also available with advance booking. Night tours cost AU$27 for adults and AU$20 for kids. Otherwise, the observatory is open every day and general admission is free.
National Maritime Museum
Located right on Darling Harbour, the National Maritime Museum is home to an array of vessels that visitors can climb aboard, including a replica of Captain Cook’s HMB Endeavour, former Navy destroyer HMAS Vampire, and former Navy submarine HMAS Onslow, along with plenty of displays about the history of seafaring in Australia.
Until Oct. 30 2019, visitors can also immerse themselves in the magnificent Antarctica VR experience. The Maritime Museum is open every day and general entry is free, although entry to the VR experience and special exhibitions costs extra.
History buffs will find a treasure trove of ruins and relics inside the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney. With the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern Hemisphere, the museum chronicles the ancient cultures of Egypt, Greece, Italy, Cyprus, and the Middle East.
Founded in 1860, the museum has become an unrivaled resource for students and tourists alike. Current exhibitions focus on life in Ancient Greece, theatre in Greece and Rome, death in ancient Egypt, Cypriot art, and the Etruscan society. An impressive LEGO model of Pompeii at the moment of its destruction is also on display. The Nicholson Museum is open Monday to Friday and the first Saturday of every month. Admission is free.
Sydney Jewish Museum
Focusing on religion, the Holocaust, and human rights, this museum is a moving tribute to Sydney's Jewish community. Temporary exhibitions also explore aspects of Jewish culture like music, family, and fashion, both in Australia and around the world.
The Sydney Jewish Museum is closed Saturdays, some Jewish holidays and public holidays. Entry costs AU$15 for adults and AU$9 for children. The museum's Holocaust exhibition is not recommended for children under 11 years old. Check the website for the events calendar, including speakers, film screenings, and performances.
White Rabbit Gallery
One of the world's most important collections of contemporary Chinese art can be found at White Rabbit Gallery in the inner-Sydney suburb of Chippendale. Despite being a former Rolls Royce showroom, the space can only house a tiny portion of the collection at a time, with exhibitions of drawings, photographs, sculptures, paintings, and multimedia works changing twice a year.
The teahouse is also popular thanks to its dumplings and extensive selection of high-quality brews. The White Rabbit Gallery is open from Wednesday to Sunday but periodically closes for a couple of weeks to install new exhibitions, usually in February and August. Entry is free.
Australia's oldest homestead, Elizabeth Farm, is now an interactive museum set in a tranquil 1830s-style garden. In 1793, British Army officer and pioneer of the Australian wool industry John Macarthur received his first grant of land in what is now the western-Sydney suburb of Parramatta. He and his wife Elizabeth built a cottage, then expanded it into a homestead, which was eventually restored and opened as a museum in 1984. The house is now filled with replicas of the Macarthurs' furniture and other household items that visitors can touch.
Elizabeth Farm can be reached by train from the center of Sydney via Rosehill, Harris Park or Parramatta stations in just under an hour. The museum is open Wednesday to Sunday and daily during NSW school holidays, except for Good Friday and Christmas Day. Entry costs AU$12 for adults, AU$8 for children over 5, and children under 5 are free.
Justice & Police Museum
Despite the sunshine, Sydney has had a dark and murky underworld since the days of the colony. At the Justice & Police Museum, once the Water Police station and courts, the extensive archive of photos, documents, and artifacts tells the stories of the bushrangers, crooks, and fugitives that once passed through its doors.
A must for true crime fans, this museum also has activities suitable for the whole family, including Cops and Robbers tour at 10:30 a.m. and the Bushrangers Behind Bars tour at 11:30 a.m. Visitors also have the chance to take their own mugshot, 1920s-style. The Sydney Police & Justice Museum is only open Saturdays and Sundays. Entry costs AU$12 for adults, AU$8 for kids and free for under fives.
Brett Whiteley Studio
Brett Whiteley was one of Australia's most beloved artists, known as much for his gorgeous Sydney landscapes as his hard-partying lifestyle with other creative types, including Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan, in the '60s and '70s. At his studio in the bohemian inner suburb of Surrey Hills, visitors can marvel at some of his most significant works of painting and sculpture.
In 1978, Whiteley became the first and only artist to win Australia's three most prestigious art prizes—the Archibald, Wynne, and Sulman—all in the same year. The apartment section of the building, is filled with notes, books, and records, just as Whiteley left it when he died of a presumed opiate overdose in 1992. The Brett Whiteley Studio is open Friday to Sunday and admission is free.