As the biggest city in Australia, Sydney is the capital of much of the country’s cultural life — including a world-class array of museums covering everything from convict life and contemporary art to Australian history and ancient anthropology. Introducing the 10 most fascinating museums you can visit in Sydney.
Want to see some of Australia’s famously deadly wildlife from behind the safety of glass? Then visit Australia’s oldest museum next to Hyde Park for as many taxidermied critters you can handle. The Australian Museum has earned global acclaim for its work in natural history and anthropology, particularly documenting the achievements of Indigenous Australians, one of the longest continuously surviving cultures on earth.
Few cities are as entwined with the water as harbour-front Sydney, so the government decided to commemorate those maritime links with a new museum to be unveiled for Australia’s bicentenary in 1988. Political infighting (unbelievable, right?) delayed the opening date to 1991, but the Maritime Museum has been welcoming visitors ever since to its six permanent galleries and a small fleet open to the public, including the HMAS Onslow submarine, the HMAS Vampire big gun destroyer and a replica of the HM Bark Endeavour, the vessel Captain James Cook skippered on his first voyage to Australia in the late 1760s.
Built by fabled convict architect Francis Greenway, these World Heritage listed barracks have gone through four incarnations in their two-century history — first transporting convicts (1819-1848) and female immigrants (1848-1887), then housing the local courts (1887-1979) before being transformed into a museum following an extensive archeological dig. Step through the reconstructed living quarters to learn just how grim life was for those colonial-era convicts transported primarily from Ireland to a penal colony 17,000km away.
After a major redevelopment was revealed in 2012, the MCA houses 4,000 envelope-pushing paintings, sculptures, photographs and moving image projects by modern Australian artists — and the monumental art deco sandstone building that houses the collection is as much of an artwork as anything hanging on the walls inside.
You’d hope this museum does a good job tracing the changing face of Sydney since European colonisation — it is the exact spot, after all, where Governor Arthur Phillip built the first NSW Government House in 1788, the centre of the city’s political and cultural life for the next 57 years. The museum is built above the remains of those original foundations, and deftly documents the interactions of the local Gadigal people and their British colonisers before telling Sydney’s story thereafter.
The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences — known as the Powerhouse to locals because it’s built in an old power station near Darling Harbour — is like a candy shop for science nerds, home to more than 250 interactive exhibits and 400,000 objects, including New South Wales’ first ever locomotive. And hey, you need 400,000 artefacts to tick off 12 permanent exhibits covering science, technology, design, fashion, architecture, engineering, health, medicine and contemporary culture.
Sydney is home to one of the most thriving Jewish communities in the diaspora, made up of 50,000 people, six schools and 30 synagogues around the city. And you can hear their stories at this state-of-the-art museum that walks you through the Jewry’s experience in Sydney since the first free Jewish settlers arrived in 1821, including a touching treatment of the Holocaust when thousands of Jews found refuge on Australian shores.
This old water police station channels the thousands of criminals who have passed through its doors since the 1850s, placing the macabre side of Sydney’s past under the magnifying glass with mugshots of the city’s most infamous delinquents as well as a reconstructed charge room, remand cell and courtroom. In other words, the perfect museum for parents travelling with kids they’d like to scare straight.
This is one of the Harbour City’s favourite cultural institutions — there’s not a student who grew up within 50km of Sydney who didn’t visit the Art Gallery in primary school. Overlooking the Domain, the museum houses collections of Australian, Asian and European art, and also hosts the beloved Archibald Prize each July, celebrating portraits of famous Australians.
The charm of these four terraced houses in the heart of the Rocks? They’re totally and utterly ordinary, making them the perfect time capsule of what life was like for the impoverished Irish families who built these tiny cottages in Sydney’s oldest neighbourhood way back in 1844.