If you visit Sydney during May or June, you've chosen the right time. Not only will the harbour be its spectacular self during the day, but for a few weeks during these months it will also be a pretty impressive sight at night, as locations around the harbour are transformed with colourful productions of light and sound.
It’s all part of Vivid Sydney, the festival of light, music and ideas, which also involves musical performances held around the city (with a particular highlight being the Sydney LIVE series at the Opera House, featuring both and international artists) and the Vivid Ideas Exchange, a series of public talks and debates.
For most people, however, Vivid is all about the light shows and while Darling Harbour (and to a lesser extent Lunar Park) do play host to some attractions, Circular Quay and its giant projections and sculptural installations are the true heart of the event. Everywhere you look in this area there is something to see.
On my visit in 2013, First Fleet Park, located next to the Museum of Contemporary Art, was full of light sculptures, including glowing stalks of flowers sprouting among trees, a tunnel and a garden of glowsticks.
The installations extended under the railway line and up into The Rocks too.
Further off the main track there were glowing buildings and green-lit trees.
All these sights are pretty spectacular, but it's the projections on major buildings around the area that really draw the crowds and have come to be synonymous with Vivid. Each year, the facades of the MCA, Customs House, the Sydney Opera House are all lit up.
Projections on Customs House
Smaller buildings in the area are also transformed.
There were figures in the window at Cadmans Cottage
A visit to Circular Quay during Vivid Sydney definitely can’t be missed in my opinion, but a lot of people share this view, so the place can get packed. I visited on the Sunday of the Queen’s Birthday long weekend, which also happened to be the last weekend of the festival, and couldn't get anywhere near the Sydney Opera House due to the massive crowds.
However, apparently the numbers attending the festival on this particular night 'blindsided' organisers, who have promised to put better measures in place next time. But you'll still want to be prepared for lots of people and long queues for the toilets and food trucks (but you can also wait till you’re in one of the more out-of-the-way locations, like Walsh Bay, where there are far fewer people).
You don't need to get close to appreciate the fun, evocative light show projected onto the Sydney Opera House - you can see it from the other side of Circular Quay anyway
To help you see everything in this area (the amount is a little daunting), there is a walk you can do that incorporates it all. A map app can be downloaded to keep you on track and all the works are accompanied by glowing, numbered towers, which also make them easy to spot (particularly those that don't involve light, like performances and photography). This walk begins at the Sydney Opera House, passes through Circular Quay and The Rocks, goes round Dawes Point Park and finishes in Walsh Bay.
You can get close to the works without the crowds over in Walsh Bay
We sat back and watched this projection
The lights on the Sydney Harbour Bridge can be viewed from Walsh Bay, and were able to be manipulated by visitors to Luna Park in the year I visited
From Circular Quay and Walsh Bay, you can get to the other locations like Darling Harbour and Luna Park by walking or catching the train, but there are also free shuttle buses and ferries available to help you make your way around (but again, expect long lines).
Be prepared that you won’t fit everything into one night; it may be best to chose one area you want to focus on, and consider it a bonus if you get to any others. The lights are only on between 6.00pm and 12.00pm each night, and while it seems like a long time, there's a lot of ground to cover and you're slowed down by the amount of people around.
If you have the time (and the patience) it may be best to dedicate a few nights to the event. After all, there’s still the all music and debates to see.
Where: Locations around Sydney Harbour, including Circular Quay, Darling Harbour, Walsh Bay and Milsons Point
When: For a few weeks between May and June each year, when the lights are turned on between 6.00pm and run till 12.00pm