The sun did not know how beautiful its light was until it was reflected off this building,” said architect Louis Kahn about Sydney’s Opera House. Its billowing white silhouette marries perfectly with the dancing bay lights and the Harbour Bridge’s mighty arch. It’s the magnum opus of this sun-kissed, high-jinks metropolis (and the mother ship for The Australian Ballet, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Bangarra Dance Theatre, among others).
Sydney is a city that wears its selling point – ravishing natural beauty – loud and proud. From the national parks that burrow to its heart to the golden beaches in its coastal, sandstone embrace, everything suggests getting outside and living in the warm, caressing air. The city’s refuseniks (many hailing from more cerebral, overcast, little-sister Melbourne) argue that Sydney’s calling card is skin-deep and brash. But there are hidden depths aplenty, many of them in the inner-city suburbs where the bona-fide Sydneysiders live. Real life begins where the harbour-side glamour starts to lose its sheen.
Criticisms of parochialism are passé: the world has come to Sydney, and millions of migrants lend a thrillingly cosmopolitan air. But there’s still a carefree roughness to its glamour, thanks to its pioneer roots. It is one of the world’s great gay cities (Mardi Gras has been subsumed into the mainstream and is widely celebrated), as well as a super-culinary capital with a foodie exigency that never tires. The freshest produce, meat and seafood are at hand, and the culture of dining is argumentative and discerning, with a short attention span.
Indeed, eating out is the best way to get under Sydney’s skin. A surprisingly good place to start is the redeveloped Star complex near to Darling Harbour. Here you’ll find the brilliant Momofuku Seiobo, its confident eccentricities epitomising Sydney’s mood in dining, as in everything. It’s the first branch outside New York for Korean-American David Chang, who serves a tasting menu. With some 40 seats, it’s hard to get into; it’s also almost impossible to find (the outside is covered with uninviting metal bars, and when I ask at the patisserie opposite, they look blank). You can perch at a bench overlooking the kitchen, but don’t get comfortable with the famously melting pork-belly bun, an export from the New York empire. What follows will defy expectations, from tongue-popping roe with intense deep-fried parson’s nose, to crunchy amaranth with your crab, and a bittersweet, fermented black-bean sauce for your beef, crowned with raw radish. The post‑pudding treat is sweet, caramelised pork shoulder for finger eating.
Hotspot restaurants are also the place to truly experience the vibe of the interior suburbs. Opened in 2012, Monopole in Potts Point is packed full with fans of the cult-wine list (500 rare and boutique wines, including 30 by the glass), flavoursome “sharing food” and house-cured meats. In Surry Hills, Mark Best’s Marque serves boundary-pushing beetroot and foie-gras macaroons, and blue swimmer crab with almond gazpacho, almond jelly, sweet corn and avruga to a young, affluent crowd. The signature sauternes custard is wine infused and deposited in a sawn-off eggshell. It hits like cyanide with a super-sweet finish. It’s an intellectual approach, and not everyone will follow, but it signals a departure from Australia’s easy‑going immigrant-food tradition. With a more accessible bent, Porteño is where Surry Hills hipsters queue for wood-smoked, slow-cooked Argentine steaks, set down by waiters decorated with tattoos. In Stanmore – the charmingly unobtrusive Inner West – Sixpenny is a 36-seater labour of love of owners Daniel Puskas, James Parry and Chris Sharp; produce comes from their Southern Highlands farm, and vegetables are treated as reverently as meat. The snow crab with macadamia and chamomile is something of a Sydney legend, attracting gourmands near and far.
In the past, Sydney’s shopping wasn’t even worth investigating: not so now. Paddington’s Oxford Street intersection with Glenmore Road mixes home-grown designers such as Ellery, Scanlan Theodore and Josh Goot – his block-printed dresses smack of the joy of a Sydney summer – with multibrand boutiques. Of the latter, Land’s End, an elegant, Victorian-style terraced house created by Jane Jasper, and the similarly eclectic Parlour X, which has another strong female visionary behind it – Eva Galambos – are the pick of the bunch.
It’s the city’s bars and lounges, though, that really typify Sydney’s rapid evolution from bland, pub-dominated unsophistication to thriving evening-into-night scene. About five years ago, Sydney’s CBD (Central Business District) was about as inspirational as the City of London on a Saturday night. That has all changed. Down a signless lane is The Baxter Inn, a subterranean wood-panelled bar that has an old Bostonian atmosphere, one of various self-styled speakeasies that have cropped up, as they have in New York and London.
This nod to the US in Sydney’s new bars is light-hearted and fun, though slightly perplexing, as they could, of course, borrow from their own rich pioneer culture (must be the still-lurking collective Australian cultural cringe). Ironically, at Baxter Inn, the handsome bartenders with bow-ties hark back to the time when Sydney was a Victorian colony defined by cheapskate brothels, ill-lit streets and spit-and-sawdust pubs. Next door, another popular bar, The Barber Shop, offers cut-throat shaves before your gin cocktail, while The Lobo Plantation across the road has recreated the romantic interiors of yesteryear’s Havana, with rattan furniture and an extensive menu of rum-based drinks. These are sophisticated, original and atmospheric places.
Hotels, on the other hand, are still playing catch-up. In the heart of the city QT Sydney is a playful design hotel, with its buzzing, brasserie-style bar and grill, and hip rooms carved out of the Gowings department-store building and the historic State Theatre. 1888 Hotel is born of a wool factory in up-and-coming, albeit still-industrial Pyrmont, but is well placed for dining at The Star. If instead you want to feel the sand beneath your feet within moments of waking, you could take Bondi 113 as an exclusive hire: the beach cottage offers a compact but smart private domain within reaches of Bondi Beach’s cafés and restaurants.
In the perennial category, the low-slung Park Hyatt – at the foot of the Harbour Bridge, with picture-book windows to the Opera House – is still head and shoulders above the rest. The calm, contemporary interiors don’t push the envelope, but are perfectly laid out. A small but excellent spa offers true pampering, and the lift doors ping open in front of the best concierge in the southern hemisphere. The Shangri-La, popular with high-profile Chinese, offers epic harbour views enjoyed from upholstered window seats in the rooms. And Blue Sydney colonises the all-timber Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf, as do some of Sydney’s most famous alfresco see-and-be-seen restaurants, including Italian institution Otto’s.
It’s not just frenetic consumption: amid the harbour jewels runs a rich cultural seam. The Art Gallery of New South Wales spreads out near to a foreshore beside the Royal Botanic Gardens, which edges up to the skyscrapers of the CBD, its trees hanging with fruit bats the size of kittens. From the Park Hyatt, you can walk to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia’s quayside global artistic powerhouse; walk left and you’ll soon find the Wharf Theatre – home to the Sydney Theatre Company, the outfit that Cate Blanchett and her playwright husband Andrew Upton managed since 2008. (Blanchett stepped down last year, with Upton going it alone for the 2014 season that sees Hugo Weaving as Macbeth.)
Finally, of course, everyone must partake of Sydney’s beautiful beaches. From the air, the cityscape is unforgettable – perhaps by helicopter, which has the edge in terms of beholding up-close those eastern beaches that go on and on, and the ravishing way that Sydney ends in sheer sandstone. Or, for a gem of a day out, Sydney Seaplanes can whisk you over the exclusive Northern Beaches, alighting at Pittwater for a lunch at Jonah’s Whale Beach resort. Its restaurant is a white-tableclothed temple to seafood and Pacific views, proving that no matter how experimental the new Sydney can get, the eternal promise of a perfect barramundi and a dip in the big blue is still the thing that captures the heart.