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City Of Blinding Lights: A Guide To Sydney Vivid Festival

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It takes a hell of a lot to get a Sydneysider outdoors during Winter.

However a little gathering called Vivid Festival has managed to do exactly that – for about 1.43 million people annually. The three week festival which kicks off in Winter during June is one of the world’s greatest and most visually spectacular light and art shows (sorry, Kanye).

It’s become such a hit with locals and tourists that recent years’ events have seen official road closures and traffic jams that extend out of the main city.

For those seeking a relentless attack on the senses through masterfully curated light, sound and ideas amongst rugged-up friends, this is your free ticket to one very cool Winter Wonderland – Aussie style.

Feast Your Eyes

What’s not to see should be the real question here. Every year, Sydney City Council seemingly shuts down more and more parts of the iconic harbour city to accommodate a growing list of light exhibitions, art instalments, mini-music festivals, food stalls and any other entity that wants to get involved.

Festival Of Sound & Music

It’s not just about art instalments and pretty fairy lights at Vivid Festival though. Since kicking off in 2009, the festival has attracted a respectable lineup of musical acts to satisfy the most discerning audiophile.

Think names like Lauren Hill, Silver Chair’s Daniel Johns, Fat Boy Slim, The Preatures, Flume, Flight Facilities and you’re just scratching the surface.

Some gigs at Vivid are free but most are not and require prior booking to ensure you don’t miss out. To give you an idea of how wild these “small” music events can get, record label Future Classic threw a ten year anniversary party this year to coincide with the Vivid light festival on the Opera House forecourt.

Backdrop? The entire harbour lit up with colours and graphics.

Cool Fact: Local rock band Royal Headache hit the Opera House this year for a Vivid performance and it ended in spectacular style with security and police being forced to drag punters off the stage. Take it as you will, that’s pretty damn cool to us. Especially for a place that usually showcases ballet.

Musical acts are announced in the months leading into the festival so check in with the website to see major announcements and where to score tickets.

Making Art Of Light Art

Art is a major component of the Vivid Festival with a cavalcade of sculptures, projections, light shows and fireworks executed on a nightly basis for the whole eighteen night duration. Every year it gets bigger in accordance with the swelling crowds.

The main vantage points where the art takes place is sprawled across Cambell’s Cove, Central Park, Circular Quay, Martin Place, Darling Harbour, Harbour Bridge, Pyrmont, The Opera House, The Rocks, Walsh Bay and the city’s high rises and alleyways.

There’s an endless list of things to see and you’ll notice this with the mass invasion of photographers ranging from the iPad wielding grandma to pro-photographers.

Influential Speakers Who Talk The Talk

For the more insightful-minded, Vivid hosts a panel of famous and highly influential speakers annually to discuss ideas and stories for creating a better world. The pace is less frantic than the going-ons outside and that’s exactly the point.

The past has seen game-changing speakers such as Tyler Brule of Monocle Magazine and significant players from technology, start-up culture, design and architecture. There’s also something for those into film, visual arts, advertising, marketing and animation.

Most of these talks are not free and require prior booking to ensure your spot. They are intimate affairs so it’s recommended you get in early if you come across someone you’re keen to share a few words with.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

We mean it when we say Vivid is not an event for ‘me time’. Even if you showed up solo, you’d still be crammed rather tightly in the main vantage areas of Circular Quay and The Rocks.


Having said that, the atmosphere is purely electric at Vivid Festival. Every year the smiling faces who seemingly never had a reason to venture into the city, do so on a whim just to enjoy the novelty of seeing the city turn into Vegas without all the strippers.

You’ll also find amazing food and drinking spots lit up as part of the festivities, with every alleyway and harbour front packed with budding photographers.

We also recommend Vivid be one of your date night spots as the lights can prove as a fitting distraction to any of your prior shortcomings. You also have a good excuse to get close to her because you know, it’s cold. Just make sure you actually know the person as there are police everywhere.

Map It Out

You really don’t need a map for Vivid as there are program guides and exhibition maps lit up all over the city along the way, but if you want you can find one on the Vivid website.

Get Your Eat On 

Ah, food. It’s already half decent in Sydney on any given day, but come Vivid the invasion of food trucks, food stands and restaurant specials are evident. Again, this varies on a yearly basis and the best way to find out what’s being served up is to keep abreast of the local food bloggers.

The website doesn’t list any cool eateries but lucky for you,his Sydneysider knows a thing or two about face stuffing.

Cho Cho San

For a fine affair with Japanese Izakaya, swing by Cho Cho San. Coveted chef Jonathan Barthlemess is at the helm of the kitchen, so you’re guaranteed to be in for something special.

Barrio Cellar

A new player in Sydney’s bar and food scene, hit up Barrio for eye-watering dude food and awesome American-inspired cocktails.

Rockpool Bar & Grill

Neil Perry’s famous bar and grill is a must for lovers of premium steak. If you’re a fan of Wagyu and all things that grill, then this is your happy place.

Ippudo Sydney

The Japanese ramen scene is currently ramping up in Sydney and there’s heaps of joints littered across the city to help alleviate those cold Winter nights. Your best bet close to all the Vivid action is Ippudo located in the Pitt Street Mall precinct.

Get Your Drank On

There’s an endless array of bars and pubs to hit up in Sydney’s CBD during Vivid.

Frankie’s Pizza

For a no-fuss affair with a sophisticated grunge twist, swing by Frankie’s Pizza (which also does pizza, obviously) on Hunter Street in the city. They do live music, serve up great drinks and see great crowds lining the walls until 3am most nights.

Baxter Inn & Shady Pines Saloon

If you’re a small bar aficionado, then your spot is definitely The Baxter Inn on Clarence Street and The Shady Pines Saloon on Crown Street. Both ooze boyish charm and sophistication as seen from classic American small bars.

Riley St. Garage

A very stylish newcomer with amazing interior decor and drink and food to match is this booming Darlinghurst spot. Make sure you book ahead during peak times as you’ll be left waiting at the vintage bar for ages. Which isn’t actually a bad thing.

Photography by Destination NSW




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