7 Things Worth Checking Out At Vivid Sydney, From Someone Who’s Actually Been To Them

Vivid Sydney 2023 things to do for free

Vivid Sydney 2023, AKA NSW’s unofficial winter festival, is well and truly underway and it’s grown into a much more complex beast than when it was just a series of lights in Circular Quay.

The show, now made up of dozens of events across the city, is bigger and better than ever before — so I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t know where to start.

Don’t worry though, this is where I come in. I spent the first weekend of Vivid Sydney sussing out what events are worth trekking it out for in the freezing cold, so here’s a bunch of events I reckon you might enjoy — for those of you who are strapped for cash, and those of you who have some moolah to spend.

Tumbalong Nights, Darling Harbour — Free

Okay, but how good does it feel to connect with a crowd of strangers over music that has something to say? (Source: supplied.)

If you’re looking for some striking visuals and sick tunes without the hefty price tag that comes with some of the events kicking off around Vivid Sydney 2023, then I’d recommend heading to Darling Harbour to check out Tumbalong Nights.

The event is essentially 12 nights of live music gigs by various artists of diverse backgrounds, right beside some of the key light sculptures in the harbour and complete with a dance floor to groove on.

I watched the ARIA-winning Yothu Yindi perform for an hour on Saturday night and the vibes were high AF — so much so that even I, a germaphobic crowd-fearing hermit who typically does not enjoy concerts, was able to get a boogie on and forget my woes. And it’s free!

Written In The Stars drone show, Circular Quay —– Free

Hate fireworks? Me too! Watch this drone show instead. They’re better for the environment, won’t traumatise local animals, and honestly? You’re just not ready for how hauntingly beautiful they are.

No, seriously, I watched the first show of Written In The Stars over the weekend and it was a spiritual experience — more than 1,000 drones took to the sky and created graceful, moving images of whales, planets and our solar system at a scale I could barely comprehend. I felt like I had to manually integrate it into my reality because this stuff feels like it’s from a sci-fi movie. The future is now.

The show, which is the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere, is on twice a week for free at 9.10pm every Sunday and Wednesday during Vivid. It goes for about 10 minutes, the last two-ish minutes of which are ads (yeah, that’s where it starts giving Blade Runner 2049 dystopia), but the rest of which was my second favourite show. And you can see it pretty clearly from the harbour in Circular Quay, just while you’re on your walk.

Lightscape, The Royal Botanic Gardens —– $30-$48

Okay, I know this is one of the more controversial Vivid Sydney events since it’s set in the once-free to access Royal Botanical Gardens — something that has definitely left people feeling scammed — but hear me out.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not true that this event was once free and is now charged — Lightscape is a curated art exhibition, completely different (and much more interesting) than the free walk that used to take place at the gardens. And, like any exhibition full of installations that artists have lovingly created over years, it costs money to attend — something I don’t have a problem with since artists deserve to be paid for their work.

Are the prices steep AF, though? Yes, you’ll hear no contest from me there. The cost will definitely see families and those struggling with $$ priced out, which fkn sucks. I wish tickets were, like, $20 instead of the nearly $50 my husband paid to attend on Sunday night.

However, if you go during the off peak times when tickets are about $30, and you only have yourself to pay for, I reckon it’s worth your money — the installations are thoughtful and visually stunning, the music is spine tingling, and I spent probably 15 minutes just standing there and gaping in awe at a whale installation that was definitely the highlight of this exhibit (and my favourite out of everything I saw this week).

Plus, the fact that the event is ticketed means it’s not so awfully crowded like every other part of Vivid Sydney. In fact, it was downright quiet when I went, which meant I actually managed to have photos of myself without anyone else in them and there was no line for the hot choccie stand. I reckon that’ll appeal to people who typically forgo the lights festival because of its chaotic nature (again, like me, the germaphobic crowd-fearing hermit).

Try getting a pic this pristine anywhere else at Vivid. (Source: supplied.)

Dark Spectrum, Wynyard — $35

You know those abandoned, blocked off train tunnels under Wynyard? Which were so weird and unknown that they inspired a slightly terrible Blair Witch-style horror movie called The Tunnel that I was completely obsessed with in highschool?

Well, those tunnels have been opened up to the public for the first time, as part of a light exhibition called Dark Spectrum that sees them filled with light exhibitions inspired by specific songs.

Each “room” in the tunnel has a different theme, colour and music. The stand out to me was the room full of spooky, Hungry Hungry Caterpillar-esque robots. Fun fact: these machines were programmed to have different personalities, which shows in the way they dance. And yes, one of them is the “leader” — have a go at guessing which when you see them.

Elemental, Darling Harbour —– Free

A giant, menacing orb? Music that will make your heart race? A fire, air, water and light show that’ll make you think of Avatar: The Last Airbender? Yeah, I was intrigued too, so I checked it out on my walk to Tumbalong Nights, and I can confirm that Elemental is very cool.

One of my favourite elements (hehe) of this year’s exhibitions is the clear focus on sound. The original soundtrack of this performance has a bass that can be felt deep in your chest, and it sounds otherworldly — which is fitting given it follows the journey of how our planet came to be.

Elemental, a free event at Vivid Sydney 2023

Nocturne, Barangaroo Reserve —– $51

If you’re down to spend $$$ on experiences at Vivid Sydney 2023, Nocturne is one of the most underrated ones.

It’s essentially a dreamy, immersive exploration of alleys and laneways in The Rocks, but without a traditional tour guide — instead, you wear supplied headphones and listen to the soothing meditations of Euahlayi Senion Lawman and Knowledge Holder Ghillar Michael Anderson, Bidjigal-Dharawal, Wailwan, Biripi and Bundjalung man Jake Ferguson, D’harawal Saltwater Knowledge Keeper Shannon Foster, and marine environmental scientist Dr Katherine Dafforn.

As you follow their directions around wharves, cliffs and sandstone steps, you’re guided to certain significant sites and learn what they looked like pre-colonisation. The most impactful part for me was when I ended up standing at Observatory Hill, looking down over the lit up expands of the harbour, and imagining what this would have looked like if Australia was never invaded.

The walk is between 60 and 90 minutes depending on your pace, and ends with stargazing, a picnic blanket to keep you warm and a flask of hot ginger tea. It’s actually pretty romantic, if you’re looking for a fancy Vivid-themed date idea, but I went solo and still really enjoyed it.

The tickets are exxy, though — $51 for one, which I know will probably prevent some people from accessing it, especially since the walk itself is in locations that are free. However, if you’re fine splashing some cash on a special, quite moving experience, then it’s definitely worth considering.

Light Walk, Circular Quay/The Rocks — Free

Of course, for those of you who want to keep it simple yet still enjoy what Vivid Sydney 2023 has to offer, the Light Walk is the go-to.

Spanning 8.5km and dotted with 60 attractions (including light sculptures, water projections of a giant eye and giant inflatable frogs that sing), the walk is what I would recommend to anyone who wants to see Vivid Sydney without spending money or creating a hectic itinerary.

Make it easy for yourself and just mosey on from Circular Quay, to The Rocks, to Barangaroo, and then Darling Harbour. For the small bladder girlies, yes there’s a bunch of (surprisingly clean!) portaloos on the way.

If you do want to spend money, some bars and restaurants along the walk are doing Vivid specials — the peeps I was with were wowed by a fancy, Vivid-themed cocktail at A’Mare (I don’t drink but they made me a spiced pear mocktail!), and I can honestly say that Ploós on The Rocks has the best olive oil I have ever tried in my life (sorry Italians). Lana at Circular Quay does an excellent set menu that they’ll also make vegan, to my delight, as will Rekodo in Barangaroo House.

For those who aren’t about to splash on fine-dining, there’s plenty of food stalls and trucks around too, including caramel stroop waffles (!!!), or vegan gozleme if you are a plant-based babe like myself. Plus, Vivid Fire Kitchen in Barangaroo has a bunch of cheaper food options, and its sandstone warehouse vibes are trendy AF.