Sydney might not be the capital of Australia, but it has plenty of museums and galleries that tell the nation's story.
Begin your journey at the Australian Museum or the Art Gallery of NSW to get a broad perspective, but also make time to follow niche interests from the history of Judaism in Australia to the studio museum of the celebrated Australian artist, Brett Whiteley. Though Sydney is a relatively expensive city, many (though not all) of these museums have free admission.
From captivating art galleries to inspirational storytelling, these are the best museums in Sydney.
Art Gallery of New South Wales: best for Australian and international art
Sitting on the east side of Sydney’s Domain parklands, the Art Gallery of NSW looks like a serious art gallery with its sandstone structure and neoclassical columns that emulate the great galleries of Europe. The museum’s permanent collection consists of thousands of works across all genres and from around the globe, including Asia, Europe and Oceania. It also has excellent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander works.
The museum is currently being renovated with the addition of a new building to its north called the Sydney Modern Project. It will have a dedicated Indigenous art gallery and space for major international exhibitions that tour the world.
Australian Museum: best for pre-colonial history
Sydney’s principal museum, the Australian Museum covers natural history and sciences, hosting talks and events aimed at young learners and adults. But unlike the Horniman in London or New York’s Natural History Museum, this one holds artifacts from Australia’s First Nations peoples, which are now being curated in collaboration with their communities.
Visitors can also learn about the people who helped shape Australia, from scientists to athletes and artists. It’s a short walk from the city center near Hyde Park.
Australian National Maritime Museum: best for naval buffs
If you’re visiting Darling Harbour, it would be remiss to skip this excellent museum even if you think ships, cartography, navigation and ocean exploration are of little interest (don’t worry, you’ll change your mind). Moored outside the museum are a Cold War-era submarine, a decommissioned army patrol boat and a historic tall ship.
The museum also hosts exhibitions like Wildlife Photographer of the Year, a spectacular collection of wildlife photography from the Natural History Museum in London. There are plenty of hands-on activities for kids, so don’t expect a short visit if you're traveling with curious young minds.
Powerhouse Ultimo: best for design aficionados
This is the site of the original Powerhouse Museum, now Powerhouse Ultimo, and is housed in a former station that powered Sydney’s historic tram network in Ultimo. It’s a short walk from Darling Harbour or Central Station.
The museum celebrates everything science and design, from steam trains to robots to Boy George dolls to a recreated Art Deco cinema. A significant government investment has enabled the museum to expand to new premises (under construction) in Parramatta, upgrade its accessible storage facilities in Castle Hill and begin digitizing its collection.
Hyde Park Barracks Museum: best for innovative storytelling
The Hyde Park Barracks Museum was once a prison designed by a convict architect before housing a women’s immigration depot, asylum, law courts and government offices. Today this Unesco World Heritage-listed site is an innovative museum that brings Australia’s colonial story to life through charismatic audio guide storytelling.
Highlights of the tour include the upstairs hammock room where convicts – some 50,000 passed through here – slept side by side, various period artifacts, and stories from the building's later history.
Museum of Contemporary Art: best for a stunning location
Ideally situated overlooking Circular Quay in a commanding Art Deco building, Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is dedicated to exploring and celebrating the work of living artists. Their collection and exhibitions curated around themes cover the whole spectrum: painting, photography, sculpture and moving images.
One of the museum’s key missions is to make contemporary art accessible to all through promoting diverse exhibitions, conversations and ideas. It also demonstrates a strong devotion to featuring works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. Visitors should check out the Friday “lates” for art and cocktails after dark. On the last Friday of the month, these nights also include musical performances, workshops and more.
Sydney Jewish Museum: best for 20th-century history
After World War II, Holocaust survivors fled to every corner of the world for safety. Australia, like the US, was one of the primary centers for Jewish communities. Today, Sydney’s Jewish Museum follows the history of Judaism in Australia, which traces back to the first Europeans who arrived on the First Fleet and tells the story of the Holocaust through historical objects and memorabilia. By commemorating and educating visitors on the past, their mission is to challenge today’s perceptions of morality, social justice, democracy and human rights.
The Rocks Discovery Museum: best for stepping back in time
There won’t be a kid in Sydney who hasn’t visited this little museum at some point in their school years. “The Rocks” was the nickname given to the area by Europeans who quarried the sandstone outcrops here when it was the site of Sydney’s early colonial settlement.
This museum delivers a real sense of place, with the history of Sydney and its dockyard location brought to life through storytelling and colorful characters. For more history, nearby Susannah Place shows the slum housing of Sydney’s past by guided tour only.
Brett Whiteley Studio: best for a behind-the-scenes peak
In Sydney’s hip Surry Hills you’ll find the studio museum of the maverick Australian artist Brett Whiteley. He converted this former warehouse into a studio and exhibition space in the mid-1980s and lived there until his death a few years later.
In the studio, you can peruse memorabilia from his life, including sketchbooks and unfinished paintings. You can also check out rotating exhibitions of his celebrated work on loan from the Art Gallery of NSW (which also manages the site).
Chau Chak Wing Museum: best for modern architecture
After 160 years, the University of Sydney’s Nicholson Museum shut its doors and moved its collection to the Chau Chak Wing Museum, expanding its exhibition space. The new museum is housed in the first Frank Gehry-designed building in Australia, slightly resembling a crumpled piece of paper. It was funded by Australian-Chinese philanthropist Dr. Chai Chak Wing, hence the name.
Highlights of this brand-new museum include Indigenous cultural objects, 19th- and 20th-century Australian, European and Asian art and natural history. Plus, there is a Mediterranean archaeological ensemble, including a mummy room with a 2500-year-old Egyptian mummified cat.