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Sydney, Australia

What's New In...

by Dan Allen
What's New in... Sydney, Australia. vivid Sydney Photo by MinminMai

My first few hours in Sydney simply couldn’t have been gayer.

It was 2002, and Australia’s biggest city was about to host the sixth Gay Games, so I’d arrived with a gaggle of LGBTQ+ American journalists for a very pink tour. Still dazed from the long flight, we were shuttled right from the airport to Sydney’s famed Bondi Beach, where a dozen barely-clad and oiled-up Aussie hunks were leaping across the sand for a photo shoot for the then-new Aussie Bum swimwear line. Subtle, this wasn’t.

As I learned quickly on that first trip, few cities in the world know how to get their gay on as unabashedly as Sydney, Australia’s Emerald City. And though I’ve been back to Sydney since, nothing could have prepared me for the full onslaught of gayness that washed over me during my recent visit this year for Sydney World Pride, the first time the global event has ever taken place in the Southern Hemisphere. During this trip, the gay started even before landing in Sydney, with distinctively campy shenanigans like drag bingo at 35,000 feet above the Pacific aboard the Qantas Pride Flight.

Back on the ground Down Under, it seemed the whole city of Sydney pulled out all the stops to make the weeks of WorldPride as unforgettably queer as they could possibly be. WorldPride piggybacked onto Sydney’s legendary annual Mardi Gras (mardigras.org.au), which meant that fantastic one-of-a-kind events like the Sissy Ball, the Mardi Gras Film Festival (queerscreen.org.au), and of course the immensely fun Mardi Gras parade were all part of the festivities. Many smaller WorldPride events were likewise merely extensions of parties that happen regularly in Sydney. It became abundantly clear that though WorldPride was a unique celebration, the city’s underlying LGBTQ+ infrastructure is stronger than it’s ever been, even after Australia’s famously tough pandemic years.

Qantas Pride Flight (Photo by Courtesy of Qantas)

Qantas Pride Flight (Photo by Courtesy of Qantas)

Sydney’s best art museums joined the WorldPride bandwagon too, including some terrific shows that you can still catch until the end of this year. The innovative and massive Powerhouse Museum (500 Harris Street, Ultimo. Tel: +61-2-9217-0111. maas.museum), housed in a converted electric tram power station in the city center, is hosting a show called Absolutely Queer through December 31, which highlights Sydney’s leading contemporary queer creatives and showcases their artworks, costumes, design, fashion, and activism. Also on view through December 31 at Powerhouse is Paradise Camp, which presents a dozen captivating photographs by Japanese-Samoan artist Yuki Kihara, who identifies as Fa’afafine (Samoa’s third gender) and was the first Pacific Islander to have a solo show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009.

Set within a beautiful park overlooking Sydney Harbour, the superb Art Gallery of New South Wales (Art Gallery Road. Tel: +61-1-800-679-278. artgallery.nsw.gov.au) opened its gorgeously angular and airy Sydney Modern Project building in late 2022. The highly-anticipated $230 million project turned the museum into a two structure complex and nearly doubled its exhibition space. And while the museum may not be hosting any specifically queer themed exhibitions right now, an abundance of excellent works from its permanent collection by LGBTQ+ artists are currently on display, including contemporary pieces by Jeffrey Gibson, Igshaan Adams, and aboriginal artist Karla Dickens, as well as early 20th century paintings by Australian artists Janet Cumbrae Stewart and Agnes Goodsir.

Making its debut during WorldPride, Sydney now has its own museum dedicated to the city’s rich LGBTQ+ culture and history, Qtopia (Green Park Bandstand, 301 Victoria Street, Darlinghurst. Tel: +61-4-6862-6606. qtopiasydney.com.au). Housed in the bandstand at Green Park, the site itself has historical significance, perched directly between the former Darlinghurst Gaol (now the National Art School, but once a major cruising area and where one of Australia’s most notorious 19th century outlaws, the dashing and by-our-standards-probably-gay Captain Moonlite, took his own life after being imprisoned), and St Vincent’s Hospital (where Ward 17 South was the first dedicated HIV/AIDS ward in Australia). Qtopia currently hosts small exhibitions within the bandstand, and presents a diverse slate of queer-themed performances and talks in the park beyond. Museum organizers plan to move Qtopia into its larger permanent home nearby at the former Darlinghurst Police Station sometime in 2024.

The iconic Sydney Opera House (Bennelong Point. Tel: +61-2-9250-7111. sydneyoperahouse.com) used its pandemic downtime to install a state-of-the-art renovation of its acoustics and accessibility, the final stages of a $125 million revamp to the entire building, just in time for its 50th anniversary in 2023.

Despite nearly two years of very strict pandemic lockdowns, Sydney’s LGBTQ+ nightlife scene has bounced back shockingly well, with Sydney’s state of New South Wales boasting a reopening rate of an extraordinary 93%. This helped make Sydney “one of the most resilient LGBTQ+ communities in the world,” according to a recent University of Sydney study. At the heart of it all is Sydney’s longtime gay strip Oxford Street in Darlinghurst, which reportedly saw some 15 new venues open in the six-month lead-up to WorldPride. Popular Saturday gay club Poof Doof (poofdoof.com/sydney) has returned to Oxford Street after several years away, now happening at Kinselas on Taylor Square.

Despite rumors that it was shutting down for good during the pandemic, nearby ARQ (16 Flinders Street, Darlinghurst. Tel: +61-2-9380-8700. arqsydney.com.au) is now as busy as ever, and remains one of Sydney’s longest running gay clubs. And far from the Oxford Street gay mainstream. both literally and figuratively, The Bearded Tit (183 Regent Street, Redfern. Tel: +61-2-7209-4047. thebeardedtit.com) in the artsy Redfern district is still going strong as one of the most popular watering holes and creative spaces for Sydney’s alternative queer set.

On the fashion front, Sydney has firmly ensconced itself at the forefront of the Australian scene in recent years, with hot brands that have become must-wears for Sydney’s, and indeed the world’s, stylish gays. Venroy (venroy.com) launched on Bondi Beach with just boardshorts back in 2010, but it’s since morphed into an elevated leisurewear line that’s perfect for Sydney’s year-round comfortable temperatures. Check out its original flagship store on Bondi, or in the city center on Glenmore Road in the Intersection district of fashion shops. Interestingly also born as a boardshorts line in 2017, Commas (commas.cc) has since grown into a global, award-winning swim and resort wear label. Commas doesn’t have its own shop, but you can find it at David Jones (86-108 Castlereagh Street. Tel: +61-133-357. davidjones.com), which is basically Sydney’s answer to Barneys.

Sydney’s hotel scene, already very strong, has been upping the ante of late. Ace Hotel Sydney (47-53 Wentworth Avenue, Surry Hills. Tel: +61 2 8099 8799. acehotel.com/sydney) became the hip brand’s first hotel below the equator when it opened in the very central Surry Hills neighborhood in May 2022. Each of the 264 rooms in the former brick factory is unique, but all have the quirky charm that Ace fans love, with amenities like in-room turntables and freestanding bathtubs. LOAM on the ground floor is a sister to the same-named, laid-back, veggie-embracing restaurant at the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles, and rooftop eatery Kiln was named Australia’s Best New Restaurant of 2022 by the Sydney Morning Herald for its seafood and veggie-geared menu, not to mention its fabulous 360-degree views of the city from 18 stories up.

The esteemed InterContinental Sydney (117 Macquarie Street. Tel: +61-2-9253-9000. sydney.intercontinental.com) was reintroduced in October 2022 after a lavish $80 million makeover, elevating its 509 rooms into a new era of luxury, while still preserving the incredible views of Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House that they’re known and beloved for. Paying homage to the huge structure’s 1851 roots as Sydney’s Treasury Building, The Treasury bar and restaurant on the ground floor is a tremendously grand, open space flooded with natural light from three stories above. Up on level 32, Aster Bar is the city’s only rooftop bar with a wraparound outdoor deck.

In March 2023, Capella Sydney (24 Loftus Street. Tel: +61-2-9071-5000. capellahotels.com/en/capella-sydney) became the first property from the ultra-luxe Capella Hotel Group to open outside of Asia, offering 192 rooms of stylishly understated elegance in an Edwardian-style heritage building in the city’s financial district. Part of a bigger and ongoing urban redevelopment called the Sandstone Precinct, the hotel actively embraces the heritage of the land upon which it rests, including Indigenous inspired elements in its wellness treatments, complimentary historian-led storytelling sessions, and local artwork spread across the property.

Celebrating Mardi Gras in Sydney (Photo by Tripping The Light)

Celebrating Mardi Gras in Sydney (Photo by Tripping The Light)

Indeed, one very surprising but very welcome change in Sydney since my last visit a few years ago is that Indigenous heritage is now widely and prominently respected across the city. Everywhere you go, you’ll see and hear announcements honoring the Aboriginal people upon whose traditional lands a venue now sits, paying respect to their elders, past, present, and emerging. It’s hard to imagine such respect ever being paid to the indigenous peoples of the United States, but here’s hoping we can learn from Australia’s lead.

While WorldPride may have been a once-in-a-generation queerstravaganza for Sydney, the city hosts a multitude of annual events that draw LGBTQ+ visitors from around the region and the world. Mardi Gras and its many related events draw half a million attendees every February. Vivid Sydney (vividsydney.com) brings in a host of global performers and cultural icons (this year including Jennifer Coolidge and Mike White) for its celebration of light, music and ideas, running every year from late May to mid June. Mounted by the folks behind the Mardi Gras Film Festival, the Queer Screen Film Fest (queerscreen.org.au) takes place half a year later in August. Sydney Fringe (sydneyfringe.com) in September presents works by some of the city’s most innovative and quirky performers, always including a healthy dose of LGBTQ+ folk. And in November, the new Summer Camp Festival (summercampfestival.com.au) celebrates queer music with LGBTQ+ heavyweight performers like Years & Years, Big Freedia, and The Veronicas.

Of course a considerable part of any trip to Sydney is the flight itself, and even if every flight can’t officially be a Pride flight, Qantas (qantas.com) is doing its best to make sure that the experience is as comfortable as it can be, including a recent $100 million investment in lounge upgrades across the world. Australia’s national carrier flies nonstop to Sydney from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Honolulu and Vancouver, and for East Coasters, Qantas launched a new direct flight from New York’s JFK Airport to Sydney in June, with a quick stop in Auckland, New Zealand for refueling along the way. Nonstop New York to Sydney flights are planned for late 2025 as part of Qantas’ Project Sunrise plan.

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