Sydney, Australia: the global cultural capital of the future

Forget the stereotype, Australians can do hipster as well

WHAT’S the difference between Australia and a petri dish? If you leave a petri dish for long enough it will eventually develop a culture... Or so the joke used to go. But anyone who’s visited Sydney recently would struggle to justify that view. Australia’s economy has been in overdrive and Sydney is now the third most expensive city on earth. Safe, affluent and lively, a new generation of Sydneysiders are flush with cash and confidence. What to spend it on – a new Esky (Aussie for cooler box)? A slab of stubbies to go in the Esky? Not so much – the old cliches are being knocked down at an alarming rate.

The city’s cash is being spent on all sorts of visual tricks and treats; a new Sydney is emerging – one where art and design are at the forefront. Rich residents and tourists are eating in swanky restaurants and flash bars. Designer hotels like the QT, Establishment and Harbour Rocks are reinventing accommodation. Hip music festivals like Laneway proffer punters who look like they’ve walked out of an ASOS commercial (unsurprisingly, the retailer sponsors the festival). At the Laneway after-party at GoodGod (the Alibi of Sydney) you can barely move for hipster teens.

Australia’s biggest city has become glamorous, chic, globalised. Among its greatest assets is its diversity; Sydney has more nationalities resident than New York. The hopes and skills of people from around the world have contributed to the creative success of the current city. The Italian immigrants arrived off the boat clutching their espresso machines and began the Aussie coffee revolution that went global. Asian chefs and businessmen have transformed Sydney’s restaurant scene into a cosmopolitan powerhouse.

Sydney’s original aboriginal inhabitants have been marginalised for too long, but now they too are getting some of the recognition they deserve. In Redfern, where the cash from minerals and banking is yet to trickle down, the murals painted by local indigenous artists tell their tales of sorrow, horror and re-invention in a spell-binding fashion.

Sydney’s multifarious districts offer their own unique feel. I met Lena Peacock, a writer and gallery curator, at Chica Bonita in Manly – the kind of hipster Mexican restaurant that would have Hackney’s Instagram-ing masses reaching for their iPhones. Peacock taught me more than anyone else about Australia and Australians, and the thing that stuck with me as we talked over fish tacos and watermelon margaritas is that Aussies just aren’t as precious as Londoners or New Yorkers. They have an inbuilt aversion to pretension that prevents them from believing their own hype. Aussies just enjoy; they don’t boast – unless it’s about cricket.

Manly’s evolution from surf bum hangout to a chic destination is mirrored across town in The Cross, an area that used to be regarded as a bit threatening and scuzzy by some Sydneysiders. It’s only when you venture out to the western suburbs that things start to deteriorate, and as a tourist you won’t really see these parts.

Alyx Gorman is the editor of thevine.com.au, a sort of Aussie Gawker. Gorman told me to meet her at Sweethearts, a rooftop bar where it’s fine for a chap to eschew beer for a Negroni. The views are pretty splendid too. She suggested I visit Gallery 2010 in Surry Hills, FirstDraft or Anna Schwartz at Carriageworks (“if you’re really into art”). She also advises shopping at Harrolds, “If you’re a discerning gentleman with a tonne of cash to burn”, and visiting the Tongue Building – a home to creative types that has a giant tongue poking out of it.

Sydney’s architecture has been unfairly labelled as rather prosaic, but there’s something endearingly cheeky about the squatness of its buildings; the miniaturised proportions, the squashed roof-lines. These rows of shops and bars have proved remarkably versatile over the years and now host delis, cafes and fashion boutiques. Many of Sydney’s classic buildings were built by convict architects like Francis Greenway, who was transported for forgery, yet ended up with his face on the AUS$10 note. His Hyde Park Barracks, where convict work gangs slept, is a tour de force of Victorian geometry. Up on the top floor a fascinating collaboration between several artists uses sound and silhouettes to evoke the eerie atmosphere those early settlers must have felt in this strange, foreign land. In Paddington, the district’s old church is now an art house cinema. Nearby the Australian Gallery of Photography is an under-the-radar cultural gem. And what trip to Sydney could be complete with marvelling at the Opera House – still stunning after all these years.

Sydney is changing, it feels like it’s on the cusp of being at the centre of something new. As world power shifts east, Sydney will be even more important. This isn’t to say everything is perfect, but the soul of Sydneysiders – that immensely mixed, diverse, friendly, creative, positive yet comically cynical flock – is in rude health.

Chris flew to Sydney via Doha and Melbourne with Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com) Return flights start from £869.

TOP FOUR DESIGN HOTELS IN SYDNEY

QT
Theatrical and flamboyant boutique hotel – this is the newest celebrity hangout in the city.
qtsydney.com.au

Harbour Rocks
Sober, handsome and friendly French-style bolthole in a historic building in the Rocks.
harbourrocks.com.au

Establishment
Flash, brash and full of people with cash – one of the first wave of Sydney design hotels.
merivale.com.au

Hilton
This Hilton (pictured below) is a cut above for a chain; masculine décor, big rooms and stunning skyline views.
hiltonsydney.com.au