Sydney’s a beautiful city to visit all year round. But the city takes on a different energy during Vivid, which ends this Saturday. If you’ve already got a trip planned for the festival, our cheat sheet covers cafes, restaurants, bars, free installations, ticketed experiences and more – all doable in 24 hours or less.

Breakfast with a view
Tonight you’ll see the Opera House sails and Harbour Bridge lit up with colourful projections, but even without the lights during daytime this is still a beautiful backdrop for starting your day. MCA Cafe is a hidden gem on the top floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art, with a menu that changes with both the seasons and the art exhibitions.

Art pit stop
Since you’re already there, pop into the MCA to catch part of The National, the fourth biennial survey of contemporary Australian art, taking place here and at three other galleries around Sydney. The works at the MCA include an installation of a tent projected with different scenes (step inside and watch the world go by through the shade cloth), 30 videos of members of the Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association Artists dancing in nature, and a look back at photojournalism from 2020, painting a broad picture of a tumultuous year.

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Le Foote in the door
There are big expectations for this Swillhouse venue, after the hospitality group’s successes with Restaurant Hubert, Alberto’s Lounge and Shady Pines Saloon. Le Foote lives up to them all, bringing Mediterranean small plates like lemon risotto with raw prawn, Cantabrian white anchovies, and taramasalata with crudites to a grand, multi-level space in a heritage-listed building in The Rocks. It’s the kind of place you’d want to settle into for a long lunch (with a bottle of wine or two), so don’t make any other plans too early in the afternoon.

Dark Spectrum
While most of the Vivid lights don’t turn on until 6pm, the switch gets flicked at midday for underground experience Dark Spectrum. It takes place in abandoned railway tunnels under Wynyard Station, which have been transformed into a labyrinth of different themed rooms using laser lights, rainbow tunnels, dancing robots and an electronic soundtrack.

The Archibald and the beautiful
If you still haven’t had your fix of art galleries and exhibitions, the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prize finalists are currently being exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. See artist Julia Gutman’s winning portrait of singer Montaigne, a colourful portrait of comedian Cal Wilson, a large tribute to the late Archie Roach that commands its own wall, and more.

Also worth visiting if you’ve got time is AGNSW’s monumental new Sydney Modern building, considered Sydney’s most significant new cultural project since the Opera House. Underneath it you’ll find the oil tank gallery, a disused oil tank from World War II that’s been restored and transformed into an imposing exhibition space.

Melburnians can probably skip this one (it’s about to open down there), but the Sydney iteration of Lightscape has transformed a 2.1-kilometre stretch of the Royal Botanic Garden with larger-than-life installations. There are glowing, towering flowers (as Miley Cyrus’s Flowers plays in the background – really), a whale emerging out of a sea of light, a giant tunnel of fairy lights, flames rising from a dragon’s mouth and plenty more.

Spoilt for dinner choice
Le Foote isn’t Sydney’s only high-profile opening in the last couple of months – the city’s restaurant scene has been buzzing with newbies from some of our favourite operators. Among them is Palazzo Salato, the ambitious new neighbourhood trattoria from the team behind Love, Tilly Devine, Ragazzi, La Salut and more. Standouts from the menu include casarecce with Boer goat ragu and pine nuts, and spaghetti alla chitarra spun with bottarga, crowned with a raw egg yolk.

And then there’s Clam Bar, the New York-inspired steakhouse from the teams behind the Italian-accented Pellegrino 2000 and neo-French diner Bistrot 916. Head chef Sam Galloway’s menu starts with a full raw seafood bar (including caviar and oysters three ways) before classic appetisers like scallops casino, rump camp steak tartare and the unmistakable beef-fat potatoes from Bistrot 916, care of chef-owner Dan Pepperell.

Vivid Light Walk
This year’s Light Walk is the longest in the festival’s 13-year history. Spanning 8.5 kilometres, it stretches from the Opera House through Circular Quay and The Rocks, all the way down to Haymarket and Central Station. You can go one way or the other, or see different segments at a time: it’s one big, brilliant choose-your-own adventure affair.

Our top picks include the lighting of the Opera House sails – with art by the late and great John Olsen – plus projections on Sydney landmarks like Customs House, the MCA, the Harbour Bridge, the Powerhouse Museum and Central Station.

Whichever way you end up taking, you’ll find plenty of lights to see and interactive exhibitions – as well as places to end the night with a drink or two all along the trail.

Cantina Ok! in the CBD and Las Vegas-inspired Maybe Sammy have been on Sydney must-do hit lists for years now, and rightfully so. If you still haven’t popped into either for a drink (or maybe you have, and understandably want to go again), don’t miss them this time round.

Barangaroo House along Darling Harbour is being lit up by projections through Vivid, and you get a different experience on each level. Head to listening bar Rekodo on the first floor for elegant Japanese snacks, sake and vinyl tunes, or go further up to rooftop bar Smoke for elevated cocktails and prime views of the all the Vivid action.

And the Vivid experience won’t be complete without a drink at Opera Bar, giving you arguably the best vantage point for the Opera House sails, Harbour Bridge lights and all the other installations around Circular Quay.

For more restaurants and bars to visit while you’re here, check out our guide to where to eat and drink for Vivid.

Chynna Santos travelled to Sydney as a guest of Destination NSW.