Vivid Sydney, the biggest event on Sydney’s calendar, kicks off this week, illuminating the city with lights, music, hard-hitting panel discussions and food-focused events. At the same time, a cost-of-living crisis is crunching through budgets, meaning blowing out on tickets to multiple events may not be an option. Vivid is one step ahead of you, with a slew of great freebies spanning live music, talks and more. Here’s your wallet-friendly guide to this year’s festival.

Tumbalong Nights
Over 12 evenings during Vivid, Tumbalong Park in Darling Harbour will come to life with live music from incredible Aussie and international acts. Top of our list is a double-header on May 27 featuring two of Australia’s most powerful musical artists: legendary Yolngu band Yothu Yindi and young gun, Wik and Solomon Island rapper Ziggy Ramo.

Other highlights include a concert celebrating 15 years of Triple J Unearthed High, with sets by previous winners; a headline gig by Aria-winner Dan Sultan supported by up-and-comer Carla Wehbe; and a high-octane party led by London DJ Esa Williams and his Afro Synth Band, alongside South African funk legend Kamazu and Zanzibari singer Mim Suleiman.

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John Olsen on the Opera House sails
The lighting of the Opera House sails is probably the Vivid event most associated with the festival. And it’s definitely worth making the journey for this year’s sail-borne masterpiece: Life Enlivened. The works of venerated Australian artist John Olsen will be animated by creative technologists Curiious. With the death of Olsen in April, this will be a particularly bittersweet celebration of the works of one of the country’s greatest artists (the projection was planned before his passing). The pieces on show have been selected to highlight Olsen’s passion for Australian landscapes, and his incredible ability to capture them.

Vivid Fire Kitchen
Firedoor’s Lennox Hastie; Masterchef 2021 runner-up Pete Campbell; David Pynt, of three Michelin-starred Singapore restaurant Burnt Ends; World Barbeque Champion Sterling Smith; and other chefs known for playing with fire will be leading demos at the Vivid Fire Kitchen every night for three weeks. The demos are free to watch – and if you’re lucky you’ll get to sample the goods after.

If you do have a bit of money to drop on dinner, there’ll be a bunch of great Sydney venues on-site sizzling up their own feasts, including Burger Head; Plate It Forward venues Colombo Social, Kabul Social and Coyoacan Social; Shannon Martinez’s plant-based diner Alibi; and Indian eatery Don’t Tell Aunty. There’ll also be a series of food stalls, plus bars. It’s all in Barangaroo’s Cutaway, which is the canvas for Vivid House, a (free) multi-sensory experience featuring four artworks projected on its lofty walls.

The Last Ocean
An enormous stretch of plastic resembling an ice sheet will dominate the Stargazer Lawn at Barangaroo. The artwork, by American installation artist Jen Lewin, is made from reclaimed ocean plastic and visitors are encouraged to walk on top of it. As they do, lights within will shift and change colour. It’s all an ode to Antarctica, its beauty, and the devastation that will come if we lose it to climate change.

Vivid Ideas Exchange
Not all the talks at Vivid Ideas Exchange are free – but a decent chunk of them are. Freebies include Climate Action: Tending or Taxing? in which conservationist Tim Flannery, activist and environmentalist Anna Rose, and corporate sustainability scholar Martina Linnenluecke unpack the best way to get people to care about the climate crisis: by appealing to their hearts or their finances.

Another free highlight is (Human) Nature and the City, featuring curator and cultural placemaker Mark McClelland, property expert Kate Meyrick, journalist and author Elizabeth Farrelly, Walbanga and Wadi Wadi creative and designer Alison Page, and Wiradjuri architect and educator Craig Kerslake. They will come together to discuss how cities can be better planned to support community.

Powerhouse Late x Vivid Ideas
Powerhouse will host three special Vivid editions of its Late series, each with a different thrilling theme. First up, on June 1, is Pearls of Wisdom, curated by chef Alex Herbert of shuttered Surry Hills restaurant Bird Cow Fish. The evening will dig into how Australia’s culinary scene has been shaped by First Nations people and migrant communities. It’s a packed itinerary. Journalist Joanna Savill will talk about the use of native ingredients by First Nations people. Chinese restaurants in regional Australia will be the theme of a panel led by Farah Celjo, managing editor of SBS Food, with Southern Soul author and founder Tyree Barnette and comedian Jennifer Wong. Plus, learn about oysters from Tathra Oysters farmer Gary Rodely, Rockpool Bar & Grill head chef Corey Costelloe and Fishtales director John Susman.

The following week’s iteration, Natural Wonder, will examine how artists, designers and architects are inspired by nature via talks, workshops, a film screening, installations and performances. And Paradise Fair, on June 15, is a celebration of artist Yuki Kihara’s exhibition Paradise Camp. Expect a conversation with the artist, dance tours of the exhibition, workshops and a DJ.

DJs at the Goods Line
The Goods Line in Ultimo will be illuminated every night of Vivid, as part of the Light Walk. But also happening every night, from 6pm to 10.30pm, are free sets by DJs spanning a multitude of genres. Get sweaty to artists like Diola, Stereogamous, Astro High, Terry Towelling, Heaps Gay DJs, Tyson Koh, Pea Oh Ma, and more.

Vivid Sydney runs from May 26 to June 17.