This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Festival. This year it includes a massive array of events across the city, but don’t be overwhelmed by the program. We’ve complied a list of some of the best free highlights for you to see, experience and enjoy.

Opera in the Domain
Opera in the Domain has been a key event throughout the history of the festival. Some of the brightest stars of Opera Australia will take to the stage (with the skyscrapers of the CBD as a backdrop) as day fades to dusk. Turn out a picnic rug, relax on the grass and listen to the soaring sounds. The event is BYO, so bring a bottle of wine and some snacks.

January 23, 8pm

40 Portraits
The CBD will turn into a public gallery for Eva Vermandel’s 40 Portraits exhibition. The photographer took portraits of the dedicated people who have contributed to the 40-year history of festival, all of which will be displayed on the streets of the city. Collaboration is a large reason the festival has been so successful, and that spirit is evident in Vermandel’s work. The images are also free to view on display at the UNSW Galleries in Paddington, from January 7-23.

January 7–26

Summer Sounds in the Domain: The Flaming Lips
The psychedelic rock band from Oaklahoma City is hosting a huge, free, all-ages show in the Domain. It will bring its good vibes and energetic show to Sydney to celebrate the new year. This will be a highlight of the summer.

January 9, support acts from 5.30pm

City of Sydney Lawn Library
If you are in need of respite from the heat and the clamour of summer in the city, head for the shade of the Lawn Library. Located in the heart of the Festival Village in Hyde Park, it is the perfect place to catch up on some reading and get the stress levels back down to zero. There will also be a range of activities and workshops, including paper-plane making and circus skills, to keep the little ones occupied.

January 6, 12pm–10pm
January 7 & 10, 12pm–11pm
January 12 & 16, 10am–11pm
January 17 & 26, 12pm–11pm

Symphony in the Domain
Another free music event to add to the to-do list. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra has selected the highlights of previous Symphony in the Domain concerts and packaged them into a compilation of the classics. It’s BYO and there’s free valet bike parking.

January 16, 8pm

The Column Video Installation
In a bid to combine a focus on rare beauty with the themes of dislocation and exploitation, Albanian artist Adrian Paci has followed the voyage of an enormous slab of marble in his film, The Column. His work follows the marble from being extracted from the ground to the sea on its journey to Italy, and depicts the vigorous work to shape it into a classical column. The film was a hit at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, and will be one of the picks of the program this year.

January 7 to February 13

El Anatsui's Five Decades
El Anatsui is one of the most unique experiential artists working today. Anatsui is coming to Australia for the first time, bringing pieces dating back to the 1970s. Carriageworks will house his signature hanging sculptures, alongside a range of paintings, ceramics and woodcarvings. Made entirely from recycled materials, his evocative works explore issues of consumption and waste, provoking ideas for new uses for obsolete items.

January 7 to March 6, 10am–6pm

The Ephemeral City
Do you prefer things a bit more hands on? Sydneysiders of all ages can visit the Cutaway at Barangaroo Reserve and use boxes and tape to create a towering temporary city. The event will be one of the largest community-participation events in the festival’s history, climaxing on Australia Day when the city will be demolished in an exciting display. If you find yourself in need of a bit of a literal pick-me-up, you can fly through the city on a free zip line between the cardboard buildings.

January 8–26, closed Mondays

Arquitectura de Feria
Imagine your very own fairground to run around in and operate. Now children and adults alike can do just this in the form of Arquitectura de Feria, where household objects are given new life in the form of fairground rides. Swing by Parramatta to see the Ferris wheel with toilets for seats and the bicycle-powered carousel.

January 7–24