Museums are a great way to get to know a destination and, as you might expect, there are some fantastic museums in Sydney. Gone are the days when everything is just boring artefacts inside dusty cabinets.
Some of Sydney’s best museums have recently had huge refurbishments that incorporate state-of-the-art technology to tell the stories of the city and country. (That’s not to say there aren’t a few dusty cabinets to be found in the city.)
While I think Sydney’s charms are generally found outside – at the beaches, on the harbour, in the neighbourhood streets – it is definitely worth visiting some of the museums to better understand the city.
There are more than 25 museums to choose from, so you should be able to find something to interest you.
But what are the VERY BEST museums in Sydney?
OK, I understand what you’re asking. How about if you’re short of time and you just want to visit one or two museums that give you the best Sydney experience?
Well, at the very top of the list, I would recommend the Hyde Park Barracks Museum and The Mint Museum (they are next to each other so can be combined). Together they tell the story of colonial/convict Sydney – plus the barracks are part of a World Heritage Site.
Second on the list, I would suggest the Museum of Sydney. It’s very well put together and gives you a great overview of the whole history of the city, something that sometimes gets lost by visitors who just concentrate on the modern or natural attractions.
And thirdly, I would highly recommend both the Art Gallery of NSW and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). The permanent exhibitions are free and have some of the best artworks in the country.
If you do have time, though, I would recommend trying to see a bit more than this. Particularly, some of the historic houses that I’ll mention give you an insight into Sydney that the average tourist might miss.
Before we continue, I should also point out that this is not an exhaustive list. There are many other museums in Sydney but they’re small, about local community issues, or very niche.
I’ve chosen to just focus on the museums that I think will have broader interest – although you’ll still find a wide variety of topics covered in my suggestions below.
Museums about Sydney
Museum of Sydney
The museum, near Circular Quay, is on the site of the first Government House, which was here for 57 years before it moved.
The exhibitions inside the Museum of Sydney tell the story of the city from the indigenous heritage, through the convict period, as the Sydney grew, and its transition into a global city.
The permanent collections give an excellent overview that will help you understand the things you’ll see as you explore. And the temporary exhibitions always give a bit more flavour to a specific topic.
Hyde Park Barracks
The Hyde Park Barracks were opened in 1819 and were designed as accommodation for convicts who were labouring on infrastructure projects for the government. It provided convict housing until 1848 and was then used for other purposes.
Now, the building has been converted into a museum that tells the story of its convict history and the connected broader heritage of Sydney and the connection to the indigenous people. The exhibitions recently had a huge redevelopment that was opened in February 2020. I think it’s now one of the best museums in Sydney.
The Hyde Park Barracks are one of the 11 locations that make up a World Heritage Site of convict heritage. I think if you’ve only got time for one museum, this is the one to see!
The Mint was originally built in 1816 as part of the colony’s first permanent hospital. But, because of its central location, the government soon started to use it for other purposes and, in 1855, it became the Sydney Royal Mint.
The Mint open for free to the public today and, although there are some information panels, it’s not a ‘museum’ in the traditional sense.
Still, you can explore the building and see some of the heritage. It may not be worth a special visit but it’s right next to the Hyde Park Barracks so it makes sense to combine the two.
The Rocks Discovery Museum
Speaking of Sydney’s convict history, while the public buildings were built along Macquarie Street, the homes and pubs were in the Rocks. The best spot to learn about this area is at the Rocks Discovery Museum, a free museum in a restored 1850s sandstone warehouse.
It tells the story of The Rocks from pre-European days to the present and has a good collection of images and archaeological artefacts from the area.
Using audio, video and interactive exhibitions, the Rocks Discovery Museums focuses on the Indigenous heritage, the colonial period, the maritime history, and the transformation to a modern city.
Susannah Place Museum
Even after the early years of Sydney, The Rocks continued to be a part of the city where poorer people lived – in not always pleasant conditions. Picture working-class families with basement kitchens, tiny backyards, outdoor baths, and lots of rats.
The Susannah Place Museum tells their story. During the history of The Rocks, more than 100 families lived in these four terraces built in 1844. The museum gives you a great insight into their lives.
Justice and Police Museum
Sydney may seem like a dazzling modern city these days but, for much of its past, it had a dark underbelly of crime and indecency. These stories are told at the Justice and Police Museum.
As well as seeing original holding cells and courtrooms, there are some great exhibitions about razor gangs, bushrangers, and sly grog.
The tales of some of the city’s most notorious cases are quite incredible and this is a great insight into a side of the city that you often don’t hear about as a tourist.
If you’re a cricket fan, you will have heard of the SCG (if you are one of those people who have no idea how cricket works, you may want to skip to the next section).
The Sydney Cricket Ground is an icon in the city – the game has been played on this spot for more than 170 years – with heritage buildings like the Members’ and Ladies’ Stands.
There is a museum attached to the SCG, although you can only see it as part of a tour of the grounds. But, if you’re the kind of person who has seen games here on television for years, it’s worth going in and seeing it for yourself.
Museums about Australia
Australian National Maritime Museum
The Australian National Maritime Museum tells the stories of Australia’s maritime history which, as an island, is immense.
There are exhibitions that cover topics like the Indigenous connection to the ocean, early exploration, immigration, and defence. The museum is aimed at adults and children.
Perhaps the highlight is the vessels in the water at Darling Harbour that you can explore. There’s a replica of The Endeavour (the ship that James Cook commanded on his first voyage of discovery to Australia from 1768 – 1771), the submarine HMAS Onslow, and the enormous navy destroyer HMAS Vampire.
Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre
Speaking of the navy, there’s also a small museum that tells its story, called the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre.
As well as general information about the navy and its operation, there are some details about specific events – especially the ‘Battle of Sydney’ when Japanese midget submarines attacked Sydney Harbour in 1942.
The museum is within a navy base known as Garden Island so you can’t just walk in. In fact, the only access is by a ferry that goes from Circular Quay!
Reserve Bank of Australia Museum
This free little museum is much more interesting than you may think. It tells the stories of Australia’s banknotes but it uses them to tell a broader story about the country.
By tracing the way we have treated our money, the exhibition looks at social and economic development from a colonial settlement to an international player.
You may not want to go out of your way to visit the Reserve Bank of Australia Museum but you’ll probably pass by anyway, so perhaps pop in and have a look.
I have included the Australian Museum in the ‘general’ list because, as the country’s premier natural history collection, it has items from all across the world. But most of the items on display are from Australia.
The Australian Museum is particularly famous for its natural science items, with spiders and butterflies, and mammals and fossils and much more. This is the place to come to learn about the big picture of the region’s flora and fauna.
There are also cultural collections that cover Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, a lot from the Pacific Islands, and some from Asia, Africa and the Americas.
Although this was once more museum designed more for school excursions than tourists, the recent refurbishment has turned it into a world-class institution in the heart of the city, one of the best museums in Sydney – and it’s now free too!
Chau Chak Wing Museum
Another new museum is the impressive Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney.
The university previously had three collections that together were one of the largest in Australia, but they were hidden away in old buildings and most people didn’t even realise they existed. Now they have been brought together in a new building and a prominent location.
The items include a large art collection and natural history artefacts with an emphasis on Indigenous culture. But some of the most significant items at the museum are from Ancient Roman, Greek, and Egyptian periods.
Many of the items in the Chau Chak Wing Museum have been lent to other museums around the world over the years and the collections have probably been more famous internationally until now. But the new space means lots of things are being exhibited in Sydney for the first time.
The Powerhouse Museum is the country’s biggest museum for science and applied arts. Its exhibitions focus more on modern technology and, although much of the collection is about Australia, it covers general issues as well.
This is a fun museum for children and is popular with school excursions. While I don’t think it’s the best science museum in the world and maybe not worth a special effort to visit, it is a good option for families.
It’s also good news that the Ultimo museum will stay, even when the new Powerhouse is built in Parramatta, in the city’s west.
Madame Tussauds Sydney
Speaking of families, this is the moment when I’m going to mention Madam Tussauds, which is sort of a museum, I guess.
I’m not personally a fan of this kind of thing – it has nothing to do with Sydney or Australia (other than a few Aussie celebrity models) and I think it is overpriced to see a bunch of wax models. But I know some people like it so I’ll give you the information about visiting Madam Tussauds.
You can get a pass that combines entry to other attractions – Sea Life Aquarium, Wild Life Sydney Zoo and Sydney Tower Eye – which makes it cheaper per site. But, to be honest, these are all tacky touristy places and I think your money is better spent elsewhere.
Sydney Observatory was built on a hill above the Rocks in 1858 and is a sandstone building surrounded by a lovely garden. It wasn’t just about seeing the stars – back then it was essential for navigation, meteorology and timekeeping.
These days, you can walk around the grounds of Sydney Observatory and see the basic museum exhibitions for free. If you’re interested, you can also do tours during the day and after dark to use the telescopes to look up into the stars.
Sydney Jewish Museum
The Sydney Jewish Museum was founded in 1992 by immigrants who were survivors of the Holocaust in World War Two. It tells their stories – and those of many others from the time – and includes personal items related to the atrocities.
The collection has expanded over the years and the museum also has exhibits about Judaism before and after the Holocaust. It also takes a particular look at the story of Australian Jewish history and at some broader issues of human rights in the country.
Art Gallery of NSW
If you enjoy art then the Art Gallery of NSW is a must visit. It’s the preeminent gallery in the state and has a huge collection of Australian and international works.
The building, near the Botanic Garden on the edge of the city, has a Classic style that’s supposed to represent a temple to art. But, inside, it feels much more modern and there’s a contemporary approach to the way the pieces are shown.
Although there is a lot of colonial art displayed in the tall galleries that take you through the history of New South Wales since the British arrived, there’s also a big emphasis on Indigenous art.
The more modern pieces show how the perceptions of Sydney have changed, through the eyes of local artists like Max Dupain and Brett Whiteley.
There are also interesting collections of Asian, Pacific, and European art and it’s easy to spend most of the day here, if you really wanted.
Museum of Contemporary Art
While the AGNSW has a broad selection of works, the Museum of Contemporary Art is focused on more modern art and, as a result, is often more unconventional. In every sense, it’s one of the best museums in Sydney.
There are more than 4000 items in the permanent collection that have been acquired since 1989, when the museum was founded (it didn’t open to visitors until 1991). There are also regular temporary exhibitions.
The art deco building itself is quite interesting and was built for the Maritime Services Board. With a stunning position right on the water at Circular Quay, it has one of the best views in the city from the cafe and rooftop spaces.