The Vivid Festival Sydney shows off the city at its finest. Iconic buildings and historic laneways are awash with light installations that turn the town into something from a fairytale. After ten years of attending the show, I have put together my tips for surviving the crowds and getting the best views.
Last updated: 24 April 2020
- Top tips for enjoying Sydney’s Vivid Festival
- Vivid Harbour Cruises
- Vivid Sydney Tours
- Vivid Accommodation
Top tips for enjoying Sydney’s Vivid Festival
Vivid Sydney has sadly been cancelled for 2020.
The festival is a spectacle of light, music, and ideas that has quickly become the most popular event in the cities calendar after NYE.
Last year 7.1 million people attended with scores of international visitors arriving on Vivid packages, so even for locals, planning your visit before you come is a good idea if you want to see as much as you can. While the festival is best known for its spectacular light show, it is worth checking out some of the talks, films, and performances that are also on the program.
Where are the best spots to see the Vivid Light show this year?
It’s hard to go past the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge with their breathtaking installations but take some time to explore the other areas. Besides having smaller crowds, these areas have been just as outstanding in earlier years. My favourite is usually Customs House; if the crowds are bad, you can get a great view from Circular Quay station platform.
The key installation areas are
- The Opera House and Harbour Bridge
- The Royal Botanic Gardens – 15 installations and 2 bars/dining options
- Circular Quay
- Customs House
- The MCA and Cadman’s Cottage
- The Rocks – Pixar’s Argyle Cut will be a favourite
- Darling Harbour – Tumbalong Park will host The Milky Way and several other large pieces
- Taronga Zoo – a ticketed area that is perfect for families
- Chatswood – play the Giant Harp and Trumpet Flowers
My tips for enjoying Vivid 2020
- Try to visit on one of the first few days. The last weekend is pure hell.
- If you have to go on the weekend, go later in the night and choose Saturday or Sunday over Friday.
- If you can eat dinner and hit the lights at about 9 pm when most of the families have headed home, the lights stay on until 11 pm this year.
- Don’t forget the areas outside the harbour – as the crowds grew so did the locations, and there are now several areas outside the Quay to explore.
- Don’t try to see too much in one night – you have three weeks, so a few visits are entirely feasible for locals. If time is limited check the festival website for highlights and pick a few areas.
- If you are attending with kids, consider heading to the Taronga Zoo sessions instead of the city.
- If you hate crowds consider a cruise – we have covered the ones we think are best below.
- Do not bring your car to the harbour zone of Vivid. But if you do check out Gateway at Circular Quay who have some great prices for parking during the festival.
Getting the best photos at Vivid Sydney?
- Go on Sunday – Monday and be prepared to stay all night
- Get up above the lights if you can – Cahill Walk, The Observation Deck at the Overseas Passenger’s terminal, are good choices. I have heard they may close this area to the public for security concerns, but I see lots of photos taken from this spot, so perhaps ask when you arrive. The footpath on the Harbour Bridge offers excellent vantage points
- If you are a keen photographer or someone who wants to learn more look out for some of the photos walks – they usually have the best locations sorted and will give you useful tips. I did one with Canon a few years ago that was excellent.
- Take a tripod and a manual camera
- Share your photos using the official hashtag #vividsydney
- There are some significant technical tips here
Vivid Harbour Cruises
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If crowds aren’t your thing, then a Vivid cruise is a great way to see most of the lights in comfort. There are so many Vivid cruise packages on offer it’s hard to know which one to choose. I have tried a couple over the years, and I think the main difference is the quality of the food and the level of comfort on the boat.
Choose your boat carefully. While most boats cover the same route, one cruise I went on last year that departed from near the Star Casino Wharf did a pretty uninspiring run-up and down the harbour under the bridge without getting near the lights at Circular Quay or the Botanic Gardens at all so choose your cruise carefully.
Major Cruise Companies offer the benefit of a known product and a reputation that they will not want to risk by providing a substandard experience. I have booked both these and discount cruises in the past, and the discount boats can be great, but it is a bit hit and miss so if you are on a one time visit to Sydney I think it is worth paying a little more for one of the better-known products. I have added both types below so you can see all your options and decide what works best for you. Prices range from $25-75.
Captain Cook Vivid Cruises
Captain Cook is the best-known and best quality cruise operator in Sydney. They will be offering a variety of Vivid Cruises. This cruise departs from Circular Quay which means you get up close to all the lights as many of the cheaper cruises do not come into the quay at all making it hard to get great photos of the Opera House and Museum of Contemporary Arts installations.
This cruise does not include food and drink although you can buy drinks at the bar. What I like about this is that while it is shorter than the other, at 1-hour, you will get to see all the best lights on a boat that always has full access to the harbour and is very well priced considering. View the tour details and see what you think.
Vivid Tallship Cruise
These 1.5-hour tall ship cruises will be offered Friday, Saturday & Sunday nights with 5.30 and 7.30 pm departures. The cruise features a casual but substantial dinner with beer, wine and soft drinks included. The food is fairly basic but it is tasty, and I felt good value for the price of the cruise. The bonus here is you are on a tall ship and that in itself is a great experience. This cruise is not suitable for children under four years of age.
This is not a sit-down dinner with table service but buffet-style event where you find a seat on deck and nibble while you sail around the harbour being dazzled by the lights. Check out the photos and pricing here
Buffet Dinner Cruise
This cruise is on the Bella Vista, a large glass boat allowing you a chance to see all the lights without braving what can be cold June nights in Sydney. If the weather is cooperating, there is also a large open top deck.
Along with your 2-hour cruise to enjoy all the lights and have lots of time for photo opportunities the ticket includes a stand-up buffet and a complimentary drink. The cruise is suitable for all ages; however, they do charge for just $10 less for kids so it might not be the best choice for families. There is a 5.30 or 8.30 departure.
Glass Boat Cruise
This 2-hour cruise on a glass boat is offering two departures per night at 6 pm and 8 pm, from Monday to Thursday during Vivid. There is no reserved seating but you do get a buffet dinner and a free welcome drink. There is limited seating but you may need to get in quick. The glass boat offers 360-degree views without needing to venture out in the cold to appreciate the lights, however, you can also head to the top deck for outdoor views. Find out details here.
Sea Sydney Harbour
This company offers a cruise on a small catamaran with one main difference to the bigger operators; they allow BYO drinks which mean you avoid paying the sometimes high prices or stock standard house drinks on other boats. I have been on this boat and its a comfortable vessel with excellent staff. The ticket price includes one soft drink and platters of wraps and sandwiches to take the edge off your appetite. The cruise departs from Towns Place Miller Point. Unlike many cruises, this one will run all week and has two or three departures a night. Check prices and the fine print on Groupon.
Thunder Jet Cruise
During the festival, the Thunder Jet will slow its Engines and cruise around the Vivid lights for 45 minutes. You can BYO your dinner, and you will feel up close to the action on this small open-top boat. This is fun, and if you don’t mind the bumps and being open to the elements you will too! I tried it last year and enjoyed it. You can pick it up on Groupon for a great price.
Vagabond Cruises Vivid
This 1.5-hour finger food buffet cruise has the longest tour route of all the boats and includes the show in Darling Habour as well as the main Circular Quay area. Again the food is not going to be anything to write home about but it is a buffet, and there will be something for everyone. This one regularly appears on Groupon, and I would not pay full price for it, but on a deal it’s OK.
Vivid Sydney Tours
Urban Adventures Walking Tour
If you would like a guide to show you around then consider the tour offered by Urban Adventures. Perfect for visitors to the city the tour combines exploring the various light installations with commentary on the buildings themselves and some of the history of this city. The groups are kept small to a maximum of 12 people, and over the two-hour tour, the guide will also get you around the installations in the most efficient manner and make sure you don’t miss any of the hidden spots.
Read some reviews of the Urban Adventures tour by last years guests.
Vivid Photography Tour
This 3-hour walking tour is led by a professional photographer from the National College of Photography who will lead you to the best spots to shoot the Vivid installations. You will also get lots of tips to help you create the best photos in night conditions.
The tour is designed to visit the spots at the best times, so you can navigate the crowds and get amazing photos to take home. I did this tour two years ago and learned so much! Check out pricing and availability here.
Vivid Bridge Climb
If you want a memorable way to see the lights, then check out the Vivid Bridgeclimb. Last year the climb included a flashing disco floor. I can’t imagine a better way to see the harbour at night than during Vivid. Take a look at the details here. These climbs do sell out so book early to be sure you don’t miss your chance.
Vivid from above – Heli tours
If money is no object or you really want to impress then a 25-minute flight over the harbour lights. This tour takes 90 minutes all up and departs from the airport. They have 3 departure slots per night starting at 8pm. Check out all the details here
Vivid Luna Park Package
If you want to add some extra fun to your evening or are travelling with tweens and teens, this is a great option. A 3-hour unlimited ride ticket and a $20 food voucher will let you see the light show from the Ferris wheel and then ride the full range of Luna Park’s rides. Combine this with a walk back across the bridge, and you have a fun family night.
If you are planning on visiting Sydney for the Vivid Festival and want to book accommodation, it’s good to get in early if you can. A lot of the budget hotels are booked out by large tour groups. We have a list of our favourite budget hotels that we would be happy to stay at so check there if you are having trouble.
Hotels with a view of the Harbour are a good option if you want to view the lights from above.
If it’s your first visit to the city, you might like to read our article on choosing the best part of town to stay in depending on your travel style.
If you are bringing the kids, we have also listed our favourite hotels for families.
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If you get to the city early, you might want to check out my self-guided tour of The Rocks and explore this unique part of Sydney while you wait for the lights to come on.
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