overview shot of the Sydney Opera House surrounded by a body of water

“It feels like the Sydney Opera House was always destined to be there, as if it is as natural a feature as the blue water that surrounds it,” says historian Max Burns-McRuvie, director and co-founder of Journey Walks, an independent collective giving fascinating historical and cultural tours in Sydney. “I never see the building as merely a site for tourists or visitors. I see it as a gatekeeper crowning one of the headlands of Sydney’s birthplace.” In late 2023, the World Heritage-listed building Burns-McRuvie calls a “cultural icon”— the number one tourist destination in Australia — turned 50. 

But its history stretches back far longer than half a century. Sydney Harbour (aka Port Jackson), with its sandstone headlands, islands, inlets, coves, cliffs, points, and beaches was formed from a massive freshwater valley some 6,000 to 8,000 years ago due to rising sea levels that transformed it into a deep saltwater body, he says. The historian adds that the Opera House’s site, Bennelong Point (Tubowgule to the indigenous population), was “an ancient headland once layered with Aboriginal oyster shells — representing Aboriginal seafood feasts over thousands of years — that were crushed up to make colonial concrete in the 1790s.” Coincidentally, it was in the 1970s that the shell-like architectural wonder of contemporary concrete was erected. 

There was much drama en route to the late Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II descending on Sydney Harbour to celebrate the Opera House’s opening in 1973, however. Long before, in the 1810s, Governor Lachlan Macquarie built a sandstone sea fortress with a defensive tower and drawbridge on the site, though it never once fired a hostile shot from its canons, says Burns-McRuvie. In 1901, it was demolished for an industrial tram depot. Later, in the ’50s, the government reclaimed the site, tore down the depot, and announced a design competition that invited architects around the world to design an opera house “the likes of which the world had never seen,” says Burns-McRuvie. 

queen elizabeth II greeting a crowd at the opening of the sydney opera house
Courtesy of the Sydney Opera House

The winner of the competition was a young Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, who had never stepped foot on Australian ground. Prominent architect Eero Saarinen, on the judging panel, pushed Utzorn’s submission — one of 233 — over the finish line as he deemed its sail-like shells sufficiently unique and mold shattering, if not controversial. Never mind that Utzorn hadn’t submitted complete drawings or figured out how it could actually be constructed. So eager to get the project started, Burns-McRuvie says Cahill green-lit the commencement of construction before anything was set in stone, so to speak. Thus many structural engineering and architectural challenges as well as material questions were resolved in an ad-hoc way, causing long delays and skyrocketing increases in cost. The original budget of $7 million (AUD) rose to $102 million and instead of 4 years, it took 14 to complete. 

overview shot of the sydney opera house under construction
Courtesy of the Sydney Opera House

Meanwhile, during the fraught process, multiple factors led to Utzon’s resignation and return to Denmark — there were even rallies held in support of the architect — while most but not his full vision for the partially built Opera House was wrapped up by architect Peter Hall, who today gets the most credit. When the late Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II arrived for the grand opening, she commented on the problematic build, but added, “The human spirit must sometimes take wings or sails and create something that is not just utilitarian or commonplace.” 

Utzon never witnessed his completed masterpiece in person; New South Wales sought to reconcile with him in the 2000s and bring him to see it, but he was too frail to make the trip and passed away in 2008 at the age of 90. Now fresh off a birthday celebration that involved special art installations, world-premiere performances, and open houses, the Opera House is poised to continue attracting locals and travelers for another 50 years. One new reason: Midden by Mark Olive, a brand-new restaurant in the Western Foyers of the structure by acclaimed Bundjalung chef Mark Olive whose produce-heavy menu focuses on native Australian ingredients. Think quandong-glazed chicken stuffed with warrigal greens and damper bread infused with native herbs with whipped eucalyptus butter.

sydney opera house
Image by Hamilton Lund

The 2024 performance schedule spans stagings of Orpheus & Eurydice, The Magic Flute, Sarah Brightman in Sunset Boulevard, and Hamlet. Burns-McRuvie says he loves the diversity of the types of events, performers, and audiences hosted by the iconic venue, recalling that in 1980 Arnold Schwarzenegger won his final Mr. Olympia bodybuilding title there. “When I see the Opera House area busy with people and events, day or night, I feel Sydney is alive and beating to the right pulse,” he says. “When it glimmers at sunset or glows in the moonlight, it appears like a giant white temple belonging to an ancient deity looking over Sydney — and then I remember that I saw Wu-Tang play inside.” 

cappella sydney hotel room with beige walls white lounge chair glass shower and white bathtub
Image by Timothy Kaye

While Sydney has plenty of luxury hotels, the most exciting new addition to the scene is Capella Sydney, which opened in March 2023 in a beautifully restored and transformed heritage sandstone building — now bursting with art from Aboriginal and native Australian artists — a short walk from the Opera House. The hotel ups the hospitality game with its blend of sumptuous suites and rooms, mouth-watering dining and drinking, pampering spa, and impeccable concierge services as well as immersive experiential programming. The hotel also provides guests with opportunities to deep dive into the neighborhood’s Aboriginal history with a specially curated walking tour with Aunty Margret Campbell of Dreamtime Southern X. Her storytelling gives greater context and understanding on a range of topics involving the original custodians of the attractive region. Burns-McRuvie shares that a direct descendant of one of Bennelong Point’s first inhabitants attended the Opera House opening ceremony in 1973, and spoke to the gathered crowd. “He said, ‘Here my people chanted — their stories of the Dreamtime, of the spirit heroes, and Earth’s creation — and our painted bodies flowed in ceremony. I hope my people will realize the importance of this building. The spirit of the Aboriginal still lives on the point.’”

Featured image by Caleb via Unsplash