Hedonistic Sydney has such a beautiful setting that it's all too easy for visitors (and residents) to forget the potential of a varied cultural life. Seaside beaches with massive breakers to the east, extensive national parks to the north, south and west and the glittering, multi-tongued Harbour running through the middle. I live half an hour from Sydney’s central business district (15 minutes by ferry) and have just been for a bush walk along Harbour foreshores in which the only evidence of civilisation to be seen was a distant view of those marvels by men, the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.

View of Sydney Downtown from Taronga Zoo © Clara Colotti
View of Sydney Downtown from Taronga Zoo
© Clara Colotti

Ah, the Sydney Opera House, Jorn Utzon's sail-shell masterpiece that is the very first thought for its 8.2 million visitors a year when the word Sydney comes up. If only it was really an opera house! The largest of the two major halls was originally intended for opera (and ballet). But when Utzon departed in a huff, the powerful orchestral figure Sir Eugene Goossens collared it for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, squeezing opera into the hall intended for drama. Stage, pit and tech areas have proved too small for comfort ever since, though Opera Australia has soldiered on with summer and winter seasons of an increasingly populist programme – until 2017, when their hall gets some minor improvements, for which it will be closed from May to December. Sadly, the pit will remain an orchestral nightmare. But in March and April the band plays beneath a floating stage for OA's successful Opera on the Harbour. More serious improvements are in store for the SOH Concert Hall, which will be closed for 18 months from mid-2019. In both cases, the rest of the iconic building will remain open for visitors.

Sydney Opera House © Clara Colotti
Sydney Opera House
© Clara Colotti

Fortunately for music lovers, that art form also happens elsewhere. The Angel Place Recital Hall has a brilliant acoustic and is the place of choice to hear such groups as the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and the Australian Haydn Ensemble. It also houses two seasons a year by the wonderfully titled Pinchgut Opera – another example of the strength of Sydney's historically informed performance scene – named after the island in the Harbour where early convicts were despatched for punishment with minimal rations!

And, away from the central business district, there is lots of culture at Carriageworks, a dynamic arts centre carved out of railway sheds in the Inner West, and home to Sydney Chamber Opera's occasional world premières, to contemporary dance and theatre, to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's forays into new music, to the biennial Sydney Contemporary art fair and major international art installations, and a buzzing farmers market every Saturday. And if you can't find food to suit even the most eclectic of taste buds in nearby King Street, Newtown, you're just not trying!

One of the venue spaces at Carriageworks © Toby Burrows | Wikimedia Commons
One of the venue spaces at Carriageworks
© Toby Burrows | Wikimedia Commons

Talking of food, the city sometimes seems over-burdened with celebrity chefs – they certainly get more publicity than our artists! But eating out (and drinking some of the best coffee in the world – though Melbourne disputes that!) is an essential part of la vie hédoniste. Sydney's restaurants range from the rival fine-diners on either side of Circular Quay – Quay on the west and Bennelong in the Opera House – to a hole-in-the-wall Michelin-starred Cantonese bunnery. Tim Ho Wan in suburban Chatswood (ramping up as the city's second Chinatown) is a constant delight and a challenge to the purse.

City Recital Hall © Jason7825 | Wikimedia Commons
City Recital Hall
© Jason7825 | Wikimedia Commons
The City Recital Hall in Angel Place is now surrounded by six interesting eateries, and the cultural precinct at Walsh Bay (on the western side of that other engineering icon, the Harbour Bridge) is also well-fed. There, the Sydney Theatre Company performs on an historic wharf, the Sydney Dance Company and Bangarra Aboriginal Dance Theatre rehearse, and the Roslyn Packer Theatre houses bigger shows. The more commercial side of the performing arts like musicals happens in the historic State and Capitol theatres or the newer Star Casino's Lyric Theatre.

Festivals dot the year. The main Sydney Festival happens in January and has mutated from a series that tries to keep Sydneysiders from heading upcoast for extensive summer holidays to something quite serious. Its first Indigenous director reveals his hand in 2017. Sadly, no dedicated Indigenous festival has yet taken off in Sydney – you have to go to Darwin, Cairns, Alice Springs or Adelaide for that. But both the Opera House and Carriageworks have Indigenous streams to their programming, and the visual arts are catered for by regular specialist exhibitions at the Art Gallery of NSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Australian Museum. Evidence of pre-invasion life by the Eora nation can be found in extensive rock engravings to the north of Sydney in Ku-ring-gai National Park.

Other distinctive festivals are the Sydney international art Biennale – the next in Autumn 2018 – and its new domestic equivalent, The National: New Australian Art which makes its first appearance in Autumn 2017; the Sydney Writers Festival at Walsh Bay every May; the Vivid mega-lightup of town in mid-winter; and Sculpture by the Sea in October. This event, on the cliff walk beside the briny from the must-visit Bondi Beach to Tamarama Beach as Spring warms up in October, attracts a quarter-of-a-million gawpers each year as a hundred 3D artworks from the abstract to the wacky compete with wild rocks and waves for their attention. As I write, delicate Spring flowers are bursting out all over the native bush, cockatoos and kookaburras are screeching into the crisp air, and that unique Sydney mix of ever-present Nature and our muddle of multicultural impositions upon the landscape is delighting the eye and challenging the mind.