x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A cultural wave

My town Beyond the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge beats the real heart of Sydney.

A surfer tackles an enormous swell at Maroubra Beach in Sydney.
A surfer tackles an enormous swell at Maroubra Beach in Sydney.

Sydney's stereotypes, Bondi Beach, the Harbour Bridge (called "The Coat Hanger" in guidebooks, never in a Sydneysider's conversation) and the Opera House are all well and good, but beyond these postcard clichés is the soul of Australia's largest city. Bondi Beach is generally populated by British tourists eschewing sunscreen to turn from lily-white to painful pink. Parking at Bondi is a nightmare and it is a chaotic, painfully glam part of town. For a real taste of Sydney beach culture, trek five beaches south to Maroubra Beach.

Maroubra is slowly gentrifying, with property prices rising accordingly - houses selling above the million-dollar (Dh3.2 million) mark are not quite as prolific as in the plusher suburbs up the road, but a few properties hit seven figures. If you catch the 375 bus from Central Station to Maroubra, you will be rewarded by a rugged expanse of sand and rock pools, and fine displays of surfing. The suburb's beach gained notoriety with the film The Bra Boys, a documentary about Maroubra's surfie gangs. The Bra Boys have a reputation for being fearless big-wave surfers as well as frequently falling foul of the authorities. The surf can be as rough on novice swimmers as the Bra Boys' unique brand of gang justice so it's essential to swim between the flags and heed the advice of the lifeguards. It's one of Sydney's most fascinating and underrated spots to people-watch and feel the sand underfoot.

Climbing the Harbour Bridge used to be the illicit act of late-night daredevils, but now there's a company called Bridgeclimb that lets you do it safely and legally in a grey jumpsuit for about Dh600. It's rather touristy, but it is a spectacular way to get your head around the geography of Sydney. The bridge joins Sydney's central business district to the north shore, but crossing the harbour by ferry is a far more relaxed way to go. It takes about half an hour for the ferries to travel from Circular Quay, in the shadow of the bridge and the Opera House, to Manly Wharf, and for many people who live on the north side and work in the city, it's a pleasant, eco-friendly commute.

For commuters in a hurry, the Jetcat ­hydrofoil crosses the harbour in half the time, but for others the leisurely ferries, most of which are at least 20 years old, are the preferred option. Many will mourn the day when these lumbering green and yellow hulks are retired - a ferry replacement programme comes into effect in 2010. Australians have been mocked for a lack of culture but it is not fair to dismiss the people as a collection of affable barbecuers. The Sydney Opera House, designed by Jørn Utzon, opened to a mixed response in 1973 - the shell design was way ahead of its time - but it has become intrinsically Sydney and the stages continue to feature world-class operas, plays, concerts and ballets. But this is not the only way to experience Sydney's cultural scene. Not far from the Opera House is the Museum of Contemporary Art. Many a Sydney socialite only ever sees the inside of the museum when it is used for an event, but the MCA constantly runs exhibitions from Australia and around the world.

Traditional Australian indigenous art rubs shoulders with works as diverse as the bold geometry of the Scottish painter ­Callum Innes, the dreamlike watercolours of the Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander and the genre-bending Australian photographer/videographer/sculptor Julie Rrap. At the other end of the central business district is another contemporary cultural hub, the Powerhouse Museum. Established in 1988, Sydney's largest public museum was once a power station and it hosts exhibitions with themes including science, technology, design, art and music. It's the kind of place where an exhibition of Kylie Minogue's ­costumes proved to be just as popular as a display of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. Permanent exhibitions include an interactive nuclear science installation, a reconstructed 1930s cinema and a tribute to the hidden work of women around the home.

Like any big city, Sydney is home to megaplex cinemas with bargain -basement ­Vegas decor. But Sydney's proud multiculturalism isn't just about a proliferation of Thai and Turkish restaurants - the independent movie scene thrives with plenty of cinemas that wouldn't dream of showing an Adam Sandler film. The Dendy cinemas in Newtown, the heart of Sydney's indie scene, and near the Opera House show a brilliant range of international films. But for a true old Hollywood experience, try the marvellously renovated Ritz in Randwick, about 10 minutes from Central Station, or the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace in Cremorne, about 10 minutes over the Harbour Bridge on the north side. Both are triumphantly art deco in design.

The Ritz's films are generally pretty mainstream, but little details like the ladies' loo being dubbed "The Powder Room" make it a wonderful experience. Over at the ­Orpheum, the films are diverse, and if you're lucky, the theatre's resident ­organist Neil Jensen will appear in a blaze of light and play his pipe Wurlitzer. It's miles from Bondi Beach, but Neil is just as much of a Sydney institution for those who would rather not watch tourists slowly roast in the midday sun.