For millennia, Aboriginal art has been used not only as a way to decorate places, but also tell stories and leave messages for future generations. Visitors can glimpse this astounding culture across the city, whether in galleries and museums or amid nature at sacred rock-art sites.
There are more than 65,000 significant Aboriginal sites in NSW, many of which lie within the state capital’s borders. It’s humbling when you discover works dating back thousands of years, created with ochre, stone and bark.
Curracurrong Falls, Royal National Park
The oldest of its kind in Australia, the Royal National Parklies just southwest Sydney’s CBD, a union of rugged cliffs, dreamy coastal coves and dense bushland. There are scenic drives and equally scenic hikes, many of which weave past ancient rock art. Lace up your walking shoes to take on the Jibbon Loop Track, a brisk five-kilometre circuit that starts in Bundeena and presents a parade of coastal drama. But it's the viewing platforms at Jibbon Headland at the north-eastern end of the beach that provide the most rewarding outlook. From here you can admire sandstone Aboriginal rock carvings created by the native Dharawal people, dating back tens of thousands of years.
Another easy point of access to the Royal National Park is Wattamolla Beach. From here, rock art awaits in multiple directions, and you only have to walk a few minutes to reach it. Alternatively, grab your camping gear and walk the 11-kilometre Uloola Track, marvelling at multiple engravings before pitching your tent at the Uloola Falls campground.
West Head, Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park - Andrew Gregory - Destination NSW
Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in Sydney's north is the home of the Darramuragal or Darug, who have – over millennia – left behind hundreds of engravings. The Lambert Peninsula in the West Head area of the park is a highlight, where you'll find one of the most densely populated areas of Aboriginal rock and cave art in Sydney. Check out a great example of Aboriginal stencil art at Red Hands Cave and explore the Aboriginal Heritage Walk for four kilometres of preserved Aboriginal history.
There are a surprising number of Aboriginal rock art and engraving sites in Sydney's inner suburbs and around Sydney Harbour. Along the popular Spit to Manly Walk, a signposted site at Grotto Point features boomerangs, fish, sharks, a kangaroo and a fairy penguin. In Lane Cove National Park, located next to the Max Allen Track, is a large kangaroo and some smaller engravings. Garigal National Park has more than 300 Aboriginal sites recorded, and Bantry Bay is a particularly incredible place, with 82 figures in total.
Aboriginal art museums & galleries
Australia’s Indigenous art is often like a storybook, revealing cultural insights in layers. That might be a tale of food scarcity, as depicted through rock art. Or one of family, perhaps in a contemporary painting. This rich tapestry of life is protected, preserved and promoted in exhibitions across Sydney’s dynamic galleries and museums.
Take the Art Gallery of New South Wales, home to the Yiribana Gallery (reopens December 2022). A nod to the Gadigal people who traditionally own the land on which the gallery sits, Yiribana means ‘this way’in Eora. Do as its name suggests and follow a trail of eye-opening works across a broad range of mediums.
For decades, the Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay has hosted some of the most important Aboriginal collections and exhibitions in Sydney – it’s still a priority. Nearby, the Argyle Gallery is dedicated to Australian and Aboriginal art and fine crafts, while the wonderfully named Spirit Gallery has one of the most significant collections of crafted didgeridoos you’ll come across. All three establishments sit pretty in Sydney's historic The Rocks district.
The Aboriginal & Pacific Art Galleryin Waterloo works with community- and government-owned art centuries to show works from up-and-coming Indigenous creatives across the country. Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative in Leichhardt is the place to visit to learn more about diversity within the Aboriginal art landscape. And Utopia Art Sydney in Alexandria has helped ensure the representation of artists of all backgrounds for more than 30 years.
If you like thinking big, be sure to catch the nightly Badu Gili exhibition, projected onto the sails of the Sydney Opera House. The show kicks off at sunset, and there are four screenings over the course of the night. The current projections feature six female First Nations artists using works from the Art Gallery of NSW.
Whether an abstract dot painting or a wood carving, owning a piece of Aboriginal art is a special experience. Begin scoping out the type of works you’re fond of at some of the museums and galleries above – a number sell pieces direct to the public.
The Artery in Darlinghurst also has a showroom stocked with affordable contemporary art by emerging creatives. While Cooee Art Gallery in Redfern and Bondi is dedicated to fine art – and as a pioneer in the Indigenous art world, it has quite the collection, spanning paintings, sculptures, artefacts and more. Meanwhile, in the Inner West, the huge, award-winning Kate Owen Gallery in Rozelle offers Aboriginal works from all over Australia.
Returning to the beautiful Bare Island at La Perouse approximately every two months, the popular Blak Markets showcase Indigenous makers, artists and food purveyors. Browse the stalls for locally made arts and crafts, while also enjoying traditional dance, singing and storytelling throughout the day. Entry is just $2.50, and all proceeds raised go towards employing Indigenous youth.
Learn Aboriginal art techniques
Fancy getting creative while taking a deep dive into Indigenous culture? The annual National Indigenous Art Fair during NAIDOC Week in July invites participants to take part in collaborative weaving works while diving into the importance of this community-building activity.
Taking place at the Overseas Passenger Terminal in Circular Quay, look forward to artworks by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from around Australia, as well as a program of live music and Aboriginal dance performances. It’s also an ethical marketplace where you can buy all manner of art directly from their makers.
Destination NSW acknowledges and respects Aboriginal people as the state’s first people and nations and recognises Aboriginal people as the Traditional Owners and occupants of New South Wales land and water.