The Land Down Under remains home to one of the planet's oldest indigenous cultures, harsh natural habitats, and a city built by rough-and-tumble British convicts. So it’s no wonder that Australia -- and Sydney in particular -- lays claim to a bevy of fascinating museums. From an homage to maritime history and culture to the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern Hemisphere, we've sussed out Sydney's top 5 museums.
1. Australian National Maritime Museum
Sydney's Australian National Maritime Museum explores the relationship Australia maintains with its surrounding waters; the nation depends on these seas and oceans for transportation, commerce, defense and even recreation. The museum features themed exhibitions divulging how Australia and its people, including indigenous cultures, have been affected by the water. One such exhibit, "Sea Journeys," details the experiences of people first brought to Australia as prisoners. The same prisoners would later become Australia’s first non-indigenous inhabitants. A naval exhibit looks at the Australian navy's operations on both land and sea, with recreations of submarine interiors, showcases of uniforms and figureheads from old ships. "Watermarks" focuses on the water's fun side, with displays detailing sailing for sport and lifeguarding, along with a selection of swimwear dating from the early 1900s to the present. The museum is located on Sydney's Darling Harbor, and at its wharf are a collection of boats visitors can explore -- including a tall ship, a destroyer and a 19th-century racing yacht.
You might have already guessed it, but yes, Australia is comprised of far more than kangaroos and crocodile hunters! The Australian Museum does great justice to a land filled with an extraordinary natural history. The museum offers visitors a chance to view collections of Aboriginal artifacts, including boomerangs, didgeridoos, baskets and even a kangaroo tooth drill (used to make holes in shells for jewelry). The popular "Exploring Australia" exhibit takes visitors past stuffed recreations of some of the country's more dangerous predators, including its 10 most poisonous snakes, a number of crocodiles and the now-extinct Tasmanian Tiger. Ten complete dinosaur skeletons lurk in the “Dinosaur Exhibition,” while the creepy, crawly "More Than Insects Exhibition" displays predators like the funnel-web spider, scorpions and the hairy cicada. For an exclusive look at some of the museum's 16 million artifacts which are not currently on display, consider taking a behind-the-scenes tour.
One of Sydney's most kid-friendly museums, the highly-interactive Powerhouse Museum was built in an old power station for the city's former tram system. The museum devotes its exhibits to the technologies that have changed our world. Visitors may watch a "shocking" demonstration to learn how lightning strikes, discover how machine engines run or why magnets attract metals. You can't miss the 3-story-high working steam engine on display -- built in 1785, it's the world's oldest. Other exhibits detail innovations in nuclear science, space travel and steam travel, while additional science-focused exhibits look at the workings of gravity, light and electricity. Kids can be kept entertained in one of the museum's arts and crafts studios, or by visiting the Wiggles exhibit, which details the history of the kid-favorite band.
Located on the University of Sydney campus, the Nicholson Museum houses the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern Hemisphere. The impressive collection includes artifacts from ancient Egypt, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Europe. Visitors will encounter a real mummy, a 250,000-year-old hand axe found in France, mosaic glass inlays from the 1st century A.D. and a plaster skull from 6,000 B.C. Ancient history buffs will enjoy the rotating and ongoing special exhibitions that may include a look at the history of the Etruscans or a selection of what the museum's curators consider to be the 50 objects with the most fascinating stories in the Nicholson's collection. After visiting the museum, if you're still craving more culture, check out the artwork at the University Art Gallery.
5. Hyde Park Barracks Museum
It may not be Sydney's cheeriest museum, but the Hyde Park Barracks Museum may well be its most haunting. The austere Georgian structure was built in 1819 to house convicts, and over its history the building also served as an immigration depot, a women's asylum for the impoverished and a courthouse. The museum holds some 100,000 historic, everyday objects from these eras, such as buttons, aprons, shirts and stockings, many of which were acquired in the 1980s, when workers rehabbing the building discovered old rats nests. The rats had carried off the objects from the barracks' inhabitants while building their nests, so thanks to the rodents, the museum had a windfall of acquisitions. Visitors to the museum can also get an intimate glimpse of life as a convict by lying down in a prisoner's hammock, trying on a set of leg irons and learning about their daily lives. Surprisingly, the museum also houses the excellent Hyde Park Barracks Cafe; arrive hungry and order one of the specialties, like the homemade fettuccine with lamb ragout, crisp pork belly or pan-seared Australian scallops.