Things to do

9 reasons to love Customs House

The perfect place to relax, write, reflect or mingle.

Summer in Sydney – the hum of cicadas, sweet bursts of frangipani and sticky heat.

Some of us come alive in summer. We become our most dashing and adventurous selves, suddenly compelled to seek new experiences, read things to do articles, and plot excursions.

For others, summer is horrid. We’re counting down the days until May and its promise of fresh air and gentle light. We seek places where we can escape from the harsh beat of summer and break up long (boring) days in hot homes.

Here's the low down on one of Sydney’s most beloved venues – Customs House. It’s a find for both the summer-loving evangelists, as well as those ducking for cool corners.

By the way, we all know summer lasts way beyond February in Sydney.

Customs House hosts a library, exhibitions and great eateries
Customs House hosts a library, exhibitions and great eateries

Much more than a historical sandstone beauty, Customs House is an unpretentious, inviting public building with a library, exhibitions, public computers, and great eateries. And it’s entirely free to enter, 7 days a week.

So if you’re looking for a venue to add to your must-visit list, or want to relax or study in a beautiful old building (with the most wonderful windows with deep timber sills), scroll on.

1. Get your history nerd on

Image courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW
Image courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

Before the Sydney Opera House, office towers and expressway, Customs House commanded Sydney Cove.

After convicts mucked through the muddy mangroves and constructed Semi Circular Quay from the rubble of the Argyle Cut, Customs House was built in 1845 as a strong symbol of British power over sea and trade.

Home to the NSW and later Australian Customs Service for 145 years, the taxes and tariffs collected at Customs House funded Sydney’s growth.

Today, Customs House sits majestically among ever-growing skyscrapers, a remnant of an era when Sydneysiders relied on maritime trade and transport. Read more about the history of Customs House.

Fact: Contraceptive devices and astrological charts were once confiscated by Customs officers. Times have changed.

2. Time to get read

Customs House Library
Customs House Library

A public library spans 2 spacious floors, with places to meet, exchange ideas and study.

Visitors can access free wifi, computers, and a collection of over 50,000 books, magazines, CDs, DVDs, audiobooks and music scores. You can walk in, find an intriguing magazine, sit on the floor (there are chairs too) and read.

There’s also a large selection of international newspapers and magazines, and the library also hosts regular courses, talks, and other events.

Top tip: Don’t forget to check out level 1, which features a popular manga, Korean and Japanese collection as well as audio books, music, and magazines.

3. Get your summer culture on

Customs House is known for its amazingly diverse selection of talks and events (most are free).

Enjoy a free series of Scratch coding workshops for older people. Or if fashion and life on the runway are more your style, book a ticket to the Miss Runway Supermodel Australia 2020 show. It’s your chance to check out the fabulous creations of Marissa O’Donnell and Lakshmi Bee, and enjoy the post-show dance and cocktail party with live band.

4. Year-round art

As well as seasonal events, Customs House showcases a year-round program of exhibitions.

The City Dialogue: Public art + the Biennale of Sydney exhibition documents unexpected, fun and sometimes provocative contemporary art. And How the City Cares is a fascinating artist-led study of how a city cares for its inhabitants, exploring the unique sense of community in Sydney.

Both are free and open weekdays and weekends.

5. The City of Forking Paths

Many walking tours start from Customs House. The City of Forking Paths is a self-guided tour with a twist. Experienced on a smart phone or mobile device, immerse yourself in the engrossing world of fact and fiction as artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller lead you on a twilight video walk around The Rocks.

6. Birds-eye view

City model at Customs House
City model at Customs House

No visit to Sydney is complete without checking out the amazingly intricate Sydney city model.

Embedded into the floor, this scale model shows every street and skyscraper (it’s updated every year), and will help you really understand the layout of our beautiful city. It’s a delight for both small humans and grown adults.

7. Refuel and gaze

After a long day of work (shopping or sightseeing) Quay Bar is a low-key, spot to enjoy a drink. Located on the piazza at the colonnaded doorstep of Customs House, it’s a prime location for a good session of people-watching.

8. A feast for the eyes

View from Customs House
View from Customs House

Cafe Sydney
Cafe Sydney

There are restaurants and then there’s Café Sydney, a bucket list eatery for foodies around the world. Spectacular harbour views are complemented by consistently divine food and exquisite cocktails. With an outdoor terrace and a luscious cocktail lounge, it’s the perfect venue for a special occasion or a luxurious treat.

9. Recharge

On the ground floor, off to the left as you enter from Circular Quay, you’ll find a room with lots of power points for recharging devices. This may sound boring, but it can really come in handy when your battery is redlining. And the recycling bins for household batteries, mobiles and lightbulbs on level 1 are also a handy find.

Finally, Customs House is air-conditioned! Open 7 days a week.

Published 31 January 2020, updated 1 April 2020