Sydney, Australia
Dance

Where to Dance In: Sydney

Gripped by controversial laws and the recent bushfires, Australia's Harbour City remains a down under dance music mecca.

[Editors note: In this ongoing series, we explore the best and most buzzworthy dance scenes throughout the United States and beyond.]

With its festival-stacked summers and beachy lifestyle, Sydney is a natural party town -- yet the city’s recent nightlife history has been far from sunny. 

In 2014, following a spike in alcohol-fueled violence in Sydney’s nightlife district Kings Cross, the local government implemented ‘lockout laws’ in a designated entertainment precinct. This included Kings Cross, the central business district (CBD) and a key stretch of Oxford Street, the locus of Sydney’s gay scene. The legislation stipulated 1:30 a.m. lockouts for bars and clubs, plus a 3 a.m. curfew for alcohol service. 

Once swamped every Friday and Saturday with drinkers and clubbers alike, Kings Cross soon morphed into the domain of high-concept gyms and monied baby boomers. Meanwhile, countless nightlife professionals -- from club owners and promoters to bands and DJs -- felt an immediate hit. The strict laws also sent night owls into new areas outside the lockout precinct, effectively moving the problem to a new postcode. 

The controversial laws brought uneasy international attention to Sydney’s scene. Five years on, however, there are signs of a turnaround. After a parliamentary inquiry into the impact of the lockouts on Sydney’s nightlife economy, the legislation has now been lifted -- except, notably, in Kings Cross. 

The 2019/2020 summer also saw the state of New South Wales gripped by an unprecedented bushfire crisis (Sydney is the NSW capital). The fires brought the climate crisis right to the door of the city’s independent dance promoters. Subsonic and Lost Paradise -- both festivals conceived in Sydney and staged in rural NSW bushland -- were called off due to the dangerous conditions. All fires in the state have now been contained, but the long-range view remains troubling. 

Yet good things have continued happening to Sydney nightlife; this is undoubtedly a summer city, despite the new threat of smoke haze from the state’s bushfires. Just as jackets and scarves come out in the northern hemisphere, DJs stream into Sydney for sun-soaked festivals like Harbourlife, Field Day, FOMO and Days Like This. And what keeps the city ticking is its dedicated network of promoters and DJs, who tough out the laws to deliver a good time.

As a result, many of Sydney’s best bets are one-off events, or parties in makeshift warehouse venues and unremarkable pubs that’ll happily rent out a room. You need to keep your ear to the ground, and read up on promoters, to guarantee a good time.

Sydney’s wide network of music venues, clubs and sort-of-clubs operate week in, week out, often diversifying to survive. Here’s some stops to consider as you navigate the Harbour City.

Universal Sydney

Long-standing Sydney gay club Midnight Shift was recently overhauled as Universal Sydney, carrying on its tradition of LGBTIQA+ inclusivity on Oxford Street, home to the internationally famous Mardi Gras parade. 

In a town of few custom-built clubs, Universal stands out. Its assets include a proper DJ booth, ample dancefloor space to roam and, crucially, a whole lot of lasers. In addition to queer-friendly weekly programming, Universal also attracts scene-shaping internationals like Octo Octa, Eris Drew, Umfang and Prosumer. 

Civic Underground 

Beloved by Sydney’s underground heads, Civic Underground has long housed one of the city’s best sound systems. 

Hidden underneath a workaday CBD pub, the Civic’s programming has always been on-point. The club favors a rotating cast of Sydney’s house and techno promoters, who bring guests like Martyn, Function, Michael Mayer and Anthony Naples. With a sunken dancefloor in the speaker sweet spot and capacity for just 350 people, it’s the place for head-down, no-frills music appreciation. 

Harpoon Harry 

Split across two levels, Harpoon Harry boasts a bar for eating Cuban food and the Harry’s dancefloor for getting down. 

Located in the bar and restaurant mecca of Surry Hills, Harry’s champions largely local talent on the house and disco vibe. Curated by Sydney authority DJ Kali, the parties often feature all-night-long sets from homegrown heroes like Simon Caldwell and Sleep D, with a particular upswing during Sydney’s citywide Vivid Live festival. With a young, clued-in crowd, this is where visitors might discover a new favorite DJ. 

Chinese Laundry

This underground sweatbox is a rite of passage for many Sydney clubbers. Tucked away in the city’s 9-to-5 district, the club’s two rooms and garden have hosted countless big names over two-plus decades, while also championing locals like Flume, Ajax, Bass Kleph and Peking Duk. 

The programming is currently split between bass music on BASSIC Fridays, and various strains of four-four on LNDRY Saturdays. The crowd skews young and up-for-anything, and you’re just as likely to catch Detroit techno don Kevin Saunderson as bass upstarts like SayMyName and Taiki Nulight.

Club 77

For over 20 years, Club 77 has been the inner-city spot for just-grungy-enough late night clubbing. Once a no-frills, sticky-floored rave den, the veteran has since had a makeover while retaining its essential Club 77-ness. 

Previously home to the defining Sydney club night Bang Gang, it’s now the spot to get your house and techno fix at residencies Something Else and Club Late, plus one-off blowouts like Pavlovabar.

Courtesy of Freda's 
Freda's

Freda’s

Freda’s, in the rapidly gentrifying suburb of Chippendale, is an intimate, arty bar where you can drink and eat very well. With a recently-acquired 4 a.m. trading license, it’s also a buzzing music venue. The programming fits the hipster surrounds, with a focus on hyped live acts and legit local DJs. 

Goodbar

With a slick two-level refurbishment and a new house and techno-focused music policy, Goodbar re-opened in 2016 to real buzz. The club, which fell just outside the lockout zone on Oxford Street, arrived at the right time for the after-1:30 a.m. crowd. 

Goodbar’s downstairs dancefloor is equipped with pristine sound and stripped-back lighting that mirrors the clubs of Europe. So do the bookings, with 2019 drop-ins from Gregor Tresher, Butch and Damian Lazarus. 

Oxford Art Factory

In 2019, Oxford Art Factory celebrated 12 years of doing a little bit of everything. On any given night, the adaptable venue can accommodate a live show from Tourist or Jpegmafia, a ‘90s rap party or a line-up of experimental DJs. When a festival rolls into Australia -- which, during summer, is every weekend -- ‘OAF’ nabs the most interesting acts for standalone shows. (Aussies call these sideshows.) 

The Imperial

Away from the city center, in the unpretentious suburb of Erskineville, The Imperial has been “proudly LGBTQIA+ since 1983.” With such a storied history in Sydney’s gay nightlife -- the opening scene of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was shot here -- The Imperial knows how to deliver a good time. The venue looks better than ever after a 2018 makeover, housing the restaurant Priscillas and a subterranean club for late night dancing. From drag shows to techno nights, it’s an all-inclusive gem. 

Jono Le Grice
Home the Venue

Home The Venue 

With multiple rooms and capacity for over 2,000, Home The Venue is a superclub in the ‘90s mold. Its endurance in the tourist-mobbed Darling Harbour precinct is something of a miracle. The club pays the bills by hosting school formals (the Aussie version of prom) and the Magic Men male revue, but you can still catch a big-ticket dance act and a dose of lasers on weekends. 

The Burdekin Hotel 

This modest corner pub has endured on Oxford Street since the 1800s and now typifies the multipurpose model you’ll see everywhere in Sydney. You might head here for a quiet happy hour beer, a raucous punk show or a tech-house marathon in its humid basement. It’s nothing fancy, but that’s all part of the charm at this lockouts survivor. 

The Greenwood Hotel

On first appearances, the Greenwood Hotel in not-very-cool North Sydney doesn’t scream "club." However, while its expansive front courtyard mainly facilitates open-air drinking, it’s also adaptable for a dance. 

Once renowned for its Sounds On Sunday weekly, the converted church now hosts S*A*S*H by Day each Sunday. (That party then rolls on at the aforementioned Home The Venue.) In 2019, the likes of KiNK, George Fitzgerald and Denis Sulta have gone al fresco at Greenwood.