Only a few buildings around the world are as architecturally and culturally significant as the Sydney Opera House. But what sets it apart from, say, the Taj Mahal and the great pyramids of Egypt is that this white-sailed construction caught midbillow over the waters of Sydney Cove is a working building housing a full-scale performing-arts complex with five important performance spaces. The biggest and grandest is the 2,690-seat Concert Hall, which has acoustics amped up by chairs that mimic the human form and help amplify the sound for their listiners. Come here for concerts, films with live orchestral accompaniment, dance, choral performances, and even rock 'n' roll. The Dame Joan Sutherland Theater is smaller, seating 1,547, and books operas, musicals ballets, and dance. The Drama Theatre, seating 544, and the Playhouse, seating 398, specialize in plays and smaller-scale performances. The Utzon Room, seating 300, is used for dance and experimental music, and boast harbor views.

The history of the building is as compelling as the design. Danish architect Jørn Utzon won an international competition to design it; he and the government thought it would cost A$7 million and take three years to complete. When that didn't happen, tensions mounted and  Utzon ultimately resigned. He died without ever seeing his masterpiece completed in person. It was finally complete in 1973 at the cost a staggering A$102 million; happily, the money was  raised through a series of lotteries in a short three years. Since then, continual refurbishment and the major task of replacing the asbestos-laden grouting between the many thousands of white tiles that make up its shell has cost many millions more.

You'll learn this history, and more, if you take one of the guided tours of the Opera House; they last about an hour and are conducted daily from 9am to 5pm, except on Good Friday and December 25. If you don't get to see everything you want, it's because the Opera House is a working venue. There's almost always some performance, practice, or setting up to be done. Reservations are essential. Tour sizes are limited, so be prepared to wait. Tours include about 200 stairs. (Tours for people with disabilities can be arranged.) Specialized tours, focusing on the building's architecture and engineering, for example, can also be arranged.

The Tourism Services Department at the Sydney Opera House can book combination packages, including dinner and a show; a tour, dinner, and a show; or a champagne-interval performance. Prices vary depending on shows and dining venues. Visitors from overseas can buy tickets by credit card and pick them up at the box office on arrival, or contact a local tour company specializing in Australia. Advance ticket purchases are a good idea, because performances are very popular. The views from the back rows are hardly worth the effort and expense if you turn up on the day of performance. Tickets for performances vary from as little as A$15 for children's shows to A$180 for good seats at the opera. Plays average A$40 to A$60.

Free performances take place outside on the Opera House boardwalks on Sunday afternoons and during festival times. The artists range from musicians and performance artists to school groups.