As a Brit, I’m not alone in wanting to see the Sydney Opera House. It’s as cliched as kangaroos and corked hats back at home, but also as iconic.

Like a haughty emperor, the building itself defies you to ask for its attention, hidden away from most optical assaults from the city by a cluster of jealously sheltering skyscrapers. Boat-goers and North Sydney dwellers can take their fill.

It nestles at the eastern point of the cradle of Circular Quay, where the best view in all of Sydney is to be had, as your eyes can sweep from House to Harbour Bridge in a breathtaking instant.

And there it is, at last, the bright sun clinging mutedly to its already golden cream sails. Though looking totally modern, its concrete base - reminiscent of London’s National Film Theatre - betrays its age like the wrinkled hands of a well made-up older lady. Walking up towards the building, the arches of the sails stand like several rowing boats cut in half and up-ended.

As well as its almost secret location from the city, the beginnings of the Opera House are almost smothered from memory. Sydney-siders would hesitate to whisper it, but the building in its recognisable and much-loved form almost never came to be.

It was 1947 and Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s new conductor Eugene Goossens had called for a fitting theatre for opera. Recently arrived from England, he noticed the city’s dire need and in time a global competition was announced, attracting more than 200 entries and plenty of media attention.

The State’s premier Joe Cahill announced that the opera house “should not be a ‘shadygaff’ place but an edifice that will be a credit to the State not only today but also for hundreds of years.”

You might expect that when Danish architect Jorn Utzon’s idea for the iconic cream sails floated in, the rest would be history. It almost wasn’t. Three of the judging panel had placed his design on the scrapheap, only for its precious metal to be rescued by a fourth, upon arriving late.

Although the judges expected plenty of controversy from choosing such an original design, they handed the prize to Utzon, who had never even been to Australia before. In the place where an eye-sore of a tramshed had once stood on Bennelong Point, construction soon began on the theatre which now sings out to the world. More than a million roof tiles were required; surprisingly square, they are cream, brown and white and it’s a thrill to touch them today.

Though the public loved their new building, controversy did follow – of an unexpected kind. For the third phase of construction, Utzon’s request for plywood mock-ups was turned down, leading him to withdraw from the project in 1966. The theatre opened in 1973 – with a production of Profokiev’s War and Peace – and Utzon won many honours including the Keys to the City of Sydney in 1998.

But it was only the following year, more than two decades after his withdrawal, that he was re-engaged with the Opera House, having been asked to come up with a set of design principles.

It was a warm reunion for Utzon, who wrote: “My renewed contact with Sydney […] has felt like a wonderful welcome back to Australia, a hand extended in the spirit of reconciliation, a hand I shake with warmth and gratitude.” He died In November last year aged 90, but his masterpiece lives on, looking as modern as it did nearly 40 years ago.

Moving on to something even more ultra-modern, I also took the chance to venture to the Archibald Prize exhibition, housed in the stately Art Gallery of New South Wales in the Botanical Gardens a short walk south.

This year’s winner was Guy Maestri, with his portrait of the blind Aboriginal singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, whose singing brings grown men to tears. Maestri, I felt, had perfectly captured the singer’s quiet, but statuesque, strength with his bold painting.

The People’s Award is still up for grabs and the hot tip is for Vincent Fantauzzo’s portrait of Brandon Walters, who was described by our guide Janet as the child star of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. I would go further and say that Walters, as Nullah, was the star full stop.

These are just some of the attractions in Sydney and, of course, the main event for the women's World Cup is yet to come.

Jenny Roesler is a former assistant editor at Cricinfo