Rooftop Bars: Design goes through the roof as elevated hospitality takes off

Hard to believe, but for decades rooftop bars and restaurants weren’t really a thing in the famously outdoors city of Sydney – a sub-tropical metropolis with the world’s most spectacular harbour and urban beaches.

Shell House Sky Bar and terrace level.

Sure, there have been bars and restaurants perched at the apex of several iconic Sydney towers – Australia Square’s revolving restaurant and the legendary Level 41 at Chifley Tower immediately come to mind – but they were indoors, segregated from the elements.

Now times have changed, and rooftop bars and restaurants can be found right across Sydney’s sprawling metropolitan area – one estimate suggests there’s at least 40 from Blacktown to Bondi – with many more to come.

Woods Bagot alone has four in the pipeline. They are a key element of 4-6 Bligh Street in the CBD, Castle Towers in Sydney’s north-west, 25hours Hotel Paddington and 8 Phillip Street, Parramatta, all of which also include high-end hotel and hospitality facilities.

They will add to the rooftop legacy Woods Bagot has created in Sydney, which began with its celebrated work on Ivy, the iconic hospitality precinct in George Street designed by Woods Bagot’s Global Design Leader Domenic Alvaro in collaboration with owner Merivale.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Ivy transformed downtown Sydney’s cultural life for the better when it opened in late 2007 in the early days of the GFC – and Ivy’s hedonistic heart has always been its rooftop pool bar, inspired by the Italian coastline.

Sydney has seen nothing like Ivy before or since – a complex of laneways, passages and buildings. The fact that, 15 years later, it’s still exceptionally popular is testament to seamless merge between grand vision, design and hospitality.

People want to go there more than ever, and the rooftop pool bar is a big part of that. “We were ahead of the game with the Ivy,” says Alvaro.



Regional Interior Design Leader Tracey Wiles cites Ivy as an inspiration and says that rooftop bars and restaurants have been slow to take off in Sydney compared with the likes of New York, Bangkok and Hong Kong – but momentum has well and truly shifted.

“I think it’s fantastic to take people off the street and give them a different perspective,” she says. “You can really get a sense of the beating heart of a city, particularly in the evenings.”

Wiles has designed two of Sydney’s top rooftop bars and restaurants: Sky Bar at historic Shell House (the city’s only surviving palazzo-style sandstone building), and Aster Bar, which crowns InterContinental Sydney.

Both have been enthusiastically embraced by punters and are doing great business. They are also quite different.

Aster Bar has incredible northern views over the Opera House and Sydney Harbour from its 32nd floor eyrie, and the design points to that – it’s very open, embracing the height and gorgeous panorama.

Sky Bar and the Dining Room and Terrace one level below are a few blocks back from Circular Quay, and not as high. They feel more discreet, but the setting is equally dramatic.

“I think it’s fantastic to take people off the street and give them a different perspective. You can really get a sense of the beating heart of a city, particularly in the evenings.”

Woods Bagot Regional Interior Design Leader Tracey Wiles
Shellhouse Rooftop Clock tower

A major reason is the striking original sandstone clocktower that commands the outdoor terrace, especially at night under lights, framed by adjacent commercial towers.

“One thing that certainly struck us with Shell House is it feels that you’re sitting in amongst the lanterns of Sydney,” says Wiles.

“Those lights from the surrounding offices are spectacular. It’s magical to experience.”

The two distinct locations demand a tailored approach. “With the InterCon having panoramic views it changes the way you set things out,” she says.

“At Aster Bar the seating is tiered down from the highest seats at the bar to maximise the views for everyone.

“With Shell House the nice thing is that you’re dining within a heritage building – even out on the terrace you’ve got the beautiful original windows that are illuminated at night – and we’re maximizing the Clocktower at all times.”

Wiles says the appeal of rooftop bars and restaurants is timeless.

“I do think coming up off the street gives you a sense of exclusivity, which lends itself to that club environment – you aren’t on the street with everyone else, you are at a more intimate gathering.”

InterContinental Sydney skyline
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