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20 things to do on Sydney Harbour

Looking for great activities to enjoy with friends and family on Sydney Harbour? Read our new blog and discover the breadth of memorable experiences you can have at our beloved destinations…

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Harbour Trust, established in 2001 to protect significant heritage sites that are rich sources of discovery and exploration.

To celebrate this milestone, we’ve compiled a list of 20 things to do when you next visit Cockatoo Island, North Head Sanctuary, Headland Park, Sub Base Platypus, Woolwich Dock and Parklands, or Macquarie Lightstation.

The list contains hot tips for visitors, including families, outdoor adventurers and history buffs. If you're unable to visit, however, don’t worry – the blog also includes recommendations for exploring the stories of each place online!

1. Embark on an unforgettable odyssey

Experience the splendour of the world’s best harbour as part of a one-of-a-kind pilgrimage with the Bondi to Manly Walk (B2M). Spanning 80 kilometres of harbour foreshore between two of Sydney’s most iconic surf beaches, the B2M is a network of public tracks that includes pit stops at four of our protected sites: Macquarie Lightstation, Sub Base Platypus, Headland Park and North Head Sanctuary.

2. Discover the iron giants of Cockatoo Island

Formerly a ship-building complex, Cockatoo Island played a major role in Australia's maritime affairs from 1857 to 1991. Today, 17 steam-powered and electrical cranes survive from this golden era. These iron giants contribute to the island's unique industrial terrain as well as the iconic skyline of Sydney Harbour. Ahead of your next visit, check out our Google Arts & Culture exhibition showcasing some of the striking metal behemoths. Plus, keep your eyes peeled for upcoming steam crane demonstrations to see a vintage crane in action!

3. Discover secret military history

Established in 1936, North Fort is a former military complex at North Head Sanctuary, Manly. Strategically placed at the northern entrance to Sydney Harbour, the fort was part of a defence system that spanned 300km of coastline during World War II. A remnant structure from this era is the Plotting Room: an underground bunker that received enemy craft intel from – and transmitted it to – artillery batteries along the coast. Due to the highly classified nature of the work undertaken by personnel, the Plotting Room was shrouded in secrecy. Our Defence of Sydney Tour demystifies the Plotting Room, which has been faithfully restored by specialist volunteers. You can also learn about this secret slice of military history by reading our DigiTale Patricia Talberg: Gunner, ‘Somewhere in Australia’ or viewing our Google Arts & Culture exhibition exploring the history and restoration of the Plotting Room.

4. Celebrate First Nations icon Bungaree

Today, Bungaree is a symbol of significant early collaboration between Aboriginals and European settlers. He has the distinction of being the first known Australian to circumnavigate the continent, having completed the historic, 13-month voyage aboard the HMS Investigator in 1803. Although he hailed from the Broken Bay area and was a member of the Garigal clan, Bungaree has a notable connection to Georges Heights, Mosman – the traditional land of the Borogegal People. In February 1815, Lachlan Macquarie, the Governor of NSW, granted sixteen Garigal men and their families land at Georges Heights to settle and cultivate and appointed Bungaree their leader. To learn more about Bungaree, read the DigiTale Bungaree: Pioneer, diplomat and leader and view our Google Arts & Culture exhibition First Nations Stories of Sydney Harbour. Visitors to Georges Heights can also enjoy Bungaree's walkway, a scenic trail named in his honour. 

5. Journey to Sydney's convict era

In 2010, the Cockatoo Island Convict Site was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List with 10 other heritage sites. Collectively known as the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property, these sites offer insights into the conditions endured by convicts who were exiled to Australia and put to work on the colony’s ambitious building projects. Significantly, they also feature outstanding examples of remnant convict structures. For example, Cockatoo Island’s Fitzroy Dock – the only surviving example, nationally, of a dry dock constructed by convicts. The island's other convict era landmarks include the Guardhouse, Mess Hall, Solitary Confinement Cells and Biloela House, constructed from sandstone quarried. For a window into Cockatoo Island's convict era (1839-69), simply jump on a ferry and keep your eyes peeled for our heritage convict structures. 

6. Connect with nature at North Head

The easiest way to experience the natural splendour of North Head Sanctuary in Manly is to embark on the Sanctuary Loop. A circuit trail of the entire park, it can be completed in under two hours at a relaxed pace. Highlights include exceptional coastal views from Third Quarantine Cemetery (pictured), endangered flora and fauna, and diverse birdlife.

7. Enjoy an island staycation

Escape the hustle and bustle of modern life with a stay at our sanctuary on Sydney Harbour: Cockatoo Island. Surrounded by landscaped gardens with sweeping views, our apartments and holiday houses marry heritage character with modern amenities. Meanwhile, our campground represents an opportunity spend a night (or longer) under the stars, in the heart of the world’s best harbour. With easy access to picnic spots and waterfront cafés, it’s easy to see why Cockatoo Island is the perfect choice for your next Sydney getaway or staycation!

8. Enjoy a barbeque on the waterfront

Formerly a torpedo factory, submarine base and gasworks, Sub Base Platypus is a now a community hub and parkland on the waterfront at North Sydney. If you're looking for a picturesque backdrop for your next get-together with friends and family, it's hard to look past Oberon Park. Located at the northern end of Sub Base Platypus, this landscaped green space boasts shaded barbeques, views across Neutral Bay, and a pocket playground that pays tribute to the site's naval heritage. Visiting on Friday, Saturday or Sunday afternoon? Drop by nearby gin bar and café, Tonic Lane, for a refreshment, classic snacks and great conversation. 

9. Get art and about in Mosman

The Headland Park Artist Precinct at Georges Heights, Mosman is home to a thriving community of painters, potters, sculptors, and photographers. These talented creatives occupy a cluster of historic military buildings, sympathetically repurposed as studio and gallery spaces, some of which are open to visitors. When you visit the precinct, take time to marvel at our collection of visually-arresting Sculpture by the Sea installations. PLUS: Check the Headland Artists website for details of upcoming Open Studio Days. 

10. Enter the paranormal realm

The Sixth Sense. Paranormal Activity. The Conjuring. Ghosts continue to captivate the public imagination, satisfying our primeval desire for a good scare… but supernatural encounters aren’t just the stuff of Hollywood. From reported ghost sightings to spine-tingling ‘felt’ experiences, Cockatoo Island has a storied history of paranormal occurrences. Find out for yourself with our Ghost Tour (18+)! As the witching hour approaches, you'll explore historic buildings and search for ghosts as our guide shares macabre true stories and hair-raising paranormal tales. 

11. Navigate your way through nature

Are you a passionate orienteer or outdoor enthusiast? Work out and explore the coastal bushland at Georges Heights, Headland Park with Orienteering NSW’s program of FREE orienteering courses. Their Headland Park program consists of four courses, catering for different fitness levels and orienteering experience. Navigate your way through natureEach course commences near the roundabout on Suakin Drive and can be completed with either a printed copy of the Headland Park orienteering map or the free MapRunF mobile app.

12. Discover Australia's first lighthouse

Located along the Federation Cliff Walk at Vaucluse, Macquarie Lightstation is the site of Australia’s first lighthouse. Completed in 1818, Macquarie Lighthouse was name for Lachlan Macquarie, the Governor of NSW. Owing to crumbling foundations, it was reconstructed in the 1880s.

This replacement tower can be explored during our Macquarie Lighthouse Tour but the lightstation grounds are open to the public daily. Unable to visit? View our Celebrating Two Centuries of Light. This Google Arts & culture exhibition vividly tells the story of Australia's most historic lighthouse using archival imagery, contemporary photos and 360 footage.  

13. Embark on a guided tour

Want to discover the stories and secrets of Sydney’s historic destinations? Check out the Harbour Trust’s program of guided tours, catering for history buffs and outdoor enthusiasts as well as families and social groups.

Explore iconic locations including Cockatoo Island, the Georges Head Battery in Mosman and North Fort in Manly as a knowledgeable guide reveals their central place in Australia’s First Nations, convict, defence and colonial narratives. Our program of regular tours runs from Friday to Sunday but we also accept bookings for private group tours at Cockatoo Island. 

14. Learn about historical figures

Planning to visit one of our heritage destinations? Ahead of your trip, check out our library of DigiTales and learn about people synonymous with each place. Authored by knowledgeable volunteers, our DigiTales will acquaint you with a lineup of famous, infamous and obscure historical figures. As you read them, you’ll also discover the distinctive voices of the passionate history buffs and writers within our volunteer team. Above all else, DigiTales are meant to be entertaining yarns. Some are informed by folk stories, tall tales and hearsay. Others draw on archival newspapers and reliable first-hand accounts. Whatever the case… we hope you enjoy them!

Image: Portrait of Nikolai Nikoleavich de Miklouho-Maclay, 1886, by Korsuhin (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales)

15. Get crafty and have fun

Want to have fun AND learn about our amazing places on Sydney Harbour? Head to Kids Corner, our one-stop-shop for fun activity sheets and do-it-yourself project ideas. Each resource is designed to keep kids (and kids at heart) engaged and happy, whether they're exploring one of our heritage destinations or playing in their backyard. If you're planning to visit North Head Sanctuary in Manly, we recommend our Bush Bingo and Site Trivia activity sheet. Eager to channel your inner scientist? Have a crack at our Create a Submarine project sheet! Simply download, print and play!

 

16. Watch the sun set and rise

Few things are more breathtaking – or romantic – than watching the sun set and rise on the world’s best harbour.  Many of our heritage sites offer incredible vantage points of Sydney Harbour. Looking for somewhere special to watch day seep into night or the breaking of a new dawn? We recommend Georges Head Lookout at Georges Heights, Biloela Lawn on Cockatoo Island, Woolwich Dock (pictured), Macquarie lightstation or the entrance to Third Quarantine Cemetery at North Head Sanctuary.  

17. Feed your inner foodie

Worked up a thirst? At the mercy of your hunger? We’ve got you covered – there’s no shortage of cafés or restaurants across our network of heritage destinations. Headland Park, Sub Base Platypus, Woolwich Dock, North Head Sanctuary and Cockatoo Island all feature licensed and family-friendly venues, meaning you can unwind and recharge on Sydney Harbour. From Modern Australian, Italian cuisine and classic pub grub through to high tea and French bistro – there’s something for foodies of all persuasions.  

18. Enjoy a coastal stroll

A network of scenic trails link Georges Heights in Mosman to Balmoral Beach and other nearby attractions as well as the neighbouring precincts that makeup Headland Park – Middle Head and Chowder Bay. The scenic coastal walk between Georges Heights and Middle Head (pictured) offers an incredible vista encompassing North Head, South Head and the Pacific Ocean. If you’re still famished after this visual feast, you'll be pleased to know there are plenty of cafés and restaurants nearby.

19. Commemorate our service people

Australia’s Memorial Walk is a paved pathway at North Head Sanctuary in Manly inscribed with the names of servicemen and women who defended Australia in peace time and war. Open seven days a week, the walk is an opportunity for visitors to reflect on the contributions the nation's service people while exploring an idyllic parkland.

The public can also visit a free exhibition at Building 28, Best Avenue in Georges Heights commemorating the personnel of the nearby military hospital between 1916 and 1921 as well as the soldiers who recuperated there. Known as the Hospital on the Hill, this heritage building today serves as the headquarters of the Harbour Trust. 

 

20. Get your market fix

Complete your weekly grocery shop and enjoy the great outdoors at the Organic Food Market at Georges Heights – one of the precincts of Headland Park, Mosman. Operating every Wednesday from 8am to 2pm, the country-style bazaar is an opportunity to stock up on fruit, veggies, gourmet cheese and other produce, or purchase artisan products including homewares and fashion. While you’re perusing the stalls and keep your energy up with a coffee or a hot bite.