Lighthouses have an enduring quality that makes them stand out among Sydney’s beautiful buildings. They essentially do the same job, albeit with some technological upgrades, that they were entrusted to do decades and even centuries ago: ensuring ships don’t run aground on our reefs and rocky outcrops. It’s this history, along with their superb placement near secluded hikes and at the top of incredible coastal paths (perfect for whale encounters) that make these mystical wayfinders such a beacon for Sydney sightseers.
If you want to play pretend at being a grisly lighthouse keeper, head to these seven spots where you can get up-close and personal with Sydney’s nautical guides. Tours run occasionally at some of the more senior lighthouses, but you’ll always be able to sit at the feet of the towers and marvel at the view.
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Sydney's most stunning lighthouses
If you’re after googly-eyed, ridiculously gorgeous views and an Aussie TV star-studded history, head to Barrenjoey Lighthouse. This nautical statue sits at Sydney’s most northern point, overlooking the spectacular peninsula with Palm Beach to the east and Pittwater to the west, providing stellar views of the Hawkesbury River and Broken Bay. Besides its obviously aesthetically pleasing attributes and 138 years of history, the 1881 sandstone lighthouse also has a claim to fame as a star on Home and Away, with Summer Bay Surf Club just down on the sand. You can take a guided tour of the lighthouse, oil room and keepers’ cottage most Sundays from 11am-3pm for $2-$5.
Getting there from the CBD: It’s a bit of a hike. You’ll want to source yourself a vehicle and even then it’ll take you close to 90 minutes to drive past every ’burb in the Northern Beaches. Once you reach the parking area, the actual hiking begins. It’s a short but steep ascent up the one kilometre of stone stairs and sandy trail.
This red-and-white striped beauty is arguably the most adorable lighthouse in Sydney’s collection. Its bright colours and visible lantern give it a touch of carnival mischief, and make it well worth the stroll from Watsons Bay ferry terminal on the South Head Heritage Trail. It almost resembles something made by the hand of Willy Wonka, but the lighthouse and the nearby lightkeeper’s cottage dates back to 1858. This South Head location is a prime whale spotting vantagepoint, and the walk from Camp Cove will take you past plenty of cool pit stops, from historic gun emplacements to Lady Bay Beach, one of Sydney’s few official nudist bathing spots.
Getting there from the CBD: The easiest and most scenic option is to take the ferry from Circular Quay to Watsons Bay Wharf and amble along the cobblestone paths for the 20-minute stroll to the light.
You’ll come across this domed 1910 structure at around the half-way point on the Manly to Spit coast walk, surrounded by a quaint picket fence on a rocky headland near Dobroyd Head. Along with its sister light at Parriwi Head – which is exactly one nautical mile away – and their cousins, the Vaucluse Bay Range Front and Rear Lights, the Grotto Point beacon was constructed in a style that earned it the nickname ‘Disney Castle’. You can wander up to the smooth walls and rest awhile, keeping an eye out for sea birds like cormorants and white-breasted sea eagles.
Getting there from the CBD: If you’d like the challenge of the 10k walk, take the ferry from Circular Quay to Manly and stop in for a pack lunch at the lighthouse on your hike to Spit Bridge. Otherwise, you’ll want to stick to the roads for the half-hour drive (buses are a challenge).
Australia’s longest standing, operational navigation light was built on the precipice of Dunbar Head in Vaucluse in 1818. The original structure was designed by convict architect Francis Greenway with a clockwork-powered mechanism that shot a beam 35 kilometres out to sea. As Greenway predicted, the low-quality sandstone foundations deteriorated quickly, and a new lighthouse resembling the much-admired design was built on the site in 1883 (so maybe that ‘oldest lighthouse’ title is a bit of a stretch), along with the lighthouse keeper’s and assistant’s residence that stand today. You can wander around the structures that make up Macquarie Lightstation any day of the week, or join a tour for $3-$5 on selected Sundays. You’ll get to climb the 100 steps to the now electronic lantern room to see the Fresnel lens that still guides ships today, and look out to sea and back towards the hazy city skyline.
Getting there from the CBD: Take the ferry from Circular Quay to Watsons Bay and walk the 1.5km up to the site, or otherwise brave the traffic on the 20-minute drive.
Instead of towering over the rumbling waves, this little lighthouse sits on a quaint jetty protruding from the wall of greenery in the Sydney Harbour National Park near Bradleys Head Amphitheatre. The petit ocean path-lighter looks very comfortable among the white sails of recreational boats, and when its time comes to warn vessels of land ho, it flashes a green light and fog horn. As you look out toward the hazy, long distance views of the CBD skyline, wave at the lighthouse’s sister tower, the Robertson Point Light over at Cremorne. It’s also a beauty, but the 1905 Bradleys Head sibling has the added benefit of being just a stone’s throw from the splendid Amphitheatre picnic area. Head here after you visit the lighthouse for a lazy afternoon of fishing or to set off on a bushwalk.
Getting there from the CBD: Aim for Taronga Zoo on the ferry (and pay the koalas a visit, if you’re so inclined) then stroll for about 20 minutes to your destination. The M30 bus from Central or Wynyard Station will also get you there in a semi-reasonable timeframe.
While this chunky fella on a tiny island in the centre of Sydney Harbour still has its militaristic elements – the cannons, gun powder storage and imposing stone fortifications – it’s also home to a friendly lighthouse. Construction on the fort began in 1841, but the still operational lantern was only added to the tower in 1913, replacing a gun on the roof. This is one of the more unusual lighthouse locales, and in the past the site has been a popular spot for New Year’s Eve parties and dining at the currently closed on-site restaurant. Currently, the entire fort is undergoing renovations, but is set to reopen in late 2019 for visits and tours.
Getting there from the CBD: When the site is once again operational, your only real option for getting there is via public ferry, as private vessels (congrats on owning your own boat) are not permitted to moor at the site.
Sydney Harbour might be the ‘it’ girl of the easily accessible ocean vistas and accompanying lighthouses, but the city’s south has some splendid sights up its sleeve. The angular Cape Bailey Lighthouse shines just south of Botany Bay in the Kamay Botany Bay National Park. Sure, the tower built in 1950 might not have the grandeur of the more mature structures, and its face is often marked by the doodling of graffiti artists, but it’s in such a stunning spot that it can’t be ignored. The working Kurnell light stands amongst the greenery near the cliff edge, and you can gaze out from its raised position after you’ve sweated it out on the 2.5km walk from Cape Solander Drive.
Getting there from the CBD: Driving is your best bet, but if you enjoy a public transport journey, it is possible to train it to Cronulla and then take a bus up to the start of the road.