The jewel in Sydney’s crown is its harbour – always has been, always will be.
This love affair with the crushed sapphire liquid expanse of the Harbour dates back many, many thousands of years to when the Gadigal people of central Sydney paddled their canoes around the bays, into the coves and across the open seas in search of fish or en route to ceremonial sites or neighbouring settlements.
Today, those journeys of discovery are provided by Sydney Ferries. Indeed, no trip to Sydney would be complete without clambering aboard one of the picture-postcard green-and-yellow ferries that ply their trade much as they have for the past century-and-a-half.
More than 14 million people cross Sydney Harbour by ferry every year, chugging out from the main hub of Circular Quay to head west up the Parramatta River, north on the legendary voyage to Manly or east to Watsons Bay. It’s a well-known fact that when Sydneysiders want to drink and dine in Balmain, shop in Double Bay, sightsee at Taronga Zoo or camp convict-style at Cockatoo Island, a Sydney ferry is the way forward.
All up, there are 28 ferries (from the stately old-schoolers Freshwater, Lady, First Fleet models to the sleek, fast catamaran fleet of RiverCats, HarbourCats and SuperCats) connecting Sydneysiders with 29 wharves across 37km of harbour.
All offer spectacular views and plenty of room on deck to soak up what is arguably the cheapest, coolest and most quintessential local experience of all.
Here are Time Out’s six favourite Sydney Ferries trips…
Sydney's six prettiest ferry trips
If you took advantage of the free ferry during the Biennale you’ll know that Cockatoo Island out-wowed the art (sorry, arts mavens!) it was hosting. Named for the noisy sulphur-crested parrots who squawk their ownership at high-decibels, this is the largest island in Sydney's harbour – 18 hectares in size and set at the intersection of the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers – and was an Aboriginal fishing spot before settlement saw it become a prison built to house convicts from Norfolk Island. Later incarnations as an industrial school for girls and naval training ship for boys (abandoned after ‘unseemly and unscheduled meetings' between the sexes) and a repair and building dock for the Royal Navy (Australia’s first steel warship was built here during WWII), eventually gave way to its being opened to the public in 2007. Since then, Nick Cave has curated a music festival here, Sydney Biennale has made a home of it three times, the Island has opened to overnight camp-stays and guided historical walking tours and all manner of bizarre activation has taken place – all achieved after a glorious and utterly unique ferry trip from Circular Quay. Pack a picnic (and an imagination).
Cockatoo Island Ferries depart from Circular Quay wharves 4 & 5. Mon-Fri 6.15am–11.37pm; Sat, Sun 6.45am-11.37pm. Timetables and info: 131 500, Sydney Ferries. Camping: 02 8969 2111. Camping deals and packages from $89.
If you’re after a bite-sized taste of the beauty of the Sydney ferries experience, the trip to Darling Harbour from Circular Quay lasts about twenty minutes and scoots you under the Harbour Bridge and around the Opera House, often via the gourmet village of Balmain, with its nexus of bars, cafés and restaurants. Your end point of Darling Harbour is full of cool family attractions – the IMAX Theatre, Sydney Aquarium, Wildlife World, Madame Tussauds, Chinese Gardens and Powerhouse Museum, not to mention an assortment of shops in the Harbourside complex and restaurants, bars and cafés at Cockle Bay and King Street Wharf.
Darling Harbour return ferries run Mon–Fri 6.07am–11.31pm; Sat, Sun 8.05am–11.31pm. Timetables and info: 131 500, Sydney Ferries. Adult $6.20; concession $3.10.
For 155 years, the Manly Ferry has been the classic Sydney adventure. Today, stepping aboard one of these noble crafts bound for lunching, walking, shopping or beaching experiences is to know why Manly is “seven miles from Sydney, a thousand miles from care”. And whether you’re a Sydneysider making the trip for the umpteenth time or a visitor from interstate or overseas climbing aboard for the first time, the Manly Ferry voyage is a unique thrill – the soothing chug of the motors, the tranquil churn of the big blue beneath, the thrill of the vistas passing by, the smug serenity in knowing that only in Sydney can such a trip be made.
Manly Ferries depart every half hour from Circular Quay and the 30-minute journey offers sensational views and whale-spotting opportunities for just $15.20/$7.60 return. Timetables and info: 131 500, Sydney Ferries.
Although the first ferry service offered on Sydney Harbour was the Rose Hill Packet (aka “The Lump”) which put-puttered to Parramatta from 1789, the first official (albeit privatised) Sydney Ferries route was that of the North Shore Ferry Company. Today, 21st century Sydneysiders can recreate that historic trip and get up close to Sydney's inner northern suburbs while they do it. Gliding past Cremorne Point, Taronga Zoo, south Mosman, Old Cremorne and finally Mosman Bay, you'll see how the other half live as you gawp open-mouthed at some of the city’s most expensive, sought-after and architecturally impressive harbourside homes (including the prime minister’s residence Kirribilli House).
Mosman Ferries depart Circular Quay Mon-Fri 6.05am-midnight; Sat, Sun 7am-midnight. Timetables and info: 131 500, Sydney Ferries. Adult $6.20; concession $3.10.
Sydney’s greater west is the fastest growing area in all of Australia. And little wonder – Parramatta is a thriving maelstrom of eat streets, art galleries, theatres and band venues, old and new bars and, increasingly, major festivals drawing huge crowds. But when you consider the 23km of noisy, often-congested highway between Parramatta and the CBD there’s really no smarter or sexy a way to get there than via Ferry. Leaving from Circular Quay and zooming through Sydney's backwaters by RiverCat catamaran over a relaxed one-hour journey, you’ll swing by Cockatoo Island, Drummoyne, Bayview Park, Kissing Point, Meadowbank, Sydney Olympic Park (aka Homebush Bay) all the way to the pretty end of Parramatta.
Parramatta Ferries depart Circular Quay Mon–Fri 6.15am–11.37pm; Sat, Sun 8am–9.35pm. Timetables and info: 131 500, Sydney Ferries. Adult $7.60; concession $3.80.
Long lunchers rejoice! The ferry to Watsons Bay is one of the most nourishing Sydney offers, both in terms of the views along the way and the visual and culinary feast awaiting at the end of your journey. Leaving Circular Quay, your ferry will serenely voyage to Garden Island, Darling Point, Double Bay and Rose Bay before arriving at Watsons Bay, named for Robert Watson, of HMS Sirius who was Sydney's harbourmaster in 1811. The fishing village he knew is now one of the most favoured picnic and family fun zones in Sydney, with lots of grass and sand on which to enjoy your fish and chips, a cluster of cool, cheap cafes and restaurants, a thriving beer garden in the Watsons Bay Hotel and a series of charming coastal walks around the cliffs to keep you occupied. Don't miss the Signal Hill Battery (built in 1892 to defend Sydney from off-shore bombardment by pirates and enemies of state) and the cool Hornby Light House and cottages at South Head... but wowsers beware: nearby Lady Bay is a legal nude beach!
Watsons Bay ferries depart Circular Quay Mon–Fri 10.05am–4.10pm: Sat, Sun 8.35am-8.55pm. Timetables and info: 131 500, Sydney Ferries. Adult $6.20; concession $3.10.