Sydney's love affair with the crushed sapphire liquid expanse of the harbour dates back 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, more than 14 million people cross Sydney Harbour by ferry every year. The green-and-yellow vessels chugg out from the main hub of Circular Quay to head west up the Parramatta River, voyage north to Manly or east to Watsons Bay. All up, there are 32 ferries connecting Sydneysiders with 29 wharves across 37km of harbour, as well as long-running chuggers that ferry folk across the seas further south. They're a cheap alternative to organised tours, offering spectacular views and access to Sydney's picturesque harbour islands and to locations with stunning lighthouses.
In most cases, to glide along the water you'll need the all-purpose public transport Opal card, or a contactless bank card for tap-and-go payments. Looking for more fun once the skipper cries land ho? Check out these unmissable attractions around the city.
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Sydney's seven prettiest ferry trips
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 it was turned into a prison to house convicts from Norfolk Island. Later incarnations as an industrial school for girls, a naval training ship for boys and a repair and building dock for the Royal Navy eventually gave way to it being opened to the public in 2007. Since then, it's earned a name hosting New Year's Eve celebrations and the Biennale of Sydney, as well as overnight camp-stays and guided historical walking tours.
Cockatoo Island ferries depart from Circular Quay, Mon-Fri 6.15am-11.45pm; Sat 6.45am-11.45pm; Sun 8.45am-8.45pm. Timetables and info: 131 500, Transport for NSW. Adult $6.12-$7.65; concession $3.06-$3.82.
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. Visit the IMAX Theatre, Sealife Sydney Aquarium, Madame Tussauds, the Chinese Garden of Friendship 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 ferries run on the Cross Harbour ferries loop departing from Pyrmont Bay, Mon-Fri 6.45am-11.42pm; Sat, Sun 7.53am-11.42pm. Timetables and info: 131 500, Transport for NSW. Adult $6.12-$7.65; concession $3.06-$3.82.
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 voyage is a unique thrill – the soothing chugg 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, Mon-Fri 5.30-12.20am; Sat, Sun 6.20-12.20am. Timetables and info: 131 500, Transport for NSW. Adult $6.12-$7.65; concession $3.06-$3.82.
While a few scenic cruises chugg out of Cronulla Wharf, the fleet’s star is the hourly ferry to Bundeena. The adorable green, yellow and white vessel dedicated to the route, the Curranulla, has been powering across Port Hacking to the Royal National Park since 1939, making it the longest operating ferry in Australia. As such, you won’t find any fancy Opal systems or even EFTPOS facilities on these rides, and will need to secure your seat with cold hard cash. What you will get is a gorgeous 20-minute ride along Sydney’s most southerly ferry route, and a gateway to hiking, swimming, surfing and adventure in the Royal National Park.
Travel between Cronulla Wharf and Bundeena Wharf Mon-Fri 5.30am-7.30pm; Sat, Sun 8.30am-7pm (Sep-May) & 8.30am-6pm (Jun-Aug). Timetables and info: 02 9523 2990, Cronulla and National Park Ferry Cruises. Adult $6.80; concession $3.40.
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) 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).
Ferries to Mosman depart from Circular Quay, Mon-Fri 6.48am-6.45pm; Sat, Sun 9am-6.50pm. Timetables and info: 131 500, Transport for NSW. Adult $6.12-$7.65; concession $3.06-$3.82.
Sydney’s greater west is one of the fastest growing areas in 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 all the way to the pretty end of Parramatta.
Parramatta River ferries depart Circular Quay, Mon-Fri 6.47am-11.37pm; Sat, Sun 7.07am-11.37pm. Timetables and info: 131 500, Transport for NSW. Adult $6.12-$7.65; concession $3.06-$3.82.
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. 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 cafés and restaurants, a thriving beer garden in the Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel and a series of charming coastal walks around the cliffs to keep you occupied.
Watsons Bay ferries run on the Cross Harbour ferries loop departing from Pyrmont Bay, Mon-Fri 6.45am-11.42pm; Sat , Sun 7.53am-11.42pm. Timetables and info: 131 500, Transport for NSW. Adult $6.12-$7.65; concession $3.06-$3.82.