The Best Ways to Explore Sydney Harbour

Sydney Harbour Pylon lookout view

There are quite a few ways to explore Sydney Harbour and today I am going to share my favourites from kayaking tours that take in the harbours little coves to sailing in tall ships like the First Fleet, and thrilling jet boat rides for adrenaline junkies.

Considered by almost everyone as the most beautiful Harbour in the world spending a few hours out on the water in Sydney is at the top of the to-do list for visitors. Most commonly people think they need to take one of the standard harbour cruises highlighted in their guidebooks without really knowing what else is available. Sure these cruises are ok, some of them are great, but there are quite a few other ways to explore Sydney Harbour so let’s go check them out.

Updated 17/8/18

1. Take a Ride on a Sydney Harbour Ferry

By far the cheapest and easiest way to get out on the harbour. You will need an Opal card, but if you plan your time carefully, your ferry rides could be half price or even free if you reach your daily travel cap. On Sundays unlimited travel on all public transport for just $2.60.  I have written a detailed guide to my five favourite ferry rides here.

Sydney Ferry Fishburn Opera House
I think the best trips for visitors are:

  • Manly Ferry – The iconic harbour ride, a 30 minute trip past the heads to beautiful Manly – also the beginning of the Manly to Spit Bridge walk.
  • The Cross-Harbour Ferry – From Pyrmont to Watson’s Bay via Circular Quay, this harbour trip travels under the Harbour Bridge and past the homes of the rich and famous to  Watson’s Bay.  Have lunch at the famous Doyles Seafood restaurant (or wharf take away) and another great walk out to South Head and the Hornby Lighthouse.
  • Parramatta Rivercat – a 55 min ride that heads under the Harbour Bridge and up the Parramatta River to Parramatta, site of Sydney’s second settlement and worth a visit on an extended trip to Sydney.
  • Taronga Zoo – if you are short of time in Sydney this covers two bases, the zoo and some time on the harbour

You may also like to check out my views on which is better a  Sydney Harbour Cruise or a public ferry

2. Jet Boat Tours of Sydney Harbour – If you feel the need for speed

If thrills and spills are more, your thing a jet boat ride might be just right for you. The jet boat ride covers the main attractions in the harbour but at a mighty pace so are more about the journey rather than a sightseeing trip.

Sydney Harbour Thunder Jet

That said they were great fun and a good idea if travelling with teens. Be warned you will get wet.

 A few tips
  • If you want to get wet sit at the back of the boat
  • If you want to be scared, sit at the front!
  • Rides are between 30-60 minutes long

I cannot recommend one of these over the other as I have not been on them all.. but I have heard really good things about Thunder Jet and who doesn’t love a purple raincoat!

3. Tall Ship Sailing on Sydney Harbour

Possibly the most romantic way to see the harbour if you don’t suffer sea-sickness that is 😉

Sydney Harbour Tour on a tallship

There are two main operators on Sydney Harbour

James Craig – If you want to spend a whole day at sea this is probably the boat for you. Built in 1874 this beautiful old ship takes 200 on the harbour or 90 passengers if they go out to sea. You can book full days sail a couple of weekends each month (but you need to book in advance).

Sydney Harbour Tallships operates the Southen Swan and the  Soren Larsen. They offer a variety of cruises with most running for 2 hours which is probably long enough for the average “sailor”. My pick of their journeys would be the Twilight BBQ cruise, all you can eat buffet, champagne and a Sydney sunset!

I did the sunset cruise with Sydney Harbour Tallships on the Southern Swan that included drinks and finger food and some fun sing-along time.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was a lovely way to spend 2 hours enjoying the harbour. I would highly recommend it.

4. Kayaking on Sydney Harbour – for the more adventurous traveller

If you are an outdoors type, you might like to try kayaking on the harbour. Some operators offer trips suited to those who have little or no experience, but you do need a reasonable level of fitness. You can also just hire a kayak and take off on your own if you know what you are doing with a paddle 🙂

  Explore Sydney Harbour by Kayak Tour


For beginners, I would recommend Sydney Harbour Kayak Tours. Tours leave from the Andrew Boy Charlton Pool near the Botanic Gardens. After some instruction, you paddle around the front of the gardens and past the Opera House for a perfect photo op. The pool has great facilities for changing when you get back.

For more experienced or the super fit there are also tours that will take you under the bridge, but I would not suggest these for the faint-hearted. Ferries use this part of the harbour a lot, and it can get a bit scary. Check out this eco-tour that leaves from Pittwater on the Northern Beaches.

Kayak Hire

If you are more experienced, you might like to hire a kayak and head off alone. The best places for hiring them are Balmoral, Rose Bay or Manly depending on which part of the harbour you would like to explore. You can also take a self-guided Kayak tour of Middle Harbour in a double Kayak

5. Hop On Hop Off Boats

Operating just like HOHO bus services these boats are a good choice if you want to visit several sites in one day.  They are more expensive than the public ferries, but some of them stop at a couple of places that the ferries don’t visit including Fort Denison and Shark Island, Rose Bay and Q Station.

With any of these hop on hop off services, I recommend you study the timetable and plan your stops according to the schedule. If not you could find yourself stuck somewhere for much longer than you would like.

Need more help deciding which Sydney Harbour tour is best for you? Join our Sydney Expert Facebook Group where you can ask questions, stay up to date with what’s happening in Sydney and meet a bunch of friendly locals just waiting to share their advice!



    • I just read your review Lyn and it looks great. The photos really show all the attractions you can see along the way. I have linked to it in the post above so anyone considering the cruise can check it out. Paula

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