Uncover 5 fun ways to explore Sydney Harbour
The best way to explore Sydney Harbour is to get out on it! Whether you choose a ferry, a cruise ship, a tall ship or a kayak, there is no better way to experience Sydney than to be on the water. Today I am going to share my favourite ways to have fun on the harbour, from kayaking tours that take you into little hidden coves to sailing on a tall ship like the First Fleet when they settled in Sydney. Some come on… let’s go make some memories!
Sydney Harbour is often described as one of the most breathtaking natural harbours in the world. As the vibrant heart of Australia’s largest city, it is home to iconic landmarks, picturesque islands, and pristine beaches, giving you dozens of ways to explore and enjoy its beauty.
Today we are going to look at it from the water. Whether for you that means sailing on a luxury yacht or riding on a local ferry, there is really no bad way to enjoy this remarkable natural wonder.
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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.
Explore Sydney Harbour on a Ferry
The perfect day out for budget travellers to Sydney.
By far the cheapest and easiest way to get out on the harbour. You can pay using your credit card, digital wallet or buy an Opal card. If you plan your time carefully, your ferry rides could be half price or even free once you reach your daily travel cap.
You may also like to check out my views on which is a better choice: a Sydney Harbour cruise or a public ferry.
On Friday, Saturday and Sundays, unlimited travel on all public transport is just $8.90. To help you make the most of this option, we have written a detailed guide to our favourite Sydney ferry rides.
I think the best ferry routes 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 Watsons Bay Ferry – From Circular Quay to Watson’s Bay, this harbour trip travels 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 take a walk out to South Head and see the Hornby Lighthouse. If you are lucky, you might get to watch a seaplane take off from Rose Bay en route.
- Parramatta Rivercat – a 55 minute 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. It’s also the starting point for the walk to Balmoral beach, one of the most rewarding harbour walks in the city.
Join a Jet Boat Tour of Sydney Harbour
The best choice for adrenalin junkies.
If Speed is your favourite movie, and thrills and spills are more your thing than a slow ferry ride, then a jet boat tour of the harbour might be just right for you.
A jet boat experience covers the major harbour attractions but at a mighty pace, so this is more about the journey rather than a sightseeing trip.
That said, these are 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 can’t recommend one of these over the other as I have not been on them all, but I had a really fun time on Thunder Jet and I chose them the first time because of their raincoats, I mean who doesn’t love a purple raincoat!
Sail on a Tall Ship on Sydney Harbour
Possibly the most romantic way to see the harbour.
A tall ship cruise allows you to get a feel for the experience that the first fleet may have had. These boats are a similar size to those that arrived in Sydney Harbour back in 1788.
It’s incredible to think people spent months on a boat this size in open seas. I am sure I would not have made it! This is a real eye-opener and one of my favourite way to spend a few hours on the harbour.
There are two excellent tall ship operators in Sydney Harbour:
James Craig – Operated by the Sydney Heritage Fleet, 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 passengers 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). Tickets start at $160.
Sydney Harbour Tallships operates the Southern 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”.
If you are on a budget, their afternoon discovery cruise starts at $69. However, my pick of their options is the Wine & Canapes Evening Cruise with finger food, unlimited quality wines, bubbly, juices and soft drinks and a Sydney sunset!
I did the sunset cruise with Sydney Harbour Tall ships 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 highly recommend it.
If you fancy a unique stay in Sydney, you can spend a night sleeping on the harbour in a tall ship!
Kayaking in Sydney Harbour
The best way to see the harbour for active travellers.
If you are an outdoor 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 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.
Guided Kayak Tours of Sydney Harbour
For beginners, I would recommend Oz Paddles, 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 those with decent fitness, there are also tours that will take you under the bridge. Sydney by Kayak has a great sunset tour that is hard to beat for beautiful harbour experiences.
Check out this Eco Treasures tour that leaves from Pittwater on the Northern Beaches for a more relaxing experience.
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.
Hop On Hop Off Cruise
Operating just like HOHO bus services, these boats are a good choice if you want to visit several sites in one day. They can be a little more expensive than the public ferries, but some of them stop at a couple of places that the ferries don’t visit, including Shark Island.
- Captain Cook – 24 or 48 hour hop on hop off pass – 6 stops around the harbour and an app that gives commentary as you ride.
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.
If you like Hop on Hop off services, take a look at our guide to the best way to use your Sydney Hop on Hop off bus.
Frequently asked questions about Sydney Harbour
The harbour covers 55 square km and has 240km of shoreline, giving you plenty to see. You could plan an entire week just exploring its nooks and crannies. Here are some of the most common questions that have come up in our Facebook group.
Can you swim in Sydney Harbour?
Yes, you can swim in Sydney Harbour. There are several Sydney Harbour Beaches. Shark Beach at Nielsen Park is the most popular, Balmoral Beach in Middle Harbour is also a great choice.
There are also designated swimming spots like the new Marrinawi Cove baths at Barangaroo, and Greenwich Baths in the harbour’s west.
What are some less-known spots to explore around Sydney Harbour?
If you want to get off the main trail, try to include some less visited spots around Sydney Harbour on your visit.
- Cockatoo Island (public ferry) – Indigenous and colonial history
- Goat Island (tours) – Indigenous tours
- Clark Island (HOHO ferry) – great for a harbour picnic
- Q Station and North Head (bus or private ferry)
Each of these islands offers a unique view of the city and is great for picnics and walks. You can even camp on Cockatoo Island!
Are there any affordable boat tours of Sydney Harbour?
If you are travelling on a budget, you can ride the ferries on the Friday- Sunday $8.90 all-day ticket. String a few of these together and you can explore much of the harbour.
There are also some affordable boat tours of Sydney Harbour available, including the Captain Cook HOHO ferry for under $40
How can I get the best views of Sydney Harbour?
There are several ways to enjoy the harbours views. Book one of the best harbour view hotels, climb the bridge’s arch or walk across the Harbour Bridge, taking a helicopter tour, or visiting one of the lookout points like Mrs Macquarie’s Chair or the North Head Lookout.
What are the recommended restaurants with waterfront views in Sydney Harbour?
There are dozens of restaurants lining east and west Circular Quay. From the high end experiences at Quay, Bennelong and Aria to more affordable options like James Squire at the International Cruise Terminal building and even the cafe on the rooftop of the MCA.
What is the best time of day to explore Sydney Harbour?
It’s hard to beat a Sydney Harbour sunrise when daylight breaks behind the Opera House. This is a lovely time to photograph the harbour.
An equally great time is as the sun sets to the west of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Head to Opera Bar or book a sunset champagne sail and soak up the view.
What is the history behind the Sydney Harbour Bridge?
The Sydney Harbour Bridge was the first bridge to connect the northern shore of the harbour to the city. Construction began in July 1923 and it took almost a decade to complete, finally opening in 1932.
The design of Sydney Harbour Bridge was based upon New York City’s Hell Gate Bridge.
What are some of the must see harbour events?
Top of the list is NYE of course, but following closely behind is the Vivid Sydney Festival held in May and June each year. Australia Day is another top day on the water with the ferrython, a tall ship race and fireworks to close out the day.
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About the author: Paula Morgan, a born-and-bred Sydney resident, has been sharing this city and its secret spots for over 15 years. She’s not just about the iconic landmarks; she’s all about the hidden alleys adorned with street art, and the joy of discovering a new café or a fabulous restaurant tucked away in a corner you never knew existed and weekends away exploring regional NSW.