Famous Old Sydney Buildings You Should Visit

History lovers will want to make sure they stop in to visit some or all of these historical Sydney Buildings. These heritage buildings help tell the story of our city. In this article, by Nathan Morgan-Hammer, shares 11 sites in Sydney that highlight the best Colonial architecture of the city.

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Important Colonial Buildings in Sydney

Sydney is Australia’s oldest established city, being founded by the First Fleet in 1788, so it should come as no surprise that Sydney has some of the most important historical buildings in Australia. If you’re a traveller of a historic bent, keen to see the sights, here are a few of the oldest buildings in Sydney you simply cannot miss.

Several of these famous Sydney buildings are part of the Museums of History. This organisation also includes some of Sydney’s most beautiful historic houses.

Hyde Park Barracks

Ask about historical buildings, and the odds are that Hyde Park Barracks will be the first to spring to any Sydneysider’s lips. Built between 1811 and 1819, Hyde Park Barracks was designed by the famous convict architect Francis Greenway to house his fellow prisoners of Mother England.

Myall Lake Massacre Hyde Park Barracks
Hyde Park Barracks

In the preceding two centuries, the Barracks served many other purposes, including an asylum, a hospital, a mint, and a courthouse before assuming its current role: a museum of colonial history.

The barracks have been undergoing a major restoration and are due to reopen in early 2020. Make sure you put this on your itinerary, as it will be the place to learn about the early history of Sydney when it reopens.

Address: Queens Square, Macquarie St, Sydney
More: Check their website for updates
Entry fee: Free

Susannah Place

Changing in pace, we come to the Susannah Place Museum. While most of Sydney’s historic buildings have been stately or luxurious, Susannah Place was once home to Sydney’s less prosperous residents.

Sitting in the historic Rocks district on Sydney Harbour, Susannah Place was a row of terraces built in 1844 by Irish immigrants and occupied by an array of working-class Sydneysiders right until its conversion to a museum in the 1990s.

Susannah Place The Rocks
Susannah Place

An example of a way of life now gone from the inner city, Susannah Place survived the slum clearances and waves of gentrification physically intact. Today’s visitors can now walk through the preserved and restored rooms that show Australian working-class life throughout the decades.

Susannah Place is a perfect destination for a budding social historian or anyone curious to know how the majority lived back in the day.

Address: 58–64 Gloucester Street, The Rocks
Hours: Open daily by tour only at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm
More: details are available on the official site – free but bookings required.

Justice and Police Museum

Once a working station for Sydney’s Water Police, this imposing building now serves as a museum for all things law and order. Finished in 1886, what is now the Justice and Police Museum has had a long history of state service, passing through various branches of the police and acting for a time as a courthouse.

Justice and Police Museum is one of Sydney's historic sites.
Visiting the Justice and Police Museum with one of my greeter guests.

Featuring an extensive collection of artifacts including mugshots, forensic equipment and antique firearms, the Museum offers visitors a gateway to a harsher past. And to those of us of a more hands-on bent, the Museum features a restored courtroom, charge room and cells, where visitors can be walked through the hard and often brutal experience of running afoul of the law in the old days.

Address: Cnr Phillip St &, Albert St, Sydney
Hours: Saturday and Sunday 10am-5pm
Entry fee: FREE Entry for all visitors

Cadman’s Cottage

This little cottage is the second oldest building in Sydney and steeped in maritime history. When it was built, high tide lapped just two metres from the door. Today situated in the middle of Sydney’s historic Rocks district, it’s more than a hundred metres away.

Cadmans Cottage The Rocks Sydney Colonial Building
Cadman Cottage, the second oldest building in Sydney

Thought to have been built by the convict architect Francis Greenway, Cadman’s Cottage has served as the quarters of the harbour’s Coxswain, the headquarters of Sydney’s Water Police, a sailor’s home, and finally a museum, a role it served from 1970 until it’s closure about a decade ago.

These days it’s under management by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. They offer free guided tours of the cottage in the morning on the first and third Sundays of each month. At other times, it is closed to help preserve it.

Address: 110 George St, The Rocks
More: Access hours are limited to tours. Please check the website for details.
Entry fee: no entry is usually allowed unless on a tour.

Government House

Government House, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the home of the Governor of NSW, an unelected vice-regal position that is largely (although not entirely) ceremonial. Apart from two breaks, it has served this purpose since 1845, bearing witness to a vast swathe of Sydney’s colonial and post-federation statesmanship.

Government House Sydney
Government House is free to visit with the gardens open daily.

Although it remains the residence of the current governor, retired judge Margaret Beazley, the house and its gardens are also open to the public. You can explore this brilliant Gothic Revival building, filled with period furniture, portraits, and memorabilia in guided tours that take place every 30 minutes on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Where: Macquarie St, Sydney (inside the Botanic Gardens)
Hours: The Gardens are open daily from 10:00am to 4:00pm. Tours held Friday, to Sunday, 10:30am – 3:00pm
More details: Check their website for notice of special events that change the access hours.
Entry fee: Free entry and free tours. ID required to join a tour

Elizabeth Bay House

Elizabeth Bay House was once dubbed “the finest in the colony”, and when you arrive, you’ll quickly see why. Built by colonial secretary Alexander Macleay in the style of the Greek Revival, the house and its accompanying grotto took seven years to build and almost bankrupted the Macleay family in the process.

historic Elizabeth Bay House
Elizabeth Bay House is one of the best examples of Historic Houses in NSW

By the mid-20thth century, the house had become dilapidated and disheveled, prompting one of Australia’s first heritage restoration projects. The results speak for themselves and visitors to the Elizabeth Bay House today are greeted by a vision of splendor from another time, arranged in a way that Macleay for all his pains would have loved to see.

Elizabeth Bay House view
The Drawing room at Elizabeth Bay House

Address: 7 Onslow Avenue, Elizabeth Bay,
Hours: Open on Sundays from 10am to 4pm
More: Visit the Elizabeth Bay House official site for more details on the building’s history.
Entry fee: FREE Entry for all visitors

If you like exploring historic houses, you might like to visit Vaucluse House in Sydney’s eastern suburbs as well.

Related: Check out our guide to Exploring the delights of Elizabeth Bay and Potts Point while you are there.

Custom’s House

Opened in 1845, the gorgeous Victorian Georgian Custom’s House down at Circular Quay was one of the first stops for arrivals in Sydney for many years and on of the important buildings in Australia The officials operating out of Custom’s House were responsible for taking care of imports and exports, controlling immigration (including enforcing the infamous White Australia Policy), and keeping out illegal and illicit content such as drugs and pornography.

Customs House Sydney Model
Customs House

This work changed and evolved over Australian history, with Custom’s House bearing witness to it at, until 1990.

The main drawcards these days are:

  • The Sydney City Model – a scale model that shows 10 square kilometres of inner Sydney. It’s a great way to get some perspective on what you have already seen and what is waiting to be discovered.
  • Sydney City Library – Need to use a computer, or read a newspaper from home? Find a quiet place to work? Located on levels 1 and 2, this is a perfect spot for some time out at Circular Quay.
  • Cafe Sydney – this rooftop bar and restaurant offering fine dining with a dress circle view.

Where: 31 Alfred St, Sydney
When: 8am -Midnight (Mon-Sat) 9am-5pm Sundays
More: Details of current exhibitions can be found on their website.
Entry fee: free

Queen Victoria Building

While not colonial, The Queen Victoria Building is one of the most prominent architectural sites in Sydney’s CBD and one too beautiful to leave out. Completed in 1898, it was designed as a marketplace, a purpose that despite some hiatus and extensive restoration, it still serves.

The QVB of today is an upmarket multi-storey shopping centre like many others across the city, except for its gorgeous Romanesque exterior and interior. These days, it’s among the most famous buildings in Australia.

QVB staircase
One of the beautiful staircases at the QVB

A key feature of the building is two gorgeous clocks hanging from the ceiling. The Royal Clock that is at the Southern end of the building comes to life on the hour and a half-hour between 9 am and 9 pm with a performance of trumpeters and the reveal of 6 scenes from English history. The second clock on the opposite end of the building, The Great Australian Clock, features key times in Australian indigenous and colonial history.

The Great Australian Clock in the icnoic Queen Victoria Building
The Great Australian Clock

The Queen Victoria Building is a great place to indulge in a few of life’s luxuries or purchase a souvenir for a particularly lucky loved one. Don’t miss Haigh’s chocolate

Where: 455 George St, Sydney 
When: 9am-6pm Mon-Sat, Thursdays 9pm and Sundays 11am-5pm
More: Details of shops & events held at the QVB can be found on their website.

St Mary’s Cathedral

Let’s end on a spiritual note with one of Australia’s largest (or rather the longest) Catholic cathedrals. Founded as a little chapel in 1821, St Mary’s has been rebuilt and added to over Australia’s history to the point that it’s now considered a minor basilica.

Hyde Park St Marys Cathedral
St Mary’s Cathedral from Hyde Park

Dubbed the home of Sydney’s Catholic community, St Mary’s is constructed in a breathtaking English Gothic style and its interior is filled with treasures and devotional objects lit up by stained glass windows and completed with a magnificent pipe organ.

With regular mass times and free guided tours, St Mary’s Cathedral is a must-see destination for believers and non-believers alike.

Where: St Marys Rd, Sydney 
When: Mon-Fri 6:30am – 6.30pm Sat 8.30am – 7.00pm, Sun 6:30am – 7.00pm
More: Details of mass times and tours on their website.
Entry fee: Free – Guided tours are available after the 10:30am mass on Sundays.

Elizabeth Farm – Parramatta

This homestead in Rosehill has the honour of being the oldest colonial building standing in Australia. Built in 1793 by the famous John Macarthur as the family’s fortunes rose and they became more comfortable, Elizabeth Farm evolved from a farmer’s cottage to the colonial-era bungalow you see today.

Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta
Elizabeth Farm is the oldest house in Australia credit: Creative Commons by Sardaka

Marketed as a living museum, visitors to Elizabeth Farm can be guided into the very rooms used to plot the coup against Governor Bligh, and take tea where John’s wife, the force that was Elizabeth Macarthur, once sat.

Where: 70 Alice Street, Rosehill
When: Friday and Saturday at 10am-4pm. Closed Good Friday and Christmas Day
More: Details of mass times and tours on their website.
Entry fee: Free

The Rouse Hill Estate

The Rouse Hill Estate is a property that is laden with history. Built by early colonist and public servant Richard Rouse in 1819, the house at Rouse Hill and its sprawling grounds includes not only this Georgian mansion but the site of the failed 1804 convict uprising at Vinegar Hill.

Since then, six generations have lived on the property before they converted it into a museum in the 1990s and the interior of the house preserves a hodgepodge of decor that runs across two centuries. Take a guided tour through this part of Australian history on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Where: 356 Annangrove Road, Rouse Hill,
When: Second Sunday of each month from 10am–4pm. Closed Christmas Day.
More: Details of mass times and tours on their website.
Entry fee: Free

Sydney Open

Locals or anyone visiting in early November will want to put Sydney Open on their calendars. On Saturday 7 November and Sunday 8 November, the festival celebrates many of the city’s most impressive buildings with tours and behind the scenes tours including access to usually private areas.

Famous Sydney Buildings Walking Map

Using our map you can discover these Sydney historical sites in order for an easy walk or check them out when your travels bring you nearby.

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About the Author
Nathan Morgan-Hammer is a 26-year-old writer currently living in Newcastle, just north of Sydney. Between reading history, socialising with friends and exploring the great outdoors, he likes to write articles that help people better understand the world they live in.

1 thought on “Famous Old Sydney Buildings You Should Visit”

  1. I’m a huge history nut, so this post is perfect for me! That clock is quite something and it’s crazy that Cadman’s Cottage was at one time so close to the water and so far away now! Saving for when I go as touring the historic places is something I’d really enjoy.

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