Watsons Bay Walk

Watsons Bay canon

This Watsons Bay walk is not to be missed. Beginning at Dover Heights just north of Bondi Beach and finishing at the beautiful Watson’s Bay our itinerary combines the Federation Cliff walk with the South Head Heritage loop.  These two walks reward you with cliff top views over the Pacific Ocean to the right and Sydney Harbour to the left. When you reach the end Fish and chips and a cold beer await! 

Exploring Watsons Bay on Foot – The Federation Cliff Walk and South Head Heritage Loop.

Today we are combining two great walks into one fabulous day out. The Federation Cliff walk, also known as the Waverley Cliff Walk, and the easy South Head Heritage loop out to Hornby Lighthouse on South Head. If you only had one day to explore Sydney, this would not be a bad choice.

Over the 7km of tracks, the walks combine cliff top views of the Pacific Ocean with stunning harbour vistas. You should be able to complete the trail in about 2-3 hours depending on how long you stop. It is relatively easy and suitable for most people, with some steps and mild inclines but it is not a challenging walk.

If this will be your first time using Sydney’s public transport you might like to read our Opal travel guide to understand the cheapest way to make this trip.

So what are you waiting for – let’s begin!

Federation Cliff Walk Dover Heights

The walk is a result of government funding to mark Australia’s centenary of federation. While some of the track follows clear footpaths and boardwalks, at times it seems to stop dead at a fence or someone’s garden. When this happens just head up the nearest street, around the obstacle and then back down to the water. It is impossible to get lost. Google maps can also direct you should you need reassurance.

Where to begin the walk?

While you can begin at Watson’s Bay or Dover Heights, I prefer to start at Dover Heights for two reasons; one, I like to finish the walk with some harbourside refreshments and a ferry ride home. Two, I don’t like walking up all the wooden stairs at the Dover Heights end of the walk and would much rather walk down them lol.

These instructions will assume you share my dislike for ending a walk by going upstairs 😉

Federation Cliff walk wooden stairs
Federation Cliff Walk stairs at the beginning of the walk.

You can technically start anywhere you like north of Bondi Beach, but the official starting point is at Dover Heights. I usually catch the bus to Lancaster Street or park near Rodney Reserve and send Mr Expert back for the car when we are done 😉

Dover Heights to Diamond Bay Reserve

Rodney Reserve – The reserve is home to a plaque commemorating the first radio telescope installed in the 1950s and a little before the spot where we began our walk. If this is of interest, you can get off the bus here. There are two buses to choose from, the 323 from Edgecliff Station or the 380 from Bondi

We stop to take in the view at Dudley Page Reserve before heading down Lancaster Road to start our walk. The wooden boardwalk begins here.

start the walk at this white picket fence

You continue through a grassy reserve until you reach a dead end. Here you head back up onto the street and follow Ray Street until its end, and the track begins again to the right of a large apartment building in the picture below.

Designed and built in 1963 by architect Harry Seidler

A 1 bedroom apartment here will sell for more than 1.2 million dollars. There are currently plans in to add two more penthouse stories to this building and generally give it a spruce up.

From here it’s a short walk around to Diamond Bay Reserve.

Diamond Bay Reserve

Until becoming Insta famous in recent years, Diamond Bay reserve was a hidden local gem and rarely attracted visitors. Even today you are lucky to find more than a dozen people walking here unless of course, you hit a tour bus, but mostly you will have space to yourself mid-week. You often see rock climbers and fishermen here on weekends, and it’s an excellent spot for whale watching in season.

An Instagrammers paradise with dramatic cliffs, old ruined gate and crumbling staircases.

A little pocket of rainforest, known as Rosa Gully appears just before you leave Diamond Bay. This is a favourite rock climbing spot suitable for experienced climbers only.

Sielder building Vaucluse
Looking back at the Seilder designed apartment building 

Macquarie Lighthouse

This fully operational lighthouse stands 26-metre high and is the first and oldest still in use in the country.  The original building (1818) was designed by famous convict architect Frances Greenway and earnt him his ticket of leave to begin life as a free man of NSW.  Sadly it was built with poor quality sandstone and while Greenway had warned the materials were substandard building went ahead anyway. As he predicted the lighthouse suffered damaged rather quickly and was completely rebuilt in 1883.

Macquarie Lighthouse – the original Greenway building, was restored in the 1880s.

The new building, a replica of the original was designed by James Barnet who made sure it was strong enough to pass the test of time. Barnet was responsible for many beautiful buildings in Sydney. The first lighthouse master was Robert Watson for whom the area is now named.

Tours are offered a couple of times a year and include walking 100 stairs to the top of the lighthouse.

Gap Park and The Gap

Looking from Watsons Bay and the Gap to the City
The view from the Gap looking back to the city.

As the track heads down to Watsons Bay you are rewarded with views that span from Mosman to Manly opening up right in front of you. Coupled with the harbour to your left and the Pacific Ocean to the right.

THe Gap Lookout looking south Watsons Bay
The Gap looking south back to the track you have come along.

The two lighthouses in Watsons Bay highlight the danger the sea here posed to early visitors. In 1857 the Dunbar was wrecked off the cliffs below the Gap killing 121 and leaving a sole survivor, James Johnson, a crewman who was rescued from the rocks 36 hours later. Divers finally located the wreck in 1955, and you will find the anchor of the ship sits attached to the cliff near the main lookout

The ship’s bible was washed up on Forty Baskets Beach on the other side of the harbour and can be found in St Stephens church in Camperdown.

A few months after this terrible accident a second ship, The Catherine Adamson was wrecked nearby resulting in another 21 deaths. This was enough to get fast action on the lighthouse building.

From the 1930s The Gap became known as a place of misadventure, the rocky cliffs drawing the foolhardy and the depressed. As early as 1942 a police cliff rescue unit was established saving over 70 people a year.

Watsons Bay the Gap
Lifeline has placed phones at the Gap for people who may need assistance

From the 1960s Don Ritchie, a local who lived adjacent to the lookout watched out for people who appeared to need help. He is said to have saved over 160 people and this resulted in the nickname “the angel of the gap” He was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2006 and passed away in 2012. These days the area is under camera surveillance, and help phones manned by Lifeline staff are located in a couple of spots along the cliff.

So what is”the Gap” well the Gap itself is the wavecut shelf formed between two of the sandstone cliffs here.

A section of the rock shelf at The Gap

Watsons Bay

The Cadigal, the first nations people of Sydney Harbour area, referred to the area around Watson’s Bay as Kutti. It was a popular spot for fishing and gathering food and very important to them. They remained here after the arrival of the colonials until a smallpox epidemic hit and the population was severely impacted.

Robertson Park and the wharf

Robertson Park Watsons Bay

The big park surrounding the waterfront is Robertson Park,  there are several Canary Island Palms here that grew from seeds the first fleet had bought from a stopover in Tenerife on the voyage over. With lots of shade, a playground and lovely views of the waterfront it’s a great picnic spot.

If you have some time take a stroll south along the beach to the swimming enclosure and the Vaucluse Yacht Club. If time is not on your side head straight down to the wharf and make your way along the footpath that follows the beach, past the upturned rowboats and Doyles restaurant until you reach the stairs at the end of the beach that leads up to the street. You will need to walk along the street now head to Cove Street and to Pacific Street and Green Point Reserve.

Robertson Park Watsons Bay Sydney
Looking back to the city from Roberston Park. This is lovely at sunset.

 

Camp Cove

One you reach Green Point Reserve you will find Camp Cove Beach to the right. When the First Fleet first landed in Sydney they arrived into Botany Bay but quickly discovered that with no fresh water source this was not an ideal place to build their settlement. Captain Phillip and a small party headed off exploring new locations and sailed through the heads into Sydney Harbour. They camped the night here on the beach at Camp Cove before sailing into Sydney Cove the next morning. This was the first place that the English set foot on Australian soil.

Camp Cove Beach Watsons Bay
Camp Cove is a great snorkelling spot for kids.

You can read more about this history of the area, including it’s importance to the Cadigal people on the Dictionary of Sydney listing for Camp Cove. At the southern end of the beach is a marble monument reading “On this beach, Governor Phillip first landed in Port Jackson Jan 21 1788”. It’s easy to walk right by this rather unassuming structure, but you will find it to the right of the toilet block.

Sydney Harbour National Park

At the northern end of Camp Cove Beach is a set of wooden stairs that will lead you to the entry of Sydney Harbour National Park and the South Head Heritage Loop. The first highlight is the historic canon.

Watson’s Bay Canon

the canon at watsons bay sydney australia
The canon is poised ready to attach Sydney…. oops, it originally faced out to sea. 

A favourite photo spot is this cannon that points back towards the city skyline and a great view over Camp Cove Beach. Previously located near Hornby Lighthouse. It was bought to the colony from England in 1872 and placed at South Head in the 1890s.

The path along the road was made of cobblestone and was built during the late 1870s. It’s a gentle reminder of the history of the area.

Lady Bay Beach

Lady Jane Beach Nude Beach Watsons Bay
This “clothing optional” beach has fantastic views back to the city.

This beach, also known as Lady Jane, was granted legal nude status way back in 1976 during Premier Wran’s government. A few things to note, nudity is only permitted on the beach and water, and while you can don swimwear here, it is sometimes frowned upon by the locals. It’s also good to note that walkers tend to stand at the top and take photos of the beach and its visitors. If you decide to go off climbing around the rocky point, you may discover some frisky beachgoers.

South Head Heritage Walk

This easy 30-minute loop walk is a leisurely stroll with 5-star views. If the long walk from Vaucluse is a bit much for you this is a great alternative. It’s is a mix of boardwalk, concrete and cobblestone with a few sets of stairs.

You will come across the lighthouse keepers cottage as you reach the head, the sole survivor of the Dunbar, crewman James Johnson and his brother went on to become lighthouse keepers here and then later in Newcastle.

Hornby Lighthouse

Just around the tip of South Head is the candy strip lighthouse that marks the entry to Port Jackson. The third to be built in NSW you can learn more about it here.

This candy stipped lighthouse was built in 1858 after the wreck of the Dunbar. 

Once you have finished your visit you need to retrace your steps back to Camp Cove. Take the street to the side of the Kiosk and wander past some of the lovely homes, old and new, in the streets back to the hotel and the wharf.

 

Where to eat in Watsons Bay

With this glorious harbourside location its hardly surprising that seafood is one of the most popular things to eat in Watsons Bay.  The iconic Doyle’s on the Beach restaurant is listed in almost every guidebook. Opening in 1885 this was the very first seafood restaurant in the country.

Doyles / Doyles on the Wharf 

doyles watsons bay

The Doyle family have been selling seafood from this location since 1845. They have 2 outlets… the restaurant and a takeaway and cafe on the wharf. I have not dined in the restaurant, the $45 -$55 mains are a little out of my price range but have eaten take away from the wharf in the park many times where lunch will set you back $20 or so.

Beach Club Watsons Bay Hotel 

Beach Club is one of the most popular spots here. The pub offers bbq food, salads and burgers and has a great beer garden overlooking the harbour. Even if you are not hungry, this is a great spot for a beer or coffee.

Dunbar House 
This 1830’s heritage home is my top pick for a weekend breakfast or lunch.  Once a zoo, the home is now a wedding reception venue and weekend cafe. The menu features all the usual breakfast items done very well.  Lunch includes salads, burgers and sandwiches and a variety of main meals.  The desserts are also very tempting. Check the menus here.

The Tea Garden
This cafe is my top pick for family-friendly venues in the area.  It has a fenced grass area perfect for kids to play on while you eat. The Italian inspired menu features pasta, salads and burgers. They do not have a website, but you will find more information on Zomato

How to get to Watson’s Bay and the Federation Walk

You have a few options for travelling between Watsons’s Bay, Bondi and the City.

  • The 323 bus departs from Edgecliff Station and travels via the backstreets to Watsons Bay.  To begin the walk at Lancaster Road get off the bus at the Dove at Dover cafe.  You can also join this bus at North Bondi.
  • Take a 380 bus from Bondi Junction train station to Dove At Dover on Military Road Dover Heights.
  • Take the F4 ferry from Circular Quay to Watsons Bay, and either do the walk in reverse or take one of these two buses above to the start of the walk.
  • Take the private Captain Cook ferry service – it’s a little more expensive, but there are direct ferries to Manly, Barangaroo and Circular Quay.

Check out all the spots I have discussed above on the map

Where to Stay in Watson’s Bay

Why not stay a little longer? Watson’s Bay is a very pretty spot to spend a few days away from the rush of the city whether you are a local or a visitor. There are a couple of options

Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel

With 31 boutique rooms and suites, many overlooking the harbour, this 4-star property offers beautifully decorated rooms with plenty of food and action right on the doorstep. This is a lovely property, but this is necessarily the best option for a quiet getaway. If you like the idea of heading right upstairs after you finish your dinner and drinks, check out reviews on TripAdvisor and see what you think. Personally, I love the room decor and could happily move in tomorrow.

Airbnb is Watson’s Bay

Shared properties 

If you fancy meeting a local while you are here this first Airbnb is a great choice. Gillian, the homeowner, is a Super host and a lovely person.  Her home is full of interesting art and antiques and a fabulous book collection. Check it out here

Whole houses

If you want to feel like you have escaped the rat race entirely it is hard to go past this property just 1-minute walk from Camp Cove Beach.

For a total splurge or a honeymoon, this house would be ideal

Finally, for large family groups, this property sleeps eight guests in 4 bedrooms.

If you have not used Airbnb before this link may get you up to $54 off your first stay.

Insider tips for visiting Watsons Bay

  • Dogs are not allowed in the National Park, we did see several on the walk around Diamond Head.
  • The last public ferry on weekdays leaves very early, around 4 pm, weekends it is much later nearer to 11 pm.  You can take a private ferry and use your Opal card on this, but it will cost more. Alternatively, take the bus to Edgecliff station and travel three stops back to the city.
  • It is tough to get parking here, particularly on weekends so public transport is the best option.

Want to do more outings like this?  Consider one of these:

Read more about Watsons Bay

My good friend Joanne writes extensively about Sydney Suburbs and has covered Watsons Bay here.

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14 Comments

  1. Your photos are fantastic and have easily captured why a walk around Watsons Bay is a must. The views are just gorgeous especially at the Diamond Bay Reserve. I like that you started your guide with Dover Heights too. I’m not a fan of walking up the stairs too and would probably follow your guide. 😉

  2. This place seems like a perfect place for a morning/evening walk. Some of my relatives live in Sydney. They are calling me since long time to visit them. Maybe I should visit them 🙂

  3. We’ve done quite a lot of walks around Sydney but we’ve never heard of this one! It’s such a great city for coastal walks, we can’t wait to go back so when we do we’ll be looking to do this walk. Love the combination of great views, history and great trails.

  4. Oh, I never knew about Watsons Bay Walk when I went to Sydney. I loved Bondi beach but never knew about this photogenic place. Diamond Bay Reserve is truly an Instagrammable location and climbing up and down from Dover Heights is also a beautiful thing to do here. To avoid parking issues on the weekend, I would opt for public transportation.

  5. This is such an amazing walk! What a great way to spend the day. The lighthouses are beautiful and I love that they’ve put phones in place for emergencies, just in case.

  6. These would probably the best walks along the coast in the world. The views, of course, are dramatic and there is so much history and stories along the way. Would love to do these walks again and again. Fascinated by the Macquarie Lighthouse and also the Gap. The history of the Gap is so tragic and poignant.

  7. This is such a detailed post and your photos are amazing. There seem to be so many things to see here and so much history. I really love lighthouses and would have a lot of fun climbing the Macquarie Lighthouse, especially given its history and the fact that it’s a replica.

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