Should you book a Sydney Harbour Cruise?
It’s a long-debated topic in Sydney travel forums. Should I take a harbour cruise in Sydney? Which cruises are the best? Is it really just as good to take the ferry? Well, the ferries are great, but there are some fantastic cruises too. Read on to find out which is right for you.
If you are considering a NYE Sydney Harbour cruise, read our tips here before you book.
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Should you take a Sydney Harbour Cruise or ferry?
If you are looking to spend some time out on Sydney Harbour and want to learn a bit of the city’s history, fancy a romantic sail, or would like a luxury experience, then a cruise is most likely going to suit you well.
If you are on a short Sydney layover you spending your short time enjoying the harbour is a great choice.
Lots of locals don’t recommend cruises, especially on the TripAdvisor forums, usually citing the extensive and affordable ferry system as the reason booking a cruise is unnecessary; however, few locals have taken many paid cruises, so they don’t have a lot to compare.
In my work, over the last decade with international visitors, I have taken a bunch of cruises, including almost all the ones offered by the major operators, Captain Cook, Journey Beyond, Majestic, Fantasea, Sydney Harbour Tall ships and Sydney Princess Cruises. Unless you have a tight budget, I think one of these experiences is worth considering.
7 reasons why Sydney Harbour cruises are worth the money
We think that harbour cruises offer the following benefits over public ferries:
- more deck space so better views
- a commentary that explains the sites you are passing and gives some historical background
- they travel at a slower pace allowing you to compose better photos
- they usually cover the same ground a couple of times, giving you a chance to get a really good look at the city
- a ferry ride lasts 30 mins or less but the average cruising time is 1-3 hours
- you can choose between small boats, yachts, large sailing ships and standard ferry style boats
- there is a vast number of options with all sorts of activities included, making your day extra special.
If you are travelling on a tight budget of course, there are some fantastic Sydney ferry routes that will allow you to see much of the harbour.
You can cover similar ground to a standard harbour cruise by taking, say, a Manly ferry and the ferry to Balmain; however, if you want something special, then a harbour cruise might just fit the bill. The key is to know what the boat and trip you are booking includes.
Things to consider before you book your harbour cruise
The first thing I recommend you do is look at the route /map that the cruise will take. Most will cover the eastern side of the harbour from Circular Quay to Rose Bay and over towards the heads and head under the bridge to Lavender Bay and over to Darling Harbour.
Some will go a little further down the western side of the harbour towards the Gladesville Bridge. Others also go right into the little coves and beaches of North and South Head. If you can, try to find one that includes Middle harbour; very few do, but this is an exceptional part of the harbour and worth looking for.
What type of harbour cruises are available in Sydney?
There are so many companies and styles of harbour cruises available it makes choosing one a challenging exercise. I have taken more of these cruises than I can count, and I have been disappointed more than once, so taking some time to choose a good one is worth it.
There are three main types of tours on Sydney Harbour:
The focus is on the harbour’s beauty and history.
- Adrenaline inducing Jetboat rides – Thrills, splashes and some background commentary on Sydney Harbour
- Beaches and Bay tours – small groups of 12 or less, on a 2.5 hour morning or afternoon tour that includes 2 stops
- Hop on Hop off tours with commentary – 1 or 2 day options for exploring the harbour
- Afternoon Tall ship Discover Cruise – A budget priced tall ship sail
You still get the beauty of a regular Sydney Harbour cruise, but the added benefit of food and some drinks to enjoy while you take in the view. Some cruises also offer a little commentary. These cruises are great for a special occasion dinner or a bit of romance!
- Brunch Cruise – Bubbles and pastries out on the harbour
- Tall Ship Lunch cruises – 2 hour cruise with 3 course lunch
- Seated Lunch Cruise – 2.5 hour cruise with 2 course lunch and premium bar package
- Island BBQ Cruise – 4 hour tour with BBQ on Shark Island
- Afternoon Tea Cruise – a 90 minute cruise with a traditional afternoon tea and a glass of bubbles
- Sunset Dinner cruise – 2 hours, 4 courses and a sunset
- 4 hour Dinner Cruises – 2 hour dinner with 4 courses
- Gourmet lunch or dinner cruise – 5 hr cruise with stops at famous Sydney waterfront restaurants
Special Interest Cruises
Spot some whales, take a spin on the dance floor, climb the mast or arrange a private tour around your own interests.
- Whale Watching Cruises – 2 hr cruise with pick-ups in Manly and the city.
- Luxury private tours – 1-6 guests for 1-2 hours of harbour fun 3 hour option also available
If you are considering a whale watching cruise check out our detailed guide to whale watching in Sydney.
Frequently asked questions about cruises on Sydney Harbour
What is the best time of day to take a harbour cruise?
A lunch cruise is lovely, but for photography, the harbour looks its best in the very early morning or late afternoon. The sun sets in the west behind the harbour bridge, often providing a lovely pink or orange tinge to your harbour shots.
What type of boat do you want to be on?
Do you want to be on a large boat, or would you prefer something more intimate? Most of the regular cruises offered by the big companies operate on boats with at least two levels and sometimes even three levels. This gives more opportunity for window seats and good views for all diners. There are also glass-sided boats that allow protection from the weather.
The benefit of the larger boats is they offer a smoother ride for anyone who might not have their sea legs. They are also easier to board for children or the elderly. However smaller boats can sail closer to the shore and even go ashore at small bays and inlets for a bit of adventure.
Is the departure point important?
Most cruises depart from either Circular Quay or Darling Harbour near King Street Wharf. Occasionally they also leave from the small wharf near the Opera House or Campbells Cove in the Rocks. This is usually shown clearly on the booking page of any operator so take note before you head off to join your boat.
Do you need to book your Sydney Harbour cruise in advance?
While not every cruise will book out, it is a good idea to book in advance if you want a particular cruise or a window seat, for example. It is also better to book early for cruises in December and January. Special event cruises like Christmas lunch, NYE, Vivid and Mothers Day can book out weeks in advance.
Should you book a meal while you cruise?
If you would like to dine while you explore the harbour, then there are plenty of options to choose between, including lunch, afternoon tea or dinner cruises. Both a la carte and buffet options are available.
- Generally, the price is a pretty good idea of the quality. If you are paying less than $60, it’s likely to be a buffet with things like chicken, basic salads and bread with fruit and cake for dessert.
- Higher priced meals offer more attention to detail, a more significant range of options, and some offer rather special seafood buffets. I have found lots of the standard buffets pretty uninspired and prefer to choose cruises that are offering something special if I decide on a lunch or dinner cruise.
So which do you choose – well, I have spent hours going over all the options, and these are my recommendations.
The Best Sydney Sightseeing Harbour Cruises
Sightseeing cruises usually run for 90-120 minutes and include some commentary about the harbour, it’s history and in the case of the tall ships the vessel itself.
Sydney Harbour Tall Ships
Being out on the harbour on a tall ship is a fantastic feeling. Of all the cruises I have done, this is my number one way to experience Sydney harbour.
Sydney Harbour Tall Ships have two vessels that offer a variety of lunch, dinner and afternoon cruises. Being on these boats, you can easily imagine yourself arriving with the first fleet convicts. I wonder how the hell they fit so many people in such small ships? Imagining several months confined to this space, it must have been hell!
There are two tall ships, the Søren Larsen and the Southern Swan, which was the vessel used in the First Fleet Re-Enactment. Experiencing the harbour under sail is very special indeed, and Sydney Harbour Tallships have many options. I have taken both their afternoon sunset cruise with drinks package and the evening dinner and enjoyed them both. The staff are good fun, and we had a really great singalong on our sunset cruise.
Afternoon Tall Ship Sailing
Sydney Harbour Tallships also offer an afternoon cruise that features stories on the history of Sydney Harbour and tall ships.
This afternoon cruise offers
- Finger food and light refreshments
- the chance to try your hand at helping sail the ship
- 90 minutes cruising in the lovely afternoon light on Sydney Harbour
- the route includes all the key harbour attractions
This is a really well priced option and will leave you with very special memories of Sydney.
I have done this cruise three times and loved it each time. check full details here
Sydney Harbour small group tour with beach visits
This small-group tour takes in all the famous harbour sites and gives you a chance to get your feet wet with 30-minute stops at three beaches around North and South Head; the Quarantine Station, Watsons Bay and Store Beach at Manly.
These are some of my favourite places in the harbour, and the small boat allows you to get into the Harbour’s nooks and crannies.
- Small group – maximum 16 guests
- Morning tea
- Wheelchair accessible cruise but beach visits are via wading in water so may not be suitable
- Departs from Darling Harbour – Convention Wharf
The Best Sydney Harbour Cruises for Foodies
If the food on offer is an integral part of the cruise experience for you, I suggest you look at the next couple of options. I would be more than delighted to spend a few hours on any (or all) of these experiences. I find the food on many cruises a bit of an afterthought, but I have been called fussy more than once 😉
Progressive Long Lunch Cruise
This cruise offers Sydney at its finest and is perfect for anyone wanting an indulgent day on the water. This 5-hour cruise takes in all the very best parts of Sydney Harbour, including the beautiful hidden gem of Middle harbour – not seen on regular ferry routes or mainstream cruises. It’s perfect for a proposal or a special occasion.
You also stop at two of Sydney’s finest harbourside restaurants along the way before settling down in Middle Harbour for dessert and some relaxation.
- Five-hour cruise
- Visit Balmoral, Watson’s bay, Middle Head, Double Bay and Point Piper
- Entrée at Doyles
- Main meal at Balmoral Dining Room
- Dessert on the boat as you explore Middle Harbour
- After you have finished dining you can swim, kayak or fish off the boat or relax in the sun on the deck.
If you have room in your budget for this, you will most certainly not be disappointed!
Sydney Harbour Captain Cook 2 hour Dinner Cruise
This 2-hour cruise on Captain Cook MV Sydney 2000. The food is of a higher standard than offered on the other Captain Cook dinner cruises, and the service is top-notch.
- 4 course à la carte dining experience
- Live entertainment
- Priority boarding
- Private rooms available for group bookings
After your meal, you can access the roof and take in the city skyline. We recently took this cruise as full paying passengers and really enjoyed the experience.
The Best Sunset and Evening Dinner Cruises
Being on the harbour in the late afternoon and early evening is a joy. Watching the light change behind the Opera House and the Bridge is special. On a cruise, you have time to really enjoy the view and snap away until you get the perfect shot.
The Captain Cook sunset dinner cruise or the Sydney Harbour tall ships afternoon discovery cruise are my top picks
Alternative ways to explore Sydney Harbour
If you like a bit more adventure on your holiday, you might want to consider one of these:
- Kayak tour or rent your own
- Jumping in a water taxi and exploring the hidden parts of the harbour in just 30 minutes.
- Charter a cruiser or yacht all to yourself if privacy is important
- Take a Sydney ferry
So we say splurge a little on a harbour experience and then fill the rest of your trip with things from our list of cheap things to do in Sydney!
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.