Should you book a Sydney Harbour Cruise?

Sydney Harbour Cruise on a tall ship

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.

Should you take a Sydney Harbour Cruise or a ride on a Sydney Harbour Ferry?

If you are looking to spend some time out on the Harbour and want to learn a little bit about the history of the city, fancy a romantic sail, or would like a luxury experience, then a cruise is most likely going to suit you well.

Lots of locals don’t recommend cruises, especially on the Tripadvisor forums, usually citing the extensive and affordable ferry system as the reason why booking a cruise is not necessary however not many locals have taken a whole lot of paid cruises, so they don’t have a lot to compare.

In my work, over the last decade with international students, I have taken a whole bunch of cruises including several with the major operators, Captain Cook, Majestic, Sydney Harbour Tallships and Vagabond and unless you have a tight budget, I think they are worth considering.  

7 reasons why harbour cruises are worth the money

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 then, of course, there are some fantastic Sydney ferries route 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 a bit special, then a harbour cruise might just fit the bill. They key is to know what the boat and trip you are booking includes.

Things to consider before you book a harbour cruise

The first thing I recommend you do is to take a 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 also 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 the 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?

There are so many different 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.

Choose between:

  • Sightseeing cruises
  • Lunch cruises
  • Afternoon Tea Cruises
  • Dinner Cruises
  • Cruises with a show (jazz, cabaret, DJs)
  • Tall Ship Cruises
  • Luxury private catamaran tours
  • Water taxi tours
  • Hop on Hop off tours with commentary

Frequently asked questions about Cruises on Sydney Harbour

Decide what time of day you want to be out on the harbour. 

A lunch cruise is lovely, but for photography, the harbour looks her 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? 

Most of the regular cruises offering 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 for really great views for everyone.

Next choice is the size of the boat. Do you want to be on a large boat or would you prefer something more intimate?  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. Smaller boats can sail closer to the shore and even go ashore at small bays and inlets for some 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.   This is usually shown clearly on the booking page of any operator.

Do you need to book 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.

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 seafood buffets that are rather special. 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 Cruise options

Sightseeing cruises usually run for 90 minutes and are most likely to be in the morning or early afternoon.

Sydney Harbour TallShip

Sydney Harbour Tall Ships

Being out on the harbour on a tall ship is a fantastic feeling. Of all the cruises I have done I would say this is my number one way to experience the harbour. Two operators run tall ship cruises, the James Craig and Sydney Harbour Tall Ships. Being on these boats You can imagine yourself arriving with the first fleet convicts. Wonder how the hell they all fit in such small ships?  Imagining several months confined to this space, it must have been hell.

Sydney Harbour Tall ships operate two boats, the Søren Larsen and the Southern Swan, the vessel used in the  First Fleet Re-Enactment.  Experiencing the harbour under sail is very special indeed, and Sydney Harbour Tallships have a bunch of options. I have taken both their afternoon sunset cruise with drinks package and also 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 instead of the pirate fun 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

I have done this cruise three times and loved it each time. You can check full details here 

Sydney Harbour Pirate Cruise

If you are travelling with kids, this new 1.5-hour theatrical pirate-theme cruise sounds perfect. Described as an interactive experience guest become an essential part of the story but if you prefer to sit back and let the kids join in alone, you are more than welcome.

Includes:

  • a one and a half hour cruise on a 1850s style tall ship
  • staff dressed as pirates and guests are encouraged to dress up too if they wish
  • A chance to help sail the ship – hoist the sails, climb the mast (extra cost) and perhaps try your hand at steering the boat
  • Lots of photo opportunities with the pirates

Find out more details including prices and decide if this cruise is right for your family. If you have kids 5-12  I think it just might be!

Historic 5-Hour Sailing Ship Experience with Afternoon Tea

Sydney Harbour Cruise James Craig Tall Ship

A fantastic day out for history buffs.  The James Craig has been sailing since 1874. This is the only tall ship that travels out of the heads into the open ocean!

  • Going outside Sydney Heads allows you to see the sheer cliffs that shelter the harbour
  • The opportunity to volunteer help crew the ship
  • Afternoon tea
  • Live entertainment

This cruise is not suitable for children under 12 years. Check out the photos of the ship, do you have the stomach for the high seas?

Sydney Harbour small group tour with beach visits

This small group tour takes in all the famous harbour sites and also 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 – max 16
  • Morning tea
  • Wheelchair accessible cruise but beach visits are via wading in water so may not be suitable
  • Departs from Darling Harbour – Convention Wharf

Check out tour photos, price and reviews and see if this is for you.

Captain Cook Sydney Harbour Story Cruise

Captain Cook Cruises are one of the most well-known brands operating on the harbour. They have a large fleet of boats and a considerable number of cruise options. Despite this, their cruises do regularly get booked out, and I recommend booking at least a few days in advance if possible. This Harbour Story Cruise is offered at both morning and afternoon and has a basic and a premium offering, the main difference being if alcohol is included. I have to be honest; I find this a little sedate although the commentary is good. I would say this cruise is well suited to anyone who wants to sit back and relax.

The Harbour Story Cruise includes:

  • 2 hours of harbour cruising
  • Two departures per day – 10 am and 2 pm
  • A commentary that contains stories about the harbour both past and present.
  • Unlimited self-serve tea, coffee and biscuits
  • Very spacious decks and good viewing from indoors as well that is perfect for cold weather
  • A bar for purchasing alcoholic drinks if required

You can check prices and book tickets here

The Best Sydney Harbour Cruises for Foodies

If the food on offer is an integral part of the cruise experience for you, then I suggest you take a 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

doyles watsons bay

This cruise offers Sydney at its finest and is perfect for anyone wanting a really 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 nor the mainstream cruises. You also stop at 2 of Sydney’s finest harbourside restaurants along the way before settling down in Middle Harbour for dessert and some relaxation.

  • Five hr 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 deck.

If you have room in your budget for, this, you will most certainly not be disappointed!  If you are looking for a special occasion cruise, this is it!

Sydney Fish Markets Lunch, Boat Cruise and Shark Island visit

This small group tour combines time on the water with a visit the famous Sydney Fish Market where you will choose your lunch from the range on offer at Doyles. You also make a short stop at Shark Island – one of the harbour’s prettiest islands with a perfect view of the harbour’s two icons directly in front of you. While you are here, you can take a quick swim or just explore the island and beachfront.

  • Open Deck motor boat has your up close and personal with the harbour and nice and close to the attractions
  • Walk on the beach at Shark Island and 20 mins for photo ops
  • 5-star TripAdvisor rating
  • Seafood lunch at Doyle Fish Market restaurant
  • Maximum of 16 guests

This is a fun day out with a well thought out balance of food and sights.  Find out more 

Sydney Harbour 2.5-Hour Gold Penfolds Dinner Cruise

Captain Cook MV2000 Boat Sydney Harbour Cruise

This 2.5-hour cruise on Captain Cook MV Sydney 2000 is one for wine lovers and features some of Australia’s best wines. Guests for the Penfolds dinner are seated in the top level of this 3 level boat above. The food is of a higher standard than offered on the other Captain Cook dinner cruises and the service is top notch.

  • 6-course degustation with matching Penfolds wines
  • Unlimited house spirits, beer and soft drinks
  • Live entertainment
  • Priority boarding
  • Private rooms available for group bookings

This ship has several decks, and the Penfolds dinner is on the top floor. After your meal, you can access the roof and take in the city skyline.  Check out the menu and reviews here.

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 so special. On a cruise, you have time to really enjoy the view and snap away until you get the perfect shot.

Sydney Harbour Sunset and Sparkle

This is a fantastic way to end a perfect day in Sydney, even if you are on a budget. Watching the sun go down behind the harbour bridge from the middle of the harbour is something you will remember forever. Costs are kept low by not having a bar on board. Good news is you can BYO (Bring your own) drinks!

  • 10m catamaran
  • BYO alcohol
  • 30 passengers max
  • Appertisers
  • Man of war steps or Darling Harbour Aquarium Wharf
  • Great for groups

Check out all the details here 

Vagabond Retro Cruise

This is a fun party night for retro music lovers. The 3.5-hour cruise features a buffet dinner and a fun night of prizes and games

  • Allocated Seated dining
  • Buffet dinner
  • Classic 70-90s music

Are you a child of the 1960s? This one might be right up your alley.

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 
  • Check out the Jet Boats

Need help planning your trip to Sydney? 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!

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Sydney Harbour is the finest harbour in the world and you really should spend some time sailing on it while you are in they city. You can ride the ferries but I also suggest you check out one of the many different types of harbour cruises on offer. #Sydney #Australia

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