Cockatoo Island

Cockatoo Island is a World Heritage Site that offers many fun activities and interesting places to poke around and explore

Ariel view of Cockatoo Island
Ariel view of Cockatoo Island cc licensed photo by Dave Keeshan

Cockatoo Island is situated in the centre of beautiful Sydney Harbour in a very predominate location centralized at the meeting of three waterways. It is a brief 10-minute city ferry ride from Darling Harbour or just over 20 minutes from Circular Quay. This reclaimed industrial area and former home to convicts are rich in history, resulting in it being listed as a World-Heritage-Site listed by UNESCO — (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 2010.

History

Cockatoo Island is the largest Island in Sydney Harbour. The impressive 18 hectares or 44-acre island was first used by the British in 1839 to house repeating offenders and to alleviate the problem of the overcrowded prisoners on Norfolk Island. Here, convicts were put to intense labour service cutting deep into the sandstone to build structures such as prison barracks, silos for grain storage, official residences, a military guardhouse plus the Fitzroy dry dock built between 1847 and 1877 — 10 painstaking years with the bare hands of convicts who were usually in waist deep water and iron leg shackles. When it was finished The Fitzroy dock was used to serve the British Navy and other ships.

In 1869 the prisoners were relocated and the prison was transformed into two sections becoming an orphanage and reformatory for girls in 1871. It was renamed to Biloela — an aboriginal name meaning Black Cockatoo.

By 1870, shipbuilding and repairing ships was the main industry for Cockatoo island. This business grew steadily and between 1880-1900 the Sutherland dry dock was built. During WWll Cockatoo island was the leading ship repair response in the south-west Pacific. After the war, the ships were changed back to commercial use. The ship building business continued on until 1979 when the last ship to be built on the island was the HMAS-the largest navy boat to be built in Australia. At present, it is still spotted occasionally in Sydney Harbour.

Things to see and do

Today there is no industrial use on the island and, after being off-limits to the public for over a century, you will find parkland and over 70 structures. Several of these buildings are open for you to explore, including the slipway and factories, some displaying creative exhibits.

There is no fee to visit the island. When you arrive you can simply explore the island yourself with the help of a map or you can sign-up for one of the guided tours of Cockatoo Island outlined on the official website.

There are two old tunnels that were used to transport workers and goods from one end of the island to the other: The Dog Leg Tunnel, which is 360 metres long and the Straight Tunnel which is the oldest of the two and was built in 1915. (During WWll it was modified to become an air-raid shelter). Both these tunnels are opened for the public to walk through. The Dog Leg Tunnel is equipped with a soundscape of what it was like on the island throughout different times of history.

On the higher level of the island is a prison mess, old industrial buildings and a grass tennis court.

You will find lookouts with harbour views that reach out across to Spectacle and Snapper islands.

Those that wish to learn more about this maritime island and the history of the people who occupied it can take an audio tour. There is so much to do on the island and exhibitions change so it's good to go more than once to get the full experience.

When visiting the island give yourself at least a 2 hour window to complete your walk; longer if you want to take the time to linger a while and learn about the maritime island's past, while taking in the beautiful harbour views.

There are boat rentals, swimming in a designated area and kids activities.

Those wanting to spend more than one day can stay overnight at the first urban waterfront campground in the world. The tents are all set up for you — a new trend called glamping. For more information, check the official site.

Food and Refreshments

When stopping for a meal, there are several restaurants and cafes to choose from. Societe Overboard at Parramatta Wharf offers breakfast and lunch along with hot and cold drinks. Cockatoo Island Marine Centre at Camber Wharf offers light fare and snacks along with tea, coffee, cold drinks, beer and wine. The popular Island Bar, located on the Eastern Apron serves drinks, cocktails and Italian cuisine for lunch or dinner and is open a bit later that the other establishments.

If you prefer, you can pack your own meal as there are many picnic areas on both the upper and lower level of the island. You should be aware that you are NOT allowed to bring alcohol on the island.

Facts For Your Visit

Fee: No

Address: Cockatoo Island, New South Wales 2110, Australia

Reviews

Rated 4.4 out of 5 Star Rating

4 Star Rating Decent views and experience. Nothing much to see. Ready tents were good but didn’t provide any linen.
Divyang Patel - a month ago

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4 Star Rating We stayed over night in the firehouse close to the entry of the island. It has its own bbq and out doir furniture to enjoy drinks and food. We enloyed the ghost tour and meeting other people while staying on the island. There was only one cafe to get food from as the other one was closed till the next day when we arrived. Walking around enjoying the history was informative of our involvement during the periods of the end of the war. It wasn't hard to get to this location via ferry. Although we would park our car in a different location to get on the ferry next time. We parked under the opera house. We pre payed our parking, so it was cheaper than paying additional money if we did it on the spot as the ferry does 5 stops to get to Cockatoo Island. Also you can bring your own food if you like a bbq it on their ammenties. We weren't aware if you are staying on the island. You could invite friends over for a bbq and drinks the last ferry back is around 1030 or 11pm. It would be a nice night out just for a bar b que with friends.
Helen Rymer - 4 months ago

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5 Star Rating Great with young kids as it's not like a formal museum. Boys are 6 and 3, and both really enjoyed it.
Anna Lobaczewski - a month ago

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5 Star Rating Booked and spent NYE on the island this year. The advantages of the location are obvious but I wanted to let people know how awesome all the staff were and how hard they worked to offer the best experience. The planning that went into events while on the island stay was impressive. They catered for the large number of people extremely well. It was an amazing experience and highly recommended.
Ray Martin - a month ago

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Directions

Sydney Ferry Line Nearest Station Walking Time
F3Circular Quay or Darling Harbour3 minutes

How to get to Cockatoo Island by Sydney Ferry

From Circular Quay Wharf 5 or Darling Harbour Wharf 3 you can catch the F3 Parramatta Ferry which stops at Cockatoo Island. There are a couple of sailings per hour throughout the day which take about 8 minutes from Darling Harbour or 21 minutes from Circular Quay. Additional sailings operate out of Circular Quay from early morning until just after 11:30pm to round out the schedule. Those sailings skip Darling Harbour but make four other stops along the river and take a total of 26 minutes. Either way you'll enjoy a very scenic ride in Sydney's beautiful harbour.

You can download a Cockatoo Island Ferries Timetable here or use our 'instant directions' feature above to find the next sailing.

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