History of Sydney

Highlights

Enjoy a fascinating tour

From Aboriginal heritage tours of beautiful Sydney Harbour to World Heritage-listed convict sites and tall ships at a maritime museum, Sydney is a fascinating city to explore. Discover the rollicking colonial past on a walking tour in The Rocks, visit rock engravings in national parks, see intriguing artefacts in museums, and travel by ferry to an island where convict buildings still stand.

  • Hero of Waterloo, The Rocks
  • Campbells Cove, The Rocks

Discover Sydney's heritage and history

Sydney is named after Lord Sydney, who was British home secretary when Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet arrived in January 1788. In a letter, Phillip described Sydney Harbour as 'the finest harbour in the world' in which 'a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security'.

Aboriginal people have a much longer connection with the harbour, dating back at least 50,000 years before Phillip chose Sydney Cove as the site of Australia's first penal colony. You can learn about Aboriginal cultural heritage on tours, such as Tribal Warrior Harbour Cruise and The Rocks Dreaming Aboriginal Heritage Tour, and at museums including the Australian Museum.

The colony's early years were harsh. After four governors and a military revolt, known as the Rum Rebellion, governor Lachlan Macquarie was put in charge. He restored order and charted a new course. The Rocks Walking Tours and the Museum of Sydney provide insights into early colonial times. You can also uncover Sydney's buried past at The Rocks Discovery Museum built around the site of the first colonial settlement. 

Fort Denison, Sydney Harbour National Park. Image credit: David Finnegan.jpg.

For more convict stories, visit sites with World Heritage status - the Hyde Park Barracks Museum in the city centre, Cockatoo Island on Sydney Harbour, Old Government House and the Domain (Parramatta Park) in Parramatta, and the Old Great North Road, near Wisemans Ferry, in the Hawkesbury.

Over the past half century, Sydney's character has been transformed into one of the world's most ethnically diverse cities, with more than 180 nationalities calling Sydney home. Find out more about Sydney's history and heritage at the State Library of New South Wales in Macquarie Street in the city centre, or visit the Powerhouse Museum to discover an incredible collection of more than 500,000 landmark objects spanning popular science, technology, arts and music.

  1. Hyde Park

    Hyde Park is Australia's oldest park. Divided by Park Street, the southern section of Hyde Park contains the ANZAC Memorial building and visitor centre, the pool of reflection and numerous monuments and statues. The...

  2. Cockatoo Island

    Only a short ferry ride from Sydney's city centre is Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbour's largest island and one of Australia's most fascinating historical sites.Take an audio tour or self-guided journey and...

  3. Parliament House

    Parliament House is open weekdays to allow people to see the workings of government in the beautiful heritage chambers. When the Parliament sits, public access to the Chambers is restricted to the...

  4. Capitol Theatre

    Sydney's beautiful historic Capitol Theatre is host to world class musicals, theatre, ballet, concerts and performers.Don't just go for the show, visit the Capitol Theatre for a great and total night out!...

  5. Action Stations

    Action Stations offers a new and exciting way to experience and discover over 100 years of history of the Royal Australian Navy.Join the action and feel what it is like to be on board a warship...

  6. Customs House

    Customs House is built on the land of the traditional Indigenous owners, the Eora people, and is the site of the First Fleet landing. It is one of the most significant buildings in the history of European settlement...

  7. State Theatre

    The State Theatre is without doubt a truly magnificent and unique building. The palatial interiors feature artworks and fixtures of rare significance. The Dress Circle gallery houses artworks by significant Australian...

  8. Museum of Sydney

    A modern museum built over and around the remains of Australia’s first Government House, the Museum of Sydney celebrates the people and events that have shaped the character and soul of this city. In 1788...

  9. Pyrmont Bridge

    With all its glitz and glamour it is easy to forget that Sydney is a working port. The City of Sydney Port Walking Tour uncovers the layers of Sydney’s working past. This fascinating walk begins at the State Heritage...

  10. Justice and Police Museum

    Step into the dark side of Sydney’s past with a visit to the Water Police station and courts that once made up one of the city’s busiest legal hubs. Crooks and cops, thugs and judges, locals and drifters, the guilty...

  11. Sydney Heritage Fleet

    Sydney Heritage Fleet's (SHF) treasure trove of unique historical vessels is a hidden jewel in the heart of Sydney Harbour.Take a square-rig sailing adventure and head out to sea on an 1874 square...

  12. Sydney Observatory

    Sydney Observatory occupies a beautiful heritage-listed sandstone building in the heart of The Rocks. Beginning with Aboriginal astronomy, take a close look at the amazing exhibitions before...

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