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. The Rocks Discovery Museum

    The Rocks Discovery Museum, housed in a restored 1850s sandstone warehouse, tells the story of The Rocks from pre-European days to the present. Home to a unique collection of images and...

  2. The Dymocks Building

    Escape from the city crowds and visit The Dymocks Building on George Street Sydney, and enjoy shopping for that unique item, service or gift.Experience personalised service from over 100...

  3. 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...

  4. The Strand Arcade

    The Strand Arcade is Sydney's epicentre of style and design. Named after London's smartest shopping street in the mid nineteenth century, the Strand Arcade houses many of Australia's best designer labels, jewellers,...

  5. History House

    The beautiful History House is the home of the Royal Australian Historical Society. The Society holds regular seminars and events, which are open to non-members, as is the library The Library holds the...

  6. Mrs Macquarie's Chair Sydney

    Mrs Macquarie's Chair is a Sydney landmark. The chair was carved out of a sandstone rock ledge by convicts in 1810. Specially commissioned by Governor Macquarie for his wife Elizabeth who was known to love the area...

  7. 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...

  8. Judges House Sydney

    The City of Sydney Community walking tour gives you a taste of Sydney’s diverse culture, from China Town to the Spanish Quarter. A heritage highlight on the walk is the house built for the NSW Chief Justice, Judge...

  9. 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...

  10. Pyrmont Point Park

    Pyrmont Point Park is situated right on the harbour and offers expansive water views. Looking over to the Harbour Bridge and North Sydney, it is the perfect spot for watching the fireworks exploding across Sydney on...

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