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.

You’ll discover more of Sydney’s past at historical attractions, museums, on historical tours and at national parks, where you’ll find Aboriginal rock carvings.

  1. State Theatre

    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...

  2. Sydney Architecture Walks

    Sydney Architecture Walks

    Sydney Architecture Walks explore ideas through architecture offering an interface between in-depth architectural knowledge and the wider design-conscious community. Each SAW route is driven by...

  3. Fort Denison

    Fort Denison

    A former defence facility, Fort Denison is located on a small harbour island in the centre of Sydney Harbour just a stone's throw from the Botanic Gardens. Once under attack from US friendly fire in WWII, Fort Denison...

  4. Cockatoo Island

    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...

Displaying 4 of 63