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. 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...

  2. Elizabeth Bay House

    Built between 1835 and 1839, Elizabeth Bay House was known as 'the finest house in the colony'. Designed by the most fashionable and accomplished architect of the day, John Verge, for the Colonial Secretary,...

  3. Queen Victoria Building

    Rich in history and architecturally splendid, the Queen Victoria Building (QVB) occupies an entire block on Sydney's George Street, and has over 180 of Sydney's finest fashion boutiques, jewellery shops and homewares,...

  4. Government House Sydney

    One of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in Sydney, Government House us the Official Residence of His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Retired) 38th Governor of New South Wales...

  5. Sydney Sculpture Walk

    The Sydney Sculpture Walk provides a uniquely artistic experience of the city to Sydneysiders and visitors alike.Ten artworks by leading Australian and international artists form a circuit through...

  6. Sydney Harbour Circle Walk

    Sydney Harbour is one of the great harbours of the world. This 26 kilometre circle walk and over 45 kilometres of optional loops explores west of the Harbour Bridge to Hunters Hill. It is a truly magnificent walk...

  7. 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...

  8. 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...

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