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. Go Local Tours

    Go Local Tours

    Go Local Tours offer small, group tours and independent travel packages, featuring creative itineraries for the discerning traveller. Join them for an escorted tour with up to 12 travellers that goes off the beaten...

  2. The Rocks Walking Tours

    The Rocks Walking Tours

    The Rocks Walking Tours (established 1978) - captivating people with the 'original' Rocks experience!There is no better way to get up close and personal with the living history and heritage of...

  3. Free Tours Sydney

    Free Tours Sydney

    Free Tours Sydney offers free walking tours and sightseeing bus tours of Sydney. Free walking and sightseeing bus tours complement each other by covering different sights.Walk through historical...

  4. Cadmans Cottage

    Cadmans Cottage

    Built in 1816, Cadmans Cottage is one of only a handful of Sydney buildings that remain from the first 30 years of the colony. Over the years this sandstone cottage has been a water transport headquarters, a sailors'...

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