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. 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 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...

  3. 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'...

  4. 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...

  5. St Stephens Uniting Church

    St Stephen's Uniting Church's is located within Sydney's political, financial, business and medical district on Macquarie Street. The church is open during the week.St Stephen's offers a monthly lunch time...

  6. 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...

  7. 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...

  8. 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,...

  9. Sydney Harbour National Park

    Sydney Harbour National Park protects islands and foreshore around Sydney Harbour. Explore Sydney's history on a school excursion or guided tour to enjoy coastal walks, picnics and swimming.Sydney Harbour...

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