9 ways to explore Sydney Harbour's islands

From historic isles with the best views of Sydney Harbour to forested enclaves hidden within the Hawkesbury River, Sydney has plenty of lesser-known islands where you can hike, play, party and even stay the night.

Destination NSW

Destination NSW

Oct 2022 -
min read

Learn about convict history (and ghosts) on Cockatoo Island

Sydney’s largest harbour island is no stranger to unbelievable sights, from its early days as a convict prison (the harbour island and one of 11 Australian convict sites on UNESCO's World Heritage list) to its modern use as a world-class art venue and heritage glamping spot to watch the city’s famous fireworks on New Year's Eve. Today there are plenty of ways to explore this storied isle, from historic convict or wartime tours to nighttime ghost tours that tell the spookiest tales of the island’s past – all with a backdrop of Sydney Harbour. Say cheers with a glass and a snack from at Cockatoo Overboard, a cafe offering breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks with fantastic views.

How to get there: Public ferries leave from Circular Quay and Barangaroo regularly, or hire a water taxi for your own private boat ride in. 

Cockatoo Island situated along the Parramatta River with views back to Sydney Harbour and Sydney CBD, Cockatoo Island

Cockatoo Island, with views back to Sydney Harbour and Sydney CBD, Cockatoo Island

Spend the night in a natural paradise on Scotland Island 

Surrounded by shimmering blue waters gently lapping the shore and nestled beside the green natural oasis of Ku-ring-gai National Park, Scotland Island is a tranquil refuge in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Dotted with sandy beaches and lush mangroves, this inhabited island in Pittwater offers visitors a chance to escape from the hustle and bustle of city life with a stay at Scotland Island Lodge. Run by husband-and-wife Colin and Rosemary Haskell, this quaint bed and breakfast features three suites (including one with its own outdoor jacuzzi) and delicious homemade meals. Wake up to seaside views and spend the day walking through the forest, kayaking off the beach or heading to the wharf to try your luck reeling in a fish. 

How to get there: Ferries leave from Church Point every hour from 8.30am to 6.30pm on weekends and more regularly on weekdays; tell the captain you want to get off at Tennis Court Wharf. 

Church Point ferry service to Scotland Island, Church Point

Church Point ferry service to Scotland Island, Church Point - Credit: The Riverboat Postman

See what First Nations island life was like thousands of years ago on Clark Island

When Lieutenant Ralph Clark arrived with the First Fleet in 1788, he claimed Clark Island to be his own vegetable garden. But the island's story began long before that. Jump on board Tribal Warrior’s Mari Nawi vessel to dive deeper into Sydney Harbour’s living history on their Aboriginal Cultural Cruise. Docking on the shores of Be-lang-le-wool (the Gadigal name for Clark Island), you'll be transported back thousands of years to learn what life was like in a pre-European Aboriginal coastal settlement. Hear stories of the people, learn traditional fishing methods and food gathering techniques, and watch an Aboriginal cultural performance.  

How to get there: Indigenous-owned Tribal Warrior are the only tour company licensed to take visitors to Clark Island. Tours leave weekly, but make sure to book ahead; check dates and availability on the Tribal Warrior website. 

Catch a seaplane to Shark Island for a picnic with Sydney skyline views

You'll feel like an A-lister on this glamorous journey that gives you a bird’s-eye view of Sydney’s hidden islands. Head up, up and away with Sydney Seaplanes and take a thrilling flight over Sydney Harbour and Bondi Beach to secluded Shark Island, just across from the glamorous abodes perched on Point Piper. You’ll be dropped off at Shark Island with a decadent hamper filled with premium wine, gourmet cheese, crusty bread, crackers, pastries and more, and you’ll have as much time as you like to wander the protected grounds and go for a swim in crystal-clear water before heading on a water taxi back to the mainland. 

How to get there: Seaplanes leave from Rose Bay wharf on selected days. If you'd prefer a more affordable mode of transport, rent a kayak or paddleboard from the vendors at Rose Bay beach and make your own way across the water at your leisure. 

Sydney Seaplane flight departing from Rose Bay, Sydney

Sydney Seaplane flight departing from Rose Bay, Sydney - Credit: Jem Cresswell

Meet Indigenous makers on Bare Island 

A heritage-listed fort located just off La Perouse, Bare Island offers a glimpse of the early settler’s coastal defence systems, with military tunnels and century old barracks still intact. But before Captain Cook sailed into Botany Bay, this tiny islet was home to the Bidjigal People and four times a year it turns into a hub of creativity and culture at the Blak Markets. Browse Aboriginal artworks, food and drink made with Indigenous ingredients, and buy direct from the makers themselves. A Welcome to Country and smoking ceremony begin the day, and dance performances, traditional workshops and storytelling will connect you closer to the local living culture. 

How to get there: A footbridge connects Bare Island to La Perouse, within the Kamay-Botany Bay National Park, just a 25-minute drive from the CBD in Sydney’s southeast. Bus services also stop right nearby. 

Blak Markets on Bare Island, La Perouse

Blak Markets on Bare Island, La Perouse - Credit: Alexandra Adoncello

Have sunset drinks on a floating beach club

Golden hour on Sydney Harbour is something special, as the sea starts to sparkle and the sky glows pinky-purple behind the city’s iconic skyline. There are many places to grab a drink in Sydney with a view of the harbour, but looking back to the coastline from the water is rare – enter The Island, Australia’s first floating open-air beach bar. Operating every weekend in summer, The Island hosts acclaimed DJs and epic beach parties, and features day beds and VIP cabanas to soak up the sun. Swimming is allowed, so you can splash about in the picturesque waters just off Athol Beach in Mosman in between drinks. 

How to get there: Access to The Island is by water taxi only from Double Bay Wharf; book ahead to secure your spot. Scheduled pick-ups from Taronga Zoo wharf can also be arranged. 

The Island, the ultimate floating bar, Sydney Harbour

The Island, the ultimate floating bar, Sydney Harbour - Credit: The Island

Learn about the many lives of Goat Island

Step aboard one of the pirate-like Sydney Harbour Tallships and sail into the scandalous past lives of convicts and soldiers. This historic wooden vessel will transport you to Goat Island, where you’ll learn how significant this island has been for thousands of years. Known as Me-mel by the local Gadigal people, Goat Island was once inhabited by Woollarawarre Bennelong of the Eora nation, the first Aboriginal man to travel to Europe and return, and his wife, Cammeraygal leader Barangaroo. It’s also been home to convicts, a gunpowder storage depot, the first water police station and harbour fire brigade, a shipyard and even a film set, including the Australian television series Water Rats. Back on board, you’ll sail around the harbour's glitziest waterfront neighbourhoods with a catered lunch and a glass of bubbles. 

How to get there: Goat Island is not open to the public, so you’ll need to book a tour. Sydney Harbour Tallships run tours to Goat Island every month; other tours are available with NSW National Parks. 

Historic convict heritage, Goat Island, Sydney Harbour National Park

Goat Island, Sydney Harbour National Park - Credit: John Yurasek, DPE

Deliver the mail to the Hawkesbury’s island and riverside residents 

For the residents who live along some of the Hawkesbury River’s more far-flung islands and riverfronts, the water is the only way in and out. For more than 100 years, the Riverboat Postman has been delivering mail to these isolated homes, and these days visitors can join the idyllic mail run. On the two-hour trip from Brooklyn wharf, you’ll go past Dangar Island; former mental asylum islands Peat Island and Milson Island; luxury glamping accommodation at Bar Island; plus tiny riverside neighbourhoods, lush mangroves, oyster farms, and forested escarpments. The skippers are local with plenty of stories to tell, and onboard service includes a delicious ploughman’s lunch. 

How to get there: The Riverboat Postman leaves from Brooklyn wharf at 10am Monday to Friday. Driving from the Sydney CBD takes about 50 minutes, or the train takes one hour from Central Station to Hawkesbury River Station in Brooklyn. 

The Riverboat Postman drops off the mail along the Hawkesbury River, Hawkesbury River

The Riverboat Postman drops off the mail along the Hawkesbury River, Hawkesbury River

Go birdwatching on a hike across Dangar Island

One of the few Sydney suburbs without cars, a walk through Dangar Island feels like stepping back in time. Rich with Indigenous, colonial and natural history, this tiny 3km-long island is now home to about 200 people, as well as plenty of wildlife. More than 100 animal species (mostly birds) and more than 90 plant species have been recorded on or near the island, and Dangar contains the only known location of a Blackbutt-Rough-barked Apple Forest. You can hike your way all around the island’s beaches and forest in less than two hours – stopping to admire kookaburras, sandpipers, eastern curlews and the rare yellow-morph Australian king parrot – as well as Aboriginal carvings and middens hidden throughout. 

How to get there: Ferries leave Brooklyn wharf regularly throughout the day, or you can catch a water taxi or hop off the Riverboat Postman at the end of the tour. 

Bradleys Beach, Dangar Island looking northwards, Dangar Island, Hawkesbury River

Bradleys Beach, Dangar Island looking northwards, Dangar Island

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