History of Sydney

Explore the rich history of Sydney, from Indigenous heritage through to European settlement. Learn more about Sydney’s historic landmarks with tours around The Rocks, Sydney Opera House and Cockatoo Island.



Learn the city's stories

The Eora people – which means ‘here’ or ‘from this place’ – have called the Sydney area home for 60,000 years. Needless to say, it’s an important place and an important part of their culture, with spiritual sites, rock art and historic reminders of generations past just about everywhere you look – if you know where to look.

Much shorter is Sydney’s European history: in 1770 the HMS Endeavour moored at what is now Botany Bay, and 18 years later British settlement began in The Rocks, making it Australia's oldest colonial settlement.

Suez Lane leading visitors towards Nurses Walk in The Rocks, Sydney

Suez Lane leading visitors towards Nurses Walk in The Rocks, Sydney

The best way to take Sydney’s historic pulse is to explore it all: first step back millennia with an Aboriginal guide, hearing Dreamtime stories and seeing the city through Indigenous eyes. Then take a tour to glimpse notable colonial artefacts, places that shaped the development of the city over decades, and that still hold remarkable importance to Australians of all walks of life.

Aboriginal history

Whether in galleries on an immersive tour, there are dozens of ways to dive deep into Sydney’s Indigenous history and culture. Step back in time on a Rocks Aboriginal Dreaming Tour your guide revealing the spiritual and cultural connection the Eora people had – and still have – with Sydney Harbour. You’ll likely glimpse Clark Island while you wander the foreshore – then visit it with Tribal Warrior Harbour Cruises to discover notable Indigenous sites while learning traditional fishing methods and food gathering techniques.

Dreamtime Southern X tour with Margaret Campbell, Sydney

Dreamtime Southern X tour at Balls Head, Waverton

The Eora First People exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum features a dynamic roster of exhibitions on Indigenous maritime history and culture from Australia and beyond, while The Rocks Discovery Museum houses a unique collection archaeological artefacts, from both pre and post-European settlement.

At the Australian Museum, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection sits across two permanent exhibitions: Bayala Nura (Yarning Country) and Garrigarrang (Sea Country). Together, they form one of the world’s most significant First Nations collections.

Tiwi Poles on display at the Indigenous Australians exhibition in Australian Museum, Sydney

Indigenous Australians exhibition, Australian Museum

If you would like to dive deeper into Sydney’s Aboriginal history, discover Aboriginal art, take a bush tucker tour, peruse more museums, galleries and sacred sites, or join a guided cultural tour or experience.

Colonial history

European settlement of Australia began back in 1788, when the colony chose The Rocks region of Sydney as the ideal place to live. For many reasons, as you’ll discover on one of The Rocks Walking Tours, where you’ll explore hidden alleys and cobblestone lanes, visit centuries-old buildings and learn all about the First Fleet as well as history extending to the plague of 1900 right through to the modern day. Expect to see Sydney in a new light.

People walking down the Argyle Steps on The Rocks Walking Tour, The Rocks

The Rocks Walking Tour, The Rocks, Sydney

Speaking of which, glance up from your iPhone while walking along Macquarie Street’s historic precinct to witness some of Sydney’s finest colonial buildings, constructed during the time of Governor Lachlan Macquarie (1810-1821). Take in the drama of Hyde Park Barracks, Parliament House, the Mint, Sydney Hospital and St James’ Church. Also on Macquarie Street is the State Library of New South Wales, where you can dig a little deeper into the city’s heritage.

Couple enjoying a visit to Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney

Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney

All these constructions are impressive, but if you want to visit Australia’s oldest public building, Old Government House, you’ll need to make your way west to Paramatta. It’s worth the commute – situated in beautiful Parramatta Park, both spots are World Heritage-listed Australian Convict Sites. While in the area, drop into Elizabeth Farm, an Australian colonial homestead with the oldest surviving European building in Australia on site.

Couple enjoying walk through Parramatta Park, Parramatta

Parramatta Park, Parramatta

Life in the early years of European settlement was far from easy, particularly if you were a convict shunted off to prison on Cockatoo Island. Today, this droplet of land in the middle of Sydney Harbour has a World Heritage listing. Catch a ferry here from Circular Quay and spend the day exploring, or linger overnight in one of the villas or tents.

Family enjoying a self guided audio tour, Cockatoo Island

Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbour

Life was just as harsh in Wisemans Ferry, where convicts spent 10 years building the Old Great North Road connecting Sydney with the Hunter Valley. Today, it’s also one of the state’s World Heritage Sites, and offers dramatic views over the countryside.


Explore historical attractions in Sydney