Cockatoo Island is our favorite Sydney attraction. It is set in the middle of one of the worlds greatest harbours - Sydney Harbour. Centrally located close to all of Sydney's attractions, choc full of convict and maritime industrial history, the best Sydney Camping and FREE admission! This place has it all.
About Cockatoo Island
Cockatoo Island is a fascinating and well preserved part of Australia's white settlement. Originally heavily timbered with Red Gums, it was home to large numbers of Sulpur-Crested-Cockatoos, from which the name of the island derives. Australia's convict, maritime and industrial history combine to make this place one of Sydney's best kept secrets.
The Island is basically a huge chunk of Sydney Sandstone sitting in the middle of Sydney Harbour. The top of the island, or The Plateau, is the convict and prison history. The lower part of the island is home to all of the industrial and shipbuilding buildings.
The white history of the island began in 1839 when a prison was established to take the convicts who were removed from the dreaded Norfolk Island penal colony when it closed. In 1850 the prisoners were put to work building docks and workshops to service ships from the Royal Navy, which began a long and proud industrial and shipbuilding era. In the late 1800's the convicts moved out and the Island was then used for an Industrial School for Girls and a reformatory. Wayward boys of the time were housed in the ship Vernon which was anchored nearby. History buffs on the Island informed us that there was only ever one recorded pregnancy, with the fear of sharks apparently proving to be a good deterrent to any romantic rendezvous.
So much of the prison and convict ruins survive, you could easily imagine you at at Port Arthur in Tasmania.
As the shipbuilding activities expanded, the island became the Commonwealth Naval Dockyard in 1913 and produced the first ship built in Australia. With the onset of World War Two, the island found itself the major shipbuilding and dockyard for the southwest pacific and went on to produce Destroyers and a variety of naval shipping and oceanliners. This included repairs to American Battleships damaged during the Pacific battles and refits of Australia's submarine fleets.
So many of the huge industrial buildings remain. You can simply wander around the island and into almost all of the buildings and soak in the history. Nearly 50 industrial cranes are still present, two massive shipbuilding docks, and 3 separate tunnels linking each side of the island. These tunnels were used as bomb shelters during WWII.
One of the most pleasing aspects of Cockatoo Island was that is not over commercialised. Simply hop off the ferry, chat to the very knowledgeable volunteers, and then wander the island on a self guided tour or self guided audio tour (additional $5).
There are guided tours which concentrate on a particular aspect of the islands history, but at $18 per adult, $14 concession, or $60 per family, they are not cheap, and in our opinion not necessary. Why not enjoy it for free at your own pace?!
How to get to Cockatoo Island
The main way to get onto the island is by Sydney Ferries. In between The Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge is Circular Quay, the point where Sydney's Ferry service meets the city's rail network.
Ferries departing Circular Quay on the Parramatta River or Woolwich/Balmain services will take you to the Island. These services depart from wharf 4 & 5, and will cost you around $10.20 per adult return, and around $5.10 per child return. However, travel on a sunday, and you only pay $2.50 per person for any bus, ferry and train anywhere in Sydney for the whole day!
You can take your own boat to Cockatoo Island and moor it there for an extra $35 per night (boat must be less than 7m long, and you are not allowed to sleep on the boat). This is a very cool option if you have access to a tinny or a runabout.
Cost to get onto the Island
It is FREE. Simple as that!
Cockatoo Island Camping
One of the coolest part of Cockatoo Island is that you can camp on the island! Imagine camping in the middle of the world's greatest harbour, in the centre of the largest city in Australia.
There are lots of accommodation options available.
- Bring your own tent - $35-$45 per site winter, $45-$50 summer
- Camping hiring pre set up tents
- Glamping (fancy name for pre set up tents with sheets,bedding etc provided)
- Holiday apartments
- Luxury apartments
- Holiday houses
More on Glamping
Camp sites are unpowered.
To book your campsite or accommodation, call Cockatoo's reservations on 02 8898 9774
This is a brilliant place to base yourself as you discover Sydney. You are camped in the middle of everything, and a lovely ferry ride to Sydney's greatest spots.
Check out our
Sydney Trip page for more cheap or free Sydney attractions
OR see how we did a
fantastic week long Sydney trip with a family of 5 for only $618 for everything.
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