Sydney is arguably one of the most spectacular harbour cities in the world and the islands dotted down the harbour make up part of the picture-perfect view. Exploring these islands up close and personal is a great way to spend a day on Sydney Harbour. You will be guaranteed stunning Sydney Harbour views, a magical display of sailing boats enjoying the harbour’s breezes and find your own secluded spot for a picnic well away from the crowded tourist precincts. Visiting one of the Sydney Harbour islands will get you well off the beaten track!
The harbour islands that make up the Sydney Harbour landscape are Shark, Clark, Fort Denison, Goat, Cockatoo, Spectacle, Snapper and Rodd islands. There are regular guided tours to three of the islands—Fort Denison, Goat and Cockatoo Islands – which will give you a great insight to the history of Sydney Harbour.
1. Fort Denison is perhaps the most iconic harbour island with its distinctive Martello tower, built more than 150 years ago. The island has had a varied past and been used for the purposes of defence, fishing, navigation, weather monitoring and even a jail in the early days of Australia’s history. Today Fort Denison boasts a restaurant, events space and an historic museum. It is a stunning spot for lunch on the harbour with its gun-barrel views to the Harbour Bridge and out towards the heads. The island is open daily from 10.30am for visitors to explore Sydney’s maritime and colonial history including the historic tower and the cannon firing at 1 o’clock or you can book a guided tour. For more information visit here.
2. Garden Island has been a part of Sydney’s history since colonisation in 1788. It was originally used as a garden bed to produce food for the naval ships and was also the site of the sinking of the accommodation ship KUTTABUL in 1942 by Japanese midget submarine with the death of 21 Australian and British sailors. Hundreds of war ships have berthed at Garden Island over the past two hundred years, including many that have docked for repairs and maintenance. Now Garden Island is the main base for Australia’s navy fleet on the east coast. The northern tip of Garden Island is open to the public and contains the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre museum and an outdoor heritage precinct. For more information on what the museum has to offer visit here.
3. Clark Island is a gorgeous little island located off Darling Point in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and you can often have it all to yourself. It is part of the Sydney Harbour National Park and is a perfect spot for a picnic with its 360 degree harbour views. Only 150 people are allowed on the island at any one time but you have to book to visit the island. For more information visit here.
4. Shark Island is only slightly bigger than Clark and nestled just around the corner off Rose Bay, also in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. It too boasts 360 degree harbour views and offers visitors lush grassy areas, picnic shelters and a spacious gazebo. There are also lovely sandy beaches to explore, a rocky foreshore to view some harbour wildlife from, as well as hand-built grottos. Don’t worry, you won’t see any sharks, the island gets its name from its shape – it is said to resemble a shark. For more information visit here.
Photo: John Yurasek; Goat Island, Sydney Harbour National Park
5. Goat Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour and you head west from the Harbour Bridge towards Balmain to find this gem. Goat Island has a rich history dating back to Australia’s first settlement and you will get a really interesting insight into what convict life was like in the 19th century. There are guided walking tours of the island where you can visit the early-1800s military gun-powder magazine, the soldiers’ barracks complex and Sydney’s oldest water police station. You do need to book to visit the island and to take one of the tours. Goat Island will also give you lovely vistas over to Balmain, Birchgrove, Millers Point and across to Darling Harbour and, being on one of the major harbour routes, give you the opportunity to enjoy the many boats utilising the harbour. For more information on Goat Island and to book a walking tour visit here.
6. Cockatoo Island is a UNESCO world heritage listed site given its rich colonial and convict history. It also lies on the western side of the harbour off the shores of Balmain. It is one of the largest harbour islands and is the only one you can stay on, with all sorts of accommodation options from glamping to private houses. The glamping has pretty rave reviews and is a favourite spot for New Years Eve. It also has a rich past with its architecture spanning 130 years and boasts amazing examples of convict buildings dating back to the first settlement in 1788. Today Cockatoo Island is a cultural landmark, hosting many events including Australia’s largest contemporary visual arts event, the Biennale of Sydney. For more detailed information on all these is to see and do on the island visit http://www.cockatooisland.gov.au/. Cockatoo Island also happens to have one of the best harbour bars in Sydney. You can’t go to Cockatoo Island without enjoying a sundowner at ‘The Island Bar’ which offers an Italian style lunch, cocktails and drinks or evening snacks every day. It really is a must! For more information visit here.
7. Spectacle Island lies not far from Cockatoo Island and has been used by the Royal Australian Navy since 1884. Its many buildings are heritage listed (most of which are over 120 years old) and today it houses the largest collection of historical artefacts from the Royal Australian Navy. Spectacle Island is not open to the public but many of the artefacts can be seen at the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre museum on Garden Island.
8. Keep going further west into Iron Cove Bay and you hit Rodd Island which is nice and protected, being the most westerly harbour island. It has amazing Harbour Bridge views and is a perfect spot for a picnic with a gorgeous gazebo for shelter. For more information visit here.
9. Snapper Island is the smallest island in Sydney Harbour located off Drummoyne, in the western area of the harbour. In the 1930s it was re-shaped to look like a naval ship and it was used as a nautical training facility. It is currently closed to visitors but can definitely be seen on a sail-past!
Just finally, a quick piece of history….originally there were 14 harbour islands. Two, once separated by a narrow stretch of shallow water, have been joined to form the present Spectacle Island. Five others, formerly islands, Garden, Bennelong, Darling, Glebe and Berry Islands, have been joined to the mainland.
You could see these islands flash by on a harbour ferry ride, but why not take your time to explore them with your own private yacht charter with Sailcorp. You can choose where you’d like to hop off and explore these Sydney Harbour gems and we can organise a picnic lunch complete with chilled champagne or your drink of choice.