Two stops away on a ferry from Circular Quay, lays the abandoned ex-convict penal establishment of Cockatoo Island. What was once a place of forced labour and large-scale transportation is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and a popular attraction amongst tourists. Close to the heart of Sydney CBD, Cockatoo Island is a fantastic way to spend a couple of hours exploring Australia’s darker history – or even camp overnight and partake in a ghost tour (online booking is required in advance). Short on time, I opted for a midday visit to explore the remains of the infrastructure and tunnels.
Aside from the Island itself, the ferry ride is an additional bonus of a trip to Cockatoo Island. The scenic route starts from Circular Quay, winding past the Opera House and under the Harbour Bridge to the first stop of Darling Harbour. Passing under the Harbour Bridge, the iconic theme park ‘Luna Park’ is also visible to your right. Make sure to grab a seat on the top deck to capture some great shots of some of Sydney’s most famous landmarks! The ferries are spaced regularly and can be accessed with an Opal Card so tickets are not required. The trip takes less than half an hour which is a perfect opportunity to relax and take in the sights before you hit the ground at Cockatoo Island.
Once you disembark, the first thing I recommend is to head through the entrance to the café on the left. Here you can make use of the outdoor seating and sip on a glass of wine (or soft drink) whilst overlooking the city skyline. I can also personally recommend the ‘Feta Chips’! While there are additional restaurants on the opposite side of the Island, I preferred the atmosphere at ‘Societe Overboard’ and felt it a good way to start my experience.
Opposite, you will find the information centre – offering details on optional tours around the Island. Although entrance is free, it may be worth paying extra for a tour if you want more historic details as only limited information is available on plaques around the sites. These include: a Haunted History, Ghostyard Paranormal, Crooked Characters, Convict Precinct and a Walking History Tour. An alternative self-guided option is the audio tours, which last 1 ½ hours and cost $5 a person.
The industrial style infrastructure is extremely photogenic, so make sure to take some time to capture some of it with a camera. Urban exploration is growing in popularity and the chance to uncover eerie abandoned buildings is definitely not an opportunity to miss out on. Walking by myself through the maze of precincts was a highlight of my visit to the Island – prioritise the tunnels and the shipyards.
Extra activities are scattered generously across the Island. Vintage lawn games can be found near the centre, while a basketball pitch and giant chessboard are boasted past the information centre. Equipment for all of these can be rented near the entrance for a reasonable price. This is a brilliant way to cater for younger visitors and I saw multiple families taking advantage of these facilities.
Overall, Cockatoo Island is a tourist attraction that has managed to balance popularity with the retaining of its characteristic aloof vibe – adding to the historic and chilling atmosphere. Whilst I only needed a couple of hours to take in the history and sights, camping seemed to be a fun way to get out of the city or chase some paranormal activity! This would be something I will return to do, if possible, in the near future. Combined with the scenic views and ease of the ferry ride, Cockatoo Island is a fantastic option if you are looking for a more adventurous way to absorb some Australian history than a standard museum.