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Sydney Harbour Ferries

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by Carolyn Hopping (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer based in Perth, Western Australia, who enjoys writing about the things I love: travel, nature-based activities, the arts, spirituality and creative, fun activities for children.
Published July 11th 2013
Enjoy Ferry-boat Fun On The World's Most Beautiful Harbour
Affordable Ferry Fun

Sydney is frequently declared to be one of the world's most beautiful cities, and its stunning location on the shores of Sydney Harbour definitely has a lot to do with this well-deserved reputation. Encompassing a whopping expanse of over 55 square kilometres, features include picturesque bays, quaint neighbourhoods and spectacular national parks, as well as breathtaking views over the city skyline. Dotted with yachts, ferries, and other kinds of leisure craft, it's easy to appreciate why it's often considered to be Sydney's number one tourist attraction.

Beautiful Sydney Harbour. This image is from Wikimedia Commons (by Merbabu).
Beautiful Sydney Harbour. This image is from Wikimedia Commons (by Merbabu).

To truly appreciate the city's dazzling beauty, there is nothing like a day out on the harbour exploring its various attractions, from popular family destinations such as Darling Harbour, Taronga Park Zoo and Manly to quiet, leafy harbourside suburbs such as Neutral Bay and Kirrabilli. However, harbour cruises don't come cheap and therefore many Sydneysiders never get to intimately know this iconic natural feature of their city.

A view of the Harbour bridge from Circular Quay.
A view of the Harbour Bridge from Circular Quay.

What many people, both locals and tourists, don't realise is that there are cheaper alternatives to the expensive harbour cruises which are offered by many private companies. Like other modes of public transport, Harbour City Ferries offer an affordable option of travel around the harbour on its fleet of boats, which service many popular destinations as well as suburbs as far away as Parramatta. See here for a map showing the various routes which depart from the Circular Quay ferry terminal.

Circular Quay
Circular Quay

As the pricing structure for public transport in Sydney is rather complex it may be worthwhile checking out this website to get all the information you need. If you're a regular user of public transport, you probably already possess a My Multi pass which, depending on the type, entitles you to unlimited travel on any trains, buses and ferries in the metro area: handy indeed if you want to take the kids out on the harbour over the holidays or simply do some solo exploration.

Otherwise, a My Multi Day Pass may be just what you're looking for. At $22 (or $11 for concession card holders and children) for unlimited one-day travel it's an absolute bargain, and will facilitate many happy hours of adventure. On a recent visit to Sydney I purchased one of these and found it great value, enabling me to visit Manly and the zoo, as well as explore some of the harbourside suburbs, affordably.

Ferries at Circular Quay.
Ferries at Circular Quay.

Even better, if you're taking your children out, Sundays have been dubbed Family Fun Day Sundays and tickets can be purchased at just $2.50 per person, which are valid for travel anywhere in Greater Sydney, including the ferry network. For rules of travel and other information, check out this webpage. Of course, it's also possible to buy one-way and return trips on specific services, but if you're planning on making a day of it and doing some serious exploring around the harbour then it's definitely worthwhile studying the cheapest options.

Sydney Harbour ferry
Sydney Harbour ferry

With great deals such as these available, a day out on Sydney Harbour is the perfect way to entertain active children during the school holidays or weekends. Adventure-lovers will relish the spectacular views of the harbour and the feeling of the wind in their hair as the ferry whizzes across the harbour to its destination. The Manly Ferry is especially popular with young thrill-seekers, as the harbour gets rather choppy close to Sydney Head, near its destination. On my recent trip, every time the boat encountered a big wave, cries of 'Ooohh!' and 'Whooah!' resounded from passengers young and old.

Following is a brief description of some of the wonderful ferry trips which are possible on Sydney Harbour, departing from Circular Quay. With the appropriate transport pass in hand, hours of affordable fun and adventure are waiting for you on this vast and spectacular expanse of blue water.

Manly
For generations of Sydneysiders, a ferry-ride to Manly has invariably been part of a big day out in the city. Taking approximately 30 minutes to travel from Circular Quay (Wharf 3) to Manly Terminal, the journey provides awesome views over the harbour, passing the Opera House, Botanical Gardens, Garden Island and many other iconic spots.

The Collaroy, which services the Circular Quay to Manly route.
The Collaroy, which services the Circular Quay to Manly route.

Due to the popularity of the route, Manly ferries are much bigger than many of the others that ply the harbour. This can be comforting as the boat passes Sydney Heads where the harbour joins the ocean, well known for its choppy swells on windy days. They also provide plenty of room outside on the deck if you're feeling adventurous and want a less obstructed view of the harbour.

While Manly is especially famous for its awesome beach, there is so much more there to see and do. For more information go to this website.

Manly Wharf is a beaut spot to do engage in some retail therapy.
Manly Wharf is a beaut spot to engage in some retail therapy.


Taronga Zoo Ferry
Another iconic, albeit short, trip on the harbour is the ferry-ride to Taronga Park Zoo. Situated in Mosman, just across the harbour from Circular Quay, the zoo is a short, direct ferry ride with its own wharf.

Sydney Harbour
View over Sydney Harbour from Taronga Zoo. This image is from Wikimedia Commons (by Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia).

Taronga Zoo is often considered to be Australia's foremost zoological park, and visits to it have thrilled generations of day-trippers. A ferry ride to the zoo followed by a happy day of exploration is definitely the ultimate school holiday excursion, and will be sure to please children as much today as it did decades ago. Check out the Taronga Zoo website for more information. Ferries to Taronga Zoo leave Circular Quay from Wharf 2.

Darling Harbour via Balmain East
The Darling Harbour ferry ride is another spectacular journey to one of Sydney's most popular precincts. Whether you're an adult or a child, a local or an overseas visitor, you'll be thrilled as the ferry passes under the Sydney Harbour Bridge on its way to the harbour. To see Australia's most iconic bridge from such a perspective is absolutely awesome, and you can't help but admire the expertise of the builders and engineers who constructed it way back in the 1920s and 30s.

Sydney Harbour
Sydney Harbour

Once you reach Darling Harbour there's so much to see and do for the whole family. The many popular attractions include the Powerhouse Museum, the Australian National Maritime Museum, the Sydney Aquarium, the Sydney Wildlife World and the Chinese Garden of Friendship. To find out more, take a look at the Darling Harbour website.

Ferries depart Circular Quay for Darling Harbour from Wharf 5. If you want to visit Sydney Aquarium or Wildlife Park, alight at King Street Wharf, and if you're visiting the National Maritime Museum, Harbourside or Sydney Convention Centre, alight at Piermont Bay Wharf.

Cockatoo Island
Situated at the junction of the Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers in Sydney Harbour, Cockatoo Island is another popular ferry destination. Called Wa-rea-mah by the Indigenous people who inhabited the area for thousands of years, after British colonisation it was used as a convict penal establishment. It served this purpose from 1839 until 1869 while in 1857 it was also developed as a shipyard (one of Australia's biggest), a function it served until 1991.

Sydney skyline
Sydney skyline

These days, the island is undergoing major developments and the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust that manages it is reinventing it as a major attraction by holding regular cultural events and educational programs. It's a great spot to enjoy a picnic and some exploring, and it's possible to take either a guided or audio tour around its heritage precincts.

Overnight visits on the island are also possible and visitors can either stay in renovated houses or camp in the popular camping-ground. Glamping is also an option for those of us who like the idea of camping but also need our creature comforts. To find out more, go to the Cockatoo Island website. Ferries serving Cockatoo Island depart from Circular Quay's Wharf 5.

Luna Park
Another iconic Sydney destination that is easily reached by ferry is Luna Park at Milsons Point, just a short trip across the harbour from Circular Quay. As befitting such a popular destination, several ferries service this stop so you won't be waiting at the wharf for too long. Ferries to Luna Park leave Circular Quay from Wharf 5.

Luna Park Wharf. This image is from Wikimedia Commons (by Abesty).
Luna Park Wharf. This image is from Wikimedia Commons (by Abesty).


Parramatta
As well as being a relaxing alternative to land-based forms of transport, the ferry trip up the Parramatta River to Parramatta is extremely scenic. As with all destinations on the upper reaches of Sydney Harbour, to get to Parramatta you'll pass under the Sydney Harbour Bridge before traversing the river and stopping at several locations including Cockatoo Island, Bayview Park, Meadowbank and the Sydney Olympic Park. Parramatta ferries leave from Wharf 5, Circular Quay.

Sydney Harbour Bridge from the harbour.
Sydney Harbour Bridge from the harbour.


Neutral Bay and Kirribilli
The ferries used on this route are much smaller and less crowded than many of those used on other more touristy routes, at least on the days when I've travelled. Personally, I like this and find this ride to be a scenic and relaxing way to view the harbour. The leafy and exclusive suburbs this ferry services are lovely places to wander and if you disembark at Neutral Bay be sure to visit Nutcote, which was the harbour-side residence of May Gibbs, the writer of many popular children's books in the early twentieth century, including the classic Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. These days, the house is a museum, furnished in the way it would have looked during the 1920s and 30s when the author lived there. Go to the Nutcote website to find out more.

Neutral Bay Wharf
Neutral Bay Wharf

While a ferry ride on this route might be a bit boring for very young or restless children, adults and quieter older children will enjoy the peaceful ambiance and spectacular views. Ferries for this route leave from Wharf 4 at Circular Quay.

The Fishburn, leaving Neutral Bay.
The Fishburn, leaving Neutral Bay.


Eastern Suburbs
The eastern suburbs are also perfect to explore by ferry, and some spectacular views can be enjoyed on this trip. Departing from Circular Quay's Wharf 4, the first stop on the Eastern Suburbs ferry route is Garden Island, followed by Darling Point, Double Bay, Rose Bay and finally Watsons Bay. History buffs, especially those with an interest in Australian naval history, will want to visit the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre on Garden Island. The island has been utilised since the early days of colonial settlement, and during the years following the First Fleet's arrival in 1788 gardens were established there to feed the fledgling colony. Despite the passing of the years there are still some beautiful gardens which date back at least 150 years and visitors are free to ramble there. There's also a cafe which offers light refreshments and spectacular views over the harbour.

Sydney ferry
Embark for adventure on a Sydney Harbour ferry.
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Why? Ferry-hopping on Sydney Harbour is a fun way to explore the city, and if you're careful to purchase the right tickets, very affordable
When: Any time of the year
Where: Sydney Harbour
Your Comment
You've sold me; Sydney Harbour looks like a beautiful place to take a ferry trip.
by Bryony Harrison (score: 3|6884) 389 days ago
Thanks Briony. I hadn't been for years and was a bit cynical about whether it REALLY lived up to its reputation....but when I went I was completely overwhelmed. It's spectacular!
by Carolyn Hopping (score: 2|785) 386 days ago
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