Cockatoo Island is a great place to visit if you want to escape the crowds and everyday city life of Sydney! Once a place where convicts got sent to live and work under dire conditions, this island is full of history and makes for a fun day out! Plus the views across to Sydney Harbour from here are incredible and there are even options to stay overnight! Read on for all the things to do on Cockatoo Island!
Where is Cockatoo Island?
Cockatoo Island is located on the Parramatta River which lies in the heart of Sydney Harbour to the west of the Harbour Bridge. It is the largest island in Sydney Harbour and lies in Sydney’s inner-west roughly 10 km from Sydney CBD, between the Lane Cove River and Iron Cove. Drummoyne, Woolwich, Birchgrove and Balmain are the closest suburbs to Cockatoo Island, all of which can be reached by a short ferry.
History of Cockatoo Island:
Cockatoo Island played a significant role in the time of the first European settlers to Australia. In 1839 NSW Governor Gipps chose Cockatoo Island to be the site for a new penal establishment as an alternative to Norfolk Island to alleviate overcrowding there. Repeat convicts were sent here to the penal colony on Cockatoo Island to live in extremely harsh conditions and forced to build structures and shipyards.
In 1869 the prison closed, the prisoners were relocated to Darlinghurst Gaol and the island was then briefly turned into an industrial school for girls and a reformatory, before becoming a gaol again in 1888. Cockatoo Island later went on to become Australia’s biggest shipbuilding facility. Then in 1991 the shipyard closed.
For over a decade Cockatoo Island lay empty, until it was restored by the Sydney Harbour Restoration Trust and opened to the public in 2007. As soon as you arrive on the island and see the architecture it becomes evident that Cockatoo Island has a convict and shipbuilding past.
Due to it’s rich and interesting past, Cockatoo Island is now UNESCO World Heritage Listed. The Convicts Precinct here has some of the best surviving evidence of the large scale convict transportation and forced labour used to support European Colonial expansion.
Prior to the Europeans arriving in Australia, Cockatoo Island was frequented by the Eora people – the Aboriginal people around Sydney’s coastal areas. They called the island Waremah.
How to get to Cockatoo Island:
As it is an island, the only way to get to Cockatoo Island is by ferry. Take the F8 ferry to Cockatoo Island from Circular Quay – it takes around 15 minutes and is a really scenic ride. However if you are in one of Sydney’s inner west suburbs it might be easier to take a ferry straight from here as opposed to going into town to catch the ferry.
You will need an Opal card to ride on Sydney’s ferries – if you don’t have one you can get one for free at newsagents (including the one at Circular Quay Wharf) and just top up $20. Prepaid Opal cards are the convenient way to travel around on Sydney’s public transport (buses, trains, light rail and ferries all use them). Tap on and off when you board and alight the ferry to avoid getting overcharged. The ferry costs $6 with an Opal card.
On the ride to Cockatoo Island from Circular Quay you will pass by some really beautiful parts of Sydney such as Barangaroo, Luna Park, Lavender Bay and Balmain. The ferry will usually stop off at Balmain, Birchgrove, Greenwich and Woolwich before docking at Cockatoo Island. On a sunny day taking the ferry in itself is a great experience. It certainly makes for a much cheaper way than taking a boat tour around the spectacular Sydney Harbour! There are outdoor and indoor sections of the ferry, so you can go inside if it is raining or too windy.
Make sure to check the ferry timetable. During peak hours the ferries are every half hour, but during off peak hours and weekends they only run every hour. Click here for the Cockatoo Island Ferry timetable and route map.
Why is it called Cockatoo Island?
Cockatoo Island takes it’s name from the cockatoo birds that once used to frequent the island.
Tours of Cockatoo Island:
Cockatoo Island is free to visit and wander round by yourself. If you prefer though, for $5 you can take a self guided audio tour of Cockatoo Island to learn about the history of the island. However due to covid this service is currently suspended as the Visitor Centre is closed so no tours are operating until further notice. Therefore I recommend downloading a map of the island before you visit.
Despite there being no tours, it shouldn’t be a problem for most people. The island and map is easy to navigate and there are plenty information placards around so it is very easy to understand and follow everything even if you don’t have any prior knowledge of the history of the island.
What is there to do on Cockatoo Island?
The best thing to do is just wander round and explore all the different parts of the island at your leisure. You’ll find lots of interesting things such as tunnels, old residences and the old dock. As you get off the ferry you’ll go through a security checkpoint and bag check. Once you exit this the Visitor Centre will then be infront of you on your right: stop off here and take a map of the island. This is especially important if you aren’t doing a guided or audio tour and will be wandering around by yourself.
The only way to get around Cockatoo Island is by walking but it is perfectly manageable, especially as there are a couple of tunnels that connect one side of the island to the other. Despite being only 18 hectares big, there is a lot to see here on Cockatoo Island.
There are two levels to the island: Upper Island and Lower Island, connected by a steep hill. Additionally there are several different precincts on the island, all focusing on a different aspect:
Convict Precinct – UPPER ISLAND
Make sure to spend time at Cockatoo Island’s Convict Precinct: a UNESCO World Heritage Listed Site. The Convict Precinct is located on the Upper Island, and here you can wander around the convict built structures and the old prison cells that were in use from 1839 to 1869. Cockatoo Island was set up as a new overflow penal establishment (gaol) for reoffending convicts. They were sent here and were subject to very harsh and cramped conditions.
The convicts were forced to quarry sandstone here and then build stone prison barracks and solitary confinement cells, workshops, official residences and a military guardhouse on the island. In 1847 they commenced work on Fitzroy Dock which took ten years to complete. All of these buildings and structures are still here for you to walk amongst and they make up a big part of the island’s heritage.
Isolation cells were also built here, which were occupied by uncooperative reoffenders for up to 28 days. These solitary confinement cells were the least humane out of all the Australian penal colonies, measuring just 6 feet by 8 feet and only accessible by a trap door in the roof. Known as oubliette cells (from the French word oublier meaning: ‘to forget’), as often the prisoner was dropped in through the trap door in the roof and presumably forgotten about. The prisoners were left in these dark, damp cells – exercise was prohibited and only a once a week wash was allowed. A bucket was lowered down with food, and then lifted out to collect the prisoner’s faeces. The isolation cells laid on a cliff edge and it took three years for the convicts to build them by hand. They were later demolished and only a small part of the building now remains.
Industrial Precinct & Docks Precinct – LOWER ISLAND
Both the Industrial and Docks Precincts are located on the Lower Island. Cockatoo Island’s maritime history began a few years after the penal settlement was established. As the amount of shipping in Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) was increasing, NSW Governor Gipps proposed the construction of a dry dock to repair vessels used by The Royal Navy. The powerhouse of industry lasted well over a century and became the nation’s primary shipbuilding and repair facility.
In 1913 Cockatoo Island became the nation’s first naval dockyard for the Royal Australian Navy and it also became Australia’s leading shipyard during WWII. The dock at Cockatoo Island continued to support the building and launching of ships until it’s closure in 1991. You can wander over to the Slipway to see where huge ships were built from scratch and launched onto Sydney Harbour.
Ship Design Precinct & Historic Residence Precinct – UPPER ISLAND
Both the Ship Design Precinct and Historic Residence Precinct are located on the Upper Island.
Walking through the Ship Design Precinct you’ll see shops such as the Joiner’s Shop, Pattern Shop and Drawing & Estimating Offices. Shipyard Stories Maritime Exhibition is at Biloela House and from here you can get the best views of the Harbour on the island!
The Historic Residence Precinct housed management and their families and these historic buildings have now been turned into overnight accommodation for paying guests.
Tales of Convicts
Being on an island, it meant it was hard for convicts to try and escape the prison on Cockatoo. First they had to learn how to swim (many were unable to), and secondly – the waters around Cockatoo Island had sharks in. The most famous story about convicts escaping is about Frederick Ward who had been jailed for seven years for receiving stolen horses.
In 1863 his devoted part-Aboriginal wife Mary Ann Bugg swam over to Cockatoo Island and left him the tools he needed to break free. Ward escaped a couple of nights later with his friend Fred Britten. Britten sadly drowned but Ward made it safely to land (where the Dawn Fraser Baths are located in Balmain) where his wife was waiting, and they rode off together on a horse into the sunset!
How long should you spend at Cockatoo Island?
It is totally up to you! Perhaps you only have a couple of hours spare, or you have a whole day in which you want to explore the island. Or perhaps even you fancy staying overnight! Personally I only had a few hours here and I felt happy I had seen as much as I had wanted – although staying overnight here would be a fantastic experience!
Best places to get a view of Cockatoo Island:
You can get good views across to Cockatoo Island from Elkington Park in Balmain.
Food on Cockatoo Island:
There are only a couple of options for food on Cockatoo Island, but both of them offer a large selection of meals and beverages (including alcoholic ones).
The cafe ‘Societe Overboard’ located right by the ferry wharf and Visitor Centre is really nice and has great views across to Sydney Harbour Bridge. It offers some really delicious breakfast, lunch and dinner options – click here to see the food menu. It does close late afternoon, so if you are staying overnight you might want to bring some food with you. If you are camping however, you can preorder BBQ packs to use for the evening. You’ll pick them up from Societe Overboard cafe.
On the other side of the island is Marina Cafe & Bar by Camber Wharf. It has a nice beer garden and is open until mid-afternoon. It has a great selection of food and drinks – click to see the food menu!
If you prefer to bring your own food there are plenty picnic tables located around the island for you to enjoy. The best area for a picnic is the grassy area facing The Harbour Bridge.
Accommodation on Cockatoo Island:
Whether you are a local looking for a Sydney staycation or a tourist looking to escape the crowds, a night at Cockatoo Island is certainly one you will remember! Cockatoo Island is the only harbour island where you can stay overnight and there are several types of accommodation options to suit different budgets and tastes. You can choose to stay in an apartment or historic home, or even choose to do camping or glamping! This is actually the only place in the whole harbour where you can camp overnight so it is definitely something you should add to your Sydney bucket list!
The Harbour View Apartments and Historic Homes are all former residences that have been beautifully restored and are very modern inside. Some of them can fit up to 10 people inside, plus they offer fabulous views of Sydney Harbour!
If you are looking for a really unique experience in Sydney, you can camp overnight in army tents on Cockatoo Island. There are lots of tents here and it would make for a really fun experience for kids without having to travel too far out of Sydney! The tents also make a great place for budget-friendly backpackers to use as a base to explore Sydney!
Overnight accommodation prices are very reasonable – click here for information and prices!
If you are staying overnight you will check in at the Visitor Centre as you arrive on the island.
Is Cockatoo Island suitable for children?
Cockatoo Island is a great place to take children and you’ll often find many school excursions here. Even if young children may not be so interested in history, they will still be impressed by the tales of the island and all the areas to explore. Do be careful near the edges of the water with young children though as there aren’t many barriers.
If the Visitor Centre is open and you are with children, pick up one of the activity books which will enable your children to interact with the island’s history as they learn and explore.
Other places to visit near Cockatoo Island:
You can get the ferry from Cockatoo Island to Drummoyne, then walk to Iron Cove Bridge to start The Bay Run – a scenic 7km circuit around Iron Cove. This will take you all the way down the Parramatta River to Sydney Olympic Park where you can do some nice walks along the Parramatta River.
Alternatively get the ferry in the opposite direction to Birchgrove, which then stops off at Balmain before terminating at Circular Quay. Both Birchgrove and Balmain are lovely places to walk around and you’ll go past the colourful watershed warehouses in Balmain. If you take the ferry back to Circular Quay, be sure to check out these Instagrammable places in Sydney!
Like this post? Pin it for later!
Catrina is a Travel Writer, SEO Specialist and ex-Flight Attendant based in Sydney, Australia. She has visited 85 countries and lived in several – including Italy, Australia, United Arab Emirates and England. Her work has been featured in a variety of popular travel publications including Fodors, Escape, Australian Traveller and Bear Grylls, as well as several international aviation and travel companies. The majority of her work however features on her own website – 24hourslayover.com where she has written over 500 travel articles!