In this series, Lonely Planet’s team of writers and editors answers your travel problems and provides tips and hacks to help you plan a hassle-free trip. All-around travel expert and native Aussie Tasmin Waby helps a reader with the Sydney-related question below.
Question: There are so many ferry services in Sydney. Which boat offers the best views of the harbor?
Tasmin Waby: We have good news for you, dear traveler: all eight of Sydney’s main ferry trips – surely one of the best things to do in town – leave from (and return to) Circular Quay. Which means you’ll enjoy stunning views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House no matter which boat you board.
Since Circular Quay is on Sydney’s south side, you’ll be heading north and then either east or west (depending on your destination). In the mornings, the sun will be behind the opera house; in the afternoon it’s setting behind the bridge. Plan your photography accordingly.
A number of private ferry companies run slightly more expensive trips focused on either quicker journeys (like the My Fast Ferry to Manly) or sightseeing with additional commentary. Private operators also take passengers to off-the-beaten track destinations – we love the Captain Cook Cruises ferry to Shark Island (the national park entry fee is included in your ticket). And remember that you can pay for all your ferry trips, public or private, with an Opal card as well as a contactless card or smartphone.
Planning tip: Smaller ferryboats back out from Circular Quay and spin around before heading off – so pay attention to which end is the bow before grabbing your seat for the trip.
The ferry to Manly (F1)
Possibly the most iconic ferry trip in Sydney, the Manly ferry takes you through the harbor and past North and South Head, where the protected harbor swirls into open ocean. (The waves around the heads can get a bit choppy – so if you get seasick take your medicine well before you depart.)
After you leave the slower-paced area of Circular Quay, busy with boats and sometimes giant cruise ships, the pace picks up for most of the journey until you approach the destination wharf at Manly.
You’ll zoom past harborside apartments at Kirribilli, the lighthouse at Cremorne Point and the terraces of Taronga Zoo before cruising by Middle Harbour. The final part of the trip is characterized by forested reserves and a national park, giving a momentary sense that you’ve left Sydney and are in the countryside. (You haven’t, and you aren’t.) Manly is a worthy day trip for either catching some surf, snorkeling at Shelly Beach or taking a hike around Sydney Harbour National Park.
The ferry to Watsons Bay (F9)
This ferry journey sticks to the salubrious south side of Sydney, taking you to the upmarket enclave of Watsons Bay via a stop at Rose Bay. It’s another excellent excursion from Circular Quay – so allow plenty of time for exploring before heading back. You can walk the mile or so from Watsons Bay wharf to Hornby Lighthouse and its historic lighthouse-keeper’s cottage for views back to the spires of Sydney’s city skyline. Continue around to The Gap to take in the drama of the Pacific Ocean pounding into the cliffside here. Watsons Bay also has pocket-sized harborside beaches perfect for a swim, plus excellent places to eat or enjoy a waterside drink before you head back to Circular Quay.
The ferry under Sydney Harbour Bridge to Cockatoo Island (F8)
A post-industrial site that’s been reimagined with installations highlighting art and history, special events, and a camping site, Cockatoo Island is a destination in itself. This journey by ferry takes you right under Sydney Harbour Bridge, giving you an even greater sense of its size and scale.
As you pass under, look up to see the incredible engineering and steel work from the 1920s. The bridge’s two sides were constructed separately then joined in the middle in 1930, before the bridge was officially opened in 1932. A brief stop at the former working-class suburb of Balmain gives you more chances to photograph the bridge from a different angle. Then it’s on to Cockatoo Island, where you can alight and explore, and take in the harbor views over a picnic.
The ferry down the Parramatta River (F3)
Unlike other Sydney ferry trips, the journey on the Parramatta ferry service runs on the RiverCat, a boat designed for smooth river cruising. First, you’ll head under the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Cockatoo Island via the terminal at Barangaroo (particularly spectacular at night on your return journey, as the lights of Darling Harbour twinkle around you). On a sunny day, expect a fairly tranquil 50-minute journey past waterside suburbs. With seating inside as well as on deck, this is a budget adventure that shows you another side of Sydney.
The Parramatta RiverCat heads toward Sydney’s west via the wide river estuary to the Sydney Olympic Park terminal. From here, the river narrows and your journey continues under road bridges and past salt-marsh mangroves, right up to the high-rise center of Parramatta. From the ferry terminal it’s a short riverside walk to Parramatta Park, with colonial-historical remnants including Old Government House, a dairy dating from 1813, a ruined observatory and an elegant former bathhouse.
The ferry to Mosman Bay (F6)
This trip takes you up close to Sydney’s inner-north-shore suburbs, filled with harborside mansions and small sailing clubs. There are no major sites to visit at Mosman Bay, but if you have time it’s worth alighting here and walking around the harbor back to the wharf at Cremorne before catching the ferry back to Circular Quay.
Cremorne Point reserve is another spectacular place for taking photos of the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney’s singular skyline. You can picnic on the point where Robertsons Lighthouse marks the tip of the peninsula. Another five-minute walk beyond Cremorne wharf is Maccullum swimming pool, a small harbor pool perfect for summer dips (just bring your own swimsuit and towel).