Things to Do on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour

Last updated: February 24, 2024

Cockatoo Island is a UNESCO World Heritage and National Heritage Listed island located in the middle of beautiful Sydney Harbour.

The island has a rich history as a shipbuilding yard, a Commonwealth naval base, and a convict island. You can experience all this first-hand by wandering on the island and absorbing its well-preserved history.

Catch a ferry from Circular Quay, score a free map from the visitor centre, and enjoy a wonderful day out. Or book a luxury tent on the camping site and enjoy two days on this unique island.

In this article, we will share the best things to do on Cockatoo Island!

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How to Get There

Since Cockatoo Island is an actual island in Sydney Harbour, the only way to get there is by boat.

Ferry services to and from the island (Woolwich/Balmain and Parramatta RiverCat services) are excellent and offer the perfect opportunity to enjoy beautiful Sydney Harbour.

The best places to hop on a ferry to Cockatoo Island are Circular Quay and Barangaroo. Ferries go regularly, seven days a week, and there is no need to make a booking.

Also worth mentioning is that if you visit Cockatoo Island on a Saturday or Sunday, you can enjoy unlimited public transport for a very affordable daily travel cap.

Entrance to Cockatoo Island

Map of Cockatoo Island

Upon arrival, it’s recommended to grab a free Cockatoo Island map at the visitor centre and walk your way around the island.

You can also download and print a map of the island from the official New South Wales Cockatoo Island website.

7 Things to Do on Cockatoo Island

Here are seven ideas for things to do on Cockatoo Island.

1. Go for a Walk

The best way to see the island’s highlights is by simply wandering around, ideally with a map in your hand or on your phone.

You can also go for a self-guided audio tour that you can purchase at the visitor centre for a few dollars. It’s a guided walk along more than 20 stops, with an informative narrator, immersive sound effects, and archival interviews with former workers and residents.

If you’re going DIY, it’s recommended to walk in a clockwise manner along the five different precincts on the island:

  1. Industrial Precinct
  2. Docks Precinct
  3. Historic Residence Precinct
  4. Ship Design Precinct
  5. Convict Precinct

Walking the entire island will probably take up to two hours, including stops for photos and reading the information panels. It’s an easy walk, but there are steps and areas with uneven surfaces.

Convict Precinct

Of the five precincts on Cockatoo Island, the Convict Precinct is perhaps the most interesting.

Walking through the convict precinct gives you a sense of how harsh life was on the island for prisoners. Hard labour, poor hygiene, and overpopulation were prevalent on the island in the 19th century.

Convict Precinct on Cockatoo Island
Convict Precinct

A lot of the barracks, silos, and docks that you can see on the island were built by convicts.

In 2009, during archaeological research excavations, two solitary confinement cells were discovered, further revealing how harsh the conditions were for convicts on the island.

Confinement cells on Cockatoo Island
Confinement cells

These confinement cells are open to the public, and walking through them is quite a unique experience.


There are two tunnels on Cockatoo Island that visitors can walk through, with the Dog Leg Tunnel the most fascinating of the two.

Tunnels on Cockatoo Island
Dog Leg Tunnel entrance

The Dog Leg Tunnel was built in 1915 and is just under 200 metres long.

It was built to quickly move materials from one side of the island to the other. During World War II, the tunnels were used as shelters.

Cliff Top Walk

Another must-do highlight is the Cliff Top Walk, a metal walkway around the eastern edge of the upper part of the island.

Cliff Top Walk on Cockatoo Island
Cliff Top Walk

Because the walkway is elevated, you can enjoy great views of the island, the surrounding Harbour, and the city skyline in the distance.

One of the interesting things to see along the Cliff Top Walk is the convict silos. These are hollowed-out chambers created by convicts to store grain.

2. Do a Guided Tour

There are several guided tours that you can do on the island if you’d like to learn more about its history or if you’re up for a bit of an adventure.

Cockatoo Island forecourt

Popular tours are the Ghost Tour, the Convict Precinct Tour, the Dark Past Tour, and the Sandstone to Steel Tour.

Tickets for guided tours can be purchased from the Ticketbooth website.

3. Discover the History of Cockatoo Island

As you walk around the island, either by yourself or with a guided tour, you will be able to learn more about the history of Cockatoo Island and Sydney.

Like most other islands in Sydney Harbour, Cockatoo Island has had a long and tumultuous history and has only been open to the public since 2007 as a tourist attraction.

Convict Precinct on Cockatoo Island
Convict Precinct

The island was used as a convict prison between 1839 and 1869. Prisoners had to endure harsh living conditions and were employed to construct barracks, silos, and docks.

Shipbuilding on Cockatoo Island began in 1870, and many large and significant vessels have been built and repaired on the island since.

Industrial Precinct on Cockatoo Island
Industrial Precinct

The last ship to launch from the Cockatoo Island dockyard was the HMAS Success, a replenishment oiler that was decommissioned in 2019.

Cockatoo Island was included in the National Heritage List in 2007 and proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2010. The Sydney Harbour Federation Trust has been managing the island since 2001.

4. Go Camping (Or Glamping)

Cockatoo Island has an excellent camping site where you can relax and take in the island’s unique atmosphere.

Camping on the island is often called “glamping” (glamorous camping). Glamping is basically a form of easy camping, with all the hard work of camping done for you; no need to set up tents or beds.

Camping on Cockatoo Island
Camping on Cockatoo Island

It’s a luxury camping experience with everything conveniently organised for you. Everything is set up and ready to go upon your arrival.

It allows you to maximise your time on the island and fully enjoy your short break. The campsite offers tents of different sizes, with excellent BBQ, toilet and shower facilities.

Cockatoo Island campground

You can also choose the cheaper camping option, where you will need to bring your own sleeping gear. You can also bring your own hiking tent and simply book a spot on the grounds.

Bookings for a spot on the campground can be made through the official Cockatoo Island website.

5. Book a Holiday House or Apartment

If camping (or glamping) isn’t your thing and you’d like to enjoy a bit more luxury, you can also rent a holiday house or apartment on the island.

The two houses available to book are Federation-style, heritage-listed properties that were once the homes of Cockatoo Island’s engineering manager and medical officer.

Cockatoo Island
Cockatoo Island

The three apartments are all restored Harbour View apartments, each with a large entertaining balcony overlooking Sydney Harbour.

Bookings for a holiday house or apartment can be made through the official Cockatoo Island website.

6. Boost Your Photography Skills

Cockatoo Island is often used as a photography course excursion trip because the island is the perfect place for shooting great photos.

Industrial buildings with an abandoned atmosphere, stunning Harbour views, wildlife, an old prison, city views, and much more.

Cockatoo Island has a rich history
Cockatoo Island has a rich history

As you wander around the island, you’ll be amazed by the countless photo opportunities you’ll encounter. You will need at least two hours to complete a tour of the island.

Cockatoo Island truly is a photographer’s paradise, and the ferry trip to and from the island is a bonus.

7. Have Lunch

There are currently two (licensed) waterfront cafes where you can sit down for a nice meal and a refreshing drink.

Cafe on Cockatoo Island
Cafe on Cockatoo Island

Marina Cafe & Bar is situated in the historic Docks Precinct and Cockatoo Overboard is located near the Visitor Centre.

Another option is to organise a picnic with friends and family and settle in on one of the many grassy areas on the island.

Interested in other exciting islands in Sydney Harbour? Goat Island is another fascinating place to visit, with lots of history and photo opportunities.

7 Fun things to do on Cockatoo Island



  1. The information for Cockatoo island was very interesting and inviting.

    I have 50 x Senior group wanting to visit the island for the first time. I am just concerned about the self guided audio tour for big groups; is there someone we can meet with on arrival for assistance? We would like to encourage more people to visit this beautiful Island.

    Looking forward to hear from you at your earliest convenience.

    Thank you and kind regards.

    • Hi Sylvana,

      For the self-guided audio tour, it’s best to go straight to the visitor centre near the ferry wharf.

      They will be able to help you with everything you need to know and do for the audio tour.

      Wishing you a great time on Cockatoo Island!

  2. Hi, I am visiting Cockatoo Island this week with my sister and we are related to Francis Christie alias Clarke alias Frank Gardiner notorious bushranger who was incarcerated there in the 1850’s. We want to see anything the island might have about him, records, cell etc. as I am about to publish my book about him. Your help would be appreciated.
    Jan Visinko

    • Hello Jan, that’s an interesting story. Unfortunately I can’t help you with that, but perhaps the visitor centre on the island may be able to point you in the right direction.

  3. Hi, I’m interested in glamping and was wondering if you can send me more information about how to book, how much and what additional things we need to bring.

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