One of my must-sees when I knew we were going to Hobart in Tasmania was Port Arthur. It’s one of Australia’s most important historical sites, and a major part of the Australian Convict Sites, registered as a UNESCO world heritage site. Here I will tell you about our visit and give you all the hints and tips so you can take your own Port Arthur day trip.
The History of Port Arthur Historic Site
Port Arthur first became a convict settlement in 1833, when it was decided to move the worst of the worst out of Hobart and relocate them to this barren peninsula. These were the convicts that had reoffended again here in Van Dieman’s Land after they had been transported from their homes in the UK. There was no need for fences here as the neck of the peninsula is only metres wide and it acted as a natural gate. Only this small section of land needed to be guarded. The surrounding terrain was harsh and remote, and there was not a single successful escape attempt from Port Arthur.
While still a penal settlement, the progressive leaders decided that this should be a rehabilitation centre rather than just punitive, and it was insisted that most of the convicts were put to work and at least learned a trade while they were here. Even though they had been transported thousands of kilometres away from their families, by the time the convicts were free men, they were often better off than they would have been if they continued their lives in, for example, the more destitute parts of London.
In 1853, the transportation of convicts to Hobart ceased, and in 1877 Port Arthur was closed down.
This is not the end of the historical significance of Port Arthur. In 1996 it was the site of the worst ever massacre on Australian soil. Martin Bryant opened fire near the Broad Arrow Cafe and killed 35 people, injuring 23 more. This incident had huge political repercussions, and triggered big changes in Australia’s gun laws. The cafe is now no more than a shell with a simple memorial to the victims nearby.
How to Get to Port Arthur from Hobart?
That was the big question – how far was it to Port Arthur and how were we going to get there? Port Arthur is around 100km from the centre of Hobart, and it take around 90 minutes to get there by car.
It is possible to catch a bus to Port Arthur but services are limited and are usually run by private bus companies.
With three of us visiting Port Arthur together, it was much more economical for us to hire a car for the day. We used RentalCars.com to compare all of the available hire car companies in Hobart and got a great deal, paying only slightly more than it would have cost one of us to catch the bus. We ended up with a lovely Toyota Rav4 to make the trip.
There are also plenty of all inclusive day tours available from Hobart if you prefer that option. Here are just a couple. Click through the links for more details.
- Complete Port Arthur Day Trip from Hobart – With a duration of 11 hours, this longer tour not only takes you to Port Arthur, but you get to stop and see some of the stunning Tasman Peninsula scenery along the way. I really enjoyed seeing some of the wild coastline in this area during our trip, so I think this would be a good option if you have the time.
- Grand Historical Port Arthur Walking Tour from Hobart – This shorter, 8-9 hour tour goes straight from your Hobart accommodation to the main attraction, Port Arthur. An extra inclusion on this tour is a guided walk on the Isle of the Dead – the cemetery island located just off shore from Port Arthur.
Port Arthur Entrance Fees
On arrival at the Port Arthur historical site there is a large Visitor Centre to help you with everything you need during your visit. You can purchase your tour tickets here, browse the gift shop or eat at the restaurant. If you are like us and arrived not too long after the 9:00am opening time, expect there to be a lineup for tickets.
At the time of writing (Jan 2019), tickets are $39AUD for adults, $17AUD children from 7-17, $32 for concession holders and children under 7 free. There is also a family ticket for $99 for two adults and up to six children. All tickets are valid for two consecutive days, so bear that in mind if you are staying nearby.
At the point of entry you will be given a time for your guided walk and your boat tour, both of which are included in the entrance fee.
The Visitor Centre is also the place to book and pay for the extra tours that are available too, like
- Ghost tours
- Paranormal Investigation Experience
- Point Puer Boys’ Prison
- Isle of the Dead
- Audio tours
- After Dark Packages (including dinner)
- Escape from Port Arthur Tour
- Commandants Carriage Tour
Port Arthur Guided Walking Tour
Our guided tour began only minutes after our arrival, right outside of the visitors centre. The tour lasts for around 45 minutes and gives a brief rundown of the site and the history. We walked through the ruins of the main penitentiary building on the site while learning about some of the memorable convicts as well as the governors and other prominent staff.
The tour does not walk visitors all over the Port Arthur site – it is much too big for that – but our guide did point out and talk about many of the buildings we could see in the distance. The tour ended outside of one building that was particularly interesting, The Seperate Prison. This was the worst place to end up (or maybe that was actually the asylum next door where many inmates ended up next) as here every person was kept in isolation and solitude.
This was a new form of punishment, and was used in place of severe floggings or other forms of corporal punishment. The prisoners were kept isolated in their individual cells for most of the day. They were not allowed to talk. Even the staff were not allowed to talk. Once a day they were taken to seperate exercise yards where they could not see anyone else, and again had to be silent. Even when they attended church they were kept in seperate compartments meaning they could not see other prisoners. Many prisoners went mad, hence their relocation to the asylum next door.
The asylum now contains a small museum and study centre as well as The Museum Coffee Shop, which is where we grabbed a bite to eat for lunch after the tour and exploring the nearby area.
Port Arthur Harbour Cruise
After our quick bite to eat we had to rush to the other side of the site to get to the boat jetty for our 12:30pm boat trip. The 25 minute trip take visitors out into the harbour to see the Port Arthur site from the water. The cruise also gets close to the site of the Point Puer Boys Prison, where boys as young as 8 were sent if they too reoffended once they were in Australia. This was the first place in the British Empire where the boys were kept seperate from the men while imprisoned. The Lieutenant-Governor at the time, George Arthur (who Port Arthur was named for), was progressive in his thinking and hoped to teach and rehabilitate these boys, rather than allow them to mix with the general prison population, who, remember, had not only been transported to Van Dieman’s Land, but had reoffended once here.
There is little left of the Point Puer Boys Prison, but it is currently being excavated and studied further to find out as much as possible about the site and what went on here.
The boat also passes by the ominously named Isle of the Dead. This small island in the middle of the harbour was used as the cemetery for Port Arthur. There are possibly up to 2000 people buried on the island – so far there are 1646 known graves – but only 180 of them have any form of headstone. These were the graves of military officers or their families who were stationed at Port Arthur. Others were civilians who lived in the area. Any convicts that died were buried without any documentation of their location on the island.
Both of these sites are available as extra tours if visitors would like to learn more.
The Rest of Port Arthur
With over thirty buildings on the site to explore there is still a lot more to see. After the boat ride we stopped to visit the memorial for the Port Arthur Massacre. I remember this happening, all the stories in the news, and the gun reforms that followed, and I was looking forward to seeing what had been done here.
I am still unsure about how I feel about the memorial. It really isn’t much. An open area behind a hedge with a single cross with the names of those killed. There is also a small reflection pond with some lovely phrases. Outside of the area there is a small plaque with a very brief description of what happened here. On one hand I felt like this was not enough. Foreign visitors who did not know what had happened would likely not understand the significance of this area – the plaque was too small and could be easily missed. On the other hand, this is a beautiful and remote location, a simple memorial suits the landscape. I can also understand that the local authorities want this site to continue to be mostly known as the UNESCO listed site it is, not as the site of Australia’s worst massacre.
We continued on exploring some more of the buildings, going to “Civill Officers’ Row”. Here is where the houses of all the other important people lived, such as the magistrate, junior medical officers and accountant. This area also houses the parsonage, and the Roman Catholic chaplain’s house. Many of these houses contain displays of memorabilia from the time of the convicts. There are also records of who lived in the houses, and some rooms are furnished as they would have been in the past.
Nearby are two churches. The most obvious one is simply called “The Convict Church”. When it was first built it was non-denominational, and therefore unconsecrated. It was used by both Catholics and the Church of England, the two predominant religions of the prisoners. Part of the convict reform policy of Port Arthur was that every prisoner would attend church on Sunday, so there would often be up to 1100 people here, convicts and free settlers alike.
The Convict Church was destroyed by fire in 1884, when embers from burning rubbish at the nearby parsonage ignited the roof. It was left too be taken over by the elements, and became a romantic, ivy-covered ruin. In the 1980’s the Convict Church was restored, and in my opinion, is now the most impressive part of the Port Arthur site.
The second church is much less impressive, just a small wooden building across the road. St David’s Anglican Church was not built until after Port Arthur stopped housing convicts, and is still in operation today. It’s not at all impressive inside. but a good place to escape if you need a few minute of peace.
Adjacent to the churches is a large garden area. Originally this area was covered with buildings, but they fell victim to bushfires in the late 1800’s and the area was abandoned. Now it’s a really nice formal garden area, and the perfect spot for a picnic if you would like to bring one with you. It is also a great area to let the kids run around and blow off some steam when they get tired of looking at old buildings.
Back up behind the main penitentiary building are the ruins of the old hospital and what is called the Military District. Here is when all the military personnel and their families were housed. This area is also where a lot of the administration of Port Arthur took place, as the law courts and house of The Commandant is here. The Commandant was the senior official at Port Arthur. The house has been preserved like it would have been in convict times and is open to wander through.
An area we did not get to since we ran out of time was the Dockyards. We could see it from the boat as we left the jetty. During it’s peak, there were 16 large vessels and about 150 smaller ones produced here in fifteen years. The sculpture seen in the foreground of my photo is representative of the size of the larger boats built here.
As we were leaving, we had a few minutes spare to visit the Convict Gallery and Lottery of Life. As we entered we were given a playing card. Theses were the cards we were dealt in the lottery of life. Each one corresponded to a convict profile in the gallery. I was allocated William Moore, who was transported to Van Dieman’s Land for stealing silver spoons!
In this area visitors can search the records of prisoners, military, and other who were here in Port Arthur during the convict times. I had always been told that my forefather came to Australia in the 1830’s and was the head doctor of the hospital here in Port Arthur. A name search though proved futile. My mother has done more research since, and it appears he was not in Port Arthur, but at a similar hospital in Hobart. Our whole family history story has been changed!
This Convict Gallery area is probably best visited before exploring the site. It would be a great way to while away the time if you have to wait for your walking tour to begin.
Overall Thoughts on Port Arthur
This is an interesting day trip from Hobart. The site itself is absolutely beautiful. It’s a large area to walk around, but there is buggy transport available if required. (Simon pretended to limp at one point as the driver was passing, and she offered to take us anyway since she was empty). A full day here is not unrealistic. Trying to cram everything into half a day would be a challenge. I think there is value to be had in some of the extra tours, and including one of them would make it difficult to see everything in a day. I would even suggest that if you have the time, perhaps stay in the area overnight and take advantage of the second day included in the admission price. I would have considered this if we weren’t flying home the following day.
My suggestion for lunch is to either bring your own food, or eat at The Museum Cafe. The Cafe in the Visitors Centre seemed quite busy each time we passed, but we had no problem getting food and a table at The Museum Cafe.
Make sure you are prepared for the weather during your visit. You will be outside for most of the time. In winter it can be bitterly cold here, while in summer you could end up with a touch of sunburn.
Things to Do on the Drive to Port Arthur
I enjoyed the drive to and from Port Arthur almost as much as the day we spent there. We were lucky to visit in November so we had a lot more daylight to be able to explore on our way home. We ducked off the main road into all sorts of areas. Here is a little local information and some of the things we saw along the way
- Tasman National Park – Much of the coastal area (including some of the things I will mention later) is part of the Tasman National Park. If you have plenty of time, then there are some great hiking trails to see some spectacular views. At around 300m, the cliffs around Cape Pillar are the tallest sea cliffs in Australia.
- Three Capes Track – This is becoming a very popular four day/three night 48km hike around the capes near Port Arthur. While of course you won’t be doing this on a day tour, if you are planning to stay in the area this is an amazing way to see some of Australia’s most pristine countryside and stunning sea views. This is definitely on my bucket list.
- Tasman Arch & The Devil’s Kitchen – just a short walk from the carpark will take you too these rock formations along the coast. They are well signposted from the main road, so are easy to find.
- DooTown & the blowhole – we drove through this little coastal town as we were looking for the blowhole (again, follow the signs). I started to notice all of the houses had names on them, and all of them contained the word “Doo”. There was Doo Bee, Just Doo It, Make Doo, and, of course, Didgeri Doo. The names continued on, and we giggled as they became more and more ridiculous. I didn’t feel I should be taking photos of people houses, but when we stopped at the blowhole we found the below food van “Doo-lishus”. A sign on the van notes the houses are now a photo op, so perhaps I shouldn’t have felt bad about photographing peoples homes.
- The Tessellated Pavement – Another unusual rock formation along the way. Stop off for a quick look, then continue along the road a little for some fabulous views over Pirates Bay
- Port Arthur Lavender Farm – There were a lot of signs not far from Port Arthur advertising the nearby lavender farm. We did not have a chance to visit, but you can wander through the fields for a perfect instagram shot – lavender in the foreground, the sea behind. They do tours of the distillery (yes, that’s what they call it), and there is a cafe serving lavender products (and normal products!) and a gift shop on site too.
- Tasmanian Devil Unzoo – I hoped this would be open as we passed, but alas, it was not. I really want to know want an “Unzoo” is. It does look like a really cool place to get up close to some Tasmanian Devils.
Port Arthur Accommodation
In case you are planning to stay in the area, here are just a couple of suggestions I was recommended by locals in the area.
- NRMA Port Arthur Holiday Park – This is a good option for families or large groups to stay near Port Arthur. There are a variety of rooms and the accommodation ranges from basic bunk rooms to deluxe water view cabins and family safari tents. Click here for the latest prices and availability
- Stewarts Bay Lodge – for stunning water views and a bush location, these self contained chalets would be a perfect retreat. Click here for the latest prices and availability.
Looking for more to do in Tasmania? You may be interested in these posts
Day Trip from Hobart to Richmond, Tasmania
Visiting MONA, Tasmania – a Review for the Artistically Challenged
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.