A Guide To The Port Arthur Historic Site, Tasmania

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If you’re looking for a destination of historical importance in Tasmania, then a visit to the Port Arthur Historic Site is one of the top things to do.

a tree over a lake with port Arthur historic buildings in the background

This historic town is located on the Tasman Peninsula and is known for being a 19th-century penal settlement, where the remains of the penitentiary are still there.

Today the small town is an open air museum giving tourists a chance to see a glimpse into Australia’s darker past.

I first visited Port Arthur on my Amazing Race Around Australia, but it was only for an hour, so I made sure to return to get the full experience of this unique heritage site.

In this guide, I have shared with you how to get there, what I learned, what I saw, and how you can make the most of your visit to the fascinating Port Arthur Historic Site.

Where Is The Port Arthur Historic Site?

Map of port arthur

The Port Arthur Historic Site is located a 90-minute drive from Hobart along the Tasman and Arthur Highway and forms part of the Convict Trail Touring Route – a journey through rolling farmland and coastal forests, and seaside villages.

If you need a rental car, click here for availability and prices from Hobart.

A public bus operates from Hobart to Port Arthur by Tassie Link. Don’t forget to book your entry ticket in advance.

Take a Tour to Port Arthur

The other option for getting to Port Arthur if you did not want to hire a car or get the bus, is to join an organized tour from Hobart. There are several options, with a few including other stops along the way. We’ve chosen these tours based on our travels in Tasmania and knowing the highlights. When you book with Get Your Guide, using the links below, you get free cancellation benefits up to 24 hours in advance.

  1. Full Day Tour to Port Arthur with Admission: This tour from Hobart includes a photo stop in Richmond, highlights from Tasman National Park, a guided walking tour of Port Arthur and a cruise around the Isle of the Dead. On Saturdays, in includes a visit to the Salamanca Market in Hobart! Click to learn more and see availability.
  2. Tasman Peninsula Tour, Cruise & Port Arthur Historic Site: Enjoy morning tea on the Tasman Peninsula. Climb aboard a custom-built boat for an unforgettable 3-hour wilderness cruise. Explore the spectacular coastline between Port Arthur and Eaglehawk Neck. Look for seals, migrating whales, seabirds, or even dolphins. At the end of your cruise, spend 3-hours at the Port Arthur Historic Site. Click to see availability and prices and to learn more!
  3. 2-Day Bruny Island and Port Arthur Experience: Discover two of Tasmania’s best tourist attractions. Uncover the natural beauty of Bruny Island on the first day. Historic Port Arthur penal colony and Tasman Peninsula sights on your second day. Click to learn more and see availability.

About Port Arthur

port arthur stone ruins

Port Arthur is one of Tasmania’s most fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Sites and was a former settlement used to house convicts and criminals for more than 50 years.

It became well known for its dark past in which prisoners lived under harsh conditions, contrasting with its remarkable architectural and natural beauty.

Surrounding the ruins are manicured gardens and lush forests, but it wasn’t always a pretty sight.

It was founded by the British Empire in 1830 as a humble timber station but quickly rose to fame as a colony for prisoners.

As well as being a prison, it was also a place of opportunity.

A large brick building

Port Arthur was a functioning town. It was known for its shipbuilding, brickmaking, shoemaking, and smithing industries. In the 1840s, they constructed a hospital and a huge flour mill and granary, which was later turned into a penitentiary.

Today, tourists can visit more than 30 historical buildings, including the “Separate Prison”, which was a model prison of 80 cells, where inmates were subjected to psychological punishment instead of physical reform.

Another notable part of the prison is the unconsecrated Church, as well as the Point Puer Boys’ Prison, which was separate from the main colony, and was where young offenders were kept between 1834 and 1849. Today, Point Puer can only be visited by guided tour.

For complete details on the Port Arthur experience visit the official website.

Facilities at Port Arthur Historic Site

picnic area under tree in field

The Port Arthur Historic Site has a visitor’s centre where you will find facilities for visitors with reduced mobility. There is disabled parking opposite the Visitor Centre.

There is also a cafe, restaurant, gift shop, toilets, and an interpretation gallery that offers information about the site.

All tickets include access to the site for two consecutive days, plus entry to 30 historic buildings, and a 30-minute boat ride.

Our Experience Visiting Port Arthur Historic Site

trees forming a canopy over lane

Port Arthur has a violent and troubled history as a penal colony for some of Australia’s hardened convicts, yet its pastoral beauty brings this contrasting sense of peace and happiness.

I sensed that a lot of love once lived amongst the sandstone buildings and vibrant gardens as well. Many free settlers lived in the area too.

I discovered I enjoyed the Port Arthur World Heritage Site just as much the second time as I did the first.

It’s possibly the best historical site I’ve been to in Australia.

crumbling ruins on a hill

It offers plenty of opportunities to learn the history and the stories of the people who once lived in the settlement. I learned it’s also a fantastic place to bring children.

Kalyra had a ball and learned so much about convicts and the history of her culture.

The Port Arthur entry ticket gives you 2-day access, and she was bursting to return the next day to learn more.

We raced back to the first exhibit so she could learn more about her convict. When you arrive at Port Arthur, you are given a playing card. When you first enter the museum, the story of 52 convicts is told.

You find the person that corresponds to your card and you follow their card through the ship to learn of their fate.

poster van diemans land convict rap sheet

Coincidentally, Craig and I got the same named person. Kalyra spent the remainder of our time at Port Arthur asking about William, her little convict boy.

“Is this where my William slept Mummy?”

“But what about William, what did he do?”

I loved the connection this one simple interaction gave her to the experience and the story.

The next day, after she heard about the ghost tour Craig and I did the evening before, she was brave enough to venture into the parsonage house with me – known the be in the top 5 most haunted places in Australia.

I did not tell her that 60% of the 1,600 documented ghost sightings have occurred in the daylight. I’m not sure she would have been so keen to race through the house, the crumbling church walls, and the separate prison to hear more of the ghostly tales.

A large stone building with a clock tower
Church walls

The separate prison was the eeriest place on the site and the one that made you realize just how cruel humans can be to one another.

I felt the anguish and the desperation seeping from the walls of those who once sat in the cells shut off from the sensory world to reflect upon their crimes to come out enlightened beings.

I guess you could call it that!

cell window in brick prison

Ways To Explore the Port Arthur Historic Site

As an open-air museum, you can be sure there are plenty of ways to explore Port Arthur, Tasmania. Here are just a few ways you can make the most of your trip here.

Self Guided Audio Experience

If you want to explore the open-air museum by yourself without a guide, then you should opt for the Port Arthur Audio Experience, which allows you to explore at your own pace and listen to the history of each part you see.

This allows you the freedom to walk around at your leisure.

Guided tours

crumbling ruins under tree

The guided walking tour of the Port Arthur site is conducted throughout the day and is part of the entry to the park. We highly suggest you jump on one of these.

It is a fantastic way to hear the history and the stories and form a deeper connection with the significance of the historical site. The guides are super informative and passionate about Port Arthur.

Some of the most popular tours are:

  • The Escape from Port Arthur tour, which is like walking through a true crime adventure novel and tells of the cunning criminals who stayed here.
  • Commandant’s Tour, which is a 90 minute tour of the Penitentiary, the Separate Prison, and the Convict Church. This tour would have been given to visitors of the prison when it was still running, and so is one of the most historic tours on the site.
  • Convicts Tour, a short 45 minute introductory tour.
  • After Dark Package Tour, which is a two-course meal on the grounds.
  • Wheel of Fate tour, which is a history and food tour combo.

There are also complimentary site talks at various locations throughout the day, so be sure to check out the timetable to get your free history lesson.

Isle of the Dead Cemetery Tour and Boat Cruise

Isle of the Dead with jetty
Isle of the Dead

You can either take a 30-minute harbour cruises at your leisure, or you can take the Isle of the Dead Cemetery tour which takes you to see the unmarked graves of the convicts and also includes the boat tour.

The boat takes you out into the harbour of Carnarvon Bay and past the Isle of the Dead where around 1000 bodies were buried, and Point Puer, which is where the young boys of the colony were kept.

You can pay extra to stop off with a guide to explore both places in a little more depth.

Ghost tour

people on Ghost Tour, Port Arthur,
Ghost Tour – photo credit Boonie

We have a separate post dedicated to the Port Arthur nightly ghost tour. I LOVED it. It was soooo much fun and well worth doing.

It’s the best ghost tour I have ever been on and I loved seeing Port Arthur lit up by the full moon and our guide’s lantern. Just knowing you are walking the grounds of the most haunted place in Australia is enough to get your “thrill o meter” shooting up.

It’s probably not for the young kids, though.

Summer Activities for the Kids

girls making objects with clay on a table
Savannah and Kalyra making bricks

I was stoked to hear of the great programs they offer for the kids during the summer.

The children make their own peg doll or replica 1/4 size convict brick, learn about early animation by assembling a phantascope, or make convict love tokens.

Activities are offered in two sessions each day, 12–1.30pm and 2–3pm in the Education Centre.

Kalyra and Savannah were lucky enough to have the opportunity to make sandstone bricks like the ones made in the historic buildings. The clay was mixed with some of the convict sandstone buildings which made it a little bit more of a special souvenir.

Final Thoughts on Visiting Port Arthur Historic Site

Port Arthur Historic Site was one of the most eye-opening experiences in Tasmania and was certainly a highlight of our trip.

Be sure to visit the memorial garden, which remembers the 35 people who lost their lives on Sunday 28 April 1996 when a single gunman killed visitors, staff, and locals.

Visitors are asked not to discuss the massacre with locals out of respect.

Disclaimer: We visited as guests of Port Arthur Historical site, but all thoughts, ideas, and opinions in this guide are our own.

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