There are some places that will instil the fear in most people and the Port Arthur prison must have done that back in the day when it was a fully functioning convict prison. I can tell you that because even as it stands now in ruins on the tip of a little bay it still has the power to make you feel a slight shiver of fear.
Standing in the sun you could feel beautifully warm but as soon as the wind picked up it could cut you to the bone with its iciness. I can only imagine how much the Port Arthur convicts would love the beauty of this place but hate it at the same time.
Port Arthur Australia is one of the countries top attractions
We arrived at 10.45 after making the trip from Hobart to Port Arthur with Gray Line. I made a beeline to get my first look at the Port Arthur Historic site after taking the girls to the toilet after we first arrived. We made our way quickly down to the oval to take some pictures before the Port Arthur Historical Site got too busy with visitors for the day. We then made our way back up to a small balcony just inside the entrance so we could join the free tour which started at 11.00.
The tour was conducted by an employee of the Port Arthur Historic Site and the knowledge he had was amazing. We were taken to the majority of the main buildings or a central point where they would tell us about what had gone on there. As you toured more of the Port Arthur historic site the harsh conditions that the Port Arthur convicts had were made more and more evident. From harsh working gangs that built so much of Tasmania to the brutal punishment of the separate prison where Port Arthur convicts were sent into solitary confinement.
The tour only goes for about 45 minutes and gives you a taste of what to expect as you tour the actual buildings yourself. After the tour, you are able to ask the guide as many questions as you like and the girls found this time with the guide fantastic. Not only could they ask about the Port Arthur Historic site but they could also ask about the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre that took place here.
It was something that I remembered being on television but I was not sure of the exact details that took place here. It was great for us all to learn what exactly happened on that day even though it was harder for them to understand how something like this could happen in our modern times. It also reminded us that Port Arthur Tasmania was again the source of so many peoples pain but to a whole new generation of people.
Port Arthur Convicts had a hard and horrible life
From there we took out our map and plotted a course around the Port Arthur Historic Site. We decided that we should go and get some lunch before it got too late and before we headed off on our Isle of the Dead tour. We headed up to the Asylum to have lunch so we could maximise our time wandering the Port Arthur prison site.
The Main Buildings of Port Arthur Tasmania.
The Visitor Center (The entrance)
You enter the Port Arthur Historic Site through here. Downstairs you will find a small gallery that will show you
The Penitentiary (Ruins)
This is the large sandstone building that dominates the Port Arthur Site. Now in ruins, it was originally the flour mill and granary but it was converted into a 4 storey prison as the prisoner numbers increased at Port Arthur Tasmania. The two lower floors had cells that held 136 prisoners and the upper levels held around 480 better-behaved convict prisoners in bunks.
The Law Courts, The Guard Tower and The Commandant’s House
As you make your way from the penitentiary you pass the ruins of the law courts and the guard tower before you pass through the beautiful gates to the Commandants House. The beautiful gardens that surround it must have been such a tease for the convict prisoners that had to look at it every day.
Inside you will be taken back in time to see what life would have been like for the Commandant and his family. There is a bedroom, a sitting room and a kitchen where you can see what items were like back in those times. You can also get a beautiful view from the verandah over to the Isle of the Dead
*It is also said that here is where the spirit of a little girl likes to show herself to some people. She actually passed away as a young lady but seems to appear now as much younger in age. There was a Port Arthur Historic Site worker our ion the verandah the day we were there and she was able to share some of her knowledge with us about the young girl.
The Asylum and the Separate Prison
In the Asylum now houses a small museum displaying convict artefacts. This is where we ate lunch. we then headed over to the separate prison where prisoners were sent for solitary confinement. It was a new way of reforming some of the Port Arthur convicts that hard labour was no longer working on. It was believed that through isolation and contemplation they would be better. You can tour the cells and the outside areas where the convict prisoners were able to go for only one hour a day.
Other buildings around the Port Arthur Historic Site
There are many other small cottages spotted around the Port Arthur Prison site that all have a story to tell. When you visit Port Artur Tasmania it is a great idea to make sure you have plenty of time to be able to see all of them. They all have different information inside the homes. Many were destroyed in fires but they have now been restored to tell the story of how the Port Arthur site ran and what the free occupnats did there. Also save some time to wander the Governmnet Gardens and spend some time in the ruins of the Church.
There are two places inside thePort Arthur Historic Sitewhere you can get lunch:
At these places, you can get a quick bite to eat or drinks. Items available are
- Sausage rolls, pies
- Sandwiches. Cold or toasted
- Hot and cold drinks
- Snack food like chips, chocolate bars, muffins and packets of cheese and biscuits
- Fresh fruit (seasonal)
There are other hot food items available at the Visitor Centre but we did not eat there so I am unsure as to what they were. If you are pressed for time during your visit I would suggest that you bring a packed lunch with you so you can walk and eat. We did not have any wait times as we ate early and the site was not very busy on the day that we visited but if you do come on a busy day this would seriously cut into your time here at the Port Arthur Historic Site.
Inside the Asylum is a museum that shows you items that were found here and some history behind the site and its surrounds. We found it to be very informative and it was a great way to get started on the rest of our tour.
The Memorial Gardens.
In 1996 Port Arthur Tasmania was again the source of immense pain for so many people. A gunman opened fire on visitors and workers alike as they sat in the Broad Arrow Cafe (where you used to buy your entry tickets) or walked around the prison site, killing 35 innocent people and injuring 19 others. To never forget what happened here the Memorial garden was erected around the area where the Broad Arrow Cafe was.
The garden is sheltered by a hedge and is a beautiful quiet place where those 35 people can be remembered. We spent some time in the gardens and we stood by the ruins of the cafe as we discussed what had happened with the girls. It was a little confronting for them to be there and neither wanted to go inside the ruins of the cafe, which we respected. We did not take any pictures in the gardens but it is a memory that will not fade easily for any of us.
We spent as much time as we could wandering and taking in as much as we could. I could have been there for a lot longer looking into every building and reading every sign that gave you more information as could have Willow. For Mark (who has been before) and Marley, it was enough for them.
We were supposed to visit the Isle of the Dead for a tour of the cemetery but unfortunately, we were unable to disembark from the boat due to high winds and a king tide.
Port Arthur Tasmania Top Tips:
- The Port Arthur weather can be unpredictable. If you are visiting Port Arthur in winter please dress accordinly as well as in the summer. Layers are always a great idea
- If you can get a ticket for the Isle of the Dead cruise. (It is inc=cluded in your ticket price on some tours so doulbe check if when you are entering) It is a great way to see the Port Arthur rison site from the water.
- If you can arrive early to beat the crowds.
- There are free walking tours so take advantage of them. You will find out plenty of extra information on that gyuided tour.
- If you can bring lunch especially if you are on limited time. You can eat and walk or eat on the cruise.
- Bring some water to start and then you can get more. As we said there is only two place to get lunch and snacks so you do want to come prepared.
- There are plenty of toilets around the site.
Next time I hope we are able to do the Isle of the Dead tour to find out more about how the convicts and free people were treated in their passing. A Port Arthur ghost tour is also high on the list for Willow when we visit next time. I am unsure a ghost tour is for me so it might be just her and her Dad for that one.
Port Arthur Website: https://portarthur.org.au/
Audio tours are also available at an additional cost. The audio guides can be hired from the visitor’s centre when you arrive.
Port Arthurs coastal location in Southern Tasmania means that the weather can be very cool and wet in Winter and warm in summer. You should be prepared for 4 seasons in one day sometimes, sun, rain, wind, cold and warmth!
Things to bring to Port Arthur
- Dress in comfortable, layered clothing
- Bring a raincoat and an umbrella
- Wear comfortable shoes, suitable for walking
- Pack sunscreen and a hat
- Lightweight Backpack
- Drink Bottle
- Digital Camera
- Check the weather forecast before your visit and dress for the conditions
Things to consider when planning to visit Port Arthur:
You should check the Port Arthur website, What’s on Page where you will find information about events and programs. I would look to avoid days when cruise ships are visiting the waters of Port Arthur. On these days when cruises visit Port Arthur anywhere between 1200 and 200 extra people will be onsite.
Gray Line Port Arthur Tour Details:
Our day trip to Port Arthur from Hobart was with Grayline and we thank them for taking us there. We left Hobart at 9 am arriving at 10.40. We had roughly 4 hours at the Port Arthur Historic Site before heading home.
Tour Duration: 8.15 / 9.15am departure ( depending on the time of the year. 5.00 / 5.30p, return
Tour Includes Introductory walking tour by Port Arthur guide (40mins), harbour cruise, Port Arthur admission and free WiFi* on the coach.
Highlights of this tour
- Departing Hobart where the driver will point out landmarks
- Travel across the Tasman Bridge over the Derwent River, and into the Coal River Valley, an award-winning wine producing area surrounding the historic town of Richmond (Oct-Apr).
- Enjoy an orientation drive through this quaint historic town with a short photo stop at the famous convict built Richmond Bridge (Oct to Apr)
- We continue onto the Tasman Peninsula, driving through bushland, where you may see native wildlife and amazing coastal views
- Our stop in the Tasman National Park at Pristine Pirates Bay will leave you in awe of the wonderful views, rugged coastline and striking rock formations. A great photo opportunity!
- Arriving at Port Arthur we have approximately 5 hours at this World Heritage Site
- Visit the Interpretation Centre
- Join a guided walking tour to learn about the many restored buildings and ruins
- See the Penitentiary – a one-time granary and flour mill, separate prison, Commandant’s House, church and more
- Enjoy a cruise on Carnarvon Bay to the Isle of the Dead, then back to the Historic Site for free time to purchase your own lunch and explore at your own pace.
I hope you have found our article about Port Arthur Tasmania helpful for your visit. Port Arthur is a must visit Tasmania destination. There is no easier way to visit than door to door from downtown Hobart to Port Arthur with Gray Line.
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More about the Author
Bec Wyld is a mother, wife and once reluctant traveller. Bec has been to over 30 countries across the globe. I have planned and stressed in all of these places. Becs writing can be found on Wyld Family Travel and as a guest poster and contributor on many other travel websites including Lonely Planet Kids