The Port Arthur Historic Site is a small town located around 100 kilometres south-east of Hobart, on the Tasman Peninsula.
The site was also a former convict settlement and is one of Australia’s most significant heritage areas.
Today the site is an open-air museum where you can explore 40 hectares of convict history.
Things to see at Port Arthur
Constructed in 1843 to serve as a flour mill and granary, the ruin now known as the Penitentiary was converted to a prison in 1857.
Following this, it was able to house more than 480 convicts in dormitory-style rooms.
The building contains a library, Catholic chapel, and workshops.
However, there was a large fire in 1897.
Restoration works are ongoing.
In 1848 the public began to object to the heavy-handed habits of the convict handlers when it came to floggings.
Civilians preferred a punishment of the mind.
Shaped like a cruciform, the Separate Prison’s four wings contain rows of solitary cells separated by thick walls.
It encouraged deep silence among convicts, and for some, this was worst than torture.
In 1836, a Convict Church was built from timber and stone.
It overlooks the convict settlement from high ground.
More than 1000 people could attend services inside the enormous structure.
However, the church was never officially consecrated since religions varied amongst convicts at the settlement.
A hospital, built in 1841, was located just above the prisoners’ barracks since most injured personnel were convicts living there.
Most jobs were some form of dangerous labouring so injuries were common.
The dramatic ruins now remain, after damages from bushfires in 1895 and 1897.
Port Arthur is home to a number of historic houses, both from the convict era and the post-convict township of Carnarvon.
These houses have been restored and even furnished.
Visitors can now see what life was like for people living at the settlement.
The Port Arthur Historic Site also provides daily talks at a number of the houses, which are free to enter for anyone with a general entry ticket.
Grounds & Gardens
While visiting Port Arthur, you can take a walk in the gardens and grounds.
There are a number of unique gardens, but the one that attracts the most attention is the Government Gardens.
This was first planted sometime in the 1930s.
The formal gardens were popular with ladies and officers.
However, after Port Arthur closed, the gardens gradually disappeared.
Once Port Arthur reopened for tourism, historical descriptions helped staff reconstruct the garden.
The Port Arthur Historic Site runs a few tours of the area to help you get the most out of your visit.
Two daytime tours are the Isle of the Dead Cemetery Tour and the Point Puer Boys’ Prison Tour.
There is also a Ghost Tour that runs at night.
The Isle of the Dead Tour includes a ferry to the island, located in the harbour off Port Arthur.
On arrival, a guided will share stories about the convicts who were buried between 1833 and 1877.
The second tour, Point Puer Boys’ Prison, includes the ferry to the site and a walking tour of the prison.
This is where 3,000 boys, some as young as nine years old, were sentenced between 1834 and 1849.
At night, the Ghost Tour is a 90-minute exclusive access walking tour around the Port Arthur site, guided by a local expert who shares ghostly stories and creepy mysteries of the area.
Visitors Information Centre
The Visitors Information Centre is home to the gift shop, which sells local hand-made souvenirs, crafts, jewellery, and books about Tasmania and Port Arthur.
How long should you stay in Port Arthur?
Port Arthur is a huge site and a fair way from Hobart.
Some visitors stay overnight nearby in Port Arthur in order to see everything on offer.
The roads to and from Hobart can be hard to navigate in the dark.
There is a variety of quality hotels in the Port Arthur area to choose from, but booking ahead is required during peak seasons.
Is there food on site?
The Port Arthur Historic Site is home to two quality cafes, the Port Cafe in the Visitors Centre and the Museum Coffee Shop in the Asylum building.
There’s also a bistro, known as the Felons Bistro with a range of snacks, meals and beverages.
How to get to Port Arthur
The drive from Hobart takes 90 minutes and follows the Tasman and Arthur Highways.
On the way you may want to stop off at locations on the Convict Trail Touring Route.
This is the easiest way to reach Port Arthur if you’re not familiar with the area.
There are plenty of tour options available from Hobart.
It’ll also be a much better experience with an expert guiding you to the site.
Port Arthur may be best known for its penal history, but the settlement actually began in 1830 as a timber station.
It was named after the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, George Arthur.
Between 1833 and 1877, Port Arthur was the home of some of the hardest of Britain’s convict criminals, many who had re-offended since their original transportation charge.
This challenging population saw Port Arthur implement some of the strictest security measures ever seen in the British penal system.
Along with floggings, Port Arthur was among the first to institute solitary confinement as a punishment, which helped motivate convicts in their daily jobs ranging from ganged labour to skilled professions.
After transportation to Australia ended in 1853, the number of convicts at Port Arthur began to fall, eventually reducing from 1,200 people to around 500 in the 1870s.
As these convicts aged and their labours were less productive, they were gradually removed before the site was finally closed in 1877.
After years of being left to fall into ruin and after destruction by local bushfires, Port Arthur was finally declared the Port Arthur Historic Site in 1971.
It was put under the management of a governing authority that aims to retain this important historical landmark.