Good for: dark tourism, history buffs, history, ghost tours
Lonely Planet review for Port Arthur
Port Arthur is the name of the small settlement in which the well-preserved Port Arthur Historic Site is situated. In 1830, Governor Arthur chose the Tasman Peninsula as the place where prisoners who had committed further crimes in the colony would be confined in an allegedly 'escape-proof' natural prison. The town is also the site of the tragic April 1996 massacre in which a lone gunman opened fire on visitors and staff, killing 35 people.
Between 1830 and 1877, about 12,500 convicts served sentences at Port Arthur and for many it was a living hell, though convicts who behaved well often lived in better conditions than those they'd experienced back home.
The penal establishment of Port Arthur became the centre of a network of penal stations on the peninsula, but transcended its role as a prison town. It had fine buildings and thriving industries, including timber milling, shipbuilding, coal mining, shoemaking and brick and nail production.
Port Arthur's historic site is one of Tasmania's prime tourist attractions. Allow at least four hours for exploration. The restored buildings are open for visitors and tours at various times from 9:00 to 17:00.
Forty-minute guided walking tours of the historic site are included in the price of admission and leave regularly from the visitors centre. They're an excellent introduction to the site. Also included in the price of your ticket is a 20min harbour cruise, with commentary. When you purchase your ticket you'll be told the times of the next tour and cruise.
The Port Arthur Museum, containing numerous displays and a cafe, was originally the Asylum, housing patients from throughout the colony. The Separate Prison was built as a place of punishment for difficult prisoners, following a decision to 'reform' prisoners by isolation and sensory deprivation rather than by flogging. The church was built in 1836 but was destroyed by fire in 1884, while the Penitentiary, converted from a granary in 1857, was also damaged by fire in 1897.
Other activities around the town include the Isle of the Dead Cemetery Tour, a guided tour of Port Arthur's old burial ground on an island in the harbour, and the Point Puer Boys' Prison Tour, which visits the first reformatory in the British Empire built for juvenile male convicts (aged nine to 18).
Ghostly apparitions, poltergeists and unexplained happenings have apparently been recorded at Port Arthur since the 1870s, as explained during the hugely popular lantern-lit, 90min Ghost Tours, which depart from the visitors centre nightly at dusk.
The Broad Arrow Cafe, scene of many of the 1996 shootings, was gutted following the massacre. Today, the shell of the building has been preserved and a Memorial Garden established around it.