So, you’re thinking about traveling to Australia. Good on ya, mate! With its otherworldly landscapes, exotic wildlife, and bustling city hubs, there’s a lot to see and do in the land Down Under. Given the vastness of the country, you’ll have to make some choices. What would you like to see, do, and experience while visiting Australia? Is it your dream to stand face-to-face with a wild kangaroo, or do you prefer to experience Melbourne’s exquisite culinary life? And are you a surfer, or a hiker?
Based on how much time you have and what you’d like to see, you can establish the route that suits you best. Many of Australia’s highlights and touristic destinations are situated on the country’s east coast, between Melbourne and Cairns. Because of this, most travelers choose to either travel north to south or the other way around along the east coast. They hit the big cities, but also experience some of Australia’s natural wonders such as the Great Ocean Road, the Blue Mountains and the Great Barrier Reef.
Second-time visitors will often skip the east coast and travel directly into the Outback, or travel down the west coast from Broome to Perth, passing the beautiful Ningaloo Reef. In this blog, we’ve listed some of the best things to see and do in each of Australia’s largest states. This guide will lead from Melbourne to Cairns and Darwin, before taking you further inland towards the central states and Western Australia.
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Melbourne’s urban, artsy vibe draws in travelers from all over the world. While Sydney is Australia’s most busy port of call, Melbourne draws in most of the backpackers. The city has a lively bar culture with artsy café and coffee bars, plenty of live concerts, and a famous nightlife. It is the perfect place to meet up with both locals and fellow travelers. Melbourne is also famous for its street art. All across the city, you’ll find elaborate graffiti art, most famously concentrated in Hosier Lane in the downtown area.
If you’re not too keen on walking around all of Melbourne, the City Circle Tram will take you to the city’s most popular sightseeing attractions for free. In addition, the city’s harbor is the point of departure for people who want to visit the penguins on Phillip Island, or those who want to take the ferry to Tasmania.
The Great Ocean Road
The Great Ocean Road is a 243 kilometers long road along the south-eastern coast of Australia. Situated between the cities of Torquay (near Melbourne) and Allansford, the road is listed as a part of the Australian National Heritage. The road winds along the coast, moving past well-known landmarks such as the Twelve Apostles, a series of famous limestone stack formations. The Great Ocean also passes through a series of beautiful Karri forests, where the koalas live. Make a stop at the Kennet River Coastal Reserve or drive through the Karri forests towards the Cape Otway lighthouse to spot the wild koalas.
New South Wales
Sydney is known far and wide for its beautiful beaches and iconic architecture. The welcoming, open-minded nature of Sydney’s residents shines through in everything. Sydney is both vibrant and hectic, and dramatically contrasts life in Australia’s vast Outback. From the famous Bondi Beach to the classic Sydney Opera House, Sydney is a must-visit for every traveler. Even if you’re not too keen on big cities, exploring Australia’s main hub and all its wonders will definitely be worth your time. Also unique to Sydney is its exotic urban birdlife: a simple stroll through the city will bring you face-to-face with the Australian white ibis, plenty of rainbow lorikeets, a host of Sulphur-crested cockatoos, and perhaps even a laughing kookaburra!
The Sydney Harbor
The Sydney Harbor skyline is instantly recognizable: its most prominent features are the world-famous Sydney Opera House and the impressive Sydney Harbour Bridge. The Opera House is considered one of the most famous and distinctive buildings in the world. Its distinctive sail-shaped white roof was inspired by nature and meant to resemble clouds, shells, and other natural forms. The nearby Sydney Harbour Bridge is equally iconic, and a stroll through the inner-city suburb The Rocks near the bridge will complete your visit to one of the most famous harbors in the world.
The Blue Mountains National Park
Situated 81 kilometers from Sydney, the Blue Mountains National Park features endless hiking trails, amazing waterfalls, and dramatic gorges. It is one of the most accessible locations to spot wild kangaroos and koalas for day-trippers, as the mountain range encompasses extensive eucalyptus forests. The most famous attraction in the park is the impressive rock formation known as the Three Sisters: three large sandstone pillars rising above the forest. Aside from hiking, the park also lends itself to other activities, such as abseiling, mountain biking, rock climbing, and horse riding.
Sydney is the best place to spot humpback whales. Many eco-friendly tour companies arrange whale watching tours from the city’s Circular Quay. After spending the summer in Antarctic waters, humpback whales pass the Australian coast between April and November to mate in the warm northern waters. Humpback whales are often playful and are known to breach the surface when coming up for air. Sometimes whales come up to just 200 meters from the coast, allowing you to spot them without paying for a tour. Head to the Cape Solander Lookout or the Barrenjoey Headland Lighthouse for the best free whale-watching spots.
Surfers are as inherent to Australia as the many kangaroos that hop through the Outback. Together, New South Wales and Queensland feature some of the best surfing beaches in the world. Don’t be surprised by the number of surfboards you’ll see at luggage collection when you land at Sydney Airport: many international surfers land in Sydney especially to catch the waves at Umina, Manly, or Bondi Beach. Of course, chances are that some of those boards will belong to Aussie surfers who’ve visited Bali to change their own surf for a bit. When visiting Australia’s popular surfing beaches, don’t be surprised to see a pod of dolphins every once in a while.
Noodling in Lightning Ridge
Lightning Ridge is one of the many small outback towns in New South Wales. The town can be reached within 8 hours by car or bus from Brisbane. Lightning Ridge is known for its extensive opal mining fields. When heavy machinery is used to dig out opal mines, large heaps of dirt are collected in so-called mine dumps. This allows locals to engage in the popular pastime of “noodling”: carefully brushing through the mine dumps in search of specs of opal, nicknamed “noodles”. Lightning Ridge itself is as quirky and bizarre as the noodlers themselves: from the walking routes marked by painted car doors and the idiocrasy of the Astronomers Monument to the underground museums, the town is perhaps one of the greatest off-beat destinations in the world.
The Chambers of the Black Hand
Opal miner Ron Canlin “might not have found opal,” locals state, “but he did hit paydirt.” Canlin turned his opal mine in Lightning Ridge into an underground museum by carving hundreds of reliefs into it’s walls. The museum consists of an underground maze of corridors decorated with painted reliefs of different animals, pop culture icons, and celebrities. From kangaroos, kiwis and dinosaurs to Batman, Captain America, Buddha, and more, the mine is a true work of art. If you get lost in mine’s hallways, don’t be surprised to run into a man chipping away at the walls: that’ll be Canlin himself, endlessly expanding his maze to include more works, such as Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam or a relief displaying the entire cast of Star Wars.
John Murray Art Gallery
In 2019, Lightning Ridge’s John Murray Art Gallery sadly burned down, destroying much of the work of one of the Outback’s most talented artists. Luckily, not all was lost, and John continued to create his iconic whimsical photo-realistic paintings. His work A Moment of Realization, in which an emu is flabbergasted by the confrontation with an approaching car, is one of his most popular works – and one of his many works displaying just how ‘deeply stupid’ emus can be according to the town’s locals. Another one of Murray’s emu-related artworks can be found along the Castlereagh Highway: Stanley the Emu, an 18-meter high emu sculpted out scrap metal, a Volkswagen Beetle, and several satellite dishes.
Though surfing is immensely popular in Sydney, the city isn’t Australia’s main surfing destination. One of the most popular surfing hubs in Australia is Gold Coast, where surfers ride the impressive waves of Snapper Rocks, Surfers Paradise, and other beaches.
The town of Emerald Beach lies just north of Coffs Harbour, between Sydney and Brisbane. Though the town itself mostly plays host to families and surfers, wildlife enthusiasts will also love the small town’s beach. In the oddly-named Look At Me Now Headland, eastern grey kangaroos are abundant. The small kangaroos can be seen anywhere on and around the beach, as they lazily nibble on the helm grass, hop through the bushes and enjoy the ocean views.
Though Brisbane is less bustling than cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, it has several unique selling points. The first is The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, the oldest and largest koala sanctuary in the world. Another highlight is the South Bank, where a nice stroll will help you pass the time. The South Bank is a beautiful green area along the ocean, where the city fully comes alive in the evening. There are plenty of café’s and restaurants along the South Bank, as well as a lovely swimming facility and a beautiful pagoda. Throughout the year, several cultural markets pop up in the region’s Parklands.
The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary
The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Fig Tree Pocket is the highlight of Brisbane. The park opened in 1927 to take care of sick, injured, and orphaned koalas. The park offers visitors the unique opportunity to interact with koalas, kangaroos, and wallabies. Additionally, the park features wombats, Tasmanian devils, echidnas, and many more native species. In the sanctuary’s Platypus House you’ll find a special aquarium where you can observe Australia’s oddest creature, the platypus. Finally, in the park’s 5-acre kangaroo reserve, it is possible to feed and pet kangaroos.
Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world. The island is 123 kilometers long, and it is said that the island has more sand than the Sahara. The most popular activities on the island include 4×4 off-road driving and wildlife spotting. There are many animals present on the island, such as dingoes, swamp wallabies, gliders, a large number of birds and snakes, and other reptiles.
After taking the ferry from Hervey Bay on the mainland to Hook Point on the island, it is possible to rent a four-wheel drive, which allows you to drive across the desert island. Though the sea surrounding the island is considered unsafe for swimming due to the strong current and the presence of sharks, the island features many crystal clear inland lakes where you can go swimming, such as Lake Wabby and Lake McKenzie.
Cairns is the launching pad for almost every scuba diving tour of the Great Barrier Reef. The city lies close to many popular diving sites such as Flynn Reef, Hastings Reef, and Milln Reef. The city itself has a typical summer vibe to it, as most people you’ll meet either just got out of the water, or are going back in. Cairns is home to several wonderful cultural attractions focusing on the country’s indigenous population, such as the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, several authentic didgeridoo shops, and art galleries.
The Great Barrier Reef
If you haven’t traveled to Australia to go wildlife spotting, you’ve probably come here to dive. The Great Barrier Reef is by far the most famous reef in the world. Even before Pixar’s FINDING NEMO (2003) magnificently animated the mesmerizing colors of the reef for the big screen, this popular diving location was already known throughout the world.
The Great Barrier Reef stretches out for over 2,300 kilometers along Australia’s east coast and features billions of tiny organisms known as coral polyps. Depending on which dive site you choose, you might want to opt for a snorkeling tour, rather than a diving tour. The reef isn’t very deep and the main difference with diving in the reef is mostly the overwhelming price difference. Despite the Great Barrier Reef’s immense reputations, actual reef diving will be more rewarding in more condensed coral reef areas, such as in Thailand’s Andaman Sea or in Sabah on Borneo.
A diving tour passing Machaelmas Cay and Hastings Reef will also take you to the breathtaking Frankland Islands. Situated in the South Pacific Ocean, the islands are uninhabited protected areas featuring pristine white coral beaches and lush rainforests. The islands became well known in the 1990s when the TV-show Ocean Girl (1994-1997) became one of the most popular shows on Australian television. In the series, High Island – one of the five Frankland Islands – served as the home of the beautiful alien/mermaid Neri, who often swims around the island with her best friend, a humpback whale named Charlie.
The Esplanade Boardwalk runs along the Cairns’ picturesque shore for 2.5 kilometers. The Esplanade highlights the ironic nature of Cairns as a water sports location: due to the constant threat of saltwater crocodiles, it is prohibited to visit the city’s beach. The Esplanade Boardwalk is elevated relatively high above the beach to prevent “salties” from climbing up, and visitors from climbing down. To provide tourists with the opportunity to take a dive anyway, the Esplanade features a 4,800 m2 saltwater Lagoon, that’s safe all-year-round. No need to risk swimming between the stingers and crocodiles!
Queensland’s Daintree Rainforest is the oldest tropical rainforest in the world. The forest lies north of Cairns and can be visited year-round. It is possible to hike in the forest, though you should always beware of the crocodiles who breed there during the summer months. The dense vegetation with its lush canopy is an extraordinary sight, and a series of aerial walkways will allow you to explore the different levels of the rainforest. The Daintree Rainforest is host to a large range of exotic birds, including the world’s most dangerous bird, the Southern Cassowary.
Darwin’s remote location in Australia’s northern tip makes it the perfect place to find a piece of mind. The laid-back city is a small coastal oasis, offering visitors passage into the Outback and into the Northern Territory’s national parks. Popular destinations near Darwin are Kakadu National Park and the Litchfield National Park. If you prefer some excitement within the city limits, allow yourself to be lowered into the habitat of the crocodiles living at the city’s Crocosaurus Cove in a Cage of Death.
The Outback is the heart of Australia. It is also known as “the Red Centre”, “the Red Waste” and “the Never-Never”. The Outback is generally composed of Australia’s vast interior with its extensive red sanded plains and clear waterholes. It is a true paradise for those backpackers seeking a life of adventure. In the Outback, the indigenous Aboriginal cultures still thrive and the Dreamtime Stories are vivid and alive. The region features striking national parks, such as the Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park, as well as the Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks.
Kakadu National Park
The Kakadu National Park is home to one the oldest signs of human civilizations in the world: the park features Aboriginal rock art dating back 20,000 years. Kakadu National Park is home to some of the most beautiful waterfalls in Australia and offers fantastic hiking opportunities for backpackers hoping to stay active. Kakadu’s inner wetlands are the perfect place for spotting crocodiles, buffalos, sea eagles, and other wild animals. The park can be easily reached from Darwin.
Litchfield National Park
The Litchfield National Park features several mesmerizing natural sights. Parts of the park are inhabited by millions of termites, who’ve erected striking termite mounds – some reaching up to over two meters. In the park, you’ll also find the Lost City, a series of large sandstone pillars. The pillars closely resemble the remnants of an ancient civilization and remind visitors of the temples at the Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia.
Alice Springs – Alice for short – is one of the largest towns in Australia’s expansive Outback. The town is a great base for further exploration into the Outback and visiting the Northern Territory’s many natural wonders. In Alice Springs, the stars are a little bit brighter and the wildlife is a bit wilder. Though in the town’s surrounding areas you can easily spot wild kangaroos, you can also visit them at the Kangaroo Sanctuary, which was opened in 2005 to provide a home for orphaned baby kangaroos. It has since then expanded to offer a home for adult kangaroos as well.
Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park
The Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National is home to two famous rock formations: Uluru (a.k.a. Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (a.k.a. The Olgas). Both Uluru and Kata Tjuta formed over 500 million years ago. Uluru is considered the spiritual heart of Australia. Rising high above the country’s remote desert, Uluru is the Aboriginals’ most important sacred site. The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is Aboriginal land and is jointly managed by its traditional owners Anangu and Parks Australia.
The park’s desert landscape is home to dozens of bird and reptile species, as well as mammals. The red kangaroo finds its home in the deserts, as does the adorable spinifex hopping mouse and the curious dingo.
You can experience both Uluru and Kata Tjuta in all its glory at sunrise from the Kata Tjuta Dune Viewing viewpoint. As the sun illuminates the monoliths, it grants them their intense red coloring. Uluru is the Yin to the Yang of Sydney Opera House, as together they are the most recognizable landmarks in Australia – one a wonder of nature, the other one created by men.
The base walk at Uluru leads visitors along the ancient monolith’s base. This 10 kilometer walk will give you the opportunity to get to known the rock and learn about its role in the Aboriginals’ Dreamtime stories. The track allows you to walk the entire circumference of the monolith. After the walk you can visit the Maruku Arts & Crafts art gallery near Uluru’s base, which features Aboriginal paintings and woodcarvings.
Located approximately 40 kilometers from Uluru lies Kata Tjuta. “Kata Tjuta” is Pitjantjatjara for “many heads”. Here, you can walk the track of the Valley of the Winds, which allows you to immerse yourself among the impressive red domes of Kata Tjuta.
Adelaide lies in close proximity to Australia’s richest wine-producing regions. Adalaide has developed itself as a city where luxury and fine dining reign supreme. The city hosts several eclectic art galleries and restaurants and is home to a series of art and music festivals. Though the city’s main restaurants might be a bit too high-end for most backpackers, there are plenty of laneway bars and eateries where you can dine for a reasonable price. From Adelaide, you can make your way to Australia’s famous wine regions along the Margaret River.
Australia is one of the biggest wine-producing countries in the world. Though a large part of the country consists of desert lands, there are still plenty of valleys where wine can be produced. Many of these valleys can be found around the Margaret River in South Australia. Along the river, millions of liters of wine are produced every year in regions such as Barossa Valley, Eden Valley, and Claire Valley. The Margaret River Wine Region is a must-visit for those backpackers who prefer a good glass of wine to a cold beer.
Kangaroo Island is a paradise for wildlife observers. The island can be reached by ferry from the mainland in approximately 45 minutes. The island features several national parks, including the Kelly Hill Conservation Park and Caves, where you can explore the island’s many caves; the Flinders Chase National Park, where little penguins roam; and the Seal Bay Conservation Park, the home of a large Australian sea lion colony. In addition, Paul’s Place Wildlife Sanctuary offers island visitors to interact with all sorts of unique Australian animals, and in Kingscote you can watch the pelicans feed on the wharf.
Karijini National Park and the Kimberley
The Australian Outback extends far beyond the Northern Territory. In Western Australia, it includes several national parks. One of them is the Purnululu National Park in the Kimberly region, which features the magnificent orange and black striped Bungle Bungle Range. Another natural wonder in Western Australia is the Karijini National Park, with its spring-fed pools, otherworldly gorges, and the beautiful Fortescue Falls. The national parks can be reached traveling up from Broome, a town made famous by its wealthy pearling industry.
Get off the beaten track and visit Perth, where the red sands of the Outback meet the blue depths of the ocean. The rugged city lies almost 4,000 kilometers west of Sydney and is not nearly as touristy as its sister cities on the east coast. Very few first-time visitors make it to Perth, but once you’ve decided to visit Australia a second time, Perth might be the perfect place for you to start exploring the west coast and the Outback. Like in Brisbane and on Kangaroo Island, you’ll also find a wonderful wildlife park here; the Caversham Wildlife Park.
Coral Bay and the Ningaloo Reef
A major advantage of visiting Australia’s west coast is that backpacking here becomes a more quiet, personal experience. There aren’t nearly as many tourists swarming the region as on the east coast, and you really get to enjoy your surroundings in a more holistic manner. Visiting Coral Bay illustrates this experience perfectly.
When visiting Coral Bay to explore the Ningaloo Reef, you’ll find you have plenty of opportunities here to explore the reef at your own pace. The Ningaloo Reef is a 260-kilometer long reef trailing the coast of Western Australia. You’ll need nothing more than a snorkel to explore the amazing reefs, where you can encounter sea turtles, tropical fish, manta rays, and gentle whale sharks. During migration seasons, you can even spot humpback whales breaching off-coast.
Tasmania is a world of its own. There are two ways to visit the island: either you take the ferry from Melbourne to Devonport, or you fly directly to Hobart. Unlike in mainland Australia, sea food is very popular in Tasmania. For sea food lovers, Hobart is as good as it gets. Inland streams offer plenty of fishing opportunities, and the shoreline provides locals with rock lobsters, oysters, mussels and more. From Hobart it’s a short drive to Mount Wellington, where you can take in the beautiful scenery of the city and its surroundings.
The Tasmanian coast features many beautiful bays and beaches, yet there’s something about Wineglass Bay’s beach that truly captivated its visitors. Right between the forested mountains, Wineglass Bay’s attractive crescent of sand curls the waters of the South Pacific into the mainland. The quiet, yet popular beach has stolen the hearts of most people who’ve visited it. The growing popularity of the bay has made it a frequently traveled location among visitors of Tasmania, which means that despite its beauty, you might want to consider visiting one of Tasmania’s many less-explored beaches if you’re looking for some peace of mind.
More articles on Australia
- World Cinema: One Film Per Country
- Cinema of Oceania and the Pacific
- Wildlife of Australia
- The Best Places to Visit in Australia
- Backpacking in Australia: a Travel Guide
Content creator Pim Razenberg is an experienced traveller who’s been roaming the planet for many years. After a stint in the Dutch film industry, he lived and worked in Romania, the United Kingdom and Thailand. Pim is currently working in the Netherlands, bringing creative new projects to fruition and writing a novel detailing his journeys across the world.