With thousands of miles of coastline and plenty of wide open spaces in between, Australia is a great big continent that delivers big on experiences.
Hanging out at the bottom of the globe and requiring a long flight for most of the world to reach it (and then even more time to make any kind of a dent traveling within it), Australia is one of those once-in-a-lifetime vacations. For most destinations, that’s a lot of hype and pressure to live up to, but Australia more than delivers with its cool cities, charming seaside towns, white sand beaches, surreal bright red deserts, tropical islands, tropical forests, thriving local food and wine cultures, unique wildlife, and oh yeah–the world’s oldest culture…and that’s just the tip of the continent! The only dow side to a visit Down Under? You’ll need time to really appreciate all that the continent has to offer or at least a careful plan to hit the highlights and then another plan to come back. Because once you’ve been, you’ll quickly realize this continent deserves twice- or thrice-in-a-lifetime status! Here are a few of our favorite experiences to help you make the most of your time.
Get Lost on Kangaroo Island
WHERE: South Australia
Have you ever heard two words that made you want to visit a place more than Kangaroo Island? Okay maybe an island named “Free Money” would be fun, too, but still hardly as adorable sounding as or as appealing as the image of an island of kangaroos just waiting to say, “G’day!” Kangaroo Island is one of the best places in Australia to see native wildlife up close. Along with kangaroos aplenty, you’ll find wild koalas, rare birds and seals, and black swans, too. This place is amazing and you really should stay a while. There are so many lodging options from a luxury lodge set on a cliff with incredible views of the wilderness and the Southern Ocean, to an eco-lodge in the heart of the island with a front-row seat to the natural splendor, to a lighthouse keeper’s cottage where you will fall asleep to the sounds of crashing waves and wake to spectacular sunrises.
Drink up That Cafe Culture
WHERE: Melbourne, Victoria
Some say Melbourne is the nearest thing to European sophistication this side of the equator. Others say Melbourne not only has the best cafes in Australia, but the best cafes in the world. Either way, you need to spend some time sipping and investigating. Melbourne is at the cutting edge of sourcing, roasting, and brewing specialty coffee, with filter-style brews and single-origin espresso on many cafe menus and world-champion baristas manning the filters. There is no specific template to Melbourne’s cafes, but if there is a loose recipe for their success: good coffee, creative food, and casual but special spaces to enjoy it in. Tucked down the city’s famous alleyways, and throughout its varied neighborhoods, you’ll find dozens of cafes serving up a bewildering variety of caffeinated beverages, from piccolos to macchiatos, to flat whites at settings as varied as converted warehouses and heritage-listed former power stations to a converted bank, to classic sun-filled corner cafes. Explore the different neighborhoods to see how the vibe differs based on its location, clientele, and physical space. Local favorites Krimper and Little Mule are good places to start.
INSIDER TIPOrder a long black for an espresso with hot water, or a latte for a milk coffee with a small amount of foam. You can also request a double shot of coffee for that extra kick.
Experience Aboriginal Culture
WHERE: Arnhem Land, Northern Territory
From Rock Art at Kakadu, Nourlangie Rock, and Ubirr to indigenous artists at work at Uluru, to understand Australia you need to visit its red heart or Top End. As one of Australia’s largest tracts of Aboriginal-owned land, Arnhem Land, in the north-eastern corner of the Northern Territory is wild, unspoiled, and unlike anywhere else in the world. A 4WD tour allows you to explore the area’s coastline, woodland, and rainforests, while visiting ancient rock art and learning about the world’s oldest living culture and its traditions from an Indigenous guide. The Guluyambi Cultural Cruise takes you through the rugged wilderness of West Arnhem Land in small groups to learn about the traditional uses for many of the native plants and animals while cruising effortlessly down a secluded waterway.
Note: To protect the privacy and culture of Aboriginal communities, tourists are required to apply for a permit to visit Arnhem Land, so make sure to plan ahead.
INSIDER TIPSymbolic dot paintings, vibrant landscapes, and bark etchings form part of one of the oldest artistic traditions in the world, and they’re still standing strong in the center of Australia. In the past, it has been complex to buy Aboriginal art ethically due to forgeries and exploitation of the artists, but there is now a plethora of reputable galleries and cooperatives to visit. Desart, the arts body for over 40 community-based Aboriginal Arts and Crafts centers, is a great place to start.
Gaze at the Stars of the Southern Sky
WHERE: Parkes, New South Wales
The small country town of Parkes made its world debut on the map on July 20, 1969, when a radio telescope there was used to receive live, televised images of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Today, the Parkes Observatory remains an essential part of the international telescopic array. The Visitors Center has interactive exhibits and a 3D movie theater, but the real show begins after dark when the Milky Way glimmers across one of the clearest skies in Australia.
Dive the Great Barrier Reef
The world’s largest coral reef and one of the world’s most spectacular natural attractions, the Great Barrier Reef can be explored on a day tour (best for beginners or snorkelers) but is best experienced over a few days on a liveaboard tour which takes experienced divers to more remote and iconic diving destinations.
Note: Cairns is the most popular jumping off spot so you may want to avoid it and the crowds that go with it by booking a tour that departs from Port Douglas, Townsville, or Cape York. Stay on the Whitsundays for a few days, snorkel and dive, and maybe even charter your own yacht or sailboat.
INSIDER TIPThe best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef is between June and October when temperatures are consistently warm and it doesn’t rain often so the water will be clearer.
Take an Epic Train Trip
WHERE: Perth to Sydney (The Indian Pacific) or Adelaide to Darwin (The Ghan)
Australia is home to not one but two cross-continental rail experiences, with the 54-hour Ghan and 65-hour Indian Pacific journeys competing to show you Australia’s varying landscapes and greatest sights. Named for the two oceans the train encounters on its journey, the Indian Pacific travels between Sydney, Adelaide, and Perth, through the majestic Blue Mountains and across the spectacular Nullarbor Plains, with views that include rocky valleys, arid deserts, and subtropical savannahs along the way. The Ghan gets its name from the Afghan camels and their drivers who used to carry supplies up to Alice Springs before the railway came. The first railway in 1929 was notoriously slow and perfunctory, but today it is a luxurious experience with options that include private cabins, excellent dining, and package options that include off-train expeditions as you travel between Darwin and Adelaide and through the country’s Red Centre. Both journeys offer a choice between Gold or Platinum class tickets.
Visit MONA, Australia’s Weirdest Museum
WHERE: Hobart, Tasmania
The controversial and confronting Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is one of Tasmania’s biggest drawcards, showcasing professional gambler and art collector David Walsh’s $100 million private collection alongside a rotating exhibitions program. Self-described as a “subversive adult Disneyland,” MONA explores life, death, and sex with an unflinching commitment to pushing the envelope. MONA is unlike traditional museum experiences in almost every way. The museum features labyrinthine passageways and a maze of staircases to connect three underground levels. There are no labels on the artworks but visitors use a personal smart device that provides written commentaries, including poems and personal meditations, and even music instead of commentary. MONA also hosts two major annual music and arts festivals–the MOFO festival in January and Dark MOFO in June–that are well worth planning a trip to Tasmania around, or at least worth the ferry ride from the mainland.
INSIDER TIPWant to extend your visit…permanently? For $75,000 AUD, you can choose the Eternity Package, a twist on the lifetime membership packages offered by other museums. When you die, you can be cremated and put in a fancy jar in the museum.
Marvel at the Big Prawn
WHERE: Ballina, New South Wales
A charming, weird and uniquely Australian penchant for giant food and animals has resulted in a scattering of novelty structures and sculptures across the country. The Big Prawn and the Big Banana are popular Queensland attractions, but there are over 150 of these giant photo ops in total. Ranging in size and quality from impressive landmarks to comically-bad attempts, the Big Things are an Australian road trip tradition.
Penguin Watch on Phillip Island
WHERE: Phillip Island, Victoria
As a reminder of just how far south Australia is situated on the globe, the country is home to the world’s smallest species of penguin. Phillip Island has been a haven for these tiny creatures for thousands of years, and hundreds of them can be seen each night at sunset returning to their homes in the sand dunes after fishing in the ocean during the day. At Penguin Parade, there’s also an underground viewing station where you can peek right into the burrow itself.
Watch the Sun Set at Uluru
WHERE: Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory
Considered one of the greatest natural wonders of the world, and the most instantly recognizable symbol of Australia, Uluru rises above a flat desert landscape in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, almost 300 miles southwest of Alice Springs. The iconic sandstone monolith is famous for its color changes, which range throughout the day from fiery shades of red and orange to light brown, almost black, and even lilac, depending on the light and weather. It is not only an ancient and impressive natural landmark but also a site of cultural significance for the traditional owners of the region, the Anangu Aboriginal people. Climbing the rock has long been discouraged, but it is officially prohibited as of October 2019. The six-mile Uluru Base Walk is an ideal alternative, and there are plenty of other ranger-led options.
INSIDER TIPPlan ahead to for an incredible evening under the Southern Desert sky (and a view of Uluru) with Ayers Rock’s Tali Wiru intimate dining experience.
See Red in the Barossa Valley
WHERE: Barossa Valley, Victoria
The Barossa is an internationally-acclaimed wine region just 50 minutes drive from Adelaide. With over 80 cellar doors to choose from, make sure to start the day with a big breakfast and organize a designated driver or join one of the many day tours. The Barossa is home to prestigious winemakers Penfolds and Henschke Cellars, as well as the popular labels Wolf Blass and Jacob’s Creek. Shiraz and Riesling are the region’s star grapes, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Mataro, Grenache, and Semillon. If you’re a fan of port, you will want to plan a visit to Seppeltsfield. You can even reserve a special experience to taste the vintage from your birth year directly from the barrel. While you’re here, take in the gorgeous grounds and have a fancy lunch at Fino.
Hike the Three Capes Track
Debuting in 2015, the Three Capes Track is a 28-mile bush walk usually completed in four days. Australia has a bunch of long hikes with incredible views, but what makes the Three Capes walk different is the creature comforts along the way. Departures are limited to 45 walkers per day, and chic, eco-friendly cabins (complete with yoga mats) are provided for those chilly Tassie nights. But during the day, you’ll feel like you’re on the edge of the earth as the track winds through rainforest and hugs the steep bluffs of the Tasman Peninsula.
Learn to Surf
WHERE: Newcastle, New South Wales
A couple of hours drive north of Sydney, Newcastle boasts two world-class surfing beaches–Newcastle Beach and Merewether Beach–and multiple local surf schools, unrivaled surf swells, and incredible hordes of surfers and surfing enthusiasts. Merewether is one of Australia’s National Surfing Reserves, a register of iconic surfing spots, and its waves have hosted all the top surfing talent in the world and shaped local four-time surfing world champion, Mark Richards. As far as beginner’s surf spots go, your safest bet is Nobby’s Beach, a patrolled beach with gentler tides and a beginner-friendly environment. Be prepared to fall off your board more times than you can count, but it’ll all be worth it when you’re riding the waves like a pro. Beginners surf lessons usually run over three days. NSW’s second-biggest city celebrates its beach lifestyle and surfing culture with Surfest, an annual festival in February where hundreds of surfers compete in various surfing events. After you’ve exhausted yourself in the waves, the art-deco Newcastle Ocean Baths is a lovely spot to relax.
Sail the Whitsundays
WHERE: Queensland coast, Eastern Australia
Sail through the turquoise waters of the idyllic Whitsunday islands, a paradise made up of 74 islands (the majority of which are uninhabited) off the Queensland coast and in the middle of the underwater wonderland of the Great Barrier Reef. Sheltered by the reef, the calm waters are perfect for sailing, snorkeling, and kayaking in the sunshine, and while a deservedly popular sailing spot, there are plenty of castaway islands and deserted beaches to explore. Charter a yacht for five nights (the relaxation-equivalent of five weeks’ vacation anywhere else) and let the wind take you where it will, or bareboat, stopping only to swim, snorkel, and snooze.
INSIDER TIPTo get the best out of your time in the Whitsundays, spend time researching and choose your sailing trip wisely. If you’re short on time or would just prefer to sleep on dry land you can plan a day trip of the Whitsundays. Day trip operators use a faster boat to whip you around the islands and bring you back to your resort or hotel by night. Most of the overnight options cater to the backpacker market, with basic sleeping arrangements and up to 50 other guests (perfect if you don’t mind a hostel scene) so look for smaller, more couple-oriented boats that sleep up to eight (or book a private tour) if you are looking for a more romantic option.
Stay in an Underground Hotel
WHERE: Coober Pedy, South Australia
The small town of Coober Pedy, about halfway between Adelaide and Alice Springs, was first established as an opal mining settlement. But it soon became a tourist destination thanks to its “cool” underground cave-homes, or dugouts, where residents hide out from desert temperatures that can regularly soar over 100 °F in summer. Locals play outback golf (where players carry around a piece of artificial turf to tee off) with glowing balls at night to avoid the heat and even attend underground churches and drink in an underground bar. Book the Lookout Cave Underground Hotel or Underground Bed and Breakfast for the full experience.
Kick Back on the Whitest Sand in the World
WHERE: Jervis Bay, New South Wales
On the New South Wales south coast, Jervis Bay is a natural paradise where calm, clear waters are hugged by famous white sand beaches. Known, hyped, and even recorded in the Guinness World Records as the whitest sand in the world, Hyams Beach is a beach bum’s dream. With picturesque campsites available right by the beach and adorable seaside villages to explore, Aussies flock to places like Hyams Beach every summer for lazy days filled with fishing, swimming, snorkeling, diving, and dolphin (and whale!) watching.
While it is possible to reach Jervis Bay on a day trip from Sydney, this scenic drive is best done at a relaxed pace. Stay at least one night down in Jervis Bay, preferably two nights, so that you can visit some of the other beaches and explore nearby Booderee National Park with its stunning beaches and bushland. The charming Whalers’ Cottages across from the main beach were once home to whalers and their families.
Witness Sea Turtles Hatching
WHERE: Bundaberg, Queensland
At the government-run Mon Repos Conservation Park Turtle Centre, the success of nesting and hatching turtles is critical to the survival of the loggerhead turtle. French for “my rest,” Mon Repos is a renowned spot for the endangered loggerheads, but also a magnet for green and flatback turtles who return each year between November and March to get to work on their next generation. Visitors can respectfully and considerately watch these majestic creatures in their natural habitat and learn all about the conservation and research programs that are working to protect them. Nightly, Ranger-led Turtle Encounters allow you to watch as mother turtles lay their clutches of eggs from November to January and then form a pathway to the ocean for the baby turtles (January to March).
INSIDER TIPOnly one in 1,000 turtles makes it to maturity so you’ll want to help protect these sweet little hatchlings as they figure it out. Witnessing the turtle nesting and hatching season is a once-in-a-lifetime experience so sign up as soon as you know your travel dates. Follow the Centre on Facebook or sign up for alerts to reserve your place.
Indulge in the National Footy Obsession
Australians are passionate about three main types of football: Rugby Union, Rugby League (NRL), and Australian Football League (AFL). While the first is played in Europe and other Commonwealth countries, AFL and NRL are limited to Australia (with a handful of New Zealand teams thrown in) so a match is a must to mix with locals when Down Under. When planning your tickets, know that there are 18 AFL teams who contest 22 games in the regular season (March to September.) Games are usually played on Friday nights, Saturdays (afternoon and night), and Sunday afternoons, with the occasional Thursday night or public holiday game throughout the season. At the end of the regular season, the top eight teams enter the finals series, which lasts for four weekends in September. The grand final is played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, traditionally on the last Saturday in September, and is near impossible to get tickets to. A footy game is a full day experience, complete with hundreds of thousands of chanting, good-natured fans decked out in club gear and feasting on the traditional footy menu of beer and meat pies with sauce.
Footy has its roots in Melbourne and it is a religion here so if possible try to catch a game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG or just “G” to locals.) Otherwise, in Sydney, spend a day at Stadium Australia or the SCG for a crash course in Aussie sport. In Perth, try to catch a match at the shiny new Optus Stadium.
Hike the Bungle Bungles
WHERE: Purnululu National Park, Western Australia
An icon of Western Australia and a must-visit in the Kimberley, the Bungle Bungles sit like a giant cluster of beehives in Purnululu National Park. This striking landscape of tiger-striped sandstone domes, gorges, caves, and hidden desert oases makes for epic hikes and overnight camping treks as you make your way through the towering walls of the narrow Echidna Chasm and to the natural amphitheater of Cathedral Gorge.
There is no way to stay overnight at the Bungle Bungles other than camping. There are two separate campgrounds within Purnululu National Park offering independent facilities for guests. For a more comfortable experience, check out the camping facilities at Savannah Lodge.
WHERE: Wilpena Pound, South Australia
Although Australia has no shortage of gorgeous locations for upmarket camping experiences, Ikara Safari Camp at Wilpena Pound within the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National bring you close to nature in supreme style with its secluded, luxurious safari tents with private decks and firepits. Made up of two parallel mountain ranges that join together at the southern end, the Pound is one of the continent’s most underrated natural wonders. The area forms a natural amphitheater that can be explored on foot or from the air with a helicopter flight.
Fall in Love with a Quokka
WHERE: Rottnest Island, Western Australia
You already know and love koalas and kangaroos and you might even know and love wombats, wallabies, and Tasmanian devils…but have you heard of the Quokka? Rottnest Island off the coast of Perth is home to this cat-sized marsupial (and budding social media star since its selfie moments with Roger Federer, Margot Robbie, and Chris Hemsworth) with a cuddly appearance and a tendency to smile.
Take a Great Ocean Roadtrip
Enjoy expansive views of the Southern Ocean, pretty coastal towns, stunning beaches, and temperate rainforests on an epic coastline drive from Melbourne to the 12 Apostles and beyond.
INSIDER TIPDon’t try to do the drive in one day, just rushing to the 12 Apostles for your selfie. Take your time as there is a lot to see along the way. Visit all the rock formations and towns like Lorne and Apollo Bay; surf on Bells Beach; visit Port Campbell National Park; and explore Otway National Park State Forest with its waterfalls and lush forests. You should allow three days minimum or, preferably, a week!
Visit Litchfield National Park
Escape the humidity of the Top End at Litchfield National Park, just south of Darwin. Florence Falls is one of the Northern Territory’s most popular swimming spots year-round, but Buley Rockholes and Tolmer Falls are also stunning and slightly less crowded. Keep in mind only officially designated swimming holes are safe from crocodiles, as they are patrolled by rangers.
Float in an Ocean Pool
WHERE: Bermagui, New South Wales
The Blue Pool in the sleepy seaside town of Bermagui on the New South Wales coast is a simple, hidden gem; it’s a natural rock pool at the base of a cliff (reached by steep steps) that has been created by waves and perfected by human ingenuity. Lingering in the refreshingly cool and clear waters, it’s just you and the endlessness of the ocean in front of you. There are picnic tables, toilets, and a shower nearby. The small town of Bermagui is far enough down the South Coast that there’s not a city slicker in sight, and the to-die-for local seafood is an open secret.
Climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge
WHERE: Sydney, New South Wales
The Harbor Bridge is Sydney’s most famous landmark and one of Australia’s most iconic landmarks and, even if it feels a little “touristy,” it’s a must on any Australia itinerary that involves a stop in Sydney. The climb takes around three hours to scale the upper arch and soar 440 feet above sea level to enjoy 360-degree views of Sydney. For those on a budget (or with a fear of heights), the Bridge can also be traversed free of charge via the stairs on Cumberland Street.
There are both day and night-time options available to see Sydney in its full glory, but you’ll want to book in advance to score a spot in the dawn group where you depart before daybreak and can watch the sun rise over the Eastern suburbs of Sydney. In winter, you can reserve a Sunset Session, where twilight climbers can watch the sun dip below the horizon while enjoying a live musical performance.