The Great Southern Land really is great, in fact, Australia is the 6th largest country on Earth! With all that ground to cover, where should you start exploring the land Down Under? Well as a born and bred Aussie and world wanderer, I’m here to help you prioritise the best places to visit in Australia.
As I travel (and live) around the world, I’m often asked what the must-see places are to visit in Australia and that isn’t an easy question to answer. Of course, my first response is “what are you interested in?” because that is very important in narrowing down the expansive choices.
Some people have specific ideas, and others just want to see what Australia is all about – therefore I’ve come up with this quick introductory guide that combines my local knowledge and international perspective to help you put a map pin in some awesome places to go in Australia.
How big is Australia?
Let’s just take a moment to size up Australia because there are a lot misconceptions about how big it actually is and this will be a consideration in what you endeavour to cover on your trip. Australia is about 7.69 million km² (2.97 million mi²) which is roughly the same size as the contiguous United States or almost twice the size of Europe. Yep, it’s big!
That’s why this list focuses mostly on the east coast, as this is where Australia’s population is concentrated and therefore it offers a range of cultural experiences. However, despite being one coastline the distances between cities and attractions are still great (e.g. travelling Sydney to Cairns by road will take about 26hrs of continuous driving). If you are an international visitor planning to rent a car in Australia, this is a useful guide for getting familiar with local road regulations, etiquette and license requirements.
Best places to visit in Australia
Sydney and surrounds
Sydney is the only one-stop Australia shop (if that’s even possible). Though Sydney is not Australia’s capital city, though it might as well be. From an international visitors perspective, Sydney has it all: world-renowned landmarks, exquisite beaches, moderate weather, national parks, terrific dining options and historic sights.
Should you somehow get bored, there are plenty of day trips and overnighters that will take you out into the surrounding sights of New South Wales and to Canberra (Australia’s actual capital). If you only have time to visit one Australian destination, Sydney is the best place. For more details, see these top things to do in Sydney.
Pros: Broad range of experiences offered.
Cons: Heavy traffic; expensive.
Visit: All year-round.
Avoid: February through April generally sees the most rainfall.
Melbourne and more
Melbourne is Australia’s ultimate lifestyle city. What it lacks in landmarks like Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, it makes up for in amazing food, coffee and culture. Even throughout Melbourne’s cold winters, there is always something to do whether it’s attending a sporting match, a world-class theatre performance, museum exhibit, or a festival – Melbournites love to get out and involved, and it’s contagious!
Day trips and overnighters out of Melbourne will take you to wine regions, scenic coastal towns, surf beaches and the Twelve Apostles. A little further yonder is Tasmania. If none of this appeals to you, Melbourne also has some of Australia’s best shopping.
Pros: Sporting and cultural events; crazy good cuisine and coffee.
Cons: Unpredictable weather; obsessive Australian Rules Football fans; expensive.
Visit: Summer and autumn.
Avoid: Winter, August, in particular, is cold and wet.
Brisbane and beyond
Brisbane is the state capital of Queensland and another lifestyle city with a relaxed, ultra-casual vibe. Brisbane’s mild climate attracts those who love to spend time outdoors year-round. The city is more affordable than Melbourne or Sydney but has less to offer from a cultural and historical perspective.
Though you can cover a Brisbane must-see list in a couple of days, the city is a gateway to many day trips and overnighters. You can access some of the country’s best beaches at the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, an hour south and north of Brisbane respectively. There’s also excellent hiking and attractions such as Glass House Mountains National Park and Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo all within a couple of hours drive of the CBD. See the post What to do in Brisbane for more details.
Pros: Great weather; abundance of outdoor activities; cheaper than Sydney and Melbourne.
Cons: Fewer cultural experiences.
Visit: Anytime, but excellent for winter compared to other cities
Avoid: Unless you enjoy sub-tropical climates, avoid December/January as Brisbane summers are hot and humid.
Cairns and North Queensland
Cairns is the gateway city to two World Heritage protected areas: the Daintree Cape Tribulation Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. If you love nature, this is the place to base yourself for both land and sea adventurers.
Pros: Amazing rainforest and reef ecosystems.
Cons: Fewer cultural experiences.
Avoid: Summer and Australian school holiday periods.
Darwin and the Red Centre
There isn’t much but desert in the middle of Australia, except for a mammoth sandstone monolith called Uluru. You’ll need to allow several days to make the return journey from the east coast, out into the heart of Australia where the UNESCO World Heritage site is located.
Also known as Ayers Rock, Uluru is both a natural phenomenon and sacred place to Australia’s native people. You might make your way there north from Adelaide or south from Darwin, either way, it’s going to be a worthwhile journey. If you choose the southern route, enjoy Adelaide’s surrounding wine regions, and pass through the Opal mining towns of South Australia. The northern route will give you access to Katherine Gorge and the World Heritage Listed Kakadu National Park.
Pros: Spectacular natural landscapes.
Cons: Huge distances to cover.
Visit: Late Autumn and Winter.
If you make it all the way to Australia’s most Western parts, congratulations, you’ve beaten me! It’s a good 6hr flight to traverse the Great Southern Land from Sydney to Perth and I haven’t made the trek yet. When I think about Western Australia (the state), I think Margaret River wines, feeding dolphins at Monkey Mia, big wave surfing ( as a spectator of course), swimming with whale sharks along Ningaloo Reef, pink waterways like Hillier and Spencer Lakes, cute Quokkas on Rottnest Island, massive wildflower blooms in the desert and pearl farms in the pristine waters off Broome.
Pros: Spectacular natural landscapes.
Cons: Remote locations contribute to long travel times and high expenses.
Visit: Western Australia is enormous with a highly variable climate. Visit Perth and further south in late Winter through Spring. Visit inner outback regions in late Autumn and winter. Broome is best Autumn through to Spring.
If this guide to the best places to visit in Australia still leaves you stumped, ask me for more in the comments below.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,
Photography kudos to the following:
Michael Levine-Clark – Vivid Opera House https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
Kyle Taylor – The Farm https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Cliff Kimura – Tasmanian Rainforest https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
Jamie Davies – Morning Glory Melbourne https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
You missed Canberra – there are major galleries and exhibitions, the annual Floriade, great bush walks, a science museum and loads of activities for kids and it’s only 3 hrs from Sydney.
Thanks for stopping by Duende and leaving your thoughts. I left out Adelaide and Canberra because (in my humble opinion) I think they are more relevant to domestic travellers, than a must-see for international visitors who really want to see “the big stuff”. I must say, it was very hard to draw the line! Keep your eye out, because Canberra will definitely be included as a suggested overnight trip out of Sydney in an upcoming post :-)