Make sure you book a window seat for your flight into the Emerald City because Sydney’s sparkling waterway provides an impressive introduction to Australia. Most of the major attractions in the country’s largest city revolve around the water, whether that means famed waterfront landmarks like the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, or the dozens of beaches from Manly in the north to Cronulla in the south.
It’s impossible to spend your first day anywhere other than Sydney Harbour, strolling through the Botanic Gardens to the steps of the Opera House before heading to the Bridge. For a truly unforgettable experience, book a BridgeClimb for panoramic views of the Harbour from above.
On day two, head back to Circular Quay, this time to board the legendary ferry to Manly, a quintessentially ‘Sydney’ journey that passes through the heads of the Harbour before arriving in the bustling beachside suburb.
On day three? Head to Bondi beach. Bondi is far from being Sydney’s most beautiful beach but it’s easily the city’s most famous, drawing huge crowds of visitors to the sand as well as the nearby bars and cafes. Lace up your walking shoes for a dip at quieter swimming spots like Tamarama, Bronte and Clovelly before arriving at Coogee via the jaw-dropping coastal walk.
Plan a day trip for your fourth day — the Blue Mountains, Central Coast, Hunter Valley, South Coast, Newcastle, Kangaroo Valley and plenty more top-drawer day trip destinations are waiting to lure you out of Sydney itself.
Whatever Melbourne lacks in beaches and beauty compared to Sydney, it makes up for in coffee and culture. Connected to the Harbour City by super-frequent one-hour flights, Australia’s second biggest metropolis is a hub of cutting-edge cafes, envelope-pushing restaurants, eye-opening museums and a bar scene that puts Sydney’s to shame.
Get arty on day one — there’s world-class art hanging inside the National Gallery of Victoria, and also graffitied across the walls of alleyways like Hosier Lane and Presgrave Place. Also plan visits to cultural institutions like the Migration Museum, State Library and the National Sports Museum located within the bowels of the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground.
On day two in the Victorian capital, venture outside the inner-city, either checking out Luna Park and the little penguins at St Kilda, or navigating the hipster heartland of Fitzroy and Brunswick. The coffee scene in every corner of Melbourne is renowned around Australia.
Use your third day in Melbourne for a day trip out of town. The Yarra Valley is a must for fans of gourmet food and drink, kids (and kids at heart) will love the Penguin Parade on Phillip Island and the Puffing Billy vintage steam railway in the Dandenong Ranges, or the Sovereign Hill open-air museum in Ballarat takes you back in time to the Gold Rush era of the 1850s.
Now that the first week is done touring Australia’s two major cities, hop behind the wheel and tackle Australia’s most spectacular road trip, winding west of Melbourne. The Great Ocean Road is a cliff-hugging touring route that covers 243 kilometres of windswept Victorian coastline, twisting and turning along a gorgeous expanse of Southern Ocean.
Start the road trip in Torquay, a surfing mecca that gave the world beach brands Rip Curl and Quiksilver, and today hosts the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach every Easter. Then take your time stopping for a snap at photogenic rock formations like the 12 Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge, and leave enough time in your itinerary to stop at the string of untouched beaches along the way. Port Fairy, a historic fishing village that represents the official end of the Great Ocean Road, is a nice place to spend the night before driving onward to Adelaide via the equally scenic Limestone Coast.
The capital of South Australia has worked hard to shed its perception as an outdated, old-fashioned, oversized country town, making the most of the state’s world-class wineries and mouthwatering local produce to generate one of the country’s most vibrant food and drink scenes. Adelaide’s bars and cafes give Melbourne a run for its money, the wine from regions like the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley, Langhorne Creek and Coonawarra is some of the best in Australia, and there are also lots of great museums and galleries found within the picturesque stone buildings on the leafy North Terrace.
After spending your first day exploring the city itself, then use a day for one of the many awesome day trips sitting on Adelaide’s doorstep — Kangaroo Island is a nature-lover’s paradise, the Adelaide Hills and the Barossa will have foodies salivating, and a day lazing around the beaches of the Fleurieu Peninsula is a day well spent.
Located on the West Coast, a five-hour flight from Sydney and Melbourne, the capital of Western Australia is often left off Aussie itineraries. Well that’s a great shame, because Perth — a cosmopolitan city that’s proudly independent of the rest of the country — has plenty to offer travellers who do make the effort. Following this itinerary, Perth is less than three hours’ flight from Adelaide — there are seven or eight direct services a day.
The city itself is easily worth a day — Kings Park is the largest city park in the world (yep, even bigger than New York’s Central Park), the bars and cafes in Northbridge could have been transplanted straight out of Melbourne, and Cottesloe Beach rivals anything Sydney has to offer.
Then the historic port of Fremantle — home to a well preserved convict-era prison, plus other historical sites, nice beaches and a lively hospitality culture — is where you should spend day two. Fremantle is an easy half-hour train trip from Perth city.
But the best thing to see in Perth is found a half-hour ferry ride away on Rottnest Island, where you can spend your third day in WA. The humble quokka — a cat-sized marsupial resembling a miniature kangaroo — has been dubbed the world’s happiest animal, and it won’t take you long to figure out why as soon as one comes bouncing up to you on ‘Rotto’.
After a fortnight spent largely in the city, it’s time to escape into the beating red heart of the Australian continent. Fly from Perth to Alice Springs on the daily Qantas service to reach the Red Centre, home of Uluru, one of Australia’s postcard images. Emerging from the ochre-red dust of the outback, ‘The Rock’ is a sacred site for Indigenous people — note that climbing the landmark will be banned in October 2019, and is frowned upon now.
After one day at Uluru, see a little more of the outback on day two. Kata Tjuta, a collection of 36 enormous boulders that pepper the desert landscape, might be overshadowed by their more famous neighbour but they’re no less astonishing, while Kings Canyon is Australia’s answer to the Grand Canyon, dotted with serene swimming holes.
Hop on one of the three daily services from Alice Springs to Darwin for the two-hour flight to the capital of the Northern Territory, your gateway to even more otherworldly outback landscapes. Darwin itself is a city like no other you’ve ever visited on Earth — use day one to stare a crocodile in the face at Crocosaurus Cove, then feast on delicious Asian fare at the Mindil Beach Markets as the sun slinks into the Timor Sea.
But the Top End’s real charm lies outside the city, in some of Australia’s most extraordinary national parks — devote day two to a day trip out of town. The rugged, untamed countryside of the Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks could keep an intrepid traveller occupied for days, then in the north-east corner of the Territory, Arnhem Land — birthplace of the didgeridoo — is particularly sacred to the Indigenous community.
Fans of the outdoors will love ending their trip in Cairns, the largest city in the tropical North Queensland region connected to the Top End by a handful of two-and-a-half-hour flights a day. Much like Darwin, the town itself is nice enough, with a laidback esplanade and plenty of backpacker bars, but the real attractions are a day trip away.
On your first day in Cairns, dive into the most obvious highlight: the Great Barrier Reef, 2,300 kilometres of colourful coral that straddles the Queensland coast. Hurry and visit while you still can, because a lot of this ecosystem is becoming less colourful than it once was, with climate change bleaching the coral of its rich hues.
After a day snorkelling the Reef, head inland on day two — catch a ride up to the clouds on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and the Kuranda Scenic Railway, chase waterfalls in the Atherton Tablelands, or plan a visit to the surreal Paronella Park.
Then on the last day of your whirlwind three-week trip Down Under, leap millions of years back in time by stepping into the Daintree Rainforest, which is brimming with ancient vegetation and rare Australian wildlife (and yes, that includes crocodiles).