Sydney is most backpackers’ first stop Down Under, and from the moment they catch a glimpse of the sparkling harbour out of the plane window, they know exactly why they’ve come to visit. There’s the string of golden beaches that line the coast, especially backpacker precincts Bondi and Coogee in the eastern suburbs and Manly on the Northern Beaches. There’s the iconic Harbour Bridge and Opera House. There’s the trendy neighbourhoods of the inner-west. There’s the laid-back city wedged between lush parkland and glittering harbour. What’s not to love.
Sydney’s arch rival down south lacks the Harbour City’s weather, beaches and natural beauty — but Melbourne makes up for it with superior nightlife, eateries and coffee scene. Dubbed Australia’s cultural capital and regarded as the most European city in Oz, Melbourne is loaded with treats that budget travellers will love, like the street art near Flinders St station, the alfresco dining in St Kilda, the bohemian Brunswick St in Fitzroy and the bike trails around bayside Brighton.
No backpacking sojourn is complete without a ripping road trip, and the best strip of bitumen Australia has to offer starts on Melbourne’s doorstep. The Great Ocean Road is 244km of cliff-hugging twists and bends linking Torquay, 90 minutes from Melbourne, with Allansford close to the South Australian border — an unmissable drive taking in windswept beaches, craggy lookouts, lush rainforest and the dramatic 12 Apostles rock formation, made up of limestone pillars towering above the ocean.
If we’re talking rock formations, we need to mention a lump of sandstone in the centre of the country that’s so famous it’s known simply as ‘The Rock’. Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock) is the beating heart of Australia’s Red Centre, a impressive monolith that rises 348m above the ancient outback landscape. Climbing The Rock will be banned from October 2019 but the best views are from the bottom anyway — visit at dawn or dusk to avoid the mid-day heat and see Uluru glow ochre red. A compulsory tick on every Aussie backpacker’s bucket list.
Australia’s tropical capital is a convenient launching pad to explore the natural splendour of the Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks… but that’s not the only reason why Darwin is a backpacking haven. Much of the credit has to go to Mitchell St, the strip of bars, eateries, bars, watering holes, hostels, bars and then even more bars in the middle of town. The legendary local newspaper, the NT News, has published the 40 unwritten rules of Mitchell St that “you must memorise to survive a night out on the notorious Darwin party strip”, so study up.
Welcome to another tropical town that mixes world-class natural attractions, some serious partying and busloads of backpackers. Come to Cairns to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef and delve into the prehistoric Daintree Rainforest — there are no shortage of tour operators who’ll help you explore them both — then stay for the string of bars and backpacking joints centred on the oceanfront esplanade.
At the other end of the North Queensland tropics to Cairns lies Airlie Beach, the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands. Of course, jump on a yacht to sail around the white sand isles and the colourful reef, and embrace activities like skydives, scenic flights and scuba dives. But don’t skip spending time in Airlie itself — the palm-fringed lagoon is the focal point of town, surrounded by lively backpacker hostels, bars and relaxed beachfront eateries.
Byron is now home to the rich and famous but it used to just be a backpacker’s favourite pit stop on the well-worn East Coast route between Sydney and Cairns. There’s no denying it’s more upmarket than it used to be, but bohemian Byron is still a hub of travellers, surfers, artists and wannabe hippies hanging out at Australia’s most easterly point. A day trip to stoner capital Nimbin is also a popular option for backpackers.
Don’t be tricked by the name — the surf at Surfers Paradise isn’t nearly as good as other breaks in the area — but the Goldie offers so much more than this glitzy strip of sand. There’s the impossibly gorgeous hinterland, the equally attractive bronze-skinned locals, raucous nightclubs, adrenaline-pumping theme parks and 50-plus kilometres of beaches that span a lot further than Surfers — swimmers will love the calm water at Coolangatta and Currumbin while surfers can hang ten at Main Beach and Burleigh Heads.
Western Australia is a long way to come from the East Coast but it’s more than worth the trek. Many backpackers base themselves in Fremantle — an historic 19th century colonial port that’s been revived in recent years by fashionable bars, boutiques, markets and micro-breweries — and visit the postcard-perfect Cottesloe Beach in Perth and Rottnest Island, just a short ferry off the coast, home of turquoise beaches and the friendly quokka marsupial.