Australia is roughly 32 times bigger than the UK, 11 times bigger than Texas, or as big as India, Mexico, South Africa, France, Japan and Germany combined. And with an incredibly big country comes numerous things to see and do – from cities, beaches and landmarks to islands and forests spread across the land. Culture Trip has narrowed down the top 20 things you should add to your Australian bucket list.
Live out your own sequel to Finding Nemo (2003) by diving into this 2,300km (1,429mi) stretch of coral reef straddling the North Queensland coast; it’s the largest coral reef system anywhere on earth. Sail, snorkel and splash around the reef from its major gateway cities Cairns and Townsville, but get in quick to catch the reef at its most colourful because warmer sea temps caused by climate change are quickly bleaching the coral.
Strips of sand don’t get any more famous than Bondi Beach, the world-renowned stretch of shoreline in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. The green grass, golden sand and turquoise water attract more than 1m visitors a year. Don’t miss having a dip in the Bondi Icebergs ocean pool, enjoying a meal or a drink at one of Bondi’s trendy bars or eateries and strolling along the jaw-dropping coastal walk between Bondi and the equally gorgeous Coogee Beach.
Uluru (Ayers Rock) is the beating heart of the Australian continent. A five-hour drive southwest of Alice Springs, the approximately 4km-long (2mi), 348m-high (1,142ft) sandstone monolith is one of the country’s most recognisable sites. You can experience Uluru and the neighbouring Kata Tjuta rock formation on foot, on the back of a Harley-Davidson, by helicopter or in a hot-air balloon – just don’t climb it as Uluru is a sacred site to Australia’s Indigenous people.
While Australia doesn’t have art galleries that rival the history of Europe’s, it does have a museum that matches anything you’ll find overseas. Tasmanian millionaire and art collector David Walsh opened the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in 2011, a gallery he described as a “subversive adult Disneyland”. Catch the 25-minute ferry from Hobart and step inside Mona’s striking modern edifice to admire an indescribable series of artistic works from Walsh’s private collection, comprising more than 1,900 pieces.
When Lonely Planet named Canberra one of the world’s hottest cities on the planet to visit, plenty of Australians thought that must have been a typo. But Australia’s capital city – a place Aussies normally only visit on school excursions to learn about democracy at Parliament House – is full of treats for anyone who ignores the haters, with classy museums, a burgeoning food-and-drink scene and breathtaking landscapes, including the rugged Australian Alps.
Australia is blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to world-class wine regions – it has the Hunter Valley north of Sydney, the Yarra Valley and Swan Valley on Melbourne’s doorstep and Margaret River south of Perth. However, the Barossa Valley near Adelaide might just be the pick of the bunch. Home to some of the oldest shiraz vines in the world, the Barossa’s 150-plus wineries are famous for their reds, particularly those from renowned winemakers such as Penfolds, Jacob’s Creek and Wolf Blass.
If sport is a religion to Australians, then the MCG is their cathedral – and tens of thousands make the pilgrimage every time the country’s sporting idols grace the hallowed turf. Whether it’s a game of Australian rules football in winter or a cricket match in summer, the rich history and sheer scale of ‘the G’ is palpable. Sports have been played here since 1853, and with a capacity of 100,024, it’s bigger than any stadium on earth outside North Korea and the United States.
Visiting ‘the Coathanger’ is an absolute must in Sydney, but for the full experience, you have to don a grey jumpsuit and climb it, too. Via BridgeClimb, you can scale the 134m (440ft) arch, providing 360-degree panoramic views of the Harbour City – including the Sydney Opera House, just across the water – from the top of its most famous landmark.
This 22km (14mi) stretch of white sand creates one of the most spectacular sunset spots in the country, especially if you take part in Cable Beach’s camel train as the sun sinks into the Indian Ocean. The historic pearling port of Broome – itself a fascinating, multicultural and uniquely remote town of 15,000, a two-and-a-half-hour flight north of Perth – also serves as the gateway to Western Australia’s wild Kimberley region, an ancient landscape of canyons, gorges and swimming holes.
There are dozens of reasons that would convince you that ‘Rotto’ – a laid-back island just 25 minutes on the ferry from Fremantle, Perth – is one of Australia’s must-visit destinations, including the 60-plus stunning beaches connected by car-free bike roads, the 35,000 humpback and southern right whales that cruise by during winter or the sparkling waters that house an array of marine life. But you only really need one reason to visit: the quokka, an impossibly cute marsupial found in very few places other than Rottnest.
The world’s largest sand island – more than 120km (75mi) long and 24km (15mi) wide, and a three-hour drive north of Brisbane – is home to an eclectic collection of treasures. Here, you’ll find the white-sand freshwater Lake McKenzie, the lofty Valley of the Giants rainforest, one of Australia’s purest strains of dingo and the haunting shipwreck of the SS Maheno. Hervey Bay – your launchpad for tours of the island – is also the best whale-watching spot in Australia during winter, when Fraser Island shelters newborn humpback calves to grow strong before the long trip back to Antarctica.
Adventure into Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory
Welcome to Kakadu, a national park so big that it’s roughly the size of Jamaica and Lebanon combined. Within a three-hour drive west of Darwin, in a region (erroneously) named the Alligator Rivers, you’ll discover Kakadu’s prehistoric landscapes, which are actually home to about 10,000 crocodiles as well as an incredibly diverse population of native flora and fauna, 20,000-year-old Indigenous rock art and countless pristine waterfalls, billabongs and swimming holes (so long as you keep an eye out for crocs).
Among the most unique and awe-inspiring underwater experiences in Australia is found in Exmouth, on the country’s northwestern tip. The Ningaloo Reef, among the largest and longest near-shore reefs in the world, is famous for its whale sharks, manta rays and migrating whales, and here, you can go diving and snorkelling alongside these incredible creatures. It’s the farthest point on the Coral Coast road trip from Perth, and life above the water here isn’t so bad either, with Cape Range National Park and its gorges and stunning beaches just a short drive away.
Drive the Great Ocean Road, Victoria/South Australia
If you google “world’s best road trips”, you’ll notice a scenic stretch of bitumen in Australia consistently named alongside the likes of the US’s Route 66, South Africa’s Garden Route and Iceland’s Ring Road. And it’s not hard to see why the Great Ocean Road is matched with the best driving routes on earth. The 243km (151mi) drive winds along the coast between Torquay near Melbourne and the South Australian border, clinging to the dramatic coastline that links landmarks such as the Twelve Apostles rock formation and surfing mecca Bells Beach.
While the Great Barrier Reef grabs most of the attention in Australia, there’s another World Heritage-listed natural wonder in the Queensland tropics that’s no less impressive. Covering 1,200sqkm (463sqmi) near Cairns, the Daintree Rainforest is home to primitive plant life that preserves different stages of our planet’s evolutionary history, more than 400 species of birds and untouched natural swimming pools at Mossman Gorge. It’s little wonder that David Attenborough described it as “the most extraordinary place on earth”.
Tasmania is renowned for its natural beauty, and its national parks are no exception, showcasing the best of the island’s magical landscapes – from rugged mountains to towering trees, dense forests, cascading waterfalls, clear lakes and jaw-droppingly stunning beaches. While you absolutely can’t miss Freycinet National Park’s Wineglass Bay and Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, make sure to indulge in some of the island’s other attractions, too, such as the world-class wine, cider, cheese and oysters.
Known for its glorious surf, sublime beaches, great café culture and laid-back, bohemian vibes, Australia’s easternmost town, Byron Bay, is one of the country’s most famous surf spots. It has breaks to suit everyone – from rookies to pros. The area also has plenty of other activities for those who don’t feel like taking to the water, including whale watching, rainforest hikes and shopping in the designer boutiques.
See the fairy penguins on Phillip Island, Victoria
Just off the coast of Melbourne, Phillip Island may be best known for its colony of 32,000 fairy penguins, but it has so much more to offer, including a koala conservation centre, a Grand Prix track, incredible hiking opportunities, a heritage farm complete with wagon rides and the Southern Gippsland Wine Trail. It’s all within a two-hour drive of Victoria’s capital, making for a good day trip – but an even better weekend getaway.
With excellent food and wine, epic mountain vistas, forest bathing and caves full of glow worms and Aboriginal rock paintings, there is something very special about the Blue Mountains. Within a 90-minute drive from Sydney, you’ll feel like you’re in another world – one full of quaint, quirky villages, a World Heritage-listed rainforest and dramatic scenery.
Wherever you may end up in Australia, there is arguably nothing more Australian than loading up the car and going on an adventure. Whether it’s just for a weekend or a multi-day trip around the entire country (lucky you), there is something so wonderfully Australian about firing up the playlist, loading up the esky and hitting the open road. Some classics include the Great Ocean Road between Melbourne and Adelaide, the Coral Coast between Perth and Exmouth and, of course, the quintessential east-coast road trip from Sydney to Brisbane.