Planning a trip down under can be daunting because while Australia looks small on a map, it’s actually the sixth largest country in the world and almost as big as the continental US. To fully explore its wonders, I believe you need at least a month to do it right (I crammed a lot into two weeks), but if you don’t have that kind of time or money, here’s how to maximize your itinerary so you get a taste of the various regions and attractions. Here are the quintessential experiences to seek out and add to your Australia bucket list.
Let’s be real: I would go to Australia just for the adorable animals. With more than 140 species of marsupials including 55 different kinds of kangaroos and wallabies alone, there are so many fascinating creatures you can only find there. Australia takes their critters seriously with millions of protected wildlife parks, but there’s nothing like seeing your first kangaroo in the wild (alive or dead, sadly many end up as roadkill like deer in America). Despite that shock, we saw the most species and volume outside Grampians National Park and even stayed at an incredible B&B that doubled as a llama farm that housed many other animals. Anytime you get out of the cities your chances of seeing kangaroos, wallabies, emus, and even koalas in the wild are much higher, but there are specific animal sanctuaries and natural areas that allow you to get up close and personal with them – responsibly.
A few animal experiences to seek out in Australia: The Kangaroo Sanctuary in Alice Springs, Featherdale Wildlife Park in Sydney, Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, the Koala Hospital in Melbourne, Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary in Tasmania, Rottnest Island outside Perth (the best place to see the beloved quokkas), and Phillip Island outside Melbourne, known for their nightly penguin parades. It’s also worth noting that cuddling koalas (or touching them) is only allowed in Queensland.
Marvel at the Great Barrier Reef
The single biggest living organism on Earth and one of the world’s most impressive natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system in the world. It’s massive and varied with depths still largely unknown (it’s been said that we know as little about the ocean and the underwater world as we do about outer space). They also recently opened a super cool underwater museum, Museum of Underwater Art (MOUA) with submerged sculptures strategically located along the coast.
About half the size of Texas, there are many places and ways to explore the Great Barrier Reef from either Cairns, Airlie Beach, Hervey Bay, Mission Beach or Port Douglas. One of the best is to combine it with a trip to the Whitsunday Islands, one of Australia’s most idyllic beach getaways. You can stay on the mainland on Airlie Beach for much cheaper or post up on one of the ultra-luxe islands like Hamilton (where golf carts are the main form of transportation) or Daydream (one massive resort) and take a day trip to the Reef or Whitehaven Beach, which has one of the whitest sands in the world.
Many companies offer day trips and even overnights to the Great Barrier Reef where you can SCUBA (with an instructor, no certification required!), snorkel, tour by helicopter (to see Heart Reef), and explore by semi-subversive from a docked pontoon. For those looking for an ultra-exclusive experience, Reefsleep lets you spend the night under the stars atop the boat in a yurt, while the brand new Reefsuites is the first underwater hotel in the Great Barrier Reef. The two rooms have floor to ceiling windows that look like a personal designer fish bowl with marine life like turtles, jellies, and schools of fish (totally different from morning to evening) wafting by that offer an unparalleled look into life under the sea.
Eat at all the “Made for Instagram” Restaurants
As the inventor of Freakshakes, Australia was way ahead of the trend on over the top, colorful creations made for the camera with dozens of restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne bursting with rainbow explosions and floral backdrops just begging for photo ops. It also doesn’t hurt that the country is obsessed with cotton candy (adorably called “fairy floss”) and puts it on just about everything from breakfast plates to ice cream. Not to miss restaurants include Social Hideout (the pink café of my dreams), The Grounds of Alexandria (which they change up seasonally and theme like Disney movies), Speedos (the most Instagrammable restaurant in the world), and Cuppa Flower (for the flat lay of your dreams).
A few specific dishes to seek out include 3D printed coffee from Little Giant, rainbow grilled cheeses from Rainbow Toastie, the unicorn burrito or watermelon ice cream sandwich from Milkcow, cartoon bao buns and cotton candy heads from Son in Law, Mermaid Pancakes from Two Sis, and literally any of the pastel French Toast or hotcake towers from Social Hideout.
Experience the National Parks
Australia also takes nature very seriously with over 900 designated national parks throughout the country and over 870 in New South Wales alone (it puts our 62 to shame). The Blue Mountains are one of the most accessible right outside Sydney with Scenic World and the Three Sisters a major attraction for breathtaking views from the cable car and Sky Walk. Unfortunately, they’ve sustained quite a bit of damage from the brush fires and it’s hard to appreciate right now with all the smoke. If you’re in the area, though, you can still explore underground on a variety of tours through the breathtaking Jenolan Caves.
That said, we got the best views at Grampians National Park outside Melbourne with waterfalls and wildlife aplenty, the Pinnacle hike offering the most impressive lookout.
Drive the Great Ocean Road
Australia’s most famous road trip, the Great Ocean Road stretches for about 250 miles along the country’s southern coast. The iconic rock formations of the 12 Apostles, Bay of Islands, and London Bridge make up part of “Shipwreck Coast,” known for its stunning nature, lighthouses, and iconic waterfront towns. As an added bonus, the area is also known for its Gourmet Trail with cheese, wine, chocolate, and produce stops aplenty to ensure you’re eating well and primed for exploration.
Explore the Cities
Sydney and Melbourne are both great cities (especially for food), so much so that the country couldn’t decide where to put the capital, ultimately leading them to create a neutral location in the middle. That just means you’ll have to explore both and decide for yourself which you prefer. Sydney has the Harbour, Opera House, Bondi Beach and Iceberg Pools, while Melbourne is more metropolitan and hipster. Head to Flinders Street and get lost in the alleyways in search of street art and street food including more restaurants than you could possibly eat at in your lifetime. Both have beguiling Asia towns with many relocating there.
The outback is really what you picture when you think of Australia – vast, open lands, dusty red dirt roads, desert animals, and blistering heat. The best place to experience it is Uluru, better known as the Red Center. The exact opposite of the tropical coast, Ayers Rock is the cultural heart of Australia and the place to have an authentic aboriginal experience. Try to decipher the local rock art paintings, take a guided bush walk, go on a camel trek, or a 4×4 safari.
Get Lost in the Rainforest
It’s really quite remarkable how many different landscapes Australia has, each bucket-list worthy in their own way. A World Heritage Site and inspiration for the movie Avatar, The Daintree is the oldest tropical rainforest in the world, which is full of lush greenery and dense jungle. A few hours outside of Cairns, you can stay in a treehouse, try ziplining, or cruise the river looking for wildlife and birds aplenty.
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