Australia is world famous for its natural wonders and considering it is also the sixth-largest country (by land area) traveling to Australia will leave you wondering questions like: What cities should I visit on my first trip to Australia? How long should I spend in Australia? and What is the weather like in Australia? These are all valid questions and ones that I wish I could answer easily. But the truth is Australia has almost too much to offer you, the beaches, the deserts, the bush, the Great Barrier Reef, the Outback, the huge sprawling cities!
Below, I will try my best to give you a complete picture of the country as a whole and my opinion on the best cities to visit for your first trip to Australia. I've included links throughout this article that will direct you to more in-depth travel guides for the various cities. I hope it helps you plan a wonderful trip to the down under.
Like I mentioned above, Australia is huge. When you’re planning a trip it helps to understand just how far the cities are from one another. If you think you can cover all of the big cities of the Australian states in one visit you should think again. So first off, Australia has six states: New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, and Tasmania. The picture below, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, highlights the biggest cities in each territory.
A common tourist route includes visiting the eastern cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane (or the Gold coast). This is the route that I took as well. These cities are relatively close together and easy to visit quickly by plane. Another bit of good news is that you can choose from a couple of low-cost airlines, Jetstar and Tigerair, when traveling Australia. And even larger carriers like Virgin Australia have flights that aren’t too expensive. If you want to criss-cross the country it won't break the bank.
In the eastern tourist trail, Sydney to Melbourne is a swift 90-minute flight, while Melbourne to Brisbane is a two-hour flight.
On the other hand, Darwin in the Northern Territory to Melbourne in Victoria is a four and a half hour flight.
Perth, a popular city in Western Australia to Sydney clocks in at just over four hours.
Now that I’ve prepped you on the size of Australia here are my top 10 picks for the best cities to visit in Australia....
10. Brisbane & The Gold Coast - Queensland
Yes. Yes. I am going to technically cheat and combine cities and areas together. Sue me. If you’re heading to either destination I suggest taking this Travel Guide from Lonely Planet along with you.
Anyway, Brisbane is a sparkling city that is lucky to enjoy sunshine year-round. It’s the third-largest city in Australia, with a population of about 2 million people, and has expanded rapidly in the last 10 years. The city was built along the Brisbane River and coupled with the city’s fantastic climate you'll have your pick of outdoor activities. Biking, climbing, and hiking are very popular in Brisbane. Even if you aren't into the exercise scene, Brisbane also has a fantastic music scene with many local artists and is regularly called one of the music capitals of the world. You will have tons of venues in town to pick from all with excellent shows. Add in numerous distinguished restaurants and bars in Brisbane and you've got a good time.
The Gold Coast
Brisbane is also the jumping off point for the Gold Coast. AKA the Australian version of Miami. The appropriately named Gold Coast contains 90 miles of sunshine-soaked coastline whose entire strip glistens with modern high-rises. Activities are endless here with every watersport imaginable, plus yacht parties, and as you can imagine all the questionable behavior you're thinking about right now. You should probably know you pretty much can’t go anywhere without running into “schoolies” or the Australian equivalent of spring breakers. The best places to visit along the Gold Coast include Main Beach, Surfers Paradise, and Broadbeach. Learn more here.
Tasmania is overlooked (and a bit misunderstood) but regardless the island is a must visit. About half of the island of Tasmania is protected by the government to preserve the natural beauty.
First off, if you grew up watching Looney Tunes you probably have heard of the Tasmanian devil. These precocious creatures do exist in real life and appropriately reside in the wild on the island of Tasmania. However, it is quite rare to see them in the wild. Tasmanian devils are a carnivorous marsupial (marsupials include kangaroos, koalas, possums, and wombats) and Tasmanian Devils are about the size of a small dog with a deafening screech. If you want to see a Tassie Devil, as they are known locally, you'll want to visit a wildlife nature reserve.
Hobart is the most popular city in Tasmania and has the biggest international airport (Hobart International Airport, code HBA). There are many bucket-list worthy things to do while here. You can learn a bit of history by visiting the former convict settlement of Port Arthur. You’ll see the historic seaside colonial buildings where the British once housed their prisoners. Don't forget that these prisoners were the founding fathers of what we now know as Australia! You can also visit a wildlife sanctuary right outside the city, Bonorong, and see Tassie Devils as well as lots of other native Tasmanian animals. The sanctuary takes in injured wildlife and either rehabilitate or homes the animals permanently. Visitors are able to feed kangaroos and pat wombats and koalas on one of the daily tours.
8. Darwin & Kakadu National Park - Northern Territory
Darwin is a cosmopolitan and laid-back city that many people many people use as a base to explore the nearby natural wonders of Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks. It is easily the most dangerous of all the cities in Australia. Temperatures hover around 90 year-round and there are many creatures that reside here just ready to kill you. But, don't be scared, it is also a beautiful tropical location that will bring tears to any nature lovers.
Perhaps the most famous of Darwin's attractions, Kakadu National Park possesses over five thousand ancient rock art sites which are fascinating to visit. The park is a place of immense cultural and natural significance, plus contains some stunning natural sights which make it well worth a visit. Don't miss the Kakadu Escarpment which is simply breathtaking. A diverse ecosystem is contained within the park’s boundaries. Don't be surprised to hike through deserted sandstone escarpments one minute and be bathing in waterfalls and pools the next. The best part is that while it is very popular, Kakadu’s huge land area means that you will probably enjoy the park in peace and quiet most of the time.
7. Adelaide - South Australia
Want some Texas and southern charm while in Australia? Then visit Adelaide. It can be overlooked for more popular or boisterous cities but it does have a casino, firing range, and the massive club HQ. You won't find it to be a big party town and the residents tend to be a bit older but regardless Adelaide knows how to show visitors a good time. If you can plan it out right visit during the famous Adelaide Fringe Festival (usually from mid-February to mid-march) for the celebration of everything weird. Also, don't miss Cooper’s Brewery, the only remaining large-scale family-owned brewery in Australia. Adelaide also has the pristine Kangaroo Island a short ferry ride away. This unique island is the only place where koalas outnumber cars. The island also has some excellent sand-boarding.
6. Perth - Western Australia
Perth is one of the most isolated cities in the world, its nearest major city is over 1,300 miles away! It takes a while to get here so if you do visit, you´re going to want to spend some time here to make it worthwhile. The good news is Perth is a pretty nice place to spend time. Perth is consistently on lists as one of the most livable cities in the world and that is probably due to the laid-back vibe, numerous cultural sites, clean (like reallyyy clean) streets, and the sheer magnitude of fantastic restaurants and cafes. There is also a public park nearly 1000 acres large - so yeah, its got some green space to relax in. The climate is fantastic and Perth enjoys sunshine the majority of the year making the beaches a quality place to sip a beer on.
5. Great Ocean Road & The Grampians - Victoria
Great Ocean Road
One of the Australia’s most scenic ocean drives (and really one of the most beautiful drives in the world) I really urge you not to miss the Great Ocean Road. I can compare the sights to driving the California Pacific Coast Highway. The most famous of the sights along the Great Ocean Road is the towering 12 Apostles, you’ve probably seen it in photos. But even though some of those pictures are mesmerizing it really can't be accurately represented in photos. It is just much more beautiful in person. I know it sounds crazy but I was spellbound when I was there.
You can book a tour departing from Melbourne to see the 12 Apostles in one day but I really urge you to rent your own car and drive at your leisure. Two days at the minimum is my recommendation and I have a full article with everything you need to know about driving the Great Ocean Road. The drive will take you up close and personal to true wildlife - emphasis on wild - plus, iconic surfer beaches, sparkling rainforests, and even dizzying waterfalls.
I combined the Great Ocean Road with a road trip to The Grampians. We drove all of this (GOR and the Grampians) in only 3 days and 2 nights. The Grampians and its surrounding national park are only two hours north of the Great Ocean Road. If you’re thinking it’s all the same… its not. This national park is completely different than anything you might have seen along the Great Ocean Road.
Your jumping off point will be the city of Halls Gap, a small city that probably has more local Kangaroos than residents. I'm not kidding. We stayed here and were spellbound by the large groups of Kangaroos who use motels backyards and restaurants side pastures as their grazing home. At one point, Matt and I sat in the car for over an hour just staring at a large group of Kangaroos grazing in the field. It is also a perfect place to spend the day in nature and take some gorgeous pics for the gram.
The two must-do’s you can’t miss while visiting the Grampians:
Sunrise, if you can get yourself up that early, at Boroka Lookout.
Hiking through Halls Gap version of the Grand Canyon and continuing on the 2.2 mile trail all the way up to Pinnacle point.
4. The Red Centre - Northern Territory
The Red Centre is what you think of when you think of the Australian Outback. The area contains extraordinary landscapes of desert plains, towering mountain ranges, frightening rocky gorges, and most importantly Aboriginal Australia's most sacred sites, including Uluru and Kata Tjuṯa.
Jumping off point is a town called Alice Springs and although most people are in and out of here quickly you shouldn't miss the Aboriginal art galleries on the edge of town. There are plenty of routes you can take but I suggest this popular 7-day drive through Australia’s Red Centre that includes the most famous of the sights. During it, you'll be dodging kangaroos, riding camels, zipping your car through the desert dust, and hiking the red dusty trails. The main reason you’re here is Uluru: the iconic massive rock (also known as Ayers Rock) in the middle of the country can be climbed or simply admired from afar.
Be careful when planning your trip - you will be visiting a desert... it will be very hot there and Australia has opposite seasons than us! I know it sounds silly but Matt and I almost made the mistake of visiting the Red Centre in February before thankfully remembering that February is summer which means heat waves and lots of flies.
3. Great Barrier Reef - Cairns - Queensland
Who doesn't want to check Scuba diving or snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef off their bucket-list? The largest coral reef system on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef is simply too huge to comprehend. Stretching for over 2,300 kilometers, you can even see it from space. Snorkeling and scuba diving aren't the only ways to experience the reef. Popular tours for the Great Barrier Reef include glass-bottom boat trips, kayaking, and even helicopter rides to view the reef.
Cairns, is the largest city you can base yourself out of to explore the Great Barrier Reef. The city is surrounded by rainforest with a whole host of other activities and combined with Great Barrier Reef explorers means a town filled with tourists. There is so much to do in Cairns I could have probably spend a month here alone. Cairns is also known as a party town and you'll be sure to drink some beers with the numerous travelers on The Esplanade. The city also offers a ridiculous number of activities that will get your adrenaline pumping. Choose from skydiving, bungee jumping, hang-gliding, white-water rafting, and so much more. I have a full travel guide for Cairns here.
Pro Tip: Cairns is pronounced caaaans, as in beer CAN, I guess Aussies just ignore the i and r in there?
Read on: If you want to dive (or snorkel) the reef I highly suggest this article that outlines what reefs you can actually visit and dive from Cairns. It also outlines why you probably want to stay in Port Douglas instead or Cairns if your main focus is scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef.
2. Sydney - New South Wales
I know, I have to be contrarian and put Sydney second. Although it is a close call I just loved Melbourne. But, Sydney has so much to offer you really can't miss it. And considering it has the largest airport you’ll most likely be flying in or out of Sydney on your Australian trip. I highly recommend bringing along the Lonely Planet Pocket Guide to Sydney. These things literally fit in your pocket, hence the name, and provide history lessons, cultural spots you can’t miss, and the best places to eat and drink while visiting.
I probably don’t have to convince you to go to visit Sydney so I'm just going to link my Sydney Travel Guide instead. You'll find everything you need to know to have a perfect trip including the best hotels in Sydney, the best restaurants that you have to try in Sydney, and the very best walks that will give you too many Instagram photos to count. Just know that Sydney really does have it all: gorgeous world-class beaches, the most beautiful skyline I have ever seen, nature that is beyond beautiful and easy to explore, and a city that is just so much fun. Pubs, clubs, and more are packed into the city that is well connected by public transport. There is always some big event going down and it truly feels like the center of the world.
1. Melbourne - Victoria
Full disclosure that I'm not much of a drinker or clubber so the more laid-back and indie version of Sydney, aka Melbourne, was my favorite city by far. It is the second largest city in Australia, extremely cosmopolitan, with lots of things to see and do. The neighborhoods are diverse as well as lively and if you take the time to explore its streets you'll most likely fall in love. I also talked about it earlier in the list, but combining a trip to Melbourne with the Great Ocean Road (and the Grampians if you have time) will blow you away.
Again, I have a much more extensive Melbourne Travel Guide here and I highly recommend giving it a read if you are planning a visit. You'll find everything you need to know to plan a perfect trip to Melbourne including the best hotels in Melbourne, the best restaurants that you can't miss in Melbourne, and where the best graffiti art is in Melbourne.
I highly recommend bringing along the Lonely Planet Pocket Guide to Melbourne. These things literally fit in your pocket, hence the name, and provide history lessons, cultural spots you can’t miss, and the best places to eat and drink while visiting.
Planning a trip to any city or just Australia in general can be overwhelming. Everyone has an opinion on this beautiful country and you may be frozen and unable to plan a single thing. Rest assured that no matter what you choose to do in Australia or where you choose to stay in Australia you're going to have a beautiful time.
One last thing... even though researching ahead of time is great, I definitely recommend bringing an Australian travel guide along with you. Here are some of the travel guides I used during my trip...
And of course, if you have any questions DO NOT hesitate to reach out to me via Instagram, Twitter, or just shoot me an email (tessajuliette at gmail dot com).