With lively cities, extreme nature, and landscapes that veer from mountains, to desert, to rainforest, Australia is an amazing destination no matter what type of trip, attractions and activities you’re looking for
The problem with Australia is where to begin. It’s a country the size of a continent, the distances are huge, and irrespective of where you are in the world it still seems like a very long way away. That’s where this guide comes in. You’d need a book the size of a breezeblock to cover 10% of everything there is to see and do, but this is our overview of cities to visit, activities to try, and a couple of unusual things you might not have considered. Let’s head Down Under.
The Big Two: Sydney and Melbourne
Australia’s two biggest cities have had a (mostly) friendly rivalry over the last 200 years or so, and when people visit the country, it’s almost guaranteed that one of the two will be their initial destination.
Sydney is just about the larger, at around 5.3 million people. Its many glories have been well-documented: the mighty Harbour Bridge and the iconic silhouette of the Opera House next to the glittering waters of Port Jackson Bay, its gleaming downtown, its sporting prowess and so forth. What people don’t realize is that beyond the initial slam of recognition, dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Sydney is even more fascinating beneath the surface.
The bay and river have created hundreds of inlets and streams, so wherever you walk, you’re almost always turning a corner to be faced with yet another view across water. The bush nibbles at the edges of the city and encroaches into the parks and gardens, so sharing the city with possums, cockatoos, flying foxes, wombats is part of the fun. There are miles and miles of beaches, so you can have the relaxation of a resort holiday with the excitement of a city break all in one, and after dark it’s one of the most glitzy, glam, in-your-face cities on the planet. Sydney is the most gratifying sensual assault you’ll ever experience.
Melbourne, 700-odd kilometers and a 90-minute flight away, is the capital of Victoria, and what it lacks in visual panache compared to Sydney, it makes up for in liveability, culture, a more European flavor when it comes to its buildings (if that’s what you’re after), and a much more European flavor when it comes to food. Large communities of Turkish, Italian and Greek immigrants built up over the years post-World War Two, and have been joined by communities from Vietnam, China, India, the Philippines, Lebanon, Sudan and more, to make it a foodie’s paradise, and a deliciously rich mixture of pretty much everything else.
The city has an unparalleled sporting and cultural tradition too, with the Melbourne International Arts Festival running for two weeks in October, and the more off-the-wall Fringe festival elbowing its way to the fore as well. Add these to the thousands of dive bars, independent galleries, concert halls, underground music venues and comedy clubs, and you’re well set for entertainment. Sporting entertainment too: with AFL, cricket, rugby and more all at world-class levels, plus the Australian Open tennis tournament, and Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park, Melbourne can — quite rightly — show off to the world.
Exploring further: Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane
650 km from Melbourne and over 1,100 km from Sydney, Adelaide’s location, coupled with the rise of those two cities over the past 150 years, has meant that Adelaide has generally slipped under the radar. Okay, it’s home to 1.3 million people, so it’s a substantial city, but it feels smaller: friendly, laid-back and casual, but with the ability to turn it on when needed
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was known for its religious freedom and progressive political stances, and these, in turn, have led to its having one of the highest qualities of life in the world today; a liberal, multicultural city filled with festivals, sports, nightlife, and art, all set against a backdrop of modest yet handsome Victorian buildings and squares.
Even further from anywhere is Perth, and in a way, that’s its USP: the most remote major city on the planet. Closer to Jakarta than to Sydney, it leads a life of its own, a shimmering collection of modern buildings giving way to beachfront suburbs, all facing the warm, sunny Indian Ocean. The voluptuous Swan River meanders through the city and on its banks you’ll find the huge Kings Park and Gardens, Perth Zoo, playgrounds and nature reserves, while all the time you’re never far from little indie coffee shops, intimate music venues, excellent restaurants and other ways to relax.
Also home to a selection of the same is Brisbane, capital of Queensland and a city that lives at a pace that’s relaxed even by Aussie standards. A mixture of business and administrative bustle at its heart gives way to a less traditional character the further you wander, as older buildings mix with people who came to Brisbane for a while then just happened to stay: young families, tourists who never quite left, people who realized the great social scene and lack of big city pressure made life just that bit more fun. As with many places in Australia, that’s reason enough to come in the first place.
Outdoor adventures: Queensland, Northern Territory, Tasmania
Ever since it was discovered, Australia has had a certain draw for anyone wishing to hurl themselves — often fatally — out of their comfort zone. Explorers have attempted missions across the baking landscape with only a few surviving. Even those who reappeared, starved and raving, were almost always drawn back through some kind of zealous insanity.
Luckily though, Australia knows its reputation as a bit of a thrillseeker’s paradise, and does all it can to cater for it, no more so than in the north of the country and on the island of Tasmania.
Queensland is where you need to be for visiting the Great Coral Reef, one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, but there’s a lot more to do there than just that. The landscape in the north around Cairns is rainforests, tablelands, and some of the finest, emptiest beaches around. The new Packers’ Ghost Trek to the south-west of the city is perfect for keen hikers, visiting historical mining sites, country towns, crossing mountain ranges and rivers, all with the help of donkeys. If that’s not immediately thrilling enough, down the coast in Surfers Paradise you can now do a tandem parachute jump directly onto Main Beach. From 10,000 feet. From a helicopter.
Around an hour’s drive from Darwin in the Northern Territory, you can visit Litchfield National Park and seek out the waterfalls and cool, calm swimming holes surrounded by forests and vines. The Tabletop Track, a hike of between three and five days, takes you through the forests and out onto the savannah, alongside babbling creeks and to campgrounds in the wilderness where you can spend the night. Other options up north include kayaking, 4×4 or off-road motorbike adventure tours, exploring the rivers and swamps by fan boat, or coming face-to-face with mighty saltwater crocodiles at Darwin’s Crocosaurus Cove!
Tasmania is our final stop when looking for adventure. It looks like it’s just across the water from Melbourne, but this is Australia: it’s still a nine to eleven-hour ferry ride. If you don’t have that, flights from Melbourne to Hobart take just over an hour, but the ferry’s a fun way to meet some locals. When you arrive, you’ll find that over one-third of Tasmania is a national park, so simply being outdoors is stunning, but the range of activities is wide. Caving, kayaking and diving are all popular, as are walks for all ages and fitness: we’re talking 30-minute loops all the way to the 480km, month-long Tasmania Trail. For those of a slightly more sedentary nature, the island is also a popular spot for fishing or playing golf, as well as touring the more than 200 wineries to try their distinctive takes on Aussie grapes.
Across the middle: two great railway journeys
Sydney to Perth, or Adelaide to Darwin, Australia provides two of the finest railway journeys on the planet. They’re not cheap – the lowest ticket price on the Ghan (the Darwin — Adelaide line) is around 830 Australian dollars – but they’re two of the most spectacular, unhurried, and best ways of seeing just how far this country stretches.
The Ghan heads into the very heart of the continent and, now and then, presents chances to hop off for a while and try some optional day trips: camel trekking, for example. That’s probably about as dusty as you’ll get though, as the rest of the journey involves either relaxing in your cabin watching the changing scenery, chatting amiably with your fellow travelers, or in the dining car eating five-star meals and drinking excellent Aussie wine. Not exactly bushwhacking, but a hell of a way to see the outback.
The Indian Pacific offers a similar (but even lengthier) experience, and also gives you the quirkily specific thrill of traveling along the world’s longest piece of perfectly straight track – almost three hundred miles of it in fact – across the Nullarbor Plain, an arid, treeless expanse of virtual nothingness before life gradually returns as you approach the east coast. The sheer emptiness of the landscape is, arguably, more breathtaking than anything else you might have seen, and finally spying Perth in the distance genuinely feels like an achievement.
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