Australia cultural and geographical scale is truly staggering to behold: an island nation with a coastline that is over 16,000 miles long and a population of Aboriginal people that are the inheritors of the longest continuous culture on earth.
From rainforests teeming with wildlife and cosmopolitan cities, to some of the harshest living environments on the planet, this incredible country provides virtually every kind of travel experience needed to satisfy anyone’s wanderlust. With such an overwhelming display of options and so much ground to cover, it’s hard to know where to begin. We’ve compiled a list of 13 of the best places to visit in Australia to help channel your travel Wishlist into action.
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One of Australia’s most recognized natural wonders, Uluru draws pilgrims from around the world like moths to a big red flame. No matter how many postcard images you have seen, nothing prepares you for the Rock’s immense presence, character-pitted surface and spiritual gravitas. Not far away is an equally beguiling clutch of stone siblings known as Kata Tjuta. Deeply cleaved with narrow gorges sheltering tufts of vegetation, these 36 pink-red domes blush intensely at sunset.
The Anangu Aboriginal peoples are the owners of the national park, which they lease to Parks Australia and jointly administer with them. There is plenty to do in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – tours, bike rides and lots of cultural experiences – but you’d be forgiven for wanting to spend all your time gazing at the majesty of the Rock as the light changes throughout the day. The only accommodation available is in Yulara village, 12.4 miles (20km) from the Rock.
2. The Whitsundays
When the daily grind of life gets too much, most people imagine a beautiful tropical island lapped by clear blue water with nothing to ask of you but to relax a little more. When you arrive at the Whitsundays, you realize that place actually exists. Travelers of all budgets launch yachts from Airlie Beach and drift between these lush green isles in a slow search for paradise (you’ll probably find it in more than one place). Don’t miss Whitehaven Beach – one of Australia’s (and the world’s) best.
Rising out of the aquamarine sea, these islands are the home of the Ngaro people and shelter some of the oldest archaeological sites on Australia’s east coast. Five of the islands have resorts; some are private, but most are uninhabited (or offer camping), so that you can play out your Shipwrecked fantasy. The mainland hub of Airlie Beach is a great base for exploring this archipelago.
Sydney is immediately recognizable, with its iconic sights like Sydney Opera House, the Harbour Bridge lights glistening in the night and sun worshippers lying on its famous beaches. Beyond postcard Sydney, this electrifying and eclectic city has layers of history, culture and migration to excavate as you explore each neighborhood.
Aboriginal stories, Asian influences, colonial-era streets, old-school pubs, dramatic architecture and always the water: Sydney is defined by its relationship with the briny sea air. Surrounded by national parks that snake all the way into the heart of the city, this urban jungle sometimes feels more like an actual one – which makes it even more exciting.
Once overlooked by most Australians, Tasmania now finds itself at the center of a tourism boom. Young people are flocking back to the area to enjoy the multitude of cultural festivals on offer year round – wine, beer, art, food, music. No matter your what your personal tastes, there is plenty here to delight them. There are numerous small farms, vineyards and breweries owned by passionate foodies who love to show you what their beloved island home has to offer.
Once you’ve come this far, don’t leave without a visit to the Museum of Old & New Art (MONA), just a short ferry ride from Hobart’s harbor front. This innovative, world-class institution has been described by its owner, Hobart philanthropist David Walsh, as a “subversive adult Disneyland.” Three levels of astounding underground galleries showcase more than 400 challenging and controversial artworks from his collections. A visit here is a surefire conversation starter and one of Australia’s favorite arts experiences.
5. Byron Bay
Up there with kangaroos and Akubra hats, big-hearted Byron Bay (just Byron to its mates) is one of the enduring icons of Australian culture. Families on school holidays, surfers and sunseekers from across the globe gather by the foreshore at sunset, drawn to this spot by fabulous restaurants, a chilled pace of life and an astonishing range of activities. But mostly they’re here because this is one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in the country.
If you can bear to tear yourself away from the delicious cycle of beer, beach and beautiful food, the Cape Byron Walking Track is worth the effort. Bring your camera to capture the beautiful views from the path as it snakes its way toward the lighthouse amid coast and rainforest. The lucky few may even spy some dolphins and migrating whales enjoying the waves.
6. Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is as fragile as it is beautiful. Stretching more than 1242 miles (2000km) along the Queensland coastline, it’s a complex ecosystem populated with dazzling coral, languid sea turtles, gliding rays, timid reef sharks and tropical fish of every color and size. Whether you dive on it, snorkel over it or explore it via a scenic flight or a glass-bottomed boat, this vivid undersea kingdom and its coral-fringed islands are so unforgettable people are signing up to become Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef to help save it.
There are numerous ways to approach this massive technicolor wonder: head to a gateway town such as Cairns or Port Douglas and join an organised tour. The classic way to see this world heritage site is to clamber aboard a catamaran and explore several coral-clad spots on a long day trip. Nothing quite compares to that first hyper-colored underwater moment, whether diving or snorkelling.
7. Margaret River and Cape Naturaliste
The decadent joy of drifting from winery to farm gate along eucalypt-shaded country roads is just one of the delights of Western Australia’s southwest. There are underground caves to explore, historic towns to visit and wildflowers to ogle. Surfers bob around in the world-class breaks near the Margaret River mouth, but it’s not unusual to find yourself on a white-sand beach along the cape where the only footprints are your own. In winter and early spring, whales migrate along the “Humpback Highway.”
The town of Margaret River has a relaxed country village vibe. The advantage of basing yourself here is that, once the wineries shut up shop, it’s one of the few places with any after dark activities, from restaurants, bars and pubs to outdoor cinema and markets.
8. Great Ocean Road
The Twelve Apostles − craggy rock formations jutting out of wild waters − are one of Victoria’s most vivid sights, but it’s the “getting there” road trip that doubles their impact. Drive slowly along roads that curl beside spectacular Bass Strait beaches, then whip inland through temperate rainforest studded with small towns and big trees. The secrets of the Great Ocean Road don’t stop there; further along is maritime treasure Port Fairy and hidden Cape Bridgewater. For the ultimate in slow travel, walk the Great Ocean Walk from Apollo Bay to the Apostles.
Why the queue? Oh, that’s just the line to get into the latest “no bookings” restaurant in Melbourne. The next best restaurant, chef, cafe, barista, hidden bar may be the talk of the town, but there are things locals would never change: the leafy parks and gardens in the inner city; the crowded trams that whisk creative “northerners” to sea-breezy southern St Kilda; and the allegiances that living in such a sports-mad city brings. The city’s world-renowned street-art scene expresses Melbourne’s fears, frustrations and joys.
Often referred to as the most European of Australia’s cities, Melbourne’s grid structure lends itself perfectly to exploring on foot. Melbourne’s web of old bluestone laneways has become a technicolor outdoor canvas for paste-up, mural and stencil art. Take a tour, or just go wandering and see what you can see. You might even spot a Banksy or two. If the unpredictable weather catches you, just hop on the nearest tram – they’re free within the entire central city.
10. South Australian Wine Regions
Adelaide is drunk on the success of its three world-famous wine regions, all within two hours’ drive: the Barossa Valley to the north, with its gutsy reds, old vines and German know-how; McLaren Vale to the south, a Mediterranean palette of sea, vines and shiraz and stunning d’Arenburg winery; and the Clare Valley, known for riesling and cycling (in that order).
Better-kept secrets are the cool-climate stunners from the Adelaide Hills and the country cabernet sauvignon from the Coonawarra.
11. Pinnacles Desert
It could be mistaken for the surface of Mars, but scattered among the dunes of Nambung National Park, thousands of ghostly limestone pillars rise from the surrounding plain like a vast, petrified alien army. One of the west’s most bizarre landscapes, the Pinnacles Desert attracts thousands of visitors each year.
Although it’s easily enjoyed as a day trip from Perth, staying overnight in nearby Cervantes allows for multiple visits to experience the full spectrum of color changes at dawn, sunset and the full moon, when most tourists are back in their hotels.
12. Ningaloo Reef
Swim beside “gentle giant” whale sharks, snorkel among pristine coral, surf off seldom-visited reefs and dive at one of the world’s premier locations at this World Heritage-listed marine park, which sits off the North West Cape on the Coral Coast in Western Australia.
Rivaling the Great Barrier Reef for beauty, Ningaloo has more accessible wonders: shallow, turquoise lagoons are entered straight from the beach for excellent snorkeling. Development is very low-key, so be prepared to camp, or take day trips from the access towns of Exmouth and Coral Bay.
13. Daintree Rainforest
Lush green rainforest replete with fan palms, prehistoric-looking ferns and twisted mangroves tumble down towards a brilliant white-sand coastline in the ancient, World Heritage-listed Daintree rainforest. Upon entering the forest, you’ll be enveloped in a cacophony of birdsong, frog croaking and the buzz of insects.
Continue exploring the area on wildlife-spotting night tours, mountain treks, interpretive boardwalks, canopy walks, self-guided walking trails, 4WD trips, horse riding, kayaking, crocodile-spotting cruises, tropical-fruit orchard tours and tastings. You might even spot a prehistoric cassowary.