From the underground towns and outback characters, to the hundreds of artisanal wineries and winemakers, to the curiously friendly wildlife, the state of South Australia is a destination packed with personalities.
Big, flashy postcard sights? Australia’s capital for culture, art, and sport? South Australia knows it doesn’t have to try so hard. Arrive in this quiet achiever of Australian states, and it won’t take long to find there’s more to South Australia than a great drop of wine.
Snapshot – The Highlights that Make SA
A focus on good food, wine, culture, and convenience has made Adelaide a regular on the Economist’s 10 Most Liveable Cities list in recent years, as well as being on many of Lonely Planet’s top 10 lists. While Melbourne has been topping that list year on year of late, Adelaide is often seen as a less crowded, more intimate alternative. Wander its historic architecture and the beautiful parks that surround the city on all sides, before diving into hidden cocktail bars and cabaret lounges after dark. You’ll see why those who visit Australia’s “Festival City” really love it.
South Australia is undoubtedly Australia’s most delicious state, and foodies won’t want to miss a trip out to the Barossa Valley or McLaren Vale, two of Australia’s most beloved wine regions. The state is big on natural attractions as well. Kangaroo Island is home to many of Australia’s most unique species and is frequently dubbed Australia’s answer to the Galapagos “zoo without fences.” Meanwhile, reach into the Outback and you’ll find awesome natural locations like the Flinders Ranges and Wilpena Pound. On the road to the Northern Territory lies Coober Pedy, an opal mining town carved into desert rock. It’s as quirky as you’d expect, hiding eccentricities like Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest & Dugout.
Australia’s Tastiest State, with a Unique History
South Australia makes no secret of its superb wine, outback, and wildlife offerings, so it offers highlights for travellers of any interest on an Australia vacation. What you won’t spend time doing is queuing for big ticket attractions. That’s not South Australia’s style.
If you do face a queue, it’ll probably be at one of Australia’s most prestigious cellar doors. Bold reds such as Shiraz are the local specialty, but you’ll find a wide variety of grapes growing well in this mild climate, which also lends itself to abundant fresh produce and the many flavours it brings. You can stop in at world renowned wineries such as Penfolds and Wolf Blass, as well as a vast range of small, family-run cellar doors that give a proper South Australia wine tour its original flavour. Still, while it’s tempting to try, you can’t be expected to live on wine alone. Lunch at Maggie Beer’s farm shows you why she’s revered as Australia’s #1 celebrity chef.
The area is also known for its strong German influence. German immigration has been a part of South Australia’s story since before World War I, and its legacy can still be felt in towns such as Tanunda and Hahndorf – not to mention in place names all over Adelaide! The city’s express busway is even called the O-Bahn.
If you’d rather explore some of South Australia’s natural history, head south to Naracoorte Caves. This World Heritage Listed site contains some of the best preserved prehistoric remains in Australia. A tour of the caves followed by a wander through an animatronic recreation of that period is a thrill for travellers of all ages. This is a particularly good place to stop for a family driving the Great Ocean Road between Adelaide and Melbourne.
Adventures in the Outback and Offshore
Even with excellent roads and air connections, South Australia is a huge state, and seeing more than one or two regions takes planning. There’s no better place to feel the serenity and majesty of the desert than in the Flinders Ranges. The area is rich with wildlife, but the main attraction is the landscape itself, with hikes both along the floor and rim of Wilpena Pound. Just be sure to give yourself time to get out here. It’s a five and a half hour drive from Adelaide, or a short, 45-minute flight.
Kangaroo Island is a great choice for families and nature lovers alike. Many of Australia’s favourite native animals can be seen here, along with the famous seal and sea lion colonies. The island is also home to Flinders Chase National Park, which includes geological formations like Admirals Arch and Remarkable Rocks. Pair Kangaroo Island with a trip to the Flinders Ranges for the ultimate vacation in natural South Australia.
Those coming to South Australia for culture and wine probably don’t need to stray far from Adelaide. It all flows into the city eventually! Still, there’s nothing quite like going to the source of those flavours, spending a night or two in the wine regions themselves, or driving along the Limestone Coast to wineries further afield. Make it all the way to Mount Gambier, and you’ll be rewarded by the sight of the surreally vivid Blue Lake, and the city’s famous sinkhole gardens.
When to Go
Since (yes, you’ve heard it before) there’s never a bad time to visit South Australia, looking at each season’s offerings is key to planning the best trip. If you’re coming for wine, autumn (March to May) into the chilly winter is the season for you. The sometimes stifling heat of summer has well and truly broken, and the state’s famous wineries are debuting new creations. The other ideal season to visit is spring (September to November), particularly if you’re heading to Kangaroo Island. You might even spot some native animals with their newborns, particularly within the seal and sea lion colonies. Both seasons are also ideal for venturing into the Outback, taking the edge off of the extreme desert temperatures. Winter is all about cultural tourism in Adelaide, and the city knows how to lure a crowd for it. In fact, Adelaide holds the biggest cabaret festival in the world in June. Summer is a busy time in most of the state’s major spots, as school holidays are in full swing. If you can stand the sometimes scorching daytime temperatures, you’ll never be stuck without something to do. Ideally, this is a good time to get out of the city and explore the coast.
Adelaide is a major Australian capital that receives direct flights from all over the country, along with a handful of major gateways in the Asia-Pacific region. Qantas has the most direct flights to Adelaide, from Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Darwin, Melbourne, Perth, or Alice Springs, meaning it’s easy to slot South Australia into any Australia vacation itinerary.
Alternatively, consider taking the popular self-drive up from Melbourne via the Great Ocean Road. This is ideal for visiting Mount Gambier, from which you have a choice of either following the road inland through wine country, perhaps dropping into Naracoorte Caves, or going via picturesque coastal towns including Robe, and favourite “out of Adelaide” getaway, Victor Harbor.
If you’re willing to splurge for a once-in-a-lifetime outback adventure, board the Ghan from Alice Springs, or even Darwin. This is one of Australia’s most legendary train journeys, linking the southern capital to the top end. With itineraries ranging between two and five days, the Ghan opens up the Outback in ways overlooked by those who fly. Already steeped in luxury, passengers have the option of upgrading the adventure with day experiences such as a flight over Uluru (aka Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta, and tastes of Outback life, both past and present. It’s a great way to reach remote locations like Coober Pedy too.
Riding the Ghan Through the Australian Outback