If you’re planning a trip Downunder, chances are you’ll fly in via Sydney or Melbourne. There’s also a fair chance you’ll spend a few days enjoying Sydney’s glistening harbour vistas or bar hopping through Melbourne’s ever-growing culture and culinary scenes. Having lived in both cities, I can say the appeal never wears off.
But while Sydney and Melbourne pair well for an Urban Australia 101 trip, there’s lots more of this incredible country to see, and we don’t just mean natural icons like the Great Barrier Reef or Uluru. Australia is a heavily urbanized country, so there’s a good chance you’ll be travelling through one or two other cities throughout your Downunder adventure. Here are some great urban additions to your trip to Australia.
One of two major cities in tropical North Queensland, Cairns is far more tourism-ready than its southern neighbour, Townsville, and offers more options for exploring the Great Barrier Reef and the North Queensland hinterland than any other spot along the coast. Three nights should be considered a minimum here, allowing you one full day for the reef and another to explore the forest. Reef options are plentiful from both Cairns and Port Douglas, a small but appealing town just to the city’s north. You might enjoy the natural beauty and Aboriginal heritage of Kuranda, reached via its namesake scenic railway, or with dramatic views from the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Alternatively, book an all-day trip to the Daintree Rainforest to see Queensland’s tropics at their wildest. Cairns itself likes to keep things low key. There are few good swimming beaches (and swimming in the hot ‘stinger season’ is a definite no-no), but you can cool off in the city’s manmade lagoon, take a culture break at the Cairns Art Gallery, and graze an Asian feast at the city’s popular Night Market.
Brisbane and the Gold and Sunshine Coasts
The long underrated river city is where it all happens in Southeast Queensland, with world class museums, cultural venues, dining, shopping, near idyllic weather, beautiful parks, and two incredible stretches of surfing coast to its north and south. A ride on the famous CityCat is arguably the best way to see Brisbane, including its patchwork architecture, the awesome cliffs of Kangaroo Point, and the appealing parks that line its riverside suburbs. Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is arguably the star attraction (Queensland is one of only two states where you can legally hold a koala), but you’ll also want to devote a day to Southbank Parklands and the adjoining cultural precinct, which includes the Queensland Art Gallery, Queensland Museum, and the Gallery of Modern Art. These are all free to enter, just in case you were looking for a cheap day out.
To the city’s south stretches the Gold Coast, an unabashedly touristy, yet engaging string of resort towns that include Australia’s largest theme parks, several major shopping precincts, and of course some of the best surfing beaches you’ll find on an Australia vacation. The further south you go, the less touristy things become, so consider Palm Beach or Coolangatta for a more relaxing stay. Things are even more laid back to Brisbane’s north, where the Sunshine Coast tempts retirees, artists, students, and young families alike with its idyllic lifestyle. From Caloundra to Noosa, it’s pretty easy to find your own slice of the Sunshine Coast.
Australia has many hidden treasures, but few deserve the title more than Tasmania’s capital, Hobart. With a picture-perfect location on the Derwent River, in the shadow of Mount Wellington, this unassuming city on Australia’s southern tip is a surprise delight for foodies and culture vultures. Australia’s second oldest city serves up a heady mix of history and innovative culinary creations using fresh ingredients from both land and sea. A short drive away, you can visit Port Arthur, Australia’s most infamous former penal colony turned historic site. See Australia’s cutest ball of furry aggression, the Tasmanian Devil, at one of the numerous wildlife reserves that work to preserve these incredible animals. Let your mind expand at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, or for an all-sensory art experience, hop the ferry to the fabulously unpretentious Museum of Old and New Art, probably the most impressive, yet down to earth art space you’ll visit anywhere on an Australia tour.
So-called ‘sleepy’ Adelaide is more than just a base for great wine tasting or an overnight stop on your way to Kangaroo Island. Home to the world’s largest cabaret festival, one of Australia’s most important fringe festivals, its third largest LGBTQ festival, and more, it doesn’t take long to work out why South Australia is called The Festival State. Serious foodies will want to drop by the National Wine Centre on the edge of Adelaide’s beautiful Botanic Garden. Top notch museums surround the University of South Australia, and will keep you occupied until it’s time to enjoy sunset over Glenelg Beach. After dark, discover the underground wine bars and cocktail lounges that bring an enchanting ‘speakeasy’ quality to the supposedly sleepy downtown grid. Small yet seductive, Adelaide sneaks its way into the hearts of visitors, one sip at a time.
Perth and Fremantle
Today’s Perth will probably surprise anyone who hasn’t visited for a while (and who isn’t making a beeline to Rottnest Island for a quokka selfie). Long dismissed as “the city that shuts down at six,” Western Australia’s capital is booming, both economically and culturally. Spend a half day exploring one of Australia’s best parks, Kings Park and Botanic Garden. Get your workout with the locals climbing Jacob’s Ladder, then take in the city’s best views as your reward. If you’ve got kids in tow, head to Scitech museum and planetarium, or bond over vintage video games at the Nostalgia Box Museum. Just be sure to leave some time to get to the beach. Perth’s beaches are arguably the most picturesque of any city in Australia, and sunset over the Indian Ocean is a local must-do. After dark… well, let’s just say Perth no longer shuts down at six! Head to fashionable Northcote for WA’s best nightlife.
Fremantle is Perth’s sister city, located just over the Swan River. More than merely “the port city,” Fremantle is Western Australia’s hub of art, music, and culture, with one of Australia’s best rock scenes, the popular Fremantle Markets, and the Fremantle Arts Centre, a great spot to pick up a unique souvenir. History buffs might prefer to focus on the Maritime Museum, the former Roundhouse jail, and the Shipwrecks Museum for a three-pronged insight into Fremantle’s past.