In a country as massive and diverse as Australia, it’s hard to choose where to go first. Even with time for three or four stops, we’re forced to narrow it down, so which are the best Australian destinations for that first trip Downunder?
Well, that’s all down to your own interests! But there are two Australian cities and two big natural attractions that come up again and again on the Aussie wish list. Sydney, Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef, and Melbourne make the ideal Aussie quartet for any first-timer, with both big city sophistication and nature’s timeless icons on display.
Here are our tips for taking your trip further on these Classic Australia stops.
Highlights Beyond the Harbour
There are certain essentials every Sydney visitor should see. The historic Rocks District, Sydney Opera House, Bondi Beach, the Queen Victoria Building… Most of these will be covered on a good tour of the city. But there’s so much more in Sydney to explore and fall in love with beyond the big-ticket attractions.
Nestled between the CBD and the suburbs of Ultimo and Pyrmont, revitalized Darling Harbour is a public park, harbour, entertainment district, and museum hub rolled into one. Those interested in Australia’s seafaring history won’t want to miss the Australian Maritime Museum. Science geeks and tech heads will love the Powerhouse Museum. You can even come face to face with some Aussie wildlife here, both at Sydney Aquarium and Wild Life Sydney Zoo. The Chinese Garden of Friendship sits between Darling Harbour and the city’s expansive Chinatown. This is a great area for lunch, dinner, or browsing much-loved Paddy’s Market.
At the northern end of the Harbour’s eastern side, you’ll find Barangaroo Reserve, a public park with gorgeous harbour views and The Cutaway, a contemporary art space with ever-changing exhibits. Continue the walk past the Wharves, where many of Sydney’s top performing arts companies are based until you reach Sydney Harbour Bridge. A twilight Sydney BridgeClimb is an unforgettable way to take in Australia’s most beautiful city. Alternatively, you can explore Sydney’s Botanical Gardens, hop on a ferry to Taronga Zoo, or take the train to Newtown for Sydney’s best shopping.
Why Uluru is the Heart of Australia
On October 26, 2019, 35 years after the rock was handed back to its traditional owners, the Anungu people, the trail ascending Uluru (Ayers Rock) was officially closed. The closure came after decades of Aboriginal communities asking tourists not to climb the sacred site… and there are much better experiences to be had.
There are few places in Australia that match Uluru for beauty and cultural significance. The best way to understand the monolith is a walk along its base. With an expert Aboriginal guide, you’ll visit waterholes, gorges, and other features mostly carved by the rainwaters that run off the rock and shape the surrounding ecosystem. More importantly, you’ll learn how the rock has shaped local indigenous culture, histroy, and storytelling. The base walk circuit is about 10 kilometres/6 miles long, but it’s best to do it with a guide. They will keep things at a manageable pace while making sure you get to see the best sights and understand them in the context of Aboriginal history. If you are walking alone, go easy and take plenty of rest stops. Australia’s desert heat is unforgiving, even in winter.
Don’t forget to take a trip to Uluru’s sister monument, Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). Once a monolith even bigger than Uluru, it has since eroded into the distinctive dome shapes you see today, offering its own fascinating sites and surprises. It is supposedly the eggs of the mythical Rainbow Serpent, who in Australian Aboriginal legend, created the world. Fun fact? Beneath the sands, it’s actually connected to Uluru… part of the same piece of rock.
North Queensland’s Ancient Forests
As North Queensland attractions go, the Great Barrier Reef gets most of the glory, and deservedly so. But the region’s rainforests are spectacular in their own right, and offer just as much to thrill nature lovers. The Daintree is in fact the oldest rainforest on Earth. It’s well worth a day trip if you have an extra day free in Cairns or Port Douglas. A bit closer to town is Kuranda, which offers a picturesque taste of this environment in an unabashedly touristy, but very appealing small town overlooking Cairns.
The best way to reach Kuranda is via Kuranda Scenic Railway, which immerses you in the wilderness from the get-go and takes you via spectacular Barron Falls before you reach the town. Kuranda’s main attraction is Rainforestation. The park invites you to discover the local indigenous culture, meet a cuddly koala, and embark on an amphibious army duck tour of the rainforest. Return to Cairns onboard the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway for spectacular late afternoon views over the ocean and mountains.
The Best of Melbourne After Dark
Melbourne is one of the best Australian destinations after dark. Okay, maybe the best! With a multicultural population and an appetite for artistic endeavours, there’s no better place to find whatever cuisine or entertainment you’re craving. A sunset cocktail is a great way to start the night. Hit the terrace at the cheeky Madame Brussels, the popular Rooftop Bar at Curtin House, or overlook the Yarra from Federation Square or the Esplanade. It’s hard to single out one or even a few Melbourne restaurants as a pick for dinner since the city is packed with fantastic, ever-changing options. For a uniquely Melbourne experience, book dinner aboard the Colonial Tramcar, enjoying a taste of old Melbourne splendour with a superb meal.
As the night wears on, Melbourne tempts you with Australia’s best theatre scene, either at one of its lavish CBD theatres, or The Arts Centre (look for the spire) just over the Yarra. If you’d prefer something a little more alternative, stop by the fabulously eclectic Butterfly Club on Carson Place, best described as a cabaret space and speakeasy in the attic of your favourite eccentric Aunt. There’s also La Mama Courthouse Theatre in Carlton, devoted to diverse, independent, and First Nations theatre.
If your tastes run a bit more bohemian, head to funky Fitzroy. The rooftop of Naked for Satan awaits with fabulous views and your evening cocktail. Smith and Brunswick Streets in particular are packed with live music venues, intimate cocktail bars and cafes, plus many LBGTQ+ spaces. For a distinctly Melbourne adventure, dress down (and in black) for The Tote, an unabashedly dingy but legendary pub for live punk, metal, and psychedelic rock. Playing The Tote has been a rite of passage for Australian bands for decades.
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