Arid desert and wave-pounded beaches, ancient forest and aboriginal rocks, from the Red Centre to the Great Barrier Reef, Australia is a country of natural wonders, astounding extremes and some of the planet’s most liveable cities. Pack your boardshorts and chase the surf, rent a campervan and tour the East Coast, swim with whale sharks in Western Australia or go bushwalking in the Outback and sleep under the stars in a swag bag.
Australia’s most populated city, Sydney’s laidback lifestyle is loved by Aussies and expats alike. Green reserves fringe the suburbs, and the inner-city parks nurture possums and cockatoos. Sports fans are fully occupied with a busy schedule of rugby matches, while daredevils can climb across Harbour Bridge or surf on Bondi Beach before catching a live band or watching a ballet at the Opera House.
An easy train ride away, the Blue Mountains are cloaked in eucalyptus, pitted with gorges and studded with sandstone cliffs. Further north into New South Wales are the heritage towns and vineyards of the Hunter Valley, where you can reflect on Australia’s first European settlers while sipping its finest wines. Stray inland to trek through the rainforest, or follow the coastline northeast to the popular surf mecca of Byron Bay.
Down to earth with an artsy vibe and appealing café culture, Brisbane is a great place to see local bands and peruse a few galleries before embarking on an epic adventure along Queensland’s east coast. If you’re staying for longer, you could skydive over the Glasshouse Mountains or go dolphin spotting at Moreton Bay.
Travel north to Fraser Island and sand-board down the dunes on the world’s largest sand island, then hit Noosa where you can choose between kayaking and kite-boarding, stand-up paddleboarding, surfing or wakeboarding – it’s an adventure-lovers paradise. Or for something more sedate, there are boutiques to browse and plenty cafes and restaurants to people-watch from. When you reach Airlie Beach, sail around the Whitsundays and get some silica sand between your toes. Continue north and celebrate your arrival in Cairns with a night in the buzzing bars, or a swim across the saltwater lagoon. Finish up by diving with turtles and manta rays on the Great Barrier Reef.
Six times the size of Britain, the Northern Territory stretches from Australia’s Red Centre to its subtropical north. The scarlet monolith of Uluru (Ayers Rock) draws visitors to the country’s sun-scorched heart but to truly appreciate Australia’s aboriginal and geological heritage, add Kings Canyon, Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) and a guided bushwalk to your itinerary.
Travel north across the Outback, from the artsy town of Alice Springs to the forests and wetlands of Kakadu National Park, where you can four-wheel drive your way past wallabies and alligators and uncover incredible Aboriginal rock art with help from a guide. When you arrive in Darwin, fill up on Greek salads and Vietnamese noodles in its multi-ethnic streets before cycling through lush parks or strolling along the waterfront to Mindil Beach food market.
Restored colonial buildings and shimmering offices line the Swan River in Australia’s sunniest city. Take a walking tour around the maritime relics of Freemantle port, visit the 19th century prison and stroll through the botanical gardens in Kings Park, then pick one of the city’s many bars to chill in or beaches to flop on.
As the country’s largest state, Western Australia covers a third of the country. You could snorkel with whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef or hike through the Bungle Bungles, meet the cattle ranchers of Kimberly or go surfing at Margaret River. Buy pearls when you visit Broome and sip wine in the Swan Valley, or ride a camel across Cable Beach and watch the sun set over the Indian Ocean.
Ringed by parks, lapped by the ocean and backed by the Mount Lofty Ranges, life in Adelaide is good. Explore the art galleries and immerse yourself in the bar scene before driving out to the Adelaide Hills, riding the tram to Glenelg Beach and diving off the pier, or take a daytrip to the Barossa Valley vineyards to glug some Jacob’s Creek.
West of Adelaide you could slurp oysters on the Eyre Peninsula before swimming with sea lions or diving with great whites. Travel inland to experience Australia’s most arid state and escape underground to the cool homes of Coober Pedy in a former opal mine. See the enormous saltpan of Lake Eyre, or hike through the folded red mountains of the Flinders Ranges and sleep in a swag.
Victoria’s capital and the country’s second largest city, Melbourne may be smaller than Sydney but its residents are confident that it’s even more appealing. A multicultural city of Italian pizzerias, Greek cafes and Chinese restaurants, see Victorian architecture and stay in a converted mill, play Aussie Rules Football and join the locals at St Kilda Beach to skate beneath the palms, windsurf across the bay or shop for arts and crafts.
Explore more of Victoria and surf at the mainland’s most southerly point, or venture inland to The Grampians National Park. Stay south to drive past dense forests on the Great Ocean Road and visit the Twelve Apostles on the haunting Shipwreck Coast. If you’re a fan of folk heroes, there’s Ned Kelly country to explore, or if you’re addicted to wintersports, come in August to ski the Victorian Alps. For something extra special, take a sunrise balloon ride across the Yarra Valley and float over the vineyards, orchards and lavender farms of Victoria’s premier wine region.
Tasmanian devils and wild wombats, snow dusted mountains and national parks – once a destination for the hardest of British convicts, today’s Tasmania is home to eco-adventures and gourmet cuisine. Off the track for mainstream tourists, fly here from the mainland and you’ll be rewarded with the windswept shores and wild rivers of the west, the beautiful beaches and bushy hills of the east, and the fine wines of Tamar Valley in the north.
To the south is Hobart, Australia’s second oldest city and southernmost state capital. Georgian buildings line the streets and tin-roofed houses dot the harbour, where fresh seafood is hauled off fishing boats and regular regattas create a wonderful buzz. Visit Salamanca Place for the Saturday market, eat lunch in a warehouse café or take afternoon bushwalks on nearby Mount Wellington. The northern city of Launceston is equally appealing, with its colonial architecture, century-old parks and easy access to the Cataract Gorge, where you can swim in the river and climb up the cliffs.