Book your flights: 2012 is shaping up as a bumper year to visit Australia. A slew of music festivals (Big Day Out, Splendour in the Grass, Byron Bay Bluesfest) will feature arena-filling acts like Kanye West, Soundgarden, Steve Earle and Kasabian. And don't miss the touring Picasso exhibition at Sydney's esteemed Art Gallery of New South Wales (until March).

On the sporting front, time your Melbourne visit with the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix (March) or the Australian Open tennis (January). In the cricket, arch-rivals India are touring (February), and will Australia's great cycle race, the Tour Down Under (January), see Australian Tour de France champ Cadel Evans pumping the pedals?

Later in the year, Sydney gets hot-under-the-collar at Australian Fashion Week (May), and celebrates its photogenic harbour with the start of the epic Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race (December): stake out a patch of grass near the water and watch the harbour bloom with sails. Further north in November, the Gold Coast hosts muscle-bound surf-lifesaving carnivals, while down south Melbourne stages the legendary Melbourne Cup horse race: put a few dollars on the favourite and sip some champagne in the shade.

But before you go, you'll need a little know-how to get the most from your trip. Australia is vast, with cities from the northern tropics to the central deserts and chilly southern shores. Seasons play a big part in deciding where you'll go, and when!

When to go

Most travellers arrive in the summer (December to February) when the big southeastern hubs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are sunny and warm. Beaches swarm, outside cafés tables overflow, long balmy evenings drift into party nights... Of course, when everyone else is here too, you'll be facing peak-season accommodation prices, crammed public transport and queues at the big-ticket attractions. The shoulder-season months - October/November and March/April - are a better bet.

Also, summer down south means hot 'n' humid up north: the 'wet season' is uncomfortable in Australia's tropical Top End. Instead, plan your visit here for winter - June to August, the 'dry season' - when temperatures and humidity are bearable. Winter is also the best time to escape the cold grey south and visit the central deserts.

Where to go

If you're an arty urbanite who lives for good coffee, pubs, galleries, live music and bookshops, head straight for Melbourne. Sydney maintains its global rep with awesome surf beaches, world-class restaurants, hip shops, hot clubs and cool bars. Brisbane is a dynamic city on the rise; Perth is the world's most isolated city of its size (1.69 million), and exudes frontier independence.

Image by Paul Mannix

Nature buffs and bushwalkers should hit Australia's national parks: Kakadu in the Northern Territory is a tropical wonderland full of crocodiles, ancient Aboriginal rock art and raucous birdlife. Access it from the base city of Darwin, one of Lonely Planet's top 10 cities of 2012. Uluru-Kata Tjuta in Central Australia is hauntingly beautiful, with a profound timelessness (more than just big red rocks). It's also a great place to experience Indigenous Australian culture. Snorkelling over incandescent coral and fish on Queensland's Great Barrier Reef is mesmerising, while Tasmania's sub-alpine Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park hosts the Overland Track, one of the planet's most celebrated multi-day hikes.

If wine floats your boat, South Australia is for you. Wobble your way through decadent wine regions: the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale (Shiraz), Clare Valley (Riesling), Coonawarra (Cabernet Sauvignon) and Adelaide Hills (Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir).

Getting around

Unlike the USA or Europe, Australia doesn't have many big inland towns ( Paris or Denver here, just Alice Springs). So a driving holiday can involve huge distances between pit-stops. A better idea for a quick city-hopping visit is to fly. Australia's domestic airlines are affordable and reliable, and allow you to carbon-offset flights if you're feeling guilty.

But if you're not in a hurry, the Great Australian Road Trip awaits! Explore the beaches and surf towns along the east coast; meander along the photogenic Great Ocean Road near Melbourne; or detour to the gorgeous island state of Tasmania or southwestern Western Australia. Ambitious? Tackle a 'lap of the map', a grand circuit that'll consume as many months as you can spare.

Further reading

Australia. It's big. Plot your adventures with Lonely Planet's new Australia guidebook.

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