The ultimate Aussie road trip, East Coast Australia connects the Great Ocean Road with the Great Barrier Reef, with picture-perfect beaches, hip cities, charismatic wildlife and rainforests all along the way. There are many reasons to come here, and to linger, but none more impressive than the sheer natural drama of East Coast Australia.
Strung out for nearly 10,000km end to end, Australia’s east coast is, on land, a stirring succession of beaches, vast rainforests and alluring wildlife. Offshore, the Great Barrier Reef is a 2000km-long hyper-coloured haven for astonishing tropical marine life. There’s a lot to look at, but there’s even more to do. It could take a lifetime or, with just 10 days and a handful of airline tickets, you could taste a few of the east coast’s highlights from Melbourne to Cairns. The hardest part is deciding what to try first. To make it easier, here's 12 of the best places to see.
Editor's note: during COVID-19 there are restrictions on travel and opening hours may vary. Check the latest guidance in Australia before planning a trip, and always follow local health advice.
1. The Great Barrier Reef & the Daintree - Queensland
Best for ecotourism and astonishing marine life
The Great Barrier Reef and its 900 coral-fringed islands unfurl over 2000km along the Queensland coastline. This vivid undersea kingdom is an unforgettable world waiting to be discovered. And in Queensland’s far north, the Daintree Rainforest, one of the earth’s oldest, reaches right down to the shores of the sea.
Read more: How to have a sustainable visit to the Great Barrier Reef
2. Sydney - New South Wales
Best for iconic sights
Sydney is all about big-ticket sights – the Sydney Opera House, the Rocks and Sydney Harbour Bridge top most people’s lists. But to really catch Sydney’s vibe, spend a day at the beach. Stake out a patch of sand at Bondi Beach, slather yourself in sunscreen and plunge into the surf, or hop on a ferry from Circular Quay to Manly for a swim, surf or walk along the seasprayed promenade to Shelly Beach.
3. Great Ocean Road - Victoria
Best for scenic coastal drives and quaint towns
The Twelve Apostles along the Great Ocean Road rank among Victoria’s defining sights, but it’s the getting-there road trip that doubles their impact. Take it slow along roads that curl beside Bass Strait beaches, then whip inland through wildlife-rich rainforest and quaint towns. Further west are pretty Port Fairy and hidden Cape Bridgewater. For the ultimate in slow travel, hike the Great Ocean Walk from Apollo Bay to the Apostles.
4. Byron Bay - New South Wales
Best for surfing, glamping and celebrity-spotting
Australia’s most easterly point, Byron Bay or Byron to its mates, is one of the enduring icons of Australian culture. Families on school holidays, surfers and sunseekers from around the globe, and those seeking to escape the rat race gather here, drawn by fabulous restaurants, a laid-back ethos, surf beaches and an astonishing range of activities. It also inhabits one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in the country.
5. The Whitsundays - Queensland
Best for sailing and turquoise seas
You could spend a lifetime exploring tropical islands and never find anywhere with the sheer magnificence of the Whitsundays. Travellers of all monetary persuasions launch yachts from party town Airlie Beach and elsewhere to drift between these lush green isles in a slow search for paradise (you’ll probably find it in more than one place). Sheltered palm-fringed coves, some of the world’s most stunning beaches, turquoise seas – what more could you wish for?
6. Melbourne - Victoria
Best for music, art, cafe culture and food
Whether it’s the arts, cafe culture, the restaurant scene or big international sports events, Melbourne is a happening place. The next best restaurant, chef, cafe, barista or hidden bar may be the talk of the town, but some things endure: the gritty street-art laneways; galleries and dynamic cultural life; the leafy parks and gardens in the inner city; the trams to sea-breezy beaches; and the passionate allegiances that living in such a sports-mad city brings.
7. The Sunshine Coast - Queensland
Best for pretty villages and glamorous resorts
They don’t call it the Sunshine Coast for nothing. Sun-soaked beaches, the glamorous resort town of Noosa, Noosa National Park, Australia Zoo... Few regions pack so many attractions into such a small space. Surfers come here for the long, rolling waves and, in the national park, lovely hiking trails criss-cross the park and take you within sight of sleepy koalas in the trees and dolphins swimming off rocky headlands.
8. Fraser Island - Queensland
Best place to see dingoes, sand dunes and shipwrecks
Fraser Island is an ecological wonderland created by drifting sand, where wild dingoes roam free and lush rainforest grows on sand. It’s a primal island utopia, home to a profusion of wildlife, including the purest strain of dingo in Australia. Explore in a 4WD, cruising along the seemingly endless Seventy-Five Mile Beach. Elsewhere, tropical rainforest, pristine freshwater pools and beach camping under the stars will bring you back to nature.
Read more: A first-timer’s guide to visiting Australia’s Fraser Island
9. South Coast New South Wales
Best for families, white-sand beaches and whale-spotting
If the glamour of Sydney is making you dizzy, or the road trip to Melbourne feels a little drab, then seek out the New South Wales South Coast, a gorgeous stretch of sandy coves, sea pools and often empty national parks oft overlooked in favour of the more direct Hume Highway route. From June to November, watch for whales from the coast at Eden and elsewhere, with other iconic wildlife never far away.
10. Brisbane - Queensland
Best for emerging cultural scenes and waterfront vistas
Once considered a provincial sidekick to Sydney and Melbourne, Brisbane has reinvented itself as one of Asia Pacific’s hippest hubs. No longer happy to settle for 261 days of sunshine a year, Queensland’s capital is smashing it on the cultural front, with an ever-expanding collection of ambitious street art and galleries, boutique bookshops, secret cocktail bars and award-winning microbreweries.
12. Wilsons Promontory & Gippsland - Victoria
Best for wildlife, hiking and wildly beautiful beaches
Mainland Australia’s southernmost tip and finest coastal national park, Wilsons Promontory, is heaven for bushwalkers, wildlife watchers, surfers and photographers. The scenery here is out of this world: even a short detour from the park base at Tidal River will access swathes of white-sand beaches and bays.
12. Canberra - Australian Capital Territory
Best for museums, galleries and history
Canberra has always been preoccupied with the nation’s history – the major draws here are lavishly endowed museums and galleries. The National Gallery of Australia, National Museum of Australia, National Portrait Gallery and Australian War Memorial all offer visitors a fascinating insight into the country’s history and culture. An emerging culinary scene, small-town feel and beautiful natural surrounds only add to the appeal.
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