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Australia Travel Guide: What to Do in Australia

If distance makes the heart grow fonder, it’s no wonder that Australia is a mainstay on most travel bucket lists. Far away from most of the rest of the world, Australia’s unique geography, wildlife and lifestyles seem exotic. But calling the only country that’s also a continent unique isn’t just a platitude. So much of what Australia has to offer truly can’t be experienced anywhere else on Earth.

Did you know, for instance, that only in Australia will you find the world’s most extensive coral reef ecosystem, largest sand island, last surviving remnants of the Gondwana rain forest and oldest continuous living culture?

And that’s just the beginning. Fancy hugging a koala? Only here. Want to find your own opal? Only here. Want to visit a cattle ranch bigger than the state of New Jersey? Only here.

Whether Australia is still on your wish list or you’re lucky enough to have been before, has you covered. Click through our slideshow to see just a few of the astonishing experiences you can have on your trip to Australia.

Meet the Locals

North Americans have squirrels and deer in their backyards. Aussies have koalas and kangaroos in theirs. Perhaps because Australian animals can’t be found anywhere else and are so unlike any other creatures most of us have ever encountered, they hold a profound attraction for visitors. Zoos all over the country are keenly aware of this, offering fun opportunities to get up close to some of the cutest and most fearsome Aussie critters.

On the Sunshine Coast, about an hour south of Brisbane, is the Australia Zoo, where Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin earned his fame. Here visitors can handfeed red and grey kangaroos, cuddle with a koala, take a wombat for a walk and even pet a dingo. Further north, in Darwin, tourists can get close to not-so-cute crocs at Crocosaurus Cove, surrounding themselves with almost 100 2- to 3-year-old saltwater crocodiles, feeding them via a fishing line or diving into the Cage of Death for thrilling face-to-face encounters.

Enjoy Beer and Barbecue

If there are two things Aussies love above almost everything else, it’s beer and barbecue. For the truest Australian experience of these two things, make a friend and get yourself invited to a barbie. But if that’s not possible, you can still find out what all the fuss is about on a brewery and barbecue tour. In Brisbane, the Red Balloon Beer and BBQ chef-taught cooking class teaches you about gourmet barbecue meats and seafood cooking, as well as which beers to serve to complement the various flavors.

Not as interested in the barbecue portion of the experience? Brisbane’s XXXX Brewery offers a 90-minute tour, including a tasting. If Brisbane isn’t on your itinerary, you can also check out Red Balloon’s Beer and BBQ cooking class in Sydney or Melbourne.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Fiji and Australia by LSKahn
“It took me awhile to learn my way around Brisbane but I ended up liking it very much. Brisbane is Australia’s most rapidly growing city and, I feel, eventually will be the largest city. There are very few older buildings left and plenty of skyscrapers  which I thought was a shame.” Read more!

Explore the Rain Forest Canopy

Despite being the driest inhabited continent on earth, Australia also boasts some 10 million acres of rain forest stretching from the Kimberley region in the west across the Northern Territory to Cape York in Queensland and down the eastern coast. In North Queensland’s Wet Tropics region, a World Heritage Area since 1988, is the Daintree Rainforest, one of the oldest surviving rain forests in the world. Take a walk through this ancient landscape for a tiny taste of life millions of years ago. Or, for a unique twist, take to the rain forest canopy to see what life is like from above.

At the Daintree Discovery Centre, visitors can cross the 32-foot-high mid-canopy walkway and 75-foot canopy tower for views of colorful orchids, climbing vines and basket ferns, kingfishers and the occasional python. Nearby at the Mamu Rainforest Canopy Walkway in Wooroonooran National Park, your visit is divided into three parts: a ground-level forest walk, a 32-foot-long cantilever overhanging the river gorge below and an elevated walkway that weaves through the rain forest canopy. Along the way, you’ll spot a variety of plants and animals that make the canopy their home. For a more adrenaline-pumping treetop experience, try the Jungle Surfing Canopy Tours’ zipline experience at Cape Tribulation in the Daintree Rainforest.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

One Week in Cairns by Pati O.
“We had a bit of a climb ahead of us before we reached the first tree of the course where we would finally begin our trip through the tops of the rain forest on a series of flying foxes or zip lines. … The final two lines we went solo and this was where I had the most fun. I wanted to go fast and let loose! I even accidentally turned upside down when I wasn’t really supposed to!” Read more!

Go Desert Roaming

Australia’s geography is dominated by desert and semi-arid landscapes. Tourists are routinely warned away from venturing into Australia’s biggest deserts, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a small taste of them. The best method for crossing Australia’s deserts safely is via railways like the Ghan, which chugs 1,850 miles north from Adelaide to Darwin, passing through parts of the Pedirka and Tanami Deserts, or the 2,700-mile Indian Pacific, which travels between Sydney and Perth, skirting the Great Victorian Desert and passing through the arid Nullarbor Plain.

Want something more tactile? Camel Treks Australia offers three- to nine-day treks through the desert landscape of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. And Wayoutback Australian Safaris offers five- to 14-day walking tours along the Larapinta Trail, which extends 138 miles through the desert of the Western MacDonnell Ranges in central Australia. Not ready to commit to spending more than just a few hours in the desert? Check out the Pinnacles Desert Full Day Private Tour from Tours by Locals, or try the daylong Painted Desert Tour from Coober Pedy’s Opal Inn.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Wonders Down Under — New Zealand/Australia by Ann Kaser
“From Ayers Rock, it is a 6 hr bus ride to Alice Springs. There is nothing in between but Red Rock. Many Aborigines live in this area. We stopped at a camel farm and visited the Flying Doctors in Alice Springs. Camels roam the Outback.” Read more!

Explore Sydney’s Less Savory Side

Given that many of Sydney’s earliest European settlers were convicts, it’s not surprising that the city has had a rather colorful history. Take a peek into the past with Viator, which offers a fascinating two-hour walking tour through Kings Cross, the city’s red light district. The “Razor Wars of the 1920s and ’30s” tour focuses on several infamous women who played key roles in Sydney’s criminal underworld during an era of bitter gang violence.

To learn about the lives of Australia’s earlier criminals, pay a visit to the Hyde Park Barracks Museum, which housed some 50,000 male convicts between 1819 and 1848, or to Cockatoo Island, a penal colony built in part by its own prisoners. Also worth a look is Viator’s Sydney Harbour Cruise and Goat Island Walking Tour, a three-hour excursion aboard a restored 1920s-era ferry that takes visitors to Goat Island, where you can see the barracks where convicts once lived and worked.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Our Trip to Australia in Detail by QuiGonJohn
We caught the bus at the ferry pier there and rode it through the Olympic Park Area to the Strathfield Train Station, where we took the train over to Kings Cross. Kings Cross has a huge Coca-Cola sign and is kind of a mix between Times Square and a typical red-light district. Read more!

Stay on a Cattle Station

Remote. Isolated. Vast. These words can be used to describe Australia’s cattle stations (or ranches), which are often larger than small countries. Anna Creek Station in South Australia, for instance, is just a bit bigger than Israel at roughly six million acres. With the Outback stretching in every direction and the nearest city thousands of miles away, life on a station is completely unlike anything most visitors have ever experienced. It’s beautiful, quiet, refreshing.

Station stays can range from basic accommodations to luxurious digs, but one thing they all have in common is their Australian-ness. At most stations visitors are invited to join their hosts on a cattle roundup; guided tours of the Outback, horseback rides and other immersive experiences are also offered. At the 2,600-acre Myella Station in Queensland, guests can help gather eggs and milk cows, swim in the pool, go for a horseback ride or learn to ride a motorbike. Kings Creek Station, in the Red Centre, is a working cattle and camel ranch and the largest exporter of wild camels in the country; it offers station tours and early morning or sunset desert camel rides for an additional fee.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Alice Springs and Ayers Rock Bird Watching by Carl from Pahrump
“In the Ayers Rock/King Canyon area we stayed at the Curtin Springs Cattle Station & Wayside Inn. We had a room with a private bath, small refrig., and air conditioning. It was much less expensive to stay here than at Ayers Rock, plus you are more centrally located for bird watching, especially if you want to go to Kings Canyon.” Read more!

Go Shark Diving

Not all of Australia’s native wildlife is as cute and fuzzy as a koala. Surfers along the country’s beaches know sharks are an ever-present danger. And while most visitors are careful to avoid the attention of these prehistoric predators, more than a few take a different path … one that leads directly into shark-infested waters. The best shark diving is in South Australia, some seven hours away from Adelaide in Port Lincoln. Several companies, including Calypso Star Charters and Adventure Bay Charters, offer full-day excursions to Neptune Islands Conservation Park for thrilling cage dives with wild great whites.

For the more timid, aquarium-based shark dives may be more your speed. At both the Melbourne Aquarium and Sydney’s Manly Sea Life Sanctuary, the Shark Dive Xtreme experience gets participants up close and personal with grey nurse or sandbar whaler sharks.

Visit Aboriginal Australia

What the heck is bush tucker and why would anyone want to eat it? Why is the Dreamtime so important? And how exactly do you throw a boomerang? These are questions Australian Aborigines can answer. The oldest continuous culture in existence, Aborigines have lived on the Australian continent for anywhere between 50,000 and 65,000 years. Nowadays, you can get a taste of Aboriginal culture just about anywhere in Australia you go, from the bustle of Sydney to the vast emptiness of the Red Centre.

Just hitting the major cities? The two-hour Tribal Warrior Sydney Harbor cruise introduces you to the legends of six local Peoples (tribes), while the 90-minute The Rocks Dreaming Aboriginal Heritage Tour takes you on an Aboriginal-themed walkabout in the Rocks section of the city. In Brisbane, the one-hour Riverlife Mirrabooka experience allows travelers to participate in traditional songs and dances and try their hands at playing the didgeridoo. If you have the time, head inland to Alice Springs for RT Tours’ half-day Mbuntua Bush Lunch Tour, or spend a few days near Uluru and check out Ayers Rock Resort’s full-day Cave Hill Tour and Diverse Travel Australia’s 90-minute Dot Painting Workshop.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Australia the 3rd Time Around by LSKahn
“At the end of my stay, the Sydney Festival was on and I saw two performances. ‘The Secret River’ — based on the book of the same name — concerned the relationship of the Whites and Aborigines and was very interesting. Australia’s problems with the Aborigines somewhat parallel problems in North America with indigenous tribes, but are, in my opinion, much worse.” Read more!

Dig for Opals

Australia supplies more than 90 percent of the world’s opals, with most coming from near Coober Pedy, a rough wild west town of just 1,700 people in South Australia. Opal mining is a historically dangerous and dirty pursuit, but it can pay off in spades. The miner who found the multimillion-dollar Olympic Australis Opal near Coober Pedy some 60 years ago made his fortune with that one find.

Chances are you won’t be so lucky, but you can still try your hand at opal mining. With Desert Cave Tours’ four-hour Down ‘N’ Dirty Opal Digging tour you are given a hard hat, handpick, flashlight and access to a working mine. Just want to see what an opal mining life is like? Take a guided tour at Tom’s Working Opal Mine and listen as a miner explains and demonstrates a variety of mining techniques.

Experience World Cultures

Melbourne is often called Australia’s Cultural Capital, thanks to its many thriving theaters, art galleries, bookstores and music venues. But we’d argue that “Multicultural Capital” would be an equally apt nickname for Australia’s second-largest city. Decades of immigration have transformed Melbourne into a rich mix of ethnic neighborhoods, from the Greek Precinct to Chinatown.

Locals and visitors alike can celebrate the city’s diversity via dozens of cultural festivals that take place throughout the year, featuring the music, food and handicrafts of each culture. Many are held on or around Federation Square, such as the Thai Culture & Food Festival, the Latin Summer Festival and the Korean Wave (or Kwave) Festival. Elsewhere in town, the Greek community hosts the annual Antipodes Festival on Lonsdale Street each February.

To see which festivals will take place during your trip, check out the events calendars at and

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Marvellous Melbourne by Fiona Ludbrook
“Head to the Victoria Market for a wonderful array of fresh produce, inexpensive street food and the cheapest souvenirs in town. The market mirrors the multicultural nature of Melbourne’s population and is always a great place to see Melbourne’s residents going about their lives.” Read more!

Deliver the Mail

Once you leave the cities behind, most people in Australia live far, far away from each other. A cattle rancher’s nearest neighbor might be 100 miles away, and though satellite phones and Internet are available, mail is still an essential communication tool for these outriders. Mail carriers can spend an entire day or longer delivering parcels to just one or two towns and 10 or fewer stations (ranches) before heading home. But boy, do they know the real Australian Outback, and a couple of them are willing to share that experience with visitors.

In South Australia, you are invited to join the mailman on his all-day mail run out of Coober Pedy, visiting the Outback towns of Oodnadatta and William Creek, as well as a handful of remote cattle stations, and passing through the world’s longest manmade structure, the Dingo Fence. For a longer experience, join Desert Edge Tours for its three- or four-day Outback Mail Run out of Birdsville, Queensland.

Best Time to Go to Australia

Australia is roughly the size of the continental U.S., so with multiple climate zones, the best time to go depends on where you’re headed. Summer, from November through March, is the best time to visit the southern cities of Melbourne and Sydney. But if you want to head north or center to places like Ayers Rock, the Great Barrier Reef or the Top End’s national parks and wild places, aim to go in winter (June through August) when the weather is pleasant as opposed to unbearably hot and wet. Airfares and package tours, especially those that visit the south, are typically at their cheapest June through September.

Australia on a Budget

All the tips you’d use at home apply: Choose affordable hotels or hostels, find cheap eats (try ethnic restaurants in less touristy neighborhoods), use public transportation or walk, look for free attractions or discount cards. Because travel distances in-country can be great (remember, it’s the size of the U.S.), either plan your trip to one city and its surroundings or familiarize yourself with the country’s budget air carriers: Jetstar, Regional Express (REX), Virgin Australia and Tigerair. Qantas also offers a Walkabout Air Pass that bundles your international flight with your choice of domestic flights. For more ideas, see Top 25 Ways to Save on Australia Travel.

–written by Dori Saltzman and Sarah Schlichter

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