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My first ever solo trip was to Australia and it turned out to be such a life changing experience with so many great moments I’ll never forget. I was feeling a bit nervous on the flight but as soon as I landed, all my fears melted away.
Australia is very well set up for backpacking with plenty of awesome hostels, cheap backpacker bars and hop on hop off buses that make it easy to get around. Since the country has a great Working Holiday Visa program, it’s especially popular with Gap Year travelers and young people who just want to travel straight out of uni.
The most popular route in Australia for first time visitors is the east coast route from Sydney to Cairns. The east coast is more densely populated than other parts of Australia and therefore has a lot to see.
Flights to Sydney are usually the cheapest, so it’s best to fly into Sydney and then work your way up to Cairns either by car or by bus. To give you some inspiration and help you plan what to do, here’s a list of some of the best things to do on the east coast of Australia.
East Coast Australia: Things to Do
Spend a Few Days in Sydney
Your first stop on the east coast will be Sydney, which is the most populous city in Australia.
Sydney is known for its iconic Opera House, which cost $102 million and took 14 years to build. The impressive building was designed by Jørn Utzon from Denmark and features more than 1 million roof tiles. One of the best ways to experience it is by grabbing a sunset cocktail at the Opera Bar, which has a view of Harbour Bridge and Opera House.
Other major Sydney attractions you’ll want to visit include the Royal Botanic Garden, Darling Harbour, Sydney Harbour Bridge and The Rocks, which is home to an open-air market plus lots of restaurants, pubs and shops. If you want to take a break from sightseeing, soak up the sun on Bondi Beach, which is Sydney’s most famous beach.
Take the Ferry to Manly
No trip to Sydney would be complete without taking the ferry over to the beach town of Manly. Departing from Circular Quay, the ferry takes 30 minutes and is much cheaper than taking a Sydney Harbour cruise. If you want to get there a bit quicker, you can also buy a ticket for the Fast Ferry, which costs $10.20 each way.
Manly has a beautiful tree-lined beach and a relaxed vibe, so make sure you pack your towel and swimwear so you can spend your day relaxing on the sand. Afterwards, take a walk along The Corso, a pedestrian street lined with eateries, bars and pubs.
Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk
The Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk is a clifftop walk that stretches 6km and takes around 2-3 hours to complete. It’s a beautiful walk with lots of rock pools, beaches and cafes to discover along the way.
The walk starts at Bondi Beach and will take you past the famous Bondi Icebergs – a swimming club that’s right on the ocean and a popular spot for photographs. Other highlights along the way include Tamarama Beach, Bronte Beach and the Waverly Cemetery, which is the final resting place for many prominent Australians.
Visit Blue Mountains National Park
The Blue Mountains National Park is located west of Sydney and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the main highlights of the park is the Three Sisters rock formation, which can be seen from Echo Point Lookout.
With over 140 kilometers (87 miles) of track, the Blue Mountains is a popular place for hiking and bushwalking. There are also tons of activities you can try, including scaling canyons, hunting for glow worms and exploring the world’s oldest underground cave system.
Once you’re done being adventurous, you can visit one of the region’s quiet mountain towns where you can explore the shops, art galleries, museums and cafes. And if you really want to treat yourself, consider staying overnight at the Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley, which is a luxurious retreat built on a large expanse of wilderness conservancy.
Skydive Over Byron Bay
Skydiving should be one of those things on every backpacker’s must do list, and Byron Bay offers spectacular views of the beaches and coastline as you jump out of that plane.
I booked a tandem Skydive from 15,000 ft with Skydive Byron Bay and had such a fun experience. I was absolutely terrified but it was such an exhilarating thing to do and I felt like I’d accomplished something afterwards! The skydive instructors also capture the whole thing on camera too, so you have some memories of your entire experience.
Find Your Inner Hippie Child in Nimbin
The hippy town of Nimbin just outside Byron Bay is every stoner’s heaven. Even though cannabis is illegal in Australia, it’s no secret that the hippies in Nimbin love to smoke a joint.
If you don’t have your own car, you can visit Nimbin with a tour company, such as Happy Coach Byron. I visited with Jim’s Alternative Tours, which is sadly no longer in operation. We boarded a brightly colored bus which took us to the hemp museum and the bizarre home of Paul Recher, which is in the middle of a jungle.
Nimbin was once a sleepy dairying village but was transformed into Australia’s “alternative lifestyle” capital after the Aquarius Festival in 1973. Today the building facades are painted in brightly colored murals and the town has a super quirky, psychedelic vibe.
If you want to do some shopping, there are lots of art galleries and boutiques selling jewelry and crafts made by local artisans. There’s also a weekly farmer’s market that takes place every Wednesday afternoon.
For the best places to eat in Nimbin, check out Armonica Cafe, Nimbin Bakery, The Mended Drum or Nimbin Oasis Music Hub & Cafe.
Party on the Gold Coast
Surfer’s Paradise is Queensland’s nightlife capital and is the the #1 destination for partygoers. If you want to go clubbing or bar hopping, this is the place to do it. Popular clubs include Lost Kingdom Nightclub, The Avenue, elsewhere, SinCity Nightclub and Cocktails Nightclub.
If you prefer something a bit more laid back, head to the Island Rooftop at sunset so you can enjoy some cocktails as the city lights up.
Provided you’re not too hungover from the night before, you could sign up for a surf lesson on one of the most famous surf beaches in the world or try stand up paddleboarding to explore Chevron Island and Macintosh Island Park.
As the largest city in Queensland, Brisbane is well worth a visit and has lots to see and do. The city has a fairly laid-back vibe and since it has a tropical climate, it’s perfect for al fresco dining.
A popular adrenaline-pumping activity in Brisbane is climbing the Story Bridge, which allows you to soak in panoramic views of the city. Flowing through the city is the Brisbane River, which is best experienced by taking a sunset cruise or renting an electric picnic boat.
The city may not have a beach, but it does have a small man-made beach called Streets Beach, which is lined with sub-tropical plants and has a blue lagoon for bathing. The beach is located within South Bank, which boasts restaurants, cycling tracks, picnic spots and BBQs.
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary
Next on this list of the top things to do on the east coast of Australia is the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, which was opened in 1927 to help protect one of Australia’s most iconic species. The sanctuary is located in Fig Tree Pocket, which is around 12km from Brisbane CBD.
Let’s face it, koalas are incredibly adorable and cute, and at this sanctuary you can actually hold one and have your photo taken with it. You’ll also get to visit the leaf sorting area to learn how staff cater for these picky eaters.
As well as koalas, the sanctuary is also home to owls, kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and a whole host of other Australian wildlife.
4×4 On Fraser Island
Fraser Island by far the most fun thing to do on the East Coast so you should definitely make sure you add this to your Australia itinerary. While there are day tours to Fraser Island, the most fun way to do it is by driving yourself!
Rainbow Beach or Hervey Bay are two popular starting points for Fraser Island experiences.
I stayed in a hostel in Hervey Bay and visited Fraser Island on a group self-drive tour. We were organized into groups and sent on an alcohol run the night before so that we could have a boozy time by the campfire while on the island. The following day we were shown a safety video explaining what-to-do and what-not-to-do on Fraser Island, before embarking on a food shop to Woolworth’s to stock up on meals.
Next we were taken to a garage to pick up the 4×4, learn some driving rules and finally hop on the ferry over to the island. Offroading is so much fun and it feels incredibly freeing to drive on the sand with no traffic lights!
Fraser Island is brilliant, not just because of the stunning lakes and scenery, but because you get to drive on the beach, cook your own camp meals, set up tents, play drinking games and sleep under the stars.
A major highlight is Lake McKenzie, which boasts powdery white sands and turquoise waters with natural tea tree oil. The island’s major highway is Seventy-Five Mile Beach, which is home to champagne rock pools, a historic shipwreck and sea life such as whales and dolphins.
Learn to Surf in Noosa
The East Coast of Australia is the pefect place to learn to surf and many hostels have free surf boards and body boards so that you can practice by yourself. However if you’re new to surfing it’s always worth taking a few lessons so you can get the hang of the basics.
Noosa is known for its surf and has numerous surf schools, including Surfdancer Academy of Surf, Go Ride a Wave, Epic Surf Lessons, Noosa Surf Lessons and Merrick’s Noosa Learn to Surf.
This coastal town is a popular resort destination and lots of Australians visit to enjoy the sandy beaches, sunny weather, boutique resorts and chic resort vibes. Most of the action centers around Hasting Street, which is filled with boutiques, restaurants, cafes, galleries, day spas and gift shops.
Chill Out in Agnes Water/Town of 1770
When I heard about the Town of 1770 I pictured a town where everyone wears period costume but that turned out not to be the case. Located north of Fraser Island and south of the Whitsundays, Town of 1770 is a coastal town that’s popular for surfing and serves as an access point to the southern Great Barrier Reef. It has beautiful sandy beaches and experiences over 300 days of sunshine per year!
The town was the second place where Captain James Cook and his crew stepped onto Australian soil and their first landing in what is now the state of Queensland. I stayed a few days in a hostel there and loved how relaxing it was!
Cool Bananas is definitely one of the coolest hostels I’ve stayed in with a Caribbean type vibe- think hammocks, lanterns and palm trees.
Sail the Whitsundays
Backpackers travelling up and down the East Coast usually have two activities they know they want to do – one is doing a 4×4 drive of Fraser Island, and the other is sailing the Whitsundays.
There are numerous tour companies which offer sailing packages to the Whitsundays from Airlie Beach, and it’s worth shopping around to find the right boat and package deal.
The tropical Whitsunday Islands lie about half way up the Queensland coast and are bordered by the Great Barrier Reef. There are 74 of them, but only 8 are inhabited.
Tourists venture to the islands to walk on the powder white, picture-postcard sands of Whitehaven Beach, snorkel or scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef or simply relax on a sailing boat as they cruise around the islands.
Rent a Topless Car on Magnetic Island
A lot of people I spoke to had never heard of Magnetic Island, even though it has a resident population of around 2,500 people. The tropical island lies off the coast of Townsville and has a regular passenger ferry service.
The best time to visit the island is around a full moon so that you can go to the full moon party at BASE Backpackers hostel. Whilst it’s not a patch on Thailand’s full moon party, it’s a great excuse to party anyway.
Rent one of these Topless Cars for the day and you’ll feel a bit like Barbie- it’s a great way to get around!
If you want to see some koalas in the wild, I recommend doing the Forts Walk hiking trail. The hike is about 3 to 5 kilometres long depending on which route you take and you’ll get to see some breathtaking views along the way.
Snorkel Over the Great Barrier Reef
One of Australia’s most famous attractions is of course the Great Barrier Reef, which is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and the only living thing visible from space.
The reef is actually composed of 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands that cover an area of approximately 344,400 square kilometres.
If you want to explore the reef you have lots of options, including scuba diving, snorkelling, helicopter tours, glass-bottomed boat tours, semi-submersibles and cruise ship tours.
Queensland has several towns that make great bases for exploring the Great Barrier Reef, including Cairns, Port Douglas, Rockhampton, Townsville, Airlie Beach and Mission Beach.
Some of the reef’s islands are also home to gorgeous resorts where you can spend a day or two relaxing. With powdery white sands, turquoise blue waters and word class diving, you’ll feel like you’re in heaven!
Visit the Daintree Rainforest & Cape Tribulation
When visiting Cairns you’ll see lots of tours advertised to the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation. GetYourGuide has a number of great tours you can book online:
Here are a couple of ideas:
- Cairns: Daintree & Cape Tribulation Guided 4WD Tour
- Cairns: Daintree and Mossman Gorge Tour with Cruise Option
The Daintree Rainforest is the world’s oldest rainforest and has been growing for over 180 million years! Start your trip at the Daintree Discovery Centre, where you can see the canopy from an aerial walkway and learn plenty of info about the rainforest with the help of interactive displays.
Within the rainforest you can hike on a variety of hiking trails, experience rafting on the Mossman River, discover how to hunt for bush tucker or take a crocodile cruise to get a view of the saltwater crocs that live there.
If you want to be fully immersed in nature, consider staying a night at the Silky Oaks luxury lodge, where you can sleep in treehouses and dine outdoors in the rainforest.
On the edge of Daintree National Park you’ll find Cape Tribulation, which is a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. This beautiful coastal region is located on a headland and offers a unique landscape where rainforest meets reef.
Here you can take a boat tour onto the reef, swim in the rainforest swimming holes or sign-up for a 4WD adventure to explore the rugged terrain of the Bloomfield Track. The area is truly stunning, with isolated beaches and a rich diversity of flora and fauna.
Getting Around the East Coast of Australia
The most convenient way to get around the east of Australia is by driving. You could rent a car or rent a campervan so you can sleep in your vehicle and save money on accommodation.
Australia is huge, so driving distances between towns and cities can be very long. If you drove the east coast of Australia without stopping it would take 27 hours in total! You also need to remember that they drive on the left in Australia, which may take some getting used to if you come from the USA or Europe.
If you don’t want to drive, the best option is to travel by Greyhound bus. Greyhound offers East Coast Whimmit Passes, which allow you to travel up (or down) the east coast at your own pace and hop off wherever you like. Coaches have free WiFi and in-seat USB chargers, and you can easily reserve your seat online.
A 3-day Whimmit Pass costs $249, a 15-day pass costs $319 and a 30-day pass costs $389. Once you purchase a pass you have 12 months to begin your trip and you’re granted unlimited travel in any direction for as many days as your time allows.
Flight prices tend to be cheaper flying into Sydney, so I’d suggest starting in Sydney then ending in Cairns, which is the route I took. I then flew to Alice Springs to do a tour to Uluru and flew to Melbourne to drive the Great Ocean Road. From Melbourne I flew back to Sydney to complete my trip.
A Final Word…
There are so many awesome things to do on the east coast of Australia that you should allow plenty of time to see everything. 2 weeks is the absolute minimum amount of time you need to travel the east coast but I’d say give yourself around 3-4 weeks to do everything at a more leisurely pace.
I had so much fun backpacking Australia and it was such a life changing experience. I made lifelong friends on that trip and had so many incredible experiences just on that one trip. If you’re considering a trip to Oz but haven’t pulled the trigger yet, I can tell you it’s absolutely worth it.
One of the biggest obstacles to overcome when planning a trip to the Land Down Under is the steep flight prices, so if you want to save money on your ticket, check out my handy guide to getting cheap flights to Australia.
Book Your Trip
Book your flights: Find cheap flights using Google Flights, Skyscanner or Kayak. To get travel deals sent straight to your inbox, sign up for Scott’s Cheap Flights or Jack’s Flight Club. Use the Hopper app for their AI powered price change predictions.
Booking your accommodation: I use Booking.com to book all my hotels. Their Genius loyalty program allows you to earn reward credits no bookings and 10%-20% off hotel prices. You can also try Google Hotels and TripAdvisor to search prices across a variety of sites. Agoda is the best site for booking hotels in Asia.
Travel on a budget: Staying in hostels is a great way to meet people and is best if you’re on a budget. You can find plenty of awesome hostels with Hostelworld.