Kangaroos. Koalas. People with great accents and even better attitudes. Vegemite. Aboriginal culture. Red dirt. The Great Barrier Reef. Steve Erwin. The movie Australia.
Those are just a few of the things that I associated with the country (and continent) of Australia before I visited its diverse grounds. My list of associations has changed a lot since visiting last May; however, mostly in the form of addition, not subtraction.
Regardless of what your impressions–good and bad–of Australia may be, it's easily one of the most curiously unique countries in the world. A sense of dazzling foreignness oozes from its very existence. I often fantasized about running through the red dirt of the outback as a child. I daydreamed of muddying my white Keds and letting my strawberry blond hair tangle in the wind as I dashed past the iconic Uluru with kangaroos by my side. (I watched The Jungle Book and Tarzan a lot as a kid, so this makes sense.)
To properly experience Australia and all its splendor, at least two weeks are needed for exploration. And while the country is quite large, most of its major cities and destinations lie on the east coast. (Sorry, Perth.) This makes hopping from city to city quite simple.
Although Australia is quite literally a world away, traveling there is not nearly as hard as you may think. Don't let the lengthy travel time or stories of gargantuan spiders scare you out of the opportunity to embark on the trip of a lifetime. To get you started, I've included a guide to my three must-visit Australian cities as well as a sample itinerary below. Happy travels!
Cairns, a lush city in tropical North Queensland, is a beautiful place to begin your two-week exploration of Australia. It boasts some of Australia's best outdoor experiences and is less populated than some of the country's larger cities, making it ideal for an outdoor retreat.
Cairns is also famously referred to as Australia's gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. There are multiple Great Barrier Reef excursions and cruises that leave each day from the city's main port, each providing the once-in-a-lifetime experience of visiting the world's largest coral reef system.
Located just two hours from Cairns is Daintree Rainforest, a World Heritage-listed site that is home to one of the most diverse ranges of plants and animals. There, you can visit the Daintree Discovery Centre to learn about the origin of the forest and its many thriving plants and animal species, walk along aerial walkways and viewing platforms, cruise the Daintree River, visit the Mossman Gorge, go on a zip lining tour through Daintree's dense canopy and even stay in a luxury eco-lodge.
Downtown Cairns is host to a wide range of accommodations, culinary delights, tour information centers and charming boutiques. For a taste of Cairns's freshest produce, visit Rusty's Markets, a farmers market featuring more than 175 stalls of exotic fruits and vegetables, international food and beverages, fresh seafood, pastries, specialty products and so much more. Also downtown are the Cairns Night Markets, a collection of more than 100 shops and food vendors that offer unique Australian souvenirs and international cuisine options that range from Thai to Italian.
Brisbane, New South Wales
A few hours flight from Cairns is Brisbane, New South Wales. Brisbane is the third most populous city in Australia and is traversed by the Brisbane River. Two of the more popular modes of transportation across the river are via the vehicular, bicycle and pedestrian-friendly Story Bridge or on the CityHopper, a free inner city ferry service.
Brisbane's central business district is located along the steep curve of the river and at the very center is Queen Street Mall, a shopping center that has more than 700 retailers in some 430,000 square feet. The mall encompasses everything from high-end shops such as Tiffany and Co., Louis Vuitton and Bvlgari as well as many Australian brands, international retailers such as H&M and Zara, small boutique stores, multiple food courts and more. It's definitely worth checking out if you'd like to get your shopping fix.
On the southern shore of the Brisbane River is South Bank, the city's cultural hub that boasts 42 acres of lush parklands, an iconic man-made beach called Streets Beach, world-class restaurants and cafes, the Queensland Museum and Science Centre, the Queensland Maritime Museum and the Wheel of Brisbane.
The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, a refuge for sick, wounded and orphaned Australian animals, is also a must-visit while in Brisbane. It's a 15-minute drive from Brisbane's central business district and was easily one of the best experiences I had during my two weeks in Australia. The 44-acre sanctuary is home to more than 130 koalas, four species of kangaroos, echidnas, wombats, kookaburras, crocodiles and more. Not only can you see the animals, but you can also meet them. You can even hold a koala and hand-feed the kangaroos!
Sydney, New South Wales
A trip to the Land Down Under isn't complete until you've visited the iconic harbor city of Sydney. As Australia's most populous city, Sydney offers that big city feel. However, it is true that Australians really do live a laid back lifestyle, and this is prevalent even in the country's bigger cities. It's not uncommon to see smaller boutique shops with a sign on their door that reads, "Open at noon (or when we arrive)."
Although it feels a bit cliche to mention, you really can't visit Sydney without seeing the Sydney Harbor, the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. You can see all of these iconic Aussie sights right from the city's main port,Circular Quay. It's worth walking around the Quay for a few hours to snap some pictures, enjoy a toastie (Aussie slang for a grilled sandwich) and watch ferries come and go. While you're in the area, take a short walk to The Rocks, a historic Sydney neighborhood that is often referred to as a cultural mecca for its rich history, open-air Rocks Markets, art galleries and upscale restaurants.
Circular Quay is also the perfect place to embark on a tour across the harbor or to one of the neighboring beaches. My favorite day trip, Manly Beach, was less than a $15 round trip ferry ride and offered a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the city for a few hours. Plus, Manly features a gorgeous sandy beach that is perfect for sunbathing, swimming and snorkeling.
One of Australia's most iconic beaches, Bondi Beach, is located just 15 minutes by car from Sydney's central business district. Be warned—Bondi perpetually crawls with tourists, but trust me when I say that it is worth braving the crowds. The smooth white sand beach coupled with the area's trendy boutiques, quaint cafés and hip restaurants make it all worth it. Plus, its reliable waves make for great surfing. Whether you regularly shred the gnar or you've never stepped foot on a surfboard, if you're going to surf anywhere, Bondi is the place!
For all my shopaholics out there, don't worry—I haven't forgotten about you. For a unique Sydney shopping experience, skip the overcrowded shopping malls and department stores and visit the Queen Victoria Buildinginstead. Construction on this Romanesque Revival style building was completed in 1898 and the architecture–featuring multiple copper domes and the Victorian style shopping arcade–is absolutely exquisite.
Your Sample Itinerary
+ Days 1-3: Fly from the Charlotte Douglas International Airport to Sydney Airport. The most common route will take you to the Los Angeles International Airport from Charlotte, where you will deplane and board a new flight to Sydney. Expect your travel time–fly time and layovers–to be at least 24 hours in total. You will end up jumping a day ahead while you cross the Pacific Ocean, so it's good to plan one to three days for this travel.
+ Days 3-7: You're officially on the other side of the planet. By this time, the last thing you want to do is set foot on another airplane, but the flight from Sydney to Cairns is a breeze; it will only take around three hours. As soon as you go through Australian customs, head to one of Sydney Airport's domestic terminals for your short flight to tropical Cairns. Spend at least three-four days in Cairns.
+ Days 7-10: Fly from Cairns to Brisbane; flight time is approximately two hours. Spend three days in Brisbane.
+ Days 10-13: Fly to Sydney; flight time is around an hour and a half. Spend three full days in Sydney.
+ Day 14: Depart Sydney and return to the United States.