I recently wrote about 6 countries for new travelers, one of which was Australia. This is a great country to visit no matter how much travel experience you have, but it’s especially easy to navigate for those who haven’t done much traveling. You won’t have to worry about a foreign language, and there is so much to do no matter what you’re interested in.
The country is almost the size of the continental US, so you can’t cover it all in a normal vacation, but these are some of the highlights for first time visitors. Pick a couple places and build your itinerary based on how much vacation time you have, Be sure to include time to get to and from Australia, as well as transportation between locations within Australia.
Sydney – 4 to 5 days
Probably Australia’s most famous city, it’s a great place to start. It’s Australia’s oldest and largest city (but not the capital), and it has plenty to offer for both city and nature lovers.
- Sydney Opera House – Whether you want to take a tour or just admire its beauty from the outside, this is one landmark not to be missed. My favorite time to see it was as the sun started setting.
- The Harbour Bridge – You’ll see the bridge near the Opera House. If you’re not scared of heights, consider doing a bridge climb tour.
- Circular Quay and the Harbour – The energetic port lies in between the Opera House and the Bridge. Take a boat tour or just hop on a commuter ferry for a different view of the Harbour and the city.
- Beaches – Escape the city for an afternoon by spending some time at any number of beaches.
- Royal Botanical Gardens – For a slice of nature inside the busy city, take a stroll through these gorgeous gardens.
- Blue Mountains – Get out into the scenic mountains and forest not far from the city. Plenty of tour operators have day tours.
Melbourne – 4 to 5 days
Melbourne is a wonderful city to wander around in. It doesn’t have anything similar to the big iconic Opera House in Sydney, but the city has its own great vibe and lots of delicious restaurants.
- Federation Square – The perfect starting point. Here you will find a tourist office as well as the Ian Potter Centre National Gallery and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.
- Flinders Street train station – Located across the street from Federation Square, this gorgeous building is worth a look even if you’re not taking a train anywhere.
- Yarra River – The river runs behind Federation Square, and it’s a nice place for a stroll.
- Bourke Street Pedestrian Mall – This street and the many surrounding it are the place to go for shopping. Not into shopping? Relax on a bench and watch the world go by.
- Chinatown – I had a hard time choosing a restaurant here because there are so many!
- Queen Victoria Market – Stop in here for fresh produce, meats and cheeses, or a wide variety of souvenirs. There’s also a small food court.
Great Ocean Road – 2 days
The Great Ocean Road is a stunning stretch of coastal road that starts not far from Melbourne. You can do this as a day trip, but I highly recommend taking two days to see as much as possible. Plenty of tour operators start in Melbourne, so you don’t have to drive. The company I used was called Around and About, and I really enjoyed it.
- 12 Apostles – This is the area’s most famous section for a reason. The view is truly amazing.
- London Bridge – See a section of rock jutting out into the ocean named for its bridge-like appearance.
- Beaches – You are on the ocean after all. There are countless beaches along the way. Stop for the scenery or a swim.
- Forests – Temperate rainforests in the area are great for a different look at what this region has to offer. Search for waterfalls and get a chance to see koalas.
Uluru (Ayers Rock) – 2 to 3 days
Uluru is located in the remote center of the country. It’s not exactly a quick jaunt from anywhere, but it’s well worth the journey. It will take you longer to get out here, even if you fly, so this is best added to a longer itinerary.
- Walk around – The rock is massive. Walking around its 5.5 mile (9km) perimeter will take you approximately two hours without stopping for pictures.
- Please don’t climb! – Some people still do this, but it goes against the aboriginals’ law and culture, so it is very disrespectful to climb the rock. Also, it’s extremely hot and dangerous.
- Sunset/sunrise – The rock appears to change color during these magical times of day. Don’t miss it!
- Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) – This is another national park nearby that is also worth a visit. From the right spot, you can actually see some of these rocks from Uluru.
Great Barrier Reef – 3 to 4 days
The Great Barrier Reef is another one of Australia’s iconic tourist attractions. If you enjoy scuba diving or snorkeling, this is the place for you. Since the reef stretches from just below the Tropic of Capricorn all the way up to the northern tip of Queensland, there are several good destinations for ocean fun. This is a tropical area, so you can also visit the nearby tropical rainforest.
- Cairns – This is one of the more popular towns for exploring the reef.
- The Whitsunday Islands – These gorgeous islands are closest to the reef itself.
- Lady Elliot Island – Here you’ll find 19 dive sites, including shipwrecks.
- Cape Tribulation and Port Douglas – Great for exploring the reef and the rainforest.
To get in between Melbourne and Sydney, either book a short flight (hour and a half) or you can choose a bus or train option. Going by bus or train will take anywhere from 10 to 14 hours, so be sure to add in an extra day to your itinerary to account for this.
To get to Uluru, the quickest way is to book a flight into the Connelan Airport (AYQ) in the nearby town of Yulara. Direct flights are possible from Sydney (3.5 to 4 hours), but from Melbourne (4 to 6.5 hours) you’ll have to make one stop. Alternatively, fly into Alice Springs which is about a five hour drive away from Ayers Rock.
How you get to the Great Barrier Reef varies greatly depending on which destination you choose. Some, like Cairns, have an airport and it’s about a 2 hour flight. Some locations do not have a local airport, so you will need to rent a car or arrange a transfer from the nearest airport.
If your itinerary involves two major cities, like Sydney and Melbourne, book an open jaw flight to Australia. This way you fly from home to Sydney and then from Melbourne back home. Then you don’t have to backtrack to catch your return flight.
Australia is far away from almost everywhere, so depending on where you’re traveling from, expect the journey to take anywhere from 16 to 40 hours. Follow my jet lag advice in order to minimize down time once you arrive.
Australia is a huge country. There’s no way to see it all on a two week vacation. Choosing a couple of these places will give you a taste of Australia. Don’t try to cram too much into your itinerary though. Travel slowly so you’ll actually enjoy your trip and you won’t get burnt out. Even consider adding more days to what I suggested. If you haven’t traveled much, this is a great way to get your feet wet. The possibilities are endless, and I certainly couldn’t include everything here, but these Australian highlights will get you started.