Australia is a country of exciting, sophisticated cities and wild, solitary landscapes. Almost the entire population lives in an urban area along the coast, which means cities thrum with energy and that you’ll often have vast expanses of wild beauty all to yourself. Each of Australia’s major metropolises has its own vibe, but constant through them all are generally laid-back, fun-loving locals who are sure to be enjoying their spectacular surroundings—go surfing or stretch out on Bondi Beach, enjoy the epicurean delights of the Hunter Valley, or hit the trail in the Blue Mountains, all within easy reach of Sydney. Head north to Cairns to explore the ancient Daintree rainforest, the world’s oldest at 110 million years old, and then sail out to snorkel or dive with the technicolor marine life of the Great Barrier Reef. Wander the laneways and arcades of international, artsy Melbourne, or travel to the sun-soaked sandy beaches of Perth in the west. Enjoy fine wines and craft brewing at ubiquitous rooftop bars in the big cities and local island specialties in the tranquil towns of Tasmania and Kangaroo Island. Outside of the cities, wherever you roam, you will find national parks, incredible biodiversity—this is the land of koalas and kangaroos, deserts and rainforests, and 700 species of birds—turquoise waters, sandy beaches, and the solitude to savor it.
Spread spectacularly along the swooping coves of Sydney Harbor, the city’s skyline is dominated by the dynamic sails of the Sydney Opera House and the steel arch of the Harbor Bridge. A vivacious and up-tempo city that knows how to kick back and relax in the summer sun, Sydney is a sophisticated yet casual city packed with exciting restaurants, music venues, and avant-garde art galleries. The most vibrant parts of the city are draped along the waterfront of Darling Harbor and the pedestrian walkways and shopping district around Circular Quay, but it is Sydney’s proximity to nature that truly sets the city apart—national parks and incredible beaches are scattered around the city, and boat rides offer island adventures and views of the harbor’s rugged sandstone cliffs. Stretch out in the sun or ride the waves on the swooping curve of Bondi Beach, hike the trails of Manly to North Point, wander the waterfront paths of the Royal Botanic Gardens right in the heart of the city, or get a glimpse of everything Sydney has to offer with a 360-degree view of the city from Sydney Tower’s Skywalk.
Blue Mountains National Park
Within reach of an easy two hour drive from Sydney, it’s small wonder that the UNESCO-listed Blue Mountains are one of the region’s top attractions. The approach to Blue Mountains National Park passes through scattered brush and grasslands of the foothills, rising to an impressive sandstone plateau where deep valleys cut their way across the rugged terrain. A dense canopy of massive eucalyptus trees covers the landscape, broken up by jutting sandstone cliffs and plunging canyon walls. Hiking trails lace the park and offer endless opportunities to climb to cliff-top panoramas, explore cascading waterfalls, and trek through luxuriant forest and swirling mist. Katoomba is main town of the park and manages to be both upscale and bohemian at the same time; Leura is lined with old buildings and quality restaurants and offers trail networks and incredible views of the Three Sisters rock formation from Sublime Point Lookout; and Wentworth Falls is home to an array of artsy shops, bush-walks, and the 922-foot falls of the same name. Though a day in the park will grant you spectacular views, spend a night or two and you’ll get a deeper sense of this amazing landscape.
The booming capital of Queensland, perched in the middle of the continent’s west coast, Brisbane is a sophisticated but classically down-to-earth Australian city. Sandy beaches, turquoise waves, and lush forests are just as much a part of the city’s identity as its swanky rooftop bars, glittering skyscrapers, and edgy art galleries and museums. Take in the renowned contemporary art collection of the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, or walk the trails of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens on Mt. Coot-tha. Subtropical heat makes a trip to the beach a necessary pleasure on sultry summer days—or you can head out to Moreton Island National Park to dive among coral reefs and sunken wrecks. Head out of the city for cooler climes and visit the region’s picturesque vineyards, and wherever you roam remember to embrace the locals’ low-key pace of life.
A tropical city set on the east coast of the jutting thumb of the Cape York Peninsula in northern Queensland, Cairns is a gateway to the underwater glories of the Great Barrier Reef. Get out on the water on a large vessel or a more intimate sailboat and experience the marine marvels of the reef snorkeling or scuba-diving; or head skyward for an aerial perspective of this natural wonder that stretches 1,200 miles along the coast. Back in town there are an endless array of restaurants and shops for every budget, and though Cairns’ beaches are a short bus or drive to the north, you can cool off in the translucent waters of the man-made Esplanade Lagoon at the heart of the city. Ideally situated between the shimmering waters of the Coral Sea and the UNESCO-listed Wet Tropics Rainforest, protected in a series of 29 national parks—boundless marine life meets the Wet Tropics’ biodiversity showcasing marsupials, birds, and butterflies.
A few hours drive up the coast from Cairns, the Daintree Rainforest provides exceptional access to the Wet Tropics. An ecosystem that has remained largely unchanged for the past 110 million years, you will find an incredible variety of rare flora and fauna. Though rainforest wildlife is often nocturnal or difficult to spot, you can take night tours to see crocodiles or journey out around dawn to see an abundance of vividly-colored birds. Boat trips along crystalline waterways, four-wheel drive tracks with knowledgeable guides, and isolated swimming holes make the Daintree Rainforest a natural playground. The Kuku Yalanji people are the local custodians of the park, which they have inhabited for thousands of years—learn more about their cultural history and the special significance of the region on Dreamtime Walks centered around traditional oral history. Visit the boulder strewn Mossman Gorge and take a dip in the crystal-clear river, or head to the northern section of the park to the isolated beaches and rugged mountains of Cape Tribulation.
A picturesque landscape filled with internationally renowned vineyards, rolling farmland, and a latticework of tree-lined narrow lanes, the Hunter Valley is a pastoral haven only two hours from Sydney. Home to vineyards since the beginning of the 19th century, this region has some of the oldest vine stock in the world. The banner wine of the Hunter Valley is the dry, sweet semillon produced from golden, thin-skinned grapes that finishes with a hint of citrus and honey—but the area is also known for fine shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and verdelho. And true to form, where there is excellent wine, other gourmet industries are quick to follow; the Hunter Valley is full of quality restaurants, craft beer, cheese, olives, and more. Hundreds of vineyards and cellars open their doors for tours and tastings, hot air balloons float across the valley, and open-air concerts make for long relaxing evenings after a day of tastings or a meandering walk through the countryside.
Across the Backstairs Passage from Cape Jervis, to the south of Adelaide, Kangaroo Island is a wilderness wonderland that has a uniquely preserved ecosystem and a delightfully underdeveloped atmosphere. You will find plenty of quality hotels, restaurants, and other outdoor enthusiasts, but the island has held onto its decidedly relaxed pace and rural roots. Almost half of the island is either a designated national park or natural bushland, interrupted only by picturesque farmland and small towns. The entire western coast is protected in Flinders Chase National Park and Ravine des Casoars, which contain a vast network of hiking trails, the 500 million-year-old Remarkable Rocks, and the wave-formed Admiral’s Arch—home to a resident seal colony. Kangaroo Island is one of the best places to find Australian animals in the wild; koalas, kangaroos, Australian sea lions, penguins, echidna, and more than 250 species of birds. Top off your island experience with delicious local fare—fresh seafood, roasted lamb, artisan cheeses, fine wines, and the last remaining pure Ligurian honey.
Sitting on Port Phillip Bay on the southern tip of New South Wales, Melbourne is a cosmopolitan melting-pot that resonates with artistic flair. European-style architecture, narrow cobbled lanes lined with cafes, open-air markets, and international cuisine and culture all blend to give Melbourne an alluring elegance. This bustling city of four million is abuzz with edgy restaurants and nightlife, boutique shops and fashion, and crisscrossed with meandering laneways and arcades lined with street art. Visit the sprawling outdoor Queen Victoria Markets, wander through the Royal Botanic Gardens along the Yarra River, or attend whichever sporting event that’s taking place—cricket, football, tennis, sailing and Grand Prix racing—for a boisterous good time with the local crowd. Check out the immense art collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, and then watch the sunset and spend the evening sipping cocktails at one of the city’s many rooftop bars.
Sitting on Australia’s west coast along the Swan River and the Indian Ocean, 1,700 miles from another major city, Perth is a world apart, but that doesn’t mean they’re missing a single thing. The city is full of riverside paths and gardens, forested parks, incredible beaches, all bathed in the near constant sunshine of a pleasant Mediterranean climate. World-class restaurants, a glamorous downtown, and renovated waterfront areas like the bustling Elizabeth Quay give Perth a cosmopolitan verve, but the relaxed atmosphere of the city means that there is always plenty of time to enjoy the finer things in life. Follow the locals’ cue and catch a wave or swim along miles of sandy beaches, head to the bush for some hiking, or kick back at one of the city’s many trendy bars. Walk underwater in the 320-foot long tunnel of the Aquarium of Western Australia, head out of the city to Swan Valley vineyards, or cycle and snorkel your way around idyllic Rottnest Island.
Sitting across the Bass Strait from Melbourne off of Australia’s south coast, Tasmania is a land of wild beauty. Once home to the notorious British penal colony at Port Arthur—now an open-air museum and a haunting glimpse of one part of the island’s turbulent past—Tasmania’s remoteness has helped it preserve its incredible natural landscape. Nearly one-third of the island is protected in national parks boasting craggy coastline, vast forests, rugged bushland, and myriad mountains. Tasmania’s capital city, Hobart, is home to elegant sandstone colonial architecture, excellent restaurants, and the sophisticated galleries and shops of the refurbished Salamanca Place warehouses. From the green slopes and white-sands of Wineglass Bay on Freycinet Peninsula in the east, to the alpine plateaus, pristine lakes, and ancient rainforests of Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park in the west, there are infinite possibilities to explore. Hike, swim, surf, or kayak and then indulge in the island’s culinary flair—fresh seafood, cheeses, craft beer, whiskey, and wines make Tasmania a land of scintillating local flavors.
In the heart of Australia, nearly 300 miles from Alice Springs, lies the sacred and surreal red-rock landscape of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Gazing upon the 1,141-foot tall, 600 to 700 million year old rock formation Uluru is a ethereally spiritual experience that photographs simply cannot capture. To understand some of Uluru’s magic, join the local Aboriginal Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people, who call themselves the Anangu and co-manage the park, on guided walks through the lands they have called home for tens of thousands of years. Sparse grasses and pockets of trees radiate out from the sandstone monolith and spread across the arid desert—a landscape painted a pastel rainbow of burnt orange, rusted reds, and russet pinks depending on the intensity of the sun. The surface of ‘The Rock’ is stippled with crags and hidden caves, waterholes tucked beneath overhangs, and Aboriginal rock art; if you are among the lucky few to visit when it rains, waterfalls cascade down Uluru’s sides. Beyond the mystical experience of Uluru lies Kata Tjuta, or the Olgas, 36 massive iron-red rock domes surging from the desert—the tallest of these sedimentary formations is 650 feet taller than Uluru. This park is a mystical and profoundly beautiful place, and with bike rides, walking paths, lookout points, and the allure of seeing the sunrise and set on Uluru, plan for more than just one day to truly feel the enchantment.