12 experiences you can only have in Australia
There's nothing like Australia. Yes, it may sound like a slogan — but it's also 100% true, and something we keep hearing from colleagues when they return raving about their trip Down Under.
The gorgeous coastline and idyllic islands, the stark rugged beauty of the Outback and Top End, the delicious cuisine and world-class wines, the rich culture that goes back thousands of years, even the way Australians speak — "g'day," "that's bonza," "put some bevvies in the esky for an arvo with your mates" — it's all incredibly unique, and something you can only experience in Australia.
So whether you have a week or a month to visit Australia, we compiled this list of iconic experiences to get you dreaming about your next Down Under adventure (along with some vacation packages to make that dream a reality). And if you can't do it all on the first trip, then "no worries" (as the Aussies say), you'll just have to return again.
Ring in the New Year before everyone else
Welcome to one of the world's most bucket-listy blowouts: fantastical fireworks launched from the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Sydney Opera House and a flotilla of barges. But it's not just midnight madness — there's an Aboriginal eucalyptus smoke cleansing of the harbor and a parade of illuminated boats as a precursor to the pyrotechnics. And not for nothing, Sydney’s temperature will likely fall between 67 and 79 degrees that day. While it might be too late to make 2023 happen, you can get the jump on a 2024 trip.
Sydney knows how to throw a party. WorldPride 2023 will be a case in point this year (Feb. 17 - March 5) with more than 300 events, including concerts, Mardi Gras celebrations and a dance party at the famously gorgeous Bondi Beach. A few months later (May 26 - June 17), VIVID Sydney is the main attraction, when the city's creative heart beats extra brilliantly with a lineup of light shows, music and provocative ideas. Each VIVID night ushers in a surreal series of large-scale illuminations, laser light shows and 3D-mapped projections, using iconic city attractions (like the Sydney Opera House sails) as canvases.
See Sydney Harbour from all angles
Donning a jumpsuit and safety harness, brave the stairs, tunnels, and catwalks of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (also called "The Coathanger") on the way to the summit, where you'll get the best possible views of Sydney Harbour and the Sydney Opera House that you can get without a private plane. At the top, strike your favorite pose for the photo that will prove your climbing cred (personal cameras aren't allowed).
After going to great heights, now it's time to see Sydney from sea level. As the city of Sydney wraps around a harbor, the best mode of transportation is a boat. Whether a luxury dinner cruise, a sightseeing day tour or the public transportation ferries, you'll find what you're looking for at the Circular Quay. It's hard to miss this bustling dock, located between The Rocks and the Sydney Opera House.
If you're interested in getting a lot of Sydney into a little time, choose a hop-on, hop-off cruise with nine stops on the route. These include Luna Park, Manly Beach and Taronga Zoo, as well as a tour guide pointing out sights along the way. These tours are sold in 24-hour time periods and can be purchased day-of at the dock. Plus, you can add a discounted attraction pass to your cruise ticket for the zoo and aquarium.
Visit the capital of cool
Melbourne has been a regular near the top of the Global Liveability Index for the last decade, and you'll understand why after visiting. Melbourne's café culture, art galleries and hidden laneways are reminiscent of a European city, but with a distinctly Australian style. The capital of Victoria is also Australia's capital of cool.
Take a walking tour of Melbourne's pedestrian-only laneways, where you can stroll, snack, shop and people-watch for hours on end. Start on the main artery of the inner-city laneway district: Flinders Lane, home to top-rated restaurants such as Chin Chin, Supernormal and Cecconi’s, acclaimed exhibition spaces like Anna Schwartz Gallery, Flinders Lane Gallery and Craft Victoria — plus the ultra-hip Adelphi hotel, where the rooftop pool has to be seen to be believed. The tour should also include the enormous, intricate murals that cover the walls of Hosier Lane, and a chance to put the strong U.S. dollar to good use while shopping at the Royal Arcade on Collins Street, the oldest surviving 1800s arcade in Australia.
If you took one of the nonstop flights from the U.S. into Melbourne and need a caffeine fix, you're in the right place. Melbourne is a city obsessed by coffee. A traditional Australian coffee shop serves flat whites (espresso with steamed milk) and long blacks (a double shot of espresso). But the city's café culture is trendier than your corner Starbucks — serving single-origin coffee, cold drip and pour-overs inside converted historic storefronts.
Finish your days by checking out Melbourne's foodie scene. From dumplings in one of the world's oldest Chinatowns to Italian food on Lygon Street, this city is truly a melting pot of cuisine. (Melbourne is home to the largest Greek population outside of Europe, so getting souvlaki in the Greek Precinct a must.) Pair that with innovative Australian chefs like Andrew McConnell (Cumulus Inc.) and Shannon Martinez (Smith + Daughters), and your palates with be pleased.
Catch a game of footy
Much like in the States, football is the most popular sport in Australia. But don't expect helmets, slot receivers and zero blitzes in this version of "footy." Called the Australian Football League (AFL), it's played on an oval-shaped field in front of rabid fans. It looks like a mash-up of soccer, football and rugby with 18 players to a side. You don't have to understand it to enjoy the atmosphere.
The season runs March-September, and if you're visiting Melbourne, you're in luck. Half of the teams in the league are based in the metro area, and several play regularly at the downtown Melbourne Cricket Ground (known locally as "The G"). It's the largest stadium in Australia with over 100,000 seats and was even a site for the 1956 Summer Olympics.
See a sunset with the 12 Apostles
The Great Ocean Road is the iconic 151-mile stretch of coastline that winds through Victoria's charming beach towns, along ocean cliffs and through lush rain forest. The official start is Torquay, the surfing capital of Australia and home to Bell's Beach — yes, the beach from "Point Break."
You can take a day tour along the Great Ocean Road to the famous 12 Apostles sea stacks that rise dramatically out of the crashing waves off the coast of Port Campbell National Park. It's a 3-hour drive from Melbourne, so be sure to leave in the early morning to allow for a scenic lunch stop in Lorne or Apollo Bay while still making it to the 12 Apostles before sunset. These enchanting rock formations are the natural erosion of the limestone coastline, and your eyes aren't fooling you — there are only eight still standing. The best view is from the beach at Gibson Steps, but always check the weather and the tide before going on the beach.
The Great Ocean Road is just one of many iconic Aussie road trips. The 90-mile Great Pacific Drive south from Sydney to the Sapphire Coast will take you past Pebbly Beach, where kangaroos like to lounge on the sand. Whether you choose to drive all 621 miles or just part of the Legendary Pacific Coast Touring Route from Sydney north to Brisbane, you'll have options to stop and try sandboarding at the giant Stockton Beach Dunes in Worimi National Park in Port Stephens, take a photo with the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour, sip award-winning wines in the Hunter Valley and soak up the surf culture in Byron Bay — a bastion of beautiful boards, waves and people.
The Great Barrier Reef Drive is much shorter, at 87 miles long, but just as spectacular. It follows the Queensland coast from Cairns to Cape Tribulation with white sand and stunning seascapes on one side and lush green rain forest on the other. Make time for the World Heritage-listed Daintree National Park, where you can try out River Drift Snorkeling in the Mossman Gorge.
Have a wild time
Let's be honest. You're going to Australia to see kangaroos and koalas. At about seven times the size of Singapore, Kangaroo Island (KI to locals) is a natural wonderland just 10 miles off the coast of South Australia, not far from Adelaide. As for what you’ll see there, well, the name’s a bit of a tipoff. You’ll spot kangaroos, and then more kangaroos. There’s even a subspecies: the sooty — or Kangaroo Island ‘roo — that’s indigenous to the island.
But don’t let the name fool you: You may well also spot koalas, echidnas, black swans, sea lions, fur seals, dolphins, wombats, and various other animals who seem particularly untimid in the absence of any natural predators on the island.
Of course, there's plenty more only-in-Oz wildlife to see Down Under. Check out the world's smallest penguins during the famed parade of the fairy penguins on Phillip Island (near Melbourne). Their nightly homecoming to these shores always draws a crowd at sunset — though you’ll also want to hit the island’s Koala Conservation Centre and gorgeous nature trails.
Visitors to Tasmania in search of those little devils who, for the record, are much cuter than a certain Looney Toons character would have you believe, will also find breathtaking wilderness, with 19 national parks that range from riparian mountain enclaves to lush Fern Gully-esque forests.
In Western Australia, take a ferry ride from Perth to Rottnest Island for a selfie with a quokka, an inquisitive furry marsupial that often looks like it is smiling for the camera. For encounters of a much larger kind, make the journey to the Ningaloo Reef between March and July for a chance to swim with whale sharks, a massive marine memory worth going the extra mile to Australia's northwestern coast.
Of course, it's not just coastal Australia that wildlife flocks to. The Outback is home to emus, wallabies, parrots, bearded dragon lizards, hairy-nosed wombats, pygmy possums and — this being Australia — more kangaroos. Many more, in fact. (Top spots for sightings include Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park and Arkaroola.)
Sip wine with kangaroos
Okay, the roos may not be sipping Shiraz right alongside you, but they may well be hopping through vineyards in the Adelaide Hills or elsewhere in Australia. Of course, you could easily spend all your time Down Under on viticulture: the country is the world's 5th-largest wine producer. The good news: Many of the most prominent wine regions are a short day trip from major cities, so you won't have far to go to try some of the world's best wines.
Australia's oldest wine region is ripe with possibilities, and it's just a three-hour drive from Sydney. Considering the sprawling vineyards of semillon, verdelho, cabernet sauvignon, and shiraz (Australia's version of syrah), plus the hidden tasting rooms, creameries, and farm stands around the area, you'll want to reserve plenty of time for the Hunter Valley.
The Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula wine regions, famous for pinot noirs and chardonnays, are an easy day trip from Melbourne. Many vintners offer complimentary wine tastings and tours. Be sure to visit Victoria's first vineyard, Yering Station, to taste the shiraz viognier and reserve chardonnay. For those with a taste for French-style sparkling wines, Domaine Chandon — owned by the French Champagne house, Moet & Chandon — is a must on the wine trail.
Adelaide sits within a 2-hour drive of more than 200 cellar doors in the charmed wine-growing state of South Australia, where shiraz, riesling, chardonnay, pinot and sauvignon blanc grapes thrive. Start at Kellermeister Wines, home of the 2019 Wine of the Year, their Wild Witch Shiraz. That this mud brick outpost happens to command some of the best views in the fabled Barossa Valley is a beautiful bonus — as is the fresh local produce you’ll get when you do tastings here.
But Barossa isn’t the only South Australian wine region generating a buzz: McLaren Vale — the bucolic birthplace of South Australian viticulture — is home to the d’Arenberg Cube, a Rubik’s Cube-inspired statement on the complexity of winemaking, and one of the world’s Insta-worthiest sipping stops.
For its part, Adelaide Hills — yet another winemaking region — pioneered the famous Australian sparkling reds more than 125 years ago. And that pioneer spirit has continued into the 21st century with some of Australia’s most original winemakers and producers. This region is home to a thicket of freewheeling wineries run by natural and experimental vintners.
If you can’t do the complete cellar circuit, make sure to visit to the National Wine Centre of Australia (part of the University of Adelaide), where sample-sized pours from dozens of top labels are available, with award winners handily arranged in one section.
Send a postcard from some of the best postmarks in the world
Once you begin planning your Australian adventure, it's a good bet you'll come upon a place where the name alone makes you curious to visit. It could be Surfer's Paradise, a mile-long stretch of golden sand and rolling surf on the Gold Coast that comes by its moniker honestly. Maybe you'll want to send a postcard from Woolloomooloo, a chic Sydney suburb that's been reinvented from a run-down wharf.
You'll have a lot of stories to share if you visit Coober Pedy in the Outback, where houses, churches, cafes and even hotels are carved into the earth to get out of the summer heat. Or you could invite vacation envy when you share your photos from Daydream Island set amid the alluring azure waters of the Whitsunday Islands.
See what's beneath the surface
Below those azure waters is the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef system and home to an awesome array of marine life. Covering 1,400 miles down the coast of Queensland, this reef system is visible from space. But you can get a much closer view by booking a day trip out of Cairns or Port Douglas, two coastal cities perched between the Reef and tropical rain forest.
Which tour to take will depend on what you want your experience to be — and how experienced you are underwater. Most day-trip boats cater to first-time snorkelers or divers and will include all equipment — just bring a suit, towel, reef-safe sunscreen and a camera. More experienced scuba divers may choose for a liveaboard cruise that spends a few days on the Reef as you seek out Australia's Great Eight. Remember to "look, not touch" to ensure a sustainable Reef experience that keeps this natural wonder healthy for years to come.
Experience the world's oldest culture
No Australian story is complete without hearing from the continent's first storytellers, seeing the rock art from the first artists and trying food from the first chefs. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have knowledge passed down through 60,000 years -- giving them a unique perspective that will broaden your view.
Aboriginal experiences are available throughout the country — taking a walkabout in the Daintree Rainforest, snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef with indigenous sea rangers, trying new tastes on a bush tucker tour at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney or seeing Sydney Harbour in a new way through the Rocks Aboriginal Dreaming Tour. Many of these experiences are especially family-friendly. The guides will often ask if this is "your mob" (family and friends).
Marvel at a monolith
Uluru rests in the heart of Australia's Red Centre. Believed by the Aboriginal people to have been created at the beginning of time, the sandstone monolith rises out of the landscape to capture both the shifting sunlight and your imagination. The scene is never more dramatic than during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset, when the rock formation appears to glow.
Hear the stories on guided walking tours of Uluru and the giant beehive domes of Kata Tjuta from the local Anangu people, who have lived here for 30,000 years. For an extra touch of the surreal and serene, visit the Field of Light art installation — 50,000 solar-power glass spheres that start to glow and shade-shift as the sun goes down. Then enjoy an unforgettable meal composed of native Australian ingredients during the Sounds of Silence dinner, served amid the desert's red sands. (Pro tip: Plan ahead, each dinner only has 20 seats.)
Enjoy a Sunday session
We know we just listed a whole series of "musts" for your next Australian vacation, but here's arguably the most important one. When in Australia, do as the Aussies do.
That means relaxing and adopting a laid-back "no worries" attitude. Try something new and have a laugh if you don't succeed right away. Never skip the chance for a beach day and a barbecue. Say "g'day" to strangers as you criss-cross the country. Finish your weekends with a Sunday session in the sunshine, hanging out with your mob and newest mates.