Last Updated on January 25, 2023
When I wrote my ultimate Australia travel bucket list back in the spring of 2015, I did not think that it’d take me another five years to finally make it to Oz. Long-time readers may remember that Australia was part of the original itinerary of the round-the-world trip I set out on in 2010 – and yet, somehow it took me a decade to finally book holidays to Australia.
Now I am more than glad that I finally pulled the trigger on a trip that I often declared “I’d do later, when the time is right”. The time was never “right” because Australia is far, it’s not a cheap country to travel, and I was drawn to other destinations. But seeing how COVID-19 cancelled all my other travel plans for 2020, I am beyond grateful that I got to take this trip, which turned out to be so much better than I expected. (I wrapped up my travels around Australia just as the pandemic started shutting down most of the world – you can see the exact timeline of my travels in my 2020 round-up).
I loved Australia more than I thought I would, because for some reason, I never felt a huge pull toward “the land down under”. So my expectations were modest – I mainly wanted to experience the amazing coffee culture in Melbourne I’d heard so much about, see Melbourne’s street art alleys, take a quokka selfie, and run across Sydney’s Harbor Bridge. I was hoping to make it to Bells Beach, whose image was ingrained in my head ever since watching Point Break in the early 90s (side note: it turns out the scenes at Bells Beach in the movie weren’t even filmed at the actual Bells Beach!), to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef, and to see kangaroos in the wild.
And yes – I ticked all of these things off of my Australia travel wish list, but there was so much more. I could list dozens of highlights of my trip, but I want to share the six Australia travel highlights that were the most memorable for me.
Without further ado:
My Top Six Australia Travel Highlights
6 Street art in Melbourne
The city’s infamous street art scene was one of the reasons why I decided to start my journey around Australia in Melbourne, and not, like most people, in Sydney. I’d heard about the laneways in central Melbourne, most famously Hosier Lane, which are covered in graffiti and street art, but also neighborhoods like Fitzroy and Collingwood which boast mural art, stencils and again, colorful laneways.
The street art scene in Melbourne turned out to be as vibrant as I’d hoped it would be. So many murals! In addition to the above mentioned places, I often stumbled upon art by simply wandering the streets. And when I returned to Melbourne at the end of my trip and wandered the laneways again, I noticed that there were quite a few new pieces, and watched artists working on new murals. I love how the artists have turned these brick walls into ever changing canvasses and keep them interesting by constantly adding new art, often with regard to current events. In January for example, during my first visit, a number of murals depicted topics relating to the devastating wildfires that had were destroying parts of Australia.
On one of my last days in Melbourne, I decided to take a street art tour of Fitzroy and Collingwood, two neighborhoods that are known to have a lot of art, and even though I’d already explored both neighborhoods on my own, with the tour guide, I saw more art than I’d been able to track down by myself. If you’re interested in street art and want to get out of Melbourne’s Central Business District, check out this Fitzroy Street Art Tour.
5 Snorkeling, swimming and beaching in the Whitsunday Islands
Seeing the spectacular underwater world of the Great Barrier Reef, the largest reef in the world, was a big bucket list item for my holidays to Australia. Especially since big parts of the reef are dying due to climate change – I was hoping to visit the Great Barrier Reef while it’s still possible to see marine life and coral there.
After much deliberation, I opted against flying up to Cairns, where most travelers access the reef from, and visit the Whitsunday Islands instead. The archipelago is made up of 74 small islands, most of which are uninhabited, and they are not quite as far north as Cairns. They also have an added bonus: Whitehaven Beach, a beach that you find on almost every single “world’s best beaches” lists ever published. I wanted to swim and snorkel on the world’s most famous reef, and see one of the world’s most famous beaches.
Initially, I’d planned to book a 2 or 3-night sailing trip around the islands, but when I arrived in Airlie Beach, the jumping off point for the Whitsundays, I changed my mind at the last minute – a skilled sales clerk who was selling tours to the islands made me question how much time I really wanted to spend on a boat and in a cramped bunk (my budget wouldn’t have allowed for a luxury cruise) and I ended up in an island resort instead, from where we visited several islands, snorkeling spots, and of course Whitehaven Beach. (A shortened version of the 3-day trip I booked is also available as a day trip from Airlie Beach).
4 Pretty much every single meal I ate!
Yes, the food in Oz gets a dedicated spot on my list of Australia travel highlights. Because during my entire time Down Under, I barely had a meal I didn’t love. Breakfast in particular stood out to me, and I made it a point to never skip breakfast, even though it meant blowing my budget. Breakfasts are always fresh, filling, but they never feel unhealthy. Instead of filling up on a stack of pancakes (like in the U.S.) or bread and cheese (like in most of Europe), I’d find myself gorging on fresh, crunchy vegetables, usually served with eggs and some amazing dressing, sauce or hummus concoction.
I could list almost every single breakfast I had in Australia as a highlight, but here are a few that deserve a special mention – and if you are planning a trip to Australia, I highly recommend saving these spots in your GoogleMaps to visit them when you’re there:
- Sydney: Suzy Q’s (Surry Hills) and Dolce Terra (Manly)
- Melbourne: Industry Beans in Fitzroy, the Grain Store in the CBD, Cartel Coffee Roasters, Proud Mary in Collingwood and Miss Jackson Café in St Kilda. I also enjoyed the food at the night market at the iconic Queen Victoria Market and the food at South Melbourne Market. Both have plenty of food stalls, including foods from all around the world.
- Great Ocean Road: The Pond Café in Torquay
- Brisbane: Morning After and Little Loco
- Byron Bay: Bayleaf Café and Byron Fresh
- Fremantle: Moore & Moore and Ootong & Lincoln
3 The wildlife!
Australia is famous for its varied wildlife, including many endemic species – animals that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. But did you know that Australia is home to more species than any other country in the world? I was hoping to see kangaroos in the wild, swim with tropical fish on the Great Barrier Reef, maybe hug a koala bear, and of course, take a quokka selfie.
What I hoped NOT to encounter were these huge Australian spiders I’ve been hearing about for many years – I am terrified of spiders, and I admit that when I learned about huntsmen spiders as a teenager, I vowed to never travel to Australia. Luckily, I’ve relaxed a little bit since my teenage years, but I still freak out when I see a spider, no matter how big or small it is.
Were my expectations met? Well, I didn’t get to hug a koala bear. One thing I learned on my trip that holding a koala in a sanctuary is only allowed in Queensland, but not in any other state in Australia. After learning more about why you shouldn’t hug a koala, I decided to skip the famous Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane. You can hold koalas there, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. Instead, I got to see koalas at Maru Koala & Animal Park near Melbourne, which is also the place where I had my first kangaroo encounter. Sadly, it wasn’t in the wild, but I was able to feed kangaroos and interact with them inside their enclosures.
A few days later I had my first kangaroo experience in the wild – and it was the exact same experience a friend of mine had, who had told me prior to my trip “The first kangaroo I saw in Australia was a dead one on the side of the road.” Face palm. But then the exact same thing happened to me when I drove the Great Ocean Road: I drove past a giant roo that had been hit by a car.
Luckily, I saw kangaroos in the wild in Western Australia, and I saw wallabies (a smaller version of a roo) on Philip Island near Melbourne. I went to the island for the famous penguin parade, but to be honest, I ended up more excited about the wallaby sightings than I was about the penguin parade.
I also saw tons of bird life, including tropical birds right in the city centers (lorikeets and cockatoos), and white ibis in the city parks in several big cities.
On the Great Barrier Reef, I saw a lot of tropical fish, even though, admittedly, not as many as I thought, but the huge Maori Wrasse and the sea turtles made up for that.
And last but not least, let’s talk about those giant spiders. I did not encounter any of them, and I was not disappointed about it.
2 Every Moment Spent in Sydney
I am going to be honest here: I was convinced that I’d prefer Melbourne to Sydney. That’s why I booked a return flight to and from Melbourne – so that I’d have time there at the beginning of my trip, and then again at the very end, wrapping up my holidays to Australia. Tales of a great coffee culture, an amazing street art scene and cool neighborhoods with lots of character had me convinced that Melbourne was my kind of city.
And while Melbourne delivered on all of the above things, I found myself loving Sydney more – much to my surprise. I discovered that Sydney also has a number of fascinating neighborhoods – and they all felt completely different from each other. Paddington, Darlinghurst, Glebe and Newton, Bronte and Bondi and Manly.. to name just a few. I loved exploring all the different corners of Sydney and to feel like I was in a completely different place every time I entered a new neighborhood. I discovered that Sydney also had awesome street art (not as much as Melbourne, but still!) and I never had a bad cup of coffee in Sydney either. I thought Sydney might be a little too polished for me, but I loved the look and the dynamics of the city, and would have loved to stay there longer. In fact, I’ve already looked at long-term housesits in Sydney because I’d be thrilled to experience Sydney like a local for a while – there’s so much more for me to explore.
The two factors where Sydney definitely tops Melbourne are a) the weather (Melbourne’s weather reminded me of London. Even though I visited in summer, both times it was cold and rained a lot, and I only got one day of splendid summer weather.) and b) the beaches. I visited St Kilda and Brighton Beach near Melbourne, but Sydney’s beaches are so much nicer and there are so many more to choose from. My favorite beaches were the harbor beaches in Manly.
1 Taking quokka selfies in Rottnest Island
As mentioned above (#3), taking a quokka selfie was something I’d had on my Australia travel wish list ever since quokka selfie articles started making the rounds on the internet around 2015. Confession: When I booked my holidays to Australia, I had zero idea where Rottnest Island, where these little creatures live, even was. So imagine my shock surprise when I looked it up on GoogleMaps and discovered that Rottnest Island is one of the most remote places you can possibly think of: a tiny island off the coast of Western Australia, not far from Perth, which is known to be the most remote capital of any state in the entire world (Perth is the capital of the state of Western Australia). In fact, Perth is closer to Bali than it is to Australia’s East Coast! Of course there was no question about going or not going: I had to make my way to Western Australia to find these quokkas.
It was an expensive detour, and you may wonder: was it worth it? For me, it was. Absolutely. My day on Rottnest Island was worth every single penny (the actual trip to the island from Perth cost me AU$100: $50 return for the ferry, $30 for a bike rental, and $20) for snorkeling equipment) and probably the best day I had during my Australia travels. It made #1 on my Australia highlights list after all, and was one of my highlights of 2020.
I was hoping to spot a few quokkas while I was on the island, but I saw so many more than I thought I would – and all of them were so much more “friendly” than I expected! I thought it may take some work to get a quokka selfie, but it turned out that they are selfie pros and love posing for pictures.
And I highly recommend visiting Rottnest Island, even if you’re not fussed about furry little animals. My main reason for visiting the island were the quokkas, and I ended up being completely blown away by the beauty of the island. I saw some of the most beautiful beaches in my entire holidays in Australia there, I swam in crystal clear waters, I had some of the bays nearly to myself.
I also loved cycling around the island (the entire loop is around 15 miles / 25 kilometers). There are no cars allowed, so other than the occasional bus passing you, you share the roads only with other cyclists. I spent the entire day biking around, stopped at gorgeous viewpoints, checked out a couple of lighthouses, said hi to countless quokkas, and snorkeled with colorful fish. My only regret is that I didn’t spent the night – I should’ve done more research beforehand. Because of the remoteness of Rottnest Island I am not sure if I’ll ever be able to return, but should I get the chance, I’d jump on it in a heartbeat, and I’d definitely book an overnight stay.
I still have a lot of Australia to see – a couple of months aren’t enough to explore this vast continent. I didn’t make it anywhere north of Perth (the Pinnacles are still on my list, as are a bunch of beaches in Western Australia), or down to Lucky Bay where you can hang out with kangaroos right on the beach, or to Darwin in the Northern Territory, and, most importantly: the Outback. Having to cut the Outback from my original itinerary due to time constraints was painful, but now I see it as a great excuse to book another holiday to Australia soon to see more of the land Down Under.
Saturday 27th of February 2021
Sorry how did you manage to travel to Australia during the pandemic? You have an Australian passport?
Saturday 27th of February 2021
Hi Greg, I flew back to New York from Melbourne last March just as the world started shutting down :) I should make it more clear in the article, which I wrote right after returning from Australia last year but decided not to post until people can travel again, or at least start planning future trips. I am finally feeling optimistic that we'll be able to travel again soon, so I started posting travel articles again.
Friday 26th of February 2021
Hi Globetrotter. I read your article and was interested what your priorities were when visiting here. I am a South Australian and disappointed that Adelaide/South Australia was not on either the itinerary of the trip you had or your future one. I don't like Sydney very much - it is too big and difficult to get around, but I admit that Melbourne has a very good food and coffee scene. Adelaide does too, and our wines are unparalleled in Australia. And if you go to Cleland Wildlife Park, you can even get up close and personal with a koala.
Saturday 27th of February 2021
Hi Christine, thanks so much for your comment! I was disappointed about every place I had to cut out, there were so many more I'd wanted to see. I initially thought I'd be able to drive back to Melbourne from Western Australia via Adelaide but I simply ran out of time :( I especially wanted to go there for the wine region! I honestly underestimated most of the distances, but I also didn't want to rush through places.. So instead of breezing through a city in 2-3 days and then moving on to the next one, I wanted to spend at least one week in each city I visited, and even with a week of exploring I often feel you only get to scratch the surface of a place. I just marked Cleland Wildlife Park on my GoogleMaps for my next trip to Australia. (P.S. Ideally I would want to spend an entire year traveling around Australia. I am still kicking myself for not doing Travel & Work when I was still able to :( Such a great visa program, and I was jealous of all the younger folks I met who did spent 12 months in Oz thanks to Travel & Work).