Australia is a land of dreams. From the sacred legends of the aboriginal Dreamtime when the great spirits conjured the coral reefs, rainforests, and scorched, red deserts, to armchair travelers who describe Australia as their dream destination, the Land Down Under deserves all the hype. The world's smallest continent and largest island, Australia is almost the same size as the United States, but with a population the size of New York State and some of the quirkiest wildlife on the planet.
Mention "Sydney, Australia" and most people think of the Opera House. Shaped like huge shells or billowing sails, this breathtaking building on Sydney's Bennelong Point graces the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is one of the world's great architectural icons. The location is stunning. Water surrounds the structure on three sides and the Royal Botanic Gardens border it to the south.
Visible from outer space, the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is one of the largest living structures on the planet. In 1975 the Great Barrier Reef Marine Parkwas established to protect its fragile ecosystems, which include more than 3,000 coral reefs; 600 continental islands, including the beautiful Whitsunday group; 300 coral cays; and inshore mangrove islands. One of the seven wonders of the natural world, the park stretches for 2,300 km along the state of Queensland, on Australia's east coast (that's about the distance between Mexico and Vancouver). Diving and snorkeling are spectacular
Deep in the heart of the Australia's Red Centre, Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock), is one of the most photographed natural wonders in the country. The striking red monolith forms the centerpiece of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, a World Heritage Area jointly managed by Parks Australia and the traditional landowners, the A?angu people. Uluru, meaning "shadowy place" in the local aboriginal dialect, rises to a height of 348 m from the surrounding plain with most of its bulk hidden beneath the earth's surface. Also in the park are the red dome-shaped rocks called Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). As the sun dips in the sky, visitors gather to watch Uluru and Kata Tjuta transform in the shifting light. A great way to appreciate these sacred structures is to join a tour around the sites led by Aboriginal guides and rangers.
Along with the Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is one of Australia's most famous icons. Affectionately called "the Coathanger", this impressive feat of construction is the largest steel arch bridge in the world. It was completed in 1932, 40 years before the Sydney Opera House. Rising 134 m above the harbor, the bridge spans 500 m connecting Sydney's north shore to the central business district. In addition to the pedestrian path, two railway lines extend over the bridge as well as eight lanes for road traffic, the direction of which can be switched to accommodate traffic flow.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, beautiful Blue Mountains National Park lies 81 km west of Sydney and is a popular day trip from the city. Named for the blue haze emanating from the many eucalyptus trees, this stunning park protects more than 664,000 acres of bush land and encompasses dramatic gorges, waterfalls, aboriginal rock paintings, and 140 km of hiking trails. The most famous attractions in the park are the towering sandstone rock formations called the Three Sisters. Other highlights include the Katoomba Scenic Railway, the world's steepest, which whisks passengers down the Jamison Valley through a cliff side tunnel into an ancient rainforest. Hiking, abseiling, rock climbing, mountain biking, and horseback riding are all popular things to do in the park.
Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, is a popular stop on many Australia itineraries. Galleries, theaters, restaurants, shops, and a distinctly European feel are the main draws of this sophisticated city on the Yarra River. It's also a green city with parks, gardens, and open spaces occupying almost a third of its total area. Highlights of the city include the Royal Botanic Gardens, the National Gallery of Victoria, and the Melbourne Cricket Ground where sports fans can watch cricket in the summer and Australian Rules football in the winter. Shoppers flock to the elegant Royal Arcade on Bourke Street, as well as Chapel Street, the Melbourne Central Shopping Center, and the Queen Victoria Market, which has been selling fruits, vegetables, clothes, and crafts for more than a century. To the east, greater Melbourne extends into the beautiful Dandenong Ranges, and in the south to the Mornington Peninsula where many locals escape for seaside getaways.
Bronzed bodies, blond sand, backpackers, and surf - throw it all together and you get one of the world's most famous beaches. Only 15 minutes by car from the city center, Bondi Beach is home to one of the oldest surf life-saving clubs in the world. It's also a great spot for a seaside stroll or picnic. The scenic Bondi to Bronte coastal walk begins at the southern end of the beach and follows the coastline for 6 km along sandstone cliffs. Shops, cafes, and restaurants lie across the street from this famous coastal strip, and the beach is a hotspot on Christmas Day and New Year's Eve. Tourists and locals alike visit the Sunday markets and frolic at the ocean pool and skate park. Strong rip tides often sweep unsuspecting swimmers out to sea, especially at the southern end of this kilometer-long strand, so swimmers should stay between the flags. There's a reason the Aussies made a reality TV show called "Bondi Rescue.
A Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, Daintree National Park in Far North Queensland is among the most ancient ecosystems on earth. The area belongs to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal people, and many of its natural features hold great spiritual significance. The park encompasses two main sections: Mossman Gorge where crystal clear waters gush over granite boulders, and Cape Tribulation where rainforest meets reef along the white sandy beaches of the Coral Sea. The stunning stretch of coast is one of the few places in the world where two of the planet's richest ecosystems converge. The park's astounding biodiversity includes more than 18,000 plant species and a vast array of animal species including the cassowary, crocodile, giant blue Ulysses butterfly, and the secretive Bennett's tree kangaroo. The resort town of Port Douglas, just south of the park, is a great base to arrange wilderness safaris into the park.
World Heritage-listed Fraser Island, between Bundaberg and Brisbane off Australia's east coast, is the largest sand island in the world and one of Australia's most unique four-wheel-drive adventures. Along windswept Seventy Five Mile Beach, visitors can see the rusted hulls of shipwrecks, the colored sandstone cliffs of The Cathedrals, and the bubbling fish-filled rock pools called Champagne Pools.
Venturing inland, highlights include crystal clear freshwater creeks and lakes, some fed by springs, others perched amid towering sand dunes, and ancient rainforests filled with an amazing diversity of plants and animals. Sharks, dolphins, and whales prowl the waters and the island's fauna includes wild horses, dingoes, bats, sugar gliders, and more than 300 species of birds. Access to Fraser Island is by ferry from Rainbow Beach and Hervey Bay. Four-wheel drive vehicles are essential as the island has no sealed roads.
Kakadu National Park, in the Top End or the Northern Territory, is a World Heritage Site and one of the planet's great wilderness areas. Covering more than 19,840 sq km, Kakadu is the largest national park in Australia and the second largest in the world. Within its borders lie monsoon rainforests, mangrove swamps, rivers, gorges, ancient rock paintings, wetlands, and waterfalls as well as an astounding diversity of wildlife. In addition to the many mammals and reptiles, more than 300 different species of birds make their home here, and visitors may spot saltwater crocodiles prowling the wetlands. Visitors can view the park's diverse ecosystems by car, air, on foot via the vast network of hiking trails, or by boat on the rivers or floodplains. During the wet season (Nov-April), many roads and attractions close due to heavy flooding.
Every top tourist destination has a spectacular drive, and for Australia it's the Great Ocean Road. Built to provide employment during the Depression, the road stretches for 300 km along Australia's southeast coast from the surfing town of Torquay to the town of Allansford, near Warrnambool in the state of Victoria. The top attraction along the road is the Port Campbell National Park with the wind and wave-sculpted rock formations known as the Twelve Apostles, London Bridge, the Arch, and Loch Ard Gorge. From a helicopter, these rock formations look like giant puzzle pieces lashed by the pounding surf of the Southern Ocean. Other highlights along the road include the popular holiday resort town of Lorne and Otway National Park, an area of dense eucalyptus forest, fern-filled rainforest, hiking trails, and waterfalls.
Once the pearl capital of the world, Broome is now a booming tourist town in the south of the spectacular Kimberley region. The seemingly endless white sands and turquoise seas of Cable Beach, where tourists ride camels into the sunset, are one of the town's top attractions. Other highlights include the Broome Historical Museum, the Broome Crocodile Park and the Staircase to the Moon, a phenomenon during certain conditions between March and October where moonlight creates an optical illusion of steps leading to the moon. Broome is also a great base for excursions into the Kimberley region where visitors can explore the Horizontal Waterfall, Cape Leveque, Gibb River Road, Purnululu (Bungle Bungle) National Park and the stunning cascades of Mitchell Falls.
Connect to Australia's history, from ancient Aboriginal traditions through to convict and colonial eras. Learn about Sydney's traditional owners and see the colony's beginnings in historic sites stretching from the harbour to Parramatta. Check out Melbourne's grand gold boom architecture and dine, wine and shop in Brisbane's heritage-listed buildings. See Aboriginal and colonial art in Adelaide, near the historic German village of Hahndorf. Trace the Aboriginal lineage of Kings Park in Perth and walk with the ghosts of convicts, whalers and sailors in Hobart. Read Australia's first constitution in Canberra and learn about Darwin's dramatic World War II history.
Follow a heritage trail down Macquarie St to Circular Quay. Browse social history exhibitions in the sandstone fortress of Hyde Park Barracks, visit the Justice and Police Museum and dine harbourside in Victorian-era Customs House. Take a ferry to Fort Denison, the tiny harbour island where petty criminals were once held. Explore the colonial mansions of Elizabeth Bay and Vaucluse Houses or catch a performance in the palatial State Theatre. Visit Old Government House, Australia’s oldest public building, in Parramatta. See Sydney through Aboriginal eyes on a cultural cruise round Sydney Harbour or Cronulla or an Aboriginal tour of the Royal Botanic Gardens or Rocks.
Wander the World Heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Buildings in Carlton, erected in 1880 and the site of the first Commonwealth Parliament. In the city centre, visit the Old Melbourne Gaol, where Australia’s infamous bushranger Ned Kelly was hung, and wander through grand Flinders Street Station. Visit Cooks Cottage – Captain Cook’s carefully reconstructed childhood home – in East Melbourne. Picnic in the gardens of Como Historic House, built in 1847. Pay tribute to the Victorians who died in World War I at the Shrine of Remembrance. Walk the Golden Mile Heritage Trail from Federation Square past the remnants of Victoria’s gold boom. Learn about Victoria’s Aboriginal culture at the Koorie Heritage Trust or on an Aboriginal Heritage Walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens.
Connect to the area’s long Aboriginal history watching local Yuggera dancers perform in the bushland of Kangaroo Point. Explore the landmark, heritage-listed building of Brisbane City Hall, which also houses the City Hall Art Gallery, the Clock Tower, King George Square and Brisbane Administration Centre. Built in the 1920s, the English neo-classical interior includes a sweeping marble staircase, vaulted ceilings, chandeliers and mosaic-tiled floor. Shop in the heritage-listed Brisbane Arcade and visit Old Government House, the original home of Queensland's early Governors. See an orchestra play between the grand Corinthian columns of Customs House and catch a performance in the Treasury Building, built in the style of an Italian palazzo.
See Aboriginal artefacts in the South Australian Museum and Australian colonial art in the Art Gallery of South Australia, both on North Terrace. Take a guided tour through the colonial mansion of Ayers House Museum and wander Carrick Hill, a 1930s home built in the style of a 17th century English manor. Re-enact 1880s military life at Fort Glanville and the life of early state governors in Old Government House in Belair National Park. See churches, cottages and colonial mansions in North Adelaide and historic warehouses, wharves and museums in Port Adelaide, the city’s maritime heart. In the Adelaide Hills, visit the 1830s German village of Hahndorf and English-style village of Mt Torrens.
Explore the state’s geological origins, rich Aboriginal history and European settlement in the Western Australian Museum in Northbridge. Tour the Old Mill, built in 1835 to grind flour, and the Old Perth Boys School, built in 1854 from sandstone that convicts ferried up the Swan River. Visit the Perth Mint, one of the world’s oldest mints, in East Perth. Take an Aboriginal tour through Kings Park, where the mythical Wagyl serpent is said to have entered the ground before emerging at the foot of Mt Eliza to shape the Swan River. Soak up Fremantle’s history at the Roundhouse, the state’s earliest convict jail, as well as the Fremantle Prison and Western Australian Maritime Museum.
Meander past the 1830s warehouses of Salamanca Place, the cobblestone square on Hobart’s waterfront. Stare at early settler art and a pair of preserved Tasmanian Devils in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, which embraces heritage buildings on the Sullivans Cove waterfront. Glimpse the rumoured ghost at the Theatre Royal, Australia’s oldest theatre. In Battery Point, Hobart's oldest suburb, you can climb Kelly's Steps, built by legendary adventurer James Kelly in 1839, and do a ghost tour. You’ll also find elegant old buildings such as Arthur Circus Cottages, St. George's Anglican Church and the Narryna Heritage Museum. Walk across Australia’s oldest bridge and stand in the cell of its oldest jail in nearby Richmond.
Wander down the ceremonial avenue of Anzac Parade and connect to stories of Australian war and peacekeeping at the Australian War Memorial. Visit the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. Stroll the sprawling gardens of Lanyon Homestead and wander Blundells’ Cottage, built in the 1860s and now a hands-on museum. Take a guided tour through the worker’s cottage of Mugga Mugga, or Canberra's first school in the St John’s Schoolhouse Museum. Pore over historical documents at the National Library of Australia or Australia’s first constitution at the nearby National Archives. See ancient Aboriginal rock art in nearby Namadgi National Park and Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve.
Tour Government House and visit the Myilly Point Historical Precinct, where the four cottages are prime examples of the city’s pre-World War II architecture. Learn about Darwin’s rich Aboriginal heritage and relive the tragic 1974 Cyclone Tracy in the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. On Smith St, visit Christchurch Cathedral and heritage-listed Browns Mart, built in 1885. Watch footage of theWorld War II air raids on Darwin at East Point Military Museum and see ammunition bunkers in Charles Darwin National Park. Walk to World War II oil tunnels around the Wharf Precinct and dive the war’s shipwrecks in Darwin Harbour. Connect to the city’s longstanding Aboriginal cultural traditions in the art galleries along Mitchell St.