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.
Australia is also a land of staggering contrast and spectacular beauty. Along the coast, visitors can explore vibrant multicultural cities, safari across vast sand islands, trek through ancient rainforests, and dive the Great Barrier Reef. In the Outback, rugged national parks and red-earthed deserts offer the ultimate in adventure travel. Top it all off with a laidback feel and friendly people and it’s no wonder Australia scores top billing on bucket lists around the world.
1 Sydney Opera House
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. Danish architect, Jørn Utzon won an international competition for its design, but withdrew from the project after technical and financing problems. Construction was finally completed in 1973 at a cost ten times the original budget. By this time Utzon had left the country never returning to see his magnificent creation.
Today visitors can enjoy a meal at one of the restaurants or take a tour of the building, which encompasses theatres, studios, a concert hall, exhibition rooms, and a cinema. But it’s far more impressive viewed from a distance. One of the best sites to photograph the Opera House is Mrs Macquarie’s Chair in the Royal Botanic Gardens or from aboard a harbor cruise.
2 Great Barrier Reef
3 Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
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 Aṉangu 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.
4 Sydney Harbour Bridge
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.
One of the top things to do in Sydney is a guided ascent to the top of the bridge where visitors can enjoy spectacular views over the harbor and city. For an overview on the bridge’s history and construction visit the museum in the southeastern pier. Interestingly, Paul Hogan, of Crocodile Dundee fame, worked as a painter on the bridge before rocketing to international stardom.
5 Blue Mountains National Park
7 Bondi Beach
8 Daintree National Park
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.
9 Fraser Island
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.
10 Kakadu National Park
11 Great Ocean Road
12 Broome and the Kimberley region
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.