Written by Karen Hastings
Updated Sep 13, 2021
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Australia is a land of dreams. From the sacred legends of the Aboriginal Dreamtime, when the great spirits conjured the coral reefs, rainforests, and 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 contrasts and spectacular beauty. Along the coast, you can explore vibrant cities, vast sand islands, ancient rainforests, and one of the planet's most awe-inspiring natural wonders: 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 laid-back feel and friendly people, and it's no wonder Australia scores top billing on bucket lists around the world. Create your own adventures with our list of the top attractions in Australia.
1. Sydney Opera House, New South Wales
Mention "Sydney, Australia" and most people think of the Opera House. Shaped like huge shells or billowing sails, this famous 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 10 times the original budget. By this time, Utzon had left the country, never returning to see his magnificent creation.
Today, you can enjoy a performance here, dine at one of the restaurants, or see the highlights of the Sydney Opera House on a guided tour. The structure encompasses theaters, studios, a concert hall, exhibition rooms, and a cinema.
Touring the interior of the Sydney Opera House is rewarding, but its striking architecture is perhaps best appreciated from a distance. One of the best sites to photograph this top Sydney tourist attraction is Mrs Macquarie's Chair in the Royal Botanic Gardens, or you can hop aboard a harbor cruise or ferry and capture a photo from the water as you glide past.
Currently, the Sydney Opera House is undergoing a 10-year, $275-million upgrade, but it will continue to operate during the restoration.
2. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Queensland
You can't leave Australia without seeing the Great Barrier Reef. This World Heritage-listed natural wonder is one of the largest living structures on the planet. It's so vast, you can see it from outer space. For divers, snorkelers, island aficionados, and nature lovers, it's a bucket list destination.
In 1975, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was established to protect its fragile ecosystems. These 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 kilometers along the state of Queensland, on Australia's east coast (that's about the distance between Mexico and Vancouver).
Not surprisingly, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the best places to visit in Australia for diving and snorkeling. The astounding array of marine life includes soft and hard corals, more than 1,600 species of tropical fish, sharks, dugongs, dolphins, turtles, rays, and giant clams. Prefer to stay dry? You can see the reef from underwater viewing stations and glass bottom boats.
Travelers have many options for visiting the Great Barrier Reef. You can cruise around the islands, hop aboard a sightseeing flight, take day trips to the islands, or snorkel and dive the reefs. On the mainland, the main launching points for tours are Cairns, Port Douglas, and Airlie Beach.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near the Great Barrier Reef
3. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory
Deep in the heart of 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 Site 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 meters from the surrounding plain. Most of its bulk is 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, sightseers gather to watch the colors of Uluru and Kata Tjuta transform in the shifting light. A great way to appreciate these sacred sites is to join a tour led by Aboriginal guides and rangers.
4. Sydney Harbour Bridge, New South Wales
Along with the Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is one of Australia's top architectural 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.
One of the top things to do in Sydney is a guided ascent to the top of the bridge, where you can enjoy spectacular views over the harbor and city. Rising 134 meters above the harbor, the bridge spans 500 meters, 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, and the direction of each lane can be switched to accommodate traffic flow.
For an overview on the bridge's history and construction visit the museum in the southeastern pier.
Fun fact: Paul Hogan, of Crocodile Dundee fame, worked as a painter on the bridge before rocketing to international stardom.
5. Blue Mountains National Park, New South Wales
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, beautiful Blue Mountains National Park is a hiker's paradise and a popular day trip from Sydney. It lies an easy 81-kilometer drive west of the city.
Named for the blue haze emanating from the many eucalyptus trees, this stunning park protects more than 664,000 acres of wilderness. On a visit here, you can explore dramatic gorges, waterfalls, Aboriginal rock paintings, and 140 kilometers of hiking trails.
The most famous attractions in Blue Mountains National 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; and the Skyway, Scenic Cableway, and Scenic Walkway, which all offer elevated views of the dense forests.
Hiking, abseiling, rock climbing, mountain biking, and horseback riding are all popular things to do in the park.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Blue Mountains National Park
6. Melbourne's Culture, Victoria
Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, is a popular stop on many Australian itineraries - especially for culture vultures. Galleries, theaters, restaurants, shops, and its 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.
The cultural highlights of Melbourne are many. Gape at the masterpieces at the National Gallery of Victoria, watch a performance at Arts Centre Melbourne, or head to Federation Square. Here, you can browse Australian artworks at the Ian Potter Gallery and learn about the nation's screen culture at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI).
Feel like getting back to nature? Follow the Aboriginal Heritage Walk at the Royal Botanic Gardens. And if sports culture is top of your agenda, catch a game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. In summer, cricket is the sport of choice; in winter, it's Australian Rules football.
Melbourne is also rich in history. You can see it in the Grand Victorian buildings funded by the Gold Rush, and you can feel it as you shop in the elegant arcades and the Queen Victoria Market, which has been selling goods to Melburnians for more than a century.
Accommodation: Top-Rated Places to Stay in Melbourne, Australia
7. Bondi Beach, New South Wales
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 Sydney's city center, Bondi Beach is a great spot for a taste of Sydney's beach culture. Bask on the golden sands, surf the breaks, or take a cool dip on a hot summer's day (but stay between the flags).
Few cities in the world lay claim to such an enticing slice of sand and sea so close to the city. No wonder it's one of Sydney's best beaches. And you'll find some history here, too: Bondi hosts one of the oldest surf life saving clubs in the world.
Away from the shore, you'll find plenty of things to do in Bondi. Take a stroll along the Bondi to Bronte coastal walk. It begins at the southern end of the beach and follows the coastline for six scenic kilometers along sandstone cliffs. And if you work up an appetite, you'll find plenty of cafés and restaurants nearby. You can also hunt for bargains at the Sunday markets or swim some laps in the ocean pool.
Bondi also has a wild side. Crowds of tourists and locals gather here to celebrate Christmas, and ring in the New Year. It's a favorite spot for travelers.
A word to the wise: If you're taking a dip at Bondi, make sure you swim between the red and yellow flags. Strong rip tides often sweep unsuspecting swimmers out to sea, especially at the southern end of this kilometer-long strand. There's a reason the Aussies made a reality TV show called Bondi Rescue.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Bondi Beach
8. Daintree National Park, Queensland
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, one of the most beautiful places to visit in Australia. Here, rainforest meets reef along the white sandy beaches of the Coral Sea. This 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.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Daintree
9. K'Gari (Fraser Island), Queensland
World Heritage-listed K'Gari (Fraser Island) is one of the most unique places to visit in Australia. Sitting between Bundaberg and Brisbane off Australia's east coast, this is the largest sand island in the world. Here, you'll find seemingly endless stretches of sand and sea, turquoise lakes, emerald rainforests, rippling dunes, and fascinating wildlife.
Looking for an adrenaline rush? A 4WD trip along its surf-thrashed shores is one of Australia's top outdoor adventures. Along windswept Seventy Five Mile Beach, you 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 is just as exciting. 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 swim the waters, and on land, you can see dingoes, bats, sugar gliders, and more than 300 species of birds.
Nature lovers will find plenty of other things to do on K'Gari Fraser Island. Hop aboard a whale watching trip, take a sunset cruise, hike the rainforest trails at Central Station, float down Eli Creek, or soar over the striking landscapes on a scenic flight.
Access to Fraser Island is by ferry from Rainbow Beach and Hervey Bay, the two main gateway towns. Four-wheel drive vehicles are essential, as the island has no sealed roads.
Accommodation: Where to Stay on Fraser Island
10. Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory
When it comes to wilderness areas, Kakadu National Park showcases the best of Australia. Covering more than 19,840 square kilometers in the Northern Territory, it's the second largest national park in the world. Within its borders, you can explore monsoon rainforests, mangrove swamps, rivers, gorges, ancient rock paintings, wetlands, and waterfalls.
Kakadu is also home to an astounding diversity of wildlife. In addition to the many mammals, reptiles, and fish, more than 300 different species of birds make their home here, and both freshwater and saltwater crocodiles lurk in the wetlands.
To explore the park's diverse ecosystems, hop aboard a cruise along the waterways, or hike the vast network of trails. You can also take a scenic flight.
Visiting Kakadu National Park from Darwin is easy during the dry season. It's about a three-hour drive from the Northern Territory capital. In the wet season (Nov-April), many roads and attractions close due to heavy flooding, but the waterfalls and wetlands can be at their best.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Kakadu National Park
- Read More: Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Australia's Northern Territory
11. Great Ocean Road, Victoria
Great Ocean Road is one of the world's top scenic drives. Built to provide employment during the Depression, the road stretches for 300 kilometers along Australia's rugged southeast coast, winding along plunging sea cliffs. It stretches from the surfing town of Torquay to the town of Allansford, near Warrnambool.
One of the top attractions of Great Ocean Road is Port Campbell National Park. This is where you can see the wind- and wave-sculpted rock formations known as the Twelve Apostles, London Bridge, the Arch, and Loch Ard Gorge. From the air, these rock formations look like giant puzzle pieces adrift along the coast, lashed by the pounding surf of the Southern Ocean.
You'll find plenty of rewarding things to do along Great Ocean Road. Stop by the Australian National Surfing Museum at Torquay, surf the famous swells at Bells Beach, linger in the seaside resort of Lorne, or go whale watching in Warrnambool. Nature lovers will also enjoy exploring the eucalyptus forests, fern-filled rain forests, hiking trails, and waterfalls in Otway National Park.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near the Great Ocean Road
12. Broome, Western Australia
Broome, in Western Australia's north, was once the pearl capital of the world. Today, it's a booming tourist town and the gateway to the spectacular Kimberley region.
Broome's star tourist attraction is Cable Beach. This seemingly endless stretch of white sand and turquoise water is one of Australia's best beaches, and riding camels at sunset is one of the most popular things to do here.
Tourists also flock to Town Beach to witness the Staircase to the Moon. This phenomenon occurs during certain conditions between March and October, where the moonlight creates an optical illusion of steps leading to the moon.
Other Broome highlights include the red cliffs of Gantheaume Point, and the Malcolm Douglas Crocodile Park, where you can get up close to crocs, cassowaries, and kangaroos. If you're looking for things to do in town, you can brush up on some local history at the Broome Historical Museum or catch a movie in a deck chair under a star-studded sky at Sun Pictures.
Pearl farm tours, whale watching trips, and Kimberley adventures are also high on the things to do list in Broome.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Broome
- Read More: Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Western Australia
13. Kangaroo Island, South Australia
Nature takes center stage at Kangaroo Island. On this unspoiled island off South Australia's Fleurieu Peninsula, kangaroos hop along the powdery shores, sea lions and penguins frolic in the crystal-clear waters, and koalas cling to the fragrant eucalyptus trees.
Diving is also excellent. You can spot sea dragons in the temperate waters, and dive shipwrecks off the island's coast.
Kangaroo Island's top attractions are made by Mother Nature. See the striking, wind-sculpted rock formations, known as the Remarkable Rocks and Admirals Arch in Flinders Chase National Park. Explore vast cave systems. Surf towering dunes and look for wildlife on scenic hiking trails along soaring sea cliffs and through pristine forests.
Foodies, too, will be in heaven. Creamy cheeses, Ligurian honey, and fresh seafood grace the plates in local restaurants.
To get here, you can fly direct to the island from Adelaide, or catch a ferry from Cape Jervis on the Fleurieu Peninsula.
In 2020, bushfires devastated Kangaroo Island, but the island is well on the way to recovery, and attractions are once again open for business.
- Read More: Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in South Australia
14. Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park, Tasmania
Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park is one of Tasmania's tourism treasures and a nirvana for nature lovers. Sparkling lakes, serrated dolerite peaks, alpine heathland, and dense forests characterize the raw, glacier-carved wilderness here. One of the park's most distinctive features is 1,616-meter Mount Ossa, the highest point in Tasmania.
As you might expect, hiking here is fantastic. Favorite trails include the Weindorfer Walk, a six-kilometer loop through dense forests, and Lake Dove Walk, with breathtaking vistas of Cradle Mountain (1,545 meters). Stand on the summit of Cradle Mountain, and you can soak up stunning views of the central highlands. Experienced hikers can also tackle the famous 80-kilometer Overland Track, which runs south from Cradle Valley to stunning Lake St. Clair, Australia's deepest lake.
While you're exploring the park, keep an eye out for Tasmanian devils, wombats, wallabies, pademelons, and platypus among the many species of weird and wonderful wildlife.
15. Horizontal Falls & the Kimberley Region
Adventures abound in the Kimberley. Covering Australia's northwest corner, this remote and rugged region of red rocks, gaping gorges, scorched deserts, and cliff-fringed coast is ripe for exploring.
One of the top adventures in the Kimberley is the Horizontal Falls. Powerful tides of up to 11 meters gush through two narrow gorges, creating this jaw-dropping phenomenon. Hop aboard a jet boat and zoom across the sea through the seething falls.
Broome is the gateway. From here, you can soar along scarlet sea cliffs and gaze down upon the 800-plus islands of the Buccaneer Archipelago. Fly farther north to the wild beaches of Cape Leveque, and visit remote pearl farms and Aboriginal communities. Take a 4WD safari along the Gibb River Road, one of Australia's most famous 4WD tracks.
The Kimberley is also home to the spectacular Mitchell Falls and UNESCO-listed Purnululu (Bungle Bungle) National Park. These spectacular beehive-shaped rock formations were only discovered in 1983. Hike the trails, visit sacred Aboriginal ceremonial sites and rock paintings, or soar over the park on a scenic flight and visit the Argyle Diamond mine.