The Ultimate Australia Backpacking Trip | Itinerary + Tips
It's no secret that Australia is one of my favourite places in the entire world. After spending a month over there last year, I fell in love so much that I made it my mission to get back as soon as I could. Fast forward to this January, I got to kick off my year abroad with two and a half months travelling all over the country. From Sydney to Perth to Cairns... I spent the better part of my time visiting friends, drinking cheap Australian wine, scuba diving, and exploring around as much as I possibly could. After so many of your guys' requests, I decided to make a video on my top 10 tips for backpacking across australia.
With thousands of pristine beaches, adorable and unique wildlife, and some of the most impressive natural wonders of the world, it's safe to say that Australia is at the top of a lot of people's bucket list. As somewhere so close to my heart, and somewhere I hope to live someday, I want to be able to share with you the places that made me fall in love with this country so much. Though the stereotypical route that most travellers take to Australia is up and along the east coast, I'm bringing to you guys a bit of a different route (off the beaten track) and sharing what my ultimate backpacking trip itinerary across Australia would look like. As I've only ever had the opportunity to do trips for 4-8 weeks, I've based it around that timeline so you can get the most bang for your buck... so let's get into it! I'm going to warn you guys now, this article is long and as in depth as I could possibly make it. If you're not a fan of reading, look for the short summary blocks in each section, but if you're like me and love as much detail as possible, then happy reading!
Home -> Sydney
With one of the easiest airports to get a direct flight into, Sydney is the perfect place to start your Australian adventures. Being one of the major hubs of Australia, it's bustling with businesses, restaurants, shops and beaches. There's no shortage of places to go and things to see. Take this opportunity to spend a few days getting over your jet lag and explore some of the beaches and food the city has to offer. If you're looking for a student-budget-friendly hostel to stay at, make sure to check in at the YHA in The Rocks. With killer views of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, this hostel is clean, the staff is super friendly, and it's within walking distance from the central CBD, heaps of restaurants, and the Quay. Being so close, make sure you pack your beach gear and do a day trip over to Manly. The ferry ride over is beautiful as it takes you straight through the harbour, giving you some unobstructed views of the bridge and the opera house. With heaps of shops, restaurants and beaches galore - you won't run out of things to do over there! If you're up for it, you can even take some surf lessons or just rent some boards yourself. Once done with your activities for the day, go grab a bite to eat at Chica Bonita, but don't forget to try one of their margaritas. Another day can be spent exploring around the world famous Bondi beach area. If you can catch it on the weekend too, make sure to check out the Farmer Markets and grab yourself some breakfast and roam around the stalls before heading out on your day's adventures. One of my favourite things to do around here is the Bondi to Coogee walk. With gorgeous coastal views, this 1-2 hour walk is a favourite amongst locals and visitors alike. Just make sure to be wearing some good walking shoes (Birkenstocks are my personal favourite), sunscreen, a hat, and bring a water bottle along as well.
Time you should spend: 2-4 days
Best budget stay: YHA The Rocks - Shangri-La views for a fraction of the price.
Must See: Manly Beach, Bondi to Coogee walk
Good Eats: Chica Bonita Manly - Make sure to try one of their margarita's (the Pink Bits Watermelon or Jalapeño & Orange are my personal favourites!)
Sydney -> Perth
Western Australia, in my opinion, is the single-handed most underrated part of Australia. I could write an entire blogpost on things you should see and do around the state, but that's for a different day, so for now I'm going to try and sum it up as best I can. The west coast is home to some of the most pristine white beaches, with sand so finely milled it squeaks when you walk on it and more often then not, you can have them all to your self. Perth is the most isolated city in the world, meaning once you get out of the city, it's a vast land of wilderness and quiet beaches just waiting to be explored.
Whilst the city is isolated, it doesn't stop it from being hip and current. With amazing food, street art, shopping, and more, there's never a shortage of things to do. If traveling over to the west side of the country, I'd try to spend as much time as you can in here. Starting off in the city, I'd make your way through all of Perth's hip neighbourhoods. Popular with the younger crowd of Perth, Fremantle is a bustling, artsy, counter-cultural capital, and the streets are filled with live music, micro-breweries, hipster bars and more (there's a reason Lonely Planet named it one of the Top 10 cities in the world in 2016). If you get there on a weekend, make sure to check out the fresh weekend markets. Outside Fremantle you'll find gorgeous beaches with walking and biking trails. If you're traveling around by bike, take the 30 minute ride up (or 15 minute drive) and go check out Cottesloe beach for a nice swim. Another one of my favourite neighbourhoods of Perth is Leederville, filled with great cafés, restaurants and shops. Leederville, personally, is where I hope to live one day. Start your morning off at Nood Café with one of their delicious smoothie bowls before walking around some of the shops on their main drag. Once you feel like taking a break, stop over at Foam CoffeeBar and enjoy a coffee and some free wifi (I've spent a many of afternoons working here). After exploring around the city, pack up your beach gear take a day trip on the ferry out to Rottnest island. Rent a bike once you get over and bike your way around the island - stopping at the beaches for some swimming along the way, and look out for the adorable Quokkas - you might even be able to get a selfie with one!
After you feel like you've explored the city enough, the best thing to do is get some friends together and take a road trip either south or north of the city (or if you have time, both!). Don't know anyone in Perth and traveling solo? Check out some of the Australia backpackers groups on facebook for other solo travellers wanting to do the same. If renting a car, I highly recommend getting a 4x4, as some of the best sights to see in WA are all down the 4x4 tracks. Once you have your team assembled and vehicle sorted, its all down to where you want to go.
If you're a bit crunched on time, I would head south, giving yourself a week to ten days. Drive along the coast and stop along the way to some of Australia's cutest seaside towns (my personal favourite is Busselton). Go wine tasting through Margaret River before making your way to Augusta and the south coast of the state. Then start your journey along the south coast towards Cape Le Grand and Cape Arid national park. There's tons of amazing beaches and towns along the way (Denmark is my fave) towards Albany. Albany is the biggest "city" you'll find south of Perth/Mandurah, so take it as an opportunity to explore around and maybe even go out to one of the local bars for the night. After that make your way over to Esperance (but make sure to check out Fitzgerald National Park on the way), as it's the last town to stock up on all your gas and food before heading out to your final destination: the National Parks of Cape Le Grand and Cape Arid. Now if it was up to me, I'd go all the way out to Cape Arid first and make your way back. Cape Arid is known as Cape Le Grand, but without all the people. As it's pretty far out from the closest town (Esperance), and really, really, remote, you have to make sure your car is properly equipped with enough water, gas, and supplies to get you out of any sort of situation. The great thing about it being remote though, is that there's never a lot of people. Smaller, western kangaroos roam around freely in the wild and you can have pure white sandy beaches that go for miles all to yourself. Honestly guys, it's one of the most beautiful places in the world I've ever been to. Once you've finished exploring around Cape Arid, make your way back to Cape Le Grand. Make sure to hike Frenchman's Peak, an easy, but major incline track that gives you some wicked views of the park, WA, and the ocean framed beautifully by an archway at the top of the lookout. Once done, spend the night at Lucky Bay's campground before you start your journey back up to Perth. Since you saw the coast on your way down, cut up through the central part of the state after Ravensthorpe and take highway 40 straight up to Perth. The drive from Cape Le Grand to Perth can be done in roughly 8 and a half hours if you do it straight, but if you feel like breaking it up into two chunks, stop at Wave Rock for the night and check out one of the coolest surf breaks in all of Australia (the campsite has wifi too).
Now if you've got even more time to be able to spend in Australia, then I would head north. Personally, I haven't had the opportunity to do this yet, but it's on the top of my list for the next time I go back to WA. The drive from Perth to Broome takes roughly 24 hours to do straight (roughly 2300km - to put this in to perspective for my North American friends, this is even farther then the distance from Vancouver, Canada down to Tijuana, Mexico) but as there are so many dope things to see along the way, this is probably a 2+ week adventure all on it's own. Some of the highlights along the way on my personal bucket list include Nambung National Park, Geraldton and the Abrolhos Islands, Kalbarri National Park, Cape Range, Monkey Mia... The list goes on. Western Australia is home to Australia's second largest coral reef, the Ningaloo coast. The 1.7 million acre fringing reef is home to some of the most beautiful coral and marine life in the world, stretching 240 km wide with shipwrecks galore. If you're a scuba diver like me, or even just like snorkelling, what I'm basically saying is this place is heaven. Although it's most known for the whale sharks, which feed there during March to June, the reef is also home to so much more. During the winter months, the reef is visited by dolphins, dugongs, manta rays, and even humpback whales. The beaches of the reef are also an important breeding ground for loggerhead, green and hawksbill turtles. Unlike the Great Barrier Reef as well, it doesn't see an influx of tourism (yet), due to it's remoteness, so it's one of the most affordable reef experiences you are likely to find anywhere in the world.
Time you should spend: 1-2 weeks (or more even!)
Where you should stay: This pinterest-worthy airbnb in West Perth
Must See: In the city area: Cottesloe Beach, Fremantle, Leederville, Rottnest Island | Greater WA (South): Cape Le Grand + Cape Arid, Fitzgerald National Park, Denmark, Busselton, Margaret River, Albany | Greater WA (North): Broome, Ningaloo, Geraldton, Abrolhos Islands, Monkey Mia
Perth -> Cairns
Now that you've decided that it's time to leave Perth and the wonders of Western Australia, it's time to head back over to the east coast. In terms of flights, I worked out that the cheapest way to go about it was start up North and work your way down - so that's what I did. If you've got some extra time, it might be worth flying into Brisbane and spending the day there before flying up to Cairns, but if not I would just head straight up. Cairns is a tourism mecca, as it's considered the main gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. I'm going to be honest with you guys, scuba diving, or even snorkelling, the Great Barrier Reef is really expensive. Whilst there are more budget-friendly tours, the reality is you're going to have to fork out a fair amount of cash if you want to have have an experience that's worth it, because the more you pay, the nicer the dive sites are going to be (more often then not). The GBR is a UNESCO World Heritage site protected and maintained by the Marine Park, and it's arguably the most famous dive/snorkel destination in the world. Especially after recent years news articles claiming that "The Great Barrier Reef Is Dead" (who remembers that obituary going around?), the reigns on how the tourism industry is allowed to operate are pulled pretty darn tight. The reason I am explaining this is not to scare you off, because I believe it's still a must do whilst here in Oz, but so you know what to expect when you go out on the boats. Every touring company purchases the rights to be allowed to moor their boats to specific moorings all along the reefs, and most companies only have access to a a dozen or so sites (typically dispersed amongst 3 or so different reefs). Deciding what company to go with can be quite overwhelming, as there are so many to choose from, but hopefully I can give you a bit of guidance as to who to go with.
My biggest piece of advice I'd give if you're going out to the reef is do NOT do just a day trip. Seriously, to see any half decent part of the reef, you're going to need to go to the farther out parts of the outer reef, and these are just not accessible on the day boats as they're too far away. You also typically get way shorter of a bottom time, and the entire process of the day is always incredibly rushed and more then likely going to leave you feeling incredibly disappointed with the GBR (especially if you're an experienced diver and you've been to sites with unreal visibility and marine life). If you're on a budget but are still wanting to get the most bang for you buck, I highly recommend heading out with Deep Sea Divers Den, a company that I got to dive with this time around. I ended up going with their 3 Nights, 4 days package with certified dives (as I have my Advanced Open Water Cert.). This gave me 18 dives total, full accommodation and food and the full gear set up. It only set me back $880, which works out to roughly 50$ a dive (this included the reef tax that every company has to charge you, 20$ a day to be allowed onto the reef). For a live aboard on the GRB, this is definitely the best bargain you can get. The boat does transfers from their day boat to the live aboard daily, which is amazing if you're looking for flexibility, as you can stay for as long as you want and extend your trip on a whim. Because of this though, the company is restricted to starting the day off every day on the reefs that are accessible by the day boats so transfers are possible, meaning the reefs aren't the most pristine or colourful as other companies. As a budget friendly option though, this company is amazing, delivering a great service for a super reasonable price. Now, if you're a bit more stable in your finances and capable of splashing a bit more cash, there really is no comparison to what Mike Ball Dive Expeditions offers. Tours for 3 nights start at 1800$+, but their 8 day/7 night tours are really what take the cake. They start at 3700$+, but honestly, you get what you pay for. As these trips are longer, they're able to take you so far out to some of the most remote and gorgeous coral reefs. Mike Ball also has exclusive access to some moorings, meaning they're the only company that can take you to these sites. I have a friend who worked on their boats, and the sites they go to are out of this world beautiful (I'm talking 70+ feet of visibility). They also wine and dine you, providing a luxurious and comfortable journey that you'll remember for the rest of your life.
Once you're done your GBR adventures, don't leave Cairns just yet. Northern Tropical Queensland is a beautiful, lush rainforest just begging to be explored. I highly recommend renting a car for a few days (you can find some really cheap places that rent for 25$ a day sometimes, depending on your age and where your license is from) and drive you way down through the Tablelands and then up to Cape Tribulation. If you ask the front desk at your hostel/hotel, or even the place you rent your car from, they should be able to give you a map and show you all the places you should see, but some of my favourite spots in the Tablelands were Millaa Millaa Falls and Josephine Falls (both great spots for a cheeky swim to relieve you from the hot humid weather). Once you start heading up North towards Cape Tribulation, I would highly recommend using Port Douglas as your home base for the night and have an entire day to be able to explore the Cape. Make sure to stop at the Daintree Ice Cream Company, where they make four fresh ice cream flavours daily from the fruits grown on their orchard (expect some crazy, unique and tasty flavours). You can do all these places with a tour company, as well, but it ends up being a lot cheaper (and more fun IMO) to just rent a car and going around by yourself. I ended up meeting a Kiwi in my hostel before I went who was looking to do the same thing, so we split the costs and ended up going together and had so much fun! So if you're nervous being alone, ask around and you might be able to find a buddy to come with you.
Time you should spend: 7-10 days
Where you should stay: If you like to party: Gilligan's Backpackers | If you like a quieter stay: YHA Cairns Central
Must See: The Great Barrier Reef, Cape Tribulation, Millaa Millaa Falls, Josephine Falls
Good Eats: In Cairns: Pantry15 - some no-bullshit, paleo, tasty, and healthy meals - Make sure to try their bone broth. | Northern Tropical Queensland: Daintree Ice Cream Company - for some unique ice cream flavours made from fruit grown on their orchard.
CAIRNS -> BYRON BAY
After the insanity of running around Cairns and Tropical Northern Queensland, it's the perfect time to head down to Byron Bay to relax and enjoy the laid back surf culture. Personally, Byron Bay is my second favourite place in Australia. Located in the very north of New South Wales, just across the border of QLD/NSW, you'll find one of the most amazing seaside towns with a deep rooted surf culture, hippy spirit and an overall chill vibe. Definitely take this opportunity chill out, catch some surf, and explore everything Byron has to offer. One of my favourite things I did whilst here was take some private surf lessons. Whilst I have surfed a bunch before, I'm not great. Going out with an instructor one on one really helped me with feeling more comfortable in the water. If privates aren't in your budget, there's a ton of schools offering a ton of different surf classes at varying number of days, class length, and class size. Personally, I surfed with Soul Surf School and I honestly couldn't recommend them enough. Depending on how many day's you've got - I would totally do a surf package with a company that allows you to do a few days of lessons (you can find some for 5 days and under $350!).
Once you're done getting your surf on - spend a day and take the 20 minute trip out to Crystal Castle for a beautiful and calming experience. With massive crystals (some of the largest in the world), gorgeous gardens, and the only Kalachakra World Peace Stupa in the southern hemisphere, it's quite a unique place. They offer a ton of guided tours and meditations, making it the ideal place to get your inner peace on. Another must do in Byron Bay is the walking track from the town up to the lighthouse on the cape. As the most easterly point of Australia, it's the very first place to get sun, making it one of the best places in Oz to catch the sunrise. Not an early riser? No worries, sunset is super beautiful here as well. Pack yourself a picnic and make the trek up here - trust me it's worth it.
Time you should spend: 4-7 days
Where you should stay: There are so many amazing AirBNB's in Byron Bay - but this one is my personal fave.
Must See: Watch Sunset at the Lighthouse, Go for a surf at The Wreck, Crystal Castle
Good Eats: Combi - for tasty local food with plenty of GF, Raw and Veg options.
BYRON BAY -> MELBOURNE
Now that you've gotten your fix of nature and surf culture, it's time to head back into some city life. Melbourne has voted one of the most liveable cities in the world on multiple occasions, and it's most definitely deserved. Full of vibrant cafés, restaurants, bars, and a world class sports culture - it's a city that never sleeps (literally, some bars are open 24hrs a day and never close). I could write an entire blogpost on things to do in Melbourne, but I'm going to try and keep and short and sweet and just discuss my favourites.
The big tourist attraction to do here is obviously the Great Ocean Road out to the Twelve Apostles. There are two ways to get there, you can either cut through the mainland along the M1 and A1 to arrive there in roughly 3 hours (depending on traffic), or you can take the scenic route and drive down to Geelong and Torquay then make your way along the Great Ocean Road (which will take you 4 to 5 hours). If you're crunched on time, you can obviously do it as a day trip and take the A1 route, but honestly, it's a pretty boring drive. I don't think the Apostles are worth the three hour drive on their own, and it's the Great Ocean Road from Torquay to the Apostles that really makes the experience worth it. If you can, I would definitely get a crew of friends together and make this an all weekend adventure. Start your journey off by driving down to Geelong and exploring around for a bit (check out one of their local coffee roasters or craft breweries) before settling down for the night in Lorne. Spend the night at one of their awesome AirBNB's , then wake up early the next day to start the journey out. There are tons of cute cafés in Lorne that are perfect for a coffee and breakfast to help get the day started. Once you're all fed and ready to go, start your drive out to the Apostles and don't forget to stop along the way for photos and maybe a cheeky swim (or two). Take your time with the drive, it's worth it.
Now that you've gotten the Apostles out of the way, it's time to actually explore the city of Melbourne. One of my favourite parts of the city is it's beautiful street art. Take a day to roam around the city, walk down the river and then through the CBD to explore some of the amazing art it has on display. Some of my favourite lanes/alleys for art include Literature Ln, Tattersalls Ln, Croft Alley, Strachan Ln, AC/DC Ln, and Hosier Ln - but make sure to google a map of all the street art hotspots if you want to see them all. Walking around will most likely get you hungry, so I highly recommend heading over to Grill'd Burger (an Australian burger chain, a classic) and filling yourself up. Speaking of eating, you could probably spend a week in Melbourne alone visiting all of its amazing food streets/neighbourhoods, as the food culture is one of it's major selling points for the city. Some of my favourite include Victoria St, Brunswick St, Chapel St, Southbank and St. Kilda, but check out The Urban List for more ideas of where to go.
The last thing (in my opinion) that is an absolute must-see in Melbourne is an Australian rules footy game. The AFL was started in Melbourne, and for a long time it was only played in the state of Victoria. Though the game has now spread out across the country, the city is currently still home to over half of the leagues teams (a whole whopping 10/18). Now personally, I am a Fremantle Dockers fan (one of WA's two teams), but I still think Melbourne is the place to watch a live footy. The fanbase in Melbourne is next level, and what team you choose to go for can be the start of a bar fight anywhere across the city. If you want to see some next level fan base rivalries, go see a Collingwood vs Richmond game (or really, Collingwood vs any Melbourne team, they're a hard core fan base.)
Time you should spend: 7-10 days
Where you should stay: AirBNB has tons of amazing options here, so pick a neighbourhood that's close to where you want to be and go from there.
Must See: Great Ocean Road, Melbourne Street Art, St. Kilda, Victoria Night Market
Good Eats: Sauced Pasta Bar, Grill'd Burger
MELBOURNE -> TASMANIA
Last stop on the Australian Tour! Tasmania, along with Western Australia, is one of the most underrated parts of the country. Something you'll notice whilst travelling Oz is that most Aussies like to make fun of people from Tasmania, which I'm pretty sure is just deep-rooted jealousy. Tassie is full of rugged, untouched lands and beautiful forests, much like New Zealand. It is lush, and an adventurers dreamland. I am going to preface this by saying this is the only place on this list I haven't actually been to yet, but it is on the top of my bucket list and in my opinion a must-see in Australia. So for now I'm going to give you guys my dream itinerary, inspired by travel blogger World of Wanderlust.
From the pristine beaches along the coast line of the East Coast, to the rugged Midlands, and the small coastal village feels you get on the Northwest Coast, I feel like the best way to really get to see Tasmania is to road-trip it. With a car, you can take the Spirit of Tasmania from Melbourne directly into Tassie, which is an awesome way to change things up as a means of getting around Australia. If you take the overnight boat, you'll land in the morning and I would drive straight to Launceston. As Tasmania's second largest city, it is filled with amazing architecture, local boutiques and a thriving coffee culture. When here, make sure to check out the Cataract Gorge, and hit up some local wineries (home to some of Australias best wines). After Launceston, start the drive over to Freycinet National Park. Here you'll be able to do some hiking and see the famous Wineglass Bay. Others to check out on my bucket list include Swansea, the Bay of Fires and Bridestowe Lavender Estate. If you've got some cash to splurge, I would definitely consider checking in to Thalia Haven for a night and experience some true off-the-grid paradise. Next, I would head to Port Arthur, home of some of Oz's darker history, like the 1996 massacre and the convict era. After exploring around Port Arthur, it's time to head to Hobart, Tasmania's capital city. If you can time your trip right, try and aim to be here for the famous weekend market for fresh produce and small bits and bobs perfect to bring home as gifts for the family or friends. Home to awesome art galleries (MONA), breweries, Mt. Wellington, and more - definitely stick around for a couple of days to explore. Once done in Hobart I'd head down south to the Southeast coast to check out the Hastings Caves and Tahune Air Walk. Then it's time to head into the wilderness and spend some time in Strahan, a small coastal town surrounded by beautiful Park Reserves and the ocean. Hogarth Falls and the Gordon River Cruises are on the top of my list here to check out. Last but not least, it's time to head to Cradle Mountain, home to some of the best hiking in the world. If you're a true outdoorsy type, you could spend days here just exploring the different trails, but here are some ideas to get you started.
Time you should spend: 2 weeks (you could probably rush it and do it in a week, but where's the fun in that?)
Where you should stay: Once again going to recommend AirBNB as you're road tripping around, but if you can splurge - be sure to spend a night at Thalia Haven on the East Coast.
Must See: Freycinet National Park, MONA, Cradle Mountain
If you've made it all the way to the end of this, you deserve a serious pat on the back! As you can probably tell, Australia is one of my favourite places in the world I've ever gotten the pleasure to travel (I mean, I loved it so much I went twice in the span of a year). Something you'll learn is that there is no right or wrong way to travel around this country, but I hope this has helped you go in the right direction. Feel free to leave any question for me in the comments below, and let me know if you think I've missed anything!