Australia Travel Guide: Everything you need to know before you go
Australia has considerable urban energy and an increasingly excellent foodie scene, but where it excels is the carefree outdoor lifestyle. This is a place for public barbecues by the beach and watching surfers ride the waves.
It is also a country that embraces nature, with extensive reef systems, coastal reserves and an extensive network of forested national parks. Kangaroos hang out at campsites, koalas sleep in trees along walking trails, and dolphins frolic in bays.
Australia also excels in epic. Endless blue skies stretch across crumpled backcountry scenes – and hugely rewarding road trips through seemingly untouched landscapes.
Current travel restrictions and entry requirements
Visitors to Australia require a visa. For the vast majority of people coming from the UK, this will be the eVisitor subclass 651, which is free and can be completed online.
Most of the Covid restrictions have been dropped. There is no need to test or show proof of vaccination prior to entry. However, masks on inbound flights are still mandatory, and you will still need to self-isolate if you test positive for Covid in Australia. Each state’s rules are slightly different. The Department of Health site links to individual state restrictions.
Best time to go
Weather-wise, the best time to visit varies wildly by geography. Aim for May to October in the tropical north, and the reverse in the south. Spring (September to November) is a great place with less rain than fall. Prices and crowds increase in January, the main school holiday period. It can also be extremely hot at this time.
New Year’s Eve in Sydney is popular and truly memorable but violently overpriced for accommodation. Other events you can indulge in include the Melbourne Cup Horse Race (second Tuesday in November), Adelaide Festival (March) and Anzac Day (25 April).
Main cities and regions
Arguably one of the greatest cities in the world, Sydney offers natural beauty around the harbour, a legion of envying beaches along the coast, and hip urban energy in inner suburbs such as Surry Hills and Chippendale. . It truly functions as a beach vacation destination and city break, with paid activities like climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge offset by free days at oceanside rock pools. The Blue Mountains and Hunter Valley wine regions can be reached in a day.
With a focus on culture over looks, Melbourne is packed with galleries, museums and art venues. But the real joy comes from the backstreet culture, where specialty bars and global restaurants crowd into small alleyways, surrounded by world-class street art. The Victorian capital is also the launch pad for the Great Ocean Road, rich in coastal scenery, and penguin watching on Phillip Island.
One of many gateways for snorkelling and diving cruises to the aquatic wonderland of the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns has the advantage of being surrounded by World Heritage-listed rainforest . Reef excursions can be combined with tropical produce tastings on the Atherton Tablelands, Aboriginal-led tours in the Daintree Rainforest and a host of adrenaline-pumping activities.
The red center
The 10km walk around Uluru, with its eerie bulges, caves and indigenous cultural sites, is the quintessential outback experience. What most visitors don’t realize, however, is that there are a host of other experiences on the Red Center menu. Dot-painting workshops, dune-top dinners, helicopter flights, and camel rides are among the options at Uluru — and that’s before you factor in trips to the smoothed rock domes of Kata-Tjuta and the steep hikes along the edge of Kings Canyon Gorge.
Perth and the South West
The South West is a perfect Australia for beginners. Perth offers Indian Ocean beaches, a lively bar and restaurant scene, and cute encounters with curious quokkas on Rottnest Island.
A short drive to the southwest corner of Western Australia’s capital, meanwhile, brings top-notch Margaret River wine tasting, gorgeous surfing beaches, whale-watching cruises to the departure from Dunsborough, high forests and easily explored caves.
Best under-the-radar destinations
On the remote, hinterland-flanked west coast, the Ningaloo is best known for its whale shark swims. Watching the biggest fish in the world swim by is truly exhilarating. At different times of the year it is also possible to swim with humpback whales and manta rays.
But the Ningaloo’s understated glory lies in its proximity to the shore. A short swim from white-sand beaches such as Osprey Bay brings you among rippling coral and schools of colorful fish. At Turquoise Bay you can drift with a snorkel, letting the current take you through the reef from one end of the beach to the other.
The high end
The capital of the severely underrated Northern Territory, Darwin, offers a curious mix of outpost outback attitude, Asian culture and bohemian quirkiness. It is the hub for exploring the majestic National Parks of the Top End. Litchfield National Park is home to giant termite mounds, picture-perfect waterfalls and rock pools. Nitmiluk organizes cruises and kayak tours through the towering sandstone walls of Katherine Gorge. Meanwhile, the largest of them all, Kakadu National Park, offers crocodile-spotting cruises, ancient Aboriginal rock art and epic views across vast, verdant floodplains.
In truth, there is a fabulously indulgent time to be spent in any of the wine regions near Adelaide. The Barossa Valley, Clare Valley and the Adelaide Hills are world class wine tasting and dining destinations.
But the McLaren Vale, as well as being arguably the best place in Australia for those big, beefy Australian Shiraz, has the advantage of being next to the extremely undersold, dune-backed beaches of the Fleurieu Peninsula. Some of them, like the photogenic Sellicks Beach, are so big you can drive a 4×4 vehicle along them.
Then, a short ferry ride from Cape Jervis at the tip of the peninsula is Kangaroo Island dotted with koalas, echidnas and sea lions, one of Australia’s great wildlife havens.
The best things to do
It’s a bold claim, but Australia does wine tasting better than anywhere else in the world. Many winery cellar doors offer free tastings, several have excellent restaurants, and the staff are generally happy to switch from easy sipping session to cheesy note-taking, depending on guest preferences.
Most areas have operators offering full or half-day wine tours, often with visits to cheese factories and chocolate factories. Convenient regions include the Hunter Valley near Sydney, the Barossa Valley near Adelaide, the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne and the Swan Valley near Perth.
Australia’s vast array of aquatic experiences goes far beyond the Great Barrier Reef. Dozens of places offer dolphin-watching cruises, such as Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne or Bunbury near Perth, allowing guests to swim with wild dolphins.
Whale watching is also prominent across the country, with Hervey Bay in Queensland and Eden in New South Wales.
You can also dive with invasive sea dragons in Port Phillip Bay, kayak with dolphins in Byron Bay, NSW, and swim with sea lions in Baird Bay, South Australia.
Indigenous cultural experiences
Aboriginal cultural tours explaining the local Aboriginal perspective on the local landscape, history and wildlife are increasing in number and quality. Tourism Australia has collected 185 top Aboriginal experiences across the country, including guided walks, art workshops and bush food tastings.
The distances between major cities are huge and most travel between them on (relatively cheap) domestic flights.
Autonomous driving is an attractive and stimulating way to discover the country. Distances are longer, but fuel is cheaper than in the UK. Highways are well maintained and traffic reduces stress outside of major cities.
Long-distance train services run by NSW Trainlink and Queensland Rail Travel are cursory, quite slow and miss the most attractive coastal towns. Coach services such as Greyhound tend to have better stops and convenient multi-destination passes, but you should plan around schedules.
How to get there
The fastest : The only direct flight to Australia is Qantas’ service from Heathrow to Perth. It takes 16 hours and 45 minutes.
The cheapest : Otherwise, expect to change planes somewhere. Companies like Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways offer regional departures from outside London, and no airline is reliably the cheapest. It all depends on which airline has a promotional offer at the time. The minimum flight times with a stopover are 19 hours and 20 minutes with Qatar Airways to Perth and 22 hours and 30 minutes with Singapore Airlines to Sydney.
Tip to save money
Australia’s best things – wildlife encounters and beaches – are usually free. Budget chalet accommodation at coastal holiday parks often combines the two. Usually aimed at Australian families traveling by caravan, these parks usually offer a few relatively spacious units, equipped with a kitchen and several bedrooms, sometimes with kangaroos hopping outside.
What weather is it?
Hot summers and rather mild winters in the south, rainy season and dry season in the north.
What time zone is it in?
Time zones vary by state, but range from GMT+8 in Perth to GMT+11 in summer in Sydney.
What currency do I need?
What language is spoken?
How much should I tip?
Tipping is not expected in Australia, but some choose to round up the bill or leave 10%.
Which side of the road should I drive?
Australia drives on the left.
David Whitley runs an Australian travel advice site Australia travel questions