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 is no wonder Australia scores top billing on bucket lists around the world.
Melbourne: Australia's second largest city, Melbourne 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. It is also a green city with parks, gardens, and open spaces occupying almost a third of its total area. Highlights include the Royal Botanic Gardens, the National Gallery of Victoria, and the Melbourne Cricket Ground. 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.
Sydney: Sydney offers plenty of historical and contemporary Australian flavor. The marvelous Sydney Opera House looks like a great origami sailboat, floating peacefully in a harbor. Wander the narrow cobblestone streets of The Rocks and then take in a street performance on the Circular Quay before heading into the Museum of Contemporary Art. The views from the Sydney Tower Eye observatory are epic — use this chance to get to know the layout of the city from high above.
The Daintree: World Heritage rainforest, a river, a reef, laid-back villages and the home of its traditional custodians, the Kuku Yalanji people, are all a part of the Daintree. It encompasses the coastal lowland area between the Daintree and Bloomfield Rivers, where the rainforest tumbles right down to the coast. It is a fragile, ancient ecosystem, once threatened by logging but now protected as a national park. Part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, the spectacular region from the Daintree River north to Cape Tribulation features ancient rainforest, sandy beaches and rugged mountains.
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.
Great Barrier Reef: The World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is one of the largest living structures on the planet. In 1975, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was 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. 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. Those who prefer to stay dry can view the reef from underwater viewing stations and glass bottom boats.
Kakadu National Park: Also a vibrant, living acknowledgement of the link between the Aboriginal custodians and the country they have nurtured and respected for thousands of generations, Kakadu National Park encompasses almost 20,000 sq km. It contains a spectacular ecosystem and a mind-blowing concentration of ancient rock art. The landscape is ever-changing — periodically scorched and flooded, apparently desolate or obviously abundant depending on the season. In just a few days you can cruise on billabongs bursting with wildlife, examine 25,000-year-old rock paintings with the help of an indigenous guide, swim in pools at the foot of tumbling waterfalls and hike through ancient sandstone escarpment country.
Blue Mountains National Park: 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.
Royal Botanic Gardens: From the air, Melbourne's Royal Botanical Gardens’ 94-acre spread evokes a giant green lung in the middle of the city. Drawing over 1.5 million visitors annually, the gardens is considered one of the finest examples of Victorian-era landscaping in the world. Visitors will find a global selection of plantings and endemic Australian flora. Mini ecosystems, such as a cacti and succulents area, an herb garden and an indigenous rainforest, are set amid vast lawns. In summer the gardens plays host to Moonlight Cinema and theatre performances.
Sydney 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. 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 is 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.
Sydney Harbor Bridge: Along with the Opera House, the Sydney Harbor 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 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, the direction of which can be switched to accommodate traffic flow.
Queensland Cultural Centre: On South Bank, just over Victoria Bridge from the CBD, the Queensland Cultural Centre is the epicenter of Brisbane’s cultural confluence. Surrounded by subtropical gardens, the sprawling complex of architecturally notable buildings includes the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, the Queensland Museum and Sciencentre, the Queensland Art Gallery, the State Library of Queensland, and the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA).
Salamanca Market: This picturesque row of three- and four-story sandstone warehouses is a classic example of Australian colonial architecture. Dating back to the whaling days of the 1830s, Salamanca was the hub of Hobart’s trade and commerce. Today, it hosts myriad restaurants, cafes, bars and shops, and the unmissable Saturday morning Salamanca Market. Also of interest is the nonprofit Salamanca Arts Centre which occupies seven Salamanca warehouses and is home to 70-plus arts organizations and individuals, including shops, galleries, studios, performing-arts venues and versatile public spaces.