Opera House, Sydney, Australia

Best Places to Visit When Backpacking the East Coast of Australia

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The east coast of Australia is a backpacking haven. An easy network of travel options, beautiful weather and stunning scenery make it a perfect destination for the first time or experienced traveller.

Like with a lot of other popular routes, there is a standard trail that backpackers tend to go to en masse. The route runs from Sydney up to Cairns or vice versa. The way you do it may depend on where your flight to Australia starts or departs from, or you may choose depending on time of year. Starting in Cairns in September, at the end of the dry season, and finishing in Sydney for Christmas and New Year will ensure a near constant supply of perfect weather.

What doesn’t change though, is the well worn path that backpackers have trodden for years. On my first trip to Australia in 2004, I stayed with a family friend who had done the same route in the early 90’s. I have taken this route recently. And many others will take this route in years to come.

How to travel the East Coast of Australia

This entirely depends on your time and budget.

If you had a lot of money but short on time, you could easily fly between the most popular destinations on this list and hit 4-5 of them in 2 weeks.

A more popular option amongst travellers is using the Greyhound bus on Australia’s east coast that ply the route taking backpackers from town to town with their bags in tow.

Dan, Fraser Island, QLD, Australia
The incredible beaches of the East Coast of Australia

For those with ample time, hiring (or even buying) a car or camper van gives you the ultimate freedom. An east coast Australia road trip will make everyone you know jealous as you slowly drive down one of the most incredible coastlines in the world. See a small town with a nice beach, pull over and check it out for as long as you wish. Free camping is popular on the coast using apps like Wikicamps to find the best spots.

And there are also those that like to leave the planning to other people. In this case a tour of the east coast may be an option. However many tours will see you joining up with others for small portions of it and act as a hop on hop off tour instead of one continuous trip.

Follow the list below to see the highlights on the east coast of Australia from the north to the south.

The Best Places on the East Coast of Australia

Cairns

Welcome to Cairns, the start of an epic journey that will see you cover the edge of a continent.

There are hundreds of other travellers starting their journey here and hundreds more at the end of their trip which gives the town a party vibe. There is always something to celebrate and new people to meet or friends to say goodbye to.

It is also known as the jumping off place to explore the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef extends from here all the way down to Fraser Island, the largest single structure made from a living organism on the planet. However, take a boat from Cairns and head towards the outer reef where the coral is still at its healthiest. Snorkelling and diving are popular to explore the underwater world.

Once you’ve got your feet back on dry land, head back to the Esplanade Lagoon to relax in the afternoon before heading to one of the many bars in the evening.

Shake off your hangover by heading further north along the coast on possibly one of the nicest drives in the world to either Port Douglas, Mossman and the Daintree Rainforest, part of the oldest rainforest in the world.

Dan-diving-great-barrier-reef-QLD-Australia
Safety stop at the Great Barrier Reef

Mission beach

Mission Beach is known as the place to skydive in northern Queensland. One of the highest jumps in the country gives views over the blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef. If you aren’t an adrenaline junkie and would rather keep your feet on the ground, the beach itself is stunning. Unlike most of the beaches in Far North Queensland, it is possible to swim at Mission Beach but always check with locals before taking a dip to avoid stingers and the rare chance of crocs.

Whitsundays/ Airlie Beach

Airlie Beach as a town isn’t the most appealing but it is a great chance to eye up some beautiful boats in the harbour.

use one of these boats as your jumping off point to head to the Whitsunday Islands, some of the most famous islands in the country. Those that can afford it may consider Hamilton Island as a place to stay. But for those travelling on a budget, I highly recommend taking a tour that includes an overnight stay on the boats, gently rocking you to sleep.

No matter how you do it, a hike to Hill Inlet on Whitsunday Island is a must see. The view from the top is incredible!

The swirls of turquoise and white as the sea mixes with some of the purest silica sand you will find will take your breath away. As the tides and natural environment changes everyday, so do the patterns as colours.

As if you’ll need another reason to return.

The changing sands of the Whitsundays

Townsville

Townsville is a large city in the north of Queensland that doesn’t attract too many visitors for tourism. The main draw is Castle Hill, a 283m peak overlooking the city and the islands further out.

The main such island is Magnetic Island. Famous for its topless cars, unspoilt beaches and koala colonies, you could easily spend days here. If hiking is more your thing, attempt some of the trails on the island and learn about the forts that were built and used during WW2.

Ayr

Unless you are looking for some farmwork, Ayr isn’t a usual place for most backpackers. But if you are a fan of scuba diving, you must make this stop on your East Coast adventure.

Just off the coast of Ayr is the SS Yongala, a world famous wreck dive that sunk in 1911 and lay hidden for 50 years. Not just the coral encrusted wreck but you’ll also get the chance to see groper, sharks, eels, rays and turtles on this incredible dive. Yongala Dive have accommodation if you are looking to stay.

Fraser Island (K’gari)

Heading to Fraser Island, or K’Gari to give it its original name, is an absolute must for anyone on an East Coast Australia trip. Taking a trip to the largest sand island in the world will leave you in awe at the beauty and diversity on offer.

There are a couple of options to get to Fraser Island. Self drive in your own 4×4 or go on a tour. You must have a 4×4 to go onto the island! Don’t even think about it in a smaller car or you’ll end up spinning in sand. You can access the island from Hervey Bay or Rainbow Beach in the south. Why not pick the best of both worlds and choose a self drive tour?

Speeding along the sandy beaches on the eastern side of the island, passing the Maheno shipwreck, Eli Creek, Rainbow Gorge and Indian Heads before heading inland to one of the many lakes. Visit Lake Mackenzie, the largest on the island and be mesmerised by the incredible shades of blue. If that isn’t enough, check out the inland sand dunes towering over the surrounding rainforest.

fraser island australia dan
Touring Fraser Island with friends

Sunshine Coast

the sunshine coast is an area encompassing Noosa in the north, through to the Glasshouse mountains in the south. However the main draw here is the town of Noosa heads, an upmarket tourist town known as a popular getaway for Sydneysiders.

Noosa National Park is a stunning area to walk around with sightings of koalas frequent. If being in a relaxed town is too much for you, head down the coast to Coolum, Mudjimba or Maroochydore and soak up the sun and gentle waves of the many miles of pristine beaches.

Brisbane

After 1600km of travelling down Queensland’s east coast, you’ve finally made it to the state capital!

I once heard Brisbane described like this: “Sydney is the businessman in the suit, important and proper. Melbourne is the hipster heading to the coffee shops and having fun. Brisbane is trying to do both but ending up being neither.” And I have to say I haven’t heard a better description yet.

There’s still things to do in the city though. Head to the Roma Street Parklands or the Botanic gardens to enjoy nature. If you haven’t had enough of beaches, the South Bank is the place to be, sitting next to the small man made lagoon. This may also be the first chance you’ll have to enjoy a night out since Cairns. If you’re dying for a drink, Fortitude Valley is the place to head.

Brisbane Sign, Australia

Gold Coast

Once the jewel on the east coast, it now has a reputation of drunkenness and debauchery, especially when it comes to schoolies time of year.

But that doesn’t mean you should miss it out all together. With world class surfing (the main town isn’t called Surfers Paradise for nothing!) it’s time to brush up on those skills you’ve learnt elsewhere. Catch some rays on one of the largest golden sand beaches on the coast. Enjoy being in a city with high rise skyscrapers dominating the unique coastline. , a beautiful golden sand beach.

Want to get some adrenaline pumping, head to one of the many theme parks just inland including Warner Brothers Movie World, Wet’n’Wild Water World, or Sea World.

Byron Bay

This could be one of the most popular towns on the east coast of Australia.

The original town of hippie vibes, dreadlocks and a world famous surf break, Byron Bay is still a backpackers dream. Find vegan cafes and surf shops. Campervans drive in and out constantly. Mansions of wealthy city folk line the coast north and south of the town as they come here to relax on weekends.

Byron Bay is a place to come and experience.

If you are looking for things to do other than the aforementioned surfing, hike out to the Cape Byron lighthouse for sunrise to stand on the most easterly point of continental Australia.

Cape Byron lighthouse
Cape Byron lighthouse

Coffs Harbour

I have a soft spot for Coffs Harbour as it is where I worked for 5 months.

But to stay somewhere 5 months, it has to be good right?

There’s a relaxed feel amongst the large town situated on the coast. The large white beaches make for great surfing and relaxing. Just up the coast at Emerald Beach is a large kangaroo colony, my personal first sightings of kangaroos on the continent.

The Big Banana, is a highlight just north of the town on SH1, is one of many Big Things in Australia. The beach is the stereotype of white sands that you expect in this part of the world. The town has craft markets and food markets on weekends. The shopping centre has coffee shops to enjoy the passing world.

Coffs Harbour is also a great place to base yourself explore around the area. Drop into Sawtell for an even more laid back vibe. Head to Bellingen for a look at a stunning waterfall and a town that was one the hippy trail, or keep going to Dorrigo National Park for to visit one of the oldest rainforests on the planet.

Emerald Beach, NSW, Australia, Dan
Emerald Beach, just north of Coffs Harbour

Sydney

Sydney, the largest city in Australia, needs no introduction.

Ubiquitous with the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, there is nowhere in Australia quite like Sydney. Head to the beaches for a traditional surf at Bondi or Coogee. Look at Manly, a wealthy suburb with one of the best beaches in the country. Explore the Botanic Gardens and Mrs Maquaries Chair for unrivalled views of the harbour, especially at sunset. Visit Kings Cross for nightlife, or more of the CBD for shopping.

If you’re looking for a fitting send off for your travels on the East Coast of Australia, Sydney is the place to do it.

Dan, Opera House, Bridge, Sydney, Australia

Further Options South on the East Coast

Most backpackers stop at Sydney, but there is plenty further south to keep you entertained for weeks on end if time and budget allows it.

Wollongong

Wollongong is a beach town similar to Byron Bay but within a short drive of Sydney. A popular weekend spot for Sydneysiders, the beaches here can be calmer than their northern rival but can get equally busy at peak times. It doesn’t make it any less worth it though.

Canberra

There’s a running joke that the best thing to do in Canberra is to leave. Whilst the capital of Australia doesn’t have the big ticket attractions of other cities, there is a small town vibe in this city. The surrounding ACT has beautiful vineyards, there are museums galore and some might find the parliament building well worth the visit.

Melbourne

Melbourne may just be my favourite city in Australia. There is often debate between what city is better between Sydney and Melbourne, but the Victorian capital wins for me.

A place of culture, with comedy festivals, food festivals and world class sport seemingly on a non stop loop throughout the year. Check out the birth place of Aussie Rules, get some of the best coffee in the world and relax in a southern hemisphere city that has a European vibe.Melbourne Skyline, Australia

Honourable mentions

These places may not be the highlights of most peoples trip along the East Coast of Australia, but if you have ample time and your own transport, it’s worth getting off the beaten track and going to some of these smaller and less visited towns.

Cape Hillsborough

This was one of the most unexpectedly beautiful places I visited on my trip along the East Coast of Australia. I hadn’t heard anything about it, but a small paragraph in my travel guide lead me to Cape Hillsborough and thank god it did. Stunning white sand, mangroves straddling the coast and some incredible views means you must stop here if you can.

Cape Hillsborough, Australia

1770 and Agnes Water

The town of 1770, the place where Captain Cook first set sights on the continent of Australia more than 250 years ago, is a cute town

Rainbow Beach

A jumping off place for Fraser Island, Rainbow Beach got its name from the colourful sand dunes that tower over the town.

Top Tip: If you visit the top end, take a trip to Kakadu & Lichfield National Parks

Dan, Rainbow Beach, QLD, Australia

FAQs on travelling the East Coast of Australia

How much does it cost?

The costs of a trip like this depend on so many factors, its hard to even get an estimate. Break it down into how much you’re likely to spend on accommodation, a hostel bed or a 5 star hotel? Hostels start from $30 and go up from there. Or will you be camping or sleeping in a van. Food can be affordable if bought in bulk from supermarkets such as Coles and Woolworths. Activities vary from free hikes to waterfalls to expensive SCUBA dives and skydives. Are you likely to party every night or abstain for booze for the trip?

A good starting point would be $50-100AUD per day for the ultra budget conscious staying in hostels and travelling slow. At the other end of the scale, it would be easy to spend $250-500AUD if you’re travelling in luxury.

Qantas plane, Sydney, Australia

Where is the best place to SCUBA dive?

After mentioning the Yongala wreck and the Great Barrier Reef, I can’t not mention any more about diving! There are literally hundreds of places on the East Coast to SCUBA dive with various things to see at different times of year. See some of the migrating macro wildlife near Coffs Harbour or enjoy a cooler dive near Sydney. However, in my opinion, the best dive I did was on the outer reaches of the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Cairns

Where is the best place to work?

For those on a working holiday visa, the East Coast provides ample opportunity to bump up your savings by getting a part time job whilst travelling. For those looking to undertake farm work, Coffs Harbour, Ayr, Townsville and Caboolture are popular destinations. The big cities like Cairns, Brisbane and Sydney as well as tourist hot spots like Byron Bay have bars and restaurants crying out for workers especially during busy seasons. Those looking for more of a career minded job may have to stick to one of the major cities.

How long does it take to travel the East Coast of Australia?

How long is a piece of string?

I personally know travellers that have done this in as little as a couple of weeks just hitting the major sights or parts of it whilst others have taken many months. I personally took 2 months to travel between Brisbane and Cairns. To see everything on this list I would recommend at a minimum one month of travel.

Remember, the distances in Australia are huge. Drives of 6 hours are seen as normal. Some night buses take up to 16 hours to reach their destination. Cairns to Sydney is about 2500km, that’s about to same as London to Istanbul! It isn’t a journey that should be rushed!

Whitsundays, Dan, Australia

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