This packed 15-day itinerary includes the best of Australia's stunning coastline. It takes you from hallmark cities like Melbourne and Sydney to the epic surf of the Gold Coast and up to Queensland for an adventure on the Great Barrier Reef. You'll make time for hikes in the rainforest, watching penguins on parade, day trips to rugged mountains, and an unforgettable road trip down the scenic Great Ocean Road.


  • Learn about First Nations history and tour the Opera House in Sydney
  • Zip along crystal clear waters and dive at the best sites on the Great Barrier Reef
  • Laze on the long sandy beaches of the Gold Coast
  • Visit Melbourne and take a drive down the Great Ocean Road
  • Travel to Philip Island to see the march of the penguins 

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Sydney, First Nations Dreaming Tour Sydney
Day 2 Sydney Opera House, Bondi Beach & Taronga Zoo Tour Sydney
Day 3 Day Trip to the Blue Mountains Sydney
Day 4 Free Day  Sydney
Day 5 Fly to Cairns, Optional Activities Cairns
Day 6 Outer Barrier Reef Cruise Cairns
Day 7 Kuranda Rainforest Tour Cairns
Day 8 Fly to Gold Coast, Optional Activities Gold Coast
Day 9 Free Day Gold Coast
Day 10 Day Trip to Byron Bay Gold Coast
Day 11 Fly to Melbourne, Self-Guided Cultural Tour Melbourne
Day 12 Melbourne Laneways Tour, Afternoon Foodie Discovery Melbourne
Day 13 Great Ocean Road Trip Melbourne
Day 14 Phillip Island Tour & Penguin Parade Melbourne
Day 15 Depart Melbourne  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Sydney, First Nations Dreaming Tour

Welcome to Australia

Welcome to Sydney! Often mistaken as Australia's capital (that would be Canberra), this city feels like the country's central metropolis. This is due to its iconic sights, historic neighborhoods, world-class culinary and nightlife scenes, prime waterfront location, and many pristine beaches (well over 100). Upon arrival at the airport, you'll transfer to your hotel, where you can take some time to relax.

In the afternoon, you'll take part in a 90-minute "walkabout" (tour) focusing on Sydney's Aboriginal history. Accompanied by a First Nations guide, you'll learn about the culture of Sydney's First People and their relationship to this land. It takes place around the Harbour Bridge and the historic waterfront neighborhood of The Rocks. Here, your guide will regale you with the Dreamtime stories central to First Nations creation mythology. It's an enlightening intro to the world's oldest civilization, as Aboriginal culture dates back some 60,000 years. 

Day 2: Sydney Opera House, Bondi Beach & Taronga Zoo Tour

Bondi Beach, Sydney 

After breakfast, you'll take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Sydney Opera House, a multi-venue performance center and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Learn about its storied history and see its inner workings, which allow the venue to present more than 2,000 shows to over 1.5 million audience members each year. Next, visit famous sights Hyde Park, St Mary's Cathedral, and the Parliament House before ending up at Mrs Macquarie's Chair, a rocky outcropping featuring magnificent harbor views.

Continue through the waterfront suburb of Woolloomooloo, the nightlife district of Kings Cross, and upscale Paddington as you make your way to world-famous Bondi Beach. Stop for a mid-morning break and laze on the golden sands, or take a stroll along the coast. Afterward, hop on a ferry to Taronga Zoo. This massive zoo (on 52 acres) is home to over 4,000 animals, including tigers, gorillas, and (of course) koalas. Afterward, you'll have the rest of the afternoon free.

Day 3: Day Trip to the Blue Mountains

The Three Sisters , Blue Mountains
The Three Sisters, in the Blue Mountains

About a two-hour drive inland from the urban jungle of Sydney are the dramatic Blue Mountains, a region known for rugged cliffs, eucalyptus forests, and cascading waterfalls. Lace-up your hiking boots for a full-day, small-group excursion to see the best of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. After transferring here, you'll visit a working farm and meet local wildlife like kangaroos, emus, wombats, and koalas. Then, hike across valleys and sandstone ridges to viewpoints of the towering Three Sisters rock formations.

As you reach Govett's Leap, one of the country's most famous lookouts, marvel at the sweeping vistas across Grose Valley, Australia's answer to the Grand Canyon. Your final stop is 3,280 feet (1,000 m) above sea level at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden. Here, you'll see hundreds of international plant species as well as the exotic critters that call this sanctuary home, including various birds, reptiles, and insects.

Day 4: Free Day 

Visit Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden
Today is yours to discover Sydney on your own schedule and at your own pace. Perhaps start at the waterfront and soak up the lively atmosphere of Darling Harbour. You can also wander around Circular Quay for great views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Maybe take a stroll through the Royal Botanic Garden, home to over 28,000 plants from around the world. Or relax at a waterfront café before doing some shopping in the city center. It's totally up to you. 

Day 5: Fly to Cairns, Optional Activities

The Great Barier Reef, offshore of Cairns
The Great Barrier Reef, offshore of Cairns

In the morning, you'll transfer by private vehicle to the airport and take a 3.5-hour flight north to Cairns, a gem of a city located in the far north of Queensland. When you arrive, a driver will be waiting to take you to the hotel. You're in for a treat, as Cairns is the gateway to some of Australia's most famous natural attractions. Sitting just offshore is the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, one of the world's most popular diving sites. To the north lies another UNESCO treasure, the ancient rainforests of Daintree National Park.

Once here, you'll have the rest of the day to explore on your own. Perhaps travel to nearby coastal villages and palm-fringed beaches like Trinity and Clifton, or opt for a 4WD tour of Daintree and explore the oldest rainforest ecosystem on earth. Continue to other natural wonders like the jade rivers at Mossman Gorge or the stunning Cape Tribulation coastal headland. To see aquatic animals, visit the Cairns Aquarium, home to various species of sharks, rays, sea turtles, eels, and many others.

Day 6: Outer Barrier Reef Cruise

Explore the Great Barrier Reef
Explore the Great Barrier Reef
Plan your trip to Australia
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.

This morning, you'll embark on the Great Barrier Reef experience of a lifetime. Board a high-speed catamaran to zip across the water to a reef at the outer edge of Australia's continental shelf. Then, dive off the boat and snorkel around an underwater world abounding with exotic marine life. Swim next to sea turtles as they glide gracefully through the water and marvel at the 1,500 fish species that inhabit this marine park. These include everything from sergeant majors and parrotfish to moray eels and reef sharks.

Or, stay dry and view this underwater kingdom from the comfort of a semi-submersible craft. The cabin you'll sit in is below deck, 3 feet (1 m) underwater. You can watch fish feeding in colorful coral gardens formed over thousands of years through large windows on all sides. Other optional activities include scuba diving, snorkeling with a marine biologist guide, and helicopter flights over the reef. 

Day 7: Kuranda Rainforest Tour

The Skyrail cablecar 

Today's full-day tour starts when you hop on the Kuranda Scenic Railway, a train that runs from Cairns up into the Eastern Highlands to the town of Kuranda. Enjoy the ride on this historic train, which snakes along hillside tracks built by the early settlers and features breathtaking views of waterfalls, the cane fields of Cairns, and the Barron Gorge as you rise from sea level to 1,072 feet (327 m).

Upon arrival, explore the rainforest village of Kuranda and browse its arts and crafts markets. There are also unique activities here. You can board the WWII-era Army Duck amphibious craft for a jungle tour across land and water. Perhaps hike through the rainforest accompanied by an experienced guide who will point out the diverse flora and fauna. Afterward, visit the Koala and Wildlife Park to cuddle a koala and hand-feed kangaroos and wallabies.

At the end of the Kuranda portion of the tour, return to Cairns via a 90-minute trip on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Snap plenty of photos as you glide over the canopy of one of the world's oldest rainforest ecosystems. Upon arriving back in Cairns, you'll return to your hotel.

Day 8: Fly to Gold Coast, Optional Activities

Welcome to the Gold Coast
This morning, your driver will transfer you from your hotel in Cairns to the airport, where you'll catch a two-hour flight south to the Gold Coast. This buzzing beach mecca is located south of Brisbane on Australia's east coast. It's famed for its long sandy beaches, surfing spots, and elaborate system of canals and waterways. Inland from the Gold Coast, hiking trails criss-cross Lamington National Park's mountain ridges, rainforests, and valleys. Upon arrival at the airport, you'll transfer to your hotel, where you can relax and unwind.

Day 9: Free Day

Spend a day on the Gold Coast

Today, choose from the many great optional activities on the Gold Coast. Perhaps take a surfing lesson at one of the iconic beaches or visit Burleigh Heads and watch locals ride the waves. Then, stop at the famous Burleigh Heads National Park Headlands and hike from the rocky shore into the rainforest. One highlight is the Tumgun Lookout, where ancient volcanic columns converge with the sea. Surrounding the area are forests, grasslands, and mangroves. Keep an eye out for humpback whales in the winter and spring months, and look for sea eagles flying overhead.

Also, consider a visit to Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, a haven for native animals, including some that are endangered, like the lorikeet parrot. Or, for a thrill, head to Q1, a 78-floor skyscraper that rises 1,056 feet (322 m) and is the highest point on the Gold Coast. At the top, you can embark on guided walks along platforms on the exterior of the building. The panoramic views of the Gold Coast on this external building hike are breathtaking. After an active day, you can head out after dark to enjoy the famous Gold Coast nightlife.

Day 10: Day Trip to Byron Bay

A popular activity on Byron Bay
A popular activity on Byron Bay

In the morning, transfer an hour south to Byron Bay, located in the neighboring state of New South Wales. With its stunning natural attractions and welcoming community, Byron Bay is one of the world's most famous coastal towns. You'll be captivated by its gorgeous beaches, hinterland rainforests, spectacular coastal trails, premier scuba sites, and buzzing food scene.

Recommended activities include hiking Cape Byron (an easy 2.3-mi/3.7-km loop), browsing local boutiques, and watching the surfers at Wategos Beach. You'll also want to try one of Byron Bay's eclectic eateries, whose highlights range from plant-based delights at vegetarian restaurants to fresh seafood restaurants to authentic Italian and even organic fare at a working nursery/garden. If you're into spirituality, you should visit Crystal Castle, a rainforest escarpment overlooking Byron Bay that's home to two of the largest crystals on earth.

Day 11: Fly to Melbourne, Self-Guided Tour

Melbourne's riverfront
Melbourne's riverfront 

At the appropriate time, your driver will pick you up from your hotel and drop you off at the airport, where you'll catch a 2.5-hour flight south to Melbourne, the capital of the Australian state of Victoria. You might be surprised to learn that Melbourne has been voted the cultural capital of Australia. This city of over five million people is a paradise for foodies and the gateway to unspoiled national parks and a stunning coastline. Upon arrival at the airport, you'll transfer to your hotel in the city.

When you're ready, head out on a self-guided tour. The most efficient way to travel around Melbourne is on the City Circle, a free tram that runs along the waterfront. Visit highlight attractions like the neo-Gothic St Paul's Cathedral, the neoclassical Parliament House, and the 19th-century Royal Exhibition Building. For great views, head over to the Shrine of Remembrance, a stately war memorial adjacent to the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. This 89-acre (36 ha) botanical garden contains more than 8,500 species of plants from around the world. 

Day 12: Melbourne Laneways Tour, Afternoon Foodie Discovery

Stroll Melbourne's laneways

This morning begins with a guided tour of Melbourne's historic laneways, back streets, and shopping arcades. After passing some famous city sights, you'll arrive at Degraves Street, a popular pedestrian laneway home to a wide array of boutiques, cafés, and restaurants. Browse the heritage Royal Arcade, which dates to 1870 and is the oldest surviving arcade in Australia. Then, stop at Flinders Lane—known for its contemporary art galleries, chic bars, and fine-dining restaurants—before arriving at Hosier Lane, which pops with colorful street art.

In the afternoon, you'll embark on a three-hour guided walk to enjoy Melbourne's eclectic food scene. Throughout this small-group tour, you'll stop at various back-alley restaurants and cafés in the CBD (Central Business District). Marvel at street art and browse funky boutiques as you sample local Aussie favorites (like meat pies and Vegemite), drink Melbourne's famous specialty coffee, and enjoy a lunch of shared dumplings. Afterward, sneak in a sweet treat and finish it off with a drink in a laneway bar the locals love. At the end of the tour, you'll return to your hotel.

Day 13: Great Ocean Road Trip

The Twelve Apostles, on the Great Ocean Road

Wake up early and embark on a full-day road trip along one of the most scenic coastal routes in the world: the Great Ocean Road. This stretch of highway runs 150 miles (240 km) down Victoria's southwest coast, passing national parks, limestone rock formations, seaside bluffs, coastal mountain ranges, and incredible beaches. You'll have ample time to stop and enjoy the highlights throughout the excursion. 

During the drive, keep an eye toward the coast, as you're likely to spot whales and dolphins; on the inland side, you might even see echidnas and bandicoots. Stop for lunch at Apollo Bay, a tranquil seaside town in the rolling coastal hills. You can also stretch your legs on a forest hike through the mountains of the famous Otway Ranges. After visiting the romantic cove at Loch Ard Gorge, cap the adventure at the Twelve Apostles, a group of incredible limestone rock formations rising out of the sea. Afterward, you'll return to Melbourne.

Day 14: Phillip Island Tour & Penguin Parade

See the march of the penguins

This full-day tour takes you to Phillip Island, located 90 minutes south of Melbourne, where you'll witness the evening ritual of the Penguin Parade. On the way there, stop at Moonlit Sanctuary Conservation Park to see endangered wildlife like kangaroos, wallabies, and koalas. Then, continue to Phillip Island, home to the world's largest colony of little penguins (Eudyptula minor). Embark on optional activities like a visit to the Nobbies, a rocky headland that's home to the largest colony of fur seals in Australia.

At dusk, you'll head to a viewing platform to witness the natural phenomena of the Penguin Parade on floodlit Summerland Beach. It's an incredible sight as thousands of little penguins waddle back from the sea to their burrows, greeting their partners and neighbors as they arrive. Afterward, you'll transfer back to Melbourne and return to your hotel.

Day 15: Depart Melbourne

Goodbye, Australia
Unfortunately, today you must say a bittersweet goodbye to Australia. In the morning, your private driver will pick you up from your hotel for the ride to the airport, where you'll catch your flight home.

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Map of The Best of Eastern Australia: Sydney, Cairns, Gold Coast & Melbourne - 15 Days
Map of The Best of Eastern Australia: Sydney, Cairns, Gold Coast & Melbourne - 15 Days
Written by Liz Neal, updated Sep 15, 2022