Visiting Australia had been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, I remember dreaming of learning to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef and in 2010 I got to do just that as part of an Australian east coast road trip with a friend from university.
We spent one month travelling from Sydney to Cairns on a hop-on-hop-off bus. Then, back in 2016, I visited Sydney again with Thom and we spent a week exploring some of New South Wales.
Australia’s east coast is popular with backpackers for good reason; it’s full of beautiful beaches and cool cities. If you’re dreaming of a trip to Australia, then check out this Australia east coast road trip itinerary to help you plan your trip.
Australian east coast road trip itinerary
This Australia east coast road trip itinerary goes from Sydney to Cairns with many of the stops I made in 2010.
I’ve also added extra things to do in Sydney and elsewhere that I missed.
A road trip on Australia’s east coast has got to be one of the best road trips in Australia as you’ll tick off so many Australia must-sees!
It’s one of the best options for young travellers too. With budget-friendly hotels and bars, it’s pretty much the ultimate backpacking Australia route.
How to plan your Australian road trip
When I visited Australia for the first time my friend and I did a hop-on-hop-off bus all the way up the coast. This worked great for us as it was a fun way to meet other similar travellers.
When I returned to Australia, Thom and I booked a campervan for one week in New South Wales and I’d definitely do this again if we went back.
Alternatively, you could hire a car and stay in a hotel. There’s more information about road-tripping in Australia below.
If I was to go back to travel eastern Australia again I’d definitely do it in a campervan. I love the freedom you get from travelling this way. It’s great having everything you need on you all the time and not having to make concrete plans to reach a certain hotel every night.
We hired a Jucy campervan for a week and it came with everything we needed including bedding and kitchen supplies.
We ended up camping at a couple of cheap campsites near the Blue Mountains and Hunter Valley. There are plenty of campsites all along the east coast or you can look into camping for free too.
This post has my top tips for finding free campsites, it’s focused on North America, but many of these tips will work for everywhere.
We booked with Oz Experience who went out of business part-way through our trip but seem to be back now. You can use Greyhound buses to get around.
Taking one of these options is like a cheap version of an east coast Australia tour as you’ll likely see the same people over and over again.
The downside to using a bus is you’re limited to only stopping off wherever they stop, but it’s a great option if you don’t want to hire a campervan or car.
Check out Omio to book your bus tickets along the east coast. Alternatively, you can book a hop-on hop-off bus with Greyhound that covers you for 90 days.
Driving around Australia is pretty easy (especially if you’re from the UK and used to driving on the left!). Just remember to keep your tank full so you’re not caught out (like we almost were!).
If you’re more of a hotel person than a campsite person, then renting a car for your road trip on Australia’s east coast is the way to go. You’ll have the freedom of going where you want and when you want, but car rentals tend to cost less than campervan rentals.
Best time to visit the east coast of Australia
I honestly don’t think there’s a bad time to visit Australia. Sure the summer months (North America and Europe’s winter months) are warmer and more reliable in terms of sunshine, but even in the winter, Australia isn’t super cold.
Both times I’ve visited Australia I’ve visited from mid-August to September, so their winter. This meant that in Sydney, we did get some rain and it wasn’t exactly beach weather. However, there were plenty of days on both trips that it was warm enough to be wandering around without a sweater.
Cairns is in the north of Australia and receives more tropical weather than in Sydney. Overall its a lot warmer but they do have distinct wet and dry seasons.
May to September in Cairns sees warm, dry weather and fewer people. During these months you can expect hotels and excursions to be a little cheaper.
November to April (Australian summer) is hot and humid and there is a lot of rain. This can make diving difficult as visibility is worse.
So, if you’re planning to go scuba diving or snorkelling in Cairns that’s something to bear in mind.
For what it’s worth, I was in Cairns in September and it was hot but not too hot and the diving was awesome.
How long does it take to road trip the east coast of Australia?
This really depends on how long you have to spend doing an Australia east coast road trip. My trip from Sydney to Cairns took 3 weeks, with a week spent doing a liveaboard scuba diving trip.
Three weeks gave us plenty of time to ticket off bucket list Australia items like visiting the Whitsundays and Fraser Island, but you could easily spend a lot longer.
Below is a pretty good Australia itinerary for 3 weeks, but ideally I’d recommend at least a month to make your way up the east coast. This way you can enjoy a few days in Sydney, Brisbane and other places like Byron Bay as you travel.
Where to visit on an Australia east coast road trip
Here are my top recommendations of what to do on east coast Australia and where to stop during your road trip. This Australia road trip itinerary packs a lot of fun adventures in!
Flights to Sydney are more affordable than they can be to other cities so I’d recommend starting your trip here.
Sydney is a great city famous for its Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge as well as the beautiful beaches including Bondi Beach.
Check out these palces to visit in Sydney Australia:
- Do the Coogee – Bondi walk
- Getting brunch (the city is famous for it after all)
- Visiting the Opera House
- Walking the Sydney Harbour Bridge and possibly climbing it!
- Get a photo of the Opera House from Mrs Macquarie’s seat as you walk around the parks and gardens
- Catch the ferry to Manly
- Go for a swim at Bondi Icebergs, or at least watch others swim at this iconic outdoor pool
Where to stay in Sydney
Explore more of New South Wales with side-trips from Sydney to the Blue Mountains and Hunter Valley
While many people will stop at Sydney on their east coast road trip and then just continue up the coast, I highly recommend spending more time in New South Wales and heading out of the city towards the west as you road trip around Australia.
The Blue Mountains near Sydney and the Hunter Valley are excellent places to spend a few days. The former is full of beautiful natural scenery and the latter is ideal for food and drink lovers.
I’ve got a full one-week Australia itinerary for New South Wales here.
If you’re not planning on renting a car or campervan in Australia, you can try out these tours to the Hunter Valley and the Blue Mountains from Sydney.
Coffs Harbour is on the ‘banana coast’ and is home to a huuuge statue of a banana just to prove it. You’ll quickly learn that Australia loves making great big statues of things that the area of town is famous for.
Coffs Harbour is popular with backpackers looking to relax and enjoy the sun and surf. It has some great coastal walks to explore and the one that takes you above the harbour is definitely a must-do!
Things to do in Coffs Harbour
- Go Koala spotting in Bongil Bongil National Park
- Try surfing!
- Visit Muttonbird Island
- Enjoy the waterfalls of Dorrigo National Park
Where to stay in Coffs Harbour
Byron Bay is pretty well known across the world as having a hippy, arty vibe and as a surfers’ paradise.
It’s a must-see as you travel east coast Australia and pretty much everyone making the journey from Sydney to Cairns will stop off at Bryon Bay for a while.
With the town’s motto being ‘cheer up, slow down, chill out, it’d be hard not to fall in love with a place like this!
Some of the best things to do in Bryon Bay
- Learn to surf in Byron Bay
- Go hiking in Arakwal National Park and to the Cape Byron lighthouse; the most eastern point in mainland Australia.
- Enjoy happy hour at Byron Bay’s cafes.
- Chase waterfalls in Nightcap National Park
- Go beach hopping
- Explore the craft beer scene in Byron Bay
- Spend the day shopping and explore Byron’s boutiques
- Explore the Byron Bay Hinterland
Where to stay in Byron Bay
Gold Coast and Surfers Paradise
Gold Coast is a city made up of several smaller beach areas and some of the best surfing in Australia. If you’re looking for somewhere to party while on your Australian east coast road trip, then make a stop here.
The area is kinda like a beach resort town in southern Spain or Florida. It’s often full of young backpackers and Australians enjoying a drink and the beaches and the town of Surfer’s Paradise is right at the heart of the action.
Surfers Paradise is full of theme parks including Wet n Wild and Dreamworld, as well as clubs aplenty.
If you want to make a stop in the area but don’t quite fancy the noise and partying in Surfer’s Paradise, then check out Coolangatta.
Known as Coolie to the locals, it’s a much more chilled-out version of Surfers with great waves, food and views.
Things to do near Surfers Paradise:
- Party! That’s what the city is all about. All-day parties and plenty of booze
- Enjoy views of the city from the Sky Point Observation Deck
- Stroll through the beachfront markets on a Wednesday, Friday and Sunday night. One of the best is at Burleigh.
- Visit Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, a wildlife hospital with koalas, birds, tortoises and more
- Go hiking in nearby Tamborine Mountain. Try the high ropes course or just visit the wineries…
- Visit the World-Heritage Listed Lamington National Park and explore the beautiful waterfalls and landscape
Where to stay around the Gold Coast
Brisbane is Queensland’s big city and there are plenty of things to do in Brisbane. It’s your last big city before reaching Cairns and it’s a great place to spend a couple of days.
Brisbane has a great craft beer scene in Westend and nightlife around the Fortitude Valley. When we stopped here we visited a super cool art gallery ina. warehouse and enjoying the artificial beach area in the city centre.
Things to do in Brisbane
- Go shipwreck diving at nearby Moreton Island (this kayak tour looks fun!)
- Browse some of the city’s galleries and museums
- Check out this huge post of more of the best things to do in Brisbane
Where to stay in Brisbane
Noosa is a must-visit on the east coast of Australia. It’s perfect for backpackers, families and anyone in between. The town centre has some great shopping and the beaches are beautiful. The town of Noosa is on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and the highlight is perhaps the opportunity to spot koalas in the wild!
Things to do in Noosa
- Wander through Noosa National Park which is stunning and easy to get to from the town centre
- Sample the bars, cafes and brunch spots in Noosa
- Cruise the Noosa Everglades with their pristine water
- Hike nearby Mt Coolumb
Where to stay in Noosa
Fraser Island should be on everyone’s list of things to do on Australia’s east coast. There are numerous tours you can take where you’ll head out to this road-free island and explore shipwrecks, sand dunes and more.
It tends to draw more of a backpacking crowd, but if you’re over 21 and have experience driving on sand, you can hire your own 4×4 and explore the island in your own time.
Most Fraser Island tours start from Rainbow Beach, and you’ll need to get there the night before it starts. However, you can also get to Fraser Island from Noosa or Hervey too.
Best things to do on Fraser Island
- Take a tour of Fraser Island, if you’re over 21 give driving on the sand a go!
- Keep your eyes open for dingos!
- Explore the Maheno shipwreck
- Enjoy evenings by the campfire on an overnight tour on Fraser Island
- Drive along 75 Mile Beach
- Hike up to Indian Head to spot sharks and stingrays in the water below
The farming town of Bundaberg is best known for its rum, but the soft drinks made at the Bundaberg Distillery are better.
It’s not so much of a complete stop, as a fun place to pass through on your way heading north.
Unlike Bundaberg, 1770/Agnes Water is worth spending at least one night at. This town is known for being one of the first places in Australia where James Cook and his crew landed in 1770 and there are some fun little activities to try.
It’s also a great place to just relax for a few days if you’re feeling a little burnt out from all the fun so far!
In 1770 you can get cheap surf lessons (around $17), and enjoy a tour on a modified chopper motorcycle to spot kangaroos.
Both of these activities we did while visiting 1770. While I wasn’t any good at surfing, I was good at getting dressed up in a leather jacket and spotting kangaroos!
Things to do in Agnes Water/1770
- Take a cheap surf lesson
- Make a trip out to Eurimbula National Park with its beautiful coastline
- Do the Scooteroo tour! (This was one of my favourite things on our east coast Australia itinerary)
- Try Castaways – similar to the show survivor, you’ll be dropped on a deserted island and learn how to fish, build shelters and more for 2-3 days.
Where to stay in Agnes Water/1770
- Sandcastles 1770 Motel & Resort
- Mango Tree Motel
- Backpackers at 1770
- 1770 Lagoons Central Apartment Resort
Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays
It’s not an Australia travel itinerary without seeing the Whitsundays!
Airlie Beach is the gateway to The Whitsundays a collection of 74 tropical islands and a bucket list Australia activity.
The beaches of The Whitsundays have white sand and crystal clear waters full of life.
While it can be expensive, I highly recommend booking an overnight trip to The Whitsundays, ideally a 2-night 3 day Whitsundays sailing trip where you can really experience the beauty of this part of Australia.
The trips usually include all food and snorkelling equipment as well as a guide who’ll take control of the sailing and excursions on land.
Check out this post on visiting the Whitsundays for more information.
- Ocean rafting tour to Whitehaven Beach
- Whitsundays & Whitehaven Beach 6 hour cruise
- 1-hour scenic flight
Townsville and Magnetic Island
Townsville itself doesn’t have a huge amount to offer but it’s the way to access Magnetic Island. Magnetic Island is home to koalas, beaches and hikes and is the perfect place to relax for a couple of days.
Previously, Magnetic Island was home to Australia’s full moon parties (it still was when I was there) and they still happen but only a couple of times a year rather than every month.
Best things to do on Magnetic Island
- Walk along the forts and see if you can spot koalas
- Watch the sunset from the beach
- Party at Base Hostel
- Go snorkelling at Geoffrey Bay
Where to stay on Magnetic Island
The last city stop on your east coast road trip in Australia, the tropical city of Cairns is a great place to spend a week or two.
There are so many things to do in and around Cairns!
Best things to do and see in Cairns
- Relax in the magnificent Cairns Lagoon for free
- Take a road trip to the Daintree Rainforest at Cape Tribulation (more info below!)
- Learn how to scuba dive and take a liveaboard trip on the Great Barrier Reef, or a day trip to the Great Barrier Reef with snorkelling
- Visit Josephine Falls, and spend the day in and out of the cascading pools
- Go bungee jumping at the AJ Hackett bungee jump centre (ideally not on a hangover like I did…)
- Take a whitewater rafting tour
Where to stay in Cairns
- Rydges Esplanade Resort Cairns
- Global Backpackers Cairns
- Gilligan’s Backpacker Hotel & Resort
- Southern Cross Atrium Apartments
Cape Tribulation, Port Douglas and the Daintree Rainforest
This part of Australia is the only place in the world where two UNESCO World Heritage sites meet: the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef.
This isn’t the place to go if you want to swim in the waters as Cape Tribulation is considered to be one of the most dangerous beaches in the world due to the crocodile population and the Box Jellyfish.
However, it’s a beautiful area that’s rugged and wild. You can enjoy rainforest sounds from your bed, chase waterfalls running down from mountains, and swim in natural rock pools. It’s full of fun adventures!
Things to do in Cape Tribulation
- Fly above the rainforest with a zipline adventure
- Hike Mount Sorrow
- Take a river cruise to spot crocs
- Explore the rainforest and the reef
Where to stay in Cape Tribulation
Last Updated on April 19, 2023 by Hannah
Hannah started That Adventurer after graduating back in 2013 and has documented all of her adventures since then. From backpacking South America to city breaks in Europe, a 3 month road trip across the USA in a self-converted van and 6 years living in Canada, you’ll find posts on all of this.
Hannah specialises in active travel and on That Adventurer you’ll find hiking, walking, biking, skiing and all sorts of active travel guides to allow you to see a destination in an adventurous way.