Australia offers the perfect storm for those who tend towards the fear of missing out (FOMO). It’s a huge country. It’s far away for many of us (that’s also part of its draw). And it fills a bucket list all its own of iconic experiences and destinations: the Outback, Aboriginal culture, cities, beaches, coral reefs, and wineries, just to mention a few.
Overwhelmed by all this, I’d imagined I would need several months or more to grasp the continent. I deferred my visit, resisting invitations for years until the time was right.
Basically, I psyched myself out.
I eventually realized that in saving my grand Australia trip for “someday” when all the stars aligned perfectly, I might end up deferring it forever. (This excuse may sound a familiar put-off for other life projects of broad scope.)
So I took a step back and reconciled that while I might not be able to experience everything Australia had to offer in a shorter visit, I could certainly experience a lot, and do so deeply.
Our recent travels in Australia confirmed it's possible. But where to start?
That’s where this experiential guide comes in.
Although our entire trip to Australia lasted six weeks, we focus here on the experiential highlights from our first two weeks when we were on Explore Australia, a National Geographic Journeys tour with G Adventures. Even in this seemingly limited amount of time, we experienced depth and breadth, moving from the iconic to the uncovered. We dug deep into Australia’s natural history, burrowed beneath the surface of its complex relationship with Aboriginal culture, dove the Great Barrier Reef, sampled the vast expanse of the Outback, and took in Melbourne and Sydney, the country’s two largest cities.
How to use this experiential travel guide to Australia
The following experiences are in chronological order over the course of two weeks, beginning in Sydney and ending in Melbourne. If you suffer from Australia FOMO as I did, I hope this set of select experiences can help satisfy your Down Under travel sweet tooth and assist you in putting together your own Australia trip…even if you don't think you have much time. Trust me, you'll be able to experience more than you think.
24 Experiences: Two Weeks in Australia
Skip Ahead to the Region or City that Interests You Most
- Sydney / New South Wales
- Northern Territory
- Melbourne / Victoria
- Recommended reading for Australia
1. Walk (or Run) the Botanical Gardens, Sydney Harbor and the Sydney Opera House.
Although buildings aren’t often at the top of my experiential list, the Sydney Opera house was. Based on a recommendation from a friend, we took a stroll through the Botanical Gardens to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and then around the harbor walk to land at the Opera House. Check it out from a distance, but also get up close to admire the detail, including the texture of its tiles. This route allows you to appreciate a few of the central Sydney neighborhoods like Kings Cross and Woolloomooloo, and the greenery and contours of downtown Sydney along the way.
Note: If you are a runner, this circuit makes for a worthwhile morning jog, particularly if you suffer from jet lag and need to kick start the day.
Bonus: Rewards thyself afterwards with a heap or two of gelato at Gelato Messina in nearby Darlinghurst (Address: 241 Victoria Road). Hint: pistachio on top, dark chocolate underneath!
2. Bush walk Syndey on the Manly to Spit Bridge hike.
Interested in getting away from the city for some beach and hiking action? Take the public ferry to Manly (bonus: great views of Sydney Harbor and the CBD from the water). Enjoy a look or walk along Manly Beach, then begin your walk of the 10km trail around the east side of Manly Beach to Spit Bridge. This urban walking path and hiking trail is excellent and features a bit of bush walk mixed with wood plank boardwalk, topped with plenty of gorgeous coastal and harbor views along the way.
Bonus: If a secluded cove and beach to yourself is what you’re after then you’ll have your pick of several along the way.
3) Savor the Bondi to Coogee walk and take a dip at Bronte Beach along the way.
For a beautiful, easy walk outside of downtown Sydney that has it all, the Bondi to Coogee walk is it. In a morning (or an afternoon), you can catch the surf (or watch others throwing themselves into the waves) at Bondi Beach, then set off along the coastal walk to Coogee. The path is a blend of natural and urban, quintessential Sydney.
There’s also a protected spot at Bronte Beach that’s perfect for a refreshing mid-hike swim.
4. Walk through the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest in the world.
I was surprised to find out that the oldest living rainforest in the world — at 135 million years old — is in Australia. (To put this into perspective, the Amazon rainforest in Brazil is only 10 million years old). During our walk through the Daintree Rainforest we learned from a local Kuku Yalanji guide how her ancestors lived from and took care of this land for over 4,000 years. This inter-generational sharing of knowledge included information on sustenance-providing plants and animals, as well as those which could poison slowly or kill instantly. Quite literally, these were matters of life and death.
Bonus: Try and find a cassowary. Sadly, this large prehistoric-looking bird with a center toe claw so sharp it can supposedly cut a human in half proved elusive and we found none lurking around the rainforest.
5. Get amongst it…underwater. Dive or snorkel the Great Barrier Reef.
Dan had done a live aboard advanced diving certification at the Great Barrier Reef during his first visit many years ago; I’d dreamed of diving there ever since. When you approach the reef in a boat it’s impossible to fully grasp its size (2,300 km long, thus the largest living organism on earth). Snorkel or scuba dive the reef and a whole other world emerges, one filled with various forms and shapes, brushed with the surreal colors of coral and fish.
Note: If you wish to visit some of the more remote areas of the Great Barrier Reef, begin your trip from Port Douglas rather than from Cairns. We went with Calypso Snorkel and Dive on a boat that was outfitted for both scuba divers and snorkelers. We were impressed by the quality of the boat, its on-board facilities, and the staff who were safety conscious and knowledgeable about marine biology and Australian life in general. We had a fabulous day. Even if you are not dive certified, we still recommend a snorkeling trip as others on our boat reported, unsurprisingly, that visibility and diversity of marine life were incredible.
6. Learn about Australia’s most venomous animals at James Cooke University research aquarium.
Although it’s kind of funny when friends send you articles before your trip noting all the deadly creatures in Australia, it’s also a bit disconcerting. Just about every creature — snake, spider, jellyfish, snail (yes, even snails are dangerous!!) – that crosses your path could be poisonous and kill you. For a humorous take on this, listen to this tune.
That is where spending the afternoon with Dr. Jamie Seymour, a world-renowned toxinologist, helped put things into perspective. He taught us firsthand about the mechanics, physiology and biochemistry behind how Australia’s deadly animals create and release venom. In a 45-minute presentation, he planted enough seeds of fascination that our planned one-hour visit lasted over three hours.
As in life, once you begin to understand how these creatures work, you may find some of your fear displaced by respect.
Note: This is not an experience that is open to the general public. You can access it by taking the same tour we did — Explore Australia, a National Geographic Journeys tour with G Adventures. Alternatively, you can check out Professor Jamie Seymour’s entertaining and educational YouTube channel.
7. Engage in an open discussion about Aboriginal history and culture at Cafe Chloe.
Aboriginal history and culture is a crucial component to comprehending Australia’s history and present day. A new G Adventures for Good / Planeterra Foundation cooperation in the town of Tully, called Cafe Chloe, provides an opportunity for an open and honest discussion about Aboriginal culture, history and socioeconomic challenges.
This isn’t a traditional “Aboriginal cultural experience” whereby an Aboriginal man dresses up, puts on some body paint and demonstrates how to throw a spear or boomerang. Instead, you’ll find yourself sitting around the table with a Jirrbal elder and other community members to learn about and discuss the diversity and reality of Aboriginal communities on the Australian continent since the arrival of Europeans in the 1700s.
From history we moved into learning about Aboriginal culture and the importance of story to pass on wisdom and lessons from one generation to the next. We took our hand at Aboriginal-style painting, inspired by a Jirrbal creation story.
This background helps one understand the challenges that Aboriginal people face in Australia and how their nature and land-based traditional way of life was turned completely upside-down. It also puts into greater perspective the importance and necessity of projects like Café Chloe that emphasize pride, cultural exchange and job training for Aboriginal youth.
8. Eat a kangaroo pie. Or two.
They are actually quite good, too. Our favorite was from Mocka's Pies in Port Douglas.
Better yet, nosh on your kangaroo pie with this view, a slice of the Queensland coast.
9. Appreciate the shape of Australia up in the air over Lake Amadeus.
To cover the sorts of distance between New South Wales, Queensland, Northern Territory and Victoria, a few flights are necessary. And here's why you should always try to get a window seat.
On our flight from Cairns to Uluru, we flew over ever-deepening red rust Outback. After a stretch of beautiful mountains, a few strange patches of iridescent liquid appeared, including Lake Amadeus.
10. Enjoy a champagne sunset toast and watch the sun go down over Uluru.
Champagne. Sunset. Crazy light over Uluru and its surrounding desert brush. Yes, to all of these.
The traditional Uluru sunset that we so often see in photos is one where the giant rock outcropping of Uluru glows red against a clear sky in the day’s final light. Our sunset was instead filled with dazzling clouds and a storm that rolled across the horizon. Don’t feel bad for us. The light was spectacular if not surreal as the clouds moved quickly and dramatically across the landscape. It was our own real life time-lapse video, complete with rush of air, and the fading aroma of a warm desert afternoon.
I wouldn’t change a thing.
Note: The sunset viewing area parking lot can get crowded. Make a wee effort, and a few hundred meters away you’ll have heaps of space to yourself to enjoy your champagne.
11. Follow the Anangu creation stories around the base of Uluru (Ayers Rock).
At the root of my dreaming about Australia: the National Geographic Documentaries about Uluru and Aboriginal culture that I’d watched as a kid. My expectations for this portion of the trip were dangerously high. Fortunately, Uluru delivered not only in terms of its physical appearance (even more impressive in real life), but also in its energy and the psychological hold it draws from the telling of the Aboriginal Anangu creation stories.
As we set off on walks around the base of Uluru, our guide shared a handful of Anangu stories that on the surface were about lizards, snakes and other animals of the Outback. She then noted the physical marks on the rocks around us, which were interpreted as equivalent physical manifestations of these stories. Finally, she explained how Aboriginal people used these stories to teach survival in the harsh environment. From generation to generation, elders taught youth where to find water, how to hunt, which plants and animals were dangerous, and the delicate balance required between nature and humans for both to exist in harmony.
In this way, Uluru was alive, a sort of teacher.
Note: Even if you travel independently to Uluru I recommend signing up for one of the walking tours (e.g., the rangers run free Mala walk tours each morning). It’s a worthwhile experience to walk Uluru as someone tells stories and gives background to what locals hold sacred and symbolic.
You also must invest in a fly net when you first arrive. Don't worry about looking silly in it. Although the flies don't bite, they are aggressive and possess an uncanny ability to find the innermost reaches of one's ears, nose and mouth.
12. Trek Walpa Gorge at Kata Tjuta.
Before my visit to Uluru, I’d barely heard of its lesser-known neighbor Kata Tjuta, another sacred Anangu site. Instead of monolithic, Kata Tjuta looks a convergence of multiple rock formations. As Uluru does, they dominate the visual space of the open landscape around. Creation stories also exist for Kata Tjuta, but since they are considered sacred for Anangu ceremonies they are not told to visitors.
Instead, we just enjoyed the landscape and hike through the Walpa Gorge.
Note: If you'd like to learn more about the geology and history of how Uluru and Kata Tjuta were formed, visit the museum at the Wintjiri Gallery near the town square.
13. Sample the Outback vastness and roadhouse culture between Uluru and Alice Springs.
With our minds full of imagery, physical and abstract, we set off on a five-hour journey to cross a swatch of the desert Outback from Uluru to the city of Alice Springs. This was our on-the-ground taste, albeit limited, of Australia’s vastness — a feature that some travelers ingest in weeks or even months of driving across the Northern Territory. After spending all that time criss-crossing Australia up in the air, a road trip like this is required to begin to understand this country’s vastness.
Imagine this barren landscape for thousands upon thousands of kilometers with only a few roadhouses in-between. Imagine it, too, for the Aboriginal people who once were the only ones who lived here and learned how to survive in this harsh environment.
14. Buy Aboriginal paintings that contribute to the Salvation Army community center in Alice Springs.
As we learned about Aboriginal culture we understood that most paintings were not only art to admire, but visual stories designed to pass on lessons. We were interested in buying Aboriginal art, but we wanted to do so in a way that was connected to the local community and where we knew that our money would benefit the artists directly. That is where the Waterhole Gallery at the Salvation Army in Alice Springs comes in. (Located at 88 Hartley Street, right across from the Royal Flying Doctors Museum.)
It’s easy to miss the gallery, as it's marked only by a small sign outside. Additionally, it can feel a bit intimidating since the grounds also serve as a sort of soup kitchen and community center for disadvantaged Aboriginal people. If you continue you will find a small art gallery in the back with some beautiful paintings of all sizes and colors. Each painting is accompanied by a hand-written story on the back side of its canvas. You can also request a printed biography of the artist. Not only are the paintings high quality, but we also found it more satisfying to buy here than in a traditional gallery because of the direct, personal connection to the community.
15. Be inspired by creative learning at the School of the Air, Alice Springs.
Imagine having 125 students (K-9th grade) spread out over 1.3 million square kilometers. What do you do? You engineer a classroom and school over the airwaves. It may sound odd to visit a school during one’s travels, but the will and infrastructure required for studio-taught lessons over satellite internet connections is remarkable. It makes you appreciate how Australia doesn’t let a few thousand kilometers get in the way, even for school. For more information, check out School of the Air.
16. Ogle the crazy colors of Lake Eyre.
In this case, we were simply lucky with our timing. Lake Eyre in northern South Australia fills with water only every few decades. But when it does, it becomes the largest lake in Australia. Seabirds from thousands of kilometers away somehow sense this (scientists still don't know how) and fly there to breed and nest. While we didn’t have a close up look at this seabird dating frenzy, we were able to see the pink lake while flying from Alice Springs to Melbourne. Our pilot was so excited he woke everyone up to look out the window. Here’s why.
17. Get lost in Melbourne’s laneways, immerse yourself in its street art.
When arriving in a new city, one's options to explore and comprehend it can be overwhelming. Rather than a random walk around Melbourne, we opted for a self-guided street art walking tour of the city. We spread the walk, along with some exploration of neighborhoods further afield, over a couple of days. This provided us with a general route through the city, anchored by street murals and fabulous alleys that serve as the playground of graffiti artists. As we sought out the next stop on the map (whose art was often replaced by something new), we were got pleasantly lost and distracted by other sites and cafes along the way.
18. Rent a bicycle and ride along the coast to the Brighton Beach Changing Huts.
Many cities around the world have launched bike share programs, but we were impressed by how easy and inexpensive (AUS$3 per day) the one in Melbourne is. If the weather is nice, find one of the bike stands in the city (download the Spotcycle app to make it easy), take a bicycle and one of the free helmets, and ride the coastal bike path towards St. Kilda. Continue on to the Brighton Beach
changing huts bathing boxes.
Be sure to stop along the way in Port Melbourne for fish and chips. Treat yourself to coffee, ice cream and a long stretch of easy-going coastal views.
Note: There are no bike drop centers in Brighton, so if you don’t feel like riding all the way back to the city, catch public transportation (tram) to St.Kilda, deposit your bicycle there, and continue on to Melbourne city.
19. Drink strong flat whites, eat brekkie, and enjoy Melbourne's market and food scene.
Melbourne takes its coffee seriously. Walk down any commercial street — in the center or outer neighborhoods — and you'll be flush with coffee choice. If strong coffees are your thing, then you'll feel at home here as a double shot of espresso is standard in a flat white (and most other drinks). Coffee art is formidable, too.
Another serious Melbourne institution: brekkie (otherwise known as breakfast to the rest of us). Walk through the CBD on a weekend morning in summertime and alleys overflow with cafes, restaurants and brunch joints offering every manner of Eggs Benedict, and the Australian brekkie favorite, smashed avocado on toast. It's enough to drive you to eat breakfast all day long.
Recommended Melbourne Eating, Dining and Noshing Spots:
Proud Mary Cafe, Collinwood: Get here early as it fills up quickly for lunch. If you're craving something savory try the fish tacos with a delicious slaw and toppings. For a sweet tooth, you can't go wrong with the ricotta hotcakes. So incredibly rich, you will have grave difficulty moving from your seat.
Victoria Night Market on Wednesdays (November-March): During the summer months Victoria Market turns into a street food night market with hundreds of food stalls, live music, beer on tap, jugs of cold sangria and much, much more. If your time in Melbourne coincides, check it out.
20. Breathe deeply at Point Addis, the start of the Great Ocean Road.
The Great Ocean Road has become a popular destination within Australia for good reason. It just lives up to its name.
21. Don’t wake the koalas at Kennett River.
Park your car at the cafe at Kennett River and walk over toward the trees off to the left side. Look closely in the branches as you might find a koala or two sleeping in the trees. Due to the poor caloric and nutritional value of their eucalyptus-leaf diet they need to sleep up to 20 hours a day to properly digest their food and conserve energy. Resist the urge to touch them (as we saw some other tourists do) and let them sleep — and digest — in peace.
22. Walk barefoot along the beach at Gibson Steps.
Even if you ache to get to the 12 Apostles, allow some time to stop off at Gibson Steps just before. Take the walkway down to the beach and enjoy a view of the sandstone cliffs from below. “Romantic” doesn’t even begin to capture the feeling and atmosphere here.
23. Calculate how many of the 12 Apostles remain standing.
The 12 Apostles, the pinnacles standing at the western end of the Great Ocean Road, are among Australia’s most recognized landmarks. Regardless of how many photos of the 12 Apostles circulate, you’ll find yourself unable to take enough. As a capstone to a beautiful road trip, they still surprise, impress and dazzle visually. You’ll also notice The Apostles a few short of 12 (eight at the time of writing) due to erosion.
24. Appreciate how far you’ve come, within Australia…and around the world.
In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson: If you want to read one book that will provide you with a historical, geographical, cultural, and sociological overview of Australia before visiting, this is the book. Bryson manages to weave these elements in naturally into the humorous narrative of his road trips and adventures throughout the country, from Queensland to Western Australia. Really well written and provides a lot of context for visitors to better understand Australia.
The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin: I found this book fascinating and it really helped me begin to get my head around the role and importance of Aboriginal “songlines” and stories. This book isn't always the easiest read since Chatwin intersperses long-winding notes about other nomadic cultures he has researched. Stick with it, though, and you'll find yourself appreciating the Aboriginal worldview and culture more than you otherwise might.