Tips for the first time traveler to Australia

It’s Australia’s natural landscapes that loom largest in people’s imaginations when they think of heading Down Under. And the sun-drenched cities, golden surf beaches and raw, red Outback more than live up to the hype. But the lesser-visited gems also come with massive rewards. Tasmania, for example, has dramatic hikes, old-fashioned hospitality and weird and wonderful wildlife. And Western Australia’s coastline is wilder and less congested than its east coast rivals.
We laughed, was in awe and loved every moment. We stayed in places we wouldn’t have found or considered...
– Barb Martin on our B&B self drive tour of Tasmania
Australia is also home to the oldest continuous cultures in the world, and visiting without exploring Aboriginal history would be like going to the Great Barrier Reef without a snorkel. Visit an Aboriginal cultural center, take a tour with an indigenous guide and take time to learn about the Aboriginal people, their culture and their connection with the land.

What to expect in Australia

Wildlife

Some of Australia’s best wildlife is found under the water. At over 2,000km long, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the richest ecosystems in the world, with a cornucopia of coral constructions as well as sea life, including giant clams, butterfly fish, barracuda and whitetip reef sharks. Off the coast of Western Australia, meanwhile, is Ningaloo Reef, where you can dive and snorkel with whale sharks from mid-March to July. It’s not an experience for the faint-hearted – the largest of these underwater giants measure in excess of 12m. It’s on Australia’s islands that you’ll find the most weird and wonderful beasties. With just a week or two in Tasmania you can spot white wallabies in cloud forests, see Tasmanian devils and platypus in the Tarkine Rainforest and cruise the Great Southern Ocean in search of sea eagles and fur seals. Kangaroo Island is often touted as Australia’s answer to the Galapagos. As you’d expect, you’ll see enormous kangaroos here as well as wallabies, bandicoots, sea lions, duck-billed platypuses, echidnas and koalas. Macquarie Island can only be reached via a pre-booked expedition and plays host to over 200,000 pairs of king penguins and three million royal penguins, as well as southern right whales and leopard seals. Australia’s rainforests are rich with wildlife. The Daintree Rainforest in Queensland is one of the oldest in the world and its wildlife, including active saltwater crocodiles, looks positively prehistoric. Along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, the Otways Forest is home to koalas, swamp wallabies and platypus. Australia’s desert regions are most beautiful after the rains. The salt lakes fill with fresh water and millions of water birds, such as pelicans, stilts, shags and gulls. You’ll also see emus and mobs of kangaroos.

Language & culture

It’s thought that Aboriginal Australians spoke over 250 languages when Europeans first arrived in Australia, with anything up to 5,000 speakers per language. Today fewer than 50 native languages survive. Although most Aboriginal people speak English, don’t just expect it, especially as a first language. Kakadu National Park is home to some of Australia’s best examples of Aboriginal rock art, some of which is more than 20,000 years old. It provides interesting insight into Aboriginal life at different times in history. As well as being home to the world’s oldest continuous cultures, more recent arrivals give the country its multicultural flavour. Australians today identify with more than 270 ancestries. After English, the most common languages spoken at home are Cantonese and Mandarin. Native restaurants have increased in popularity in recent years and all serve bush food using traditional ingredients. Aside from Aboriginal fare, migrants have brought the world’s dishes to Australia’s doorstep with Asian and Greek food highly recommended alongside sustainably sourced seafood and incredible lamb and beef. Let’s not forget Australia’s world-beating wines. For tastings, Western Australia’s Margaret River, South Australia’s Barossa Valley, Victoria’s Yarra Valley and Queensland’s Ballandean Estate are among the best.
Tasmania has a wonderful local feeling… there is such an abundance of local handicrafts, produce and seafood...
– Don Elliott on our B&B self drive tour of Tasmania

Travel requirements

Unless you’re an Australian or New Zealand citizen, you’ll need a valid Australian visa to enter the country. You must apply for a visa before leaving home. The eVisitor is free and can be applied for online. Check Fit for Travel for up-to-date information about vaccinations and travel health in Australia.

Traveling to Australia & getting around

Most travelers fly into Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne or Perth international airports, depending which region of the country they’re visiting. Getting around Australia is a doddle. There are fast and reliable long-distance buses and trains as well as plentiful internal flights. Car hire is readily available and road trips are a popular way of seeing the country. If you want to get out into the real wilderness small group tours are recommended. Many include long hikes or bike rides with nights spent wilderness camping under the stars.

Our top Australia Vacation

B&B self drive tour of Tasmania, meet the locals

B&B self drive tour of Tasmania, meet the locals

Self-drive staying in Tasmania's most charming B&Bs

From AU $1495 to AU $6000 10 days ex flights
Tailor made:
This trip can be tailor made throughout the year to suit your requirements
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Australia or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Highlights

The biggest hurdle on your first Australia trip will be deciding where to go and what to do. It’s the sixth largest country in the world, and working out an itinerary means juggling distance, money and time. Peruse our highlights instead and choose a tour that takes you to a few places that take your fancy.

Great Barrier Reef

Make the most of your time in the Great Barrier Reef with snorkelling, scuba diving, sailing or by accompanying a marine biologist on a glass-bottom boat. There’s more to it than mesmerising marine life, though. For starters, there’s relaxing on some of the most beautiful white sand beaches in the world. And walking rainforest trails in search of birds and giant lizards.

Great Ocean Road

This stretch of Victoria’s coastline is one of Australia’s great road trips, running from Apollo Bay to the much photographed Twelve Apostles (come early to avoid the coach trips!). Want to tackle the Great Ocean Road on foot? The 100km Great Ocean Walk takes you past cliff tops, waterfalls, rivers and sandy beaches, where you can spot kookaburras, wombats, kangaroos and koalas.

Kakadu National Park

A hike or river cruise amongst Kakadu’s billabongs, mangroves and woodlands unveils untold animal encounters. Wallaroos, possums and river sharks are all here, but few command attention like the freshwater crocs and the ‘salties’. Kakadu National Park also features over 280 species of birds, many of which are endangered, including Gouldian finch and hooded parrots. If you’re interested in Aboriginal rock art, there’s plenty to see here.

Kangaroo Island

Kangaroo Island has long been called ‘Australia’s Galapagos’, thanks to its remarkable wildlife and landscapes, where koalas, duck-billed platypuses, possums and, of course, kangaroos make their home. The island was sadly devastated by Australia’s 2019-2020 bushfires, with around half the island going up in flames and half the population of koalas wiped out. While it’ll take a long time to return to its former glory, there’s still a huge amount to enjoy here, from penguin, whale and seal watching trips to seeing kangaroos and koalas in Kelly Hill Conservation Park.

Melbourne

Sports fans, foodies, festival goers and culture seekers will leave Melbourne raving. It’s the country’s urban jewel and home to city beaches, Victorian architecture and a multitude of museums and galleries. With a multicultural population that includes people of Greek, Vietnamese, Chinese, Somali and Indian heritage, Melbourne’s dining, shopping and nightlife scene is the best in the country.

Sydney

Sydney’s iconic harbour views make it number one on many first time travelers’ wish lists. And it would be a shame to visit Australia’s East Coast without a few days skipping between trendy bars, botanical gardens, art galleries and the gentrified streets of the Rocks. Outer suburbs such as Bondi, Coogee and Cronulla offer a more chilled out, sandier vibe, while just outside the city there are hiking trails through bush land and along near-deserted cliffside trails.

Tasmania

Tasmania is so much more than a ‘tag on’ destination. With 19 national parks and 300 smaller islands, you could easily choose to spend your whole vacation here. This is a natural haven for Australian wildlife, with Tasmanian devils, wombats and the quirky pademelon found across the island, and dolphins, penguins and whales found offshore. Self drive tours and stays on farms and in family-run B&Bs are the best way to explore this wonderful wilderness.

Uluru

Watching the sun set over Uluru, the world’s most iconic rock, is the quintessential Outback experience. As the sun goes down, the rock glows burnished orange, then deep red, before fading into darkness. For the most rewarding experience, sleep out in the Outback under its shadow, and take a daytime walk around its bulk with an indigenous guide, who’ll explain the significance of this and other sacred sites.

...and what not  to do

Don’t forget to respect sacred Aboriginal sites and notices relating to entering Aboriginal land. Pay heed to signs asking you not to photograph, climb or deface important Aboriginal landmarks. Think of the outdoors as a cathedral or temple. You wouldn’t clamber all over an altar to get a good photo, so don’t do it when you’re visiting sacred sites in Aboriginal Australia. Also, don’t expect all Aboriginal people to use English as their native tongue. Don’t feed any animals in the wild and don’t attempt to touch them either, including marine creatures and live coral. Avoid wildlife centers that allow visitors to cuddle or touch wildlife. Koalas and kangaroos are wild animals, not soft toys. Bush fires can occur at any time but especially during drier periods and over the course of the summer, and as events in 2020 demonstrated, they can be devastating. Do your bit to prevent fires by only using designated BBQ pits and grills and being careful when walking in the Bush or stopping for a break by the side of the road. Don’t leave glass lying around and make sure cigarettes are fully extinguished with water.

Best time to go to Australia

January is peak summertime in Australia and school vacations, Australia Day and Chinese New Year all make things busy across the country. It’s very hot and humid in northern Australia at this time so stick to Tasmania, Victoria or New South Wales. After the tropical rains die down in March and April, the north is at its most luscious, with the Northern Territory and Queensland alive with colour. This is also the start of whale watching season off Victoria’s coast. Temperatures drop in April and May but it’s still dry, clear and sunny, while June and July bring fiery autumn foliage to New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. This is a great time to visit Uluru, thanks to clear skies and mild temperatures, while the waters around the Great Barrier Reef are at their clearest. The best time to visit Western Australia is in August and September as wildflowers appear across the countryside and spring kicks into gear. November is notorious for ‘schoolies’ on the Gold Coast so avoid New South Wales and head to South Australia or Tasmania, especially before high season mayhem starts in December.

How long is needed to see Australia?

In a week

A week is really too little time to spend in Australia, so you’d have to concentrate on one area. You could, for example, stick to the Northern Territory, taking in Darwin, Alice Springs, Uluru and Kakadu National Park. There are shorter tours that you can do in seven days or less, such as guided walking in the Red Centre or hiking the Larapinta Trail. A week is also just enough for a circular tour of Tasmania to take in the main natural highlights.

In two weeks

With two weeks, you’d still be better off sticking to one area of the country, but you’ll be able to take your time and see it in greater depth. A self drive tour of Tasmania allows you laid-back stays in family farms and in wilderness cabins, while a drive down the coast of southwest Australia from Perth takes you to forests and winelands. Two weeks will allow you to tackle a longer walking vacation, such as the Great South West Walk in Victoria or the Cape to Cape Track in Western Australia.

If you’re dead set on packing in as much as possible, short flights allow you to visit a couple of different regions. On a tailor made adventure vacation, for example, you could start off exploring Sydney, spend a few days in the Outback around Uluru, and then finish in Cairns, with snorkelling and sailing around the Great Barrier Reef.

Three weeks or more

With three weeks or more to play with you can easily see at least two states or different habitats. It’s enough time to travel by train and car around the Northern Territory, South Australia and New South Wales. Or you could combine the Outback with the East Coast and the Great Barrier Reef. Got a specialist interest? Hone in on one region and leave it at that. A Western Australia wildlife vacation, for example, will lead you around both land and sea with an expert zoologist guide.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: pixculture] [Top box: Luisa Denu] [Wildlife: Jesse Dodds] [Great Barrier Reef: Daniel Pelaez Duque] [Kangaroo Island: Chris Fithall] [Tasmania: Roselyn Cugliari] [Best time to go: Daniel Sessler] [Road: Photoholgic]