First-timer’s guide to Australia
Planning your first visit to Australia? This list of activities is essential reading.
By Paul Chai
Australia is an enormous country – bigger than all the countries of Western Europe combined. How on earth do you choose what to see and do? From drinking a Melbourne flat white (coffee) to watching the sun set over Uluṟu, these 15 experiences offer a taste of modern Australian culture (and in many cases a taste of delicious food, too). Consider it your essential starter kit for experiencing Australia.
Order a flat white in Melbourne
The capital of the state of Victoria is also the coffee capital of Australia, if not the world. This is the birthplace of Australia's gift to coffee drinkers: the flat white (espresso coffee and steamed milk without the foam of a cappuccino). The flat white is Melbourne's signature drink, but Melbourne leads the world in coffee trends, and the city's baristas, café owners and coffee roasters are always seeking new ways to consume caffeine. You might try a deconstructed coffee (served in separate glasses of milk, coffee and hot water), a bulletproof coffee (served with organic butter) or an espresso with fresh lime juice (surprisingly tasty). Look out for cafés in Art Deco shopfronts in the fashionable suburb of Fitzroy, in secret laneways in the centre of the city, or in converted warehouses in the neighbourhood of Brunswick. Some, like Code Black, roast their own beans.
See Australia’s ancient rock art
Australia is home to one of the world's oldest Aboriginal cultures, and experiencing the art and culture of Aboriginal Australians should be top of everyone's list. You may never fully understand the Aboriginal connection with the Australian land, but you can visit Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory. It's home to some of the country's best examples of Aboriginal rock art, more than 20,000 years old. The rock art gives an important insight into Aboriginal life at different times in history, and when you visit the main galleries at Ubirr and Nourlangie you will see something that no other country has. Kakadu is also home to picturesque floodplains, billabongs and a diverse selection of birdlife.
Climb (or walk) the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Most travellers know what the Sydney Harbour Bridge looks like, but when you walk across it, as many Sydney commuters do each day, you'll not only get amazing harbour views but a sense of how integral the bridge is to Sydney life. It connects the city's skyscraper-filled city centre with the neighbourhood of Kirribilli, an under-the-radar suburb with some of the city's best views. Stop at the historic suburb of The Rocks, home to convict-made buildings and markets, before walking over the bridge from the city to explore Kirribilli's many cafés (Bay 10 Espresso, hidden in a shipping container inside a warehouse, is a favourite) and restaurants (try Stir Crazy for a great, inexpensive dinner of Thai food). If you're feeling more adventurous you can also climb to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge with BridgeClimb to see unrivalled views of the sparkling harbour.
Go behind the scenes at the Sydney Opera House
The Sydney Opera House is an instantly recognisable Sydney landmark and architectural marvel, but it is also the heart of cultural life in the Harbour City. The Opera House hosts plays, talks, concerts and, of course, opera, and you can even get behind the scenes. A backstage tour gives you access to the corridors and green rooms of the Sydney Opera House usually reserved for musicians and performers. You'll also learn why this building is such a focal point for Sydneysiders, and secrets you wouldn't discover by simply photographing the bright white sails. When your tour is over grab a drink or a bite to eat right on the harbour at the popular Opera Bar or Opera Kitchen.
Take a swim at a city beach
It's highly unusual for a world city to have so many stunning beaches just minutes from its centre, but in Sydney you can find yourself swimming at a famous stretch of sand such as Bondi Beach or Manly Beach within 25 minutes of leaving your city hotel. Beaches are an integral part of life here: many Sydneysiders wake up, grab a coffee and have a swim in the ocean before going to work in the morning. If you're heading to Bondi, try a post-swim coffee at Speedos Café, so named after the popular Australian swimwear brand that originated here in 1914.
Go to a gig in Melbourne
The Australian music scene is a direct reflection of local culture, and Melbourne is the country's live music capital. Here you can experience everything from the politically-driven Australian take on hip-hop to our perennially popular pub rock, the genre that produced bands such as INXS and Midnight Oil. Grab a gig at intimate city venues such as 170 Russell, see hip-hop at warehouse club Howler in the northern suburb of Brunswick, or catch a big name act at the historic Palais Theatre in beachside St Kilda.
Spend a night of luxury at qualia
qualia is frequently recognised as one of the most luxurious beach resorts in the world, offering a premium luxury experience in a unique environment. In a forest of native gum trees on tropical Hamilton Island, guests can expect warm Australian hospitality, sophisticated dining, an excellent spa and a location on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef. Relax by one of the resort's pools with a cocktail, try one of the water-based activities on offer, take an expedition to the reef or play a round at the 18-hole Hamilton Island Golf Club, which sits on an island all its own, next to the resort.
See the Great Barrier Reef
There are many ways to experience the Great Barrier Reef –you can snorkel or dive around its beautiful coral, fly over it in a helicopter or seaplane, sail on its clear waters in a catamaran or motor yacht, and even sleep on it. Each provides a unique and memorable way to see the stunning colours and marine life of the area. This famous reef can be accessed from the luxurious Whitsunday Islands, the tropical city of Cairns, the beach town of Bundaberg and in many places in between along the coastline of Queensland. Consider an expedition to swim with dwarf minke whales, departing from Cairns or Port Douglas. These multi-day trips follow the coast up to Lizard Island, stopping at many points along the way, where guests can swim with the highly curious dwarf minke whales and snorkel or dive parts of the Great Barrier Reef not accessible to most.
Visit the Daintree Rainforest
Set back from the Great Barrier Reef is the pristine wilderness of the Daintree, a 165 million-year-old tropical rainforest of such majesty and wonder that it was the inspiration for James Cameron's lush world in Avatar. This World Heritage-listed site, a 1.5-hour drive north of the city of Cairns, starts at Mossman Gorge and stretches north up the Australian coastline. There are many picturesque walking tracks through the rainforest, but you can also zoom through the canopy on a zipline, take a crocodile-spotting cruise along the Daintree River, swim in the clear, mint-green waters of Mossman Gorge (a crocodile-free area) or take the excellent Dreamtime Walk tour and learn about local history with an Aboriginal guide.
Swim with a whale shark
On Western Australia's north coast sits Ningaloo Marine Park, 260 kilometres (161 miles) of protected reef where you can share the water with the world's largest fish. Whale sharks are actually slow-moving vegetarians (they eat plankton) but can weigh more than 20 tonnes (22 tons), and watching them glide effortlessly through the water is a must-do. Australia's west coast is the only place in the world where whale sharks congregate regularly in such high numbers, and the reef here is easily accessible.
Have a Sunday session in Perth
The 'Sunday session' – a relaxed afternoon drink to mark the end of the weekend, ideally taken in the sunshine – was invented by Perth's regional pubs, allowing Perth residents to get around the city's strict licensing laws (in the mid-20th century no drinking was allowed in the city centre). Today, drinking is legal in the city centre on Sundays, but the Sunday session has remained an immensely popular tradition with Perth residents. It's not difficult to find a popular pub or bar – Perth is littered with them – but particularly popular is the upmarket beach-chic shack The Shorehouse, in the inner city beach suburb of Swanbourne. Also worth trying is The Lucky Shag, in the city's new development at Elizabeth Quay.
See Uluru at sunrise or sunset (or both)
There are no filters required when you take pictures of Uluru at sunrise or sunset. From blazing oranges to deep, dark reds, and every shade in between, the enormous monolith puts on a twice daily show that is truly memorable. Take a sunrise tour, do a sunset dune walk or book a Sounds of Silence dinner under the stars at Ayers Rock Resort.
Drive the Great Ocean Road
The twisting roads and coastal rock formations of the Great Ocean Road, which begins just under two hours drive south-west of Melbourne, is one of Australia's best-known road trips. This rugged coastline produces the waves surfed at famous Bells Beach, known on the professional surfing circuit as one of the more challenging locations in the annual competition calendar. Explore the seaside villages of Torquay and Lorne, visit the Great Ocean Road Chocolaterie, and do not miss the crumbling majesty that is the Twelve Apostles. These much-Instagrammed rock formations are continually eroded by the ocean and constantly changing.
Walk to Wineglass Bay
Tasmania's Freycinet Peninsula – with rust-red rocks, bays of glassy seawater and the spectacular Hazards mountain range framing it all – is home to one of the most secluded and memorable beaches in Australia. Wineglass Bay is a rustic stretch of sand in a sheltered bay shaped like a wineglass, and arguably the best known natural attraction on Tasmania's east coast. You'll need to take a 30-minute hike between pink granite peaks through virgin eucalypt forest to access it, but there's a good chance you'll have it all to yourself. Look out for the beach's friendly kangaroos.
Eat freshly shucked Tasmanian oysters
Taste a Barossa red at the cellar door
Since the 19th century the Barossa Valley in South Australia has been producing some of the country's greatest red wines, including the famous Penfolds Grange, which has a huge international fan base. This pioneering wine region adapted European winemaking techniques to local climate and soils, in the process creating a uniquely Australian, often celebrated terroir. It's also home to the oldest vines on earth, thanks to its isolation, which protected it from the phylloxera pest that ravaged the world's vines in the 19th and 20th centuries. Sample these wines at the cellar door from winemakers such as the innovative Two Hands, or venerable Wolf Blass.
Shop for native ingredients at Adelaide Central Market
Adelaide Central Market, right in the centre of the South Australian capital city, is one of the best places to buy ingredients that you can only find in Australia. In a historic, picturesque building you can try kangaroo, buffalo or emu from the Something Wild stall, experience the best cheese and wine from South Australia's Kangaroo Island stall and sit down to a flat white, an Australian coffee, in one of the many cafés, such as Zedz Café.
Visit the seat of Australian government
In recent years Canberra, the nation's capital city, has transformed from a government town to the capital of cool. It is one of the few cities in the world created specifically to be a country's capital, and is located directly between Sydney and Melbourne (the two cities that were vying for the honour). In recent years Canberra has bloomed, with the growth of boutique breweries, small bars and exciting developments such as Jamala Wildlife Lodge, where you can sleep with just glass separating you from the residents of National Zoo. You should also consider taking a guided tour of Parliament House. It's a striking example of modern architecture.