We get a lot of emails from our readers who want to visit Australia but they only have a few weeks vacation time and so ask our advice on where to go and what to see in Australia.
This post how to travel Australia in three weeks will answer a lot of their questions.
If this is your first time planning a trip down under, these are the places in Australia I would suggest to see the highlights and make the most of your time traveling in Australia.
During our road trip around Australia we met a lot of people visiting Australia for a short period, most of them on a tour. If you prefer to travel independently like us, travel is a big industry down under and it’s easy to go it alone.
I’m going to suggest a list of places to visit in Australia, how long to stay in each location, what to see and do, even where to sleep at night. I’ll take a lot of the guess work out for you.
If you follow this three week Australia itinerary, you’ll get to visit Australia’s two best cities, Sydney and Melbourne, the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, Uluru, the Outback, the wildlife, and the Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road.
Of course, I have to leave out some amazing places like Western Australia and Tasmania. It’s just not possible to do it all in three weeks! (will be doing a variation on this itinerary taking in different states and length of trip).
I understand the desire to see as much as possible, particularly if you are visiting from the US where most of you only have a standard two-week vacation.
But Australia is a vast country, almost the same size as the USA. Can you imagine doing all of the US in three weeks? It’s impossible, especially when you add in flying and driving times.
The following itinerary is not set in stone, please use it as a guide and adjust it to suit your needs, time frame and budget. Take what you like, and leave the rest.
3 week itinerary to visit Australia
Days 1, 2, 3 – Sydney
When you visit Australia you can’t miss Sydney. Besides being Australia’s largest city, there are many reasons why it’s also the most visited.
The stunning harbour side location, the iconic beaches, excellent restaurants, fantastic cafes and pubs, world heritage sites, terrific shopping, incredible festivals, a multicultural population, and good year round weather.
So don’t just use Sydney as a gateway to Australia, with so much to see and experience give yourself three days. Trust me, Sydney won’t let you down.
How to get into the city when you arrive at the airport:
Hop on the Sydney Airport Link Train which takes 15 minutes (adult $17, child $14). Get yourself an Opal Card which is a smart card you top up so that you can pay your fares on trains, buses, ferries and light rail.
Or, catch an Uber. (Use this code if it’s your first time to grab a free trip ql3dc) The airport link is expensive, so sometimes an Uber works out to be about the same price and is more convenient. You can do a price estimate through the Uber app before you request it to double check
Once you’re in the city, I suggest you book your accommodation in the Sydney CBD so you’re centrally located to make the most of your visit, and several of Sydney’s highlights can be taken in for free or cheap simply by walking around.
Things to do in Sydney
- Walk around Circular Quay – The best place to start your visit is in Circular Quay, the main transport hub of Sydney Harbour and where two of Australia’s most famous landmarks reside; Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. Consider taking a 1 hour tour of the Opera House. Otherwise just wander around and take your “I was here” photo.
- Royal Botanic Gardens – you can’t beat the serenity and harbour views from these gardens. Have a picnic or take a walk and admire the many different types of plants and city views on a free self-guided walking tour.
- Explore The Rocks District – The Rocks District is a historic area of Sydney and my favourite part of the CBD. It’s home to Sydney’s oldest pubs, cobblestone streets, weekend markets, and views along the harbour.
- Bondi Beach to Coogee Coastal Walk – one of my favourite free things to do in Sydney. A stunning coastal walk and the perfect way to spend a gorgeous few hours in Sydney.
- Catch the ferry to Manly – a cheap way to experience beautiful Sydney Harbour with stunning views of the city is to catch the ferry from Circular Quay to Manly and back. In Manly, walk down the palm tree-lined Corso towards the beach for an ice-cream, walk around to picturesque Shelly Beach, or grab a cold beer at Manly Wharf Hotel. Time your return ferry trip back to the Quay to coincide with sunset behind the harbour bridge.
- Surry Hills – walk around one of Sydney’s most artistically-vibrant neighbourhoods with old terrace homes, a great mix of cafes, restaurants, wine bars and pubs. Wander Crown Street, Bourke street and Cleveland streets.
- Queen Victoria Building – Located on George street. The place to go for the finest fashion boutiques, jewellery and homeware, plus cafes and restaurants.
- Darling Harbour – lively harbourside precinct just a 10-minute walk from the CBD and has cafes, bars, restaurants, a large kids playground and a program of fantastic free Sydney entertainment every week
- Walk through Hyde Park – Australia’s oldest park and the city’s central open green space. The park contains St Mary’s cathedral plus numerous monuments and statues, and the central pathway through the park is an impressive fig lined road.
- Hit the beaches – Sydney is famous for its beaches, which are great free things to do in Sydney. From the Northern Beaches to the Eastern Suburbs you have many great beaches to explore. Our favourites: Bronte and Coogee in the eastern suburbs – and you must visit famous Bondi Beach at least once. Manly, Freshwater, and Palm Beach on the northern beaches.
- Taronga Zoo – Catch the ferry from Circular Quay to Taronga Zoo which is situated in a natural bushland setting with spectacular views over the harbour. A wide variety of Aussie and international animals with keeper talks and animal encounters makes for a great half-day as a family outing.
- Sydney Tower – for $18 go up to the top of Sydney Tower, the city’s tallest free-standing structure standing at 309 m (1,014 ft) above the CBD. It has an observation deck with awesome views of the skyline.
- Art Gallery of NSW – free to enter and one of Australia’s leading art museums with collections of Australian, Aboriginal, European, Asian and contemporary art.
Where to stay in Sydney
More Sydney tips:
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Days 4, 5, 6 – Cairns
As one of Australia’s biggest tourist towns and gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is vibrant with plenty of restaurants and cafes to keep you happy. The weather is typically amazing, you can walk around at night and have plenty to do, and the days are filled with an enormous amount of choice to explore the surrounding regions.
Whilst Cairns is mostly about getting out on the reef, the surrounding hinterlands and nearby rainforest are definitely worth exploring.
Things to do in Cairns
- Swim at the Cairns lagoon – the cruelty of the north is you get hot summers but you can’t swim in the beaches, they’re full of stingers (jelly fish that can seriously harm you, even kill you). There’s also a few crocs around too. The main beach in Cairns is also more of a mud flat. Not to fear, the man-made Cairns lagoon gives you exactly what you need. Crystal clear waters, beach views and life guards. It’s a cool place to laze around and read your book.
- Day trip to the Great Barrier Reef – a true wonder of the world that is 2,300km long and consists of 900 islands and 2,900 individual reefs. It’s the world’s largest coral reef and the largest living structure on the planet. There are many options for getting out on the reef, some of the main operators are Reef Magic Cruises, Quicksilver Cruises, and Reef Experience. And this post explains how we experienced the reef!
- Green Island – a coral cay surrounded by white sandy beaches and magnificent coral reefs. You can snorkel straight off the shore and there’s a nice boardwalk through the forest to the other side of the island.
- Rusty’s Farmer’s Market – a bit of a Cairns institution and one of the cheapest farmers’ market I’ve visited in Australia.
- Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park – I love Tapajukai Aboriginal Cultural Park for its simplicity and the down to earth way the local people share their culture. We watched dancing shows, made a fire with sticks, and got up on stage and danced and sung with them, learned abbot the didgeridoo, bush medicine and food, and had a chance to throw boomerangs and spears.
- Walk or cycle the Cairns Esplanade – take a stroll along the Esplanade in Cairns, watch the sunrise then grab breakfast at one of the busy cafes and restaurants that line the strip.
- The Night Markets – I wasn’t blown away by the Cairns night markets, but it’s a good way to pass an hour or so.
- White Water Rafting – down the Tully River, or the Barron River in Barron Gorge National Park with Raging Thunder Adventures.
- Visit Kuranda – one of the most popular things to do in Cairns is riding the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway up to the hinterland town of Kuranda and then taking the Scenic Railway back down.
Where to stay in Cairns
For a full list of accomodation options in Cairns on the world’s biggest booking site click here.
Days 7, 8, 9 – Cairns to Cape Tribulation
If you haven’t got one already, now it’s time to pick up your rental car for your three day loop drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation via Port Douglas and take in the best that Tropical North Queensland has to offer. It’s one of the most enchanting regions in Australia.
I don’t suggest you do this drive as a day trip from Cairns though, it’s 140 kms one way and will be too rushed, so either stay at Port Douglas and do a day trip from there (85 km’s one way) or stay within The Daintree and explore.
Road trip from Cairns to Port Douglas
This drive is one of Australia’s most scenic coastal roads, you’ve got the rainforest on one side and the Great Barrier Reef on the other.
If you were to drive from Cairns to Port Douglas without stopping it would only take you one hour, but consider stopping at Palm Cove along the way.
Palm Cove is a colourful village and considered to have one of Australia’s most idyllic beaches (there’s a designated swimming area during stinger season). There’s a beachfront playground for children and a gorgeous esplanade to stroll back and forth along for coffee, gelato or endless restaurants to dine in.
If you don’t head straight to the Daintree, Port Douglas is a fantastic place to base yourself and explore more of the tropical north. And it’s also another good base to head out on to the Great Barrier Reef.
Things to See and Do in Port Douglas:
- 4 Mile Beach – swim, walk, or laze under a palm tree.
- Sailaway Reef and Island Tours – take a sunset cruise, afternoon cruise, or full day cruise.
- Mossman Gorge – the southern most end of the Daintree Rainforest. It’s ancient and pristine. A boardwalk takes you to the Mossman River and a beautiful swimming area.
- Lady Douglas River Cruise – cruise down Dickson Inlet on an iconic riverboat.
- Flames of the Forest – dine in the rainforest and have an aboriginal cultural experience.
- Hartleys Crocodile Adventures – one of the best places to see crocodiles and local wildlife.
- Sunday Markets – a local’s favorite.
Where to eat & drink at Port Douglas:
- Surf Club Bar and Bistro – local’s favourite for lunch, dinner, coffee and drinks.
- On the Inlet – Great location. Go early and feed George (a 250kg Groper fish).
- Yacht Club – Fantastic location and seafood. Great value meals and well-priced drinks.
- Courthouse Hotel – It’s an absolute must for beer and fresh prawns.
- The Tin Shed – Watch the boats come in late afternoon and enjoy the cheapest drinks in town.
- Salsa Bar – Excellent ambiance and food. Fantastic cocktails and margarita jugs!
Where to Stay in Port Douglas:
For a full list of accomodation options in Port Douglas on the world’s biggest booking site click here.
The Daintree Rainforest
At 110 million years old, the Daintree Rainforest is possibly the oldest existing rainforest in the world, even pre-dating the Amazon.
It’s World Heritage listed and sits smack bang along side the Great Barrier Reef – the only place in the world where two World Heritage sites meet. It’s a must visit part of Australia!
From Port Douglas, the furthest north we have been is to the spectacular Cape Tribulation (85 km’s one way). Cape Trib is a headland located within the Daintree.
Things to do in the Daintree Rainforest:
- Cape Kimberley – the first beach you come to in Daintree National Park.
- Alexandra Lookout – stop here for beautiful views out over the Alexandra Range and Snapper Island.
- Daintree Discovery Centre – do the self-guided audio tour and aerial walkway.
- Cow Bay
- Maardja Botanical Walk – the 540m boardwalk follows the creek through a section of rainforest and past the eerily twisting roots and vines of the mangroves to a lookout over Noah Creek.
- Cape Tribulation – the prettiest of the beaches in the Daintree. Walk along the beach and then back up to the Kulki boardwalk.
- Dubuji Boardwalk – the 1.2km boardwalk winds its way through the mangroves, shaded by it’s canopy of enormous fan palms, strangler figs and vines leading down to Myall Beach.
- Myall Beach
Where to eat & drink in the Daintree:
- Mason’s Cafe – the burgers are legendary. Pick your animal: wild boar, emu, crocodile or kangaroo.
- Daintree Ice Cream Company – for $6 get a bowl of ice cream with four scoops. The flavours depend on what they’ve made at that time based upon the exotic fruits that have been harvested from the orchard.
- Thornton Beach Cafe – nice spot to stop for lunch or breakfast right on Thornton Beach.
Where to Stay in the Daintree Rainforest
Day 10 Alice Springs
Return your rental car to Cairns airport then fly to Alice Springs and visit Australia’s most famous Outback town and begin your Outback adventure (Qantas and Virgin Australia fly direct).
Alice Springs is a thriving, spirited outback centre famous for the personality of its locals and contemporary and traditional art as the natural wonders.
Framed by the MacDonnell Ranges and the desert landscape, Alice has all the conveniences of a modern township imbued with a rich living Aboriginal tradition and European explorer history.
Spend a day or a week exploring the sites of Alice Springs.
Pick up a 4-wheel-drive rental car in Alice Springs for the next five days of exploring Central Australia.
Things to do in Alice Springs
- Telegraph Station Historical Reserve – learn about the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line from Port Augusta in South Australia to Darwin. Onsite cafe and walking and cycling tracks.
- School of the Air visitors centre – learn about the world’s largest classroom, covering more than 1.3 million square kilometres.
- The Kangaroo Sanctuary – Get up close with kangaroos at the home of Brolga, star of the documentary series Kangaroo Dundee – BBC UK / Nat Geo USA. Do the guided sunset tour!
- Royal Flying Doctors Service Museum – learn about one of the largest aeromedical organisations in the world, providing extensive primary health care and 24-hour emergency service to people over an area of 7.3 million square kilometres.
- Desert Park – see the animals that live in Central Australia’s habitats.
- Anzac Hill – for a panoramic view of the town. Sunrise is the perfect time as you watch the sun slowly rise to light up the MacDonnell Ranges and beautiful desert town below.
Where to Stay in Alice Springs
Days 11 – 15, Uluru & Red Centre Way
The Red Centre Way is one of the Australian Outback’s great drives, stretching from Alice Springs to Uluru and taking in the stunning landscapes of Kings Canyon and Ormiston Gorge.
Day 11 – Alice Springs to Glen Helen Homestead
Today’s drive is approximately 177 km’s from Alice Springs to Glen Helen Homestead taking in some of the best scenery in Central Australia along the West MacDonnel Ranges.
Things to see & Do in the West MacDonnel Ranges:
- Simpsons Gap (23km from Alice Springs via Larapinta Drive) -prominent waterhole is an important spiritual site to the Arrarnta Aboriginal people. At dawn or dusk, Simpsons gap is renowned as a place to see Black-footed Rock-wallabies along the gap’s short walking track.
- Standley Chasm (40km) – When the sun’s light shifts across the cleft, the walls of Standley Chasm glow golden, orange and red. There’s a pretty 15- 20 min walk along the creek beside rare ancient cycads, and where spring-fed pools give the valley floor a lush, tropical oasis feel. Onsite cafe.
- Ellery Creek Big Hole (57km) – a favourite swimming hole for the locals and a great spot for a picnic.
- Ochre Pits (22km from Ellery Creek) – brightly coloured small cliffs that local Arrarnta Aboriginal people have used for thousands of years for their ceremonial paint. The layers of white, yellow and red ochre of the cliffs are so rich and earthy.
- Ormiston Gorge (24km) – the biggest and prettiest swimming hole. It’s also the most popular. There is a kiosk open here and apparently serves a phenomenal ice coffee.
- Glen Helen Gorge (11km) – The permanent waterhole at Glen Helen Gorge is a favourite home to many species of desert wildlife and lies at the headwaters of the Finke River, where you can walk along the riverbed between the gorge walls to see fabulous cycads. The traditional owners believe Glen Helen Gorge is the home of an ancient and powerful Rainbow Serpent.
Overnight at Glen Helen Homestead Lodge which offers motel room type accommodation for families or singles plus caravan and camping sites. There’s a restaurant, bar, fuel (diesel & unleaded) and a swimming pool.
Day 12 – Kings Canyon
Enjoy breakfast out on the deck at Glen Helen Homestead. The views out over the West Mac ranges are stunning and it is very serene watching the eagles soar quietly above looking for their own breaky.
Depart Glen Helen and drive 225km along the Mareenie Valley Road and overnight at Kings Canyon Resort.
Make sure you have a full tank of fuel, water and food supplies. This section of road is unsealed and can be badly corrugated, that’s why we suggest a 4×4 vehicle for clearance and comfort and control not because it’s technical off-road driving. Some people drive this in a 2WD.
Kings Canyon Resort offers comfortable lodging and hotel style rooms plus camping and caravan sites. Facilities include 2 restaurants, 2 swimming pools, and a petrol station.
Hiking Kings Canyon
Iconic Kings Canyon is just 7 km from the resort. The 5.5km Kings Canyon Rim Walk in Watarrka National Park offers spectacular views of the canyon and stunning dome shaped rock formations and the colours change as the sun continued its journey up.
We did it at sunrise with our three and six-year-old daughters, with the only steep part of the walk being the climb to the top at the beginning.
Read more – Doing the Kings Canyon walk with kids
Kings Canyon to Uluru (town of Yulara)
The drive from Kings Canyon to Yulara, the main town at the gates into Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park where all the accommodation and shops are, is 300km.
Days 13, 14, 15 – Uluru
Uluru, previously known as Ayers Rock, is the spiritual heart of the country and a must see when you visit Australia. You’ve probably seen hundreds of photos and TV commercials of Uluru, but it’s a place you have to see and feel, for yourself.
Made of arkosic sandstone, Uluru stands 348 metres high and is taller than The Eiffel Tower and 2.5 times the height of Sydney Harbour Bridge. We highly recommend you don’t fly in and out in a hurry, Uluru needs more than one night to appreciate it’s beauty!
Things to do at Uluru:
- Uluru Sunset – the are several lookout spots for sunset and every lookout offers a different perspective of the vibrant and ever changing colours. The most popular sunset spot is the official Uluru Sunset Lookout about 10 kilometres down the road through the entrance gates of the park (entry fee $25 for three days).
- Uluru Sunrise – we dragged the kids out of bed at 5.am each day and jumped in the car for the 20-minute drive from Yulara into the park (sunrise was around 6.20am). For our first Uluru sunrise, we headed back to the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku lookout. Be warned, this is where hordes of people and tour buses converge and was very busy even in the off-season.
- HOT TIP – for a great Uluru sunrise silhouette, on another morning we headed back to the sunset lookout spot as you get the rock blocking the sun as she rises. Whilst everyone heads to the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku lookout for sunrise, we had this sunset spot all to ourselves!
- Base walk – aThe loop walk is 10 kms around the base and it took us 3.45 hours with a three and seven-year-old and taking lots of photos. The walk is completely flat, just remember you’re in the Outback so it’s best to start early at first light to beat the heat. The park opens daily at 5am and we suggest starting at the Kuniya walking point and heading anti-clockwise. Take lots of water, snacks and short breaks
- Cycle the base – if you’re not up to walking the 10.6 kilometres around the base, a great alternative is to hire bikes from Outback Cycling ($30 for three hours) or bring your own and bike it. We had a tag-along for Kalyra who enjoyed the relaxation of letting daddy do most of the peddling, and little Savannah took in the sights in a baby seat on the back of Caz’s bike.
- Free Ranger Guided Mala Walk – your third option if you don’t want to walk or bike the whole 10.6 kilometres of Uluru is to participate in the two-kilometre return walk (1.5 hours) free ranger guided Mala walk.
- Sunset drinks with AAT Kings – A fitting farewell to our time at Uluru was sipping on a few glasses of champagne with the folks from AAT Kings as the sunset over the rock.
- Sunset Camel Ride – one of the unique ways to take in Uluru is on the back of a trusty camel. Our kids, and us big kids, absolutely loved this experience with Uluru Camel Tours.
On our bucket list is the Sounds of Silence dining experience under the stars (when the kids are a bit older) and a helicopter flight sounds amazing too!
Exploring Kata Tjuta
Kata Tjuta is just 50km’s up the road from Yulara and is equally as impressive as Uluru.
Formerly known as The Olgas, this group of large ancient rock formations consisting of 36 ochre-coloured domes are spread over an area of more than 20 kilometres. The sandstone domes are believed to be around 500 million years old.
Hot tip – for another brilliant sunrise silhouette of Uluru head to the Kata Tjuta dune viewing area.
Walks at Kata Tjuta:
- The 2.6 km Walpa Gorge walk is the shorter and easier of the two walks.
- The longest trail is the 7km Valley of the Winds Walk.