Ultimate Australian East Coast Road Trip Guide • Sydney to Cairns

Australia is a big place, a land of many climates, landscapes, and the ultimate “Downunda” getaway. It takes people years to see everything in Australia, even a lifetime for many. With such a varied country it makes it hard to choose where to go in Australia. So hopefully this ultimate Australian East Coast road trip guide will help!

If waterfalls, pristine beaches, quiet country towns to lush national parks or island hopping is a thing that might be of interest, Australia’s East Coast is the best place to start! Get packing and get ready for an epic Australian road trip.

road trip in Australia

Ultimate Australian East Coast Road Trip Guide


Do You Yeed a Car for an Australian Road Trip?

Traveling the East Coast of Australia is a lengthy journey whether by car or train. Renting a car is by far the best option for freedom and flexibility. This guide will be focused on those that decide to tackle their Australian East Coast trip by car.

Along Australia’s East Coast, there are so many hidden gems that are often one to three hours from main towns and cities and often tour companies and other forms of transport won’t venture that far out.


Where should I start my Australian East Coast road trip?

Koala in Australia

Sydney is the most common starting point for an Australian East Coast road trip as there is a major international airport and plenty of places to hire a car. From Sydney, the journey takes you north to the Hunter Valley, a 1.5-hour drive followed by a further one hour drive to the Central Coast.

Five hours further north is the Nambucca Shire, Bellinger Shire and The Coffs Coast. Continuing north and another 4.5 hours from Coffs Harbour is Byron Bay, the most easterly point in Australia. After Byron Bay is The Gold Coast and Brisbane, an easy two hour drive away.

Brisbane to Noosa and Fraser Island takes three hours. Noosa onwards is the biggest part of the journey and can take up to 12 hours until Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays are reached. Airlie Beach to Cairns is a further six hours drive north.

Cairns is also a popular place to begin the road trip as Cairns also has an international airport which frequently connects Australia to Asia. If you decide to tackle this road trip route you’ll be traveling North to South.

I would recommend taking the Pacific Highway for this road trip which runs all the way from Sydney to the Queensland border. Brisbane onwards, take the Bruce Highway which runs the whole length of the Queensland coast.

Did that all sounds like a lot of driving? That’s because Australia is huge, but I promise you you’ll check so much off your travel bucket list you won’t mind!

Australian East Coast Road Trip Guide

Australian East Coast Road Trip Destinations


Sydney

Australian East Coast Road Trip Guide

It’s more than likely you’ll be starting your East Coast Australian road trip in Sydney, a must and for many good reasons. Don’t just pick up your car at the airport and hit the road, Sydney is worth a few days stop. Sydney is home to some of the most famous Australian landmarks, beaches, and sights in New South Wales so what better way to get this trip started!

Sydney is large, but all of the main attractions are quite close to one another and getting around is no problem. If you are short on time, checking out all all the amazing things to do in Sydney won’t be hard. I always start my Sydney explorations at Circular Quay which is right on the Sydney Harbour.

Circular Quay is home to the best view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Ferry access to Manly & Taronga Zoo are only a few hundred meters from the iconic Sydney Opera House. By midday, Circular Quay can get extremely busy so that’s when I make way for the Sydney Botanical Gardens set on the shores of Farm Cove and only some 200 meters walk from the base of the Sydney Opera House.

Sydney Botanical Gardens are home to some of the world’s most rare tree and flower species along with an exceptional, if not the best view of the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair sits right on the edge of Sydney Harbour and the views don’t let down!

By the time you’ve explored Circular Quay and Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, my day either takes me to neighboring Darling Harbour or Barangaroo Reserve for a well-deserved adventure beer and meal. Finding food and a drink in Sydney is no problem and I am sucker for boutique beer breweries which are scattered everywhere throughout Sydney. Munich Brauhaus and The Lord Nelson breweries never fail and their food is some of the best you’ll find along the harbor.

One of the most underrated places in Sydney is the hip-suburbs of Newtown and Enmore both with unique, chilled out vibes perfect for escaping the big city rush. Newtown and Enmore are both separate suburbs but provide everything from smooth, aromatic coffee to 1970’s style record stalls. Enmore is home to The Enmore Theatre, a hotspot for stand-up comedy to live music hosting some of the world’s biggest bands.

Driving around Sydney and finding parking can be difficult and expensive so be sure to get a valid parking spot before wandering off to explore Sydney.


The Central Coast of New South Wales

Australian East Coast Road Trip Guide
Surfing the Central Coast

Having spent a good part of my life exploring the Central Coast of New South Wales, I find that it is an often overlooked destination for international tourists despite its close proximity to Sydney.

The Central Coast is located just an hour and a half drive away from Sydney and provides access to some of the best beaches in New South Wales along with a world-renowned scuba diving site. The Central Coast is quickly becoming a place Sydney-siders want to live!

To make the most out of your Central Coast visit, be sure to head to Terrigal, a rather busy but chilled out coastal town where morning walks along the esplanade are a must or if you prefer to take a plunge into the ocean. Terrigal is home to the former H.M.A.S Adelaide, a NAVY ship which was sunk after service and is now one of the most popular dive spots in New South Wales.

Located near the main hub of Gosford, the Bouddi Coastal Walk starts from Macmaster’s Beach and winds its way past un-spoilt coves, golden beaches and interesting rock formations somewhat reminding me of the Great Ocean Road but on a smaller scale. The Bouddi National Park is free to enter and the track is 8.5 kilometers one way, perfect for those sunny days.

There’s nothing better than cruising along the Central Coast with windows down, and a surfboard on the roof-racks.


The Hunter Valley

Australian East Coast Road Trip Guide
Grapes ready for picking!

Every country has their go-to wine region and there’s always a battle going on in Australia to determine which is the best. The Barossa Valley or The Hunter Valley are the two in question and which is better is a tough one to answer.

We’ll cover the Hunter Valley here, a fragile pocket of land two hours’ drive north of Sydney. The Hunter Valley is made up from a collection of smaller country towns each with their unique ability to producing a large variation of wines.

So where do you start in the Hunter Valley when there are so many places to sip and sample fine wine? Cellar doors are everywhere, so it comes down to what type of wine you prefer. Whether its Merlot, Shiraz or a Chardonnay…the Hunter Valley has it all. A personal favorite is Tempus Two Wines who not only strive to create a sound tasting product but passionately about sustainability in the wine industry.

The Hunter Valley isn’t all about fine wines though. Yengo National Park is worth a visit as it is home to Aboriginal sacred sites and has a rich history of aboriginal culture all at the doorstep of Sydney.

Driving around The Hunter Valley is fantastic with open roads winding through forests, farmlands and vineyards and should be on anyones road trip making their way up the coast.


Nambucca Valley

Australian East Coast Road Trip Guide
Aboriginal Cultural Tour in Nambucca Shire

Directly halfway between Sydney and Brisbane on Australia’s East Coast is the hidden gem of the Nambucca Shire which is a mix of coast, rainforest and culture all intertwined to create one of the best keep secrets in possibly Australia.

Driving through the Nambucca Valley takes you from lush 4WD tracks to some of the best surf spots in the area all within an hours drive.

The Nambucca Shire and surrounding national parks are home to some of the last remaining koalas in Australia making it a very special place to explore. One of the best ways to see a koala in the Nambucca Shire is by visiting Dunggirr National Park, translating to Koala National Park in the local aboriginal language of Gumbaynggirr.

Aboriginal tourism is a growing rapidly in New South Wales and especially on the North Coast region with tours being run to educate locals and international tourists on the importance of Aboriginal tourism. At Valla Beach in the Nambucca Shire, the Gumbaynggirr culture is being kept alive with the help of Spirit of the Rainforest cultural tours, a tour designed to teach this ancient culture to the people of today with bush food tastings, sound healing with a didgeridoo and the learning of dreamtime stories.


Bellingen

Australian East Coast Road Trip
One of the best views over the Bellinger Shire

The Bellingen Shire might be the most diverse landscapes on Australia’s East Coast and one of the more popular places to visit. The Bellingen Shire or Bello to the locals call it is a region rich in rainforests, rivers, waterfalls and beaches.

One moment you can be walking through a World Heritage listed rainforest of Dorrigo National Park where the cascading Crystal Shower Falls flows effortlessly and the next, be walking along the Urunga Boardwalk to the Pacific Ocean.

Making up the Bellingen Shire is the coastal town of Urunga, perfect for waxing up the board or throwing a line in the water for a fish. Then there’s Bellingen, a diverse and environmentally driven town with a strong belief in the conservations of our forests, rivers and native animals.

A 30-minute drive along the magnificent Waterfall Way is Dorrigo, a farming hub located on the Great Dividing Range also home to spectacular rainforests, waterfalls and 360 degree vistas.


Coffs Coast

Australian East Coast Road Trip Guide
Kangaroo and the coast at Emerald Beach

Every year, the Coffs Coast becomes that little more popular to international tourists.

The Coffs Coast consists of coastal surf towns, inland country towns to the central hub of Coffs Harbour all with a unique charm making it popular all year round.

Sawtell is a laid-back surf-inspired town with some of the most popular surf breaks on the coast. Coastal walks are a must during sunrise with pods of dolphins commonly seen close to shore. Sawtell is known as having the most aesthetically pleasing street with stunning fig trees, flowers and wooden statues replicating themes of aboriginal culture.

The Coffs Marina is the heart of tourism on the Coffs Coast with an exceptional amount of activities like hiking the Muttonbird Island proving popular during the annual Humpback Whale migration. The Coffs Jetty not far from the marina, trails some 300 meters into the sea. While tours out to the Solitary Islands Marina Park offer scuba diving and whale watching tours.

Emerald Beach, to the north of Coffs Harbour is home to a population of kangaroo’s who like to hang out on the famous Look At Me Now Headland but seeing them can be tricky, you’ll need to be there during sunrise or late afternoon.

Red Rock is the furthest place you can go before leaving the Coffs Coast before heading north to Byron Bay. Red Rock is a hidden secret and a place that is deeply sensitive to the Gumbaynggirr people who are the traditional custodians of the land. Despite this, we are encouraged to learn from our past and think of ways that we can improve from our history. Red Rock is stunning and the best way to explore is by stand up paddle board with Wajaana Yaam Gumbaynggirr Adventure Tours.


Byron Bay

Australian East Coast Road Trip Guide
Byron Bay Lighthouse at sunrise

Byron Bay somehow every week gets more popular and no thanks to the God of Thunder, Chris Hemsworth. Byron Bay is New South Wales most sought after coastal land with luxury properties overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Mount Warning, an extinct volcano! While luxury is a common theme, backpackers from all over the world travel to Byron Bay to bask in the sun’s rays or party it up.

Byron Bay has a party town reputation, however it doesn’t take long to realize that there’s a lot more to this wonderful town that booze. Three days in this coastal town is idyllic as everything is within walking or cycling distance. The best way to start off your Byron adventure is a coastal walk to Cape Byron Lighthouse which is Australia’s most easterly point.

Sunrise from the lighthouse is truly amazing and is the second place in the whole of Australia that light touches behind Mount Warning. In the not so far distance Humpback Whales, Bottlenose Dolphins and sea turtles can be seen. The walk is an easy 3.7 kilometers from the main part of town and takes 2.5 hours.

Byron Bay is known for its amazing fresh produce as most cafes and restaurants will only buy local and serve local produce. If you’re looking at getting some of this fine food, Byron holds a weekly market on Thursday were local growers can sell their food to the community. If Thursday doesn’t work places like The Farm is open seven days a week and is a fine example of Byron’s fresh produce.

Byron Bay is everyone’s Australian road trip dream and people from all over the world and Australia regularly descend to this dreamy destination.


The Gold Coast

Australian East Coast Road Trip Guide
The Gold Coast seen from Coolangatta

The Gold Coast is the gateway to the rest of Queensland, and has stunning coastlines and beautiful beaches. Also on offer are some of the best surf breaks along Australia’s East Coast. The Gold Coast spans from the New South Wales – Queensland border at Coolangatta and extends the bottom of Stradbroke Island to the north.

Coolangatta is home to Snapper Rocks, a world renowned surf break where the likes of Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning and Stephanie Gilmore compete in the World Surf League. Looking to the north of ‘Coolie’ as the locals would say; is that of the Gold Coast Skyline poking its head out the golden sand.

Burleigh Heads is a definite must visit with the pristine Burleigh Heads National Park and Tumgun Lookout glancing back to New South Wales and Tallebudgera Creek, a hotspot for swimming, barbecues and days out.    

Surfers Paradise is the main hub of the Gold Coast and a year round attraction to millions of international visitors and I still wonder why? Surfers is somewhat still stuck in the 2000s with quirky museums, Hummer limousines and gaming centers all under a complex sky rise of buildings. Out of all the places along Australia’s East Coast, Surfers Paradise, despite being so popular has never struck a chord with me and may only be worth a short stop on your Australian road trip.

Driving around the Gold Coast will certainly take you to epic beaches, cafes and all-round good times!

Beyond the Gold Coast, things start getting amazing and the real coastal towns come alive in Queensland!


Brisbane

Australian East Coast Road Trip Guide

Approximately 1,000 kilometers from where we started this epic East Coast of Australia trip is Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland and is much more chill than Sydney! Pronounced “Bris-Ben” or “Bris-Vegas” for locals, it’s a sports mad city!

Brisbane has the Brisbane River which originates high in the Great Dividing Range some 344 kilometers away. Everything happens around the Brisbane River, the true flowing heart of Brisbane with the Brisbane City Botanical Gardens springing to life as the cities number one nature spot.

Southbank tops the list of places to go in Brisbane and rightly so with clean footpaths, gardens and walking tracks spanning right around to Story Bridge on Kangaroo Point. Southbank has a series of delicious eateries but Brisbane isn’t all about food. Some of the best things to do here is check out the GOMA; Gallery of Modern Art and enjoy the cities thriving arts scene.

Just outside of central Brisbane is Mount Coot-ha holding the best view of the city. If you’re an early riser it doesn’t get much better than seeing Brisbane’s skyline lit by the sun.


Noosa Heads

Australian East Coast Road Trip Guide
Summer days in Noosa!

Picture this; golden beaches, crystal clear water, vibrant national parks and some of Queensland’s best coastal walks all within the vicinity of Noosa Village! Noosa rates amongst the best places in Australia. It’s a great place to go, throw a towel upon the sand, and soak in the sun in Australia. The best part is it’s only an easy three-hour drive from Brisbane.

Having only recently re-visited Noosa, I had no past memories of what it was like but this time around I was kind of shocked at just how beautiful Noosa really is! Beaches are the main attraction at Noosa, but once you wander further into Noosa Head National Park, the quieter and more beautiful the beaches become. Choosing a beach to relax at was a difficult issue as all are stunning.

We have all heard of pub crawls but beach crawls are the new thing in Noosa. The best beaches in Noosa are:

  1. Little Cove and Roses Cove beaches are popular family beaches right next to one another with stunning crystal clear water.
  2. Tea Tree Bay is a further 10 minute walk into Noosa National Park and the amount of people swimming are lessened dramatically despite been a safe place to don the swimmers
  3. Granite Bay is the last of the swimmable beaches and to me is the best of the best. From Tea Tree Bay, walk another 15 minutes over Dolphin Point Lookout for Noosa’s secluded waters.

Hastings Street is the place to hang out and grab a drink and meal with an awesome range of restaurants, ice cream vendors and coffee.

Noosa is a place where you just need to step out of the drivers seat, chuck on some bathers and soak up the sweet sun. I would highly recommend breaking up your Australian East Coast road trip here with at least a few day stopover.


Fraser/ K’Gari Island

Australian East Coast Road Trip Guide

While in Noosa why not venture an hour or two north to the biggest sand island in the world. Fraser Island, now more commonly known as K’Gari, the indigenous name for the island is a whopping 120 kilometers long and sits off the coast of Hervey Bay. It is home to the popular freshwater Lake McKenzie and Eli Creek which over the millennia have been filtered by the fine coarse sand that the body of water sits upon.

With an endless array of places to swim or even surf, K’Gari is home to a declining population of Dingoes. Dingoes are often seen roaming K’Gari’s beaches while feasting on fish, turtles or whatever they can get their teeth upon but don’t get too close as they can be deadly in packs.

Fraser Island is great for a camping trip with a good selection of camping spots available. However day trips are an option if based in Noosa with four wheel drive buses touring around the island on a daily basis.

You’ll have to make sure your vehicle can handle driving in the sand. So if yours isn’t you’ll have to swap it out for a proper four wheel drive. Once you get behind the wheel of that 4×4, Fraser Island is the ultimate place to road trip.


The Whitsundays

Australian East Coast Road Trip Guide

74 island’s not enough? In The Whitsunday’s, finding your own island private island will be of no issue and unless your car has a propeller, a boat will be your best option for island exploration here.

From Brisbane, Airlie Beach is a lengthy 12.5 hour drive so now might be the best time to get a roadworthy playlist going.

On the fringe of the Great Barrier Reef are the Whitsunday Island’s, accessible only by boat unless you are staying on the luxurious Hamilton Island. Some islands have resorts like Daydream Island, Hayman Island, and Hamilton Island. While others are completely wild and often untouched by humans. Perfect for sailing and sleeping under the stars on a yacht. It’s where you leave the car parked in Airlie Beach for a few days and chill out.

Airlie Beach is the gateway to all 74 islands and is where a huge variety of tours or private charter boats run frequently out to Hill Inlet. Hill Inlet is a silicon-rich beach with the clearest water in Queensland. It’s here you can go snorkeling with tropical fish off the coast of an island known as South Molle. Whitsunday Island Reef provides exceptional conditions for snorkeling and the water is a balmy 23°C all year round.

Hiking around these islands is also completely possible too. The Whitsunday Ngaro Sea Trail is a combination of hiking and boating with a variety of secluded camp spots on different islands containing a total of five short to long hikes. The highest point in the Whitsundays is Whitsunday Peak rising 407 meters above sea level.


Cairns

Australian East Coast Road Trip Guide
Always go chasing waterfalls!

2,669 kilometers later, Cairns is the endpoint of most Australian East Coast road trips. Cairns is the largest major city in Queensland before you hit Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea but before we think of jetting off to another country, Cairns and its surrounds are quite the place to explore!

Most people travel to Cairns for one main thing – diving the Great Barrier Reef. Yep, a cruisy two hours off the coast of Cairns is the largest living organism in the world. Home to not only pristine corals but exotic species of fish, dolphins, turtles and whales.

The Great Barrier Reef can be snorkeled and scuba dived with water temperatures sticking around 24°C all year round. Make sure to wear a stinger suit as these waters are home to deadly Box jellyfish. Don’t fret too much though, the dangerous jellyfish are rarely seen.

Australian East Coast Road Trip Guide

Inland from Cairns are some of the biggest and most raging waterfalls in Australia. Millaa Millaa Falls are a great sight to see and massive due to the high annual rainfall and occasional cyclones that hit the coast.

Barron Falls is the mightiest of waterfalls in Cairns and when I mean mighty, it gushes out 30,000 litres of water per second. When Cairns experiences rain events, it can double that. Barron Falls can be seen from Kuranda, a tourist village on the Atherton Tablelands about 45 minutes’ drive from Cairns.


How Much Time Does Roadtripping the East Coast of Australia Take?

You’re going to need a good chunk of time to travel the East Coast of Australia. If you have unlimited time I would recommend two months to travel from Sydney to Cairns leisurely.

If you’re moving fast you could probably knock out a majority of places on this list in just three weeks, but you’ll be moving. Natasha personally did the trip in three weeks, but it was jam packed with adventure and lots of driving.


East Coast Australian Road Trip Map


Plan Your Trip to Australia


Travel Insurance

We don’t travel without travel insurance and neither should you. You never know what can happen in a foreign country and it’s best to be prepared. World Nomads provides good short term coverage

SafetyWing is perfect for digital nomads. See our full review here!

Check Rates

Guide Book

Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your hands when traveling. We recommend picking up a Lonely Planet to get you through the wireless nights.

Guide Book

Camelbak
Hiking/Daypack Backpack

You’re going to need something to carry your belongings in while your traveling around Australia. Even if you’re not doing extensive hikes you need at least something small for day trips. My favorite daypacks are from Camelbak.

See our favorite hiking backpacks here!

Beach Packing List Sunglasses
Sunglasses

Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun in the mountains. There are a lot of options for sunglasses and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes.

We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2. Truthfully, not everyone needs to invest $150 in a pair of sunglasses, but they do make a huge difference from the crappy $10 ones.

Purchase Sunglasses

Sunscreen

Skin cancer is for real! Don’t forget your SPF when traveling around Australia. We recommend ordering some online before leaving the house as you will need it underneath the sun in the summer.

We highly recommend getting an eco friendly sun cream that does not contain harmful chemicals.

Get Sunscreen

Danner Mountain 600 Mens Travel Boots
Hiking Shoes or Boots

If you’re wondering what necessities to bring to Australia then sturdy shoes are perhaps the most important thing you will need.

I love my Merrell Moab Ventilators and have been going strong in them for two years! Check out my other recommendations on women’s shoes, and we have a post on the best safari boots.

Best Lightweight Hiking Boots

Sandals

A good pair of sandals is great for being comfortable on any day in Australia. This country is super laid back and relaxed and a sturdy pair of flip flops is well worth the investment.

I travel with my Rainbow leather flip flops which have gotten me through 80 countries so far. We spend 90% of our time in a pair of sandals when traveling around the world. The only time we opt for our boots is on bush walks, long hikes, and in busy dirty streets. You can always try hiking sandals like Tevas or Chacos too!

The Best Hiking Sandals

Best Down Jackets
Down Jacket

I ALWAYS have a down jacket with me on every single hike I go on in the mountains. They aren’t just good for hikes, but doing anything in the mountains. Even in July, you may still find yourself reaching for a jacket!

Down jackets pack up light and small so there is no reason NOT to have one in your bag. Seriously it could save your life in a bad situation. We wrote a whole post on our favorites (hint –Feathered Friends, Arc’Teryx Cerium LT Hooded JacketPatagonia Down SweaterREI Coop Down Jacket)

Feathered Friends

Best Travel Water Bottles
Waterbottle

Please consider purchasing a travel water bottle before your trip! We hate to see one time use plastic bottles ending up in the ocean.

Grayl Waterbottle

Buff Headband
Buff

I love my buff. I usually wear it for keeping my hair back, but it’s also served its purpose as a scarf and wet rag too. Buffs last for years and aren’t only helpful in the mountains. I actually wear mine every day when I’m snowboarding even traveling in the desert to block the sand from my face. It’s been one of my top travel accessory investments ever!

Get a Buff!


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About the Author

Calumn Hockey

G’day! My name is Calumn Hockey and I am a keen adventurer, traveler, and photographer from Bowraville, Australia. I have a huge passion for the mountains of the Himalaya in Nepal to the Southern Alps of New Zealand while being one who loves to become immersed in local culture. Over the past few years, I have been fortunate enough to travel to some pretty epic locations such as Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Nepal, and South East Asia. I might not have a high tally of countries under my belt but there is nothing better than exploring somewhere you love in depth and becoming connected with the sights and sounds. Keen to follow my adventures? Follow me on @CalumnHockey

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