The east coast of Australia has to be one of the most famous destinations for backpackers, and for good reason. From its gorgeous beaches, to the seaside towns, to the beautiful natural wonders, the east coast is filled with things to do. Plus, the east coast of Oz is also great for first-time backpackers because of its clear road signs, rampant hostels and tours, and plenty of like-minded travellers.
On our trip, we flew from Sydney to Alice Springs to Brisbane, then drove up to Cairns, before flying back to Sydney. Below, I’ve done a step-by-step guide of all of our main stops, so you can decide what’s right for your road trip!
1. Sydney (One Week): It’s a must-do on any Australian road trip. From the iconic Opera House to the Sydney Bridge, this major city has something for everyone.
2. Alice Springs/Uluru (4 days): Flying to the outback is not usually included in the average Australian road trip, but if you can fit it in, you definitely should! There is nothing like seeing the natural wonder of a wild kangaroo hopping against majestic Kata Tjuta. Plus, Alice Springs is a cute, quirky little town with tons of hidden gems!
3. Brisbane (2 days): Like Sydney, Brisbane is a cosmopolitan town with it’s own wonders. You can spend hours at the Queensland Museum, relaxing at the beautiful lagoon, exploring the wonders of the universe at the Brisbane Planetarium, or hitting it off with your fellow travellers at one of the wild hostels!
4. Byron Bay (1 day): Byron’s a quiet little hippy town right on the seaside. Although there’s no major tourist attractions, Byron has a beautiful beach and many gorgeous lookouts, and tons of quirky little shops.
5. Nimbin (1 day): A hidden gem just outside of Byron, Nimbin is the definition of quirky. Rainbow benches, graffiti spouting messages of peace, and tons of head shops decorate this little town. If you’re offended by the “green” way of life, Nimbin is probably not for you!
6. Gold Coast (2 days): With a big amusement park, a huge water park, and tons of nightlife at Surfer’s Paradise, the Gold Coast has something for all types of the young at heart.
7. Sunshine Coast/Noosa (2 days): The Sunshine Coast bleeds into Noosa Heads, a gorgeous area of Australia filled with sparkling beaches and national parks. Spend a day playing with koalas and kangaroos at the Australia Zoo or relax in one of the beachside suburbs, like Coolum Beach!
8. Rainbow Beach (2 days): One of the most popular destinations on the east coast, stunning Rainbow Beach is the jumping off point to Fraser Island. Fraser is home to the only pure-blood dingoes left in the world, as well as crystal-clear lakes, warm creeks, and it’s own shipwreck.
9. Airilie Beach (3 days): Airilie Beach is most famous as being the connection to the Whitsundays, a collection of some of the most beautiful islands in the world. But Airilie is fun in it’s own right, with tons of cute shops and funky bars. Don’t forget to schedule a day (or two!) to explore the Whitsundays, an unforgettable experience!
10. Townsville (1 day): Compared to the other sights on the road-trip, Townsville can seem a bit bland, but it’s a good place to rest between the long road from Airilie to Cairns. Grab some grub at one of your favorite chain restaurants you’ve been missing or see a movie to relax!
11. The Atherton Tablelands (1 day): Take a western detour from Innisfail to access the Atherton Tablelands, an area of rolling green pastures and grazing cows. The must-see is the waterfall route, three incredible waterfalls that only require short hikes to access. The climax is Millaa Millaa Waterfall, where you can swim in the pool right below the falls.
12. Daintree Rainforest: Not to be missed is the absolutely unbelievable Daintree Rainforest, about an hour and a half north of Cairns. If you’re like us and unable to make it all the way to Cape Tribulation, check out Mossman Gorge on the southern end of the rainforest. Be prepared to get hot, wet, and awestruck!
13. Cairns (2 days): With tons of souvenir shops, a huge lagoon, and restaurants galore, Cairns is a tourist’s dream. The main attraction is the many tours leaving to see what has to be Australia’s greatest wonder: the Great Barrier Reef. If you’re only going to do one tour on your trip, make sure this is it! There is nothing like peering through the turquoise water and seeing the many tropical fish living among the coral. Cross this one off your bucket list in Cairns!
14. Palm Cove (2 days): We opted to spend the last two days in a small suburb outside of Cairns called Palm Cove. A five-minute walk from a beach with bathtub-warm water, plentiful cafes with great coffee and pastries, and a selection of tiny shops with beautiful hand-painted souvenirs made this a great choice!