July 12, 2020

Travelling the East Coast of Australia: what you need to know

The East Coast is home to some of Australia’s biggest highlights. The world’s biggest coral reef, the world’s biggest sand island, the world’s biggest roofed stadium outside North Korea, oh, and the world’s biggest (plastic) banana. Spanning more than 3000km of sun-kissed coastline, the road trip from Cairns in tropical North Queensland to hipster haven Melbourne via sparkling Sydney is Australia’s most well-worn backpacker trail — a convoy of camper vans chasing beautiful beaches, adrenaline-fuelled adventures, idyllic islands and non-stop nightlife. From Fraser Island and the Great Barrier reef to Bondi, Brunswick and Byron Bay, this is everything you need to know about travelling the East Coast of Australia.

travel east coast australia, Sydney harbour at sunset

Sydney harbour, ?:Getty Images

Jump straight to:

    1. Best way to travel the East Coast
    2. How much does it cost to travel the East Coast?
    3. How long does travelling the East Coast take?
    4. Best time to travel the East Coast
    5. Accommodation around the East Coast
    6. Best places to visit around the East Coast
      1. Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef
      2. Townsville and Magnetic Island
      3. Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands
      4. Central Queensland
      5. Hervey Bay and Fraser Island
      6. Sunshine Coast
      7. Brisbane
      8. Gold Coast
      9. Byron Bay
      10. Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie
      11. Newcastle and Port Stephens
      12. Sydney
      13. South-Coast
      14. Canberra
      15. Melbourne

Best way to travel the East Coast

To travel East Coast Australia is to tackle some serious territory. Cairns to Melbourne via Brisbane and Sydney is a 3600km marathon that’s like driving from Glasgow to Istanbul via Munich and Belgrade. One of the best ways to travel and the one most backpackers still choose is to road trip it — most car and van rental places like Maui, Britz and Jucy offer one-way rentals for this exact East Coast Australia itinerary.

Renting a camper van seems like a good idea to save money, but you can’t just camp anywhere — expect a tap on the window if you’ve just pulled up at some random beach rather than paid for a spot at a caravan park or a designated campsite, which aren’t dirt cheap and are sometimes booked out. That’s why the comfort of a hostel is always a good investment.

Driving gives you so much more flexibility and usually works out cheaper than public transport, especially when it allows you to see places like national parks that you’d otherwise have to fork out for a tour to see. Petrol costs about $1.50 a litre and car rental starts at about $30 a day. Split between a few mates, buying a set of wheels might even make sense for a long trip.

There are ways of getting around without a car, too. Greyhound and Premier buses both run a few services a day up and down the East Coast, while daily trains link Sydney with Melbourne and Brisbane (the Spirit of Queensland up to Cairns is a posh service that doesn’t fit into many backpackers’ budgets). Cut-price carriers like Tiger and Jetstar also offer affordable domestic flights — you can often spot Sydney to Melbourne for as little as $40, though it’s usually around $100, roughly the same price as the much, much slower bus or train.

travel east coast australia, Flinders Street Station Melbourne

Flinders Street Station Melbourne, ?:@jamesdominko

How much does it cost to travel the East Coast?

So how much does travelling the East Coast of Australia cost? A hostel bed is about $20-40, a cheap meal is $10-15, beer or wine is at least $5-8, and organised tours — like a cruise of the Whitsundays or the Great Barrier Reef — cost $100-plus per day. Then you’ve got transport (car, bus, train or flights) on top of that. Budget about $60-70 a day, plus travel and tour costs.

How long does travelling the East Coast take?

How long it takes to travel the East Coast depends on how long you stay. To tick off all the places on the list below, six weeks would feel like a sprint, and even two months would fly by. Lounging around the beach is the whole point of these lazy beach towns, and who can put a time frame on that? If you’ve got a stricter schedule, fly rather than drive and cherry-pick the highlights: Cairns for the reef, Byron for the beach, then Australia’s two biggest cities Sydney and Melbourne. At a pinch, you could squeeze this into a fortnight.

Best time to travel the East Coast

It’s too cold for the beach — well, by Australian standards anyway – down south during the cooler mid-year months, and Melbourne has particularly bitter winters. Up north though, many beaches are closed over summer because of stingers (jellyfish that are as painfully stingy as they sound), while the tropics are also battered by monsoonal rains that time of year.

So, if you’re feasting on the entire East Coast enchilada, head north in autumn or migrate south in spring. For instance, catch the last of the summer sun in Melbourne in February or March before arriving in the tropics around June, or start in the North Queensland sunshine mid-year while Sydney and Melbourne warm up by October or November. Shoulder season suits shorter stays, April and October are relatively sunny and stinger-free everywhere. Crowds and costs crank up around the Christmas holidays so stay at home with your mum — she’ll appreciate it.

Accommodation around the East Coast

Australia has plenty of variety when it comes to hostels, so you can tailor your hostel picks to the kind of traveller you are. There are lots of hostels in Queensland with pools and outdoor seating areas, so you can soak up the Aussie sun and take a dive when it starts to really heat up. Gilligan’s Backpacker Hotel & Resort Cairns is a must stay for all pool party lovers.

You can find contemporary hostels in Sydney and Melbourne in central locations, with great social spaces like on-site bars. Wake Up! Sydney Central is right near Central Station and offers heaps of activities like fitness/yoga classes, city tours and trivia nights. Rowdy backpackers can also join in on one of their legendary parties at the the Side Bar!

Plenty of hostels in Australia are surrounded by exotic flora and fauna. For a true blue Aussie experience, stay at Bungalow Bay Koala Village YHA to make some furry friends! The Blue Mountains Backpacker Hostel will give you easy access to one of the most stunning nature parks in the country!

travel east coast australia, social area at Wake Up! Sydney Central

Wake Up! Sydney Central, Sydney

Best places to visit around the East Coast

1. Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef

travel east coast australia, the Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef, ?:Getty Images

The Great Barrier Reef stretches along 2300km of sun-kissed Queensland coastline, and the city of Cairns  is the most convenient jumping off point. Hop on a tour to scuba-dive, snorkel or swim around this underwater oasis— make sure you book an operator with an eco-certification and a license to see the colourful stuff further out, because coral bleaching has ruined a lot of the reef closer to the city.

The town itself doesn’t have a beach, but the lagoon and esplanade gives somewhere to swim. Better outdoor adventures are found on day trips to tropical paradises like Green and Fitzroy Islands, or the town of Kuranda hidden in the rainforest high above the city. Cairns is also an adventure capital for bungee jumping, skydiving, white water rafting, and anything else that gets your adrenaline pumping.

A night out at infamous party hostel Gilligan’s Backpacker Hotel & Resort Cairns is perhaps the most hair-raising experience of all, pouring the cheapest drinks in town at their on-site pub and nightclub. Start your East Coast Australia itinerary with around four nights in Cairns… more if Gilligan’s hangovers erase a couple of days.

Cairns is surrounded by a string of possible extra stops, too. The twisting one-hour drive north to Port Douglas— an upscale resort town containing the curvaceous Four Mile Beach — leads you to the doorstep of the Daintree Rainforest, an ancient ecosystem crawling with crocodiles and swimming holes (not at the same time, if you’re lucky). The road north runs out in Cape Tribulation, where the rainforest meets the reef. Daintree Crocodylus Village is perfect for those who want a secluded stay among nature, where you could also spot some local wildlife.

Inland, backpackers go chasing waterfalls (and fruit-picking jobs) in the Atherton Tablelands. And two hours’ drive south lies Mission Beach, one of the few places on earth where you can spot the rare and elusive cassowary bird, as well as a skydiving hotspot and the launchpad for Dunk Island.

How many days: 4

Compare all hostels in Cairns

travel east coast australia, Gilligan’s Backpacker Hotel & Resort Cairns

Gilligan’s Backpacker Hotel & Resort Cairns

2. Townsville and Magnetic Island

travel east coast australia, port at Townsville

Townsville, ?:Getty Images

Three hours driving through sugarcane fields and banana plantations brings you to Townsville, the de facto capital of North Queensland — and more importantly, the departure point for the tropical paradise that is Magnetic Island.

Maggie, as the locals call it, is only a 20-minute ferry from Townsville, but it feels like a different planet. As well as the stunning tropical scenery — the place is covered by more palm trees than a Bounty wrapper — Maggie’s big pull is the chance to get up close and personal with Australian wildlife like kangaroos, koalas and wallabies.

In fact, Bungalow Bay Koala Village is the only hostel in Australia with its own wildlife sanctuary on-site, putting on breakfast with the koalas plus the chance to snap a selfie cuddling one of the furry little fellas. Spend a couple of nights in one of the A-frame cabins around the serene pool nestled among the gardens.

How many days: 2-3

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3. Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands

travel east coast australia, white sand on Airlie Beach

?:Getty Images

Airlie Beach is another bustling backpacker hangout, full of travellers either itching to sail the Whitsunday Islands or busy bragging to friends back home about the white-sand wonderland they’ve just experienced. The Whitsundays are a shimmering highlight for anyone travelling the East Coast of Australia, and Airlie is the gateway. The 74 islands might be covered in Australia’s glitziest resorts, but backpackers don’t have to miss out on the fun, with stacks of budget island-hopping cruises setting off from Airlie Beach with a bed on the boat plus food thrown in.

One of many posh hostels in town, Bush Village Budget Cabins oozes a chill vibe from the moment you arrive at reception — the desk overlooks the pool area, where your new mates are sunning themselves in the poolside hammocks. Bliss.

How many days: 4

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travel east coast australia, pool at Bush Village Budget Cabins

Bush Village Budget Cabins, Airlie Beach

4. Central Queensland

travel east coast australia, beach at Bundaberg

Bundaberg, ?:Getty Images

Mackay, Rockhampton and Bundaberg — plus places like Innisfail and Bowen further north — are where backpackers on working holiday visas go to complete their farm work to extend their stay. But there are definitely some reasons to spend the night in Central Queensland that don’t involve picking fruit.

Mackay bookends the southern stretch of the Great Barrier Reef. The Capricorn Caves are carved into a limestone ridge near Rockhampton. Agnes Water is the first surf break south of the reef. Bundaberg boasts the distillery of Australia’s favourite rum, as well as Mon Repos beach, where impossibly adorable turtle hatchlings take their first tentative steps towards the shore in the first three months of the year.

And if nothing else, Airlie Beach to Hervey Bay is a mammoth 10-hour drive, so somewhere like Rocky halfway in between is a convenient pit stop for one night.

How many days: optional, 2-3

Compare all hostels in Queensland

5. Hervey Bay and Fraser Island

travel east coast australia, Scarness Pier Hervey Bay at sunset

Scarness Pier Hervey Bay, ?:Getty Images

The whale-watching hotspot of Hervey Bay is your entry point to Fraser Island, the largest sand island on the planet. More than 120km long and 20km wide, Fraser is blanketed in sparkling freshwater lakes like the serene Lake Mackenzie, shipwrecks rusting on pristine beaches, and a wild strain of dingo unique to the island.

Jump on a three-day tag-along tour where guides lead a convoy of four-wheel drives (4WDs) bashing along the sand – sorry, but your banged-up old campervan won’t cut it here. Back on dry land, the family-run Aussie Woolshed is a truly unique place to stay — a slice of the bush plonked in the middle of Hervey Bay with raw timber, corrugated iron, plus stirrups and saddles swinging from every beam. Rainbow Beach just south of Fraser Island is another stunning stop on the road south.

Compare all hostels in Hervey Bay

How many days: 4

travel east coast australia, dorm room at Aussie Woolshed, Hervey Bay

Aussie Woolshed, Hervey Bay

6. Sunshine Coast

travel east coast australia, girl walking up steps at noosa national park

Noosa National Park ?:@samanthalreid

Noosa attracts plenty of upmarket Australian visitors escaping winter in the southern states, which explains all the trendy cafes, expensive boutiques and glam holiday villas. But even backpackers can afford the Sunshine Coast’s natural treats — diving into turquoise water, treading coastal walks through the Noosa National Park, kayaking the Noosa Everglades, then re-hydrating at Noosa’s many watering holes.

The Sunshine Coast is also where you’ll find Australia Zoo — the sanctuary set up by the late, great Steve Irwin, whose family continues his legacy — about 20 minutes’ drive inland from Caloundra, or 45 minutes from Noosa. Halfway between Fraser Island and Brisbane (two hours each way), the Sunshine Coast is a nice place to put your feet up on the sand for a couple of days before hitting the big city.

How many days: 1-2

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7. Brisbane

travel east coast australia, brisbane skyline at sunset

?:Getty Images

Residents of rival cities impolitely describe Queensland’s capital as a big country town, which is a little unfair. Brisbane mightn’t have the same pull as beachy Sydney or artsy Melbourne, but it’s worth a day or two of your East Coast Australia itinerary. Parks line the Brisbane River snaking through the city centre, Westend cafes and balmy night markets offer something for foodies, the XXXX Brewery pumps out the Sunshine State’s magical elixir, and there’s a lively row of Brisbane hostels on Upper Roma Street near Suncorp Stadium — the closest thing this sports-mad city has to a sacred site.

Brisbane is also a good base for day trips, particularly the laid-back North Stradbroke Island and the unspoiled Moreton Island, where you can snorkel or scuba-dive the historic Tangalooma shipwrecks. If you’re short on time, you could also tackle the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast on day trips from Bris Vegas.

How many days: 2-3

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8. Gold Coast

travel east coast australia,person standing at Surfers Paradise Gold Coast at sunset

Surfers Paradise Gold Coast, ?:Getty Images

The postcard image of the Gold Coast is of skyscrapers towering over golden sand. And sure, that version of the Goldie exists in Surfers Paradise — a Glitter Strip of nightclubs, casinos and high-rises that party-loving backpackers will lap up. BUNK Surfers Paradise is the newest hostel on the Gold Coast, with bright and brand new rooms only 100 metres from the sand, plus a sun-drenched pool lounge and stylish common areas you’d expect to find at a Generator in Europe.

But the Gold Coast stretches a lot further than that — 52 kilometres, in fact. South of Surfers, more blissful beaches like Burleigh Heads and Coolangatta are blessed with more than 300 days of sunshine a year. Inland, the jungly Gold Coast hinterland is protected by the Tamborine, Springbrook and Lamington National Parks. And the Goldie is also home to Australia’s premier theme parks — Dreamworld, Wet ’n’ Wild, Warner Bros. Movie World and the like. Surfers Paradise might get old after a couple of nights, but you could spend a lot longer relaxing in a calmer corner of the coast.

How many days: 2-3

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travel east coast australia, brown leather sofas BUNK Surfers Paradise hostel reception

BUNK Surfers Paradise

9. Byron Bay

travel east coast australia, person on the beach at byron bay with a surfboard

?:@bradhalcrow

Only an hour over the Queensland-NSW border, Byron is quintessential East Coast Australia. Miles of beaches. Lush national parks. Pubs and cafes galore. No wonder there’s so many backpackers. Make loads of time in your itinerary for Byron Bay— it’s one of those places that sucks you in like quick sand, where the receptionist checking you in at the hostel arrived two years ago in a camper van and never left. The brand new Byron Bay YHA captures the vibe this town is famous for, with leafy gardens and kaleidoscopic murals surrounding a stylish pool area.

Cape Byron lighthouse marks the most easterly point on mainland Australia, casting a shadow over the bongo drum players, sun-bakers, yoga instructors and learning-to-surfers gathered on the sand below. Graffiti-caked streets house specialty coffee shops, craft breweries, artisanal bakers, cocktail joints, quirky art galleries, new-age eateries and everything else hippies and hipsters drool over. Oh, and Chris Hemsworth lives here, so you might spot Thor just chilling at the beach.

Byron Bay used to be a sleepy beach town, but it’s boomed with beach-loving backpackers, Sydney escapees and Hollywood A-listers in recent years. Ninety minutes down the coast, Yamba feels like Byron 20 years ago — join Shane’s legendary ten-buck tour from Yamba YHA to hear about all the best bits.

And in the Byron Bay hinterland you’ll find Nimbin — a town that whiffs like the inside of an Amsterdam coffee shop. This ‘alternative lifestyle’ capital (read: heaps of Bob Marley, heaps of dream catchers, and heaps of pot) contains an otherworldly YHA where you can sleep in a yurt overlooking the misty valleys of the Northern Rivers region.

How many days: 2-3 (depending on how much chillout time you want!)

Compare all hostels in Byron Bay

travel east coast australia, people sunbathing on Yamba YHA hostel rooftop

Yamba YHA

10. Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie

travel east coast australia, Muttonbird Island Coffs Harbour

Muttonbird Island Coffs Harbour, ?:Getty Images

Coffs Harbour (three hours’ drive from Byron) and Port Macquarie (another 90 minutes south) are a pair of convenient pitstops for road-trippers travelling the East Coast of Australia.

Coffs Harbour is known for the Big Banana, but if you stick around for longer than a selfie with this 13-metre long piece of fruit, you can visit even more great beaches, national parks like Dorrigo or Bongil Bongil, and the nearby new-age town of Bellingen.

Port Macquarie boasts, you guessed it, even more stunning strips of sand, as well as a heart-warming Koala Hospital that helped rehabilitate countless animals affected by the bushfires that ravaged this part of the world in late 2019.

How many days: 1

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11. Newcastle and Port Stephens

travel east coast australia, coastline at Newscastle

Newscastle, ?:Getty Images

Newcastle — about two hours south of Port Macquarie — is the next nice stop breaking up the long drive to Sydney. An old mining town that still welcomes huge shipping containers into its harbour, Newy delivers a lot of the charm of Sydney — golden sand just a stroll from the city centre, cafes and pubs overlooking the water, a cutting-edge food and drink scene, particularly when it comes to coffee — without the crowds or the cost.

If you’ve got a bit of time to spend in Port Stephens, check out the dolphin capital of Australia – Nelson Bay, a series of secluded surf beaches around the Tomaree National Park, and the sand dunes of the Worimi Conservation Lands, a sacred Indigenous site. The country’s oldest wine region, the Hunter Valley, also sits next door to Newcastle — the purpose-built YHA is fringed in vines.

The Central Coast, halfway between Newcastle and Sydney, is another pile of gorgeous beaches. But a lack of hostels and public transport means it’s not exactly a hub of backpackers.

How many days: 2 days

Compare all hostels in Newcastle

12. Sydney

travel east coast australia, two girls standing in front of the sydney skyline

?:@cinjarella_glassslipper

Sydney is one of the most spectacular cities on the face of the earth, let alone just the East Coast of Australia. The glittering harbour shows off two globally recognised landmarks — the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The coastline is covered with world-class beaches. Here you can conquer the clifftop linking Bondi with Coogee to see Tamarama, Bronte, Clovelly and Gordon’s Bay, and catch the ferry to Manly for the essential Sydney Harbour experience. Inner-city neighbourhoods like Surry Hills and Newtown are packed with excellent cafes, bars and eateries (sorry, Melbourne, but Sydney’s cool too). And green spaces like the harbourside Botanic Gardens and the vast Royal National Park pepper the map.

Spend as long as you can (i.e. as long as your budget permits) in Sydney, but you’ll never get to the bottom of your to-do list no matter how many nights you stay. Backpackers have more than 80 hostels in Sydney to choose from, and most are based around Central Railway Station in the city centre, plus plenty near the beach in Manly, Bondi and Coffee. But Sydney Harbour YHA is the standout for those wanting the ultimate city experience. A custom-built property in the historic Rocks district, the hostel’s rooftop terrace has unimpeded views of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge — an ideal backdrop to the free wine and cheese night every Thursday.

The best day trip from Sydney is the 90-minute train or two-hour drive to the Blue Mountains, named after the shimmer created by this never-ending eucalypt forest. The Echo Point lookout in the town of Katoomba provides the picture perfect vista of the Three Sisters rock formation, but an overnight stay gives you time to trek the web of walking trails that criss-cross the forest floor.

The country’s busiest airport is a sensible start or end point to any East Coast Australia itinerary, and Sydney to Cairns is the most backpacker-friendly chunk of this route. But there’s plenty to see south of the Harbour City, too.

How many days: 4-5

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travel east coast australia, people eating food on the roof terrace of Sydney Harbour YHA

Sydney Harbour YHA

13. South Coast

travel east coast australia, Jervis Bay beach

Jervis Bay, ?:Getty Images

Many travellers dash straight from Sydney to Melbourne — 900km that you can smash out in less than nine hours, plus breaks, but the coastal route reveals miles more golden sand. Start in the Illawarra region an hour’s drive south of Sydney — the city of Wollongong, like Newcastle, is another old mining town ringed by brilliant beaches. Don’t miss Jervis Bay and the Instagram-famous Hyams Beach  (which reportedly has the whitest sand on earth)  on the road trip further down the coast.

Batemans Bay, another two and a half hours down the coast, opens up even more secluded arcs of sand. The beaches of the South Coast are much quieter than their Queensland counterparts up north, and most travellers here are grey nomads crawling their way around Australia, rather than backpackers looking for a party. So save your goon bags for Cairns and Airlie!

The south-east corner of the country is picturesque — Eden is as heavenly as it sounds, and so is the Mornington Peninsula on the road to Melbourne. But it isn’t exactly hostel central, so backpackers should just belt out the trip to the Victorian capital.

How many days: 5-6 days

14. Canberra

travel east coast australia, national museum in canberra

?:Getty Images

The more direct route from Sydney to Melbourne swings through Canberra, about three hours’ drive from the Harbour City. The nation’s capital has an undeserved reputation as being boring, expensive and full of politicians. Canberra was only founded to settle a squabble between Australia’s two biggest cities over which one should be the capital, and it kind of feels like it was built out of an Ikea flat pack.

Despite the attention on Sydney and Melbourne, Canberra is actually pretty cool. The Australian War Memorial, National Museum and National Gallery are engrossing for history buffs. There’s not one but two parliament houses to visit after a new one was built in 1988. Speaking of adults behaving like children, the hands-on Questacon science museum is a must-see. And the food and drink around Lonsdale Street matches anything you’d find in Melbourne and Sydney, even though the tables are filled with politicians. The city is home to some major national universities, so great nightlife has inevitably followed. Check out the city’s cocktail bars or dance up a storm at its buzzing clubs!

How many days: 2

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15. Melbourne

travel east coast australia, cobbled street with street art in melbourne

?:@anniespratt

Melbourne is Australia’s capital of culture. Capital of coffee. Capital of cool. It’s the country’s hive of food and fashion, as well as Australia’s sporting epicentre — the Australian Open tennis in January, the Formula One in March, the horse-racing carnival in spring. Then there’s the city’s true obsession: AFL football, which lights up the mighty 100,000-seat sporting ground (MCG) over winter.

Feast on coffee, kale and quinoa in bohemian inner-city neighbourhoods like Fitzroy and Brunswick. Admire artistic graffiti on the walls of Hosier Lane and Centre Place, as well as galleries like the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Museum for Contemporary Art. Soak up the history oozing out of buildings like the State Library, Flinders Street Station, Old Melbourne Gaol and the ornate Royal Exhibition Building in the Carlton Gardens. And catch the sunset in St Kilda, as the little penguins come ashore after a day at sea.

There’s a collection of excellent hostels near Flinders Street, headlined by United Backpackers. Look forward to ultra-modern rooms, free pancakes for breakfast, and events seven nights a week in their secret underground bar. Most backpackers need at least four or five days to burrow into Melbourne.

To continue your East Coast Australia itinerary, head west of Melbourne down the Great Ocean Road in the Adelaide direction. As stunning as the drive from Cairns has been, nothing compares to the cliffside twists and turns of this stunning stretch of rocks snaking along Australia’s south coast. The 12 Apostles (giant standing rocks along the beach), can be bashed out on a day trip from Melbourne, but spend the night to explore every twist and turn.

How many days: 4-5

Compare all hostels in Melbourne

travel east coast australia, people chilling on sofas at United Backpackers hostel

United Backpackers

Brush up on your Aussie accent, grab your thongs, and soak up that stunning Eastern coastline. What are you waiting for mate?

Have you been to any of the places on the list, or know of some secret spots we didn’t mention? Tell us in the comments!

Keep reading:

? Farm work in Australia: everything you need to know, from job search to visa

? Discovering down under: your guide for backpacking Australia

? New Zealand backpacker guide

About the author:

Tom Smith is an Australian writer living in Manchester. Obsessed with sport and travel, Tom has watched cricket in Cardiff, football in Fortaleza, baseball in the Bay Area, and there’s still plenty more to tick off the bucket list yet. Read more of his work here.

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