12 Stops On Australia's East Coast

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Whether it’s your first road trip along the abundant East Coast or you’re a seasoned traveller to this beautiful part of the world, there are 12 fundamental stops that you cannot miss. From dazzling cities to tranquil beach towns and island oases to surfer’s havens, East Coast Australia is particularly exquisite due to its variety and tranquillity. So, hop in your car, campervan or bus, buckle up and let’s explore the bays, beaches, islands, cities, mountains and forests of East Coast Australia.

Where to stop on the East Coast of Australia

From south to north

    1. Melbourne
    2. Sydney
    3. Byron Bay
    4. Gold Coast
    5. Brisbane
    6. Noosa
    7. K'gari
    8. Airlie Beach
    9. Magnetic Island
    10. Mission Beach
    11. Cairns
    12. Cape Tribulation

1. Melbourne, VIC

Australia’s renowned and beloved city, Melbourne (naarm), is your southernmost first stop on the East Coast road trip. Situated on the winding Yarra River, Melbourne's inner city and trendy suburbs have something for everybody. Daring, bold, grungy and industrial, this city is a place of music, food, Victorian-era architecture and contemporary art. The endless array of things to do, places to eat, and places to party has made Melbourne a favourite amongst backpackers, visitors and Aussies alike. Don’t miss the laden Victoria Market, colourful Fitzroy, charming St Kilda and the picturesque Docklands, along with a delicious flat white from Australia’s coffee capital!

A street in Melbourne covered in colourful street art

2. Sydney, NSW

Fun fact: Sydney is actually not Australia’s capital city. However, many think it is, because it is simply so iconic! And, the grand arches of the Sydney Opera House and the sweeping views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge will indeed greet you as you arrive in this beautiful harbour-side city! Think rooftop bars, beachside pubs, upmarket boutiques, excellent galleries and ample things to do. Hop on a classic yellow ferry, have a blast at Luna Park, shack up on Bondi Beach, explore the modern CBD or hit a glamorous nightclub - Sydney’s wonders await! If you’re itching for some nature, head one hour out to the Blue Mountains for incredible hiking, Indigenous cultural sites and thriving native flora and fauna. For a taste of the finer things, the Hunter Valley is Australia’s most renowned wine region and neighbours sprawling Sydney.

A seafood platter under the Sydney Harbour Bridge with champagne

3. Byron Bay, NSW

Get out of the city and go straight to the beach on the shores of the beloved Byron Bay. A chilled-out surf town at its core with an array of hip brunch spots, live music venues and weekend markets, the days always drift away in this gorgeous New South Wales township. Home to resident artists, hippies and musicians, the streets are always a fun place to be! There are so many wholesome things to do in Byron, like walking up to the picturesque lighthouse, paddling out at Wategos Beach, hiking through the bush to a waterfall or grabbing a beer at a beachside bar… simply paradise! Surrounding areas worth a visit include Ballina, Brunswick Heads, Nimbin and Lennox Head, which all have a unique, laid-back vibe about them too.

A wooden lookout of the vast blue Byron Bay ocean

4. Gold Coast, QLD

The sunny shores of Surfers Paradise await you with a stop at the Gold Coast. Less than a two-hour drive from Brisbane City, the “Goldie” is a haven for backpackers and beach-loving travellers. Here, the city and beach collide, so you really do get the best of both worlds. Boasting vibrant nightlife, gorgeous surf spots, excellent eateries, a bustling main drag and a real beach-hip vibe, it’s ideal for backpackers and keen travellers looking for an escape from the city, without sacrificing creature comforts and fun! With ample hostels, beachside apartments and activities like SUP tours, surf lessons, hinterland day trips and bar crawls, you’ll be set. Explore Mermaid Beach, Broadbeach, Southport, Miami (the Miami Marketta is the place to be!), Burleigh and the Spit for some out-of-the-way spots. Or, bound westward and hike through the cool, lush Tambourine Mountains for babbling creeks and sprawling forests. This area is also where all of the theme parks are in Queensland, so you can head to Wet’n’Wild, Movie World or Dreamworld for a day of assured fun.

Two women in colourful swimmers walking along Surfers Paradise Beach with highrises on the shore

5. Brisbane, QLD

Queensland’s urban jewel, Brisbane (meanjin) is a lively yet intimate city, sprawled along the impressive Brisbane River, with many funky pockets and diverse suburbs. And, it’s only a 1.5 hr from central Gold Coast! Attracting an array of visitors and travellers with its art scene (don’t miss GOMA and the State Gallery in Southbank), outdoor recreation (cool off in the free Streets Beach) and nightlife (Fortitude Valley boasts it all in one convenient strip). With ample sunshine and awesome backpacker-friendly things to do day and night, Brisbane is home to incredible suburbs, like West End, Kangaroo Point, Paddington, Toowong, South Brisbane, Newstead and more, you can find every kind of activity here! From rock climbing to koala cuddling and catching the farmers' markets to browsing the colourful op shops, Brisbane will steal your heart. If you’re looking for more quiet things to do, go for a swim at the Enogerra Reservoir, catch an artsy movie at one of the local independent cinemas or do a pottery class!

Brisbane river at sunset with a view of the ferris wheel and a ferry

6. Noosa & the Sunshine Coast, QLD

North of Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast is an exquisite and vast region, home to beautiful beaches, calm coves, tropical rainforests and charming hinterlands. However, it’s undeniable that the gem of this area is Noosa, a mesmerising part of the headland comprised of National Park, the sparkling Hasting Street as well as Sunrise Beach, Sunshine Beach and Noosaville. Discover the golden sands and calm waters of Main Beach, try surfing at Little Cove, and walk past Tea Tree Bay to the tremendous views from Boiling Pot. Here, you can spot dolphins, sea turtles and whales when the time is right! The Noosa area is a favourite amongst backpackers, with super social hostels and so much around you to complete your East Coast trip. Head out to Beerwah way to explore the special landscape of the Glasshouse Mountains, go to the famous Australia Zoo and spot a croc and explore sleepy and sweet towns like Maleny, Montville, and Yandina for your inland, hinterland fix. Other awesome surf and chill towns with excellent beaches include Peregian Beach, Coolum Beach, Sunshine Beach, Yaroomba, Alexandra Heads, Mooloolaba and Noosa North Shore.

Two women at a lookout in the trees overlooking surf at Little Cove

7. K’gari (Fraser Island), QLD

This extraordinary island, just off the coast of Rainbow Beach, is an unmissable destination on your East Coast adventure. Home to some of the most beautiful ancient rainforests in Australia, an assortment of breathtaking freshwater lakes, biodiverse wildlife and a rich Indigenous community. Stop by the emerald pool called Lake Wabby, swim in the glistening clear waters of Lake Mackenzie and relax in the natural spa called Champagne Pools! There is an array of things to do here, with four-wheel driving being the only way of getting around (K’gari is indeed the world’s largest sand island!). You can either catch the ferry across from Inskip Point, or Hervey Bay. Or, if you go with an organised K’gari tour, all of the travel, driving and fees will be included which makes for a breezy, worry-free trip.

Lake Mackenzie with people lounging on white sands and swimming in blue waters

8. Airlie Beach & the Whitsunday Islands, QLD

About a 12-hour drive north of Brisbane, begin your journey into tropical North Queensland with a stop at the buzzing Airlie Beach. This seaside town provides access to the unbelievably beautiful Whitsunday Islands, as well as the southern parts of the Great Barrier Reef. On the mainland, there are heaps of amazing free things to do in Airlie, like take a swim in the Lagoon, wander along the Esplanade to Cannonvale and embark on one of the many hikes for views of the Coral Sea. And, when here, it is essential to get out on a boat and snorkel, sail and swim your way amongst the gorgeous archipelago of the Whitsundays. The white sands of Whitehaven Beach, swirling views of Hill Inlet and Indigenous histories of the Ngaro people await you, amongst these breathtaking waters and islands. Turtles, giant clams, dolphins, glimmering fish and vividly-coloured corals inhabit the expansive seas, and most of the best times are had underwater either diving or snorkelling. And, at the end of the day, unwind on the deck of your tailored sailing trip with champagne or a beer, and let the good times roll in paradise… cheers!

A group of young people at Hill Inlet Lookout with a view of swirling sands and blue water

9. Magnetic Island, QLD

Located just offshore of Townsville, and about halfway between Airlie Beach and Cairns, you can’t miss a stop at the incredible Magnetic, or “Maggie,” Island! It’s all about palm-lined beaches, secluded bays, native wildlife, coastal walking paths and a laid-back backpacker scene at this FNQ haven with many things to do. Shack up at a hostel, where beachside accommodation is doable on a budget! Don’t miss the classic Forts Walk, or you can *literally* get off the beaten path and try the Horseshoe Bay to Radical Bay trek, or the Picnic Bay to Hawkins Point walk. Magnetic Island is home to a wildlife sanctuary where you can see koalas, wombats and more native wildlife. Rent a cute beach buggy 4WD to get around, or simply explore the pebbly corners and calm waters on foot. Get here by ferry from Townsville, and let island time take the wheel!

A jeep on the sand on Magnetic Island

10. Mission Beach, QLD

While a lesser-known gem, Mission Beach is a must-do on your tropical Queensland part of the trip. And, a local secret, it is here that you can have one of the best skydiving experiences in the whole of Australia; soaring over bright blue coasts and landing with your toes in golden sands! Mission Beach is a small, tropical township, and while your options for accommodation are limited (don’t hesitate to contact our local travel agents to get you last-minute deals), this is a beautiful town to take it easy and slow down in bayside bliss. You can head over to Dunk Island for a fun day trip, try White Water Rafting on the Tully River or check out the local farmers market in this charming destination with ample things to do for backpackers!

A skydiver in the air with their parachute out

11. Cairns, QLD

Certainly the hub of tropical magic and reef wonders, Cairns is a dream for backpackers and travellers. With diving and eco-tourism as the leading industry sectors, Cairns is a glorious gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Head out on a reef sail or cruise, where you can learn to scuba dive or opt to snorkel; you’re bound to find some amazing reef sites! These trips are fully inclusive, with gear, food and tutelage all sorted. Back on land, Cairns City offers a huge variety of things to do, like heading to Rusty’s Markets, checking out wildlife experiences, venturing to the free Lagoon and exploring the locally-owned bars, clubs and restaurants! If you’re looking to get out of town, don’t miss Palm Cove, Port Douglas, and Trinity Beach, as well as Green Island, Fitzroy Island and the Low Isles; the coral reefs are just dazzling! Craving a walk in the forest? You can’t miss a trip out to the beautiful Atherton Tablelands. Head out on the waterfall circuit with grand cascades and fairy pools, Walsh’s Pyramid for views out of ten, and Kuranda for a stunning bohemian town nestled in the trees.

Two people scuba diving with corals and fish in blue waters

12. Cape Tribulation, QLD

Last, but certainly not least, is Cape Tribulation! While relatively near to Cairns, this northward part of the region is quite unique in its ecosystem and townships. Known for the lush Daintree Rainforest (actually one of the oldest recorded ancient rainforests in the world), Cape Trib is where the reef and rainforest meet. Quite literally, on the golden shores. Home to cassowaries and emus, an abundance of birds and amphibians, spectacular towering trees and rich Indigenous culture, the Daintree and Cape Trib are the north-most stops that you can’t miss on your Aussie East Coast road trip!

A drone shot of Cape Tribulation,  with sand and rainforest meeting

How to get around Australia’s East Coast

There are many ways to travel Australia’s East Coast, the most popular being driving your own campervan or car, or catching the Greyhound bus with a Whimit East Coast Pass. Read our article on getting around the East Coast for specific information on transport in this part of the world! For more information on day-by-day road trip itineraries, how to get around on a budget and all the basics of travelling the East Coast on your working holiday or gap year, check out our travel guide.

A woman in a white dress and hat walking through the rainforest

Ready to hit the road and explore these 12 epic destinations (and a whole lot more hidden gems on the way)?

Take the hassle out of planning, and book our tried-and-tested East Coast itineraries to make sure you don’t miss a thing. Or, take our itinerary-designer quiz to tailor your own adventure to your Aussie bucket list!

East Coast Tours acknowledges all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owners of Country and recognises their continuing connection to land, sea, culture and community. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and extend that respect to all First Nations peoples.

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