I count myself lucky to be an American who’s had the pleasure of visiting Australia more than once. I’ve been twice now, both times for work, but with some fun sprinkled in. I won’t bore you with the details of the trips, per se, but instead will focus on the cool stuff I got to do along the way.
Before we get into the parts of Australia, here’s a few tips overall:
- Check your visa needs before you go! You will get stopped at the airport (at least in the US/UK) if you don’t. If you’re coming from the US (and likely many other countries), you have to apply online for the visa ahead of time and pay a fee ($20 AUD). It doesn’t take long to grant the visa (less than 24-hours) and it’s electronic, but you still have to do it before you go. If you aren’t sure what visa requirements apply to you, one of my favorite sources is cibtvisas.com. Just put in where you’re coming from, going to and the country of your passport and voila!
- Don’t count on American Express. My employer uses Amex for our corporate cards (which is a super nice perk and I’m very grateful for it!), but 90% of everyday places in Australia don’t take it. (Yes, the nicer restaurants / establishments tend to.) When I’m there and not doing stuff for work, I’d prefer to live like a local, which means going into small bakeries or hitting street sales. American Express is not your friend at these places. Make sure you’re traveling with Visa or Mastercard and ideally a chip card. Tapping to pay is also a common thing, so if you’ve got data on your phone, that’ll work. If you prefer to use cash, I’m a fan of just withdrawing money from an ATM with my bank card (vs. exchanging USD somewhere). I’ve never had an issue with it in Australia and with my bank, some ATMs are even free of charge!
- Coffee is never regular (American) coffee. You will be hard pressed to find drip coffee in any part of the country, but if you like espresso, try a long black. Otherwise, find somewhere that offers french press coffee (even this is hard to come by). However, if you like espresso, get excited because they have TONS of amazing espresso for your enjoyment.
- If you can manage business class (or find an amazing fare), DO IT! Coming from pretty much anywhere, the flight to Australia is worth the business class investment. For US folks, it’s basically a minimum of 14 hours and depending on where you live, you’ll probably need to tack on a few hours to get to a city where flights down under depart. I’ve flown through Vancouver, CAN, Houston, TX and Los Angeles, CA. All were pretty easy, but the flight times for the long leg varied a bit – LAX was 14 hours, YVR was 16 and IAH was 17. So, as stated, business class is WORTH IT. The food is amazing, the alcohol helps with sleeping and, oh yea, depending on who you fly with, you will 100% get a lay flat bed and maybe, just maybe, a pillow topper for that bed and PAJAMAS!!! Not to mention, you’ll get lounge access at the airport (so free food and drinks and a quiet, clean place to hang out). I recently flew United Polaris and the experience was insane. Here’s a few pics to show you what I mean:
(the cart shown was bringing around dessert – there were tiers of delicious treats and an ice cream sundae option as well; you can see the provided bedding and pajamas on the long haul flight; the food shown was on my flight to Houston before I picked up my long leg…so this was just basic first class food! I don’t have any Polaris food pics, but rest assured, it was fantastic.)
First up, Sydney, in the state of New South Wales. This is the major city for Australia, and where you will most likely fly into or through depending on your final destination in Australia or, in many cases, New Zealand. Sydney is BEAUTIFUL and has lots of great things to offer both in, around and not-completely-far from the city.
First, some general notes about Sydney:
- There are two parts to the city itself: the CBD (Central Business District), which is on the South side of the bridge and North Sydney, which is on the….north side of the bridge. By “the bridge” I, of course, mean the Sydney Harbour Bridge, one of the most iconic bridges in the world. (I think I might have a thing for bridges…). The CBD is definitely more active than North Sydney, but there is some neat stuff on the north side of the city that I recommend below (I stayed on the north side for work).
- Public transit is great. I HIGHLY recommend getting an Opal card when you arrive. You can get them lots of places, including the train station at the airport. An Opal card makes it easy to use public transit to get into and around the city. The cab/uber ride from the airport into the city can get pretty pricey even though it’s only a 20-30 minute ride. The train is like $10-12 AUD. Anyway, the Opal card is great because you can use it for busses, trains, and ferries (all of which you should try – they are all easy to navigate especially if you have GoogleMaps or similar (or are familiar with reading timetables online)).
- There are lots of neat neighborhoods just outside the city, including Bondi, Manly and Neutral Bay. Some are best to get to by Ferry (Manly), train (Neutral Bay), or bus (Bondi) – just really depends on where you’re coming from / going. Explore all options and see more of the greater city area than just downtown / the harbour.
- Sydney isn’t really that far from great natural areas. Obviously, the ocean runs along the east side of the city with the very large harbour in the middle, but just about 2 hours slightly north and mostly west on a train and you’re in the gorgeous Blue Mountains region. It’s definitely worth the train ride out, but more about that below.
- There are luggage lockers around the city where you can drop your bags when you first arrive or before you leave (if you can’t yet check-in to or have already checked out of your hotel). I think we paid maybe $15 to have our luggage stored for several hours before our evening flight out. This was great because it allowed us to roam around the city freely! We used this place, but there are lots of options.
Okay, now, let’s get into recommendations. This is by no means an exhaustive list (I am only one person who can only do so much!), but these were the things I did, and enjoyed, whilst there.
- Botanic Gardens – this is a great ‘when you arrive’ activity. You can do as much or as little walking as you’d like – there are spots to just chill on the grass by the water, or you can wind your way through the miles of pathway. It’s also right by the Opera House, so two birds, one stone.
- For Americans, you’ll get in usually pretty early in the morning. Hopefully you’ve caught some shuteye on the plane and can stay up for the day because that’s the goal. When you land, stay up as long as possible, ideally until at least early evening, and then go to bed and sleep until morning. This should get you acclimated within a day. PS, coming back to the states SUCKS and the jetlag is way worse so just prepare yourself. At least you won’t be tired on your vacation. 🙂
- Opera House – this is right at Circular Quay, the central ferry terminal for Sydney (this is also a central spot to pick up a train, bus or cab). Quay is pronounced as key. Anyway, you have to see this while you’re there – you almost can’t NOT see it, so that’s good. But if you aren’t in the city, make it a point to get there to see it in person. It is both bigger and smaller than you think it’s going to be. It’s also apparently amazing to actually see shows in. I didn’t, but a colleague of mine did and really enjoyed it.
- Note, there are lots of nice restaurants around this area. Sydney Cove Oyster Bar is quite yummy, although a little pricey. There’s also some shopping, although if you’re looking for a souvenir shop, I’d actually recommend just waiting until the airport on your way home. I found the airport prices to be cheaper than the stores in the city AND they had all the same stuff (maybe even more / better options!).
- Syndey Harbour Bridge walk – this is simple and free – walk from the CBD to North Sydney (or the other way around) at least once. You will have beautiful views of the water, bridge and city. You could do the Sydney Harbour Bridge climb, where you go up and over the bridge, but it’s somewhat pricey (I saw anywhere from $260-$400 AUD). I opted for the free version, although maybe someday if I’m ever back there, I’ll give it a go.
- The Rocks Market – Every Saturday and Sunday you can find a little street fair market in The Rocks. This is an area to the Southeast of the bridge right by the water / docks. If you start at Circular Quay and you’re facing the ferry station, it’s to your left – follow the pathway around until you get just past the Art Museum and head up the hill toward the cobblestone road. You should see lots of stalls with handicrafts, clothing, art and food. If you aren’t there for the weekend, there are still lots of cute little restaurants and shops in this area.
- Helicopter Ride over the city – my husband was able to come out during my first trip to Sydney and we did this together. There were INCREDIBLE views of all parts of the city and it really wasn’t all that expensive (maybe like $150 AUD per person, which with the conversion at the time was only like $115 / person for 15 minutes in the air). Here are some pics to show you why you should do it. We used Blue Sky Helicopters and took public transit to get there. That was a little bit sketchy, as we had to walk near a highway and around the airport, but we managed. The tour company was great – we were in a mixed group with two other couples and my husband got to ride up front with the pilot, so had probably the best view out of everyone!
- Bondi Beach – we decided to rent bikes from Bronte (one neighborhood over) and ride to Bondi Beach. It was an absolutely incredible and enjoyable ride until we went downhill a TON and got to the bottom and realized we’d have to ride back up 🙂 That said, it wasn’t that bad and was totally worth it because the Icebergs Club and Bondi Beach are both beautiful. We happened upon the annual Sculpture by the Sea event, which is right near Bondi Beach in the cliffs and it was really cool. It was pretty packed, so beware that could be the case for you, but it’s every year right at the beginning of summer (so end of October / beginning of November – different hemisphere).
- Coogee to Bondi walk – I have not done this myself, but I’ve heard from others who have that it’s amazing. It is an urban coastal walk which takes you on a 6 km hike/walk.
- Manly Beach – this is a must-do in my opinion. If I were to live in Sydney, I’d definitely live in Manly. There is a great beach, shopping and tons of awesome restaurants and cafes. There is also a lot of hiking and other outdoor sport to do! And, it’s only a 20-30 minute ferry ride, with more great views, from Circular Quay. Please note, you can use your Opal card for either the normal ferry (30-minute ride, cheaper fare) or the Manly Fast Ferry (20-minute ride, $9.10 fare as of Nov. 2018); both have bars. Some of my favorite places in Manly are:
- Hugos – this is right at the ferry terminal when you come in, but it’s also on the water. It’s an Italian restaurant with really fun cocktails (and even cocktail jugs – I had the apple / watermelon one and it was DELICIOUS) and yummy plates to share.
- Manly Greenhouse – I went here for afternoon cocktails on a Sunday and it was jamming at the 3rd floor bar. However, this is where it’s at. It’s an open air spot with fantastic views of the water. They also have really fun cocktails and even pretty good “bar food,” which is much better than American bar food. We got arancini with fresh provolone inside, white bait (these are tiny little fish – you eat the whole thing tip to tail), and fat chips. Even the chips (aka fries) were great and they came with a really good aioli.
- The Pantry – this place is right on Manly Beach (not across the road where the majority of places are) so it has unobstructed views of the open water. It’s pretty spectacular. They also have really nice food and you can get cocktails.
- Manly to the Spit Bridge hike – if you do decide to make it over to Manly, which you should, then you could make your way back toward the city on the Manly to the Spit Bridge urban coastal hike. This is a 10km walk up and down the coast from Manly to Mosman. It is definitely a little bit intense in some parts, and it is pretty long, so be smart about if/when you go. Make sure to take plenty of water, wear sunscreen and dress for the weather. I made the trek on a beautiful 80 degree day and really enjoyed it, but I definitely was sweating up a storm and the sun was beating down on me. In hindsight, probably should’ve worn a hat. You can pick up this hike at either end – if you start at the Spit Bridge (probably a better starting point than a finish, because after you finish in Manly you could enjoy a drink or food and there’s not much near the bridge in Mosman), take the stairs beneath the bridge to pick up the trail. If you start in Manly, when you come out of the ferry terminal, turn left and follow the path behind the little beach there. You’ll see signs periodically to let you know you’re on the right path. At one point, I did have to ask someone for directions, but he was an incredibly friendly Aussie who told me exactly where to go to pick it back up.
- Mr. Wong – this is a restaurant in the CBD. They don’t accept reservations unless it’s for a large group, so if you want to go, I recommend showing up right when they open so you can get a seat quickly. Otherwise, you’re in for a long wait. This place is a really cool and delicious Chinese restaurant. Definitely opt to share plates – we did a chef’s special steamed dim sum to start and then a veggie, a rice and two meats to share for our main (amongst 3 people) and it was the perfect amount. It is a pricier restaurant, but everything I’ve had there has been excellent (I went on both of my trips…so that might tell you something…)
- On my recent trip, we wanted to go for a nightcap after dinner, so we headed to Tank Stream bar around the corner. They were closing, but directed us to this basement speakeasy around the corner (that, coincidentally, is attached to Mr. Wong through a door in the lower level) called Palmer and Co. It had a very cool 1920s vibe and really good cocktails to boot.
- O Bar and Dining – the hubs and I have started to develop a thing for revolving restaurants (well, maybe I just like them and he goes along with it…I don’t know) but we went to our first one in Seattle at the Space Needle and had the pleasure of visiting one of the TWO rotating restaurants in Sydney, O Bar and Dining. From what I’ve heard, this is the better of the two (it’s in tall, circular office building, not the Westfield tower). The food was absolutely amazing and I got to visit this spot on both trips as well (we had a work event there one night on my recent trip). It is definitely on the pricey side, but with the 360 degree-view of the city every 80 minutes, it’s worth it. Plus, did I mention how good the food was?!
- Flaky Tart Bakery – this is on the north side of the city just over the Harbour bridge. If you decide to make that walk and are looking for a little snack before you head back to the CBD, hit up this little spot. Go down the stairs and turn right toward the road and then right again before the road. It will be directly on your right-hand side (you may or may not have to cross under the bridge, depending on which side you walked over on). I went there one morning for breakfast and had a fantastic quiche with ham and a fresh-from-the-oven, still-warm doughnut that really changed the whole outlook of my day.
- Whale watching – this is only a good idea during certain parts of the year when the whales are likely migrating along the coast, but if you are there during the peak season, it’s a fun time. I can’t find the name of the company we went out with, but there are lots to choose from. Our boat was a pretty small, but very fast, one. I would not recommend if you get easily seasick – take a bigger boat out. We had a great time and got to see a few different whales while we were out.
- The Blue Mountains – if you’ve got an extra day, fit this in. It’s a 2-hour train journey from the city, but the train ride itself is quite scenic and is very smooth. We grabbed breakfast and enjoyed it on the train and just hung out. When we arrived, we booked a bus tour which took us to a number of scenic spots. One of the best stops was Scenic World, which allows you to take a few gondola rides and this super steep train-like ride down the mountain. It would be a great place to take kids too! There are also some neat antique shops in town if you’re looking for more shopping. And then you can take a nap to recover from the day on your train ride back to the city.
I have almost no records of my time here (it was only ~2 days total), so I can’t tell you what I ate or drank or enjoyed (but do have some pics below), but here’s what I will say: Melbourne (pronounced by the locals as Melbun with the emphasis on the Mel) is a very cool city. It is a little more artsy / funky / laidback and is supposed to have one of the greatest coffee scenes in the world. So, if you have some extra time or want to city hop, I’d recommend this as an option.
Great Barrier Reef (Cairns, Australia, QLD)
When the hubs came out to join me on my first trip, we decided it’d be a real shame NOT to visit the Great Barrier reef. It is dying, after all. So, we stayed for a few days in Sydney before heading up to Cairns, a coastal city that has lots of options for getting out to the GBR. I wouldn’t recommend the place we stayed (it was a bit of a dive hotel, but it was cheap), but this is a cool little town. Though they don’t have a proper beach for lounging, they do have tons of souvenir shopping and lots of options for getting out to the reef. We used Down Under Dive and had a great experience. We did two rounds of scuba diving and some snorkeling. It was our first time with scuba and it was such a fun experience. We definitely want to try it elsewhere.
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Throughout our entire time in Cairns, we walked everywhere. It’s a very small town and easy to navigate on foot. A few places of note in Cairns:
- Four Cinq – this was a really good ramen place we went one evening. If you like ramen, I would definitely recommend it because it’s actually authentic.
- Foot and Body by Healing Touch – this was in the Orchid Plaza shopping centre. My hubs and I got a couples massage for super cheap and it was really good. We walked out of there feeling dazed because we felt so relaxed.
- The Esplanade Lagoon- this is right by the water and is a massive pool / kids water play area.
Finally, I’ll leave you with my personal recommendations on the best souvenirs to bring back home with you:
- Timtams – these are an Australian cookie treat. There are tons of different flavors. This time I brought home caramel and mint chocolate chip and both were soooo good. You can buy these at any grocery store.
- Kangaroo scrotum coin pouch – these are a huge hit with the family back home because they are so bizarre. And don’t worry, Aussies eat kangaroo meat (and they are kind of a nuisance like deer are in certain parts of the US), so nothing is going to waste. You can buy these at any souvenir shop / most shops in the airport.
- Other Kangaroo leather products – shoes, glove, wallets, etc. You can buy these goods at many souvenir and airport shops.
- Wine – Australia is known for its many wine regions, so there are lots of options to choose from. You can buy from one of the numerous wine shops around the city.
- Aboriginal art – this work is often characterized by a dot painting technique and makes for very cool artwork. You can buy at one of the many galleries in the city or from souvenir shops.
- Casey’s Chocolates – this might be harder to find, but I met this guy at a street sale in Manly on a Saturday and he let me sample (and ultimately sold me) some super delicious chocolate that he makes. It is all dairy-free and it’s quite a treat.
If you want more ideas or to chat through anything you’re planning, leave a comment below! I’m by no means an expert on Australia or Sydney, but I do have some base knowledge and lots of friends there who can help with expert advice too!