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A Complete Guide: Travelling the East Coast of Australia

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The East Coast of Australia is up there with the most popular backpacking trails in the world. The Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsunday Islands, Fraser Island, the Great Ocean Road, Sydney’s Opera House… the entire coastline has many ‘must sees’ that continue to attract travellers from across the globe. Here at Nomads, we have traveled the East Coast numerous times and we can tell you now – it never gets old! So here it is… our complete guide to travelling the East Coast of Australia.

Where is the East Coast of Australia?

map of east coast
East Coast Map

The ‘East Coast Trail’ refers to the long stretch of road that follows the eastern coastline between Cairns and Melbourne. Traditionally, the East Coast began in Sydney, however as Melbourne’s alternative and cultural persona has attracted much international acclaim over the years, the southern city has now become a popular starting or ending point for many East Coast voyagers. For those short on time, the majority of the East Coast can be explored between Brisbane and Cairns.

Quick Facts:
  • The total distance along the coastline between Melbourne and Cairns is around 4000km
  • It would take about 50 hours of non stop driving to travel along the coastline between Melbourne and Cairns
  • The major highway connecting Brisbane and Cairns is called the “Bruce Highway” – can’t get more Aussie than that!
  • The East Coast is nothing like the Outback of Australia (or Wolf Creek). Although there will at times be long drives between each major tourist destination, you will find petrol stations and little towns at least every 30 mins apart
  • Aussie locals are very laid back and friendly. You will be including Aussie Lingo such as No Worries Mate, No Dramas, Heaps Good, Thongs and Barbie in no time! Check out our guide to Aussie Slang
  • Australia is an Eftpos nation – you will be able to pay by credit or eftpos card in most cafes, service stations, hostels, bars and supermarkets. However it is handy to have a little bit of cash when passing through smaller towns
Australian Weather:
  • Many backpackers assume that Australia is warm and sunny all year round! Because of the country’s size, it could be snowing in one state and 35 Degrees in the next!
  • Melbourne and Sydney can be quite cool during Winter (June to August) so make sure you pack a warm jacket, pants and closed shoe
  • Byron Bay to Bundaberg attracts mostly sunny weather all year round. As you head north of Bundaberg and into Tropical North Queensland you may need to prepare for wet season. Wet Season is within Australia’s summer season and usually hits the tropics between November and March. Expect tropical rain, high humidity and A LOT of sweat! We suggest packing a very light, waterproof jacket with a hood
How much time will you need to travel the East Coast?
  • Like every country, it depends on how you like to travel. If you have just 2 to 3 weeks, the major sites between Sydney and Cairns can ‘be done.’ However you will spend a lot of time getting to and from each destination and little time to relax and really explore what each destination has to offer. If you have 3 weeks or more, then you will be able to travel the coast between Melbourne and Cairns more comfortably. We usually suggest 4 to 6 weeks!
Cost (AUD):
  • A dorm room in a hostel will range between $25 – $40 per night
  • Coffee is around $3.50
  • Breakfast – most hostels offer all you can eat brekkies for around $5 per day. Eggs on Toast or Cereal will cost around $7 from a cafe.
  • Lunch & Dinner – Most major cities will have many restaurants and cafes available. Aussies love their international cuisine so you can usually find anything from Cheap Pizza places, Kebabs, Fish & Chips, Indian, Thai, etc. Main Meals will usually cost you around $10 – $20
  • Use the hostel kitchen and buy cheap food from supermarkets or the many great markets around Australia
  • Pint of Beer $7 – $10
Getting Around Australia’s East Coast:
  • Campervan Hire can be a great way of exploring the East Coast of Australia if you have more than 3 – 4 weeks of travel. Most campervan companies in Australia offer one way rentals between Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane and Cairns. There are many hostels along the coast north of Brisbane that allow you to park up for the night at a small cost and use the hostel facilities. You will also find many free camping zones outside of the major cities.
  • Greyhound and Premier are both public bus lines that tend to be the most popular form of travel for backpackers. Although these bus lines are open to the public, due to the popularity all services are usually jam packed with travellers. Both Greyhound and Premier offer flexible hop on and hop off passes between Melbourne, Sydney, Byron Bay, Brisbane and Cairns and they stop at all tourist destinations along the coast!
  • Hop on Hop Off Busses. The busses mentioned above both have hop on hop off options but you can also travel with Oz Experience, Stray Travel or Loka where you get a tour guide and are taken to some key locations asa well as being able to hop off and explore somewhere in a little more depth.
  • Fully Guided Tours are a great means of exploring the East Coast if you are a little nervous about travelling on your own, or only have a short amount of time. Tour companies such as Wayoutback and Topdeck offer fully inclusive tours along the coast
Accommodation on the East Coast
  • There are many budget accommodation options available along the East Coast of Australia. Nomads Hostels have properties in Melbourne, BrisbaneByron BayNoosaAirlie Beach, and Cairns.
  • To save $$ or keep your travels completely flexible, we suggest buying a multi-night accommodation pass that allows you to book as you venture along the coast. Most hostels along the East Coast are located in central areas and close to public transport.
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The Must Sees on Australia’s East Coast

Whether you are travelling along the coast by Bus, Campervan or Tour, here is our guide on where to go and what to see.

Melbourne

Melbourne is Australia’s cultural and artistic city with loads going on from film festivals, markets, live music, live theatre and rooftop bars. We suggest exploring Melbourne’s graffiti and coffee lined laneways (you can view our Top 5 laneways here) and taking a trip up to the top of Eureka Skydeck for 360 degree views of the city. A great way to explore the city for free is by hopping on the red city circle tram which provides commentary as you pass by the city’s iconic and historic landmarks.

St Kilda Beach is also well worth a day trip. The colourful beach side suburb is just a 15 minute tram ride from the city centre and is oozing with cafes, cake shops, bars and of course, the iconic Luna Park! If you have a few days in Melbourne, taking a tour along the Great Ocean Road and to the Twelve Apostles is also a must!

melbourne skyline
Melbourne City Skyline – depositphotos

Sydney

There’s no doubt that Sydney is one of the most photogenic cities in the world! You will need at least 3 to 4 days to explore the city and its surrounds. One of our favourite ways to get some great photo opportunities of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House is by purchasing a Ferry Ticket (around $5 – $10 for the day) and cruising around the CBD. The ferry also runs return transfers to Manly Beach – a great day out!

A day tour (or overnight for the hiking enthusiasts) to the beautiful Blue Mountains National Park is also a must! And of course – the Coastal Walk between Bondi and Coogee Beaches should also be on the top of your Sydney Bucket List. Public buses operate from the CBD to Bondi Beach and Coogee Beach all day. A walk down to Darling Harbour is also worth your while, as well as checking out Chinatown for a cheap bite to eat and Paddy’s Markets for a spot of souvenir shopping.

TOP TIPS

If learning to Surf (or if you consider yourself a pro), a stop by Mojosurf’s Spot X Surf Camp on your way to Byron Bay is a must. Located on a private beach front property 3 hours south of Byron Bay, both Greyhound and Premier Bus companies stop here. You can book everything from an overnight, 2 night or week long stay here. Packages include accommodation overlooking the coast, surf lessons, board and kayak hire, a bonfire and the ultimate chilled out atmosphere. Alternatively, Mojosurf also offer day lessons from Byron Bay.

sydney opera house
Sydney Opera House – iStock

Byron Bay

The most easterly point in Australia never fails to capture the hearts of travellers passing through. The vibe is chilled, the people are relaxed and the beaches and surrounding waterfalls and rainforest of the Byron Hinterland is amazing. If travelling to Byron Bay from Sydney (or in the other direction), we suggest getting an overnight Greyhound or Premier bus.

When in Byron Bay, a day trip to the historical and colourful hippie village of Nimbin should also be on your Byron Bucket List. The day trip is by far one of the weirdest and wackiest experiences we have ever had in Australia, rolling through the hinterland in a rainbow bus with the Bob Marley tunes a-blaring! Walking to Byron Bay Lighthouse for sunrise is an unforgettable experience and don’t forget to check out the markets.

things to do in byron bay lighthouse
Byron Bay Lighthouse

Gold Coast

Travelling 1 hour north from Byron Bay, you will arrive in Surfer’s Paradise (in the Gold Coast). Surfer’s Paradise is commonly compared to England’s Blackpool – and we love it! The nightlife is great, the beaches are amazing and there are 4 of Australia’s biggest theme parks all within a short drive away. We suggest 2 or 3 nights here, but if on a short time frame, you could probably scoot right through to Brisbane. If you are planning on heading to the theme parks you will need to allocate an entire day!

If you have a car, be sure to check out the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Gold Coast hinterland – there are loads of natural waterholes, walking trails, waterfalls and amazing lookouts to explore. Jupiter’s Casino is worth a cheeky visit and a spot of shopping at Pacific Fair never goes astray.

surfers paradise
Surfers Paradise

Brisbane

A 1 hour bus journey north of Surfer’s Paradise will land you in Brisbane. Don’t be fooled – Brisbane has a lot to offer. One of our favourite (and FREE) things to do in Brisbane is jumping on the Red City Hopper Ferry from Southbank and cruising along Brisbane River. You will get some great sights of the city, Storey Bridge and the Botanic Gardens. Jump off in Eagle Farm and head to Fortitude Valley for a few cheeky beers and a spot of shopping.

Brisbane’s night market scene is definitely on point (maybe because of the fantastic year round weather) and Westend is an alternative suburb with loads of cool bars and cafes worth visiting. XXXX Brewery offer tours for the beer enthusiasts and a trip to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary will have you getting up close and personal with the furry mammals. If you are looking for a little bit of island love, a day trip to Moreton Island is a must – a great place for snorkeling, spotting for dolphins and sand boarding!

brisbane river
Brisbane River – Tourism and Events Queensland

Noosa

Mmm… Noosa. Noosa is located in Australia’s Sunshine Coast and is just a short 2 hour bus journey north of Brisbane. Not only is it a popular gateway to Fraser Island, but it’s also the ultimate place to check out Australia Zoo. Make sure you explore the secluded beaches through Noosa National Park and see what wildlife you can spot. Not to be missed are the fantastic Eumundi Markets. We highly recommend trying surfing in Noosa or going on a kayak tour through the Everglades. We suggest a minimum of 2 to 3 days in Noosa to RELAX!

noosa festival of surfing

Fraser Island

Ok EVERYBODY who visits Australia wants to visits the world’s largest sand island! And there’s no surprises why. Fraser Island is home to some of the most stunning white sandy lakes and Eucalyptus Rainforests in the entire country. The island is BIG and the only way to get around is by a 4X4 vehicle. There are a number of tour options available including Tag Along and Guided options departing from Brisbane, Noosa, Rainbow Beach and Hervey Bay.

Most budget travellers will opt for the Tag Along option as it is a lot more affordable. If you have a license, you can actually drive the 4WD on the Fraser Coast ‘highway.’ Most Tag Along tours will have you joining a convoy with other travellers led by a professional driver in a lead car. You can camp or stay in a hostel on the island – and don’t forget to spot for Dingoes! Nomads Fraser Island offer 3 and 2 day Tag Along tours from Noosa.

driving in convoy
Driving in convoy on Fraser Island

Town of 1770 / Agnes Water

From Noosa or Rainbow Beach you will have a 15 hour, overnight bus journey to Airlie Beach – Whitsundays. Yep – we weren’t joking when we said Australia is HUGE! To break up the journey, many travellers tend to stop by a little, coastal town by the name of 1770. Located 6 hours north of Rainbow Beach, this is the place on the East Coast where the Great Barrier Reef meets the surf coast. It’s really chilled with a small town feel and the infamous Scooteroo Tour (where you drive around in a leather jacket on a Harley Davidson spotting for Kangaroos) tends to attract many backpackers to the region.

town of 1770
ogwen [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Airlie Beach – the Whitsundays

As you arrive into Airlie Beach you will really begin to feel the sense of being in the Tropics! As you cruise along the old Bruce Highway you will begin to notice Sugar Cane and Banana Plantations, towering green mountains and rainforest. To put it simply – you can get by day by day in flip flops, tees and shorts. As you arrive into the tiny yet bustling town of Airlie Beach, prepare to be blown away by the views!

Airlie Beach is the gateway to the 74 islands that make up the Whitsundays. There are loads of different tours and activities available – from fast paced day trips, overnight sailing tours, relaxed catamaran cruises and party tours on ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ style schooners! Most travellers will opt for a 2 day / 2 night sailing trip, but if you are short on time, we recommend a day tour with Ocean Rafting or a 2 day / 1 night trip on a maxi racing yacht.

The 3 day / 2 night sailing trips include onboard accommodation, food, most are BYO alcohol and snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. All tours will guide you to Whitehaven Beach – where the sand is so white and pure that you can actually clean your jewellery with it! If you have some more time in Airlie Beach, be sure to check out the surrounding walking trails. Or if you prefer to relax then chill by Airlie Lagoon and bask away your hangover at Airlie Beach’s man made beach. Or take a short drive to Cedar Creek Falls, a stunning ‘secret’ location.

hill inlet whitsundays sailing
Hill Inlet Whitsunday Islands – depositphotos

Magnetic Island

Magnetic Island is becoming more and more popular over the years as word of this tropical island paradise continues to spread. Greyhound and Premier bus offer pick ups and drop offs at the Magnetic Island ferry terminal in Townsville (located 4 hours north of Airlie Beach). Overnight island packages at Base Magnetic Island are available and include beach front accommodation, ferry transfers and a few extra goodies. It is the ultimate place to chill by the beach front pool, snorkel, check out the surrounding look outs and party the night away. Also – don’t forget to plan your trip around the Island Life Beach Party – it is EPIC!

magnetic island
Magnetic Island – iStock

Cairns

Travelling a further 4 – 6 hours north of Townsville – Magnetic Island you will reach the end of the East Coast Backpacker trail. Cairns is the adventure capital of Australia and there is pretty much any adrenaline activity on offer here – Bungy Jumping, Skydiving, Cable Ski, White Water Rafting, Jungle Surfing – you name it!

A trip to Atherton Tablelands is a must if swimming in natural waterholes, beautiful lakes and visiting the famous waterfalls as featured in Peter Andre’s “Mysterious Girl” is up your alley. Taking the scenic railway and cable car to the hidden rainforest village of Kuranda should be on your to do list. As well as a visit to nearby Fitzroy and Green Islands. The Great Barrier Reef is an absolute must do in Cairns. There is everything from day tours to 5 Day Open Water PADI Courses on offer. Have a chat to one of our MAD Travel staff to choose your best option.

You will be surprised by the vast differences between the small and humid town of Cairns vs the bustling streets of Sydney’s CBD. ‘Queenslanders’ are a lot more relaxed than their southern neighbours!

TOP TIPS

For those with enough time, we suggest a little stop by Mission Beach, a stunning rainforest town located just one hour south of Cairns. It is the best location to try White Water Rafting through Tully River and a popular spot to Skydive (imagine views of the Great Barrier Reef and a beach landing).

We also highly recommend an overnight tour to Cape Tribulation (with a one night stop over in Port Douglas). It’s located 2 hours north of Cairns and is where the Rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef.

Cairns Esplanade - Pier (Shangrila Hotel)

 

Want to Travel the East Coast?
We can help you plan your trip and get you the best deals! Our travel agents are standing by to help!

Click to Chat Now!

4 thoughts on “A Complete Guide: Travelling the East Coast of Australia

  1. Hi myself and 3 friends are hoping to do a trip fro Cairns to Sydney, Just wanted to enquire how much a 23- 25 day trip would cost
    Thanks a mill
    Julie

    1. Hi Julie, contact bookings@nomadsworld.com who can pass your enquiry onto someone who can help you. Give them approximate dates for your travel and any activities you’d like to do. If you include your phone number within the email they’ll be able to give you a call to discuss all the options.
      Alternatively you can pop into one of our travel shops (located at our hostels) and speak to a travel agent face to face.

  2. Looking for help planning an itinerary for my wife and myself. I’m competing in a regatta in Hervey Bay November 15-23. From there we will have 10 days, with a car, to see what we can. We imagine we would travel north from there, ending up in Cairnes where we would fly out. We live at the beach, so we don’t want to spend all our time focusing on beaches. We are healthy/active 50ish year olds, who love wildlife and nature. It would seem that we would start with an overnight trip on Fraser Island. We prefer local flare and flavor over posh accommodations.
    Any suggestions on where we could turn for help making arrangements? We have so little time and there is so much to see and do. Thanks, Tracy and Kim

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