A ‘Once in a Lifetime’ Two Week Trip to Australia

Growing up in small town Pennsylvania, travelling to Australia seemed like a dream trip. So far from the United States, I imagined if I ever made it there, I’d need to see and do everything possible in only a week or two.

In reality, I was fortunate to have nearly two months to road trip around four states in Australia- Western Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. It was beyond anything I could have imagined, and I left eager to return with musings of even living in Melbourne or Sydney one day.

Whether you have more time, as I did, or are on a two week holiday, you won’t be disappointed with what Australia has to offer.

Sydney stole my heart with its visual wow factor and sunshine. From amazing weather, to pristine beaches, great bush walks, an ace cafe culture, and tasty tipples, there’s no shortage of ways to pass the time. There are ways to pack a lot in, if you’re so inclined, but Sydney, like the rest of Oz, is so laid back, you’ll want to chill like the locals.

In tropical north Queensland, rainforest meets reef. Queensland has it all- idyllic islands, ancient rainforest, wildlife experiences that cue Australia, and of course, the Great Barrier Reef.

And, of course, there’s Melbourne, a city I preferred to Sydney, which is really saying something, considering how much I enjoyed the latter. Famed for some of Australia’s best coffee, Melbourne is more than cool cafes, boutique bakeries and trendy shops. Melbourne’s alleys and laneways are also home to some of the world’s best street art. Say nothing for a trendy, international food scene, beautiful beachfronts, and rolling mountains and vineyards a stone’s throw from the city. Voted the world’s most liveable city several times over, it’d be an understatement to say we liked Melbourne- we absolutely loved it.

You may love Sydney more than Melbourne, but that’s the beauty in venturing to and exploring places for yourself. If you’re planning a trip to the land down under, read on for my recommendations on how to see some of the best bits of Australia in only two weeks.

How to plan your trip

Candidly, not much planning went into our trip. While living in Indonesia, I decided to meet up with a close friend, who was traveling Australia and expore together for nearly two months. We planned a road trip around Western Australia, and that was about the extent of it.

From there, we planned things once we got to places, and loved having the flexibility to make a few unexpected stops in Brisbane, Noosa and Byron Bay, as well as extend our time in Sydney.

If you’re visiting for a short holiday though, and traveling across the world for it, I’d plan key things to do in each place, as well as your flights (you’ll likely get better rates by booking ahead). Resist the urge to plan every moment of the day though- you’ll want to chill out when you’ve reached the land of laid back.

Whenever I plan a large, timed trip, I use Google docs to list out recommendations and key things to do in each place. Then, I create a custom Google map to mark things I’m interested in. This way, I know where cafes and restaurants are in proximity to things I want to see, and can go with the flow, depending on what I feel like on any given day, without forgetting about places people have recommended or I’ve read about and want to visit.

As you’re planning, try to account for the fact you may have jet lag. In this itinerary, I’ve included Melbourne, Cairns and Sydney, and while I would have loved to add short stops in Byron Bay and Alice Springs (Ayers Rock / Uluru), I don’t think flying that much would be as enjoyable on a short trip with long-haul flights either direction.

When to visit

In your planning, keep in mind Australia’s seasons are reverse the US and Europe.

Many visit in summer (December – February), and the fringe months before/after for the best weather. Prices will also be the highest this time of the year. We visited in winter/early spring (mid-August-September), and enjoyed moderate temps (65-75 Fahrenheit most days), as well as pretty good weather (lots of sunny days, only a few bouts of rain). Melbourne was a bit chiller than Sydney, and Cairns was the warmest place we visited, but the weather in all three was decent.

Unlike other parts of Oz, Cairns is best experienced in winter- it’s milder, less rain. Queensland only has two seasons- wet and dry. Because we visited in the midst of the dry season, we had clear skies, and hot, but relatively mild temperatures. Our dive conditions were wonderful, albeit the water was a bit cold. And, an added bonus to diving when we did, jellyfish were far less likely.

How much to budget

Oz gets flak for being expensive, and while it is costly in comparison to nearby Southeast Asian countries, I found things to be a bit more affordable than in the US or UK. As with other destinations, there are ways to scale back on spending- eating meals in, staying in hostels or camping, limiting alcohol, and so on.

For the most part, our daily food budget was $15-20 AUD per person, which usually covered two coffee drinks, and one meal out (often brunch). For our other meals, we bought simple groceries from Aldi to have (granola bars, fruit, vegetables, hummus, pita, etc.). If I was going on a shorter trip, I’d likely treat myself to meals out more, but my point is it’s possible to enjoy cafes and restaurants without spending a lot of money.

Another way to save money? Skip hotels. Throughout Australia, we stayed in private rooms with en-suite bathrooms of people’s homes via Airbnb.

Finally, consider the time of year you visit- off-season travel is a great way to find deals, both on accommodation and tours. For instance, when we visited in winter, our Airbnb listings were 50-60% less per night than staying in budget hotels or private rooms of hostels. During peak travel times, you can expect them to be more competitive in price.

How to get around

Fly between major cities- Jetstar is a fantastic budget airline, and take public transport when you can.

  • Sydney: Consider renting a car if you plan to do things outside the city (Blue Mountains). Otherwise, you can take public transit (get an Opal card; reload on your phone), or use ride sharing
    • To/from the airport: Use the public train
  • Melbourne: You’ll need an Myki card to use the buses, trains and trams. As with Syd, I’d rent a car for trips outside the city (Great Ocean Road). Downtown Melbourne is compact and walkable though, and ride sharing makes it easy to get around the city’s different neighbourhoods quickly
    • To/from the airport: Take the bus if you have time, or use a ride sharing service for speed
  • Cairns: Rent a car for the first or last day of your trip if you’re exploring outside the city. Otherwise, plan on walking or using ride sharing
    • To/from the airport: Use a ride sharing service for ease

We loved having a car for some of our stay in both Sydney and Melbourne- it meant we had more flexibility with how we spent our days (e.g. easy to go from the coast to a cafe inland, or check out a hike outside the city). With the roads being in good condition, I’d recommend self-driving for jaunts to the Blue Mountains or Great Ocean Road over a group tour every time. You’ll have way more flexibility in when you start and end your trip (allowing you to get an early start and beat the crowds to some spots), plus can see things on your own terms.

Things you must pack

You can pick up anything you forget once you’re in Australia, so don’t stress about remembering medications, toiletries or other specifics.

The one thing I’d recommend? Bring warm clothes, even if you’re visiting in summer. Weather varies significantly from tropical Queensland to southern Victoria, so it’s likely you’ll get good use out of a jacket and scarf.

Key advice to know before visiting

WiFi Access: WiFi was good throughout the cities we visited. In our Airbnbs, we had high speed WiFi, which we specifically looked for to be able to work, but don’t expect this to be the case everywhere. Many cafes in Oz do not offer free WiFi, so if you’re planning on connecting to check directions as you wander, you may have a tough time doing so.

SIM Card Options: I bought a 30-day SIM upon arrival at the airport with Optus. At the time, Optus was running 50% off deals, making a 30-day SIM with loads of data fairly affordable (~$20).

Currency: While in Oz, I paid for most things with my digital bank card (Revoult), as many things are contactless. I did carry a small amount of cash with me to cover tiny purchases, such as a pack of gum or parking fee.

Tipping: Tipping is not common practice in Australia, though at times, we left small tips for exceptional service.

Places you can’t miss: A sample jam-packed itinerary

The real Australia is out of the cities.

Whilst places like Sydney and Melbourne are great, the highlight of any trip to Oz are its natural wonders- the wildlife, the Great Barrier Reef, the thousands of beaches, and beautiful bush. 

It hurts my heart not to put Western Australia or Byron Bay on this itinerary, but doing so would simply be too much for two weeks. Allow me to wax poetic for a moment about how much I loved both parts, though, and perhaps consider extending your visit to three or four weeks ;).

Western Australia is about as far away as you can get- Perth is even known for being the world’s most isolated capital city. Oft overlooked by travelers who are keen to see Sydney and Melbourne, Western Australia is pure magic.

There’s just no place quite like it- WA is the laid back vibes Aussies are known for with some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen, and land, that for the most part, has remained rugged and untouched. Reflecting on our time in Oz at the end of the two months we spent traveling, we both agreed the week we spent in WA was a real highlight of our time there.

And, no one, it seems, is immune to the magic of Byron Bay.

With a town slogan of: Cheer up, slow down, chill out- Byron has a reputation completely unique to anywhere else in Australia. With beautiful coastline, perfect weather, close proximity to the hinterland, and a distinct boho vibe, there’s no arguing Byron is a special place. It could be the free spirited energy- the feeling you can do whatever you want, and be whoever- but, whatever it is, you’ll sense it the moment you arrive.

You know what they say: Save the best for last.
Even though we loved every stop on our Oz road trip, Byron Bay felt like the cherry on the top.

That said, Australia is the sixth biggest country in the world. Two weeks isn’t a lot of time to see much of it, especially if you’re factoring in long-haul flights each way.

While I may have loved the remoteness of WA and laid backness of Byron Bay the most of anything during my time in Oz, I can’t deny how incredible it was to see sights in Melbourne and Sydney, or dive the Great Barrier Reef. Dreams come true, in so many senses.

If you’re making the journey, I wouldn’t try to cram too much in- especially if it means flying around constantly. While you should plan your time as related to what you plan to do in each place, I’d recommend:

[Fly into Sydney; likely you’ll route through Dubai or Singapore in route] – 1 day
Depending on what time you arrive in Sydney, I’d continue straight on to Melbourne. Yes, you’ve travelled a long way, but doing so means you’ll avoid further splitting up your trip. Assuming you do so, then the rest of your trip could look a bit like:
-Melbourne: 4 days
-Cairns: 3 days [fly from Melbourne]
-Sydney: 5 days [fly from Cairns]
[Depart to return home] – 1 day

Of course, if flight times don’t align, you could spend time in Sydney first, then head to Cairns or Melbourne- I know flight schedules play a big part in itinerary planning.

The best thing to do in each destination

MELBOURNE

Voted the world’s most liveable city several times over.
Endless vibrant street art.
A not to be messed with coffee culture.
A trendy, international food scene.
Oodles of cafes churning out bomb diggity smashed avo toast.
A buzzing cultural scene with loads of art and music events.
Plus, beautiful beachfront and rolling mountains within easy reach.

It’d be an understatement to say we liked Melbourne- we absolutely loved it. Loved in in a way we talked about moving there one day.

  • Favorite things to do: Drive the Great Ocean Road (possible to do as a day trip); Wander to find street art; Visit the South Melbourne Market
  • Favorite place to eat: Hardware Societe; Hash Speciality Coffee; South of Johnston; Agathe Patisserie; Pidapio; Chin Chin; Rice Paper Scissors; Betty’s Burgers
  • Favorite places for coffee: Market Lane; Proud Mary Coffee Roasters; Duke’s Coffee Roasters; Brother Baba Budan; The Kettle Black; St. Ali
  • Favorite cultural site: National Gallery of Victoria

// Posts About What to See & Do in Melbourne //

CARINS

Cairns is perfectly situated on Australia’s eastern coast. Far up in north Queensland, it overlooks the marine wonder that is the Great Barrier Reef, and the tropical climates of the Daintree Rainforest.

Queensland seems to have it all- idyllic islands, ancient rainforest, wildlife experiences that cue Australia, and of course, the Great Barrier Reef.

  • Favorite things to do: Road trip the Atherton Tablelands and waterfall circuit; Drive Captain Cook Highway to Port Douglas (stop at Four Mile beach)
  • Favorite place to eat: Hemingway’s (pizza & pints); Pantry 15 (acai bowls)
  • Favorite places for coffee: Blackbird Laneway; Anne’s Caphe
  • Favorite cultural site: Diving the Great Barrier Reef

// Posts About What to See & Do in Carins //

SYDNEY

Sydney has a visual wow factor that compares to few other cities. It’s the kind of place where surfers and renowned chefs vye for the same produce at the local farmers markets, where people spend each weekend at the beach, and where homes with water views abound.

From amazing weather, to pristine beaches, great bush walks, an ace cafe culture, and tasty tipples, there’s no shortage of ways to pass the time in Sydney. There are ways to pack a lot in, if you’re so inclined, but Sydney, like the rest of Oz, is so laid back, you’ll want to chill like the locals.

  • Favorite things to do: Walk from Bondi to Coogee; Spend a half day in Manly; Visit the Royal Botanic Gardens, and walk to Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair for sunset; See the Sydney Opera House, an absolute must; Day trip to the Blue Mountains to hike
  • Favorite place to eat: The Grounds of Alexandria; Chin Chin; Gelato Messina; Three Blue Ducks; Barenaked Bowls; NOMAD; Plus, many of the below coffee recos for fantastic brunch
  • Favorite places for coffee: Porch and Parlour (Bondi); The Grounds of the City (CBD); Bootsdarling (Darlinghurst); Single O (Surry Hills); Reuben Hills (Surry Hills) Paramount Coffee Project (Surry Hills); Celsius Coffee Co (North Sydney) 
  • Favorite cultural sites: The Rocks (do a historic walking tour); Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)

// Posts About What to See & Do in Sydney //

Have you ever been to Australia? Is it on your list of places you’d like to venture to one day?

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One thought on “A ‘Once in a Lifetime’ Two Week Trip to Australia

  1. To be honest, Australia hasn’t been high on my list of countries to visit; I’d actually prefer to visit New Zealand first before Australia. But your itinerary has made me rethink and prioritize Australia as a potential place to head over to sooner than later (granted, once the pandemic subsides and international travelers are granted entry in!), not just for the beautiful, colorful streets of Melbourne, but also for the pristine Great Barrier Reef (before it disappears one day). And I can also say that I’ve been to another continent! Thanks for sharing and piquing my interest in Australia. 🙂

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