Australia holds the top spot on many travelers’ bucket lists. Extraordinarily beautiful and filled with natural wonders, sophisticated cities and animal life found nowhere else on Earth, it’s no wonder so many dream about a trip Down Under.
But Australia’s vast size means the places visitors want to see are often separated by thousands of miles. Our insider guide to Australia will show you how to navigate the country like a seasoned explorer.
Located in the Southern Hemisphere between the Indian and Pacific oceans, the country is comprised of the massive Australian continent, the island of Tasmania and several smaller islands. It occupied a relatively lonely position in Oceania. Its closest neighbors are Papua New Guinea and Indonesia to the north and New Zealand to the southeast. Madagascar is 5,500 miles to the west; Antarctica is located to the south, some 4,500 miles away.
Before becoming a British colony in the 1770s, Australia was inhabited by around a million Aboriginal people. The British used Australia as a penal colony for roughly a century, but emigrants also came. A gold rush in the mid-1800s brought an influx of settlers, and the country’s six states eventually came together under a single Constitution in 1901. Today, nearly 25 million people live in Australia, 62 percent of whom live in five coastal cities.
Money and Tipping
The official currency is the Australian Dollar. Most urban establishments accept credit cards, specifically Visa and Mastercard. ATMs are widely available, though transactions may be subject to hefty fees. Australia also levies a 10 percent goods and services tax.
Tipping is common in Australia, but by no means required. Tip between 5 and 10 percent in restaurants; round up the fare to the nearest $5 for taxi drivers. Tipping is usually not expected for services in hotels.
English serves as Australia’s de facto official language, but it’s not recognized as such by the government. Still, some 77 percent of Australians speak English at home. Some 200 other languages are spoken in Australia, including indigenous languages.
Australian English is similar to British English, but the former includes a more colorful vernacular and slang, thanks to the dialect of many convicts brought to the island in the 19th century. You’ll find slang terms vary from state to state and some words have entirely different meanings than in other English-speaking countries. For example, ask for a can of beer, and you’ll be given a “tube”.
Culture and Etiquette
Australia is extremely laid back, so you should have no worries about etiquette. Aussies are very friendly and call everyone “mate,” whether you’re acquainted or not. They also like to buy a “shout” for everyone. Reciprocate by buying a round yourself. You should take note of laws on indigenous lands. In some places, even having an unopened bottle of alcohol in your car is a crime.
Weather and Seasons
Since it’s located in the Southern Hemisphere, Australian seasons are opposite from those in America. Winter occurs from June to August and fewer tourists are out and about. Temperatures are milder and generally drier in the tropical north. Down south, it rains often and snows in some areas of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. Summer occurs from December to February, which is also the high season when attractions are crowded and prices increase. Autumn and spring offer fewer crowds and generally good weather.
Food and Drink
Given its colonial past, Australian cuisine generally mirrors a British tastes. Beef, pork and lamb are staples. However, there’s a fairly large interest in “bush foods” like kangaroo and emu. Barbecuing meat is very popular. You may be offered “billy tea,” which is flavored with gum leaf, and was a staple during the colonial period. Coffee and beer are quite popular, as is wine, which is produced in every Australian state.
Adventure and Exploration
Australia is vast with nearly 3 million square miles of territory. It would be difficult to list everything there is to do in this insider’s guide to Australia, so we’ve highlighted some popular things to do and thrown in some more unique experiences.
Located in the southeast, Victoria is a relatively small state, but it’s packed with things to do. The state’s capital of Melbourne stands as the cultural and culinary center of the area. Elsewhere, see vineyards in the Yarra Valley, hit up a day spa on Mornington Peninsula, interact with fairy penguins on Phillip Island, see remnants of the gold rush in Bendigo, or set off along the Great Ocean Road for breathtaking coastal vistas.
Remote and wild, Tasmania is an island located off Australia’s Southern Coast. The capital city of Hobart serves as a gateway to Port Arthur, Tasmania’s inescapable prison. Stumble upon a hidden shipwreck on desolate Flinders and King islands or hike along the pink granite cliffs of Freycinet National Park.
Australian Capital Territory
Created to house the nation’s capital Canberra, the ACT is home to Parliament along with various national monuments and memorials. Visit art galleries, the Australian Alps or see Aboriginal rock paintings at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve or Namadgi National Park.
New South Wales
Home to Sydney, countless unspoilt beaches and myriad national treasures, New South Wales is a must on any itinerary. Hike through canyons and see waterfalls in the Blue Mountains, hit up the popular holiday spot of Bondi Beach, sample delectable food and wine in Orange, hike the Australian Alps or explore the many sites of Sydney. Indeed, you could spend your entire holiday in this vibrant state.
The largest state, Western Australia encompasses roughly a third of the country. Beaches abound in the the capital of Perth, but venture further out for extraordinary encounters. Several pink lakes located on the islands of the Recherche Archipelago off the coast of Esperance aren’t to be missed. Set between red ochre cliffs and the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, Cable Beach is a popular spot in the north. Discover ghost towns and old mines in Kalgoorlie. Become steeped in Aboriginal culture in the remote and rugged Dampier Peninsula.
A large state in the northeast, Queensland is home to the Great Barrier Reef, fantastic surfing, rainforests and tons of natural attractions. Brisbane is the state’s sophisticated capital. Swim with sea turtles on the Whitsundays islands. Climb to the top of Castle Hill in Townsville, a bustling waterfront town that enjoys 320 days of sunshine per year.
Varied is the best way to describe South Australia. Vast coastlines, wineries, kangaroos and deserts are indicative of the diverse state. See Hahndorf, an historic German settlement steps away from the capital city of Adelaide. Drive across the Nullarbor Plain on the Eyre Highway, seeing cattle stations, remote homesteads and railway outposts. Discover Lake Eyre, a vast, often dry salt lake, best seen from Halligan Bay.
Aboriginal culture, rugged landscapes and plenty of fascinating natural features encompass the Northern Territory. A massive red ochre rock formation, Uluru is one of Australia’s most iconic sites. Trek through the Outback on The Ghan, starting in the capital city of Darwin and ending in Adelaide. Or hike a portion of the Larapinta Trail that crosses West MacDonnell Ranges. If you’ve got three weeks and a lot of stamina, hike it all.
With deserts, rainforests, Alpine mountains and tropical islands, expansive Australia offers something for everyone. Adventurous travelers won’t lack for excitement; those in search of a more mellow trip can find ample ways to relax and unwind. This insider guide to Australia is your first step in planning a trip of a lifetime to the Land Down Under. Those looking for attractions that don’t involved being over crowded with tourist should checkout our tips for 9 off the beaten path locations in Australia.