An east coast Australia road trip: My Sydney to Cairns itinerary

Doing an east coast Australia road trip is a must for most backpackers in Australia. I’ve done the road trip twice – there’s just so much to explore! In this post, you’ll find my Sydney to Cairns itinerary where I’ll show you all my favourite places along the east coast, everything between paradise beaches to impressive skyscrapers!

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What to know before going on an east coast Australia road trip

There are a few things you should know before going on this east coast Australia road trip:

Safety

If you're lucky you'll see koalas on your east coast Australia road trip
Australia has a lot of cute animals, but unfortunately quite a few dangerous ones as well.

Let’s get it over with directly: As mentioned in my post about Daintree Rainforest, if you’re not from Australia you may not be aware of certain things when it comes to safety. Australia has several dangerous animals (but also a lot of cute ones!) to be aware of. Be crocwise, make sure you know when it’s stinger season and pay attention to bush fires – just to mention a few things to keep track of.

If you can’t find all the answers you need regarding safety online, try asking at a tourist information centre or perhaps at the reception at your accommodation.

How do I get from Sydney to Cairns?

If you love being able to stop or go wherever you want when travelling to see as much as possible, the optional way to do a Sydney to Cairns road trip is by car or van. However, if you don’t want to rent a car or drive by yourself, you can easily go by bus instead. I’ve tried both Greyhound and Premier, and they both worked fine. Yes, sometimes they’re late, sometimes it’s crowded and sometimes it’s really hot on the bus (or cold…) However, they’re fairly cheap and they’re a good option if you can’t go by car. Greyhound is more expensive but comes with amenities such as wifi. They also have more departures to choose between. Premier, on the other hand, is cheaper – if you’re travelling on a budget, they might be a good option!

How far is it from Sydney to Cairns?

The exact amount of kilometres will vary depending on what detours you choose to take, but if you follow this itinerary, the whole trip from Sydney to Cairns will be around 3000 kilometres. If you go by car, remember to drive on the left side!

What’s the weather like on Australia’s east coast?

Sydney Harbour Bridge, the start of my east cost Australia road trip
The weather might vary a lot depending on where you plan to go on your east coast Australia road trip!

The weather can vary a lot between Sydney and Cairns. Plan your visit and know what to pack by reading about Australia’s different season. Depending on when you plan to visit, you might benefit from going from Cairns to Sydney instead.

How many weeks does it take to do a Sydney to Cairns road trip?

It completely depends on how long you’d like to stay at each place. If you’re in Australia on a Working Holiday Visa, you could easily spend a whole year just travelling the coast! However, if you don’t have a whole year to spend, I wouldn’t do this road trip in anything less than 3-4 weeks. To get more out of your trip, add a couple of weeks and you will have enough time to explore all the stops in this Sydney to Cairns itinerary!

My Sydney to Cairns itinerary for an east coast Australia road trip

Here’s my east coast Australia road trip itinerary, filled with all the stops you should check out, going from Sydney to Cairns. If you plan on staying in hostels, I’ll also let you know of a few good ones that we stayed at.

Sydney

Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House
I love this view of the Opera House in Sydney and Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Let’s start this east coast Australia road trip! You’ll be starting in Sydney, the biggest city on the east coast. You’ll soon find that there are a lot of things to do in Sydney – depending on how long you plan on staying here, you might have to choose between some activities. Since there are lots of things to do in Sydney, I’ve made a list of my favourite things to visit:

The Royal Botanic Gardens

This is heaven for anyone loving flowers, plants and beautiful views. Stroll around the gardens and admire the view of the Opera House and the Harbour bridge!

Sydney Opera House

After you’ve been to the Botanic Gardens, you have the perfect opportunity to continue along the walkway towards the Opera House. This is a must-see, even if visiting tourist attractions isn’t your thing.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

When you’re at the Opera House, you’re rather close to the Harbour Bridge. I can highly recommend walking along the water between these two popular attractions as well, it’s a beautiful walk!

The Rocks

While you’re in the area, check out The Rocks! This is a neighbourhood perfect for anyone interested in history, art and architecture.

Manly Beach

Another great thing with Sydney is the possibility to go to a lot of nearby places by ferry. If you plan on exploring Sydney by public transport, you might buy the Opal card – good news, it’s working on the ferries as well! One of my favourite places to visit by ferry from Sydney is Manly Beach. In Manly, you can walk along the coast, hang at the beach or visit the cute shops and cafés. And oh, don’t forget to enjoy the ferry ride as well!

Darling Harbour

Darling Harbour is another nice harbour in Sydney with several restaurants and shops. There’s a lot of skyscrapers in Darling Harbour and it feels very “modern” – you won’t see skyscrapers for a while after leaving Sydney!

Bondi Beach

If you haven’t seen a photo of it before, I’m sure you’ve at least heard of it – Bondi Beach. A must-see for a lot of people, way too crowded for me. Still, I’ve been there twice. But hey, it’s a (famous) beach – I’m sure most of us like beaches!

If you have time, you can add a lot to the list of things to do in Sydney, but these are my favourites. I also highly recommend getting up early in the morning to catch the sunrise while you’re here but, if you prefer to sleep in, there are also several fantastic sunset spots in Sydney to check out!

Blue Mountains day trip from Sydney

Blue Mountains Sydney Road Trip
If you plan on going from Sydney to Cairns, don’t forget to do a Blue Mountains day trip before you start heading up the coast!

I would consider adding at least one day extra in Sydney to do a day trip to the Blue Mountains – or maybe even add a night or two in Katoomba or somewhere near the mountains. If you’re going by public transport, consider travelling by train on a Sunday – it only costs around 3 AUD one way! Since I’m backpacking on a budget, I planned my day trip to the Blue Mountains on a Sunday. Even if you’re not on a budget, it’s always nice to save some money, right? Plan your Blue Mountains day trip here.

Port Macquarie

We were supposed to stop here, and I really wish we would’ve, but the weather conditions forced us to continue to Coffs Harbour. However, if you do get the chance, I would for sure do the coastal walk and check out the lighthouse. Of course, there are beautiful beaches as well!

Coffs Harbour

Coffs Harbour Hike
We went on a short hike in Coffs Harbour and found this view – there’s a lot of things to do in Coffs Harbour!

Coffs Harbour is a beautiful hidden gem between Sydney and Cairns! I didn’t go here the first time I was travelling the east coast in Australia, but I’m so glad I gave this beautiful place a shot during my second visit. There’s a lot of things to do in Coffs Harbour – there are beaches, hikes, cafes and shops. We even saw dolphins close to the beach one day!

Are you planning on staying in hostels on this trip to save money or perhaps meet new friends? That’s what we did, and I can recommend checking out the place we stayed at – YHA in Coffs Harbour. It was very well taken care of and the manager was helpful and welcoming. Oh, and as most hostels that we stayed at in Australia, it has a pool!


Byron Bay

Visiting Byron Bay on an east coast Australia road trip
We had a private walkway to this beach in Byron Bay from our hostel.

Your next stop is Byron Bay – a place you probably have heard of before. There are a lot of things to do in Byron Bay. This charming town is known for its beaches, surfing, shops, restaurants and festivals. It’s a must-see in Australia for most visitors!

If you’re looking for hikes in Byron Bay, you could go to Cape Byron, which is only 3 kilometres from the Main Beach in Byron Bay. There you’ll find the easternmost point of mainland Australia and a beautiful lighthouse. The hike itself is quite nice as well!

There’s a lot of accommodation to choose between in Byron Bay, but we stayed at Backpackers Inn On The Beach. The hostel has a private walkway to the beach!

Surfers Paradise

Surfers Paradise, Gold Coast
Surfer’s Paradise, Gold Coast – a long beach mixed with skyscrapers.

Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast is a pretty unique stop on this Sydney to Cairns road trip. It’s basically a long beach with skyscrapers next to it. It’s known for its nightlife but even if you’re not into partying, it’s quite a cool place to have seen. You can hang at the beach, visit a market and watch the surfers – or why not try it out yourself!

Brisbane

South Bank Parklands Brisbane
If you’re looking for beaches in Brisbane, head to Streets Beach, South Bank.

Brisbane is the second largest city on the east coast. Most people I’ve met while travelling in Australia either hate och love Brisbane – go explore Brisbane yourself to form your own opinion. If it turns out to not be one of your favourite cities along the coast, don’t worry – there are several day trips and weekend getaways from Brisbane that you could go on!

My favourite part of Brisbane is the South Bank. Here you’ll find interesting architecture, parks, restaurants, swimming pools and even a Ferris wheel.

Toowoomba

Table Top Mountain Toowoomba
The view from the top of Table Top Mountain in Toowoomba.

Toowoomba is Queensland’s largest inland city, 125 kilometres west from Brisbane. This is probably not a common stop when going on an east coast Australia road trip, but we found this hidden gem during our last visit to Australia so I decided to add it to this Sydney to Cairns itinerary!

If you decide to go to Toowoomba, I’d recommend hiking up the Table Top Mountain – it offers beautiful views. Toowoomba is situated around 700 metres above sea level, which makes this city even more unique on this Sydney to Cairns road trip. It’s also called “The Garden City”, because of its many parks and gardens, and has a lot of historic buildings and places to visit.

Sunshine Coast

The Sunshine Coast has a lot of beautiful beaches to explore. We only did a quick stop here, but if you have some extra time, I’d recommend visiting Mooloolaba!

Noosa

Noosa Coastal Walk - my favourite stop in east coast Australia
The Noosa Coastal Walk offers beautiful views and beaches.

Noosa is probably one of my favourite places to visit on the east coast of Australia. There’s a lot of things to do in Noosa, but the major one you can’t miss is hiking Noosa Coastal Trail. Along this trail, you’ll find beautiful beaches, amazing nature, koalas (I’ve seen one every time I’ve hiked the Coastal Trail!), Noosa fairy pools and maybe even some dolphins playing around in the water.

If you’re planning on visiting Noosa fairy pools, remember to check the tides and go early in the morning if you can to avoid the crowds.

We stayed at Noosa Flashpackers. At the time, they were a bit more expensive than other hostels in the area, but offered free access to surfboards and bodyboards – if you plan on catching the waves, keep this in mind!

Rainbow Beach

Rainbow Beach is the best place to go sandboarding on your east coast Australia road trip
You can go sandboarding in Rainbow Beach, at Carlo Sand Blow!

Rainbow Beach is a cool place to stop along the east coast. Hire a sandboard and go sandboarding at the Carlo Sand Blow in Rainbow Beach while having beautiful views of the sea.

Rainbow Beach is also the perfect place to jump on a ferry to explore Fraser Island, which is a popular stop on Australia’s east coast.

We stayed at Pippies Beachhouse in Rainbow Beach. They let you borrow their sandboards for free!

Visit Fraser Island

Lake McKenzie Fraser Island
Fraser Island is a popular stop when travelling the east coast in Australia.

Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world – how cool isn’t that? This place is one of the must-sees in Australia for many travellers.

You can visit Fraser Island either by going on a tour, renting a 4WD or bringing your own. Driving on the world’s largest sand island is quite special, so make sure you’re prepared and have read about the different ways of exploring Fraser Island before you go.

Seventeen Seventy

Seventeen Seventy is a seaside village with several opportunities to try activities such as surfing and paddleboarding. Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling well during our visit, so I had to stay at our accommodation for our whole time there. However, a lot of travellers I’ve met in Australia say they loved visiting Seventeen Seventy. If you have the time, consider adding it to your east coast Australia itinerary!

Airlie Beach

Airlie Beach is a cute resort town with lovely walks along the water and a great centre for nightlife. However, most people go to Airlie Beach since it’s the gateway to the magical Whitsunday Islands.

We stayed at both Nomads and Magnums in Airlie beach – two pretty big party hostels.

Whitsunday Boat Trips

Whitsundays boat trip
If you love the sea, consider going on a Whitsunday boat trip.

Going on any of the Whitsunday boat trips is on the bucket list for a lot of people visiting Australia, and after having been on a Whitsunday sailing trip myself, I completely understand why. What an amazing way to explore this beautiful part of Australia!

We went on a 2 days-1 night Whitsunday sailing trip with Matador Whitsundays, which was perfect for us, but there are many different Whitsunday boat trips to choose between depending on what sort of experience you are looking for.

Townsville

Castle Hill Hike Townsville
Hiking to Castle Hill Lookout is one of the must-dos in Townsville.

It’s time for another gateway city – Townsville. A lot of people that come to Townsville jump on the ferry to Magnetic Island directly and miss what this city has to offer. There are several nice walking tracks in Townsville, but my favourite is the one up to Castle Hill Lookout – the view is amazing!

Take the ferry to Magnetic Island

See rock wallabies on your east coast Australia road trip
There’s a lot of things to do on Magnetic Island – such as seeing wild rock wallabies.

When you’ve explored Townsville, take the ferry to Magnetic Island. This is another one of my favourite places to visit on Australia’s east coast.

There’s a lot of things to do on Magnetic Island! Do the Forts Walk while looking for koalas, watch as the rock wallabies show up in the evening at Geoffrey Bay or explore some or many of the beautiful beaches Magnetic Island has to offer.

Mission Beach

Bicton Hill, Mission Beach
Explore the Bicton Hill Circuit Track in Mission Beach.

Mission Beach offers beautiful beaches, several hiking trails and the possibility to see a cassowary in the wild – Mission Beach has one of the highest concentration of this endangered flightless bird.

Want to try out living in a treehouse in the rainforest? That’s what we did! Staying at Jackaroo Treehouse was such a cool experience. We spent the days going on hikes in Mission Beach, chilling by the pool or visiting the beach, and the evenings playing board games with other travellers.

Cairns

We mainly used Cairns as a starting point for several day trips in the area, such as to the Daintree Rainforest, but Cairns itself has a lot to offer as well. If you love nightlife or would like to learn how to scuba dive, this is the place for you!

We had a great stay at Summer House Backpackers. This was the most affordable hostel during our whole Sydney to Cairns road trip, but still one of the best ones! There was always something happening every night, breakfast was included in the price and they run a free shuttle bus several times a day to the city centre. Great value for the money!

Daintree Rainforest day trip

Daintree Rainforest, the end of my east coast Australia road trip
Visiting Daintree Rainforest is the perfect end to your east coast Australia road trip.

The last thing in this Sydney to Cairns itinerary is going on a day trip from Cairns to Cape Tribulation. We had an amazing time visiting the Daintree Rainforest!

By now, I hope you’re super excited about going to Australia to do a Sydney to Cairns road trip and create your own memories – have a wonderful visit!

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East coast Australia road trip

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. Amber Spits

    Loved reading this post! Now Australia is really on the top of my bucket list! Thanks for the treehouse tip!

    1. Amanda

      Thanks Amber, I’m happy you liked it and really glad you’ve put Australia at the top of your bucket list – it’s such a cool place!

  2. thebratpackergals

    My honeymoon was actually split between these 2 cities, but we flew. A road trip certainly looks like it would allow you to see far more than we were able!

    1. Amanda

      Oh but wow, that must have been such an amazing honeymoon though, both places have so much to offer!

  3. Hanna

    Fraser Island is so high up the bucket list! I loved Western Australia so next time it will be the east coast, I hope this European winter/ Australian summer!!

    1. Amanda

      Oh I was supposed to be in Western Australia right now! Hopefully I get to go another time. Enjoy the east coast, it’s amazing!

  4. Raksha Nagaraj

    This is a great itinerary. I have done the road trip from Sydney to Cairns and above and I agreed that these places are absolutely amazing. I have visited all except Toowoomba. Maybe I should plan a road trip again just to see Toowoomba.

    1. Amanda

      Oh how lovely! Yes, I didn’t visit Toowoomba the first time I did this road trip either – it’s not really a common stop for people travelling the coast, but definitely a place to check out if you have the time!

  5. limitlesssecrets

    I would love to do this road trip! Australia is so beautiful and has so much to offer! Thank you for all the info!

    1. Amanda

      I’m glad you liked the post and I agree with you – I’d love to do this road trip again, haha!

  6. spanishnomad1

    Such good memories to read about your road trip! I did it the other way round, from Daintree all the way to Brisbane.

    1. Amanda

      Yes it was a lovely trip, so much to see and do! Oh that must have been such a nice road trip as well!

  7. Lauriane

    Thank you for this post Amanda :). Australia has always been in my top 5 on my bucket list. I pinned this post for later to organise our road trip. The hiking Noosa Coastal Trail sounds awesome. Do you have any picture of a koala meeting during one of this trail ;)? How long / many kilometres is about this trail?

    1. Amanda

      Oh thank you Lauriane, I’m glad you like it! Australia is such a cool place to visit, very unique! Haha yes! I actually do have a blurry photo of the koala, but it’s hiding high up in the tree behind leaves and branches 😉 I think, if you make it a loop, it’s around 10-11 kilometres, but there are also lots of different paths you could take!

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