Australia, the land of kangaroos and home of the iconic Sydney Opera House, should be at the top of your must-see travel list.
Think you don’t have enough vacation time? Well, we experienced nearly everything Australia has to offer in just one week.
The trick is to spend that week entirely in the state of New South Wales, home of Sydney.
It has beaches (more coastline than the U.S. West Coast), rain forests (they reach the coast in Port Stephens) and the Outback (go to Worimi National Park). And it’s all less than a three-hour drive from Sydney.
A quick sketch of the itinerary: Take an overnight flight to see the sunrise over Sydney Harbour. Then plan on spending four days in Sydney (two each at the start and end) and three days exploring regional New South Wales. You can even add on a short flight (less than an hour) to the beaches of Byron Bay and Lord Howe Island.
With one week, here’s what you shouldn’t miss.
Experience iconic Sydney
To make the most of your trip, start your first morning by exploring Sydney Harbour. It’s easy to check the big attractions off right away as the Sydney Opera House, Royal Botanic Garden Sydney and Sydney Harbour Bridge are right next to each other along the shoreline. Make note of Circular Quay too — we’ll go into more detail on that later.
The Sydney Opera House is adorned with tempered glass from France (so tempered it never shows reflections), houses the world’s largest steel organ (the last organist who played there was from Notre Dame Cathedral) and showcases a 550-person theater with completely unobstructed views. You’ll have to book a guided tour to get inside, and make sure to keep the ticket for show discounts at the box office.
Until your body clock completely adjusts, you’ll be up early — might as well catch a Sydney Opera House sunrise. Just around the corner is Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, a sandstone rock bench in the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney with unparalleled views.
Climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge
For a 360-degree view of the city, book a Sydney BridgeClimb — three million visitors a year do. It’s more than just an experience; it’s actually a guided tour of the city, just from up above. Tours vary in length from 2.5 – 3.5 hours and depart from dawn until sunset. The bird’s-eye sunset view is a great way to cap off your first day in the city.
A comfortable jumpsuit and keepsake baseball hat will be provided. You’ll want to wear sneakers, bring sunglasses, and remember to smile big at the top as the guide takes a few photos (personal cameras are not allowed).
I’m not a fan of heights so I expected this to be nerve-wracking, but I quickly found out why it is one of the coolest Sydney experiences. If you stay close to the tour guide and keep your eyes on the panoramic views (avoid looking straight down), you’ll be able to overcome any fears. Or you can venture out on the shorter sampler tour that stays on the inner arch.
Explore the rest of Sydney by boat
Day two is best spent outside of downtown. As the city of Sydney wraps around a harbor, the best mode of transportation is a boat whether it’s a luxury dinner cruise, a sightseeing day tour or the public transportation ferries, you’ll find what you’re looking for at the Circular Quay. It’s hard to miss this bustling dock, located between The Rocks and the Sydney Opera House.
To make the most of the day (by seeing the most places) I took a Captain Cook hop on, hop off cruise. There are nine stops on the route including Luna Park, Manly Beach and Taronga Zoo, with a tour guide pointing out sights the whole time. These tours are sold in 24-hour time periods and can be purchased day-of at the dock. Plus, you can add a discounted attraction pass to your cruise ticket for the zoo and aquarium.
If you’re looking for point-to-point ferries, the green Sydney Ferries run nearly 20 hours a day to places such as Manly Beach and Darling Harbour.
Up close with kangaroos and koalas
Kangaroos, koalas, echidnas, wombats and over 350 other species reside at Taronga Zoo — just a 12-minute ferry ride from the city. Admission includes the sky safari and over 20 keeper talks and shows a day. On top of that, you can add animal encounters (with giraffes, koalas, owls and penguins) or go behind the scenes as a zookeeper for the day.
On the VIP Aussie gold tour I got to pet and feed kangaroos …
… and get up close with koalas. This six-month old joey even popped out of the pouch to say hello.
Live it up at Bondi Beach
Bondi Beach — where do we start? It’s arguably the most famous beach in all of Australia. You’ll feel transported to a different city even though it’s just 6 miles from Sydney’s city center.
A can’t-miss attraction is the Bondi Coastal Walk. To ensure I had time to complete this popular cliff-top path I took a taxi to neighboring Bronte in the early morning. The walk takes about 45 minutes between the two towns, so going in the morning gets you to Bondi before the shops are open, and you get to see a stunning ocean sunrise and an endless sea of surfers.
Obviously, the beach takes center stage in Bondi. I joined in the beach fun with a private lesson from Let’s Go Surfing (the waves are small, perfect for beginners) and followed it up with an avocado toast breakfast at a cute sidewalk cafe. The streets here are lined with coffee shops with locally sourced produce, such as passionfruit and fruit smoothies.
Then it was on to perusing trendy beachwear shops along Gould and Hall Street before checking out the cliffside Bondi Icebergs Club and saltwater pool. The clubhouse is open to the public, so you can hang out upstairs with a cocktail in hand to enjoy the sweeping views (pictured below).
Taste wine in the Hunter Valley
Just a two-hour drive north of Sydney is the Hunter Valley. The oldest wine region in Australia, the Hunter Valley is home to 150 wineries set among rolling hills, framed by the Great Dividing Range and the Pacific Ocean.
Vineyards produce chardonnay, shiraz and semillon, a light white wine that was named the world’s greatest underrated wine in 2015 by Wine Spectator. Thanks to the rich volcanic soil regional producers also specialize in olive oil, citrus and soft cheese, like brie. This gives the region a Mediterranean vibe but with a modern twist — you can Segway through the vineyards, fly overhead on a helicopter tour or play a round of golf, all between sips of wine. Keep an eye out for kangaroos grazing around the grapevines at sunset.
A few interesting tidbits: The Hunter Valley has the earliest harvest in the world (January-February); the 2014 vintage is the best the Hunter Valley has seen since 1965; and there are six Chef Hat award-winning restaurants here, which is the Australian equivalent of a Michelin star. Most wineries have free daily tours and charge $5 per tasting.
Crazy sand dune adventures
Ready for the Outback? The largest sand dunes in Australia are in Worimi National Park (two hours from Sydney on the coast) — and you can ride an ATV, sand board or Hummer up, down and around the 130-foot tall dunes. I opted for an ATV tour, which was easily the most thrilling experience I had in regional New South Wales. The Australian Outback looks so much like the Sahara Desert — it was even the filming location for “Mad Max” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.”
This is protected Aboriginal land, and your guide will point out significant cultural sites and even a historic shipwreck in the ever-changing terrain.
See pristine Port Stephens and Mount Tomaree
Rain forest and rugged bush meet at the coast of Port Stephens in a scene reminiscent of Kauai. Port Stephens is an easy two-to three-hour drive from Sydney through lush rain forest. The shores are made up of 26 white sand beaches, and the sand is so fine that it squeaks when you walk on it. If you drive to Fingal Bay and set out on the rain forest hike, you’ll be rewarded with pristine and secluded beaches not accessible by car.
It’s also the dolphin-watching capital of Australia, as over 150 bottle-nose dolphins live here year-round. The coral reef and clear waters make it easy to spot dolphins while on a catamaran, especially as they have over-the-water nets off the bow. Humpback whales migrate through here from May-October.
Definitely plan on a rain forest hike. Not only might you see echidna and goanna lizards but you’ll also be blown away by the views at the summit. The visibility from Mount Tomaree is so good that the military built a fort here during World War II to protect Australia’s east coast.
You can do a self-guided tour, but I wanted to see more, so I booked with Escape Trekking Tour. The guide took me off the paved path through the rain forest, while pointing out war remnants like weapon pits and gun emplacements along the way.
Good times to go
In the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are opposite those of North America. New South Wales maintains temperate weather year-round — think Southern California warm meets Hawaiian tropical. The winter months (June-August) see average temps in the 50s, while summer (December-February) kicks off with occasional thunderstorms that leave as quickly as they roll in. Keep this in mind when booking a trip, as you’ll get a bigger bang for your buck traveling in the cooler months.
Big events to see
Take note of the region’s annual events too. Australia Day is Jan. 26 (think July Fourth-level festivities); Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is held every March on a floating stage; the Sydney International Art Series is November-January at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and Art Gallery of NSW; and of course the world-famous Sydney New Year’s Eve celebrations are a spectacular sight.
The biggest event of all is Vivid Sydney (May 26 – June 17). Last year, more than 150 artists from 23 countries came together to create over 90 light installations and projections for the world’s largest light show. Art, commerce and tech intersect across the city, from discussions and debates to music performances and collaborations. One of the best ways to experience it all is by boat from Sydney Harbour as the whole city, including the Sydney Opera House, lights up for 23 nights in a row.
How to arrive well-rested and ready to sight see
Sydney is a meal, a movie and a sleep away. You can be one of the first to fly on Virgin Australia’s remodeled fleet of Boeing 777-300ERs, complete with Virgin’s signature cabin mood lighting. Delta connects travelers from 26 U.S. cities such as Seattle, Atlanta, Boston and Miami to the Los Angeles flight.
Here’s how to arrive ready to sight see after your 15-hour flight:
- Meal: Virgin Australia offers fully inclusive meal and alcoholic beverage service in all cabins, which highlights Aussie cuisine and local wines.
- Movie: Every seat has a personal TV with hours of on-demand entertainment and noise canceling head sets.
- Sleep: Your complimentary toiletry kit comes equipped with an eye mask, socks and amenities to let you rest and wake up refreshed.
- Sunrise: Wake up across the date line to a new day and a breathtaking sunrise as you near Sydney.
- Service: For anything you need on board, the award-winning flight attendants are always nearby. Skytrax has listed Virgin Australia as having one of the best airline staffs in Australia/Pacific for five years running.
The 777-300ERs have the widest economy seats of any trans-Pacific flight. Premium seats also have a 9-inch recline and the most legroom of any Australian airline — trust me, it’s worth the upgrade. Business class features fully flat beds with direct aisle access: Airlineratings.com ranked this the best business class for 2017.