If you could magically conjure up a place that’s ideal for travel adventures, it would be hard to imagine anything better than what the world already has: Australia.
This continent/country offers spectacular outdoor scenery, animals unlike anywhere else in the world and urban centers that compete with the top cities of Europe, North America and Asia on livability rankings.
Admittedly, as destinations go, it’s not that close for most of us. But it’s so worth the flight to get there.
So when you finally arrive, you want to be sure you make the most of your holiday. In no particular order, here are the best places to visit in Australia. Some of these locations have links to previous CNN Travel articles if you want to dig into the details.
Australia’s largest city, Sydney, is heralded as one of the world’s greatest metropolises for a reason.
The capital of New South Wales plays host to the photogenic Sydney Harbour (the world’s largest natural harbor), the one-of-a-kind Sydney Opera House, a lively entertainment scene and some of the best restaurants in the world.
And then there are the beaches. Bondi might be the best known, but it’s just the beginning of the sun ‘n’ surf available near the city.
Melbourne, the second-largest city in Australia, overflows with first-rate attractions.
From cultural and architectural highlights to amazing outdoor locations, Melbourne offers stiff competition to Sydney in the travel department.
From top-rate museums such as the National Gallery of Victoria to stunning nearby getaways such as Port Campbell National Park, Melbourne delivers.
The capital of the vast state of Western Australia may be a long way from most other destinations in Australia, but Perth’s remote location makes its appeal even stronger.
There’s the feeling that Perth residents have long known that their city was a hidden travel gem, but it’s come into its own.
Its idyllic Indian Ocean setting and weather (sunny, dry and warm most of the year) don’t hurt either.
The capital of Queensland, sunny Brisbane has a beach right on the doorstep of its central business district.
Its setting is South Bank, a lively entertainment and cultural precinct that – as the name implies – sits on the south bank of the Brisbane River. This is where the city comes for recreation and entertainment.
It’s also a gateway city to the popular Gold Coast beaches and other natural attractions.
You’ve really entered the tropics when you’re in Cairns (in Australia, the farther north you go, the warmer it tends to get).
Set along the Pacific, Cairns is the jumping-off point for the Great Barrier Reef and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest, among other natural wonders.
The city of about 150,000 has a growing cafe scene, swimming lagoon and a relaxed vibe.
Great Barrier Reef
The only living thing on Earth visible from space, the Great Barrier Reef was born 25 million years ago.
The world’s largest reef system stretches for 3,000 kilometers (1,865 miles) off the Queensland coast and has 400 types of coral and 1,500 species of tropical fish.
Along with diving and snorkeling, you can also fish and island hop.
Uluru, an intriguing sandstone monolith, is a sacred site to the indigenous Anangu people.
It’s 450 kilometers (280 miles) southwest of Alice Springs in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. While it is closed to climbers now, it remains a spectacular place to visit with many other activities that will still be available in the park.
Avid Australian traveler and retiree Heather White puts it this way: “It’s akin to climbing the Vatican or Westminster Abbey. It is a truly beautiful and spiritual place: You don’t need to climb it to experience that.”
The Blue Mountains are about two hours west of Sydney by car. They contain some of the world’s oldest species of plants – including Wollemi pines, which are the botanical equivalent of dinosaurs.
Soaring forests, canyons, sandstone cliffs and waterfalls are some of the major draws for outdoor enthusiasts, and the hiking here is spectacular.
The eucalyptus oil from gum trees gives the vistas in the Blue Mountains their namesake haze.
Family-friendly Rottnest Island, affectionately called “Rotto” by the locals, is a quick 25-minute ferry ride from the Western Australia port town of Fremantle or 90 minutes from Perth’s Barrack Street Jetty.
Why go there? For one thing, it’s an escape from cars. Instead, you can get around by bike, and more than 60 beaches await you as you pedal your way through paradise.
There’s also snorkeling, diving, whale watching and hiking.
It may not have the international name recognition of other Australian holiday spots, but Noosa is definitely worthy of your consideration.
Situated in southern Queensland, this chill city of about 52,000 is surrounded by beaches, a river and national parks. You can come here for golf and other sports or just relax on its beaches.
Noosa National Park beckons with a small but active population of koalas and more spectacular beaches than you can fit into a day.
Waterfalls and geological wonders such as crater lakes and volcanic tubes make Atherton Tablelands a fantastic playground in northern Queensland.
This fertile plateau also offers cave exploration, birding and kayaking.
Can’t tear yourself away from all this nature? Spend the night in The Canopy Treehouses for a one-of-kind lodging experience. (Hogan Road, Tarzali, Queensland, Australia; +61 7 4096 5364)
Kangaroo Island is an excellent and pristine getaway, located offshore from Adelaide in South Australia.
It’s a refuge for many of Australia’s most beloved or threatened animals, including sea lions, koalas, cockatoos and the short-beaked echidna, a little stocky animal with short spines. Like the platypus, it’s a mammal that lays eggs.
And in case you fear you’ll have to rough it there, the island has an artisan food and wine scene that’s getting growing attention.
Kate Springer, Chris Dwyer, Jessica Mudditt and Geoff Hiscock contributed to this story from previously published articles.