The Sydney to Cairns road trip is the ultimate rite of passage for backpackers, working holiday makers, and even retirees on their bucket list trip to the land down under.
You get to hit all the highlights of Australia!
✔️ Climb the Sydney Habour Bridge (just like Mary Kate and Ashley)
✔️ Try to find Nemo while diving on the Great Barrier Reef
✔️ Enjoy a show in the Crososeum at Australia Zoo — Home of the Crocodile Hunter!
✔️ See dingos in their natural habitat on Fraser Island (K’gari)
✔️ Swim, snorkel, and sunbathe at some of the most beautiful beaches on the planet.
The only thing you miss that is on most people’s lists is the Australian Outback, which is easy to reach from every airport on the East Coast (so don’t worry — it’s easy to add on even on a short trip).
I know from experience that putting together an East Coast Australia itinerary can be overwhelming. There is SO much to see and do. Whether you have limited time (just a few weeks) or are planning your working holiday (hello 365 days of Aussie bliss!) here is what I recommend seeing and doing, as someone who lived there for three years …. and visits every chance she can get!
This post is a part of my East Coast Australia series
How much time do you need to do the Sydney to Cairns backpacker route?
Taking a Cairns to Sydney road trip can take as long, or as short, as you would like.
But that’s not a helpful answer, so here’s the deal:
- 10 days for just Sydney, Brisbane, and Cairns
- 3 weeks for Sydney, Byron Bay, Brisbane, Fraser Island OR Whitsundays, Cairns (this would be at breakneck speed, but enjoyable)
- 6 weeks if you actually want to enjoy yourself and see nearly everything
- 10 weeks to really take your time and get off the beaten path
If you are on a gap year, working holiday, or other long-term trip, amazing. You’ll get a chance to see everything.
Working on a tighter schedule? No worries. You can still see the main draws of the Australian East Coast and impress everyone back at home with your Instagram photos.
Can you do a Cairns to Sydney road trip instead?
Of course you can! While you are more likely to fly into Sydney to start your Australian vacation, some major airlines also service direct flights to Cairns, too. This is especially true if you are backpacking in Asia and then heading to Oz.
In fact, at certain times of year, I would actually recommend starting at the top of Australia and then traveling down the East Coast, so you can chase the sunshine and good weather.
What’s the best time of year for a Cairns to Sydney road trip?
This is gonna sound crazy because Australia is supposed to be the land of eternal summer, but the best time to take a Cairns to Sydney road trip (or vice versa!) is actually during the winter.
Here’s the deal: Queensland (where most of the big ticket items are) doesn’t really do winter. I went swimming there in July (peak winter cause OZ is upside down and backward) and it was fine. The state also doesn’t do daylight savings time, so you don’t get the freakishly early winter sunsets, either.
What DOES suck is wet season and stinger season in Far North Queensland, which is when there is basically monsoon after monsoon and the air is stickier than a South Florida swamp. Add an ocean filled with jellyfish to the mix and it’s not the best place to be.
But in the middle of winter?
Queensland isn’t crowded, prices are lower, and the weather is crisp and clear. The jellies also haven’t spawned for the year and you’ll see heaps of whales. I would avoid north of Brisbane from December through February. While it’s doable, my tenure as a travel agent in Cairns tells me that it’s more than likely you’re just going to sweat to death and get rained out.
Best time: April through October
Worst time: December through February
Okay time: March and November
Where should I book my activities on my East Coast Road Trip?
You can always book directly through the vendor, or to make things easier, an international platform that supports local vendors.
I tend to use GetYourGuide as I liked having all my bookings inside one app in my phone. It’s easier for me than keeping track of a hundred emails and confirmation numbers all over the place.
Sydney to Cairns Road Trip: The Best East Coast Australia Itinerary
A ** means you can’t miss this stop on your Sydney to Cairns road trip.
Be sure to check out every ** stop even if you are on limited time. Other stops are included if you have a longer trip in mind or are on a working holiday in Australia and have an entire year to explore. See what interests you and stop in if you’d like.
Sydney, Australia, is an iconic city that captivates with its vibrant energy and stunning landmarks. Located in New South Wales, Sydney is famous for its world-renowned Sydney Opera House, perched gracefully along the picturesque Sydney Harbour. From the golden sands of Bondi Beach to the bustling streets of The Rocks, Sydney offers a dynamic mix of natural beauty and urban charm.
Whether you’re exploring the historic neighborhoods, indulging in delicious cuisine, or taking in panoramic views from the Sydney Tower Eye, this bustling metropolis promises an unforgettable adventure at every turn.
How many days should I stay in Sydney?
I recommend at least a week in Sydney. If you are just starting your trip, it’s a great place to relax and get over your jetlag. I lived in the city for two full years and never ran out of things to do. It’s as if the business hustle of New York, the LA entertainment and chill California pace, and the outdoor vibes of Colorado all got together and had a child with really expensive rent.
If you are in a pinch, you could still fully explore the city in an action-packed two or three days.
Where should I stay in Sydney?
I prefer the YHA chain of hostels while visiting Australia. I found them to be clean, comfortable, and safe. They are not party hostels, but are still social and I met a lot of great friends in the common rooms. There are plenty of locations across Sydney, including the Rocks, and near Central Station.
However, you can’t go wrong with many of the hostels and hotels in Sydney. The city is safe and well-connected. My boyfriend at the time and I also did a few staycations at the Glenferrie Lodge in Kirribilli and loved it.
To save a few bucks, you can even stay farther out from the center in an Airbnb or other vacation rental, as long as it’s near a train station. For this, try Marrickville, Newtown, or even Ashfield all are close to the tourist attractions (less than 15 minutes on the train), safe, with plenty of cool things to eat and do locally, too.
What are the highlights of Sydney?
These are the best activities in Sydney:
✔️ Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb
✔️ Sydney Opera House show and tour
✔️ Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach coastal walk
✔️ Manly ferry
✔️ Blue Mountains National Park
✔️ The Rocks historical district
Distance until next stop: 162.9 km
Affectionately known as “Newy” by locals, Newcastle is a hidden gem on Australia’s East Coast that offers a laid-back coastal charm and a vibrant arts scene. Nestled in New South Wales, Newcastle boasts beautiful sandy beaches, perfect for surfing or simply basking in the sun. The city’s industrial heritage blends seamlessly with modern architecture, creating a unique atmosphere.
Explore the historic Newcastle East, wander along the scenic Bathers Way coastal walk, or discover the thriving café culture and local art galleries. With a friendly community, rich history, and a revitalized waterfront, Newcastle is a city that effortlessly combines relaxation, culture, and natural beauty.
How many days should I stay in Newcastle?
I stayed in Newcastle for two nights and went back for a day trip a few years later.
That felt like plenty of time, although there was a guy in my hostel who had been there for six months and loved it. This might end up being you!
Where should I stay in Newcastle?
The YHA is perfect! It’s in a gorgeous heritage house and has a very cozy common room where it was easy to make friends. It was easily within walking distance of the bus stop, train station, and all the attractions.
If you prefer having more privacy, you can book a private room at the hostel, but still have access to the full kitchen and common areas.
What are the highlights of Newcastle?
These are the best activities in Newcastle:
✔️Newcastle Memorial Walk
✔️Newcastle Maritime Museum
✔️Newcastle Art Gallery
✔️Shopping on Darby Street
Distance until next stop: 245.5 km
Port Macquarie is a coastal paradise nestled on the mid-north coast of New South Wales. Known for its pristine beaches, abundant wildlife, and relaxed vibe, this charming town offers a perfect blend of relaxation and adventure.
Immerse yourself in the natural beauty of Port Macquarie by exploring the stunning coastal trails, encountering koalas at the renowned Koala Hospital, or embarking on a river cruise along the picturesque Hastings River.
How many days should I stay in Port Macquarie?
I stayed here for two nights. This is only because I had all the time in the world to meander up the East Coast of Australia and it’s a cute town. There is enough to do that you might feel rushed if you only sleep here one night, but you might get bored after a week. If you’re more of a city mouse, that is.
Where should I stay in Port Macquarie?
I stayed at Port Macquarie Backpackers where I met some friends that I traveled up the coast with and even keep in contact with to this day (if watching Insta stories counts). The hostel was clean, gave me free pancakes for breakfast, and accommodated the weird Greyhound Bus schedule which I appreciated. There is also a YHA in town.
What are the highlights of Port Macquarie?
These are the best activities in Port Macquarie:
✔️ Painted rocks coastal walk
✔️ Port Macquarie Koala Hospital
✔️ Port Macquarie Historical Museum
✔️Glasshouse Regional Gallery
✔️ Flynn’s Beach
✔️Roto House Historic Site
Distance until next stop: 159.7 km
Coffs Harbour is a coastal haven nestled on the New South Wales North Coast. Famous for its breathtaking natural beauty and laid-back atmosphere, Coffs Harbour offers a perfect escape for nature lovers and beach enthusiasts alike.
Immerse yourself in the pristine beauty of the region by exploring the iconic Big Banana, wandering through lush rainforests in Dorrigo National Park, or snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters of Solitary Islands Marine Park.
How many days should I stay in Coffs Harbour?
I’ll be honest with you. I only stayed here one night because I had bedbugs (in Byron Bay!) and wanted to make sure I got rid of them before heading off to my friend’s house in Sydney. It was a cute seaside town and worth a deeper look.
Where should I stay in Coffs Harbour?
I stayed at the Coffs Harbour YHA and loved it! If you’re not a hostel girlie, try to get something with a beach view. The jetty and marina walkway are nice points in town, so accommodation near them is your best bet.
What are the highlights of Coffs Harbour?
These are the best activities in Coffs Harbour:
✔️Dorrigo National Park
✔️Coffs Harbour Jetty
✔️Solitary Islands Marine Park
Distance until next stop: 232.3 km
CHRIS HEMSWORTH LIVES HERE.
That’s pretty much all you need to know about this town. You might have also watched Byron Baes on Netflix. Honestly, the vibes are the same.
Byron is a captivating coastal town renowned for its laid-back vibe, stunning beaches, and bohemian charm. This idyllic destination attracts visitors from all over the world. Whether you’re chasing waves as a surfer, seeking tranquility in a yoga retreat, or simply unwinding on the pristine sands, Byron Bay offers a haven for relaxation and rejuvenation.
With a vibrant arts scene, delicious local cuisine, and breathtaking sunsets, this enchanting town invites you to embrace its unique blend of natural beauty and free-spirited ambiance
How many days should I stay in Byron Bay?
The first time I went to Byron Bay I stayed three nights / four days and that felt like more than enough time. The second time I stay the same amount and was a little bored, but that was mostly because it was kind of chilly, so there weren’t as many water activities going on. Some people come to Australia and spend months in Byron. I have friends who consider it a second home.
Where should I stay in Byron Bay?
I stayed at two hostels on my two trips to Byron and enjoyed both. It’s a walkable town and very safe. The first was The Surf House and the second was the Byron Bay YHA. I liked both. Got a good night’s sleep at both.
I got bedbugs at the YHA (SO out of character for this chain), but they refunded my entire stay without me having to ask, sent me a receipt of the pest control guy they hired to get rid of them after I left, gave me money to buy anti-itch cream, and even let me use the staff washer and dryer to clean my stuff. As far as bed bugs go, it was a great experience. None of the other girls in my room got bitten, so I think I am just cursed since this was my second run-in with the horrid little things.
What are the highlights of Byron Bay?
These are the best activities in Byron Bay:
✔️ Seeing Chris Hemsworth buying his milk at Woolworths
✔️Day trip to Nimbin
✔️Day trip to Crystal Palace
✔️Cape Byron Lighthouse
✔️Most Easterly point of mainland Australia
✔️Cape Byron State Conservation Park
Distance until next stop: 93 km
When people talk about coming to the Gold Coast, they really mean Surfer’s Paradise! Welcome to Queensland, also known as the Sunshine State. This is where the sun-kissed waves meet electrifying energy in the ultimate coastal playground.
Picture yourself riding the ocean’s rollercoaster, catching epic waves that send your adrenaline soaring. Sink your toes into golden sands that stretch as far as the eye can see, while friendly locals share tales of epic surf sessions and hidden beach gems. It’s also the most American part of Australia that I can think of. I felt like I was literally in Florida. But a fun place to stop in nonetheless.
How many days should I stay in Surfers Paradise?
It depends on what you want to do. I stayed here for two nights, which was more than enough to enjoy the beaches and nightlife. However, if you wanted to go to any of the theme parks in the area (the only place with theme parks in Australia!) I would add on each night for each park, kind of like a Disney vacation.
Since I’m from America, land of excess, Florida, and many theme parks, I decided to skip the ones on the Gold Coast.
Where should I stay in Surfers Paradise?
The hostel I stayed at here went out of business (maybe during the pandemic), which is too bad because it had free laundry and washing powder, which was a godsend. However, you can’t go wrong with any of the hostels on Hostelworld for your trip to Surfers. The city is such a tourist haven as well that many of the hotels right along the beach offer killer deals.
If you want to stay out of the city (you have a car / are camping, etc.) check out the YHA in nearby Coolangatta.
What are the highlights of Surfers Paradise?
These are the best activities in Surfers Paradise:
✔️Dreamworld, Movie World, Wet’n’Wild, and Sea World
✔️Surfer’s Paradise, Burleigh Heads, and Coolangatta Beaches
✔️SkyPoint Observation Deck
✔️Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary
✔️Shopping on Cavill Avenue and Pacific Fair
Distance until next stop: 76.1 km
Not far now to Brisvegas, the capital of Queensland and a city worth seeing. This lively metropolis is a melting pot of cultural wonders, where the sunshine illuminates the city’s infectious energy. It’s also a great place to base yourself for a visit to Australia Zoo (Steve Irwin stans unite) and some of the best museums in the country.
How many days should I stay in Brisbane?
I spent about two weeks here, but only because my aunt and uncle live in the area and I wanted to hang out with them. On the way back down the coast later that year, I spent three more nights in Brissy city and felt more than satisfied. You could even do two nights if you are on a tighter schedule.
Where should I stay in Brisbane?
I stayed at the YHA and enjoyed it, as it’s close to the bus station and most of the other city attractions are easy to walk to. However, the South Bank, West End, and Fortitude Valley are also great places to find accommodation as they are safe, walkable, and have great places to eat.
What are the highlights of Brisbane?
These are the best activities in Brisbane:
✔️Day trip to Australia Zoo
✔️Day trip to North Stradbroke Island
✔️Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary
✔️Museum of Brisbane
✔️ Mount Coot-tha
✔️Queen Street Mall
Distance until next stop: 151.4 km
I skipped Noosa on my first Sydney to Cairns road trip. In the words of Julia Roberts, big mistake. HUGE. I am obsessed with Noosa these days and will go there every chance I get. In fact, I had only booked myself in for two nights in town and immediately called and extended by another night when I got there because I was so keen.
It’s far enough south in Queensland that you can actually swim in the water, so there was a lot of surfing, snorkeling, and paddleboarding going on. It also had one of the most beautiful coast walks I’d ever been on. Noosa serves as a great jumping-off point for tours of Fraser Island, but don’t discount it as “just a stopover.” This paradise is a destination in and of itself.
How many days should I stay in Noosa?
I would recommend at least three nights in Noosa, although you could easily get stuck here for a lot longer.
Where should I stay in Noosa?
The hotel options are slim, as there is YHA and Magnums. I opted for private accommodation because I was tired and stayed at the Chez Noosa Resort Motel. I can’t say enough good things about it!
What are the highlights of Noosa?
These are the best activities in Noosa:
✔️ Noosa Heads Main Beach
✔️ Noosa Everglades
✔️ Noosa National Park
✔️ Shopping on Hastings Street
Distance until next stop: 224.3 km
Fraser Island (K’gari) **
You can get to Fraser Island from Hervey Bay, Noosa, or Rainbow Heads. My tour left from Hervey Bay, which was forgettable, but an okay place to wait to go to the island.
Fraser Island is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site and holds the distinction of being the largest sand island on the planet. Its vast stretches of pristine white sands, crystal-clear lakes, and towering sand dunes create a surreal landscape that’s truly awe-inspiring.
It’s also one of the only places in Australia where you are all but guaranteed to see wild dingos!
The Butchulla people are the Traditional Owners of K’gari (Fraser Island).
For more than 5,000 years, perhaps as many as 50,000 years, Butchulla people lived in harmony with the seasons and the land and sea, maintaining a balance between spiritual, social, and family connections.
How many days should I stay on Fraser Island?
Most tours of the Island are three days / two nights. If you go on your own (only do this if you have a four-wheel drive that can also go through water), you could do it in much the same time.
There are day trips available. If that’s all you can fit into your time frame, go for it! Some Fraser Island is better than none at all.
Where should I stay on Fraser Island?
K’Gari is for camping.
Most tours have great custom-built campsites around the island for you to enjoy (two days of no showers really isn’t that bad), but some pricier options will have you at some of the resorts if you are more of a bed person.
What are the highlights of Fraser Island?
These are the best activities on Fraser Island:
✔️ Lake McKenzie
✔️ Maheno Shipwreck
✔️ Eli Creek
✔️ Champagne Pools
✔️ Indian Head
✔️ 75 Mile Beach
✔️ Central Station Rainforest
✔️ Lake Wabby
Distance until next stop: 183.2 km
Bundaberg is a charming coastal city located in Queensland, known for its warm climate, pristine beaches, and laid-back atmosphere. Home to the world-famous Bundaberg Rum and the iconic Bundaberg Ginger Beer, this delightful destination offers a blend of natural beauty and cultural heritage. Explore the stunning Southern Great Barrier Reef, take a dip in crystal-clear waters, or witness turtles nesting at Mon Repos Conservation Park.
How many days should I stay in Bundaberg?
I was in Bundaberg for 24 hours. The Greyhound bus arrived at about 8:30 in the morning. I dropped my bags off at the hostel, took in the sights, and was back at the bus stop the next morning. It was an exciting, cute town that I think you could stay longer than a day in, but even if you just stop off for a night, it’s worth it.
Because I’m a sucker for a sugary drink, this was one of my favorite stops on my Sydney to Cairns road trip.
Where should I stay in Bundaberg?
When I was there, I stayed at the BUNK INN, but can NOT recommend it. It was centrally located and fine at the time, if a bit dirty, but I think it must have changed management since I went. The person who responds to reviews on pretty much every site I looked at to see how things were going has a major attitude problem. Not something you want to deal with on your holiday. Also, more than half of the reviews mention bed bugs. Not a good look.
Instead, stay in a hotel for your night in Bundaberg, like the Bundaberg Riverside Hotel which is centrally located and doesn’t have members of staff leaving sassy replies to negative reviews.
What are the highlights of Bundaberg?
These are the best activities in Bundaberg:
✔️Bundaberg Distillery tour
✔️Bundaberg Soft Drinks tour
✔️Lady Musgrave Island
✔️Mon Repos Conservation Park
Distance until next stop: 121.7 km
1770 / Agnes Water
The hidden gem of Queensland’s coast that’s ready to unveil its sun-soaked secrets! Nestled between pristine beaches and lush national parks, this charming seaside town is a paradise for adventure seekers and relaxation enthusiasts alike. Feel the sand between your toes as you bask in the warm, turquoise waters and catch a glimpse of playful dolphins riding the waves.
How many days should I stay in 1770 / Agnes Water?
I stayed two nights and felt like it was plenty of time. If you enjoy surfing, it’s a good place to stay a little longer. I will note that I had Vodaphone and didn’t have service the entire time I was in town as it was a dead spot, which grated on me a little because I was trying to get work done, too.
Where should I stay in 1770 / Agnes Water?
There is a YHA, but it was booked out when I went. I stayed at Cool Bananas and the guy from the hostel picked me up from the bus stop at like 7am dressed like a giant banana, which I will never forget lol.
What are the highlights of 1770 / Agnes Water?
These are the best activities in 1770 / Agnes Water:
✔️ Paperbark Forest Boardwalk
✔️Scooter Roo Tour (with Steppenwolf blasting in the background)
✔️Surfing and Water Sports
✔️Agnes Water Beach
✔️Lady Musgrave Island
Distance until next stop: 706 km
Airlie Beach / Whitsundays**
You didn’t really take a Sydney to Cairns road trip unless you visit the Whitsundays. There’s a reason Sabrina the Teenage Witch did a whole episode onsite here.
You can dive into an underwater kaleidoscope of colors at the Great Barrier Reef, where tropical fish dance amidst vibrant corals. Hop aboard a sailing adventure and island hop through 74 stunning isles, discovering secluded coves and hidden treasures. Don’t forget to catch your breath at the Hill Inlet Lookout, where swirling sands and stunning vistas will leave you in awe.
How many days should I stay in Airlie Beach / Whitsundays?
You can do a day trip out on a boat, but you are really depriving yourself of the gem of coastal Queensland. I would at least have a two-night / three-day sailing trip. There is a boat for every life stage and budget. Plan for a night on land in Airlie before and after your trip, too. I stayed in the area for about six nights and never ran out of things to do.
Where should I stay in Airlie Beach / Whitsundays?
The YHA was fantastic as per usual, but friends also stayed at Magnum’s and enjoyed it.
What are the highlights of Airlie Beach / Whitsundays?
These are the best activities in Airlie Beach / Whitsundays:
✔️ Whitehaven Beach
✔️ Great Barrier Reef
✔️ Sailing and Island Hopping
✔️ Hill Inlet Lookout
✔️ Heart Reef Scenic Flight
Distance until next stop: 187 km
You only need to go to Ayr on your Sydney to Cairns road trip if you want to dive the Yongala shipwreck! With crystal-clear waters and perfect visibility, it’s like diving into a dreamy aquarium. You need to be an advanced diver, or open water with at least ten dives, although double-check with the dive shop before booking. It’s easy to see why it’s one of the top ten dive sites in the entire world.
I will never forget coming face-to-face with a Queensland Grouper, which was about twice my size, three sea turtles, and hundreds of fish swirling in and out of the wreck. I would recommend this over going from Townsville because of the travel time. From Ayr, it’s right off the coast. From Townsville, it’s like three hours by sea.
How many days should I stay in Ayr?
One night is enough because of how the diving day runs. You can come the night before, do the dive in the morning, and be on the road by the early afternoon. The boat doesn’t go every day in the low season, but the accommodation on site was nice and the staff was very friendly and helpful. They picked me up and dropped me off at the bus station, too.
Where should I stay in Ayr?
At the Yongala Dive Centre. It’s the only reason for the stop. They have private rooms, dorms, and even powered and unpowered campsites, depending on what you want to get up to.
What are the highlights of Ayr?
These are the best activities in Ayr:
✔️ Diving the Yongala wreck site
✔️ I also saw a lizard eating a snake here, which was wild
Distance until next stop: 87.7 km
Townsville / Magnetic Island**
Magnetic Island is a can’t-miss on the Sydney to Cairns backpacker route. There isn’t much to do in Townsville itself (some might even call it the bogan capital of the country), but it’s how you get to Maggie and therefore should not be skipped.
Magnetic Island is famous for Barbie Car day rentals, a great opportunity to see koalas in the wild, and amazing hikes.
How many days should I stay in Townsville / Magnetic Island?
I did Magnetic Island as a day trip. I arrived in Townsville first thing in the morning, stored my luggage, hopped on the ferry, and met some friends over there who had rented a car. We came home, the ferry terminal was closed so I couldn’t get my bag until the next morning, so I stayed overnight at the YHA and left for Cairns in the morning.
I felt satisfied with my time on Magnetic Island as a day trip, but feel like you could easily spend two nights there and still not run out of things to do. As for Townsville, I stayed a further two nights on my way back down the coast. I don’t know why I did that.
Where should I stay in Townsville / Magnetic Island?
For both on-land and on the island, check out the options from the YHA. On Maggie, there are also lots of cute AirBNBs and local holiday rentals. Since you will realistically need a car to get around, your options expand quite a bit.
What are the highlights of Townsville / Magnetic Island?
These are the best activities in Townsville / Magnetic Island:
✔️Museum of Tropical Queensland
✔️The Forts Walk
✔️Koalas in the wild
Distance until next stop: 346.8 km
Cairns, Australia, is a tropical paradise bursting with natural wonders. Situated in the state of Queensland, this vibrant city is renowned for its breathtaking beaches, lush rainforests, and the awe-inspiring Great Barrier Reef.
With a laid-back atmosphere and a thriving tourism scene, Cairns offers a perfect blend of relaxation and adventure. From snorkeling in crystal-clear waters to exploring the ancient Daintree Rainforest, Cairns is a gateway to unforgettable experiences and unforgettable memories.
How many days should I stay in Cairns?
If you are in a time crunch, I would recommend at least three full days in Cairns to see the highlights. If you are backpacking and have a more relaxed schedule, try to stay in Cairns for at least a week or two. Even if you don’t go out on a tour every day, there are plenty of places in the city to party, relax on the beach (okay, not IN Cairns, but nearby), and eat lots of good food.
If you are on a working holiday visa 462 Cairns is also a perfect place to set up shop to earn your 88-day or 179-day visa extension. You can work at a restaurant waiting tables, teach diving on the Great Barrier Reef, or work in a tourism office (like me!). It’s way better than working on a farm in the middle of the Outback.
If you have a 417 visa, enjoy picking bananas farther down the coast…I guess.
I lived in Cairns for six months and felt like I still didn’t get to see everything. It’s the biggest city in Far North Queensland and a great place to base yourself.
Where should I stay in Cairns?
For backpackers, there are two main options for places to stay in Cairns. If you want to party and make lots of friends, stay at Gilligan’s. If you want to get a good night’s sleep, stay at the YHA. My experience at both hostels was fantastic.
If you are a bit bougie, Cairns is THE tourist town and you have about every time of tourist accommodation you could think of at every price point. Just know that sometimes tours don’t pick people up from Airbnb, so you might need to walk to a hotel for your pick-up. There was a hotel down the street from my apartment, so it usually worked out fine.
What are the highlights of Cairns?
These are the best activities in Cairns:
✔️ The Great Barrier Reef
✔️ Fitzroy Island and Green Island
✔️ Skyrail and Train to Kuranda
✔️ Atherton Tablelands
✔️ Chillagoe Caves
✔️ Esplanade, Aquarium, Night Markets, Botanical Gardens
✔️ Daintree Rainforest
✔️ Cape Tribulation
Distance until next stop: 58km
Port Douglas is Cairn’s bougie neighbor to the north. While most east coast backpacker route trips end in Cairns, you might find yourself trekking farther north to see what else Far North Queensland has to offer.
This coastal town, located near the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, offers an exquisite blend of natural wonders and laid-back luxury. With palm-fringed golden beaches, crystal-clear waters, and a vibrant coral reef teeming with marine life, Port Douglas is a haven for snorkelers, divers, and beach lovers. It’s great for luxury shopping, lounging on the beach, and trips out to the reef.
How many days should I stay in Port Douglas?
I took many day trips to Port when I lived in Cairns, but given its proximity to the reef and rainforest, if you choose it over Cairns, stay for three days to see the highlights. A week if you want to do things at a more relaxed pace at the tail end of your Sydney to Cairns road trip.
You can also set up shop here to earn a Visa 462 extension should you so desire. It’s more of a small-town feel than Cairns, but very tourism-oriented, so there are lots of jobs.
Where should I stay in Port Douglas?
Port Douglas is more of an upscale place. If you are ballin’ on a budget, your only option is likely Dougies Backpackers Resort, which is a bit far from town, but nice.
There are HEAPS of great hotels along Four Mile Beach with great walking access to the rest of town. They are just expensive, but you can’t go wrong with splurging to end your trip with a bang!
What are the highlights of Port Douglas?
These are the best activities in Port Douglas:
✔️Four Mile Beach
✔️Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat
✔️Flagstaff Hill Lookout
✔️The Great Barrier Reef
✔️ Cape Tribulation
Tips for a Great Cairns to Sydney Road Trip
My tips to make your Sydney to Cairns road trip the best it can be.
What is the city closest to the Great Barrier Reef?
The Great Barrier Reef is so long that it can be seen from space. It starts around Bundaberg and follows the East Coast of Australia all the way to Cape York at the very top! If you want to see it, the best place is Cairns and Port Douglas. You can also easily see the reef from Bundaberg, Agnes Water, and Airlie Beach, too.
Sydney to Cairns Road Trip Budget
Budgeting for your Sydney to Cairns road trip can be tough. I didn’t keep close track of the money I was spending because I had my “once in a lifetime” goggles on. I also got a job in Cairns at the end of my trip to pay myself back. However, to make a plan, divide your costs into four main categories:
Hostels, camper van, campsite fees, etc.
Rental car fees, bus pass, plane tickets, fuel, etc.
Museum entry fees, tour packages
Ramen noodles at the hostel, anyone?
Taking a Sydney to Cairns road trip solo
If you are traveling alone like I did, I would recommend buying a Greyhound bus pass to see the East Coast of Australia. Even if you are only there for a few weeks, Sydney to Cairns by bus is the most economical and easiest way to see the coast. Stay in hostels in the city center to cut down on local transportation and cook in the kitchens there instead of eating out.
Take group tours to Fraser Island (K’gari) and the Whitsundays. You will also need to book day trips from Cairns to see the reef and rainforest, but most everything else can be done all alone (or with the new friends you meet at the hostels).
You don’t need to do an official tour of the East Coast of Australia (with EF Travel Break, Top Deck, Contiki, etc.) unless you are really nervous about going at it alone or prefer a guide. A Sydney to Cairns road trip is perfect for beginner solo travelers to get their feet wet and see if it’s something they enjoy.
Also, as a warning, backpacker tour companies like PeterPan’s, World Travel, etc. will sell you “tours” of the East Coast, but they are really just vacation bundles. You won’t be with the same people or have a guide. This is a good option if you need help planning, but doesn’t leave you with much flexibility.