Australia is a land of dreams. From the sacred legends of the aboriginal Dreamtime, when the great spirits conjured the coral reefs, rainforests, and scorched red deserts, to armchair travelers who describe Australia as their dream destination, the Land Down Under deserves all the hype. The world’s smallest continent and largest island, Australia is almost the same size as the United States but with a population the size of New York State and some of the quirkiest wildlife on the planet.
Australia is also a land of staggering contrasts and spectacular beauty. Along the coast, you can explore vibrant multicultural cities, vast sand islands, ancient rainforests, and one of the planet’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders – the Great Barrier Reef. In the Outback, rugged national parks and red-earthed deserts offer the ultimate in adventure travel. Top it all off with a laid-back feel and friendly people, and it’s no wonder Australia scores top billing on bucket lists around the world. Create your own adventure with our list of the top attractions in Australia:
Mention “Sydney, Australia” and most people think of the Opera House. Shaped like huge shells or billowing sails, this famous building on Sydney’s Bennelong Point graces the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is one of the world’s great architectural icons. The location is stunning. Water surrounds the structure on three sides, and the Royal Botanic Gardens border it to the south.
Danish architect, Jørn Utzon won an international competition for its design but withdrew from the project after technical and financing problems. Construction was finally completed in 1973 at a cost ten times the original budget. By this time, Utzon had left the country never returning to see his magnificent creation.
Today, you can enjoy a performance here; dine at one of the restaurants; or take a tour of the building, which encompasses theaters, studios, a concert hall, exhibition rooms, and a cinema. But it’s far more impressive viewed from a distance. One of the best sites to photograph the Opera House is Mrs Macquarie’s Chair in the Royal Botanic Gardens, or you can hop aboard a harbor cruise or ferry for yet another picturesque perspective.
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Deep in the heart of Australia’s Red Centre, Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock), is one of the most photographed natural wonders in the country. The striking red monolith forms the centerpiece of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, a World Heritage Area jointly managed by Parks Australia and the traditional landowners, the Aṉangu people. Uluru, meaning “shadowy place” in the local aboriginal dialect, rises to a height of 348 meters from the surrounding plain, with most of its bulk hidden beneath the earth’s surface. Also in the park are the red dome-shaped rocks called Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). As the sun dips in the sky, sightseers gather to watch the colors of Uluru and Kata Tjuta transform in the shifting light. A great way to appreciate these sacred sites is to join a tour led by Aboriginal guides and rangers.
Along with the Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is one of Australia’s most famous tourist attractions. Affectionately called “the Coathanger,” this impressive feat of construction is the largest steel arch bridge in the world. It was completed in 1932, 40 years before the Sydney Opera House. Rising 134 meters above the harbor, the bridge spans 500 meters, connecting Sydney’s North Shore to the central business district. In addition to the pedestrian path, two railway lines extend over the bridge, as well as eight lanes for road traffic, and the direction of each lane can be switched to accommodate traffic flow.
One of the top things to do in Sydney is a guided ascent to the top of the bridge, where you can enjoy spectacular views over the harbor and city. For an overview on the bridge’s history and construction visit the museum in the southeastern pier. Interestingly, Paul Hogan, of Crocodile Dundee fame, worked as a painter on the bridge before rocketing to international stardom.
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World Heritage-listed Fraser Island, between Bundaberg and Brisbane off Australia’s east coast, is the largest sand island in the world and one of Australia’s top outdoor adventures – especially for four-wheel drive enthusiasts. Along windswept Seventy Five Mile Beach, you can see the rusted hulls of shipwrecks, the colored sandstone cliffs of The Cathedrals, and the bubbling fish-filled rock pools called Champagne Pools.
Venturing inland, highlights include crystal-clear freshwater creeks and lakes, some fed by springs, others perched amid towering sand dunes, and ancient rainforests filled with an amazing diversity of plants and animals. Sharks, dolphins, and whales prowl the waters, and the island’s fauna includes wild horses, dingoes, bats, sugar gliders, and more than 300 species of birds. Access to Fraser Island is by ferry from Rainbow Beach and Hervey Bay. Four-wheel drive vehicles are essential as the island has no sealed roads.
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Most top tourist destinations have spectacular driving routes, and for Australia, one of its best is the Great Ocean Road. Built to provide employment during the Depression, the road stretches for 300 kilometers along Australia’s southeast coast, from the surfing town of Torquay to the town of Allansford, near Warrnambool, in the state of Victoria. The top attraction along the road is Port Campbell National Park, with the wind and wave-sculpted rock formations known as the Twelve Apostles, London Bridge, the Arch, and Loch Ard Gorge. From a helicopter tour, these rock formations look like giant puzzle pieces, lashed by the pounding surf of the Southern Ocean. Other highlights along the road include the popular holiday resort town of Lorne and Otway National Park, an area of dense eucalyptus forests, fern-filled rain forests, hiking trails, and waterfalls.
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