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Top 10 cities in Australia
When it comes to buzz-worthy metropolises that send your senses reeling, Australia has it covered. We check out the best urban hubs that up the wow-factor; from the glittering big-name cities to the lesser-known destinations that deserve more attention.
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory (ACT)
The scene: Having spent the last century living up to its moniker as a dull politician’s playground filled with boring bureaucrats, Canberra is suddenly experiencing a Capital of Cool moment. Of course, history fanatics will still get their fix of stately government institutions, heritage buildings and eminent museums and galleries that are undeniably the best in the country. But there’s also an exciting new wave of game-changing hotels, high-profile restaurants, unique boutiques and pop-up stores, and amazing crafts markets - all of which have reshaped the city in recent years.
The sights: The remarkable Parliament House, Opera House, and Australian War Memorial all fit the bill for visual thrills. Must-dos include walking the ‘bridge to bridge’ path around Lake Burley Griffin (named after the Chicago-born architect who designed the capital in 1913), visiting the National Gallery of Australia for some 166,000-plus works of art, and checking out Captain Cook’s 1770 logbook at the National Library. Further highlights include shopping for curios at the Old Bus Depot Markets, watching an art-house movie at the NewActon cultural precinct, and working your way through the pleasing array of brunch cafés and bars on Lonsdale Street.
The out-of-town daytrip: The countryside surrounding Canberra has 140 vineyards and more than 30 cellar doors. It’s also worth venturing six miles out of town to Gold Creek Village - home to the National Dinosaur Museum, Australian Reptile Centre, and Cockington Green Miniature Village.
Adelaide, South Australia
The scene: It’s all stunning vineyards, amazing eco-adventures, outstanding festivals, and a strong urban arts and foodie scene in Adelaide - South Australia’s elegant capital named in honour of Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, queen consort to King William IV. The vibe is more like a big country town than a buzzing metropolis, with most making a beeline for the gorgeously green hills, the lovely ocean beaches, and the refurbed 50,000-seater Adelaide Oval that has been hosting summer Test cricket matches and winter football matches since colonial times.
The sights: An Adelaide fixture since 1969, the giant Central Market is spot-on for stocking up on farm-fresh fruit and veg, smoked meats, artisan cheeses, and seafood (better still, join Mark Gleeson’s interesting early morning tour). Further must-dos include visiting Port Adelaide for classic Aussie pubs and old wharves, the North Terrace for the Art Gallery of South Australia and the South Australian Museum, and Adelaide Zoo for its 1,800 animals (including koalas and kangaroos). Try to spend some time in Rundle Street - the heartbeat of the East End District that’s packed out with edgy boutiques and some of the city’s best restaurants, cafés, and bars.
The out-of-town daytrip: There’s three delightful wine regions (Clare Valley, Barossa Valley, and McLaren Vale) within easy reach of the city. You’ll also be just a 45-minute ferry ride from Kangaroo Island - one of the best places on the continent to see native antipodean animals in their natural habitat.
The scene: Once a penal colony for British convicts sent from Sydney, the sunny state capital of Queensland is one of the country’s most up-and-coming cities. Much here is focussed around the Brisbane River - the glittering waterway where you can abseil the Kangaroo Point cliffs, scale the iconic Story Bridge, and rollerblade over floating walkways. But away from the water, it’s obvious that this city is loving its Brisvegas label; not least for a new surge of glossy new hotels, creative spaces, swanky shops, and excellent music venues to rival those of its southern cousins.
The sights: The scope for outdoorsy thrills is huge; from taking a paddlesteamer or ferry down the Brisbane River and relaxing in the lush riverside parks of South Bank, to cycling through the City Botanic Gardens. Further must-dos include gorging on art at GoMA (Australia's largest gallery of modern and contemporary art), meeting cute and cuddly animals at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, chilling out at the inner-city beach, and browsing for artisan goodies at the Stanley Street Plaza weekend market. Make time to take one of the city’s craft beer tours for a behind-the-scenes look at Brisbane's best breweries as well as obligatory tasting sessions.
The out-of-town daytrip: A 40-minute drive from Brisbane followed by a short boat ride, North Stradbroke Island (known as Straddie) is a great out-of-city hub for 4WD tours, kayaking, fishing, whale-watching, sandboarding, swimming in a tea-stained lake, and hanging out with local wildlife.
Darwin, Northern Territory
The scene: Much closer to Asia than its ‘down south’ neighbours, Australia's only tropical capital city appeals with a balmy year-round climate, cultural attractions galore, and a rather smart waterfront precinct that has transformed the look and luxe of the place. There’s also a harbour to trump Sydney’s, two incredible nearby national parks (Kakadu and Litchfield), sunsets so famous that entire events are based around them (the Mindil Sunset Markets are held only when the sun dips into the glassy Arafura Sea), and a vibe that’s way less frontier town than you’d expect.
The sights: There’s no shortage of adrenaline-charged adventures; from swimming with crocodiles in an enclosed cage at Crocosaurus Cove to meeting their wilder mates on a two-and-a-half-hour cruise of the Mary River Wetlands - home to the largest concentration of saltwater crocodiles in the world. Further must-dos include checking out the Defence of Darwin Experience at the Darwin Military Museum (the city was bombed in two separate raids during WWII), staking out the rare Rufous Owl in the 130-year-old Darwin Botanic Gardens, and learning about the Top End’s heritage at the splendid Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
The out-of-town daytrip: The gorgeous Tiwi Islands (Bathurst Island and Melville Island) are a ferry-ride away and an essential part of any Top End tour. Home to the Tiwi Aboriginal people, they offer aboriginal art, excellent fishing, and animals and plants found nowhere else on the planet.
Gold Coast, Queensland
The scene: For all the sun, sea and surf you can muster, Queensland’s iconic coastal city that sits immediately north of the border with New South Wales is all glitz and glamour; think flashy high-rises, seaside markets, and Orlando-style theme parks (Wet ’n’ Wild Water World, Warner Brothers Movie World). This is also where you’ll find gourmet dining, 57 kilometres of pristine sands, and a $42 million aquatic centre in the Broadwater Parklands that accommodated 10,000 fans when the city hosted the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
The sights: This is Australia’s most upbeat holiday playground for good reason, but there’s more to this place than the booming bars and megaclubs in the spirited Surfers Paradise suburb. Must-dos include venturing to the 77th-floor viewing platform at the 322-metre-high Q1 Building, hand-feeding a kangaroo or cuddling a koala at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, and enjoying a ghoulish night at Dracula’s Comedy Cabaret Restaurant - a Gold Coast staple that’s famously been paying tribute to the B-grade horror genre since the mid-Sixties. To top it off, there’s scores of beaches, including Main Beach, Surfers Paradise, Kurrawa Beach, and Miami Beach.
The out-of-town daytrip: Just a 45-minute drive from the city, the Gold Coast Hinterland tempts with unspoilt national parks, charming mountain villages filled with artisan galleries, and the UNESCO-listed Gondwana Rainforest - the world’s most extensive area of subtropical rainforest.
The scene: Founded in 1803 as a penal colony, Hobart is the high-impact Tasmanian capital (and Australia's second-oldest city, after Sydney) that’s shaken off its sleepy reputation and emerged as one of the hippest southernmost hotspots. Dominated by Mount Wellington, it comes with a dynamic and daring art scene (most famously David Walsh’s incredible Museum of Old and New Art, known as MONA), picturesque waterways, rugged mountains, award-winning gourmet experiences, world-class festivals, and a whole lot of wilderness.
The sights: Most wide-eyed visitors will be drawn to Hobart's iconic waterfront before visiting the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, joining a guided walking tour of the profoundly historic Battery Point, and taking a ferry up river to MONA for an arty fix (the Madonna room and Sidney Nolan snake mural are both amazing). Other city essentials include climbing to the 4,265-feet-high summit of Mount Wellington for city and harbour views, shopping at the outdoor Salamanca market (Saturdays only), stopping for fish and chips at Constitution Dock, and stocking up on fresh Tasmanian produce at the Farm Gate Market held on Bathurst Street on Sunday mornings.
The out-of-town daytrip: Australia's most notorious penal site, the UNESCO-listed Port Arthur is just 90 minutes drive east of Hobart. Here you can take a cruise to the Isle of the Dead, take a trip to Point Puer Boys' Prison, and scare yourself silly on a spooky lantern-lit ghost tour.
The scene: As the main gateway to some of Australia’s greatest natural wonders (the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree rainforest, the Atherton tablelands, and Cape Tribulation), the city of Cairns (pronounced Cahns) deservedly gets a lot of love from adventurers, nature lovers, and sporty types. Most wowing is the snorkelling, scuba diving, bungee jumping, fishing, parasailing, bushwalking and rainforest trekking, but there’s also fascinating Aboriginal walks, an established coffee shop scene, and some jolly decent pubs and markets.
The sights: Cairns’ Esplanade's 4,800-metre-squared swimming lagoon on the city’s reclaimed foreshore, the Saturday Esplanade market, and the Cairns Wildlife Dome atop the Reef Hotel Casino are all essential detours. Further city thrills include the Cairns Botanic Gardens (also known as Flecker) for unorthodox and vibrant blooms, the Pier Boardwalk for high-profile restaurants, designer shopping and a great art gallery, and the Cairns Museum for a lowdown on the city’s history. Don’t miss the Kuranda Scenic Railway - a unique 90-minute journey through the rugged rainforest where sightings of platypus, crocodiles and parrots are guaranteed.
The out-of-town daytrip: Visible from outer space and made up nearly 3,000 individual reefs over 133,000 square miles, the Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef ecosystem. Head here to skim the ocean floor - or better still soar through the air in a helicopter ride.
Perth, Western Australia
The scene: It may be one of the most isolated cities on earth, but that hasn’t stopped Western Australia’s youthful capital from stepping ahead of its competitors. This frontier-town-made-chic tempts with slick wine bars and restaurants, sweeping parkland, achingly cool festivals, excellent markets, glittering beaches, and a skyline to rival Manhattan. Equally thrilling are the rejuvenation projects that are changing the face of the city; most significantly the $2.6-billion Elizabeth Quay development (a plan by the State Government to return the city's focus to the Swan River).
The sights: This up-and-coming part of WA offers endless things to do; from taking a morning power run at the inner-city Kings Park to lazing on the glistening white sands at Cottesloe Beach. Further must-dos include admiring one of the best collections of Aboriginal art on the planet at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, visiting the historic seaside Port of Fremantle for its famous markets housed in a grand Victorian-era heritage building, and working out your weight in gold (really) at the Perth Mint. Another highlight is Rottnest Island, the idyllic island playground just a 30-minute ferry ride from the city that’s filled with dazzling marine life, secluded beaches and bays, great cycle paths, and up to 12,000 curious quokkas.
The out-of-town daytrip: Just 20 minutes east of Perth, the Swan Valley and Darling Range is a world away from city life. It can be reached easily by road, but it’s far better to take the scenic route aboard a Swan River cruise from Perth's Barrack Street Jetty (a short stroll from the CBD).
The scene: While not as showy as its flashy northern sister, Sydney, the progressive state capital of Victoria is one of Australia’s coolest metropolitan marvels. There’s gourmet foodie offerings, hipster bars, a thriving arts scene, and a vibe that’s more European than any of its cosmopolitan rivals. As for sport, the Australian Football League Grand Final, Australian Open Tennis Championships, and Formula 1 Grand Prix are all held here. And then, of course, there’s the spiritual home of Aussie cricket - the Melbourne Cricket Ground (known locally as "The G").
The sights: While the celebrated laneways and arcades packed with cafés, bars and boutiques add soul to the city, it’s the awe-inspiring street art in Hosier Lane, Block Arcade and Union Lane that adds real character. Further highlights include taking a sporting pilgrimage to the National Sports Museum, riding the free-of-charge City Circle Tram to see landmarks such as Parliament House, Federation Square, City Museum and Docklands, and shopping for gourmet goodies at Queen Victoria Market. Also make time to visit Phillip Island (a 90-minute drive from the city) to see thousands of adorable little penguins make their epic journey along the sands at sunset.
The out-of-town daytrip: The vineyard-cloaked Yarra Valley is an hour’s drive from Melbourne and worth the journey for its world-class wineries. Alternatively, hit the Great Ocean Road - the 243-kilometre stretch along Australia’s south-eastern coast that’s ranked as one of the world’s best road trips.
Sydney, New South Wales
The scene: It’s all dreamy surf beaches, top-tier entertainment venues, and a dazzling harbour in the superstar of New South Wales. And while it’s a city happy to charge forward with edgy trends and creative developments, there’s enough cultural depth to keep history buffs happy; from the 100-year-old Bondi Icebergs to the Royal Botanic Gardens (thought to be the oldest public gardens in the Southern Hemisphere). And then, of course, there’s the long list of icons; most famously the Sydney Opera House - one the most recognisable buildings in the world that was designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon in a 1956 competition (his prize was £5,000).
The sights: To get to grips with this city of superlatives, tour the Opera House, climb Sydney Harbour Bridge, and take to the water to explore Darling Harbour or Sydney Harbour by boat. There’s also the sun-blazed Coogie, Bondi and Manly for beach glamour, Oxford and William Streets for drain-your-wallet-shopping, and the State Theatre, Art Gallery of New South Wales and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia for arty kicks. Also unmissable is The Rocks - the historic harbourside quarter where you can wander down cobbled laneways, sample craft beer in some of the city’s oldest pubs, and delve into Sydney’s colonial past.
The out-of-town daytrip: A 90-minute drive from the city centre, the Blue Mountains National Park is a must-do for its blue-tinged escarpment and Three Sisters rock formation. You’ll find epic bushwalks as well as action-charged pursuits such as rock climbing, mountain biking, and abseiling.
More ideas for your next Australian urban adventure
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Top 10 things to do in Perth
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