A Guide to road-tripping East Coast Australia
The east coast of Australia from Cairns to Melbourne stretches over 3,700km and is an iconic road-trip. You could probably squeeze it into a 2 week period but, to make the most of it and give yourself time to enjoy it, we recommend at least 3 weeks.
As always, none of the recommendations mentioned are sponsored. They are from personal experience and are recommendations we genuinely feel are worthwhile to pass on.
Day 1 - 3:
Start your trip in the backpacker party town of Cairns, which is also known as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef! A trip here isn't complete without a snorkel or dive in the worlds largest coral reef. Be careful who you book with as often a lot of the cheaper companies are only licensed to visit the inner reef which is becoming increasingly damage. Make sure to do some research and book with a company that is eco-friendly.
The stunning Great Barrier Reef
On your second day, take it easy with a trip to Fitzroy Island. The ferry takes 45 minutes and can be booked here. Fitzroy Island is home to Nudey Beach which was ranked the number 1 beach in Australia in 2018, so it makes for the perfect spot to lounge in the sun for the day. There is also plenty of trails and hikes on the island for the most energetic backpacker!
Nudey Beach on Fitzroy Island
Book in for a day trip on your third day to Daintree Forest, the worlds oldest rainforest, and Cape Tribulation, where the rainforest meets the reef.
Make your way down the coast to Townsville, which is where you will access Magnetic Island. The drive will take 4 hours but we recommend taking the drive slow and stopping in coastal towns along the way, with Mission Beach not to be skipped.
Day 5 - 6:
On your fifth morning, grab the 40 minute ferry to Magnetic Island. They depart every 2 hours so make sure to plan ahead and get an early departure. Magnetic Island is small but there is plenty to do here over 2 days.
Feed the wallabies at Geoffrey's Bay, snorkel at Florence Bay, hike 6km from Arcadia to Nelly's Bay, spot the koalas at the Forts, or play the old decaying piano at Radical Bay. With some early rises and planning you can probably fit most of this in over 2 days, and perhaps renting a topless car to make it faster to get around (and for insta, obvs!).
The obligatory insta topless car pic
If you want to party here stay at Base Backpackers!
Use this day to make your way from Magnetic Island to Hervey Bay, spending the night here before an early rise to get across to Fraser Island. If it's between July to November keep an eye out for the humpback whales off the coast.
Day 8 - 9:
Fraser Island is a highlight of the east coast road-trip. It is the world's largest sand island and is heritage-listed. You will need a 4x4 to get around the island and drive along the beautiful beaches so it is probably best to book onto a tour.
Lake McKenzie, the SS Maheno shipwreck, the Champagne Pools and dingo-spotting are some of the things you can look forward to during your time on this beautiful island.
Make your way from Fraser Island to Brisbane which will take about 6 hours. Start the day early so that it is still bright when you get to Brisbane and then use the evening to wander around the city, taking in South Bank and Story Bridge.
There is plenty to do in Brisbane but the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is the top tourist activity and with good reason! We think the best way to get here is to enjoy a boat down the river with Mirimar Cruises. Once at the sanctuary you will see and learn about plenty of Australian wildlife, including koalas, kangeroos, snakes and wombats.
You'll get to hold a koala! (Don't worry - they are looked after very well here!)
You will return from the sanctuary at 2.15pm leaving the rest of the day to continue exploring. Pop by the South Bank Parklands for a swim and head to Eat Street in the evening to experience all of the most incredible food trucks Brisbane has to offer.
Day 12 - 14:
On the morning of day 12, drive the short 2 hour journey down to Byron Bay. This town, which is known for its surf, is a must-visit during your east coast road-trip! There is SO much to do in Byron Bay from beachside yoga to surf lessons - both of which have to be done while in Byron!
A few of our other highlights include cycling up to the Lighthouse (sunrise here is beautiful!), watching the more experienced surfers from Fisherman's Lookout, enjoying a long walk along Tallow Beach, and some beer-tasting at Stone & Wood Brewery.
The steps to Fishermans Lookout
Stay in YHA backpackers (the new one) - this is such a great hostel! It's new and clean, has amazing facilities, and is located right in the centre of town.
After relaxing in Byron Bay for a few days, you will have a long 8 hour drive ahead to Sydney. It is best to leave bright and early so you have plenty of time to rest along the way. Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie are two towns worth making a stop at.
Arrive in Sydney in the evening and if you have the energy head to the Harbour to witness the Opera House and Harbour Bridge in all of their glory at night time.
View of the Opera House on the ferry back from Manly
Day 16 - 17:
Sydney is a magnificent city for tourists with its iconic buildings and bridges, a hustle and bustle downtown vibe, and a stunning coastline. Take the ferry out to Manly to explore a more laid back suburb, or do the Coogee to Bondi Beach coastal walk to take in incredible views.
View of Bondi Beach on the coastal walk
There is also plenty to do outside of Sydney, such as a day trip to the beautiful Blue Mountains or some wine-tasting in the infamous Hunter Valley. You simply need to choose what you would prefer to experience, or spend a little bit more time here to fit it all in.
Your final destination, Melbourne, is on the horizon but first you will have one last long coastal drive to enjoy. We recommend breaking this up by staying in Narooma overnight.
Narooma is a 4.5 hour drive south of Sydney and you must stop in Hyams Beach at Jervis Bay en route. You will never see sand so white, you'll even need sunglasses its so bright!
Day 19 - 21:
And finally you have one last 8 hour drive ahead of you before reaching Melbourne, your last stop on your east coast road trip. The city of Melbourne is a great place to end your journey, known for its amazing street art, many laneways, cultural diversity and fantastic food for all budgets.
The famous Hozier Lane in Melbourne
Take a way down the Yarra River towards the city where you'll reach Federation Square across from the iconic Flinders Street Station. There are plenty of riverside bars and cafes for a spot of people watching. Queen Victorian Market is worth a visit, with a night market here on Wednesdays during certain seasons.
Each suburb in Melbourne has its own unique personality, from the sporty social Richmond, hipster boutique-filled Fitzroy, to the buzzing Chapel Street in Windsor, or the upmarket beachside suburb of Brighton (home to the insta-worthy beach huts).
If you would prefer to venture outside of the city, Great Ocean Road (home to the Twelve Apostles) and Wilsons Promontory National Park are both outstanding, but bear in mind you will need to spend at least one night to enjoy them properly.
And there you have it, a fun-filled action-packed 3 week road-trip of the incredible East Coast of Australia!