Australia’s cosmopolitan cities are full of cultural, gastronomic and entertainment delights. But beyond the city limits, there’s a world of natural beauty and lesser-known tourist spots that make perfect mini-adventures. From getting lost in the Blue Mountains to exploring Kangaroo Island, here are some great day trips for your next city break in Australia.
The City: Sydney
The Day Trip: Katoomba
How Far? 1 hr 30 mins; 100 kilometres
The dramatic scenery of the Blue Mountains should be on any Sydney-bound tourist’s hit list, with its 340 million-year old limestone cliffs, eucalyptus forests, thundering waterfalls and rainforest ecosystems. Katoomba, a lively town in New South Wales, is a gateway to the many hiking trails in the region, and close to one of its most famous sights: the Three Sisters rock formation at Echo Point.
The rugged topography is a playground for adrenaline junkies, with canyons, plateaus and towering sandstone crags offering the perfect conditions for rock climbing, abseiling, canyoning and mountaineering. Less extreme adventures include a descent into the lush rainforest of Jamison Valley via the 19th-century Scenic Railway – the world’s steepest railway, operating on a 52-degree incline or enjoying the views from a glass-floored cable car which passes landmarks such as the Three Sisters, Orphan Rock and Mount Solitary.
Back in Katoomba, pop by the historic hotel The Carrington for a spot of wining and dining in one of the few authentic Victorian dining rooms still operating in Australia, before calling it a day and heading back to the capital.
The City: Perth
The Day Trip: Busselton
How Far? 2 hrs 40 mins; 220 kilometres
The old-world beach resort of Busselton has been the holiday heartland of Western Australia since the late 19th century. Its most famous attraction is the heritage-listed Busselton Jetty, which first opened in 1865, and has since been extended to 1.8 kilometres – making it one of the longest wooden boardwalks in the world.
Stroll down the historic promenade, drinking in 360-degree views of Geographe Bay, or hop on the electric train that departs hourly. At the end of the jetty, eight metres below the waves, lies an underwater observatory offering views of the vibrant artificial reefs placed around old jetty piles, teeming with more than 300 marine species. For a deep dive into the history of the Busselton Jetty, head to the Cultural Heritage Museum in the boathouse-styled Interpretive Centre, and learn how it endured cyclones, clam invasions, fires and demolition threats to become a regional icon. Grab lunch at one of the casual cafes or waterfront restaurants for great seafood and sea views, before heading back to Perth in time for sunset.
The City: Melbourne
The Day Trip: Daylesford
How Far? 1 hr 25 mins; 114 kilometres
If your ideal day trip involves spas, natural hot springs and pampering – then set your GPS for Daylesford, less than 90 minutes from Melbourne by car. The glorious spa region is dotted with clusters of mineral-rich hot springs, whose healing properties have been sought-after for centuries. The 600-inhabitant village of Hepburn Springs has boomed as a spa resort, boasting a bevy of natural springs and numerous bathhouses and spas ready to soothe the stresses of the weary traveller.
Once you’re suitably invigorated, head to the historic Convent Gallery in Daylesford for a fine art fix. The gorgeous 19th-century mansion houses three floors of rotating exhibitions, spanning a diverse range of local and international artists. If you prefer outdoor pursuits: rent a kayak and enjoy the serenity of Jubilee Lake, or get the blood flowing with a hike to Wombat Hill Botanical Gardens, situated on top of an extinct volcano.
After working up an appetite, it’s time to sample the region’s abundance of gastronomic delights. Several wineries offer cellar-door tastings, with organic cafes and eateries aplenty. And if it’s haute cuisine you’re looking for, head straight to the Lake House. Flush with farm-to-table, locally produced fare, this award-winning restaurant is a gourmand’s delight, and offers magnificent views of the countryside. Slow down, unwind and even prolong your trip by staying overnight in one of the Lake House’s villas or suites.
The City: Adelaide
The Day Trip: Kangaroo Island
How Far? 1 hr 30 mins drive; ferry 45 mins; 160 kilometres
For the ultimate ‘back-to-nature’ vibes, head to the unspoiled wilderness of Kangaroo Island. Located just off the southern coast of Adelaide, a third of this 4,400-square-kilometre island is dedicated to conservation, while the rest is a paradise of rugged coastline, white beaches, mountains and bushland waiting to be discovered. The abundance of wildlife is a huge part of what gives the island its unique appeal – and its name. You’ll be greeted by kangaroos lolloping across grassy plains, sea lions basking on beaches, waddling wombats and koalas dozing in eucalyptus trees.
While the bushfires that ravaged parts of Australia last year took their toll on parts of the island, many of the main sanctuaries were unharmed, such as Seal Bay Conservation Park on the south coast – home to one of the largest sea lion colonies in Australia; and Raptor Domain, a wildlife refuge for injured or orphaned birds of prey. The journey to Kangaroo Island is almost as scenic as the destination, with a 1.5-hour coastal drive to Cape Jervis, followed by a hop on the 45-minute ferry to the small port town of Penneshaw – where you’ll also spot the small but lively resident penguin colony.
The City: Brisbane
The Day Trip: Mullumbimby
How Far? 1 hr 45 mins; 150 kilometres
Byron Bay has been on the travel radar for decades now, but with the coastal town getting busier, its lesser-known neighbour Mullumbimby has emerged as the newer, hipper place to be. Its laid-back credentials include a slew of yoga studios, eco-friendly boutiques, vintage shops, organic cafes and grocery stores, art galleries and lashings of rural charm.
Enjoy a perfectly hipster morning browsing the Mullum Farmers Market (Friday morning 7am-11am), before heading to Lulu’s Cafe for a healthy vegan lunch. Grab an organic chai at The Patch Cafe, then take in the vibrant street art dotted around the city. Ready to go truly New Age? Check out the Crystal Castle & Shambhala Gardens, a nature park dotted with huge naturally formed crystals. Wander around in amethyst caves, spend a reflective moment in front of the stone Buddha and join the daily Peace Experience.
Stuck in the City
No time for a day trip? Here are a few under-the-radar activities in the cities themselves
From the 27-storey-high painting on Hay Street to the eye-catching portrait of Alfred Hitchcock in Como, Perth’s mega-murals have transformed the city’s walls into a rich and diverse tapestry.
Do the Time Warp in Melbourne
Get transported to Cold War Germany by stepping into Berlin Bar, perhaps the most popular bar in a city famous for its quirky watering holes. Known for its heady cocktails and old-world service, the bar’s capitalist-meets-communist ambience immerses you into a world of intrigue.
Surf’s up in Sydney
Skip Bondi Beach and head to Mona Vale Beach, a surfer’s paradise just 28 kilometres from CBD. While crowds fight for towel space at Bondi, you might have the entire beach to yourself at Mona Vale.
Visit toy town in Adelaide
Treat your kids to a visit to The Big Rocking Horse and The Toy Factory. Kids can climb this enormous wooden construction, join tours to see how wooden toys are made, and feed wallabies, corellas and alpacas at the adjacent animal park.
Get high in Brisbane
What’s better than a pub crawl? A pub chopper tour. Pterodactyl Helicopters literally takes you on a flying visit to the city’s five most famous watering holes, with lunch included.
This story was originally published in June 2020 and updated in September 2020