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Buckle up, you’re going to fall in love with Australia’s beautiful East Coast. Exploring by a road trip from Cairns to Sydney promises you highlight after highlight – from discovering the underwater paradise of the Great Barrier Reef to the bright city lights of Sydney, it’s got it all.
- 1 How to road trip from Cairns to Sydney
- 2 How Long You Need for a Road Trip from Cairns to Sydney
- 3 Best Places to Go on a Road Trip From Cairns to Sydney
- 3.1 Cairns
- 3.2 Magnetic Island
- 3.3 Airlie Beach
- 3.4 Hervey Bay
- 3.5 Rainbow Beach
- 3.6 Noosa
- 3.7 Brisbane
- 3.8 Surfer’s Paradise
- 3.9 Byron Bay
- 3.10 Sydney
How to road trip from Cairns to Sydney
There’s great debate over the best method of transport to cover this 2413km distance – campervan, car or bus. In all honesty, it doesn’t hugely matter, and you’re going to have an awesome time regardless. But having toured the East Coast twice over the last 5 years, here’s what I think…
The beauty of having your own vehicle is that you can stop whenever you like. The East Coast is scattered with the most stunning bays and beaches, and trust me, you’ll want to check them out. The only thing is, it’s a long way to drive, so make sure you’ve got more than one driver if you’re doing it when you’ve got a time limit. If this is possible, and you’ve got a little more money to do it, I’d say hiring a car or campervan is probably the best way to go.
Although you can’t stop wherever you like, the Greyhound Australia bus service is genuinely amazing for backpackers. They offer a whole bunch of bus passes, the best being the hop-on-hop-off pass (AUS$469) that covers the whole road trip from Cairns to Sydney. It’s very good value for what it is, and is a perfect option for those that are solo travelling. I’ve travelled the East Coast using this pass twice now, and both times I’ve met so many awesome fellow backpackers on the way.
I don’t drive, so it’d be a bit unfair of me to make my boyfriend do all the driving. Therefore for me, the best way to road trip the East Coast is do a combination of the two – hiring a car and the Greyhound – we use the bus for the big journeys, then hire a vehicle for a day or two in specific places where necessary.
How Long You Need for a Road Trip from Cairns to Sydney
It’s a long way – 2413km! I’d say at minimum you need three weeks to do the whole thing, but ideally allow four to six weeks at least. The first time I went I had five weeks, but most recently we did it in just three.
Best Places to Go on a Road Trip From Cairns to Sydney
As the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is filled with eager backpackers venturing out to the underwater world. It’s the place where most people either start of finish their East Coast adventure, and therefore it’s got a real party atmosphere. There are some amazing things to do from Cairns, so here are a few of the best bits.
The Great Barrier Reef
We all know that tragically the incredible reef may not be with us for too much longer due to climate change, so get in there quick. Cairns not a big city and you can easily walk between all the main attractions, including the numerous booking agents for organising a reef tour. I always thought it was possible to experience the reef just by snorkelling off the beach from Cairns – oh how I was wrong! It’s necessary to take a boat trip, as the reef is actually quite far out. There’s tons of options for doing this, be it overnight diving tours, day scuba or day snorkelling trips. For a good mix of everything, I’d recommend a day trip that offers both snorkelling and scuba. These can be pretty expensive, and is definitely the case that the price reflects the quality.
The cheapest option is Compass at $115 per person, including snorkelling equipment and lunch. However, this is on a really old boat that takes around 3 hours each way to the reef, hence limiting your time for snorkelling or diving. Therefore, you’re much better off to pay that little bit extra for a day trip with one of the many more premium companies on offer (costing AUS$185+ per person), that take only an hour and a half each way, maximising your time at the reef. Just make sure to ask how long the boat takes before you book anything.
Note: If you’re visiting in low season (winter), it’s worth waiting until the day before to book your tour. There’s two reasons for this – first, if they don’t sell enough tickets for the cheaper Compass boat the following day, everyone gets a free upgrade to one of the more premium boats. So you might be lucky enough to go on the fast boat for the same price as the slow one! Also, since the weather can be temperamental, which effects the visibility in the water, make sure you go on a day with a good forecast!
Cairns to Cape Tribulation Mini Roadtrip
If you’ve got the time, absolutely spend a day driving North to Port Douglas and Cape Tribulation. It’s totally incredible, as the two World Heritage Sights of the Daintree Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef meet. Read more about the road trip here.
Cairns offers tons of awesome waterfall day trips around the local area. We visited in winter, so this wasn’t exactly my priority, but I’ve heard amazing things from others!
Cairns really comes alive at night, where no matter what day of the week, there’s always hundreds of backpackers looking to party. If this is what your into (and only if you want to go HARD, trust me, it’s full on) stay at Gilligan’s Backpacker Hostel, with a bar and nightclub built in.
Cairns to Magnetic Island drive time: 4.5 hours.
Providing a perfect stopover in between Cairns and the Whitsundays, Magnetic Island is totally gorgeous. At just 52 square kilometres, Magnetic Island is its own little paradise, boasting more than 320 days of sunshine a year. Although the Western side of the island is impossible to visit without a 4WD vehicle, the rest of the island still provides a brilliant area of beautiful bays to explore. Drive from Cairns to Townsville, then hop on the 30 minute ferry (timetable here) over to the island.
Road trip around Magnetic Island
The most popular thing to do on Magnetic Island is to drive around the secluded bays for a day. There’s so many beautiful spots, and you’ll often find them totally empty. In the Northern part of the island there’s an incredibly interesting old WWII fort, as part of the one hour and a half long Forts Walk. Not only are there some beautiful views from the top, but this is a great spot of see wild koalas in the multiple eucalyptus trees.
Lots of people hire an adorable (and very instagrammable!) Barbie car – they’re zooming round everywhere! Remember you can only drive on the Eastern side of the island unless you have a 4WD. If this is out of your price range (at about AUS$150 for the day), there’s a bus that travels up and down the main road on the island once per hour, on which you can purchase a hop-on-hop-off bus pass for $7 for the day.
Where to stay on Magnetic Island
If you’re looking for a young backpacker scene, stay at Base Hostel – they even run a full moon party here! But if you’re hoping to relax in a quieter spot, try out the YHA Bungalow Bay Koala Village for basic yet perfectly clean and comfortable private cabins. Here, they even have a little koala park where you can have breakfast with these adorable fury friends!
Magnetic Island to Airlie Beach drive time: 3.5 hours.
As a perfect gateway town to the Southern part of the Great Barrier Reef, Airlie Beach will certainly not disappoint. It’s a small town all built around one main high street and swimming lagoon, filled with backpackers exchanging tales of the beautiful Whitsunday Islands.
The Whitsunday Islands
The Whitsundays, home to the infamous Whitehaven Beach, have been said to be some of the most beautiful places on Earth. Whitehaven Beach is pure heaven, made up of 98% silicon sand and crystal clear blue water lapping at the edges.
There’s several different ways to explore the islands, ranging from day trips to Whitehaven, to overnight yacht excursions. By far the best value is to go for a few days, allowing you time for snorkelling, diving, and a full morning at the beauty that is Whitehaven Beach. An amazing company for this is True Blue Sailing, offering either the 2 night 3 day Atlantic Clipper (famously the backpacker party boat), or the 2 night 3 day New Horizon (its equally good but quieter sister boat).
True Blue will take you to the best snorkelling spots, and have permits to visit Whitehaven Beach early in the morning when there are less people. Note, they don’t depart every day, so you’ll need to plan a little ahead.
Where to stay in Airlie Beach
On either side of your Whitsunday Island trip, you’ll need accommodation for the first and last nights. Base, Nomads or Magnums is great for this is you’re looking to save money. Magnum’s is usually the busiest, but all are centrally located and provide a good time. It’s not luxurious, but since when is backpacking in Australia ever swanky?!
Airlie Beach to Hervey Bay drive time: 10 hours (it’s a big one! It’ll be overnight if you’re on the Greyhound.)
Hervey Bay is a pretty sleepy town, and if it wasn’t for Fraser Island, probably wouldn’t be on your list of key places to visit on a road trip from Cairns to Sydney. It’s one of two towns – Hervey Bay and Rainbow Beach – that offer gateway points to reach Fraser Island. If you’re travelling the East Coast via car or campervan, I’d recommend doing a two or three day tour with Cool Dingos, departing from and returning to Hervey Bay. Or, if you’re travelling the East Coast via the Greyhound, you can avoid a few hours on the bus by doing a tour departing from Hervey Bay and returning to the further south town of Rainbow Beach.
A real highlight of the whole road trip from Cairns to Sydney! Read all about visiting the incredible giant sand island of Fraser Island here.
Hervey Bay to Rainbow Beach drive time: 1.5 hours.
As another gateway point to Fraser Island via Inskip Point, Rainbow Beach is worth visiting even if you’ve already ventured out to the sand island. It’s a quiet town, with some incredibly special views.
Carlo Sand Blow
Aptly named for the area’s brightly coloured sand banks, Rainbow beach itself is a great spot to spend an afternoon. As the day’s sun starts to fade, walk up the hill to Carlo Sand Blow – possibly my favourite single spot on the whole East Coast. This ginormous sand dune feels incredibly special, boasting beautiful vistas across the water. It’s possible to sand board or paraglide up here too.
Where to Stay in Rainbow Beach
There’s one main street in Rainbow Beach, where all the hostels are located. There isn’t a huge difference between each of them, but we stayed at Pippies which was fine.
Rainbow Beach to Noosa drive time: 1.5 hours.
Welcome to the trendiest town on Australia’s Sunshine Coast. Think surf, health food cafes, and amazing independent clothing boutiques, alongside a beautiful beach and national park. Ask any backpacker where their favourite place on the East Coast was, and chances are they’ll either say here or Byron Bay (even though a lot of things are well out of a backpacker’s budget!).
Things to do in Noosa
- Surf at Noosa Main Beach. It’s a great spot for catching pretty big waves, yet catering for different abilities depending on the swell of the day. The beach is gorgeous for sunbathing or a picnic too.
- Hike around Noosa National Park. The National Park is possibly my favourite thing about this gorgeous town. The boardwalk along the coast is beautiful, and you might even see some wild koalas as you get a little deeper into the forest. A key spot not to miss is Dolphin Lookout – the name says it all!
- Café culture. There’s tons of great eateries along Hastings Street, and the al fresco dining style feels pretty European. Note, it’s pretty pricey!
- Boutique shopping. Noosa is overflowing with boujie boutiques. My favourite is Goddess on Hastings Street – they’ve got gorgeous dresses and they’re all pretty reasonably priced.
Where to stay in Noosa:
Noosa’s Halse Lodge YHA has some serious character in a beautiful old heritage building, and is definitely the best located hostel in terms of its proximity to the beach (I think it’s actually the closest hotel in all of Noosa!)
Noose to Brisbane drive time: 2 hours.
After at least a week of small towns, if you’re a city person, you’ll be so glad to hit the buzz of Brisbane. I’ve never hung around for more than 24 hours or so in Brisbane, but I’d really recommend the West End as a cool and very vibesy area to base yourselves – there’s tons of micro-breweries, gin bars and independent brunch spots. The Saturday morning market here is awesome too.
Brisbane to Surfer’s Paradise drive time: 1 hour.
I wonder what this town is famous for?! If you like to catch a wave, you’re going to LOVE it here. Where trendy high rise apartment blocks meet awesome surf, this town won’t disappoint. Like Brisbane, I’ve never lingered for very long in Surfers (probably because I’m not a surfer!), but that gorgeous long beach is still worth a night’s stopover on any road trip from Cairns to Sydney. It’s also a pretty heavy party town for backpackers.
Surfers Paradise to Byron Bay drive time: 1.5 hours.
If you like a relaxed atmosphere with some hippie laid back vibes, you’re going to love Byron Bay. Whilst it may no longer be quite the hippie hang out that it once was, Byron is one of those ‘it’ places on the East Coast – the cool place to be! It’s a small town that’s easily walkable, and you’ll find hundreds of fellow backpackers to befriend.
Things to do in Byron Bay
- Surfing. Surfing is BIG in Byron, with its famously good swell. It’s also had an almost equally famously high number of shark attacks (!) so follow the advice of the surf lifesavers on the beach – it’s still very rare though, don’t worry!
- Walking to Cape Byron and Byron Lighthouse. The walk up to Cape Byron and the lighthouse undulates around the bays, providing some stunning views from Australia’s most Easterly point.
- Café culture. Like Noosa, al fresco dining is big here, with a big emphasis on vegan and health food options.
- Boutique shopping. Byron is a fashion designer’s paradise, with so many little independent stores. My favourite by far is Spell and Gypsy – although totally beyond the realms of my backpacker budget, their clothes and accessories are totally unique and beautiful.
- Nightlife. No matter what day of the week, there’s always a place to go out in Byron. If you’re staying at one of the main hostels, they’ll be reps that come round each night and advise you where the best place to go that day is.
- Nimbin. Personally, I hated visiting Nimbin, but lots of backpackers love it, and there’s loads of day trips available from Byron Bay to visit. It’s a small town inland from Byron Bay that holds on to the hippie (and drug fuelled) lifestyle. People visit in order to get cheap weed, but it’s got a much more sinister edge with many people with some real addiction struggles with harder drugs. It can feel a bit voyeuristic.
Where to Stay in Byron Bay
There’s loads of budget backpacker options in Byron. The most famous is the Arts Factory Lodge (a very hippie commune type place, as featured in the Inbetweeners Movie!) – I’ve stayed here once, and whilst it was a pretty unique experience, it’s quite far out of town so a bit of a pain. Instead I’d recommend either Nomads or Byron Bay YHA.
Byron Bay to Sydney drive time: 9 hours.
If I had to choose a city to live in (other than my home of London of course) anywhere in the world, it would be Sydney. I LOVE it here. It’s got that bit of everything – big high rise to make you feel in the thick of it, stunning architecture around Circular Quay and The Rocks, and so much green space as you venture out towards Manly. Not to mention it’s amazing beaches that are right in town! There’s an absolute wealth of amazing things to do in Sydney, but here are my favourites.
Things to do in Sydney
- Circular Quay and the Rocks. One of my favourite days ever spent in Sydney was on foot, exploring the main metropolis. Get the metro to Town Hall, then wander North up George Street or Pitt Street towards the amazing Opera House at Circular Quay. Pop in to the Queen Victoria Building on your way for some amazing designer window shopping, and finish it off with a glass of bubbles at the Champagne Bar overlooking the Opera House. Once you’re feeling sufficiently swanky, have a wonder round Sydney’s old town of the Rocks too.
- Bondi Beach. An afternoon spent with fish and chips at Bondi Beach is an absolute must do. If you don’t fancy ocean swimming, try out the most photographed pool in the world for a dip at Icebergs.
- Spit Bridge to Manly walk. Head out the city for an afternoon of tranquility on this 10km walk from Spit Bridge to Manly. The walk winds past stunning coastline and through the National Park’s forest. A real highlight is the ferry back to Circular Quay from Manly, you’ll get amazing views of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, and it’s much cheaper than doing a scenic boat tour.
Where to stay in Sydney
My favourite Sydney hostel is Wake Up! – and most backpackers seem to say the same!
Enjoy your road trip from Cairns to Sydney – you’re going to LOVE it!