Think of a trip to Australia and what springs to mind? The Harbor Bridge and Opera House in Sydney? Shopping in Melbourne? Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef? Enjoying an Uluru sounds of silence dinner? Kakadu?
Australia is a big country and there’s a hell of a lot to fit into any trip to the Great Southern Land. All of the above would be worthy inclusions to any Australian trip. But while the likes of Melbourne and the Gold Coast and Perth get plenty of play with tourists, there are a myriad of undiscovered gems out there.
From the memorials and museums of Canberra to the cruisy hippie vibe of Byron Bay to the ghost towns of western New South Wales – below you’ll find ten lesser known Australian tourist spots and a few details about why I think they’d be a worthy addition to your next Australian odyssey.
You can also check out part two of the article here: Ten of Australia’s Best Kept Secrets, Part 2
#10 – Newcastle, NSW
Recently ranked by Lonely Planet as one of the Top 10 Cities for 2011, Newcastle in New South Wales is often completely overlooked by tourists. Only an hour and a half north of Sydney, Newcastle is Australia’s second oldest city and boasts some of the country’s best beaches as well as heritage listed architecture and close proximity to the increasingly popular Hunter Valley wine region.
Whether you’re spending an idyllic Sunday walking the Bathers Way and seeing some of Newcastle’s most iconic beaches, catching a Newcastle Knights game at the recently revamped AusGrid Stadium, cuddling up to a koala at Blackbutt Reserve, or heading north of the city to swim with dolphins at Nelson’s Bay – you’ll find plenty to love about the place where Australian country living blends with city life.
I’ve written at length about Newcastle and things to see and do there recently and I can’t encourage a visit enough. If you want a break from the hustle and bustle of Sydney, a visit to Newcastle might be just what the doctor ordered.
#9 – Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
Australia’s capital is a much maligned sight for a lot of tourists and it’s a real shame. While it doesn’t boast the fast paced life of Sydney or the vibrant shopping of Melbourne, Canberra is without a doubt the best place to go if you want to learn more about Australian history and culture.
A walk through Anzac Parade and a visit to the Australian War Memorial is a moving chance to explore Australia’s proud military history, while Reconciliation Place in nearby Parkes is a tribute to Australia’s original inhabitants.
A whole slew of museums and galleries will keep even the most curious explorer occupied for days on end, with the National Museum and Qesticon being highlights. Pay a visit to the Royal Australian Mint, explore parliament house, or spend a day exploring the Australian National Library.
It’s not all culture and history though. The Australian National Botanical Gardens are a beautiful interlude, there are numerous hikes to be found on nearby Black Mountain, the miniature world landmarks of Cockington Green Gardens, or the chance to catch some Australian sport as the Canberra Raiders or ACT Brumbies do their thing at Bruce Stadium.
While it might not be a patch on places like Washington DC in the United States, Canberra is definitely worthy of a day or two. The night life might not be amazing and there aren’t theme parks and beaches – but that’s a part of its charm. It’s a beautiful city and offers up something you won’t find elsewhere in Australia.
You can find out more about things to see and do in Canberra by visiting the ACT Tourism site.
#8 – The Northern Rivers region, NSW
The region known collectively as the Northern Rivers is growing in popularity as backpackers begin to discover the hippie charms of Byron Bay. Boasting great beaches and a laid back charm you won’t find anywhere else in the world, Byron Bay is an ideal stopping off point on your trip between Sydney and the Gold Coast.
Byron Bay is a veritable playground for those who came to Australia for its beaches. Scuba diving, snorkelling, kayaking, surfing, whale watching, fishing, and dolphin swims are all on a very tempting menu when it comes to water sports in the Bay.
As one of New South Wales’ hippie towns, Byron Bay also offers substinance for your mind and soul as well. Numerous yoga retreats and spas exist in the region, but for a real display of Byron’s color and distinct local flavor check out the monthly Byron Bay markets on the first Sunday of each month.
It’s not just Byron Bay though. Grafton lies a few hours inland and is situated close to Fortis Creek National Park. It’s also an excellent gateway to the numerous national parks of the NSW Northern Tablelands such as the Washpool, Gibraltar Range, and Nymboida national parks.
Evans Head to the north plays host to excellent fishing and surfing, Lismore is surrounded by some beautiful sub-tropical rainforest, Murwillambah and Tweed Heads are the gateway to Queensland’s Gold Coast, and Casino plays host to an annual ‘Beef Week’ that gives travellers a chance to see the importance of cattle to Australia’s economy.
A special mention also needs to go to Yamba. Voted the ‘Best Town in Australia’ by Australian Traveller Magazine in 2009, it’s hard to see why more people aren’t aware of Yamba. A quaint beach town, Yamba possesses all of the regular beach appeal with the added bonus of being close to the visually amazing Yuraygir National Park with its isolated beaches, bleak sea cliffs, and dense sub-tropical forest.
#7 – Flinders Ranges and Lake Eyre, South Australia
The majority of South Australian tourism seems to be directed towards the Barossa Valley wine region and the ‘City of Churches’ that is Adelaide, but the South Australian outback is every bit as remarkable as the more explored desert regions of Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
If you want to see the true harsh beauty of the Australian outback, the Flinders Ranges are a great starting point. Far from the well worn tourist trails surrounding Uluru, the Ranges are home to the overgrown remains of abandoned properties and ancient Aboriginal rock art alike.
A drive down the iconic Oodnadatta Track takes you through isolated Outback towns and to Lake Eyre, Australia’s lowest point and largest lake. An oasis in the harsh desert when it is full, the lake remains beautiful year round as it is transformed into a vast salt flat in drier times. Four wheel driving, camping, and flying overhead are excellent ways to take in the lake.
And when you’re done exploring Australia’s harsh interior, a ride on the Pichi Pichi Railway‘s steam locomotives gets you to civilisation in Port Augusta on the southern coast. From there you’re free to head west to Perth, south to Adelaide, or simply soak in the beautiful South Australian coastline.
#6 – Darwin, Northern Territory
While it’s true that the Northern Territory draws in plenty of tourism through Uluru and Kakadu, the territory’s capital is often completely overlooked by tourists.
Situated on the shores of a harbour that dwarfs the more famous Sydney Harbour, Darwin is a rapidly growing tropical city where aboriginal and European culture meet in a way you won’t see elsewhere in Australia. Explore historic Fannie Bay Gaol, see some of Australia’s most dangerous predators at Casuarina Coastal Reserve, or spend a day picnicing in Charles Darwin National Park.
Darwin’s also a city with a lot of history. The site of the infamous Japanese bombing as well as Cyclone Tracey in 1974, Darwin has overcome great obstacles on its way to establishing itself as the Australian gateway to South East Asia.
Nearby Litchfield National Park, just ninety minutes drive from Darwin, is also worthy of a visit. Picturesque waterfalls, secluded swimming holes, and the crumbling remains of long abandoned mines are all on offer inside the 1500 square kilometre national park.
Where a lot of Australia’s cities are heavily influenced by the European settlement, Darwin is one of the few places in Australia where you can readily see Aboriginal culture. That alone is worth a look.
There you have the first five of my ten well kept Aussie secrets. You can read Ten of Australia’s Best Kept Secrets, Part II here.
In the meantime, what do you think of the list so far? What would you include in your own list of overlooked or unknown Aussie tourist spots? I’d love to hear your thoughts.