At long last, Australia has reopened its borders for the first time since March 2020. While fully vaccinated travelers are now welcome to visit, you’ll still want to check each state’s Covid-19 safety rules regarding Covid-19 testing upon arrival and quarantining, which can differ depending on where you’re going—Western Australia, for instance, isn’t reopening until March 3, 2022.
As someone who caught one of the last flights back to the U.S. from Sydney in March 2020, it’s wonderful to think traveling to Australia is once again an option. Here’s where you should go if it’s your first time visiting New South Wales, Victoria or Queensland.
New South Wales
Most visitors will head straight to Sydney on their first trip to Australia, mostly because there are direct flights from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Honolulu and heaps of other cities worldwide.
Once you’ve seen the Sydney Opera House, schlepped across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, explored The Rocks (the oldest neighborhood in Sydney), strolled through the Royal Botanic Garden and watched the surfers do their thing at Bondi Beach, venture out of the CBD (Central Business District) to some of the places that really make New South Wales shine.
Rent a car and spend a day hiking among the wallabies at Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park about an hour north of Sydney or head west (90 minutes by car or two hours by train) to Katoomba and Blue Mountains National Park—for a real treat, visit Scenic World, where you can ride cable cars and experience the world’s steepest railway. If you happen to be visiting during the Parkes Elvis Festival, which happens April 20–24 this year but typically takes place in early January, head out to this unassuming Outback town for an unforgettable festival celebrating the King’s life and music, all brought to life by talented Elvis tribute artists from around the world.
You’ll likely arrive in Melbourne, which is accessible via direct flight from Los Angeles and San Francisco if you’re coming in from the U.S. There’s plenty to see and do (and eat!) in the city center, so make time to visit the Melbourne Museum, National Gallery of Victoria, Queen Victoria Market and Royal Botanic Gardens before heading out to St. Kilda—home of Luna Park Melbourne, Australia’s first theme park and home to the world’s oldest continually operating roller coaster, The Great Scenic Railway—or road tripping along the Great Ocean Road, a popular day trip from Melbourne. If time allows, spend some of your trip out in the country in Bendigo, Ballarat or Daylesford, where the locals go to get away from the hustle and bustle.
Fly into Brisbane nonstop from Los Angeles or San Francisco, then use the Queensland capital as your base for exploring the rest of the region. Of course, the city itself is worth spending a few days in, as its coffee culture and foodie scene are especially enticing, the Queensland Museum and Science Center has lots of interesting exhibits about Indigenous history and culture and the weather is usually pretty great, with an average of 283 days of sunshine each year.
Anyone who grew up idolizing Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin should don their best khakis and make the pilgrimage about an hour north to his beloved Australia Zoo in Beerwah. For $44 ($61 AUD), you can spend the day at one of the best conservation projects in the world, including a behind-the-scenes peek at the incredible work being done at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital. Visiting on Steve Irwin Day (November 15), meeting Bindi, Chandler and Steve’s best mate, Wes, and seeing them conduct the famous croc-feeding show was a major highlight of my Working Holiday Visa year in Australia and an experience I’ll never forget.
Otherwise, where you go in Queensland largely depends on what you’re into. If roller coasters are a big thing for you, head to the Gold Coast, Australia’s theme park capital and home to Dreamworld, Whitewater World, Wet’N’Wild, Warner Bros. Movie World and Sea World. If getting away from it all and experiencing natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef are more your speed, travel north to the Whitsunday Islands, Cairns and Port Douglas, which is also the gateway to Daintree National Park, home to the world’s oldest rainforest.