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East Coast Australia – My Backpacking Mini Guide

Trying to figure out where to explore on the East Coast of Australia? Here’s my mini guide from Melbourne to Cairns – including Sydney, Byron Bay, Fraser Islands, The Whitsundays and more!

backpacking east coast australia
East Coast Australia – It Has To Be Done!

East Coast Australia is one of the most iconic places to go backpacking.

The stretch from Melbourne to Cairns is filled with everything a traveller could want – from the chaotic nightlife of Surfer Paradise, the amazing surf breaks of Byron Bay and the arty haven of Melbourne through to many iconic sites – like the Sydney Opera House, Whitehaven Inlet or the Great Barrier Reef.

I’ve backpacked East Coast Australia three times now and I enjoyed every moment of it. So to help you guys plan your backpacking adventure to Australia I thought I’d pass on my East Coast Australia Mini Guide – something I passed on to my customers at STA Travel and a heap of travel buddies that they said helped them out, so I think it’s time I gave it to all you guys too!

It’s by no means exhaustive – you’ve got to leave some surprised along the way – but it’s a quick run through of places I’ve stopped off at and some key activities in each spot to get you started!

Get a map and start planning your adventure!

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East Coast Australia, My Backpacking Mini Guide


scuba great barrier reef cairns australia
The Great Barrier Reef – A Bucket List Must!

Cairns is THE party town of East Coast Australia where most backpackers start or finish their trip – so there are also plenty of party hostels to choose from!

The general consensus is laze around the town’s lagoon pool during the day and party away the night in the infamous bars; The Woolshed and Gilligans being the main venues.

It’s also the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef so if you’re looking to snorkel, SCUBA or go all out with a PADI dive course this is the place to do it.

In fact if you’re going to the Great Barrier Reef check out my other site RTW Backpackers for a huge range of Great Barrier Reef Tours.

For those looking to explore a bit more why not spend a day at the Crystal Cascades water falls or hire a car and drive through the landscape of the Atherton Tablelands. If you have a bit more time on your hands do an overnight trip to Cape Tribulation where the two world heritage sites of the rainforest and reef meet together over a bed of golden sands.

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Mission Beach

This spot is an underestimated stop on the East Coast and many backpackers will simply bypass it – don’t make the same mistake! A couple nights here will reload you after party chaos in Cairns and you can get your adrenaline fix skydiving (which offer gorgeous panoramas of the barrier reef and a beach landing) or white water rafting the Tully River.

Sure you can do both from Cairns but you’ll find yourself with 4 hours of bus time as both trips operate from Mission Beach!

Be a savvy traveller and add the stop in!

Ultimate Australia Guide backpacker travel working holiday oz

Magnetic Island

A great weekend trip to relax either pre or post Cairns. Base Hostel is located right on the beach and is perfect for a relaxing cocktail before swimming in the sheltered bay. You can even hire a Mote or Barbie Car to drive around the island a bit more and explore the many secluded beaches!

If you want somewhere more chilled to stay though Bungalow Bay YHA is an epic choice – surrounded by lush rainforest their koala cuddle package also includes an awesome wildlife tour and you get to hold a koala!

Check out why Magnetic Island is one of my East Coast highlights here!

Agnes Water/1770

The town of 1770 is the first western settlement in Australia and great is you want to brush up on a bit of Aussie heritage. For those less interested in that there’s some great Mini Motorbike tours to keep you occupied.


The source of the infamous “Bundie Rum”. Stop here for a tour of the rum distillery and stock up on discounted bottles for the roadtrip!

Airlie Beach

Airlie oozes the vibe of a beach side town but this is equalled with party vibes as it is the stop off before and after a chaotic few days sailing the Whitsunday Islands. When you’re not busy partying the lagoon pool here is a great place to catch up on some reading, top up your tan or simply swim away the hangover!

whitsunday islands south molle australia
Welcome To The Whitsundays…

The Whitsunday Islands

The Whitsundays has something for everyone – a day trip, a weekend living on a boat or for those with a bit more cash to splash why not stay on one of the many beautiful island resorts?

The sailing again has an option for everyone – party on the goon fuelled Atlantic Clipper, or enjoy a bit more adventure on board Tongarra,  learn to sail or even take a trip on one of the many dive boats.

There’s plenty to see and the underwater world is the main focus – whether this is jumping off the bow, snorkelling or simply taking pictures of the famous Whitehaven inlet – with the world’s purest sand.

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Rainbow Beach

This quaint beach side town offers access to Fraser Island. There are a couple of hostels which are populated almost solely by people coming to a from Fraser – Dingoes is my pick. But it’s a great place to unwind and explore the beaches that surround it.

Fraser Island

When it comes to unique experiences Fraser is one of them! The largest sand island in the world boast miles of open beaches, the worlds purest wild dingoes, tropical rain forest and freshwater lakes – all accessible on 4×4 guided Fraser Island tours. Yup, bomb around the island in your own off roader! Highlights include Indian Head Lookout, the beautiful Lake Mackenzie and generally just camping on the sand dunes under a blanket of stars.

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noosa surf east coast australia backpacker
Perfect Noosa Lines…


Noosa is a bustling up market town that offers a lot in the way of water sports – try your hand at stand up paddle boarding, learn to surf or go all out and explore the Noosa Everglades on the Gagaju Canoe Safari. The national parks that surround it offer some great walks or places to have a BBQ amongst the backdrop of Tea Tree Point.

Time your trip well and you can immerse yourself in the abundant surf culture during The Noosa Longboard Pro which attracts surfers from all corners of the world or simply chill out with a chai latte in pure Noosa style.

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One of the major cities on the east coast route – and a great place to fly in too if you’re only doing a short trip. It has all the appeal of every city and there are plenty of things to do in Brisbane – from museums to galleries and heaps of nightlife – and even comes with a man made beach!

The main appeal for residents is its proximity to some of Australias best beach side towns, so is a great place to base yourself on a working holiday visa.

Surfers Paradise

Often referred to as the Miami of Australia Surfers combine all the lures of a skyscraper filled city with the added appeal of being a mere stones throw form miles of sandy beaches. A great place to stop off between Brisbane and Byron to let your hair down!

Coolangatta/Tweed Heads

“Coolie” and Tweed Heads border the NSW and QLD divide – at certain times of the year one side of the town has an hours time difference from the other! It’s also the home of the annual Quiksilver Pro where the crème de la crème of surf descend on the town to surf The Kirra Superbank and Snapper Rocks. 2 x world champion Mick Fanning also calls this place home.

surfing in byron bay gopro
Byron Bay – My East Coast Highlight!

Byron Bay

If you want a town that epitomises the Aussie beach lifestyle Byron is it. This bustling coastal town is situated on the most easterly point of Oz and is border by heaps of surf breaks and beaches – from the iconic Pass through to Broken Heads, Main Beach and The Wreck and is easily my favourite stop along East Coast Australia.

The town itself is full of alternative cultures, hippie markets and a wide range of accommodation (check out Aquarius Hostel) – and no visit is complete without dancing on the tables at Cheeky Monkeys!

Activities include everything from whale watching, diving Julian Rocks, surf lessons, fishing and even day tours to the hippie mecca of nearby Nimbin – often referred to as the Amsterdam of Oz!

If you want something a bit more relaxing and cheap you could always just relax to the sound on bongos and digeridoos on the beach under a gorgeous Byron Bay sunset.

Check out my Ultimate Backpackers Guide To Byron Bay for heaps more info!

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I only discovered Yamba recently but I quickly decided that it was the hidden gem of East Coast Australia. It has such a laid back and friendly vibe but most importantly it’s ram packed full of gorgeous, empty beaches and world class surf. If you’re looking to relax and top up you tan or put some serious time into improving your surfing skills then this is the place to head.

The YHA there is pretty amazing and you have to check out Shanes $10 Tour – tell him I sent you! He’ll show you around the place, point out all the local celebs and generally help you get the most out of this hidden secret!

And if you’re looking to learn to surf check out the Yamba Surf Camp too.


Vivid Sydney Festival
The Icon of Australia…

No trip to Oz is complete without a visit to the iconic city of Sydney. As with every major city its ram packed full of things to do and see. Take a ferry to Manly, get face to face with the local wildlife at the Sydney Aquarium and Wildlife Park, party in Kings Cross or sip cocktails at The Rocks or Darling Harbour. It goes without saying that you need a camera in tow to get your holiday snaps at The Opera House, The Harbour Bridge or see Sydney from a birds eye view at the Sky Tower.

Christmas day on Bondi Beach is a must, and if you’re there for New Year take a seat in The Botanical Gardens for the best view of the fireworks.

For places to stay you can’t really beat WakeUp Hostel – centrally located and just opposite Central Train Station it’s a short walk to everything and only a 20 minute tube ride from Sydney International Airport. It also has the bonus of having Sidebar below it – great for a night out or even  $5 backpacker meal deal!

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Australia’s often overlooked capital, Canberra is a purpose built city. A trip to the lookout points is the best way to take in its circular layout. The main things to visit are The Australian War Museum which can easily fill a day or two and Parliament Building – the centre of Australian politics.

Alternatively if you take the coastal route from Sydney to Melbourne you can also hit up spots like Wollongong en route.

melbourne mall australia east coast
Melbourne Has a Quirky Side!


Sydney’s arch nemesis! The cosmopolitan city of Melbourne boasts a flourishing arts and music scene – packed full of galleries, live music venues and alternative culture.

The Night Markets in St Kilda is a great place to spend an evening buying heaps of trinkets and the beach provides a great escape from city life. Getting around is easy too with lots of free tram lines.

There is also a major AFL scene here too – why not check out a game. And if sports are your scene make sure you pencil in The Melbourne Cup – a one day horse race extravaganza that brings the whole nation to a stand still! Other sporting highlights include Melbourne Grand Prix and The Australian Tennis Open – if you cant get tickets there’s big screen viewing in Federation Square.

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The Great Ocean Road

Just outside Melbourne lies one of the best coastal drives in the world – The Great Ocean Road. The route takes you along miles upon miles of winding beaches, through forest and past secluded bays. Highlights along the way include Torquay which is the birth place of Ripcurl and Quiksilver so many a bargain can be had at their factory outlets, Bells Beach which holds the Ripcurl Pro and of course the magnificent Twelve Apostles.

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Of course there’s heaps of other places to visit and things to do along this backpacker right of passage – but it should give you a heaps good idea of how to get started and I highly recommend grabbing a Lonely Planet Guide if you need even more info!

Need help planning your own Aussie adventure? 

Check out my East Coast Australia Trip Planner!

Anywhere or anything you guys would add into the list – any hidden gems or places to avoid? 

For more info on budgeting for Australia check out this post.

For more info on how long to spend travelling East Coast Australia check out this post.

For info on How to Spend 1 Month In Australia check out this post

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