As the sixth largest country in the world, the spirited land of Australia has quite a few stories to tell, from its Aboriginal roots and gold rush to its former role as a penal colony. Made up of eight states and territories, each of these unique regions provides thrilling adventures, memorable experiences and unimaginable beauty.
Offering 300 days of sunshine a year on Australia's northeastern corner is Queensland. Brisbane serves as its vibrant and stylish state capital. Though the city possesses world-class theaters, shops, art galleries and restaurants, it maintains a warm and laidback atmosphere. Visitors can laze next to the gardens and lagoons of South Bank, explore Fortitude Valley's cafes and boutique shops, or toboggan down the world's tallest sand dunes near Moreton Bay.
Less than an hour's drive south of Brisbane are the Gold Coast's theme parks, sizzling nightspots and Surfers Paradise. North of Brisbane lies the aptly named Sunshine Coast, where you'll find koalas in Noosa National Park and shopping and beaches in Noosa Head. Just off the Sunshine Coast is the largest sand island in the world, Fraser Island, filled with cliffs, rainforests and fresh water lagoons. Look for humpback whales in the waters between Fraser Island and Hervey Bay from August through May.
Back on the mainland, you can tour green sugar cane plantations and look for platypus in Mackay, located on Queensland's central coast. The town's harbor offers departures for the Whitsunday Islands, a tranquil group of islands teeming with coral reefs and colorful fish.
Cosmopolitan Cairns is located on the state's northern end and acts as a good base for daytrips to the Great Barrier Reef. Enjoy performances in Cairns by the world-famous Aboriginal dance theatre Tjapukai, or travel the Kuranda Scenic Railway to the rainforest village of Kuranda. Traveling inland toward the Outback, stop at Riversleigh Fossil Fields to see fossils dating back 25 million years and search for opals, amethysts and moonstones in Opalton, Cloncurry and Moonstone Hill.
Situated between Queensland and Western Australia, an untamed terrain makes up the Northern Territory. In this place where wild crocodiles roam waterways and isolated deserts go on for miles uninterrupted, there is a sense that the only laws to be followed are those set forth by nature.
In the southern half of the territory, the outback oasis of Alice Springs sits in the heart of the Red Center. See the historic Alice Springs Telegraph Station where the town began, visit breathtaking Glen Helen Gorge, and join a camel trek across the sand dunes of Simpson Desert. A mecca for Aboriginal art, you'll find a number of art galleries here. South of Alice Springs and only a day-trip away is iconic Uluru and nearby Kings Canyon, the Garden of Eden and the Lost City.
On the northern end of the state is Darwin. The state capital of Darwin is home to a melting pot of cultures that fuel the city's superlative restaurants, outdoor festivals and markets. Visit the Northern Territory Museum, sail Darwin harbor at sunset or enjoy the city's nightlife. Daytrips to the translucent waterholes and tall termite mounds of Litchfield National Park are also popular.
Covering a third of Australia is the state of Western Australia. Seventy five percent of the region's population resides in the state capital of Perth. Filled with parks, beaches, rivers and superb dining, Perth is also known for its historic and bustling port of Fremantle. Cruise to the 40 vineyards in Swan Valley on scenic Swan River or visit the secret beaches and secluded bays of Rottnest Island. East of the capital is the rich russet landscape of the Outback, including the gold fields of Kalgoorlie.
Below Perth, wildflowers, vineyards and verdant foliage carpet the southwest corner of the state, while karri and jarrah trees loom over rugged coastlines and limestone grottos. The Margaret River region offers some of Australia's most acclaimed wines and restaurants, as well as exceptional surfing. You can dive the Southern Hemisphere's largest accessible dive wreck here.
Traveling up the coast from Perth brings you to the Coral Coast stretching from Pinnacle Desert to 187-mile Ningaloo Reef. Frolic with manta rays and sea turtles in Coral Bay or swim with docile whale sharks at Ningaloo between April and June. Visitors can feed wild bottlenose dolphins at Monkey Mia and get up close and personal with sea lions, dugongs and humpback whales.
The craggy northern portion of Western Australia is known as the Kimberley. Considered Australia's last frontier, this vast area houses cattle ranches, a few Aboriginal settlements, and the exotic pearling town of Broome. Ride a camel on Cable Beach, shop for the world's biggest South Sea Pearls, search for dinosaur footprints preserved in rocks, or make your way to the ancient Aboriginal rocks on Burrup Peninsula. Cool off in swimming holes and waterfalls among the impressive, red gorges and ghost gum trees of Karijini National Park.
South Australia is centrally located in the bottom half of Australia. Though the majority of the state is made up of dry, scorching Outback where you'll find underground mining towns such as Coober Pedy and the rugged crests and striking bluffs of Flinders Range, traveling further south brings you to fertile valleys and lush hills. Here the free-spirited state capital of Adelaide is nestled between soft white beaches and emerald forests. Amble alongside elegant colonial architecture for museums, libraries and shops, then browse the world's largest collection of Aboriginal antiquities at the Aboriginal Cultures Gallery.
Near Adelaide you'll find the charming vineyards, farms and villages of Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley and Clare Valley. Highlights include visiting Hahndorf, Australia's oldest surviving German village, sampling goods on the Butcher, Baker, Winemaker Trail, and cycling the Riesling Trail. South of this area is the Limestone Coast with its World Heritage-listed Naracoorte Caves.
Eyre Peninsula and the western coast present ample opportunities for water sports and fishing. Surf the breaks of Cactus Beach, swim with sea lions at Baird Bay, snorkel with cuttlefish near Whyalla, and cage dive with great white sharks near Port Lincoln. Offshore, Kangaroo Island is a tourist favorite, offering visitors the chance to view and interact with native wildlife such as kangaroos, pink pelicans, wallabies, koalas, penguins and sea lions.
Occupying the southernmost tip of Australia's mainland is Victoria. The pulse of the state lies in its capital and Australia's second largest city, Melbourne. Sophisticated yet edgy, here art, music, theatre, fashion and cuisine converge among leafy boulevards and Victorian architecture to create a cultural fabric unlike anywhere else in the country. Nearby are the seaside villages of Mornington Peninsula, popular spa towns Daylesford and Hepburn Springs, the grapevine-covered Yarra Valley, and Wilsons Promontory National Park in Gippsland.
Enjoy a drive down Great Ocean Road traversing coves, beaches and cliffs. Pit stops might include discovering the bushlands and kangaroos of Angelsea, watching tremendous waves crash against Bells Beach, exploring the waterfalls and rainforests of Otway Ranges, and marveling at the limestone stacks of the Twelve Apostles in Port Campbell National Park.
In the west, rugged Grampians National Park blooms with wildflowers, wildlife and Aboriginal art sites. To the east is the historic city of Ballarat where you can walk the Eureka Trail and pan for gold at Sovereign Hill.
New South Wales
The country's most populated state, New South Wales is separated from Victoria by the Murray River. The state is home to Australia's oldest and largest city, Sydney. Heralding a world-famous harbor, renowned nightlife and international dining, the city thrives on outdoor activities despite its many cosmopolitan amenities. Kayak under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, surf the shores of Bondi Beach, swim in the calm waters of Coogee, or horseback ride through Centennial Park. If you want to step away from the great outdoors, stroll along the cobblestone streets of The Rocks for shops and pubs or study Aboriginal heritage at urban art galleries.
Just outside of Sydney you can explore the eucalyptus forests of the Blue Mountains or stop at a vineyard in the Hunter Valley wine region. Traveling up the coast brings you to the rainforest-fringed North Coast. Here you can spot humpback whales in Byron Bay, scuba dive off Coggs Coast and fish the Tweed River. On the South Coast, meet playful dolphins in Jervis Bay and grey kangaroos on Pebbly Beach. Thirty national parks, marine parks and reserves dot the area.
Just beneath the South Coast are the Snowy Mountains. Climb Mount Kosciuszko, Australia's tallest peak, and at the top you'll find a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve with 20 species of plants found nowhere else in the world.
Making up most of the state is the Outback. Visit the world's oldest ceremonial burial site at Mungo National Park in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage area. Tour underground hotels in White Cliffs, visit Lightning Ridge's black opal mines, and discover a landscape of desert and lakes in Broken Hill. A two-hour flight from New South Wales is World Heritage-listed Lord Howe Island.
Australian Capital Territory
On the country's southeastern coast you'll find Australian Capital Territory, which houses the state capital of Canberra. Here visitors can learn about the country's political past at the Old Parliament House and current Parliament House, study art at the National Gallery of Australia, or witness Australia's athletic achievements at the Australian Institute of Sport. Trendy restaurants and bars abound while surrounding parks offer lovely scenery. A 45-minute drive from Canberra is Namadgi National Park.
Separated from the mainland by Bass Strait is the stunning island of Tasmania. More than 20 percent of the island's unhinged beauty has been declared a World Heritage area, and nearly a third of the island is protected within 14 national parks. On the northern half, you can cycle along Devonport's coastline, search for limestone caves and wildlife in Mole Creek Karst and Narawntapu National Park, hang glide in Cataract Gorge, or enjoy gourmet dining in Tamar Valley. Off the northwestern coast is King Island with 70 shipwreck sites to dive.
Wineglass Bay's translucent waters and white sands are popular in the east, as are the pink granite mountains of Freycinet National Park, penguins of Bicheno, and the cheese and berry farms of Pyengana and Swansea. Flinder's Island off the northeastern shore offers more shipwrecks dive sites and scavenging for diamonds at Killiecrankie. Further down Tasmania's northeastern coast are the cobblestone streets of Hobart's riverfront and the wineries of Coal Valley.
In the majestic wilderness of the west, trek through thick rainforests, alpine meadows and myrtle woodlands to the fishing village of Strahan, thousand-year-old Huon Pine, soaring Montezuma Falls, weathered Cradle Mountain and the historic mining town of Queenstown. During the Australian winter, Ben Lomond National Park, Mountain Field National Park and Cradle Mountain boast beautiful snow-laden terrain.