Our Australia Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Australia or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
An island, a country, a continent; a vast, barren wilderness and home to countless unique and exotic animals and plants; a dry country with lush rainforests and the world's largest coral reef system; Australia is all this and more, making it to the top of many people’s holiday bucket-list.
For many first-time travellers, iconic Sydney Harbour is the welcoming point for outdoor adventures from Bondi Beach to the Blue Mountains or the gardens and vineyards of the Southern Highlands. With forward planning and time to spare you can strike out from Australia's cultural heart in all directions, on an ocean self-drive to Melbourne or Brisbane, or take onward flights north and west first to Uluru then to Cairns for the Great Barrier Reef to strike off two more must-see destinations in a single trip.
Western Australia's rugged Indian Ocean coastline offers stunning unspoilt beaches, and its red-dust interiors a taste of the legendary outback. Remote Kimberley boasts some of Australia's most breathtaking natural landscapes, and you can dive with giant whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef or wild dolphins at Monkey Mia. Natural world holidays are Australia’s forte.
South Australia is a food and wine lover's dream. Beyond the wine valleys lie the Flinders Ranges and Australia's own wildlife Galapagos, Kangaroo Island.
From the open outback to the forests of Tasmania or the Australian Alps, walkabout tours of wild areas encompass deserts, plateaux, ranges and islands, and the chance to connect with ancient Aboriginal culture and commune with Australia's unique wildlife.
Culture & etiquette
Australians are laidback, cheerful, extrovert, sharp-witted and generously obliging. If that wit sometimes drifts into sarcasm, it's frequently rooted in principles of ‘mateship', a fierce egalitarianism based on mutual respect and unconditional assistance among friends and peers.
Informal to a fault, Australian greetings are casual and relaxed. You are likely to be greeted with a cheery "G'day mate" from first meeting, but don't feel obliged to reciprocate, as Aussie slang can sound condescending in any other accent. Australians value authenticity, humility and self-deprecating humour. Travel in a spirit of openness and wonder, and you're likely to make friends for life.
A relaxed attitude to social etiquette can cause offence to sensitive visitors. When the Queen was introduced to the Australian cricket team on the occasion of the Centenary Test in Melbourne in 1977, bowler Dennis Lillee broke protocol by producing a pen and paper and asking for an autograph (the Queen politely declined, but sent a signed photograph soon after). Four years later, at Buckingham Palace to receive an MBE, Lillee offered his hand and greeted Her Majesty with the words, "G'day, how ya goin'?". The Queen's response is not recorded.
Australia has more than 60 designated wine regions, with a growing international reputation for their award-winning tipples. Adelaide is home to the National Wine Centre of Australia, and from there you can vineyard-hop around the Barossa and the heritage towns and centuries-old cellars of Mclaren Vale, the Clare Valley and Coonawarra.
The Hunter Valley, a couple hours north of Sydney, is the premier wine region of New South Wales, while the gentle Mediterranean-esque climate of Victoria produce exceptional cool-climate wines in the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula. In Western Australia, the Margaret River region has fast become one of the country's finest wine regions, having only developed its production since the 1970s. This fairly temperate region produces cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay and is a favourite stop on any food and wine holiday.
Beer was brewed on the Endeavour by Captain Cook's crew as a means to preserve drinking water, and it remains the drink of choice for many Australians. Although Foster's has long been dubbed ‘Australian for beer' in the UK, strong regional brands prevail in each territory, from family-run Coopers in South Australia to internationally-owned Tooheys in New South Wales, XXXX in Queensland and James Boag's in Tasmania.
January - Sydney Festival, a programme of events involving over 1,000 artists from Australia and abroad covering dance, theatre, music and visual arts.
February - Spirit Festival of Aboriginal arts and culture, Adelaide.
February/March: Sydney Mardi Gras, celebrating lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride.
Moveable (2014: 21 March to 9 June) - Biennale of Sydney, international festival of contemporary art.
March - WOMADelaide world music festival.
March/April - Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
May - Ord Valley Muster, two-week festival of Aboriginal dance, song, art and performance, Kununurra, east Kimberley.
May - Tasmanian National Trust Heritage Festival, month-long series of events including walks, tours, fairs, displays and talks.
June - Barunga Wugularr Sports and Cultural Festival, Aboriginal arts crafts and dance, 80km south of Katherine.
June (biannual) - Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival, Cape York Peninsula, Queensland.
August/September - Melbourne Writers' Festival.
September - Wagga Wagga Jazz & Blues Festival, New South Wales.
September/October - Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers, Queensland.
October - Melbourne Festival, flagship international festival of dance, theatre, music, visual arts, multimedia and outdoor events.
Australia's Aborigines arrived by boat from Southeast Asia during the last Ice Age, at least 50,000 years ago. At the time of the first European settlers in the 18th century, about a million Aboriginal people lived across the continent as hunters and gatherers, scattered in 300 clans and speaking 250 languages and 700 dialects. Each clan had a spiritual connection with their own piece of land, but also travelled widely to trade, find food and water, and for ritual gatherings. All Aboriginal people share a belief in the timeless, magical realm of Dreamtime: totemic spirit ancestors, who forged all aspects of life during the Dreamtime of the world's creation, connect all natural phenomena through the past, present and future.
European explorers first sailed the coast of Australia, then known as New Holland, during the 17th century. In 1770 Captain James Cook chartered the east coast and claimed it for Britain. The new outpost was put to use as a penal colony and the First Fleet of 11 ships carrying 1,500 people - half of them convicts - arrived in Sydney Harbour on 26 January 1788, establishing the first British colony of New South Wales. Over the next 80 years, 160,000 men and women were transported to New South Wales, Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) and Western Australia as convicts. About two-thirds were thieves, typically from working-class towns in the Midlands and northern England, while many Irish convicts were transported for political crimes or rebellion.
Free settlers also began to flow in from the early 1790s, and life for the prisoners they ruled over was harsh. Women were outnumbered by five to one and lived under constant threat of sexual exploitation. Male re-offenders could be flogged or hanged for crimes as petty as stealing. The Aboriginal people displaced by the new settlers (or ‘squatters') suffered not only the dispossession of land but illness and death from introduced diseases.
By the 1820s many soldiers, officers and emancipated convicts had turned land they received from the government into flourishing sheep farms. Australia's cheap land and bountiful work brought further boatloads of free migrants from Britain, and settlers moved deeper into Aboriginal territories. In 1825, a party of soldiers and convicts settled in the territory of the Yuggera people, close to modern-day Brisbane. Perth was settled by Captain James Stirling in 1829, and in 1835 a squatter named John Batman sailed to Port Phillip Bay and chose the location for Melbourne. At the same time a private British company, the South Australian Land Company, was established to settle Adelaide as a free colony.
Gold was discovered in New South Wales and Victoria in 1851, luring thousands of prospectors from Britain, Ireland, continental Europe and China. Victoria's population grew from just 76,000 in 1850 to over half a million by the end of the decade. The British governor's attempts to impose order on a chaotic band of newly arrived publicans, liquor-sellers, prostitutes and quack doctors led to the bloody anti-authoritarian struggle of the Eureka Stockade in 1854, an armed rebellion that ultimately won the vote for miners. In the years that followed, bushranger, thief and killer Ned Kelly grew to personify a reckless but determined resistance to British rule, and became a popular folk hero commemorated in art, literature and song. Despite the continuing chaos and violence, wealth from gold and wool brought great investment to Melbourne and Sydney and by the 1880s both had become stylish modern cities.
By the late 1880s, the majority of people living in Australia's various colonies were native-born, giving rise to a fervent nationalist movement. Australia's six states became a nation under a single constitution on 1 January 1901, under the Sydney-born Prime Minister Edmund Barton.
In the First World War some 400,000 Australian men from a population of fewer than three million volunteered for action. 60,000 died and tens of thousands more were wounded. The 1920s saw a consumption boom as returning soldiers received loans at favourable rates to build homes in the suburbs and new cars, and as American jazz and movies reached Australia. As in other parts of Empire, women had greater freedom in work and education, and to indulge in the new fashions for short hair, smoking and dancing. At the same time, indigenous people were forcibly removed from their lands onto mission reserves, and suffered further hardship through official ‘assimilation' policies. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, many Australian financial institutions failed, and social and economic divisions widened. Sport was a national distraction and heroes such as cricketer Donald Bradman and racehorse Phar Lap gained legendary status.
Australian forces made a significant contribution to the Allied victory in Europe, Asia and the Pacific in the Second World War, and the generation that survived it developed a sense of great pride in Australia's capabilities. From 1945 onward, hundreds of thousands of migrants from Europe and the Middle East arrived in Australia, attracted by jobs in manufacturing. Australia's economy grew through the 1950s with major nation-building projects such as the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme, coupled with growing international demand for Australia's exports of metals, wools, meat and wheat. Australian suburbs grew exponentially and the rate of home ownership rose from just 40% in 1947 to over 70% by the 1960s.
Australia's new ethnic diversity, increasing independence from Britain and popular resistance to the Vietnam War all contributed to an atmosphere of political, economic and social change in the 1960s and 70s. In 1967, Australians voted overwhelmingly in favour of allowing Aboriginals to be included in future censuses. In 1972, Gough Whitlam's Labour Party was elected to power, and over the next three years the new government ended conscription, abolished university fees, introduced free universal healthcare, embraced multiculturalism and introduced no-fault divorce and equal pay for women. By 1975, inflation and scandal had led to a constitutional crisis, and Labour lost power to a Liberal-National Coalition that ruled until 1983.
The Bob Hawke-Paul Keating Labour governments of 1983 to 1996 celebrated Australia's bicentenary in 1988 by opening a new Parliament House in Canberra, stressed the role Australia could play as an activist and independent ‘middle power', and emphasised links to the Asia-Pacific economic region. John Howard's succeeding government (1996-2007) narrowly rejected a referendum on constitutional reform to reject the British monarchy, presided over a wildly successful 2000 Sydney Olympics, and further increased trade with Asia.
Following over two decades of economic reform and booming pan-Pacific trade, Australia avoided recession during the 2007-10 collapse of financial markets. When Kevin Rudd suffered a decline in personal ratings in 2010, the Labour Party elected his deputy Julia Gillard to become the first female Prime Minister, a position she held until just recently in a minority government. Gilliard, under pressure from within the Labor party, called for a leadership ballot. This was won by Kevin Rudd, who finds himself Prime Minister once again in an ironic reversal of fortune.
In 2010 Tony Abbott led the coalition which resulted in a hung parliament. He led the coalition to victory in 2013 and became Prime Minister in September 13, on the 18th September 2015 he was defeated in a vote for Liberal leadership by Malcolm Turnbull who became the 29th Prime Minster of Australia the following day.
Australia's bustling markets, vast malls, warehouse outlets, high-end boutiques and elegant arcades are a shopper's paradise. History meets high fashion in Sydney's Queen Victoria Building and Strand Arcade, both built in the 1890s, or you can shop for retro styles, homewares and cheap eats in nearby Surry Hills or Newtown. Melbourne's main shopping areas include the historic General Post Office, which covers an entire city block, and the funky boutiques of Fitzroy's Brunswick Street. You can grab a bargain at the clearance stalls on Adelaide's Glen Osmond Road, or visit boutiques, furniture stores and art galleries in the sandstone warehouses of Hobart's Salamanca Place.
Australia's A-list fashion designers include Leona Edmiston, Wayne Cooper, Lisa Ho, and Colette Dinnigan while you can catch up with the next generation during fashion weeks in Sydney in May or Melbourne in October/November. Superior street cred options include Sydney-based Ksubi or Sass & Bide jeans, or you can kit yourself in surf culture with Billabong, Rip Curl and Mambo. Graphic designers, jewellers, furniture makers and textile artists all produce fresh Australian designs based on diverse cultural influences.
According to Aboriginal legend, the swirls of colour in opals, Australia's national gem, were created when a rainbow fell to earth. You can hunt for opals in the main shopping areas, or follow the outback opal trail and visit the underground shops, homes and churches in the roasting South Australian mining town of Coober Pedy. Diamonds and pearls are produced in Kimberley in Western Australia, while nothing screams ‘I was there' like a finely honed boomerang or handcrafted didgeridoo.
If you're looking for local art and handicrafts, collectible antiques, state-of-the-art electrical goods or designer labels, Australia has something for everyone. Most shops are open till 6pm, with late night shopping on Thursdays and Fridays.
Tipping in restaurants is not necessary, but is appreciated and increasingly common. 10% for good service is the norm. Tipping is not expected in bars or taxis, though many people leave coin change when they are served their drink, or add a little extra to the taxi fare. Australian service is usually relaxed and unfussy, but you are certainly within your rights to complain about rudeness or sloppiness.
Where to eat
Every Australian city offers a bewitching choice of food outlets, from beachside barbecue stalls to national restaurant chains and upmarket eateries. Fresh seasonal produce is available year-round from city market stalls, including a growing number of weekend farmers' markets. Or if the choice gets too much you can always dine in on that fine Australian staple the Vegemite sandwich.
The information below provides general health advice. Always consult your doctor about vaccinations and health issues before you travel.
No special vaccinations are required before visiting Australia, unless you have visited a yellow fever-infected country within six days of your arrival. WHO recommends that all travellers should be covered against tetanus, diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, rubella and hepatitis B, whatever your destination. Although Australia has a high rate of childhood vaccination against these diseases, outbreaks can occur.
In remote areas, emergency service response can be significantly delayed in the event of serious accident or illness. Consider taking a wilderness first-aid course, and carry a comprehensive first-aid kit to cover for any accidents arising from your planned activities. Keep mobile phones charged, and consider taking radio communication as back-up.
Dengue fever occurs during Queensland's wet season (November to March), and giardiasis (or beaver fever) is widespread in Australia's waterways, so don't drink untreated water from lakes or streams. Tap water is universally safe.
Sunburn, heat exhaustion and sunstroke should be guarded against all year round in northern Australia, and during the summer months through most of the country. Carry plenty of water and other fluids, use high-factor sunscreen, wear protective sunglasses, cover your head and seek shade.
Personal medicines must be declared on arrival, and a prescription or letter from your doctor is advisable. Australian Medicare has reciprocal healthcare agreements with some countries for medically necessary treatment while visiting Australia: check your eligibility before you travel.
Travel insurance that covers you for theft, loss, accidents and medical problems is highly recommended, including cover for adventure activities like scuba diving, bushwalking or travelling in remote areas as necessary. Be sure to bring your policy details and emergency contact numbers with you, or if you don’t have any to contact your Wexas travel consultant.
The NHS Fit For Health offers useful and up to date health advice for travellers at www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk. More information can also be found at the World Health Organisation's website www.who.int and the National Travel Health Network and Centre www.nathnac.org.