One of the best ways to explore Australia is road tripping and one of the best road trip drives is from Sydney to Brisbane. It’s a pretty manageable distance (around 900km) so you can take it at whatever speed you want. If you’ve got lots of time and want to enjoy everywhere you visit then you can drive slowly over a week or more but if you’re pushed for time then 3/4 nights is perfectly doable – you might just have to make some choices!
This road trip will see you take in three of the biggest cities in Australia, through sleepy coastal surf towns and some epic scenery so get ready to start planning!
Before we get started it’s worth mentioning some Australia road trip tips & safety:
- Distances are long in Australia and on this road trip in particular, it’s all on the same road. 900km and 9-10hr driving on the same road is A LOT. Make sure to plan your days with a sensible amount of driving and take lots of break. Every couple of hours is what is recommended by the government.
- Despite being probably the most built up (longer) road trip in Australia, mobile signal is not all that great depending on your network. Most will work in the bigger towns and cities but outside of that you may find yourself without any. Download your maps on Google Maps and write down a roadside assistance number so that you’re prepared.
- If you’re doing this road trip over the summer (Nov-Feb) then it’s worth booking your campsites (if you’re in a camper van or motorhome) or hotel accommodation in advance or you might find you’re left with little or even no choice!
If you’re starting in Sydney (you can of course do this trip in reverse) then you’ll want to make sure you have enough time to explore Australia’s most famous city. You don’t need a car in Sydney as public transport is pretty convenient to get around here. Plus the airport is only a short train ride from the city centre so its not a complete nightmare to get back to the airport to rent a car or camper and start your journey from there after you’ve enjoyed a few days here. After spending a total of around 5 weeks in Sydney I’m planning to write a post about what to do so keep your eyes peeled but in the meantime some highlights include: Bondi to Coogee coastal walk, Sydney Opera House, walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, cruise round Sydney Harbour and taking the ferry across to Manly.
Once you’ve enjoyed seeing the city it’s time to start your journey and head out onto the Pacific Highway. Sydney traffic can be pretty chock-a-block so try and leave early so that you don’t start your road trip stuck in traffic!
2. Newcastle – Caves Beach
The first overnight stop out of Sydney is best at Port Stephens but it’s a hefty first drive so break it up with a stop at Caves Beach which is just outside Newcastle. You could stay in Newcastle if you’ve got lots of time on your hands but it’s not an essential stop and it’s not particularly far into the overall journey yet.
Caves Beach is a great hour break where you can get your feet onto your first beach out of Sydney, explore the impressive caves and cliffs and of course get your hands on your first coffee at Mylo’s ☕️ It’s only possible to explore the caves at low tide so it’s important to time your stop here right to see them.
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3. Port Stephens
81km, 1hr 30 min
Port Stephens is a trip highlight and we actually spent two nights here when we were driving from Brisbane to Sydney. It’s a very popular long weekend away for Sydneysiders so it will be a lot busier over weekends than it is mid week. If you stay on the Nelson Bay side you’ll have an array of activities to choose from as well as the most accommodation options. There are so many beaches to choose from here – Zenith Beach is particularly lovely at sunrise, Fingal Beach for a windswept walk and Shoal Bay for paddle boarding.
Stretch your legs on the Tomaree Mountain walk with incredible views across the area and cool down with an ice cream from Scoop & Roll afterwards. Alternatively you can try sand boarding on the incredible sand dune system at Anna Bay and take a tour to the Tin Can City. As the sun sets, book in for dinner at the Shoal Bay Country Club and look out for dolphins in the bay.
Once you’ve enjoyed all the activities that Port Stephens has to offer then it’s time to set off again.
4. Blueys Beach & Seal Rocks
144km, 1hr 50 min
As you leave Port Stephens behind you, you start to come to scenery that’s less punctuated by houses and buildings and more with lakes and forests. The weather had turned when we made it to this section of the road trip so we only hopped out of the car at Blueys Beach but the Mall Lakes National Park and Seal Rocks are popular stops in this area as well. Seal Rocks is famous for its lighthouse and rugged beaches whilst Blueys Beach is a great surfing and swimming spot. I’m sure it all looks much nicer in bluer weather but unfortunately for us, despite it being a December summer’s day, we could easily have been on a Scottish beach in the same month!
5. Port Macquarie
134km, 1hr 40 min
Next up on the route is Port Macquarie which is a charming seaside town that’s well known for its beaches and its koalas! If spotting one of the cuddly marsupials is on your Australia bucket list then you need to visit the koala hospital in town. It’s free to visit and there’s even a very nice coffee van on site so you can have a caffeinated pick me up to keep you awake on the drive! Whilst there’s not an option here to hold one you can learn about how the hospital cares for its residents and enjoy seeing them settled in their new homes. After you’ve done enough ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ at the koalas, stretch your legs on a beach or head out on a dolphin or whale (in season) cruise if you haven’t got it pencilled in elsewhere on your journey.
6. Hat Head
After Port Macquarie you can turn off the Pacific Motorway for a wilder adventure. There are three different stops you could make depending on how much time you’ve got for your road trip. Crescent Head is the furthest south and South West Rocks the furthest north on this little stretch, but we decided to stop at Hat Head National Park. The further from the main road we got the more the scenery changed into flat farming landscape, finally with the incline of Hat Head rising up at the end of the land.
There’s a fabulous sweep of white sandy beach here which is very quiet and glorious blue water. If you’re camping then spend the night in peace, away from it all at the campsite and wake up for sunrise. Take a walk around Hat Head on the Korogoro walking track which has spectacular views and you might even spot a kangaroo or two! Be careful as this track is uneven and steep in places – it’s 3.2km circular and should taken around 1-1.5hr to complete.
7. Bellingen & Dorrigo Rainforest
103km, 1hr 10 min (1hr round trip from Bellingen to Dorrigo Rainforest Centre)
A little further north and a little further inland you can make a stop at hippy Bellingen where you can have a look around the little independent and antique shops in town. At the Old Butter Factory you’ll find a lovely cafe as well as lots of art and craft shops from local artists. Make sure you visit Bellingen Gelato Bar for a tasty (and unusually flavoured) scoop of ice cream. Nearby you can find the Never Never river and Promised Land for a spot of splashing and they’re as dreamy as you might expect from their names!
Half an hour drive up the road from Bellingen along the Waterfall Way, you’ll find Dorrigo National Park and the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre. If you’re driving in the heat of summer then a walk through the rainforest and the shade of the forest is a good way to cool down. Take one of the walks through the park to a waterfall and keep your eyes peeled for one of the fabulous birds that call the rainforest their home.
8. Coffs Harbour
39km, 40 min
After you make it back to Bellingen, it’s a short 40 minute drive to the bustling town of Coffs Harbour. You can’t drive from Sydney to Brisbane without taking a photo with the iconic ‘Big Banana’. Thankfully the stop is right on the motorway so it’s not our of your way to get the shot. We made this a brief stop to get that classic photo with the ‘Big Banana’ and to pick up some sweets at Coffs Candy Kitchens before we got back in the car to keep going. You might want to stop for lunch or have a longer break here but I’d personally save your beach trips for the next couple of stops…
132km, 1hr 30 min
Back in the car, your next drive is to the sleepy seaside town of Yamba. Arriving here it felt like life was moving on 0.75x speed and we’d lost a couple of decades. Before getting here I’d read that Yamba feels like Byron Bay used to around 30 years ago and I did understand that vibe. It’s a little bit hippy, very chill and great for surfers. I woke up for sunrise here and the view is spectacular with the lighthouse in the background. If you’re feeling brave then jump in the ocean pool for a chilly sunrise swim or save it for later in the day if you’re not a fan of swimming before the sun can warm you up again! At the beachfront, The Kiosk is a lovely little spot for a coffee and breakfast to sit with a book and watch the world go by as you let yourself move onto a slower way of life for a short while.
There’s a super cute old cinema in town so if you’ve got an evening to spare then buy a ticket and enjoy a blockbuster movie in old style quirky fashion. Take a short drive out of Yamba to visit the beautiful Angourie green & blue pools as well as the Angourie natural Rockpool. The colours are so pretty!
10. Byron Bay
127km, 1hr 30 min
One of the most talked about places in Australia, on nearly every backpackers bucket list, is the legendary town of Byron Bay. Whilst everyone says ‘it’s not what it used to be’ I’m not entirely sure what that is but I can probably guess. As the hippies have moved out and the Liam Hemsworth’s & Zac Efron’s have moved in, it’s become a far more upmarket, boho chic and expensive place to visit. Having said all of that. Byron Bay is EPIC 🙌 You absolutely should spend a night here and make the most of all the water and activities Byron has to offer.
There’s plenty to choose from to do here and to suit everyone. Enjoy a 3.7km walk around the Byron Bay Headland National Park where you pass iconic Waters Beach, the most Easterly point in Australia and enjoy views from the lighthouse. The lighthouse is spectacular to watch sunset from. If you’re very lucky you might even spot a koala on this walk. There are snorkel tours, scuba dive tours, kayak tours and dolphin watching tours to choose from. In town, browse the many boutiques and stop at a local watering hole for coffee or a crafter beer depending on the time of the day. At the beach there’s plenty of room for everyone to find a patch of sun and lounge with a good book, set up a beach game or book a surf lesson – is there anywhere more epic to learn to surf?!
11. Gold Coast – Burleigh Heads
80km, 1 hr
The epic road trip is nearing its end and with one more stop before Brisbane, you’ll see the recognisable skyline of Gold Coast long before you reach it. It’s the ultimate Aussie holiday destination with holidaymakers making their way from across the country to enjoy a dose of sunshine, beach and vitamin sea that the name so promises. The climate in GC is balmy. It never gets as hot and humid as further north in Queensland and the temperature doesn’t dip much below 20C even in the depths of winter unlike cities further south. Unless you’re in Surfers Paradise (despite living here for 8 months I can still count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to Surfers), then life starts a few hours earlier than most places across the world. Expect cafes to open at 6am, the waves topped by surfers at sunrise and the beach to have a number of people already set up for the day long before 8am.
Further north (Surfers), GC is known as the place to party but if that’s not your thing then stay in Burleigh Heads. It’s not quite as residential and sleepy as areas further south but the party doesn’t last as long as it does in Surfers. Stay for one night and in the evening watch the sunset colours take over the sky. Head to Justin Lane for pizza and cocktails, Jimmy Wah’s for Vietnamese or any one of the other great dining spots in the main centre. When you wake up walk round the headland, run along the esplanade or join beachside yoga and then enjoy a well deserved brunch. There are so many great places to choose from but two of my faves are Social Brew & Tarte.
86km, 1hr to 1hr 30 min
The drive from Gold Coast to Brisbane can be rough! Depending on traffic it can take anywhere between one hour and one and a half hours but it can take longer so make sure you give yourself enough time if you make any bookings. I won’t write about everything you can do in Brisbane (I’ll leave that for another post 😉) but I’ll share a couple of things to get you started as you finish your epic trip. Celebrate the end of your trip with a drink at one of the bars along the Brisbane River at Howard Smith Wharves. You can’t miss a visit to one of the art galleries or a stroll through the Brisbane Botanic Gardens followed by a walk along the vibrant South Bank. Brisbane is your jumping off point for heading further north or to one of Australia’s other big cities such as Perth, Melbourne or Adelaide. What will you do next?
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