Our 10-day Australia Itinerary
Our Australia itinerary included Sydney, Jervis Bay, Canberra and Melbourne, 10 days by car and plane.
We began our 10-day Australia itinerary with a direct flight from San Francisco to Sydney. We’ve both taken a lot of long-haul flights in the past, but this one was especially long, more than 14 hours in the air. There’s not much you can do to make this kind of flight better, especially when you are in coach. Lucky for us we were on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which maintains 40% humidity, making our flight much more pleasant. We watched lots of movies, walked around occasionally and did our best to stay hydrated. Pretty soon we were on the other side of the world, having lost a full day of our lives.
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First stop, Sydney
We arrived in Sydney during the day and felt pretty good at the beginning of our stay. Our hotel was centrally located so the harbor and the Sydney Opera House were both within walking distance.
We walked over to the Opera House the same day we arrived to explore and go inside. We did a short, guided tour inside that gave us a quick history lesson on the building as well as a demonstration of the place’s amazing acoustics, which make it a destination for musicians and performers all over the world. Sadly, the original architect, Jorn Utzon, never got to see the finished building, after years of funding and construction delays he parted ways with the Australian government, so he never came back to see it. The Opera House website does a great job explaining the history of the building, great reading and photos for any architecture or history buff.
We spent our few days in Sydney mostly on foot, getting acclimated to the new time zone and exploring the different neighborhoods. We traveled in late September, spring time for the Southern Hemisphere, so we had beautiful weather, sunny but not too hot, perfect for walking.
The largest city in Australia, Sydney has about 5 million inhabitants and is a relatively young city, established in 1788 as the Botany Bay convict colony, so while it has some older buildings it feels a lot more modern than US East coast cities like New York and Boston. The area has been going through tremendous growth with lots of people moving in from Asia, so parts of Sydney feel like more of a modern Asian city like Seoul, Hong Kong or Taipei – lots of high-rise buildings and plenty of brand-name shopping and restaurants.
Sydney Harbor and the Harbor Bridge form the heart of the city, and one of the things we most enjoyed was traveling on the public ferry system around town. It was often so much faster and more pleasant to take a ferry than to take an Uber or other public transportation. A lot of tourists climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and while that looks like an incredible experience, we looked into it and decided against it. Neither one of us are too excited about heights and frankly, we were too jet lagged to attempt it this time.
Beyond the harbor area, we explored neighborhoods old and new. In the evening, we explored Woolloomooloo and the wharf area. We weren’t hungry but we still tried a mushy pea hot dog at Harry’s Cafe de Wheels, because, why not? We definitely preferred the Rocks area and the Lord Nelson Brewery, the oldest in Sydney, established in 1841. We also had some great seafood and explored the much newer Barangaroo area, with lots of new shops, restaurants and high-rise apartments under construction. It felt like the entire city was under construction at the time, with new apartments and hotels going up all over town.
No visit to Sydney would be complete without seeing some local fauna. Since we were pressed for time but still wanted to see some Koalas, we visited WILD Life Sydney Zoo. It was a pretty small place, designed for tourists like us with just a couple of hours to visit, but it offered a private Koala encounter for an additional fee. We couldn’t touch them, but we could get pretty close to the Koalas in the enclosure and take as many pictures as we wanted, as well as the professional shots of the two of us.
The Koalas were very cute but mostly had their eyes closed, as we learned, Koalas sleep about 18 hours a day, with the rest of their time devoted mostly to chewing on Eucalyptus leaves. Turns out that they are one of the only species that can digest Eucalyptus, but the toxins still affect them, keeping them mostly drowsy when they aren’t eating. It’s interesting to wonder what would happen to koalas if they evolved to eat something that gave them more energy.
Driving on the left, to Jervis Bay
After a few days in Sydney, we picked up our rental car in town for the next part of our adventure – Jervis Bay, about two and a half hours south. Getting out of Sydney on the left side of the road was a little harrowing, but once we got onto the highway out of town the driving was easier, with wider roads and easier to follow signage.
Along the way we stopped for lunch (and a break from driving) at an adorable little town called Berry. Berry has a quaint little street of Victorian-era buildings, shops and plenty of cafes and restaurants. It’s a common day trip from Sydney and the little town was packed the afternoon we visited. We were happy to find a quiet and comfortable lunch spot at the Garden Berry. It’s definitely worth a stop if you’re road-tripping around the area.
Jervis Bay is about two and a half hours out of Sydney on the ocean, and known for its white sand beaches, some of the whitest and purest sand in the world. It sits in the small town of Huskisson, known to the locals as Husky.
Since we were there pretty early in the season, we had the little seashore town mostly to ourselves. We took long walks along all of the main beaches, enjoyed some beautiful sunsets and did a whale watching cruise in our few days there. It was our first time whale watching and we were thrilled to see lots of whales, including a young “teenage” whale that swam under our boat and breached for us several times.
We enjoyed lots of fresh fish in Husky, including incredible fish and chips at the appropriately named World Famous Fish N Chips, which offers dozens of varieties of freshly caught seafood with some of the most incredible fries we’ve ever had, in enormous portions.
We also experienced something really new for us at Kanpai Japanese Restaurant, a tuna fish roll. Yes, tuna fish out of a can with mayonnaise, served with rice and wrapped in seaweed. Not the most authentic for sure, but it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. The beer and sake and the company in the restaurant made up for it. We chatted with an Australian couple for a couple of hours outside on the patio.
Canberra, Australia’s Capital
From Husky, we got back in our car and continued our journey to Canberra. Canberra is the capital of Australia and has a fascinating history. After Australia gained its independence from the UK, Sydney and Melbourne were competing hard to get the capital for their own. Canberra didn’t really exist other than some farms and empty land, but the government decided to build a capital there from scratch. It’s well-built and really organized in a circular system, purpose built to house all of Australia’s national institutions.
Canberra definitely feels more suburban than both Sydney and Melbourne but is a pleasant, small city with lots to see and really friendly people. When folks heard our American accents they were always surprised and happy to see us there. I guess most tourists skip Canberra altogether.
We visited Canberra during their annual flower festival, Floriade which takes over acres of space in Commonwealth Park. The festival started in 1988 to celebrate Canberra’s 75th Anniversary and is now held every spring, from mid-September to mid-October.
When we walked into Floriade, we accepted the suggestion of a private tour of the festival and we were glad we did. Our guide took us on a guided walk of the entire festival, telling us all the history, showing us the highlights we shouldn’t miss, and the best secrets for snacks and restrooms. It was a great way to get the most out of our visit.
After Floriade, we kept on walking through Canberra and eventually made our way to the National War Museum. Canberra has wide, massive boulevards, unlike Sydney, not especially great for walking. But our approach to the National War Museum was stunning, on a street lined with life-sized monuments to all of the major wars that Australia has participated in, from World War I to Vietnam.
World War I broke out in Europe when both Australia and New Zealand were brand new countries with small populations, so when they were called to serve the Great War, it had a huge impact across the region. At the time the war broke out, Australia had a population of less than five million, but sent 416,809 men to war, of which more than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded or taken prisoner. Both countries take great care to honor and respect their veterans, every single city, town, village, hamlet we visited in our 40 days had a war memorial, listing the names of soldiers lost.
In Canberra, the National War Memorial is the ultimate war memorial for the country with thousands of square feet of exhibitions. We wound up arriving there late in the afternoon, so we unfortunately didn’t get to see much of the museum. In about 30 minutes we had probably only seen one quarter of the World War I exhibits. But we did get to be there for Last Post, an unforgettable experience.
Every single day of the year, the National War Memorial has a Last Post ceremony to honor a soldier who died on that particular day. They livestream the broadcast every day. It lasts about 30 minutes and includes a short talk about the soldier, something about him and how he died, and community members and invited guests lay wreaths and pay their respects. The day we were there they honored Lance Corporal Robert Bruce McMillan, who was killed in action during World War I in Belgium. There was a visiting delegation from Singapore, it must have been a high ranking official with a large entourage. It was incredibly moving and we are so glad we had the opportunity to see it.
Melbourne, Australia’s Second City
From Canberra, upon advice that the drive from Melbourne to Canberra wasn’t that exciting but filled with speed cameras, we took a short flight to Melbourne instead. Melbourne was completely different from Sydney, much more compact, with different weather, a bit chillier in spring than we were expecting. From the airport, we took a train into the town center, hopped a streetcar and made our way to our hotel, a few blocks away from the town center.
In Melbourne we were happy to be able to connect with some good friends who live there, our friends Tony and Malcolm that we know from London and our friend Kevin who recently moved from Singapore. It was great to be able to connect with them over dinner and with Kevin, for a long walk around town to see the Queen Victoria Market and the Melbourne museum.
We visited a few great places on our own as well. We found the great Meatball and Wine Bar off off Flinders Street, where we had delicious, unusual meatballs paired with great wine served by an American girl from the midwest, and later that night we tried Australian and New Zealand whiskeys at the tiny but incredible Whisky Den downtown.
Phillip Island and the Penguin Parade
From Melbourne, we also made a day trip to Phillip Island to see the Penguin Parade. Years earlier I had adopted a little blue penguin from Phillip Island, linked there from a post I saw on Facebook. I only did it for one year so I was afraid that little Valigator might have been looking for me to chew me out. I am not sure if we saw him or not, but we did see hundreds of other little blue Penguins instead.
Little Blue or Fairy Penguins are the smallest of the penguin species and live in and near both Australia and New Zealand. They are one of the only species that has a regular schedule that makes viewing easy – every morning they go out together to sea to fish, and every evening around dusk they all come back to shore together, in a little parade, grouped together to stay safe as they return to their nests. Phillip Island is probably the most famous place to see them so we made sure to book a tour from Melbourne so we wouldn’t miss it.
We did our tour with Go West Tours, a nice group that took us on what seemed like the standard Phillip Island route, stopping first to see the bathing boxes at Brighton Beach – neat but freezing cold – and also the Moonlit Sanctuary Wildlife Conservation Park- where we saw lots of local wildlife including kangaroos, dingoes, wallabies, koalas and many beautiful birds.
When we arrived at Phillip Island, we were shocked to see just how many penguin lovers had joined us for the parade that night. The place was packed with hundreds of tourists from all over the world, pouring into the large facility to get some snacks and gifts before heading out to the huge bleachers set up on the beach to watch the penguins. Two people on our tour, who were on their honeymoon, paid for the premium penguin experience, so they were escorted to a private place to get a better view. Unfortunately we had to join the masses to see them on the beach.
Once on the bleachers, we bundled up in our jackets, hats and scarves and listened to the staff directions and guidance on what we were about to see. The most important thing – no photography! In the years they have been doing the penguin parade, the staff had learned that the poor little penguins were getting blinded by all the flash photography of eager tourists trying to get a glimpse of the little guys running to their nests. For a while, they said that they tried just banning flash photography, but inevitably people forgot (or don’t know how) to turn off their flash, so they decided it was just easier to ban it altogether. They made the announcement several times, in both English and Mandarin, and had staff and volunteers patrolling the stands and beach to try to keep the visitors in line. Of course, we still saw plenty of people take pictures anyway. But we followed the rules to protect the penguins.
This first penguin experience was not quite what we expected. We were pretty far away from where most of the penguins were coming in, and we wound up waiting too long before we walked back up to the parking lot to reconnect with our tour guides. When we started walking up, we saw dozens of penguins walking around in between their nest boxes and squawking away. We had never heard penguins before and they were loud! This was just the start of the nesting season, so some penguins were sparring probably to protect their eggs, but it felt like lots of them were just happily chatting. We saw more penguins on the walk up to the car then we did on the beach. If we had to do it again, we would definitely spring for the premium penguin experience so we could see more.
During our 10-day Australia itinerary, we were able to see both major cities, the capital Canberra, experience a beautiful beach town, and see koalas, kangaroos and penguins. We considered it a successful first visit to this beautiful country.