East Coast Road Trip (Sydney to Cairns) 16 Day Itinerary
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21st Jun | 12 min read

Doing an east coast road trip in Australia is unparalleled for its mix of unforgettable beaches, charming little towns, and great backpacker communities. Going on this journey, you’ll island hop using sailboats, scuba dive through shipwrecks, explore the rainforest on rugged wheels, and catch a wave or two even if you’re a beginner.

There’s so much to do on this east coast road trip that you’ll need about 14 to 16 days to get through it all. We keep the itinerary loose so that you can spend your time doing the things you like the most.

We think that we've created the perfect itinerary for Australia’s east coast. You’ll start the tour in Sydney and end up in tropical Cairns. Along the way you’ll explore some of the east coast’s most iconic wonders like the Whitesundays and Magnetic Island. You’ll also travel to many popular backpacker towns like the Gold Coast and Byron Bay where you’ll get to meet many other travelers. 

If you wan't to get to know some of these travelers right now, you can connect and chat with backpackers road tripping the east coast using GAFFL.

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East Coast Road Trip Day 1: Sydney

East Coast Road Trip: Sydney

As mentioned, you’ll be starting your trip in Sydney. Sydney is so big and there’s just so much to do that we’ve actually written two posts about it already and they’re linked below.

Top 16 free things to do in Sydney – Central Business District

Top 8 free things to do in Sydney – Coastal Area

From Sydney you'll be driving 2 hours to Newcastle. You'll want to get a start an early start to your day because there's a lot to do on day 1.

East Coast Road Trip Day 1: Newcastle

East Coast Road Trip: Newcastle

Newcastle is a scenic town just 2 hours north of Sydney. We definitely suggest visiting the harbour which is also the oldest export port in Australia and largest coal-exporting port in the world. If you have time to explore more we would recommend:

  • Visiting the iconic Nobbys Lighthouse which was built in 1857 and is still a beacon guiding ships to Newcastle port.
  • Indulging in a little bit of local culture and history by checking out The Newcastle Art Gallery and the Newcastle Museum 
  • Taking a short one hour drive from Newcastle to Hunter Valley, Australia’s oldest wine region. Here you can visit wineries and get free tastings.

From Newcastle, drive 2 hours up to Port Macquarie 

East Coast Road Trip Day 1: Port Macquarie

East Coast Road Trip: Port Macquarie

Known for its laid back atmosphere and stunning beaches, this is a beautiful town for the second stop of your east coast road trip. While in Port Macquarie we recommend:

  • Checking out the painted rocks along the breakwall.
  • Visiting restaurants along the coast and having a meal while by the waves.

It's a 1 hour 40 mins to Coffs Harbour from here.

By the time you reach Coffs Harbour you should be coming to the conclusion of your first day. You'll likely want to rest up for the night before exploring Coffs Harbour in the morning.

East Coast Road Trip Day 2-6: Coffs Harbour

East Coast Road Trip: Coffs Harbour

This town is famed for the “Big Banana” monument, which has been a lightning rod for hilarious photo shoots since 1964. Coffs Harbour, however, is so much more and while visiting this great city you should visit:

  • The marina and jetty and admire the many boats. There is a collection of cafes and restaurants here and if you happen to be there on a Sunday you can experience the jetty market. Also whale watching season is from June to November and The Marina is where the boats depart.
  • The rugged Muttonbird Island is a great place to take in the incredible views up and down the coast and over the mountains. If you can, we recommend trying to catch a sunset while sitting at the top of the island.
  • One of the best regional markets in Australia, which can be found in Bellingen, a 30 minute drive south from Coffs Harbour along the Waterfall Way. The Bellingen markets only happen on the third Saturday of the month, so if you’re lucky enough to be there then, this is a must do activity. The town is still a nice place to visit even when the market isn’t going on.
  • Dorrigo National Park. This park is half an hour away from Bellingen and is alive with bird life during the spring and in the summer you can escape the heat along one of the waterfall tracks.

From here it's a 3 hours to Byron Bay 

If you’re exhausted after spending the day in Coffs Harbour, you can stay another night here before making your 3 hour drive to Byron Bay in the morning.

East Coast Road Trip Day 2-6: Byron Bay

East Coast Road Trip: Byron Bay

Byron Bay is a coastal town and a popular holiday destination known for its beaches, surfing, and scuba diving sites. This is where your east coast road trips breaths a little. 

  • One of the best things to do in Byron Bay is just to chill out and relax. Literally, the motto of the town is “Cheer up. Slow Down. Chill out.” The beaches here are renowned and you’ll be surrounded by great places to shop, eat, enjoy music, and meet other travelers. 
  • The Arts Factory Lodge gets a strong recommendation from us for anyone looking for a truly unique hostel experience.
  • Make sure to visit the Byron Bay Lighthouse which can be accessed via walking trail from Main Beach.
  • We strongly recommend taking surfing lessons for anyone who hasn’t because no trip to Byron Bay is complete without attempting to get on a surfboard at least once. Other aquatic activities we would suggest include kayaking, scuba diving, and swimming with the dolphins.
  • Byron Bay has great nightlife and is the first time during your east coast road trip where you can spend a night out at a pub or club, so take advantage!
  • After experiencing the town, you should spend a whole day exploring the Byron Bay Hinterlands which is home to several waterfalls, national parks, forests and small interesting towns, including the must see town of Nimbin.

You'll definitely wan't to spend a few nights in Byron Bay before heading 1 hour to Gold Coast.

East Coast Road Trip Day 2-6: Gold Coast 

East Coast Road Trip: Gold Coast

Just south of Brisbane, the Gold Coast is famous for having long sandy beaches and great surf spots. 

  • The Gold Coast is home to Surfers Paradise, a beautiful backpacker hub offering vibrant nightlife and endless waves for surfers of all levels.
  • If you like theme parks there are a few in the Gold Coast that you can visit.

All together spending 4-5 days exploring Coffs Harbour, Byron Bay, and the Gold Coast should be more than enough, however it’ll be hard to leave Byron Bay and you might want to spend most of your nights there. 

Drive 1 hour from Gold Coast to Brisbane.

East Coast Road Trip Day 6-8: Brisbane

East Coast Road Trip: Brisbane

Queensland’s capital is a big beautiful city with great culture and beautiful scenery. Brisbane is known for being sunny almost all year long so doing outdoor activities is paramount.  

  • For the daredevils out there, you can climb the Storybridge and repel down, yup no joke, you can repel down a bridge in the middle of the city. 
  • You’ll want to spend a lot of time in the South Bank, Brisbane’s premier lifestyle & cultural destination. This area is filled with beautiful parks, delicious eateries, amazing river views and endless events.
  • Brisbane is home to the Queensland Museum, Science Centre, and Queensland Gallery of Modern Art.
  • Take a swim at urban, man-made Streets Beach which is located in South Bank.
  • There are several islands off the coast of Brisbane that you can visit, but if you were to only visit one we’d advise on Moreton Island, the third largest sand island in the world, you can go shipwreck diving here! North Stradbroke Island is also a great place to go for surfers and people who are looking to whale watch (June to October).
  • You can’t leave Brisbane without visiting Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, the world’s first and only koala sanctuary. Here you can interact with many native Australian animals including koalas, kangaroos, snakes, birds, and dingos. 

Because there's so much to do, we’d spend up to 2-3 nights in Brisbane before heading over to the Sunshine Coast.

Drive close to 2 hours from Brisbane to Noosa.

East Coast Road Trip Day 8: Sunshine Coast

East Coast Road Trip: Sunshine Coast

Like you have with most of this east coast road trip, you’ll be finding long golden beaches and plenty of opportunity for sun and surf along the Sunshine Coast. 

  • While passing through the Sunshine Coast, it’s likely that you’ll spend most of your time in Noosa. There’s a lot here for you to do whether you want to be adventurous and explore Noosa National Park or you can chill out and go Cafe/Boutique hopping. While in Noosa make sure to do a kayak tour of Noosa Everglades.
  • For those of you looking to do more in Sunshine Coast you can visit the famous Australia Zoo.

From Noosa you'll be driving 2 hours to Hervey Bay.

East Coast Road Trip Day 9-11: Fraser Island 

East Coast Road Trip: Fraser Island

Also known as the largest sand island in the world! 

  • While here you’ll be able to experience the perfect mix of beaches, rainforests, beautiful lakes, and shipwrecks. Before getting to Fraser Island, you’ll have to drive to Hervey Bay, the jumping off point to the island. If you’re driving a good, durable 4WD and you’re confident that your car won’t break down, or if you want to rent a 4WD, you can do a self guided tour. For the rest of you, you’ll need to do a tour.
  • Cool Dingo, is a tour company that’s very popular with backpackers. They use 4WD vehicles for 3 days and provide you with the ferry crossing and campsite accommodations. This tour is a great way to meet new people and cover the whole island.

From Hervey Bay to Airlie beach will be the single longest driving stretch (9 hours and 40 minutes) as there isn’t much to see during this stretch. We’d strongly recommend starting early in the day and making minimal stops, try to get there as efficiently as possible. 

2 hours and 30 mins from Hervey Bay is Agnes Waters also known as the town of 1770, it’s the first western settlement of Australia. There’s some very cheap surf lessons here and some great spots to eat. It’s a nice little break before having to go nearly 8 hours to Airlie Beach.

East Coast Road Trip Day 11-13: Airlie Beach & The Whitsunday Islands 

East Coast Road Trip: The Whitsunday Islands

Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsundays, but is a great little town all on its own. 

  • Popular among backpackers, while in Airlie Beach you can take a dip in the Airlie Beach Lagoon, visit Conway National Park for a hike, experience the nightlife of the town, and if you’re there on a Sunday you can browse the markets.
  • Sailing The Whitsunday Islands is a quintessential, must-do activity, no east coast road trip is complete without sailing these islands. You’ll be able to see Whitehaven Beach, which will then instantly become one of the most beautiful places you’ve ever set your eyes on. You can island hop, snorkel, or even skydive by day, while living it up under the stars on party boats by night.

This is one of the pricer spots on the trip, but trust me, you’ll want to tour these islands as thoroughly as possible to capture every last bit of beauty it has to offer. You'll wan't to spend a day or two soaking in Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands.

The drive from Airlie Beach to Townsville is just over 3 hours. 

East Coast Road Trip Day 13-14: Townsville & Magnetic Island

East Coast Road Trip: Magnetic Island

Townsville is the gateway to Magnetic Island and is the capital of Northern Queensland.

  • While in Townsville you can visit the many bars and restaurants in the city. You can also visit the Museum of North Queensland to learn about local wildlife, ancient shipwrecks, and the history of scuba diving, or the Herbert River Museum to learn about the region's history.
  • Magnetic Island is very quiet with secluded beaches and an abundance of wildlife. There’s a lot to take in on this Island by walking. Do the 1.5 hour Fort Walk which includes some great WW2 history. You can visit Balding Bay or Radical Bay, both are quieter than the main beach. It's likely that during your time on the island you’ll spot a Koala or two. 
  • There’s also many tours that you can do on the island including, snorkeling tours, kayak tours, and jetski tours.

If you drive 2 hours 45 minutes north of Townsville you will reach Mission Beach.

East Coast Road Trip Day 13-14: Mission Beach

East Coast Road Trip: Mission Beach

Mission Beach has loads of things to do and might be a hidden gem for many since it’s not on many east coast road trip itineraries. The beaches here are breathtaking, there’s a wide array of walking trails, and some delicious cafes and restaurants to try out.

  • While hanging out on Mission Beach you can activities like skydiving or white water rafting in the nearby town of Tully.
  • A lot of Mission Beach’s activities center around Belmont Park, there’s an amusement park here, you can rent a bike and ride around, or grab a bite to eat. 
  • Southern Mission Beach moves at a slower pace and you can enjoy some fishing or beach volleyball. There’s also more shipwrecks here for anyone who wants to do more snorkeling. 

The drive from Mission Beach to Cairns is just under 2 hours.

East Coast Road Trip Day 14-16: Cairns

East Coast Road Trip: Cairns

Cairns is sadly the last stop on your east coast road trip, but your trip doesn’t abruptly end here. Oh no, there’s so much to do in Cairns that you’ll have to spend a few days here exploring.

  • Cairns is home to the Great Barrier Reef. Snorkeling or diving the reef to interact with the plethora of aquatic life is a can't miss opportunity while in Australia.
  • Cairns Lagoon and esplanade is a great place to swim, BBQ, and hang out for the day. 
  • Daintree Rainforest is a world heritage site and the oldest surviving tropical rainforest in the world. Daintree can be done in a day trip from Cairns, and offers some spectacular beaches, waterfalls, and wildlife. Make sure to visit Cape Tribulation while you are there. Don't miss out on Port Douglas either.

We hope that this east coast road trip itinerary helps you out on your upcoming journey. Remember, you can use GAFFL to find travel mates for your east coast road trip. Backpackers are using GAFFL every day to connect with each other all over Australia.

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