Queensland, “the Sunshine State,” is Australia’s most popular vacation destination. Golden beaches, idyllic tropical islands, fantastic surf breaks, World Heritage-listed rain forests, rivers, reefs, and waterfalls are just some of the state’s natural jewels. And all of these sun-soaked settings offer exhilarating outdoor adventures. The dazzling Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef offer superb diving and snorkeling. Fraser Island is a favorite four-wheel-driving adventure, and the wilderness areas along the Queensland coast are excellent for hiking, biking, boating, and fishing.
For a change of pace, Queensland’s capital, Brisbane, delivers big-city attractions with a small-town feel. South of Brisbane lies the glitzy Gold Coast with its hedonism and high rises. Traveling north along the coast from the capital, you can explore a string of holiday resorts, from sleepy beach towns and rain forest villages, to picturesque Port Douglas, and the tropical tourist-magnet of Cairns. Find the best places to visit in this sunny state with our list of top attractions in Queensland.
1. Great Barrier Reef
It’s difficult to overstate the beauty and ecological importance of this World Heritage-listed natural wonder. This is the planet’s largest living structure, and it’s so vast, you can see it from space. Much of the reef lies within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which extends off the northern coast of Queensland, from McKay to the northeastern corner of Australia. The park itself is about half the size of Texas and protects more than 3,000 coral reefs, 600 continental islands, 300 coral cays, and a patchwork of mangrove islands.
The reef’s astounding diversity of marine life lures divers and snorkelers from around the world. More than 1,600 species of tropical fish inhabit the reef, as well as sharks, gongs, dolphins, turtles, giant clams, and kaleidoscopic soft and hard corals. Underwater viewing stations and glass bottom boats also offer a window into this underwater wonderland.
On the mainland, Cairns, Port Douglas, and Arlie Beach are the main launching points for tours. Alternatively, you can stay at one of the resort islands within the marine park. The Whitsunday Islands offer many popular attractions and accommodation options and make a great base to explore the reef. Remote Lizard Island, the park’s most northerly island, is famous for its exclusive resort, and Lady Elliot Island, the reef’s southernmost coral cay, is home to a popular Eco-resort.
In a superb location, between the Great Barrier Reef and the dark hills of the Atherton Tableland, Cairns is one of the most popular tourist towns in Far North Queensland and makes a great base to explore the best of Queensland. It’s a friendly, laid-back town, with palm-fringed streets, large parks, and colorful gardens. Beautiful beaches radiate out along the coast from Trinity Bay and Palm Cove to Port Douglas, and the five-kilometer-long Cairns Esplanade runs along the bay, with a saltwater swimming lagoon and free water-themed playground for young children.
Cairns is an excellent base for day trips. It’s one of the most popular launching points for excursions to the Great Barrier Reef, as well as tropical islands such as Green Island and Fitzroy Island. The Atherton Tableland to the southwest is another popular day trip destination, where you can explore rain forest reserves, waterfalls, and the charming attractions in the mountain village of Randa. The Randa Scenic Railway or the Sky rail cable-way offers spectacular views over the surrounding countryside and the World Heritage-listed rain forests of Barron Gorge National Park.
Other top things to do in Cairns include visiting the Flecker Botanic Gardens, with more than 100 species of palms, and learning about the region’s history at Cairns Museum.
3. Take a Safari through Daintiness National Park and Cape Tribulation
A Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, Daintiness National Park is the planet’s oldest surviving rain forest and harbors one of the world’s highest concentrations of threatened and endangered species. Located in Far North Queensland, the two main sections of the park include the crystal-clear waters and lush forests of Moss man Gorge, as well as Cape Tribulation, where tropical rain forest fringes the reef-splotched shores of the Coral Sea. More than 18,000 plant species as well as a fascinating array of wildlife live within the park, including the flightless southern cassowaries (ostrich-sized birds); crocodiles; Boyd’s rain-forest dragons; brightly hued azure kingfishers; spotted caucuses; and musky rat-kangaroos.
The best way to explore this area is on a guided safari. Many companies offer tours on amphibious vehicles and include rain forest hikes and tropical fruit tastings. However, you can also take a self-drive tour. Other popular things to do include zip lining through the rain forest, horseback riding, swimming at Moss man Gorge, looking for cassowaries along the Malinda Boardwalk, and hiking the many other rain forest trails.
Just south of the park, the resort town of Port Douglas is a popular base for arranging rain forest wilderness safaris. This area is one of the best places to visit in Queensland in winter, during the dry season.
4. Go Four-Wheel-Driving on Fraser Island
Between Abundance and Brisbane, World Heritage-listed Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world. Four-wheel drive adventures here explore wide windswept beaches, crystal-clear lakes and streams, dingoes, dense forests, sacred aboriginal sites, and multi-hued rock formations. Seventy Five Mile Beach is the island’s main thoroughfare and provides access to attractions such as the rusted hull of the Menorah shipwreck, the bubbling rock pools of Champagne Pools, Eli Creek, and the colored sandstone cliffs of The Pinnacles. Tiger sharks, dolphins, and whales swim in the wind-whipped waters, and the island’s fauna includes Australia’s purest strain of dingo and more than 300 species of birds.
Top things to do inland include swimming in the aquamarine Lake McKenzie; exploring the rain forest trails of Central Station; and visiting Lake Abby, backed by a towering sand dune.
The most popular access point for tours to Fraser Island is Hervey Bay, where car and passenger ferries, as well as organized 4WD Fraser Island Tours, depart daily. Hervey Bay is also one of Australia’s best fishing destinations, and it’s a fantastic place for whale watching cruises during the winter months, when humpback whales come here to give birth and nurse their young.
5. Whitsunday Islands
Off the coast of central Queensland, the Whitsunday group encompasses 74 stunning islands strung along the Great Barrier Reef. The Whitsundays are continental islands, the summits of a coastal range emerging from the sea. All but five of them have been declared national parks, and about eight are home to popular resorts.
The most famous resorts include luxurious Hyman Island; tiny Daydream Resort & Spa; Palm Bay Resort on beautiful Long Island, with access to 13 kilometers of walking tracks; and well-developed Hamilton, the largest of the island resorts. In 2019, both Daydream Resort and Hyman Island will re-open after massive renovations following Cyclone Debbie in 2017.
On uninhabited Whitsunday Island, White haven Beach, with its powdery white sands and turquoise water, is one of the most beautiful beaches in Australia. Arlie Beach and Chute Harbor are the main launching points for island excursions.
6. Editor’s Pick Port Douglas
Dotted with palms and mango trees, the once-sleepy village of Port Douglas is now a charming holiday resort and a popular base for wilderness safaris and reef trips. This picturesque town lies about an hour’s drive north of Cairns, along a scenic coastal road, which winds between beaches and rain-forest-cloaked hills. It’s the closest mainland town to the Great Barrier Reef.
Skirting the beautiful blond sweep of Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas has a relaxed tropical vibe, with cute cafes, shops, and art galleries. From the Flagstaff Hill Lookout enjoy breathtaking views of the palm-fringed beach merging with the turquoise Coral Sea.
Top tourist attractions include the Wildlife Habitat and the Bally Hooley Sugar Train, an old steam engine chugging through the cane fields to the sugar mill at Moss man. Other adventures on offer include safaris in all-terrain vehicles to Daintiness National Park and Cape Tribulation, fishing trips, northbound expeditions through the rugged landscape of the Cape York Peninsula, and boat trips to Cook town and the Great Barrier Reef.
A trip to Randa, a charming rain forest village on the Atherton Tableland, is as much about the journey as the destination. From just outside of Cairns, you can take the Sky rail Rain forest Cable way and fly over World Heritage-listed rain forests and the beautiful Barron River and Gorge. Alternatively, the Randa Scenic Railway chugs through the rain forest past rugged peaks and waterfalls. The journey ends in the little station at Randa, about 25 kilometers northwest of Cairns, which is almost hidden by tropical plants and palms.
Karaganda’s main attractions are its artsy shops and colorful market selling souvenirs and local crafts, as well as several nature parks and animal sanctuaries, including the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Bird world, Randa Koala Gardens, and Rain forestation Nature Park.
Walks can be arranged on request from Randa to the wildly romantic Barron Gorge National Park. At Japura Aboriginal Cultural Park by the Carnivora Lakes, you can learn about Aboriginal culture and enjoy frequent native dance performances. Travelers wishing to take the scenic self-drive route to Randa will also enjoy the journey.
8. Noose Heads and the Sunshine Coast
Stretching from Campground to Noose Heads, the Sunshine Coast is one of the most popular places to visit on vacation in Southeast Queensland. It’s also a popular holiday spot for Aussies, only about two hours north of the glittery Gold Coast but seemingly a world away. The scenery here ranges from peaceful, cliff-fringed bays and quiet coastal rivers to beautiful bush land laced with hiking trails.
Noose Heads is one of the most popular resort areas, with plenty of attractions for the whole family. Make sure you save time to bask on Main Beach and hike the trails of Noose National Park, where sleepy koalas slouch in the eucalyptus trees. Surfing is also one of the most popular things to do in Southeast Queensland, and almost all of the Sunshine Coast beach towns have their own excellent surf breaks.
A short drive from Noose, you can shop at the popular Saturday Edmund Markets, and south of Noose lie the smaller beach resorts of Cool um Beach, Peregrine Beach, and Sunshine Beach, all with fantastic swimming and surfing. In the hinterland, you can explore Glass House Mountains National Park, a cluster of volcanic plugs rising out of the coastal plain, as well as the charming mountain villages of Monticello and Manley. Hydrochloride is the region’s bustling commercial center and the location of the Sunshine Coast airport.
9. The Gold Coast
The Gold Coast is one of Australia’s best-known holiday regions. During the last few decades, a building boom transformed the coast into a kind of tropical Las Vegas, with skyscrapers and shopping malls stretching from South port in the north to Coolant in the south. Packed with attractions and high-rise hotels, Surfers Paradise — “Surfers” for short — is a tourist magnet, legendary for its alliterative assets: sun, surf, and sand. But it’s easy to escape the crowds in the surrounding wilderness areas or on the outlying beaches.
Despite Surfers Paradise’s reputation for hedonism, you’ll find plenty of Queensland attractions for families in the region. South of Surfers Paradise, kids love Curriculum Wildlife Sanctuary, and Movie World, where old film sets have been recreated by Warner Bros. To the north, in South port, you can see your favorite marine creatures at Sea World. Not surprisingly, swimming, sunbathing, and surfing are popular things to do on Queensland’s Gold Coast, and nature lovers will find plenty of attractions to explore.
Excellent networks of roads lead to scenic lookouts in the hinterland, where many wilderness areas are within easy reach, including popular Laming ton National Park. To visit the Gold Coast, you can fly into Coolant airport, near the Queensland-New South Wales border.
10. Laming ton National Park
About a two-hour drive south of Brisbane, Laming ton National Park is a World Heritage Area and one of the state’s most popular national parks. Located on the Laming ton Plateau of the McPherson Range, amid the remnants of an ancient volcano, the park contains spectacular scenery, with steep gorges, more than 500 waterfalls, tropical and subtropical rain-forests, and beech forests in the higher elevations.
Nature buffs will be in heaven here. More than 190 species of birds live in the park, including bower birds and colorful flocks of parrots. Red-necked watermelons, a small kangaroo-like marsupial, frolic at the rain forest fringes, and the shy platypus swims in the park’s river rock pools. Laming ton National Park is also a haven for hikers with more than 150 kilometers of walking trails.
11. Townsville and Magnetic Island
Brownsville, the largest tropical town in Australia, is an excellent base for excursions and tours, particularly to beautiful Magnetic Island and the Great Barrier Reef. The town lies on Cleveland Bay at the foot of Castle Hill, a 300-meter-high granite crag. Walking tracks lead to its peak with panoramic views over the town and sea. But perhaps the best place to start exploring the city is the Strand. Strolling along this scenic waterfront promenade, you can take a dip at one of the swimming areas, soak up some of the region’s history at Muezzin Barracks, enjoy a picnic in a park, or dine at a nearby cafe.
Apart from the picturesque waterfront, Brownsville owes much of its charm to its many parks and private gardens filled with luxuriant tropical flowers. While you’re here, be sure to take a stroll through the Queen’s Gardens, Brownsville’s oldest botanical garden, and Brownsville Palmetto, with the world’s largest collection of palms. Families will find plenty of kid-friendly attractions. Pack a picnic and head to River way, with its pretty riverfront parkland, walking and biking trails, art exhibits, and free swimming pools, and if you’re interested in the local aquatic life, Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium features an underwater tunnel where you can view the coral reef and marine life up close. Other popular things to do include visiting the Museum of Tropical Queensland and diving the SS Yon gala wreck.
Brisbane, Australia’s third largest city and the capital of Queensland, offers a more relaxed pace than the larger capitals in the country’s southeast and makes a great base to explore Queensland. The city straddles the Brisbane River and is bounded on the east by the sea and on the west by the Great Dividing Range. Visitors love the city’s sunny climate and its luxuriant parks and gardens. Top things to do in Brisbane include strolling around the Brisbane Botanic Gardens Mt Coot-they, with more than 2,000 species of plants, and visiting Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, one of the few places where you can touch and feed koalas.
Family-friendly South Bank Park lands features riverside walking and biking trails, lush gardens, shops, and restaurants. River cruises are also popular. One of Brisbane’s best known tourist attractions is the Kookaburra Queen, an old paddle steamer, which cruises down the Brisbane River, and the River Life Adventure Center offers Adrenalin-fueled water sports on the river. Other things to see and do include shopping at the Queen Street Mall, climbing the Story Bridge, exploring the exhibits at the kid-friendly Queensland Museum, browsing the Gallery of Modern Art, and enjoying beautiful city views from Mt Coot-they Lookout.
Brisbane is also a great jumping-off point for a range of rewarding day trips that showcase the best of Queensland, from island getaways to wildlife-rich national parks, the famous Australia Zoo, and family-friendly theme parks.
13. Australia Zoo
Made famous by the late Steve Irwin, the charismatic crock-loving Aussie conservationist, Australia Zoo is one of Queensland’s best loved family attractions. An easy day trip from Brisbane, the zoo has a strong focus on education and conservation. As well as Aussie favorites like kangaroos, koalas, emus, dingoes, and, yes, crocus, you can also see exotic animal species, including Sumatran tigers, rhinos, marketeers, zebras, giraffes, cheetahs, and elephants.
Colosseum performances are a great way to learn more about some of the fascinating creatures that call the zoo home, including birds of prey, snakes, and the venue’s namesake crocodiles. You can also ride a camel, feed a kangaroo or red panda, and cuddle a koala. The zoo is spread out over 110 acres, so make sure you wear your walking shoes.
14. Explore the Cape York Peninsula & the Torres Strait Islands
Remote, rugged, and rich in aboriginal history, the “trip to the tip” of Cape York Peninsula is one of Australia’s epic road-trips. You can reach some of the top Cape York destinations on a day trip from Cairns, including the historic settlement of Cook town and the wildlife-rich wetlands of Lakefield National Park, but to hit the northernmost tip of Australia, excellent planning and an off-road vehicle are essential. River crossings are part of the adventure, and in the far north, wet season deluges wash out the rudimentary roads, so travel must be tackled during the dry season, from May to October. Along the way, you’ll see jingly rain forests, wild mangrove-fringed beaches, sprawling Savannah, pre-filled rivers, ancient rock art, and fascinating aboriginal communities. North of Wei pa, it’s usually necessary to camp, and satellite phones are highly recommended.
If you’re not up for the planning and logistics of a self-drive tour of this wild, relatively unspoiled region, you can always take an organized tour or fly directly into one of the 274 Torres Strait Islands north of Cape York’s tip. Thursday Island is the main administrative center and a great place to learn about the culture of the Torres Strait islanders, while Horn Island reveals a fascinating military history. Private Rocco Island offers a unique glamping experience, and you can tour a pearl farm here and on Friday Island. Fishing charters off Wei pa are another popular way to explore this untamed coast.