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Planning an Australian Vacation: Should I Visit Brisbane or Sydney?

Kate Swanson is a Scottish-born Australian who has traveled to and lived in many countries across the globe.

Guess where we live?

Guess where we live?

Actually, that wallaby and her baby do not live in Sydney, which may surprise some people. We don't have kangaroos hopping down our streets. In fact, Sydney actually looks like this:


Many people book a visit to Sydney unaware they're going to be staying in the middle of a huge city. The city centre does sit right on the beautiful harbor—so if you stay in the business district,you'll be well placed to take a ferry ride or cruise to view the Opera House. But you will be a long way from a beach or a kangaroo!

There's no denying Sydney Harbor is worth seeing, especially if you can arrange to be in town over the Christmas holidays. On Boxing Day, there's the start of the Sydney to Hobart Race, with hundreds of yachts and spectator craft filling the harbour, and on New Year's Eve, there's the world-famous fireworks.

Sydney's New Year fireworks are world famous

Sydney's New Year fireworks are world famous

However to get a hotel in Sydney over Christmas, you'll need to book at least a year ahead, and you'll pay for the privilege. Also, once the festivities are over, many visitors will find themselves thinking, "Now what?"

Sydney has a zoo, but apart from its picturesque location, it's the same as any zoo you might visit in the States or Europe. There's a pretty range of mountains to the west, but if you're used to American or European mountains, the Blue Mountains are small by comparison.

Of course, you can go to the beach, and Sydney's beaches are indeed beautiful. However, because they're on the doorstep of a city of four million people, they are also overcrowded, especially in summer. You can check out how busy Bondi beach gets on the North Bondi webcam. Also, the bars can get rough at night.

The fact is, you can find beaches as gorgeous as Sydney's all the way up the East Coast of Australia, and most of them are far less crowded. They're also much closer to many of the must-see places that should be on your vacation itinerary.

The famous Bondi Beach on a quiet day

The famous Bondi Beach on a quiet day

...but Australia has many other beaches which are just as beautiful, but less crowded

...but Australia has many other beaches which are just as beautiful, but less crowded


Let's be clear, Brisbane is also a big city and it doesn't have a beach. However, if you start your Australian vacation by landing in Brisbane, you are within an hour or so of some of the best beaches the country has to offer.

Hop on a ferry for a day trip to one of the islands in the bay. You might prefer to choose a hotel on the Gold Coast, a long continuous strip of beaches to the south of the city. It's a glitzy mix of skyscrapers, restaurants, bars and great surfing. Alternatively to the north, there's the Sunshine Coast which has a quieter vibe, with upmarket hotels for the rich and cheerful resorts for the family.

But the big advantage is that once you're tired of the beach lifestyle, you're in a perfect spot to explore the rest of the state without too much stress.

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If you asked me to name the most important sights to see in Australia, I would say (in order of priority):

  1. The Great Barrier Reef
  2. The Whitsunday Islands
  3. Ayers Rock
  4. Kakadu
  5. Daintree Rainforest

Three of those five places are in Queensland, and if you want to fly there from anywhere else in Australia, you have to fly to Brisbane first, with all the hassle and stress of airport transfers. You'll also find several tour operators offering package tours from Brisbane. You can also fly direct to Darwin (for Kakadu) and Ayers Rock. So making Brisbane your base, instead of a more distant city, makes a lot of sense.

Before my fellow Australians from other states berate me for omitting their attractions, I should say that yes, there's lots to see and do all over the continent. However, most visitors have only a limited time available and they usually want to see the very best sights during that time.

The Whitsunday Islands

The Whitsunday Islands

Finding Nemo on the Great Barrier Reef

Finding Nemo on the Great Barrier Reef

If You Must Stay in Sydney...

If you decide Sydney is not to be missed, here are a few tips to make the most of your stay.


When looking for accommodation, you'll find it's much cheaper to the west of the city. There are few hotels but you will find plenty of options on AirBnB. However, be careful!

The Western Suburbs are where most Sydneysiders live and bring up their kids, but they're not suitable for a vacation—you're likely to find yourself in suburbia, with no cafes or restaurants and no nightlife. Getting to the seaside will take you at least two hours and probably more—if you want to cool off, you'll have to head for one of the local community swimming pools.

If you want to be near a beach, then you need to be in the Eastern Suburbs, but avoid Bondi because the good hotels are expensive and the cheaper ones are often run-down. You'll get better value in Randwick,which is still close to several excellent beaches (Coogee, Clovelly, Bronte).

If you''re not a beach bunny, the Inner West may be a good choice. It's where the young and trendy live, so most of those suburbs have good nightlife and great eateries. The Inner West starts around Five Dock/Concord and extends towards the city, as far as Glebe. My favourite inner west suburb is Leichhardt, which is historically the Italian quarter of Sydney and still has a strong Italian influence, reflected in the quality of the coffee and cakes. If you like Portuguese food, go for Petersham—you'll be in heaven!

Sydney New Year's Eve Fireworks

If you are coming for the fireworks, be aware that almost two million people crowd into every public space around the harbor. Many camp out to claim their spots up to two days before the big event.

I used to watch the fireworks every year, but the last time I did, I could hardly see a thing. Instead, I was trapped in a huge crowd, surrounded by a forest of hands as people held up their phones to film the show. For that reason, I don't recommend people rely on finding a spot in a public place.

There are ticketed venues like the Botanic Gardens, and several waterside hotels, pubs and restaurants where you can book a meal or attend a party with a ringside seat. You can even book a harbour cruise so you can see the show from the water.

© 2007 Kate Swanson

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