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

Updated on January 12, 2018
Marisa Wright profile image

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

Brisbane

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.

Queensland

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
A
Brisbane:

get directions

B
Gold Coast:

get directions

Famous for beaches, theme parks, nightlife and shopping

C
Sunshine Coast:

get directions

Gorgeous beaches, boutique shops, eateries, hinterland

D
Hervey Bay:
Hervey Bay QLD 4655, Australia

get directions

Hervey Bay is about 3 hours' drive from Brisbane. Take a cruise to the southernmost tip of the Great Barrier Reef, or Fraser Island (to see dingoes)

E
Whitsunday Islands:

get directions

Flights available direct from Brisbane. Unspoilt tropical islands, wildlife. Cruises to the Reef from Airlie Beach and from several of the islands

F
Coogee Beach:
Coogee Beach, Australia

get directions

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.

Accommodation

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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    • profile image

      Xanth 

      9 months ago

      I've lived in all three, so unbiased opinion here.

      For a start, Sydney is a given. You'll most likely fly in there, and you would never come to Australia and NOT see the "big 3" - the Opera House, the harbour, and the Harbour Bridge. There are also many day trips you can do from Sydney, such as the Blue Mountains, the Hunter Valley vineyards, Bondi and Manly. There's four days in day trips just in the previous sentence. So if you've got less than a week in Australia - Sydney it is.

      If you've got a little longer, you can explore further (and you should).

      As for Brisbane and Melbourne - I'd say neither. Both are great cities with their own subtle cultures. And you would end up having an enjoyable holiday if you went to either. BUT neither city will give you antyhing you don't find in Sydney. So unless you're a city-connesuir who enjoys just visiting cities for the sake of it, I wouldn't spend much time in either.

      Where you'll really find gems is if you use these cities as a base or pass-through.

      And that depends on your personal preference.

      If you head to Brisbane, then head immediately south (under an hour) to the Gold Coast. This is probably Australia's most iconic holiday destination. You'd be hard pressed to find any Aussie who has not holidayed here at at least some point in their life. Many Aussies spent every summer here as a kid. There are expanses of world-famous beaches, night time partying, a magnificient hinterland where you can hike and enjoy nature, climb Mt Warning, stay in eco-lodges, whale watch. You can also go for day trips (or extended trips) to the Moreton Bay islands (eg. Stradbroke), inland dams and lakes, magnificent seafood and places to eat - it has it all. There are also a wide variety of theme parks if you have kids.

      Not to be under-considered (if you happen to have longer in Australia), by heading North to Brisbane, you are also closer to the Great Barrier Reef / Whitsunday Islands, Kakadu, Ayres Rock / Uluru, etc if you want to also include any of those in your trip.

      Then Melbourne way - head here if you prefer cold-weather activities (and like to experience four seasons in one day [one hour sometimes]). Seriously - I was in Melbourne recently and it was 46C when I arrived and all the air conditioning couldn't keep up. That evening was balmy, before a massive southerly wind blew through at about 7PM and nearly blew me over. The next day was 12C and we had the log fire burning. Head straight out of Melbourne to places such as the Great Ocean Road (if you enjoy driving on a magnificient piece of road with unique scenery), the Bass Straight islands such as King Island, Philip Island, Kangaroo Island. Here you can experience marvellous nature, cheese making, etc. You can also head to Tasmania where you'll find unique wilderness and enchanting towns.

      So there you have it - unbiased opinion from someone who has lived all over.

    • JohnPellow profile image

      John Pellow 

      2 years ago from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

      I love this beautiful Hub.Sydney is very beautiful and awesome place to visit.Thanks for sharing your thoughts and suggestion with us.

    • profile image

      Manzer Hussain 

      5 years ago from Karachi, Pakistan.

      Vary beautiful place I want to visit dream Sydney Australia

    • kjrzeek1 profile image

      kjrzeek1 

      7 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      I have always wanted to go to Australia, and this hub is great. Hopefully I will get there one day soon. Thank you.

    • aboutaustralia profile image

      aboutaustralia 

      7 years ago from Newcastle, New South Wales

      Great info for first time visitors to Sydney. You really explained the layout of the city in an easy to understand way from the point of view of access and transportation. Great work! Voted up!

    • JasonHunt profile image

      JasonHunt 

      8 years ago from South Florida

      I'm definitely going to Bondi Beach, but I'll be sure to check out Coogee too, as you suggested. Thx!

    • Marisa Wright profile imageAUTHOR

      Kate Swanson 

      8 years ago from Sydney

      @Courtney, lucky you going to Sydney Dance Company! Cheap accommodation is hard to find in Sydney, I'm afraid. Your best bet is share accommodation, but you may not be able to get one until you arrive. You could try homehound.com.au.

      You need a work permit to work in Sydney - although I have to admit, if you're willing to work for low pay in a bar or cafe, you can probably find something.

    • Marisa Wright profile imageAUTHOR

      Kate Swanson 

      8 years ago from Sydney

      Not much to do at night, Wendy? Where on earth in Sydney do you live?

    • profile image

      wendy 

      8 years ago

      I had been in sydney 5 years. I'm very love here and i found aussie very friendly manners.there is one thing is for sure , nothing much to do in the everning,ha.....

    • profile image

      Courtney Palmer 

      8 years ago

      Fantastic hub guys!! .. so much info for us people that don't know Sydney!! .. I need some good info from someone now! .. I am moving to Sydney in January to attend the Sydney Dance Company and I need [relatively] cheap accommodation, and also a job, could you's pleeeaase help me out for both ?!! Thanks! x

    • carcro profile image

      Paul Cronin 

      8 years ago from Winnipeg

      Great info, we hope to visit there one day. We know several people who have spent weeks and even months in Australia and everyone loves it there. Thanks sharing your expertise!

    • Mieka profile image

      Mieka 

      8 years ago

      I lived in Sydney for 6 months, in the CBD. I loved it there, and it is easy to reach everywhere else you want to go from there. I stayed at the Base Backpackers. It is a party place, but a great for meeting a lot of fellow travellers and have a good time.

      Great hub!

    • Marisa Wright profile imageAUTHOR

      Kate Swanson 

      8 years ago from Sydney

      Craig, it depends on your age and interests, but if you only have a week I'd recommend staying at Bondi or Coogee, enjoy the surf, some lazy brunches at the beachside cafes and eat fish and chips on the beach. There's a great clifftop walk from Bondi to Coogee.

      Take a day trip into town for a harbour ferry trip to Manly (cheaper than a harbour cruise and you'll enjoy Manly Beach).

      Personally I don't think there's a lot to see in Melbourne, but you must take at least one weekend to tour the country north of Melbourne - including Daylesford to experience the famous Springs, Ballarat to see the recreated Gold Rush town, and the beautiful Grampian mountains. A tour to Phillip Island to see the fairy penguins is another must.

      For accommodation, go to the wotif.com website.

    • profile image

      craig 

      8 years ago

      Planning a trip to Sydney on route to Melbourne, I intend to stay for a week before spending four weeks in Melbourne. Any info on where to stay in Sydney and what to do in both locations for a solo traveller would be great. Cheers

    • Ingenira profile image

      Ingenira 

      8 years ago

      I love taking the ferries at Sydney harbour to a few places nearby with scenic view. Simply awesome !

    • profile image

      Nancy 

      8 years ago

      Thanks for this great hub. It's always great to hear from others who experienced the trip firsthanded. Thanks for the tips. :-)

    • holidayfan profile image

      holidayfan 

      8 years ago from Sheffield

      Thanks for the advice, I'm going to Sydney and planning to stay in Coogee

    • profile image

      Lisa 

      8 years ago

      Sydney’s beach works and other attractions have great admiration among people all over the world. Interesting and very informative!!! All love to get through Sydney...

    • Jaynie2000 profile image

      Jaynie2000 

      8 years ago

      Fantastic! I am desperate to get to Oz and I love reading hubs about it. Great photos, interesting information. Thank you for sharing it.

    • businesstrader profile image

      Natalie Watson 

      8 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Great hub. I actually live about 20 mins from Sydney and this makes me want to visit bondi beach right now!!!

    • felix127 profile image

      felix127 

      9 years ago

      I like Sydney and Bondi!

    • SidneyMorgan profile image

      SidneyMorgan 

      9 years ago from Australia

      In 2010, Sydney was ranked 10th worldwide by consulting firm Mercer on quality of living.

    • alishaneuron profile image

      alishaneuron 

      9 years ago from Colorado (U.S)

      Fascinating! So interesting.

    • profile image

      TopUniverse 

      9 years ago

      Excellent. I want to visit lovely sydney in australia.

    • profile image

      Artoflegendindia 

      9 years ago

      Nice hub. your hub is informative.I like your hub.I really appreciate with your hub.

    • profile image

      sarahsherlock 

      9 years ago

      I love Sydney - your hub makes me want to go back!

    • kingkhan78 profile image

      kingkhan78 

      9 years ago

      interesting hub thanks for sharing

    • RoseGardenAdvice profile image

      RoseGardenAdvice 

      9 years ago from San Francisco

      A very descriptive hub - while reading yr hub, I felt like I was watching a video of Sydney... it is a beautiful place and you are right about all those beachs - surfers paradise! Thanks .. really well written.

    • MyMastiffPuppies profile image

      MyMastiffPuppies 

      9 years ago

      I have always wanted to go to Australia and now I know where to stay . Thanks

    • MayG profile image

      May Galnou 

      9 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      I have lived in Sydney, and you are spot on. Great pics too. Balmain is worth visiting. Darling St. Balmain is full of old buildings and great shops - it's inner west on Sydney harbour but it does not have a beach. Short ferry trip. Great place to watch NYE fireworks though, without as big a crowd as some of the other places. Manly beach is my favourite of the beaches that are easy to get to, but Palm Beach is where I'd like to have a holiday house!!

    • MartyWare profile image

      MartyWare 

      9 years ago from New South Wales Australia

      Top Hub, I grew up in Sydney and as a child I was very adventurous. Sydney is really fun, especially if you know where to go!

      One of my students has a website all about Sydney and day trips that you can do. As far as I know it has about 70 pages now!

      I think many would find it usefull.

      http://www.ideal-sydney-getaways.com

      Enjoy!

      Marty Ware

      The SEO DAD

    • jessica_alias profile image

      jessica_alias 

      9 years ago

      Thanks for posting this wonderful piece..

      Maybe it will help me if I visit Sydney someday.. Well done.

    • tuarangi profile image

      tuarangi 

      9 years ago

      This is great info since I am planning to go the coming year! My nephew has traveled all over the world and when I asked him to name one favorite place he mentioned Sydney although it was almost impossible to choose he said.

    • MPG Narratives profile image

      Marie Giunta 

      9 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Beautiful photos and great information about a great city. Living in this city can be frustrating at times with traffic, etc but its beauty far outweighs its problems. Thanks for a lovely hub about Sydney, one of the great cities in this world.

    • profile image

      Sydney Getaways Guy 

      9 years ago

      Cool Hub Marisa, I'm with you... backpackers and YHA's are the way to go. The northern beaches have some great places to kick back so does cronulla but what about a walk-in overnight stay on the beach in the Royal National Park? (Burning Palms) or maybe some day trips to some Sydney Secret beaches

    • beccas90 profile image

      beccas90 

      9 years ago from New York

      Just have to get to Australia and especially Sydney - the whole country looks beautiful and varied. The surfside swimming pools look like fun.

    • defed profile image

      defed 

      9 years ago

      I liked your hub, it was really informative.

    • profile image

      stephane86 

      9 years ago

      I have never been to Australia but dream of going there one day. I liked your hub, it was really informative.

    • profile image

      Sydney Getaways Guy 

      9 years ago

      I really enjoyed the content that you provided here and also the fireworks section. There are great harbour walking trails to views these type off attractions if you want any info get in touch with me?

    • stricktlydating profile image

      StricktlyDating 

      9 years ago from Australia

      For special occasions I splurge and get an apartment at Star City Casino, that way the city is at your finger tips, you can easily walk around the CBD/Darling Harbour and explore the city without having to worry about transport. I also enjoy having my own balcony with a beautiful view of the Harbour Bridge etc.

    • ahmadraza212 profile image

      ahmadraza212 

      9 years ago from Pakistan

      very nice dear keep it up

    • Winsome profile image

      Winsome 

      9 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

      Thank you Marisa, I will be sure to stop in when I visit.

    • Marisa Wright profile imageAUTHOR

      Kate Swanson 

      9 years ago from Sydney

      Gosh, Winsome, that's a tough question! I usually head for the cheap and cheerful ones. I've been to Castel Mola several times - nothing fancy, just good basic Italian food, especially the pizzas.

    • Winsome profile image

      Winsome 

      9 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

      Very nicely organized Marisa. Which of the Italian restaurants in Leichhardt do you recommend?

    • OnlinePharmTech profile image

      OnlinePharmTech 

      9 years ago from Hawaii

      I love Sydney!!! I love the smell, food, and the energy of City.

    • kraji profile image

      kraji 

      9 years ago from Slovenia

      Nice hub! I was in Sydney 2 years ago and there you can find a lot of interesting places. I was there only 2 days and I liked walking trails on the east side of sydney where you can find also some nice beaches.

    • Marty1 profile image

      Marty1 

      9 years ago from New South Wales Australia

      Hot places to stay in Sydney never ceases to amaze me but less than one hour down the road is the most majestic piece of New South Wales I've ever known.

      After taking a leisurely drive throught the Royal National Park and hitting the coastal scenery at Otford its the next two towns of Stanwell Park and Coalcliff that are the most out of the way and relaxing places to stay out of Sydney.

      To learn more about the northern Illawarra check out this page; http://www.ideal-sydney-getaways.com/illawarra.htm...

    • RickSure profile image

      RickSure 

      10 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      I used to live in Coogee and I have to agree that it is a better option than Bondi.

    • travelespresso profile image

      travelespresso 

      10 years ago from Somewhere in this exciting world.

      Hello Marisa

      I enjoyed reading your article and your excellent information for visitors to this great city. I have just published an article on Best Sydney Beaches https://hubpages.com/travel/best-sydney-beaches and I hope you don't mind but I linked the two as I figured they were complementary.

    • ManchesterGirl profile image

      ManchesterGirl 

      10 years ago

      I have recently come back from Sydney and absolutely loved it, I am planning on going back next year. Bondi Beach was beautiful and I also advise people to visit the Gold Coast, about an hours flight away from Sydney. It is beautiful and the miles and miles of sandy beach is definitely a must see! I stayed in Surfers Paradise and although it is quite a tourist trap, which has a busy nightlife, the beach and lovely restaurants and bars make up for the hustle and bustle.

    • salt profile image

      salt 

      10 years ago from australia

      excellent hub...

    • Marisa Wright profile imageAUTHOR

      Kate Swanson 

      10 years ago from Sydney

      Nico, if you haven't booked yet, you may find you don't have much choice - most of the best places are booked out already. The main action on NYE is in the centre of the City and Kings Cross.

    • profile image

      Nicolicous 

      10 years ago

      This is to all the Aussie's out there...

      I'm going to be in Sydney for NYE, what's the best place to stay? Is the Star City Hotel and Casino fun? I'm a single girl looking to find something comparable to the Hard Rock hotel in the US, lots of young people, fun, hip, but more upscale than a hostel.

      Any suggestions?

    • Resolver2009 profile image

      Resolver2009 

      10 years ago from Bournemouth, UK / Oslo, Norway

      This hub is amazing. It really makes me feel as if I am back in Sydney. I miss it so much...

    • Target Visibility profile image

      Target Visibility 

      10 years ago

      hey this is a great hub! If you want to find out more about Australian cities, visit okbravo.com. It's a really good travel site that will help you plan your holiday in OZ. Thanks for the info Marisa!

    • earnestshub profile image

      earnestshub 

      10 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      From another Australian. This is spot on information about Sydney the beautiful perl of the east.

    • JPSO138 profile image

      JPSO138 

      10 years ago from Cebu, Philippines, International

      I have not been to Australia. I will certainly remember your hub should I be able to visit the place.

    • cfangerow profile image

      cfangerow 

      10 years ago from United Kingdom

      What great info! One of these days I will make it to Sydney - just as soon as I find the right house sitting job there!

    • ajcor profile image

      ajcor 

      10 years ago from NSW. Australia

      Lucky us we have family in Bondi, Kirribilli and Paddingtion so my trips to Sydney are delightful....thanks for this hub Marissa - btw if and when the family are away or we want to stay in a hotel for whatever reason we always use wotif.com and they have never let us down in the 8 years we have checked in through them ...cheers

    • earnestshub profile image

      earnestshub 

      10 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      I had a friend downtown for many years and was spoilt rotten every time I stayed in his 34th floor apartment on the hill in the centre of Sydney. I miss being able to get in the lift and be right in the thick of it in a minute, or strolling in the park in 2 minutes.

      Lizzie, I stayed in an apartment in Glebe when working in Sydney for a few months. I loved the location and the bridge, plain as it is.

    • Marlene F. profile image

      Marlene F. 

      10 years ago from Richmond, Virginia

      I have always wanted to visit Australia. Unfortunately, the flight alone is a few thousand dollars. If I ever win the lottery I am going to use this Hub to find myself a place to stay. Thank you for being so kind!!!

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 

      11 years ago from New Zealand

      Last time we were in Sydney we stayed in Glebe - its very convenient to the ight rail which takes you right into Darling Harbour - good food too. Id stay there again - we got free parking for a vehicle too which you dont get in the CBD

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