Best places to visit in Queensland
Queensland, “the Sunshine State,” is Australia’s most popular vacation destination. Golden beaches, idyllic tropical islands, fantastic surf breaks, World Heritage-listed rainforests, 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.
Traveling north along the coast from the capital, you can explore a string of holiday resorts, from sleepy beach towns and rainforest 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 MarinePark, which extends off the northern coast of Queensland, from Mackay 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, dugongs, 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 Airlie 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 rainforest reserves, waterfalls, and the charming attractions in the mountain village of Kuranda. The Kuranda Scenic Railway or the Skyrail cableway offers spectacular views over the surrounding countryside and the World Heritage-listed rainforests 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. 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 Hayman 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 Hayman Island will re-open after massive renovations following Cyclone Debbie in 2017.
On uninhabited Whitsunday Island, Whitehaven Beach, with its powdery white sands and turquoise water, is one of the most beautiful beaches in Australia. Airlie Beach and Shute Harbor are the main launching points for island excursions.
4. Lamington National Park
About a two-hour drive south of Brisbane, Lamington National Park is a World Heritage Area and one of the state’s most popular national parks. Located on the Lamington 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 rainforests, 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 bowerbirds and colorful flocks of parrots. Red-necked pademelons, a small kangaroo-like marsupial, frolic at the rainforest fringes, and the shy platypus swims in the park’s river rock pools. Lamington National Park is also a haven for hikers with more than 150 kilometers of walking trails.
5. Australia Zoo
Made famous by the late Steve Irwin, the charismatic croc-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, crocs, you can also see exotic animal species, including Sumatran tigers, rhinos, meerkats, zebras, giraffes, cheetahs, and elephants.
Crocoseum 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.
6. 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 Cooktown 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 jungly rain forests, wild mangrove-fringed beaches, sprawling savannah, croc-filled rivers, ancient rock art, and fascinating aboriginal communities. North of Weipa, 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 Roko Islandoffers a unique glamping experience, and you can tour a pearl farm here and on Friday Island. Fishing charters off Weipa are another popular way to explore this untamed coast.