Australia is a very expensive country. Be prepared to pay more for just about everything.
Tipping – most Australians don’t tip. I felt very awkward about this, given that everyone expects a tip in the US, and I asked many people and was told tipping just isn’t the norm at most restaurants. However, at fine restaurants, 10% is customary.
Taxis- all taxis take credit cards. This is very helpful when arriving at the airport or taking advantage of a good exchange rate. Make sure you use a card that has no foreign transaction fee.
Credit Cards – credit cards aren’t widely accepted at most cafes and using your credit card is discouraged by most places. Many businesses charge a fee when you pay with credit – Subway restaurant charged me .50 cents to use my card on a $12 transaction. Hotels charge somewhere between 1% and 3% of the total bill if you pay by credit card at checkout. So, try to avoid unnecessary fees by using a card that doesn’t charge you an international transaction fee on top of everything else.
ATMs – Find out if your bank has an international banking relationship with an Australian bank. I bank with Bank of America and they partner with WestPac, so I could use the ATM without getting charged any additional fees. This was very helpful because you need a lot of cash in Australia. In fact, I would suggest only exchanging a small amount of cash at an Exchange location and then getting cash out of an ATM if you can avoid the fees.
Day 1-3 – Sydney, Australia
I arrived in Sydney at 8am after flying for 36 hours, including layovers. I stayed at the Holiday Inn Potts Point Hotel for my first three nights. I had a spectacular view from my room of the Sydney Opera House and Bridge, but there aren’t many great amenities. The Holiday Inn Potts Point is in a less touristy neighborhood, and therefore, a little less crowded, its location makes it easy to get around and there are a lot of café and restaurants nearby. Potts Point is a nice area, but at night, it turns into the red-light district and there are a ton of nightclubs so noise maybe a problem. The area is generally safe, but you should always be alert and aware of your surroundings.
Sydney is a very busy and crowded city with a heavy Asian influence. I found the people in the Central Business District (CBD) always in a hurry, pushy on trains and not overly friendly. Of course, there are always exceptions and I did encounter plenty of friendly people along the way.
Day 4 – 13 – Melbourne, Australia
Nine days is way too much time to spend in Melbourne on vacation. It’s a great city, and there’s a lot to do, but I think 4-6 days would have been plenty. Melbourne is a much more European type of city with café lined streets and green areas. The city is Australia’s second largest and expected to outgrow Sydney within 10 years.
The city is easy to get around because there are trolleys – they actually call them Trams – trains and plenty of taxis & Ubers. The trains and trams are very easy to use and every train station had helpful customer services teams that helped orient me with the system.
There are many great museums in Melbourne and the Botanical Gardens are wonderful. I highly recommend a stop there. There are also some great restaurants – Longrain Melbourne – a Thai influenced restaurant on Little Bourke Street – was incredible and I could literally have eaten there a few times a week. There were also great Asian restaurants in China Town – Spicy Fish is one of them – and dozens of dim sum restaurants (though they don’t call it Dim Sum, they call it Yum Cha). There are plenty of hip, trendy and casual restaurants throughout the city. Exploring the side streets revealed a lot of hidden gems.
There are many neighborhoods surrounding the CBD each with a different theme or cultural feel. There’s a huge Greek population, but surprisingly, my only Greek meal was very disappointing. Stalactites restaurant was recommended to me by the hotel, and it was packed inside, but I found the food to lack flavour overall and the meat was dry. There’s an Italian area just north of the CBD and I had great food there. Lygon Street, north of Victoria, is lined with cafes and restaurants and I didn’t find a bad meal. Michellinos and Sergio Place were good. There’s also a Thai Restaurant there called Lemongrass and it was good, but not as good as Longrain.
Melbourne is worth a visit, but make sure you’re prepared – it can be cool in the summer and the temperatures can vary from day to day. Temperatures can be as high as 100 degrees or as low as 50 degrees. Pack in layers and bring a light jacket for the chilly nights.
Day 14 – 20 – the Gold Coast and Brisbane, Australia
I spent half of my time on the Gold Coast and the other half in Brisbane’s CBD. The drive between the Gold Coast and Brisbane is about an hour to hour and a half (depending on traffic and where you want to go) and can be an expensive trip by car or taxi. There are several options for transportation, so you should price them all out before making your decision.
The Gold Coast is a vacation destination for many Australians. I found it to be very similar to Hilton Head, SC, or St Augustine, FL, area. Surfers Paradise is the most well-known beach on the Gold Coast and the most touristy. There’s no doubt that the waves are spectacular and the sand is white, but the beach is busy, and there’s not much more beyond the endless shops selling flip-flops, surf gear and beach trinkets. If you go to the Gold Coast, expect to spend your time either on the beach or by the pool, or at the amusement/theme parks.
There are three major theme parks and a few water parks as well. Sea World Australia offers a different experience than Sea World in the US, but is quite expensive. I would have loved to take a Whale Watching trip from Sea World, but the season had just ended. Dream World is a park that features characters from Sherk and the Wiggles and looked to be a combination of Universal and Six Flags type parks. Movie World is Warner Brothers’ answer to the amusement park. They have rides and entertainment that feature The Green Lantern, Batman, Scooby-Doo and all of the WB characters. I didn’t make it to either Dream World or Movie World, but they looked like typical amusement parks crowded with families.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any great recommendations for the Gold Coast. I spent 99% of my time there at my hotel pool. The bus system in the Gold Coast has a very bad reputation and the hotel recommended not using it. There are no trams like in Melbourne or Sydney, so you’re limited to taxis – and that can get expensive. If you don’t have a car, make sure you’re located centrally so you can walk! I was stuck up near Sea World with few options.
Getting from the Gold Coast to Brisbane without a car is challenging. Your options are the train – great if you’re not alone with a ton of luggage; taxi – not a great option if you hit traffic because it’s a metered fare; a rental car – could be good if you can get a decent one-way rental and are comfortable driving Down Under; or a town-car service which is a flat fare, but expensive. Taxi quoted me $200-$245 approximate fare from Sea World area to Brisbane CBD and the town car flat fare was $210. Guess which one I took? Turns out, the Town Car driver was very lovely and told me a lot about Australia and Brisbane and even drove me around the Brisbane CBD pointing out key sites before dropping me at my hotel.
Brisbane is a beautiful city situated directly on the river. Brisbane is much like Melbourne, very European feeling, and easy to get around. I visited the Gallery of Modern Art which had a Matisse exhibit and walked around the city and along the river. There is a hop-on/hop-off sightseeing tour that is a great value. You can get on at any stop and ride the bus from attraction to attraction getting off where you want, visiting the attractions, and then reboard on the next bus. It was a great way to see the city. Tip: save your receipt for a discount on a tour in another city. There was also a lovely outdoor shopping area with a pedestrian street filled with cafes. Two to three days was just enough to see the sights in Brisbane.
Day 21- 26 – Sydney Australia
I flew Virgin Australia back to Sydney on Christmas Day along with 30 other people. The huge plane was empty, the flight attendants were in a great mood and gave out free drinks to us all. Upon arrival, I was shocked to see how empty the airport was. Flying on Christmas Day has its benefits!
Unfortunately, the city was pretty much closed down for Christmas and Boxing Day. I stayed at the Westin Sydney, a remarkable hotel, which was about 1 block from the Pitt Street Mall. On Boxing Day I decided to check out the Pitt Street Mall (a street of shops and shopping centres)– wow, was that a mistake. It felt like the entire city had descended upon the mall area and it was a wall of people everywhere you looked. Every store had lines formed outside with people waiting to get in. I have never seen anything like it in world, not even on Black Friday in the United States.
There are a million things to do in Sydney. I would recommend taking the hop-on/hop-off sightseeing tour. I used my receipt from Brisbane to get a discount on my ticket. For $35, I had 24 hours to see the city from a double-decker bus. Tip: If you’re going to visit the Aquarium or Wildlife Center, get your tickets on the bus. They’re slightly discounted and they offer express passes so you don’t have to wait in the large lines at the Aquarium. (I wish I had done that! I waited for about 35 minutes in line at the Aquarium to get tickets.)
You can’t visit Sydney without going to the Opera House and Sydney Harbor Bridge. The views are astonishing. I would also suggest visiting the Rocks – if you are there on a weekend, there’s a great street fair. The Aquarium and Wildlife center are okay – personally I think the Atlanta Aquarium is better – but all the kids there seemed to be having fun. I did enjoy seeing the sharks and penguins at the Aquarium. The Wildlife Center – directly next door- had all of Australia’s indigenous animals – Kangaroos, Koalas, Kookaburra and more.
I had the chance to visit a few incredible restaurants on my trip. There’s an endless amount of food options in Sydney. In Surrey Hills, we went to Monkey Magic for sushi and it was some of the best sushi I’ve ever had. We also had some of the Japanese main dishes and they were marvelous as well. I highly recommend it. We went to Soy in Bondi Beach – also Sushi – and while not as good as Monkey Magic, it was still enjoyable. The best part of Soy is the view – it’s directly across from the ocean. There’s also a Longrain in Sydney – just as popular and busy as the one in Melbourne, and just as good (yes, I went again). Wagamama on Kings Warf in Darling Harbor is a great low-key Japanese Teriyaki and Noodle Restaurant –even though Wagamama is a chain restaurant, it sure didn’t feel like one and the food was great.
One of the other best kept secrets of the city, in my opinion, is the Westfield (yes, as in the malls) food court. It’s not a food court like you’re used to – it’s a high-end, boutique type of eatery. I found Dergah Middle Eastern Grill to be delicious. There’s also Din Tai Fung Express. Din Tai Fung is a famous dim sum restaurant and this location offers the same great dumplings! Loved it! There are several full-service restaurants in addition to the fast-service vendors.
I had the opportunity to stay in Sydney through New Years and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had. Watching the fireworks in Sydney Harbor and Darling Harbor was extraordinary. You have to get out early to get a good viewing location – or pay a high price to get into a hotel or restaurant with a great view- but seeing the fireworks in Sydney from a great location is an opportunity you shouldn’t pass up.
Gold Coast Australia
Syndey, Auatralia Architecture
Sydney Wildlife Center – Koalas
Sydney Wildlife Center – Crocs!
Sydney New Years Eve Fireworks
Sydney New Years Eve Fireworks