Crusing by tropical beaches and lush rainforests, through quaint coastal towns and two bustling capital cities, along ocean vistas and lake views, and over some truly dramatic landscapes on Australia’s east coast, the Legendary Pacific Coast touring route is one of the country’s most iconic, jaw-dropping road trips, and one that absolutely deserves a place on your bucket list. With several partial drives over the years and some pretty high expectations, I set out last week to finally execute the perfect road trip from Sydney to Brisbane, jam-packed with stops and activities collected over previous trips, but also with plenty of new finds that have already become lifetime highlights. This guide will give you an idea of trip budget, itinerary, and all the essential stops to include on your own Legendary Pacific Coast road trip!
What's in this travel guide
Road trip logistics
If you were to drive from Sydney to Brisbane without any stops at all, it would only take you 10 hours to cover the 1,000 or so kilometres— but what would be the point?! Expect to spend more like 15 hours making the drive from NSW to QLD, stopping at heaps of beautiful beaches, sprawling lookouts, and charming towns along the way, and of course opting for scenic detours whenever possible.
There’s no doubt that it’s a long drive, and therefore no wonder that many people plan to drive the Pacific Coast Touring Route as a one-way road trip, saving themselves a long return. The downside, though, is that this involves hiring a car and copping the expensive fees for dropping off in a different state, which will be cost prohibitive to a lot of travellers (and obviously impractical for locals, who could just take their own car). Don’t worry about wasting time in the car if you do make the journey as a return trip, though— the drive between Sydney and Brisbane is filled with nearly non-stop scenery! Every few minutes, you’re likely to be squealing out of the car window over coastal views, sweeping river vistas, or roadside wildlife (wishing you could safely take photos while driving at 110km/hr). Stop at new places on the way back to keep it interesting. Any way you slice it, this is one of the world’s best road trips and you won’t be disappointed.
Road trip budget
On my recent drive from Sydney to Brisbane and back, I clocked up 2,540km and spent $280 on fuel in my small SUV. It’s fair to estimate $200-350 for fuel, as prices are always fluctuating, different cars might use more or less petrol, and every itinerary will involve a different number of detours.
Car hire: $200-1,500
If you don’t have the luxury of driving your own car up the coast, car hire may very well end up being your biggest expense. I checked on current hire prices from Thrifty and you can expect to pay $25-80/day if you are picking up and dropping off at the Sydney Airport (depending on time of year and what car you choose), but that number more than doubles if you are under 25 years old! It’s also considerably more expensive if you are picking up in Sydney and dropping off in Brisbane (about $300-400 more), so plan accordingly.
It’s often possible to find great deals on hotels and definitely possible to save money by staying at caravan or holiday parks (either in tents or cabins), but the average price my friend and I paid for nice, mid-level motel rooms with two beds was $150 throughout the entire drive. This sometimes included breakfast, but always included wifi and parking.
I’d recommend getting something easy from the supermarket for most of your brekkies, just because it will save you time in the morning if you don’t have to go hunting for food and it will save money for a few days where you might want to splurge on a café breakfast ($20-30). Pack about half of your lunches as well, and then eat something quick and easy like a schnitzel burger or fish and chips ($10-15) for the other days. For dinner, it’s totally up to you whether you’d prefer to get most of your meals out at a restaurant/the local pub ($20-30) or whether you feel like eating in (you’ll be able to find Woolies/Coles in most towns, but it’s not a bad idea to have a small esky with you and just make up a few sandwiches/wraps at a time).
There are countless adventure activities and nature tours on offer the entire way up the coast, but the best advice for budget travellers would be to limit yourself to 2-3 paid activities/tours and then just enjoy all the free fun! Some of my favourites, plus a number of others that looked interesting when I was doing my planning:
With infinite time, you could easily spend weeks crawling up the coast from Sydney to Brisbane, exploring little seaside towns and lesser known gems along this popular route, but you could also have an amazing road trip in just a few days, waking early and driving late to cram all the best stops into a tight itinerary. Here are my “time rich” and “time poor” itinerary recommendations to suit any trip length!
Time rich itinerary
Day 1-4: Sydney
Day 5: Sydney to Newcastle (2.5-3hrs driving)
Day 6: Hunter Valley (2hrs return)
Day 7: Newcastle to Port Stephens & onwards to Nambucca Heads (5hrs driving)
Day 8: Nambucca Heads, Dorrigo & onwards to Coffs Harbour (2hrs driving)
Day 9: Coffs Harbour to Gold Coast (4hrs driving)
Day 10: Gold Coast to Brisbane (1.5hrs driving)
Day 11: North Stradbroke Island (1.5hrs return)
Day 12: Brisbane to Byron Bay (2hrs driving)
Day 13: Byron Bay
Day 14: Byron Bay to Port Macquarie (4.5hrs driving)
Day 15: Port Macquarie to Forster (1.5hrs driving)
Even though I’ve written all the detailed itinerary suggestions and essential stops below in order from south to north as if you’re driving one-way from Sydney to Brisbane, I’d actually recommend a return journey that takes in half of these stops on the way north and the other half on your way back (as with the itineraries above).
It’s difficult to sum up Australia’s harbour-side gem in just a few paragraphs, but suffice to say that there’s no shortage of things to do whether you’re a beach bum, foodie, outdoor enthusiast or wildlife lover. With just a single day, head straight to Circular Quay, the lifeblood of this vibrant city, and spend a few hours wandering around the iconic Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Royal Botanic Garden, and the Pylon Lookout. Walk around Barangaroo to reach beautiful Darling Harbour with its many shops and restaurants, and then grab a quick train or bus to Bondi Beach, where you can have lunch at Bondi Icebergs Club before strolling all the way to Coogee Beach along Sydney’s most popular walking track. Finish the day with a drinks, seafood, and beach vibes at the waterfront Watson’s Bay Boutique Hotel.
Highlights: Enjoy iconic views of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge from Circular Quay; explore some of the city’s most popular beaches on the scenic Bondi to Coogee walk; take the ferry to beautiful Manly Beach and explore the glitzy Northern Beaches; travel out to Blue Mountains National Park or Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park for bush walks and wild camping; grab brunch at one of Sydney’s infinite amazing cafes. Recommended time: If you have the time, spend a whole week in this sparkling city— you certainly won’t run out of things to do! Top tips: While in Sydney, do as the locals do and treat yourself to an extravagant weekend brunch at one of our thousands of trendy, inventive cafes. You’ve absolutely never had breakfast like this before, and you’ll soon see why brunch is such an integral part of Sydney culture. Check out some of my very favourite spots around the city:
Hopping in the car and cruising out of Sydney, it’s only about 2.5hrs to sunny Newcastle! Traffic can make this drive absolutely miserable, though, so try to drive outside of peak hours. Once you arrive in this compact coastal city, head straight to the water at Nobby’s Beach, Bar Beach, or Newcastle Beach for a swim or a spot of sun baking. Newie is home to heaps of amazing golden sand beaches, but thankfully all of the Bondi Beach madness of fighting for a towel spot or being elbowed by small children while in the surf has been left behind in the big city, so you’re free to enjoy the sun with only a modest number of other beachgoers. If big swell is still a bit intimidating, go for a swim in the amusingly-named Bogey Hole, a lovely salt water rock pool with delightfully fewer rips.
After the beach, walk along Newcastle’s Memorial Walk and admire the town’s dramatic coastline from above. Even if you’re only passing through and looking to keep your itinerary short, this is my number one recommendation and it’s simply not to be missed! With more time, you can also check out the views from Nobby’s Lighthouse or Fort Scratchley.
The other option, of course, is to jet a further 45min inland and spend your time in the renowned Hunter Valley wine region, where 150 wineries and dozens of first-class restaurants will keep you more than entertained for a day (or three)!
Highlights: Walk along the Memorial Walk and enjoy amazing views of the coastline; go for a dip in the Bogey Hole; catch some sun at Nobby’s Beach, Bar Beach, or Newcastle Beach; head inland to the Hunter Valley wine region for a day of wine tasting and gourmet food. Recommended time: You could see the best of Newcastle in a busy afternoon, but you’ll want at least a full day to hop between cellar doors in the Hunter Valley. Top tips: I’d recommend staying the night in Newcastle so you can be at Stockton Beach in the early morning sun. There’s a very inexpensive YHA at Newcastle Beach, while the nearby Novotel provides a more upscale alternative. Still, the best accommodation is probably going to be found on Airbnb.
From Newcastle, it’s only an hour to Port Stephens, but there are a number of great stops to make along the way that will occupy the better part of your morning! Get an early start and head first to Stockton Beach, whose rolling sand dunes glow golden in the morning sun. You can drive across the beach if you’re in a 4WD or even book onto a quad biking tour, but it’s still possible to access the dunes by foot for a DIY experience. Navigate to Dune Drive, a street in Fern Bay about 20 minutes north of Newcastle, and when your GPS brings you to a roundabout at the end of the directions, simply take a right and drive down the street (this is Dune Drive) until you can see an access track running up along the right hand side, opposite all the houses. You can park on the street and then just walk along the dirt/gravel access track for about 8min until you come to the dunes!
Next, navigate to the Tomaree Head Summit Walk, which is about 40min away and will afford you sweeping views over Nelson Bay and the Fingal Spit. Drive past Shoal Bay and then to a small car park, where a Tomaree National Park sign indicates “walking tracks”. The climb up Tomaree Head will only take about 20min and isn’t terribly steep, but the views you’ll enjoy pretty much immediately will overwhelm you! From atop the summit, look out at Zenith Beach, Wreck Beach, Box Beach, and the Fingal Spit, and then make your way back down to the car to visit either Wreck Beach or Box Beach for even more beautiful views. It’s only a 5min drive to the Box Beach car park, and then you can choose to just visit the beach here or walk the 1km track over to Wreck Beach. In summer, the lack of car access to Wreck Beach is likely to translate to fewer people, but in the off-season, you’ll be more than happy with Box Beach and its strikingly orange volcanic rocks.
Highlights: Hike up Tomaree Head for sweeping views over Nelson Bay; walk (or quad bike) through the dunes at Stockton Beach; take in more views from Gan Gan Lookout; check out beautiful Box Beach or Wreck Beach; admire the Fingal Spit; swim with dolphins or go whale watching. Recommended time: Even though there are a heap of things to do in Port Stephens, you can fit most of them (unless you’re booked onto any tours) into an action-packed morning. Top tips: Because the Tomaree Head walk is so short and the trail is so well-maintained, it’s the absolute perfect sunrise or sunset hike (BYO headlamp).
Just two hours north of Port Stephens in the Great Lakes region of mid-NSW, Forster is a great place to lounge on secluded beaches, watch for humpback whales along the coast, swim in turquoise lakes, and just generally relax in nature. There’s a path that winds along the foreshore as you first come into town, and I’d suggest strolling along at least a section of this walk to get some initial views over the sand-swirled water. Next, drive up to nearby Bennetts Head Lookout, a fantastic vantage point from which to see whales and dolphins, as well as the start of a short but scenic walk over to One Mile Beach. Pop into a few other lookouts as you make your way along the coast, emerging from the trees a few minutes later onto an enormous stretch of sand where you can spend the rest of your afternoon soaking up the sun. I’d actually go so far as to put One Mile Beach on my list of top ten Australian beaches, so don’t underestimate this often overlooked destination on your road trip!
Highlights: Stroll along brilliantly blue Wallis Lake; watch whales breaching from Bennetts Head Lookout; catch some sun at One Mile Beach, Main Beach, or the Tuncurry Rock Pools; see dolphins aboard a Free Spirit Cruise; go bushwalking in Booti Booti National Park. Recommended time: You could easily spend a couple days enjoying the many lakes and beautiful beaches in and around Forster, but it’s possible to see the major highlights in a few hours. Top tips: Take the scenic Lakes Way either into or out of Forster for plenty of secluded lake views (that quickly become photo stops).
Depending on the time you depart Port Stephens, you can either make the 3hr drive to Port Macquarie in a single go or include a stop in Forster, just make sure you roll into town around 2.30pm. Every day at 3pm, the local Koala Hospital runs free guided tours of their unique facility, where one of the knowledgable volunteers will teach you all about the health concerns and habitat displacement that our beloved koalas face, as well as introduce you to some of the inhabitants. As the centre is dedicated to the rehabilitation of injured, sick, and orphaned koalas who have been picked up and brought in by concerned locals, it is essential that human interaction is minimised for those returning to the wild, and therefore you’ll only get to see the permanent residents of the hospital and there’s absolutely no cuddling or contact between visitors and koalas. This includes koalas like Oxley Kaylee, who lost her left leg after being hit by a car; Medowie Zanani, whose hands and feet have been disfigured by bushfire burns; and Barrington Xavier, who is blind due to Chlamydial eye infections in both eyes.
What I particularly liked about this facility was the opportunity to see koalas in a less zoo-like setting and learn about the real-life factors that are endangering their numbers. It never felt as if the koalas were being exploited for financial gain (the tours are free and the centre is run by 98% volunteer staff) or as if they were being kept in unnatural conditions (several of the koalas could be seen sleeping in the gum trees some 20m above their enclosures).
The tour takes about an hour and I can’t recommend the experience highly enough, but there’s also the option to visit the hospital during its opening hours and self-guide yourself through the facility if you absolutely can’t make it there by 3pm. There is a little exhibit set up where you can learn about the koalas, as well as notes on all of the enclosures to describe the nature of each koalas injuries. Still, try to squeeze in the guided tour, I guarantee it will be a highlight of the entire trip! If you have some extra time in Port Macquarie after your visit to the Koala Hospital, I’d recommend walking a section of the Coastal Walk that runs past the beautifully painted breakwall and along some of the town’s loveliest beaches.
Highlights: Learn all about the plight of Australia’s endangered koalas at the amazing Koala Hospital; stroll along the 9km Coastal Walk; see the painted rocks along Town Beach & the breakwall; look out over the ocean from Gaol Point or Flagstaff Lookout. Recommended time: You can explore Port Macquarie in a single afternoon, but it also makes a great stopover point. Top tips: Even though it’s free to visit the Koala Hospital, I would recommend making a donation to this incredible organisation and contributing to their conservation efforts! If you want to make even more of an impact, you can actually sign up to volunteer at the facility.
Just over an hour later, arrive in Nambucca Heads, a sleepy little beach town often skipped over on the drive from Sydney to Brisbane. Although it may not have a long list of adventure activities or trendy beaches, Nambucca is one of the most beautiful places to watch the sunrise alongside wild dolphins (and a handful of grey nomads) while strolling from river to sea on the Foreshore Walk. Apparently the town does pick up in summer, but in the off-season, you’ll have the boardwalks and beaches almost entirely to yourself— I’d consider it to be one of the most serenely beautiful stops on the itinerary. Plus, if you didn’t get a chance to see the painted breakwall in Port Macquarie, enjoy similar works of art on the breakwall in Nambucca Heads!
Highlights: See dolphins playing at Main Beach or in the Nambucca River in the early morning or evening; stroll along the Foreshore Walk to see some of the town’s best natural scenery and the adorable painted breakwall; catch sunrise from Pilot Lookout and then see the beach from above at Captain Cook Lookout or Rotary Lookout. Recommended time: Nambucca Heads is a great place to spend the night, as you’ll have the best chance of seeing dolphins in the golden light of the sunrise. Top tips: Stay in one of Nambucca’s many waterfront caravan/holiday parks or boutique B&Bs to experience the best scenery without throwing away your budget.
Detouring inland from Nambucca Heads, incorporate another of Australia’s best road trips (or at least a section of it) into today’s itinerary, the aptly named Waterfall Way. The full drive spans about 200km between Coffs Harbour on the coast and Armidale in the Northern Tablelands, passing by countless waterfalls as it winds through rainforests and rocky high country. The section between Raleigh and Dorrigo is the easiest to squeeze into your trip, requiring little more than an hour of extra driving on your way north. Navigate first to Dangar Falls just 2km out of Dorrigo, where you can watch an impressively large waterfall thunder into the emerald green pool below. With time, you can also walk down and see the falls from the level of this pool— there’s a well-marked trail from the lookout that shouldn’t take more than 10min on the way down.
From Dangar Falls, drive to nearby Dorrigo Rainforest Centre, paying a $2 gold coin donation to access the many lookouts, picnic areas, and walking tracks maintained by the National Parks & Wildlife Service. The rangers inside are incredibly helpful in planning your visit, but don’t miss the Sky Walk, a wooden boardwalk extending over the rainforest and looking out onto McGraths Hump, referred to as Old Man Dreaming by the local Gumbaynggirr people. According to Aboriginal legend, this mountain is actually the warrior Ngali, who was entrusted to protect women during childbirth in the Bellinger Valley, but fell asleep on the job and was turned to stone as punishment.
The ranger also recommended the Wonga Walk to us as the best way to spend our morning in the park, and we were not disappointed! Depending on how much time you have, either begin the Wonga Walk from the Rainforest Centre or drive 1km down the road to The Glade picnic area, where you can link up to a later section of the Wonga Walk via the short Satinbird Stroll. From the picnic area, the walk is just over 3km and can easily be completed in 45min, including photos, so it’s a great way to see beautiful Crystal Shower Falls below and still save time for other stops throughout the day’s drive.
Highlights: Admire the impressive Dangar Falls from above or below; run out on the Sky Walk to overlook the lush rainforest; visit Dorrigo Rainforest Centre and go for an easy hike to Crystal Shower Falls or Tristania Falls. Recommended time: If you don’t have time to drive the entire Waterfall Way out to Armidale, you can still see some beautiful falls in a few hours as a detour on your way to Coffs Harbour. Top tips: But if you DO have time, absolutely drive the entire Waterfall Way!!
From Dorrigo, it’s less than an hour to get back to the coast in Coffs Harbour, a perfect place to hang out for a few hours and enjoy lunch on the beach. The town is probably best known for the Big Banana (and you’ll absolutely need to stop here for the obligatory tourist photo), but there are so many other amazing places to explore beyond roadside fruit. If you only have time for one stop, travel a few minutes north up the Coffs Coast to Look At Me Now Headland, whose hills are covered with hundreds of wild kangaroos and from which you can get some pretty show-stopping views over Emerald Beach and neighbouring Moonee Beach. The walk from the car to the top of the headland is only about 1km and, seriously, you’ll be treated to some of the best scenery in the whole region. If you still haven’t gotten enough, drive up to the Forest Sky Pier, a wooden boardwalk extending over banana plantations in the hills to offer a sweeping view of the Coffs Coast below.
Highlights: Take a photo with the Big Banana; soak up some sun at Digger’s Beach; visit the wild kangaroos at Look At Me Now Headland near Emerald Beach; squint over the coastline from the Forest Sky Pier or Korora Lookout. Recommended time: You can squeeze the best of Coffs Harbour into an afternoon and keep travelling onwards. Top tips: Grab lunch in town (can I recommend drive-through burritos from Guzman Y Gomez?!) and then head straight to the beach to enjoy the scenery.
Continuing three hours north, the next stop (and possibly a multi-day stop, if you haven’t been here before) is beautiful Byron Bay. Unlike the other quaint coastal towns in northern NSW, Byron has become a massive backpacker hotspot, beloved for its hippie/earth-mother vibes, trendy boutiques, long-standing surf culture, gourmet health food cafes, and assortment of sparkling beaches. In the middle of summer, tourists (and schoolies celebrations) can detract a bit from the otherwise chilled atmosphere as towel space at Wategos becomes a hot commodity and warm evenings are filled with club-goers, but if you visit mid-week or during off-peak, you’ll catch a glimpse of the eco-centric, bohemian aura that has made Byron Bay an undisputed favourite among many locals.
You could happily spend several days just exploring Byron with no specific plans in mind, wandering through the beachy shops, eating your way through the town’s hippest brunch spots, lazing by the water.. But the absolute essential activities, in my opinion, would be walking the Cape Byron Track, which runs from Main Beach all the way up to the Cape Byron Lighthouse and Australia’s easternmost tip, and joining a kayaking tour of the bay to see marine life. Consistent with the town’s ethos, both of these activities are completely “human-powered”, allowing you to leave the environment exactly as you found it and take away only memories (this is a phrase our kayak guide used, and I really liked it!). On a sunny day, the Cape Byron walk offers some of the best coastal views in all of NSW, and you are literally guaranteed to see wild turtles, dolphins, and whales on your kayak tour (or they’ll re-book you for free), so these are two perfect ways to fall in love with the “real” Byron Bay.
Under an hour from Byron Bay and just before you cross the border into Queensland, you’ll come to one of the best stops on the entire road trip, the incredible Fingal Head. Much more than just a beautiful vantage point, the headland is made up of thousands and thousands of interlocking basalt columns, the result of a volcanic eruption some 23 million years ago. The contrast between the black basalt and white seafoam as waves crash over the causeway below, the symmetry of the columns and the ruggedness of the coastline, the beauty and yet the complete lack of people, it all combines to make an absolutely incredible natural wonder. Forget the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, we’ve got it all right here in Oz.
From Fingal Head, continue 20min across the border to Burleigh Hill National Park, home to a spectacular surf beach, an impressive scatter of volcanic rocks, and some lovely walking trails along the coast. Take time to explore here before driving the final minutes north to the glitzy Gold Coast, Australia’s answer to Miami (think expensive clubs, beachfront skyscrapers, great shopping, year-round heat, and a lot of glamorous people). While I’ve certainly enjoyed my fair share of Gold Coast nightclubs over the years, I think you’ll have a much better time avoiding the racket around Surfer’s Paradise altogether and opting instead to explore the quieter, less touristy southern suburbs like Mermaid Beach, Miami, and Burleigh Heads. You’ll find a completely different Gold Coast down here, one that will just about convince you to pack up and move immediately.
Highlights: Experience busy Surfers Paradise with its many beaches, shops, and clubs; lounge about in the year-round sun at Mermaid Beach, Burleigh Beach, and local-favourite Nobby’s; see the incredible basalt columns at Fingal Head; watch sunrise over Burleigh Hill and enjoy more scenery from the short Oceanview Walk; go for a dip in the Currumbin Rock Pools; grab some great streetfood at the Miami Marketta; go waterfall chasing in Springbok National Park; have a drink at the top of the Q1. Recommended time: If shopping, clubbing, and surf beaches sound like your idea of a good time, you would probably enjoy several days on the Gold Coast; for most people, though, a day would be more than enough to explore before moving on. Top tips: Go for brunch at the enormously popular Bam Bam Bakehouse in Mermaid Beach; I’m convinced this is one of the best cafes I’ve ever been to in my entire life, and it won’t take long for the mouth-watering pastries and gourmet breakfast menu to convince you of the same.
Brisbane & Straddie
From the Gold Coast, it’s less than an hour to Brisbane to complete the final leg of your Legendary Pacific Coast road trip! Spend the day visiting animals at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, where you can feed kangaroos by hand and cuddle koalas—it may be the ultimate tourist experience, but it’s popular for a reason. Afterwards, treat yourself to an amazing dinner in South Bank, strolling along the Brisbane River and under the blossoming Grand Arbour as you suss out the option.
If you’re looking for something a bit more exotic than Brisbane city (or if you have a second day to explore), though, I’ve got you covered: North Stradbroke Island. Both passenger and vehicle ferries depart throughout the day from Cleveland, carrying you across the Coral Sea to Straddie, Australia’s second largest sand island and probably one of the closest approximations of paradise you’ll ever experience. From the staggeringly beautiful North Gorge Walk and pristine Main Beach in Point Lookout to the wild dolphins and koalas all over Amity Point, this is bound to be a highlight of the entire trip, and I’d suggest spending two days on the island if your schedule allows (thank me later).
Highlights: Walk along South Bank and pick from some of the city’s best restaurants; watch the sunrise from Mt Coot-tha Lookout; swim in the mid-city Streets Beach; feed kangaroos and snuggle koalas at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary; escape to North Stradbroke Island for secluded beaches, stunning cliff walks, and the chance to spot wild dolphins, koalas, whales, and turtles. Recommended time: If your itinerary allows, devote a few days to exploring Brisbane (spend one of these days in the city and all of your other time on Straddie!) Top tips: If you don’t have heaps of time, you can drive straight to the ferry terminal from GC, catch a water taxi to Straddie, and then explore the island by public bus.