Australia is a wonderful destination for kids—and not just because of the kangaroos and koalas. My suggestion is to explore Sydney for 2 days with family in tow, and then head up to the beautiful Blue Mountains on a day trip to ride the cable car and the world’s steepest railway. The climax comes with a few days of exploring the Barrier Reef and the rainforest around Port Douglas.
Days 1 & 2: Sydney
First off, head to Circular Quay to see the Sydney Opera House. A tour inside might be a bit much for younger kids, but you can walk around a fair bit of it and take the obligatory photos of Australia’s most famous landmark. To stretch your legs, head from here into the Royal Botanic Gardens to spot long-beaked ibises wandering around the grass and hundreds of fruit bats squabbling among the treetops. Walk back past the Opera House and the ferries to The Rocks, where you can take a quick stroll through the historic streets, stopping for a look at some of the trendy shops or the Market on Saturdays.
There are plenty of places to eat lunch at Circular Quay, where you can sit outside and watch the world go by. After lunch, take a ferry to Taronga Zoo, where a cable car zips you up the hill to the main entrance. All the kids’ favorite animals are here, from kangaroos and koalas to platypuses, located in a nocturnal house. A farmyard section edges onto a playground, with lots of water features to give your kids a sprinkle on a hot day.
On Day 2, head to the city center for an elevator ride up to the top of Sydney Tower, where you can look right across Sydney as far as the Blue Mountains in the distance. Entry includes admission to the 4D Cinema Experience. It’s a short walk from here to Darling Harbour, where you can cap off the morning with a visit to Sydney Aquarium. The sharks that swim right above your head are huge, but the real attraction is the Barrier Reef section, where tens of thousands of colorful fish swim by in enormous tanks to the sounds of classical music.
Eat lunch at one of the many cheap eateries at Darling Harbour before taking the ferry from near the Aquarium back to Circular Quay.
If it’s a hot day, or you simply want to hit the beach, you have two main choices: From Circular Quay, you can take a half-hour ferry ride or a 15-minute high-speed JetCat trip to Manly. Here you can laze the afternoon away and even rent a surfboard or body board. Or hop a bus to Bondi Beach , where you can reward your efforts with gelati or a late-afternoon pizza from Pompei’s
Day 3: The Blue Mountains
You could easily spend a couple more days with the kids having fun in Sydney, but you shouldn’t miss a trip to the mountains. If you go, prepare for a long day; pack plenty of snacks and a few favorite toys. Several companies run tour buses to the area, stopping off at an animal park along the way. The best one to visit is Featherdale Wildlife Park, where you can get up close to more kangaroos, koalas, and Tasmanian devils. The tour also stops at Scenic World, where you can take the short ride on the Scenic Railway. It’s very steep, so hold on tight. At the bottom you’ll find yourselves among an ancient tree fern forest—it’s truly remarkable. A short walk takes you to the Skyway, a cable car that travels 300 m (984 ft.) above the Jamison Valley.
Elsewhere in the mountains there are fabulous views across craggy bluffs and deep bowls of gum trees.
Days 4, 5 & 6: The Reef & the Rainforest
Now it’s time to head north to the Tropics. You’ll need to fly, of course; otherwise, it would take you several days to drive up the coast. The flight from Sydney to Cairns takes 3 hours. As a family, you might prefer to base yourselves in Port Douglas rather than Cairns—the Port Douglas beach is huge and uncrowded and some of the best Barrier Reef trips originate from here. “Port,” as the locals call it, is about an hour’s drive from Cairns, so your first day will be largely taken with getting there.
After all that traveling, take the rest of the day to relax on beautiful Four Mile Beach, but remember to swim inside the nets off the sand; the “stingers” (box jellyfish) around here can cause life-threatening stings, especially where kids are concerned.
On Day 5, it’s time to visit the Reef. Thankfully, the dangerous jellyfish are very uncommon on the Reef itself. Cruise boats take around 90 minutes to get from Port Douglas to the outer reef; but once there, you are in for some amazing snorkeling. Expect to see numerous species of corals and fish, and even an occasional turtle. A good seafood lunch is generally served on board, so you won’t go hungry!
Day 6 will be another nature experience, this time meeting some of the giants of the north. In the morning, head out to Mossman Gorge, a 15- to 20-minute drive from Port Douglas, for some Aboriginal culture in the rainforest with Ngadiku Dreamtime Walks, guided by a member of the local KuKu-Yalanji tribe. On your way back to Cairns, stop off at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures to see crocs in their natural habitat. After the 3pm “croc attack” show, you’ll have time for a leisurely drive back to Cairns to get ready for your departure.
Day 7: Fly Back to Sydney
If you have time to kill before you leave Sydney, take the kids by ferry to Luna Park, just across from Circular Quay, or walk there across the Harbour Bridge. Although this fun park is small, with a few rides suitable for younger kids, it does boast a magnificent view across to the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, which look glorious after the sun’s gone down.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.