Whether it's surfing, sunbathing or water sports you want to do, our guide to the best beaches in Australia will help you to decide where to lay down your towel.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Australia, your essential guide for visiting Australia.
Bondi Beach is synonymous with Australian beach culture, and indeed, the 1.5 km-long curves of golden sand must be one of the best-known beaches in the world. It’s also the closest ocean beach to the city centre; you can take a train to Bondi Junction and then a ten-minute bus ride, or drive there in twenty minutes.
Big, brash and action-packed, it’s probably not the best place for quiet sunbathing and swimming, but the sprawling sandy crescent is spectacular. Surfing is part of the Bondi legend, the big waves ensuring that there’s always a pack of damp young things hanging around, bristling with surfboards.
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There are two sections of beach at Balmoral, separated by Rocky Point, a picturesque promontory and noted picnicking spot. The bush of Middle Head provides a gorgeous backdrop to the shady, tree-lined sands at Hunters Bay, which is very popular with families.
Fronting the beach, there’s something very Edwardian and genteel about palm-filled, grassy Hunters Park and its bandstand, which is still used for Sunday jazz concerts and Shakespeare performances in summer. The antiquated air is enhanced by the pretty, white-painted Bathers Pavilion at the northern end, now converted into a restaurant and cafe.
Manly, just above the North Head of Sydney Harbour, is doubly blessed, with both ocean and harbour beaches. It is this combination, and its easy accessibility from central Sydney, that give it the feeling of a holiday village still within the city limits. The South Steyne beach is characterized by the stands of Norfolk pine that line the shore.
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The smaller, less brazen but very lively cousin of Bondi Beach, Laidback Coogee is a long-popular seaside resort teeming with young travellers who flock to the backpackers’ hostels here. The imaginatively modernized promenade is a great place to stroll and hang out; between it and the beach, a grassy park has free electric BBQs, picnic tables and shelters.
Coogee is one of the most popular beaches in Australia for families (there’s an excellent children’s playground above the southern end), while at the northern end, you’ll find the Beach Palace Hotel, a 1980s restoration of the 1887 Coogee Palace Aquarium.
At the northern point of Barrenjoey Peninsula is Palm Beach, a hangout for the rich and famous and a popular city escape. It’s also the location of “Summer Bay” in the long-running Aussie soap Home and Away, with the picturesque bush-covered Barrenjoey Head – part of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park – regularly in shot.
The Barrenjoey Peninsula has calm Pittwater on its western side and ocean beaches running up its eastern side. Unassuming Bilgola Beach, next door to Newport and nestled at the base of a cliff, is one of the prettiest of the northern beaches, with its distinctive orange sand.
From Bilgola, a trio of one of the best beaches in Australia, for both surf and scenery, runs up the eastern fringe of the hammerhead peninsula. One of the most convenient is Avalon Beach, a popular surfer territory backed by a set of shops and the Avalon Beach Backpackers.
On the ocean side of the Kurnell Peninsula sits Sydney's southernmost beach suburb and its longest stretch of beach – just under 5km; the sandy stretch of Bate Bay begins at Cronulla and continues as deserted, dune-backed Wanda Beach. This is prime surfing territory – and the only Sydney beach accessible by train.
Steeped in surf culture, everything about centres on watersports and a laidback beach lifestyle, from the multitude of surf shops on Cronulla Street to the outdoor cafes on the beachfront and surfrider clubs and boating facilities on the bay.
South Head sits at the lower jaw of the harbour mouth affording fantastic views of Port Jackson and the city, via one of the best-known nudist beaches in Australia, “Lady Jane” (officially Lady Bay). From here, it’s a further fifteen minutes’ stroll along a broadwalk path to South Head itself, past nineteenth-century fortifications, lighthouse cottages, and the picturesquely red-and-white striped Hornby Lighthouse.
Cape Tribulation in Queensland is an amazing adventure for children, and adults too. With both lush forests and palm tree-lined beaches, there are plenty of activities on offer. Here sandy Thornton beach is only a few kilometres from the Marrdja Botanical walk, where concrete paths and boardwalks follow the creek through a mixture of forest and mangroves at the river mouth on Noah Beach.
North of Noah Beach, there’s a natural swimming hole in the forest close by the Cape Trib Store; opposite a short road heads through thick forest to Myall Beach.
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The fast-growing town of Port Macquarie, at the mouth of the Hastings River, has a beautiful natural setting. Long, sandy beaches extend far along the coast, while the hinterland is dotted with forests, mountains and pretty towns.
A string of fine beaches runs down the ocean-facing side of town (Town, Flynn’s and Lighthouse are patrolled); perhaps the best way to spend a day in Port Macquarie is to rent a bike and explore the cliff-top paths and roads that link them all.
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Some 500m northwest of the centre, Ned’s Beach is a popular place to feed trevally, whiting and kingfish; the best way to experience the frenzy is to snorkel. Harmless but menacing-looking, metre-long Galapagos sharks are usually around, and coral lies only ten metres from the shore.
Consider returning at dusk for the clumsy arrival of the muttonbirds (sooty shearwaters; here Sept–May) at their burrows among the palms at the back of the beach.
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The Kingston area is the site of Norfolk Island’s main swimming beaches, protected by a small reef. Immediately in front of the walls of the ruined barracks is Slaughter Bay, which has a sandy beach dotted with interesting gnarled and eroded basalt rock formations; the small hard-coral reef is excellent for snorkelling.
At low tide, you can take a glass-bottomed boat cruise from nearby Emily Bay, which is also a beautiful, safe swimming area backed by a large pine forest.
The cliffs of King Edward Park are momentarily interrupted by Susan Gilmore Beach, arguably one of the most beautiful beaches in Australia, and its most visually unadulterated. Cliff-rimmed and secluded enough to indulge in some nude bathing, this is a great place for a swim.
Newcastle Beach, only a few hundred metres from the city on Shorthand Esplanade, has patrolled swimming between flags, a sandy saltwater pool perfect for children, shaded picnic tables and good surfing at its southern end. At the northern end, the beautifully painted, Art Deco-style, free Ocean Baths house the changing pavilions for the huge saltwater pool, which has its diving board.
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Horseshoe Bay, is one of the longest and busiest beaches in Australia, half of which is developed and half of which remains blissfully secluded, with views north beyond the bobbing yachts to distant Palm Island. The beach, which is good for swimming most of the year, is backed by cafes and is a great place for activities.
From Horseshoe's eastern headland, walking tracks lead over to Radical Bay by way of tiny Balding Bay, arguably the nicest on the island; you can spend a perfect day here snorkelling around the coral gardens just offshore and cooking on the hotplate provided. Radical Bay itself is another pretty spot; half a kilometre of sandy beach sandwiched between two huge, pine-covered granite fists.
Main Beach in town is as good as any to swim from and usually has relatively gentle surf. One reason why Byron Bay is so popular with surfers is that its beaches face in all directions, so there’s almost always one with a good swell. Conversely, you can usually find somewhere for a calmer swim. West of Main Beach, you can always find a spot to yourself on Belongil Beach, from where there’s sand virtually to Brunswick Heads.
To the east, Main Beach curves around towards Cape Byron to become Clarke’s Beach. This and neighbouring Watego’s Beach – beautifully framed between two rocky spurs – face north, and usually have the best surfing.
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East of Hastings Street is the headland itself and Noosa National Park, worth a look for its mix of mature rainforest, coastal health and one of finest beaches in Australia – Tea Tree Bay and Alexandria Bay (“swimwear optional”) have good sand pounded by unpatrolled surf – all reached along graded paths with gorgeous views.
The more developed and upmarket tourist areas of Trinity Beach and Palm Cover both have spotlessly clean, palm-fringed beaches and lots of luxury holiday apartments, beach resorts, cafes, boutique shops, restaurants and watersports. You can expect to pay well over $200 per night at the resorts here, with minimum stays enforced during the high season.
If you want to escape for a few days, you couldn’t ask for a finer place to unwind than Ellis Beach, thirty minutes north of Cairns on the way to Port Douglas (it is, unfortunately, beyond the reach of bus services). Besides the popular Ellis Beach Bungalows, there’s nothing more than an endless strip of sand and a coastal belt of trees.
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Across the Esplanade, the beach at Surfers Paradise is all you could want as a place to recover from your night out; it runs 5km or more north from here via Main Beach to the Spit, so finding empty sand shouldn’t be too difficult. If you’re feeling energetic, seek out a game of volleyball or head for the surf: the swell here is good in a northerly wind, but most of the time it’s better for boogie-boards.
Rainbow Beach is a very casual knot of streets set back from a fantastic beach facing into Wide Bay. The main recreations here are fishing, surfing and kiteboarding – there’s almost always a moderate south-easterly blowing – which can be arranged through your accommodation.
The township itself lies on either side of Rainbow Beach Road, which ends above the surf alongside a shopping centre housing a post office and store, as well as cafes, a pub and a service station. You can take a 4WD (when the tide is right) or walk 10km south along Rainbow Beach to the coloured sand cliffs at Double Island Point, whose streaks of red, orange and white are caused by minerals leaching down from the cliff-top.
On the far side of the point lies the rusty frame of the Cherry Venture shipwreck, beached during a storm in 1973, then – for 4WDs only – it’s a clear 40km run down the beach to Tewantin.
Seventy-Five Mile Beach runs down the entire length of Fraser Island and is washed on one side by the pounding surf. This is Fraser’s main road and camping ground, and one of the busiest places on the island. Vehicles hurtle along, pedestrians and anglers hug the shore, and tents dot the foredunes; this is what beckons the crowds over from the mainland.
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Mon Repos Beach is 14km east of Bundaberg, reached by initially following Bourbong Street out of town towards the port and looking out for small brown signposts for the beach. Once the site of a French telegraph link to New Caledonia, today Mon Repos’ reputation rests on being Australia’s most accessible loggerhead turtle rookery.
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The Margaret River region has plenty to offer - ancient caves, superb wineries, choice restaurants and snug hideaways - but it's one of the best beaches in Australia that make the place well worth a few days of your time.
Western Australia offers wonderfully remote outback experiences: from spectacular national parks to sandy deserts, pristine beaches to working cattle stations. This tailor-made Cross Western Australia trip allows you to explore the way from Perth to Darwin in-depth and at your own pace, in your rental car.
The largest island in the group, National Parks-run Whitsunday Island, has also one of the most enjoyable beaches in Australia. Its east coast is home to the 5km-long Whitehaven Beach, easily one of the finest in all the islands, and on the agenda of just about every cruise boat in the region. Blindingly white, and still clean despite the numbers of day-trippers and campers, it’s a beautiful spot with blissfully little to do.
The headland off the southern end of the beach facing Haslewood Island is the best place for snorkelling. On the beach’s northern end, a short track winds up to the popular Hill Inlet Lookout for keenly photographed views of the sand-ridden bay.
Buzzed with backpackers, Airlie Beach is nestled between the sea and a hillside covered in apartment blocks, with all services crammed into one short stretch of Shute Harbour Road and the 100-metre-long Esplanade. Despite the name, Airlie Beach has only a couple of gritty stretches of sand, which get covered at high tide – though the view of the deep turquoise bay, dotted with yachts and cruisers, is gorgeous.
Choose a morning or afternoon departure for a 6-hour Whitsunday Islands cruise. Glide through some of the Whitsundays’ remote areas, bays, and islands.
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Rottnest Island, 18km west of Fremantle, was so named by seventeenth-century Dutch mariners who mistook its unique, indigenous quokkas (beaver-like marsupials), for rats. Today, following an ignominious period as a brutal aboriginal penal colony in the nineteenth century, Rottnest’s sweeping sandy beaches and brilliant turquoise waters make it a popular holiday destination, easily accessible from Perth or Fremantle by ferry.
Cycle around Rottnest Island and discover the settlement by pedal power. Benefit from round-trip transfers by ferry from Hillarys Boat Harbour and bike around the car-free island at your own pace.
Of all the beaches along the Le Grand Coastal Trail, the gorgeously secluded Thistle Cove and lovely Lucky Bay are the best – where you’ll find kangaroos on the sand, great camping facilities, sheltered swimming and wonderful ocean colours.
Named after the nineteenth-century telegraph cable from Singapore that came ashore here, Cable Beach extends for an immaculate 22km north of Gantheaum Point to Willie Creek. This is where much of Broome's development has taken place, with five-star resorts, boutiques, bars and restaurants lining the streets around the coast.
Patrolled swimming is available in front of the Cable Beach Club Resort in season, and to get rid of those white bits head to the nude sunbathing area north of the rocks.
Western Australia is the country's largest state, covering more than a third of Australia. This self-drive tailor-made trip to Western Australia from Perth to Broome allows you to explore sunny Perth, stunning national parks and waterfalls, the remote wild west outback, empty beaches and much more.
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One of the best spots for snorkelling along the Cape coast is Turquoise Bay, where the so-called "drift snorkel" floats you across 200m of colourful coral: drop your clothes at the sand bar, enter the water at the southern end of the beach and hop out in time to pick up your clothes.
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Top image: Bondi Beach, Sydney © Gavin Morrison/Shutterstock