One of Australia’s most popular holiday destinations is the stretch of coastline north of Sydney and into Queensland, and there’s no better place to be this summer. This Sydney to Brisbane drive includes so many small seaside towns, large resort cities, and several of the country’s best beaches that it can be difficult to choose which ones to visit. Why not visit them all? 

Hire the vehicle of your choice and take a road trip up the coast. The distance from Sydney to Brisbane is 916 kilometres, which would take roughly 10 hours to drive in a single stretch – but there’s no fun in that. Turn it into a road trip, and make plenty of stops along the way. You may find that perfect community where you’d like to spend the rest of your holiday, or the call of the road may take you all the way up to Cairns. That’s why we have a range of car hire vehicles suited to the kind of trip that takes your fancy.

Many of Australia’s best beaches are located along the coastline between Sydney and Cairns. From resort cities such as the Gold Coast to little towns such as Airlie Beach – a starting point to the Great Barrier Reef – there is something for everyone. Find that one beach where you want to stay for your entire holiday, or explore them all. There are plenty of distractions along the way to make this a fun road trip from Sydney.

Leg one: Sydney to Coffs Harbour

527 km | 6-hour drive

You don’t need to go far to discover some of the brightest gems along this Sydney coastal drive. Only 90 minutes into the drive you’ll cruise into the Central Coast, which is known for its laid-back towns and surf beaches.

Another hour north is Lake Macquarie, an enormous saltwater lagoon, and Newcastle, a lively city that’s all about sunshine, surfing, and historic attractions. Next up is Port Stephens, which is known for its camel rides on Stockton Beach and the Tomaree National Park. 

You’re not even at the end of the first leg of this East Coast Australia road trip, but you still have one more stop to make at Port Macquarie, which is popular for its coastal walks and interactive Billabong Zoo. By the time you reach beautiful Coffs Harbour, you’ll be over half way through the drive from Sydney to Brisbane.

Leg two: Coffs Harbour to Byron Bay 

239 km | 3-hour drive

Don’t be tempted to pass straight through Coffs Harbour – you’ll at least need to make a stop at the ‘Big Banana’ for a photo, and, if you have the time, head inland to the Dorrigo National Park to stroll the spectacular treetops boardwalk over the rainforest. 

If you don’t have much time, you can simply make a stop to visit the Forest Sky Pier at Sealy Lookout. This elevated pier can be found in the Orara East State Forest just 10 minutes from Coffs Harbour, and is free to visit during the day. It promises a chance to stretch your legs while taking in an incredible vista overlooking the town and the coastline beyond. 

Leg Three: Byron Bay to Brisbane

166 km | 2-hour drive

Continue north, making a stop at Byron Bay to spend time wiggling your toes in the golden sand and getting into the water for a spot of surfing or scuba diving. 

Before you reach Brisbane, take some time out on the Gold Coast, a city known the world over for its endless golden beaches, non-stop nightlife, and adrenaline-filled theme parks.

Leg Four: Brisbane to Mackay

950 km | 11-hour drive

By the time you arrive in Brisbane, you’ll have already driven from Sydney to Queensland, but there’s plenty more of this state left to explore, and a lot of things to do in Brisbane city when you arrive. Start by stretching the legs with a stroll along South Bank, which is a central area alongside the Brisbane River brimming with bars, restaurants, shops, and an upbeat vibe. 

Other key Brisbane tourist attractions worth visiting include the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, the Story Bridge, and the Wheel of Brisbane on the waterfront. 

The Sunshine Coast and Noosa Heads are all about the beaches, and Hervey Bay has become something of a mecca for humpback whale watching between July and November. While Bundaberg does offer more glorious beach real estate, it’s the rum distillery that often draws the crowds here. Rockhampton is the last major town along the way to Mackay, and the first chance to check out the amazing underground limestone Capricorn Caves.

Leg Five: Mackay to Cairns

732 km | 8.5-hour-drive

This last long stretch of road between Mackay and Cairns goes to show just how far it is from Sydney to North Queensland by car – but also how spectacular. Airlie Beach and Hamilton Island almost look too beautiful for this world and are both located in the heart of the incomparable Whitsunday Islands. Townsville a little farther north gives you the chance to check out Reef HQ to learn about the Great Barrier Reef, and the opportunity to visit a sea turtle hospital. Mission Beach and its stretch of secluded inlets is the last major must-stop and is where rainforest meets the Coral Sea.

‘Big things’ on the drive from Sydney to Brisbane and beyond

This part of the country is also renowned for its ‘big things’, so it’s impossible for the drive to become boring. Hop onto the Pacific Highway from Sydney to Brisbane, about a 925 km-drive north. 

Along the way you’ll find, amongst others, the Big Mosquito in Hexham, the Big Oyster in Taree, and the Big Axe in Kew. How about taking a side trip inland to Tamworth, home of the Big Golden Guitar and the Tamworth Country Music Festival, too? 

One ‘big thing’ not to miss during your trip is the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour. It is one of the earliest of Down Under’s quirky, oversized structures. From Brisbane, get onto the Bruce Highway for a drive into tropical Queensland. Stop at the late Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo in Beerwah, and visit the Big Pineapple in Nambour.

Theme parks and seaside towns of Queensland and New South Wales

Once you cross the border into Queensland, the first big city is the Gold Coast – home to a wealth of theme parks and the famous Surfer’s Paradise. Plan ahead and book your theme park and show tickets online.

All along the coast to Cairns, there are little towns where you can find excursions to the islands of the Great Barrier Reef. Hervey Bay, for instance, is the gateway to Fraser Island, one of the southernmost islands along the Reef. Don’t miss the stunning Whitsunday Islands, easily reached by boat or ferry transfer from Airlie Beach.

Even though the highways between Sydney and Cairns are good, hiring one of our 4WD vehicles is your best option, since, on some of Queensland’s islands, a 4WD is the only way to get around.

Win a trip to the Gold Coast! 

Speaking of the Gold Coast, have you heard about our current NRMA competition? If you are an NRMA customer and rent a car in Australia with Thrifty with your NRMA Membership number before 31 December 2019, you’ll go in the draw to win an incredible prize pack for an exciting trip to the Gold Coast. 

This trip for four people includes return flights from any state capital, accommodation, three-day passes to the Gold Coast theme parks, 100,000 Velocity Frequent Flyer Points, AND five days of car rental with Thrifty to help you get around. 

If you’re not already a member of NRMA, it’s not too late to sign up and enter. It’s easy to join and the benefits far outweigh the low annual fee! 

Can’t get enough of this road trip planner in Australia? The Thrifty blog offers regular updates with everything from places to visit near Sydney by car, to the top ‘big’ things to see around the country, to tips for driving in inclement weather.