By Sarah Reid
Jun 2, 2022
FROM COOL COASTAL GETAWAYS to countryside retreats, many of Australia’s small towns punch above their weight when it comes to tourist attractions, while also offering an opportunity to escape the city crowds and engage with local culture at a more relaxed pace. Home to fewer than 15,000 locals apiece, here are 20 of the best small towns in Australia to add to your itinerary.
Best Coastal Small Towns in Australia
Exmouth, Western Australia
Have you ever seen an emu cross the road? It’s a common sight in the remote coastal town of Exmouth, a two-hour flight north of Perth, where the desert meets the sea. The gateway to World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef, this is one of the best places in the world to swim with whale sharks from March to July. You can also hike and kayak in the dramatic red gorges of nearby Cape Range National Park, which is also home to Sal Salis, a luxe, tented eco-camp.
Byron Bay, New South Wales
Australia’s most easterly town has long been a magnet for surfers, spiritual seekers, celebs, foodies, and more recently, Netflix, which saw locals stage a “paddle out” to protest the reality show “Byron Baes” being filmed here. With Byron’s first Aboriginal tours and the excellent Belongil Beach Italian Food among its pandemic-era openings, there are new reasons to love this genetically blessed beach town. For a more low-key vibe, check out the nearby coastal towns of Brunswick Heads and Lennox Head.
The fishing village of Stanley in Tasmania’s remote northwest region is one of the island state’s earliest settlements. Steeped in history, its beautifully preserved 19th-century streetscape is one of Australia’s most charming, with some of its heritage cottages reborn as guesthouses and even a gourmet deli, Providore 24. The township is nestled at the base of a dramatic volcanic plug called The Nut. Hike or take the cable car to the top for 360-degree views of the rugged coastline.
Port Douglas, Queensland
Escape to the tropics in steamy Port Douglas, where luxe holiday resorts provide a launching pad for day trips to the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest. If you can peel yourself away from your lagoon pool, must-dos in the compact township include traipsing between artisan and fresh produce stalls at the colorful Sunday market, enjoying a modern Australian feast at Melaleuca, and dozing under the palms fringing gorgeous Four Mile Beach.
Narooma, New South Wales
Between its idyllic turquoise inlet, fresh local oysters, and proximity to wildlife- and culture-rich Montague Island Nature Reserve, Narooma already has plenty of visitor appeal. But with two local institutions — The Whale Inn and Quarterdeck restaurant — currently being revamped by leading Sydney hospitality group Merivale, this laid-back holiday town is poised to become one of the hottest vacation spots on the NSW South Coast.
Sandwiched between the sea and Great Otway National Park on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, the petite beach town of Lorne is adored as much for its magnificent stretch of beach and nearby waterfalls as for its culinary offerings, from the eggs Benedict breakfast burger at The Bottle of Milk to the decadent Spanish tapas at MoVida to the modern Australian dining at Brae, just 30 minutes away in Birregurra. The views from Teddy’s Lookout on Lorne’s headland reserve are also some of the best on the iconic driving route.
Wurrumiyanga, Northern Territory
The largest community on the Tiwi Islands, 50 miles north of Darwin, Wurrumiyanga is home to two of the region’s most important art centers — both of which showcase the colorful and unique artistic traditions of this remote Indigenous community. Visit on a day trip from Darwin with SeaLink NT, which includes visits to the local Patakijiyali Museum and historic mission precinct. Or, book ahead to attend the Australian rules football Grand Final and Art Sale, when Tiwi Islanders converge on Wurrumiyanga to celebrate two of their key passions.
Best Country Small Towns in Australia
A scenic 90-minute drive northwest of Melbourne, gourmet eateries, rejuvenating day spas, and boutique guesthouses combine to make the picturesque country town of Daylesford an indulgent escape. Harness the healing properties of the region’s natural mineral springs with a luxe spa experience at Lake House, an elegant hotel on the shores of Lake Daylesford that’s also home to a two-hatted (Australia’s version of a Michelin star) restaurant. An unusually high concentration of local cafes and restaurants in Daylesford ensure you’ll never go hungry, with several wineries also located within arm’s reach.
Margaret River, Western Australia
One of Australia’s most famous wine regions, Margaret River produces more than 25% of the nation’s premium vinos. At its heart lies the region’s eponymous town. With a main drag lined with artisan boutiques, galleries, street art, and cafes, and a number of charming guesthouses (try Karri House) hidden in its backstreets, the township makes an excellent base for exploring nearby wineries and the famous beaches of the South West region beyond.
Bellingen, New South Wales
Hugging the banks of the Bellingen River on the Mid North Coast, boho Bellingen pairs small-town charm with easy access to the lush rain forests of Dorrigo National Park, a 30-minute drive west along the scenic Waterfall Way. The traditional home of the Gumbaynggirr people, the former logging town has a thriving arts scene, buzzing with markets, galleries, and boutiques packed with handmade and preloved fashion and gifts. Foodies won’t be disappointed, either, thanks to an artisan bakery and hip brewery among Bellingen’s culinary draws.
In the refreshingly cool Atherton Tablelands, high above the sultry coastal city of Cairns, Yungaburra’s streetscape has been largely unchanged since the turn of the 20th century, when it served as a pit stop for miners heading further west. The Yungaburra Hotel has been at the heart of the community since 1910, but this tiny town isn’t just for history buffs. A few minutes’ walk from the pub, Peterson Creek is one of the best places in Australia to spot the elusive platypus.
Angaston, South Australia
Located in the heart of the Barossa wine region, under a two-hour drive from Adelaide, Angaston is one of South Australia’s oldest towns. From this scenic base, you can comfortably sip your way around the iconic wine region — known for its premium shiraz — plan an unforgettable morning floating above the vineyards in a hot air balloon, or take a cooking class at celebrity chef Maggie Beer’s newest local venture, The Farm Eatery & Experience Centre.
In Victoria’s High Country, a 3.5-hour drive northeast of Melbourne, the pretty alpine town of Bright is all about outdoor pursuits and scenic beauty. Visit between April and May to witness its mesmerizing Autumn Festival, when the trees lining Bright’s streets explode into fiery hues. Come in the summer for hiking and biking, in the winter for skiing at nearby resorts, or at any time of year to discover cellar doors producing cool-climate wines and farm gates bursting with fresh produce.
Murwillumbah, New South Wales
Nestled in the wide, flat Tweed Valley, surrounded by mountain ranges and sugar cane plantations, “Murbah” is a spectacularly pretty place. Home to one of Australia’s best regional galleries — the Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre — its thriving arts scene recently expanded to include the excellent M-Arts Precinct. Cool cafes and restaurants are increasingly popping up in revived art deco buildings and Queenslander-style homesteads (Murbah lies just 30 minutes south of the Queensland border), offering even more reasons to visit.
Best Outback Towns in Australia
Coober Pedy, South Australia
What began in 1916 as one of the world’s largest opal mining operations has expanded into a subterranean community, where more than half of Coober Pedy’s 2,500 residents live underground to escape the oppressive heat. Visitors can also stay, eat, shop, and even pray 25 meters underground, where the temperature is a comfortable 75 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Above ground, visitors can go “noodling” for opals, catch a flick at one of Australia’s oldest drive-in cinemas, or play a round of golf on a grassless course.
Famous for its classic Outback pub, The Birdsville Hotel, and its annual horse races held on the first weekend of September, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Birdsville is a quintessential stop on a Queensland road trip. Also host to the world’s most remote country music festival, Big Red Bash, Birdsville lies in close proximity to the Simpson Desert (Munga-Thirri National Park), with scenic flights over its golden sand dunes, as well as Lake Eyre in nearby South Australia, bookable through the hotel.
Katherine, Northern Territory
Marking the point where the traditional lands of the Jawoyn, Dagoman, and Wardaman Aboriginal peoples converge, the remote town of Katherine has been an important meeting place for millennia. Today, most visitors make the three-hour drive south of Darwin to experience Nitmiluk National Park. Here dramatic gorges carved from red sandstone reveal Aboriginal rock art and idyllic freshwater swimming holes. Other attractions include Aboriginal galleries and experiences, the Katherine Museum, the highly photogenic Katherine Hot Springs, and the Katherine Outback Experience show, to name a few.
Among small towns, Winton has a rich history as the birthplace of the national airline of Australia, Qantas, frequently ranked one of the World’s Best, as well as the home of “Waltzing Matilda,” the folksong that doubles as the country’s unofficial national anthem. More recently, this quirky town has become better known for its dinosaurs. Home to the world’s largest collection of Australian dinosaur fossils, the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum is the star attraction. Just over an hour’s drive away, you can also visit the Dinosaur Stampede National Monument, which provided the inspiration for the stampede scene in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.
Kununurra, Western Australia
The gateway to the wilds of the East Kimberley region, Kununurra is synonymous with culture and adventure. Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, one of Australia’s best Aboriginal art centers, is based here. And this rough and ready town is also the jumping-off point for exploring national parks (including World Heritage-listed Purnululu National Park and its beehive-shaped Bungle Bungle Range), river cruises, four-wheel drive adventures, and barramundi fishing galore. Local pubs teem with colorful characters, while atmospheric local stays include El Questro and Home Valley Station, where part of Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia” was shot.
Yulara, Northern Territory
It may be more of a service village than a town, but tiny Yulara deserves a mention for its proximity to one of Australia’s most iconic natural wonders: Uluru. It is anchored by the integrated Ayres Rock Resort, which underwent an A$50 million refurbishment during the pandemic. Yulara is one of Australia’s younger towns, established in 1976 to serve as a tourist hub for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. It’s home to just over 1,000 people — and approximately a quarter million visitors every year.