Best things to do with kids along the Gold Coast of Australia - where Australians go to play
While not iconic Sydney or chic Melbourne, the Gold Coast is quintessential Australia with everything under the sun: surfing, kangaroos, kookaburras, stunning beaches, and tropical living. In fact, it’s where most Australian families go to vacation. Most foreign travelers visiting Australia typically plan several flights between major cities across the vast empty continent. For example, the so-called “Tourist Triangle” vacation is popular: Sydney to Cairns to Ayers Rock (Uluru) and back to Sydney. But that route involves a lot of moving around and a lot of expense.
Alternatively, consider basing your stay on the Gold Coast. The Gold Coast itself boasts thickly stacked skyscrapers and high-end resort hotels right up to the sand, plus a collection of popular theme parks to rival Southern California. Within an hour of the Gold Coast, you’ll find every Aussie highlight that you can imagine. To the south are smaller, laid-back surf towns including Byron Bay. To the north, the cosmopolitan city of Brisbane, the quiet Sunshine Coast, and the acclaimed Australia Zoo.
KidTripster Tip: If the Great Barrier Reef is on your bucket list, you’re already closer by starting at the Gold Coast rather than Sydney. Fly into Brisbane or the Gold Coast Airport in Bilinga and book a 2.5-hour flight north to Cairns (pronounced “Cans” by Aussies), the main jumping off point for the Great Barrier Reef.
To help make your decision, let’s explore the top 10 things for families to do on Australia’s Gold Coast.
An entertainment playground with a big city skyline up to the surf, Surfers Paradise does feel a bit like Las Vegas at the beach. This area is the central entertainment and hotel district of the Gold Coast. The infamous beach has been a world-class surf spot since the 1920s. Teens and kids love it for its non-stop day and night activities: virtual reality funhouses, indoor skydiving, and street amusement rides. Families can stay in a high-rise resort right in downtown Surfers or at any of the beaches nearby. Check out the whole area by visiting the Q1 Skypoint Observation Deck and peering down from 78 stories above the ocean. From the sixth tallest residential building in the world, you get a spine-tingling, 360-degree view of the coast and hinterland all the way to Brisbane. Open-air spire climbs also are available for thrill seekers (ages 12 and up). Cost: Youth about $11; Adult about $18, depending on the exchange rate; family discount available. The Deck & Dine Combo gives you a deeply discounted admission with a voucher to enjoy a drink or meal at the top.
KidTripster Tip: Outdoor markets and live music are Aussie beach traditions. Every Sunday, local musicians play popular “Sunday Sessions” at restaurants and pubs along the coastline. Every Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday nights, Surfers Paradise Beachfront Markets set up more than 100 stalls along the esplanade from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Lamington National Park
Just inland from the non-stop fun of Surfers Paradise is another world of subtropical rainforests within several impressive national parks. The Gold Coast hinterland has swimmable waterfalls, forest wallabies, epic coastal views, elusive platypuses, and shady cool canopies to entice visitors away from the sunny beaches. Staying overnight in the Australian rainforest gives your family a few days of bush hikes and animal spotting. Plus, you’ll wake up to kookaburras laughing. Tree-top eco-retreats like O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat in Lamington National Park is located smack in the middle of this World Heritage site. Room rates start around $130/night, depending on the exchange rate. O'Reilly's offers family hikes in every direction, a massive natural waterfall, infinity swimming pool, zipline, kid activities, bird encounters, and native animals galore. Look for bandicoots and wallabies. You even can take a guided night hike to see bioluminescent fungi and glow worms in a natural creek grotto! These worm larvae can only be viewed in a few spots in Australia in the warmer months (December to March).
KidTripster Tip: If an overnight rainforest visit doesn’t work with your itinerary, O’Reilly’s Tree Top Canopy Walk is free of charge and open to the public. The walkway is made up of nine suspension bridges that hang about 50 feet above the ground in a canopy of flowering trees. There are no age or height restrictions for this activity.
Photo courtesy: O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat
Surfers Paradise is the birthplace of the Aussie surf revolution and is steeped in surf history. Nearly every nearby beach town also boasts a family-friendly surf school. It’s easy and affordable for the whole family (typically age 5 and up) to tackle the turquoise waves for the first time. Currumbin Alley just south of the Gold Coast is an ideal beach for beginners, and Surfing Services Australia is one of the many local surf schools. This beach also offers safe ocean swimming and boogie boarding for little ones. Cost: typically around $50/hour per person for a 3-hour lesson, depending on the exchange rate.
KidTripster Tip: I can attest to the fact that learning to surf in the small waves and warm waters of Australia is much easier than you may think. In fact, the first water that you learn in is only up to your waist. Plus, the pros know exactly how to prep you on the sand before you ever hit the waves. Give it a go and impress your kids with your skills!
The antithesis of the Gold Coast is the health-focused surf village of Byron Bay, just an hour's drive south. A day in Byron is worth your time, if only to walk out to the easternmost point on the Australian continent at Cape Byron Lighthouse. The sun rises in Australia here first each morning. Just outside of downtown, The Pass is an iconic surf point with an Instagram-worthy beach and farm-to-table dining at The Pass Cafe. If snorkeling or scuba diving is on your agenda, Byron Bay’s Julian Rocks is easy to access with just a 10-minute boat ride. The sheltered rocks are one of Australian Geographic’s Top Snorkeling Spots in Australia. I recommend the family-friendly snorkel tour offered through Sundive Tours. Daily tours (age 7 and up) include wetsuit, mask, fins, and snorkel. Online cost: around $55 per person, depending on the exchange rate.
KidTripster Tip: Snorkeling requires fairly perfect ocean conditions. If your heart is set on snorkeling, don’t count on one single day; be flexible about your plans based on weather and water conditions. Even if the surface of the ocean looks clam and the sun is out, the currents underneath can make for cloudy conditions. It’s best if you make a few days available, in case snorkeling or dive operators need to cancel.
Downtown Byron is all about live music, food, and healthy living. Local dining is perfected at The Balcony Bar and Oyster Company, an outdoor family restaurant situated on breezy balconies above busy sidewalks. Or visit The Farm for breakfast. It’s a beyond scenic, working farm where the kids can wander among pigs, ducks, chickens, and cows while you dine in one of the prettiest, rustic, outdoor settings that I’ve ever seen.
1638 Steve Irwin Way, Beerwah
The acclaimed Australia Zoo - made famous by the late Steve Irwin, a.k.a. The Crocodile Hunter of TV fame - is a perfect day trip and a great immersion into the Australian animal world. To visit here, plan on a 2-hour drive north into the scenic hinterland of the Glasshouse Mountains along the M1 Bruce Highway. Everything you need for the day is on-site including decent outdoor cafe dining. The 1,000-acre zoo is a bit of a memorial to Irwin. However, with the Irwin family’s continued celebrity success and genuine commitment to conservation, the park seems as relevant and educational as ever. My kids loved the kangaroo and koala enclosures with opportunities to pet both animals. Check out the one-on-one animal encounters and talks; they’re worth the time. And be sure to hit the impressive crocodile show in the main Crocoseum. Online cost: Youth (under 2) Free; Youth (3-14) about $25; Student about $34; Adult about $42, depending on the exchange rate; purchase the family pack online in advance for discount.
KidTripster Tip: Since the Australia Zoo is a fair drive from the Gold Coast, consider spending a night on the nearby Sunshine Coast. Caloundra is a great coastal town on the beautiful northern beaches.
KidTripster Tip: While it’s world-renown, the Australia Zoo isn’t the only prestigious wildlife park in the Gold Coast area. The Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary adjacent to the Gold Coast also is an amazing animal experience, just with fewer crocodiles. Both zoos have working wildlife hospitals that are open to visitors, as well.
6/Animals in the wild
Seeing koalas and kangaroos in a wildlife park is exciting, but seeing them outside of a zoo is even better. Burleigh Head National Park might be one of the smallest national parks in Australia, but it has one the highest concentrations of wildlife, and it’s just a few miles south of Surfers Paradise. Spend a day at the adjacent beach town of Burleigh and add a morning or evening hike along the Ocean View Track headland. This easy trail gives you a chance to see bush turkeys, koalas, echidnas, possums, whales, and dolphins - not to mention stunningly colorful birds and ocean views back toward Surfers Paradise. To spot kangaroos or koalas in their native habitat, make an early evening visit to the Coombabah Lakelands Conservation Area right outside the city of Gold Coast. This eucalyptus forest borders a salt marsh and mangrove habitat with plenty of walking trails to give you a feel for the smells and sounds of the Australian bush. Cost: Free.
KidTripster Tip: An insulated water bottle can be a real money saver. (Parenting fact: kids and teens are more likely to drink water if it’s cold.) Gold Coast tap water tastes great. I fill the kids’ insulated water bottles and leave them in the hotel fridge overnight.
7/Amusement & water parks
A huge draw to the Gold Coast for Australian and foreign families is the sheer number of theme parks - the largest assortment in the Southern Hemisphere. Sea World Gold Coast Australia has a marine park, oceanarium, amusement park, and resort hotel. There also are two larger theme parks: Warner Bros. Movie World and Dreamworld, Australia’s largest theme park featuring DreamWorks movies with a focus on thrill-seeker rides. You’ll also find Wet’n’Wild Gold Coast and Paradise Country, an interactive Australian outback cattle station experience complete with domestic and native animal shows. Book online for multi-park discounts.
KidTripster Tip: If seeing Australian ocean wildlife is a priority for your family, I highly recommend Sea World. The park offers both marine animal education (think penguins and dolphins), plus animal encounters, aquatic animal shows, and a few good theme park rides. Cost: Youth (under 3) Free; Youth (3-13) about $50; Adult about $61; discounts available online for multi-day and multi-park passes.
Photo courtesy: Dreamworld
A major city of 2.5 million people, Brisbane (or Brissie, as the locals call it) sits at the southern end of the tropical state of Queensland. North of the city’s suburbs, you’ll find 1600 miles of tropical reef coast with nothing but outback cattle stations, coal mines, dingoes, rainforests, and very few humans. Visiting downtown Brisbane via water taxi along the Brisbane River is a great way to see the city skyline. Amaze your kids by telling them bull sharks lurk in the Brisbane River (true story, no swimming!). Stop for lunch by hopping off at the South Bank Parklands ferry terminal and walk to the riverfront cafes situated across from the contemporary cityscape. Be sure to check the park's events schedule online; there’s nearly always something going on for families. This massive, interactive urban park includes kid-friendly modern art, gardens, museums, playgrounds, public pools, and an actual sandy beach!
For more on our recommends for a city stay in Brisbane, click here.
KidTripster Tip: One of the most unique playgrounds in Australia is located at the water taxi stop at New Farm Park. This expansive play structure is built into the above-ground roots of an aging, Moreton Bay fig tree and is straight out of the pages of The Swiss Family Robinson. The park also is very wheelchair-accessible and features an assortment of play equipment for children with special needs. Plus, parent bonus: there’s a coffee cart right next to the play area.
Getting on a boat on the open water of the South Pacific between the Coral Sea and the Tasman Sea is fantastic. And, if your trip happens to coincide with whale watching season (May to November), it’s even better. Nearly 17,000 Humpback whales travel 6,000 miles north from Antarctica to take up winter residence off the coast. These massive mammals make the subtropical waters here their baby nursery and playground, putting on shows daily with their fin slapping, breaching, and blowing. The Gold Coast has several major whale watching tour operators to choose from, depending on your schedule and budget. Boats range from luxury catamarans with gourmet meals to more basic operations. Many offer complimentary hotel pick-up and drop-off. Nearly all guides guarantee a whale sighting experience, and every single boat trip gives you a gorgeous view of the stunning coastline. Aside from the whales, resident Bottlenose dolphins, Loggerhead turtles, and other marine life make regular appearances.
KidTripster Tip: My family and I have lived near the Gold Coast, and I can tell you that the weather can be extreme. I recommend visiting during the shoulder season: April to May or September to November. This way, you’ll avoid the hot and often rainy height of summer and the cooler winter (June through August). If you’re also traveling north to the Great Barrier Reef, go during September or October. The dangerous Box jellyfish season runs November through June at the reef, and the smaller, Bluebottle jellyfish appear at the same time in the Gold Coast area. While not deadly, small Bluebottles are a nuisance and do cause welts and pain for swimmers. Surf Life Savers monitor their arrival and post beachside warnings.
10/Beaches for days
Aside from the beach immediately outside your door, there’s good reason to check out the other Gold Coast beaches. Each offers a different vibe and experience. For parents with small kids, the amenities of Australian public beaches are beyond compare. Nearly every single beach and city park includes a fantastic shaded playground, outdoor showers, picnic tables, free and clean gas BBQs, and clean bathrooms and changing facilities; there’s even hot tea water taps and picnic kitchens in some cases. Grassy parklands and car parks typically lead up to the sand, and Surf Life Savers - lifeguards who are vigilant about patrolling the water - are on duty. There’s usually a fish-and-chip shop nearby or a local Surf Life Saving Club, another prevalent family-friendly dining option. The list of Gold Coast beaches to visit is long: Main Beach, Surfers Paradise, Broadbeach, Kurrawa Beach, Mermaid Beach, Miami Beach, Currumbin Beach, Coolangatta Beach, Burleigh Heads, and Kirra Beach. My family’s favorite is Burleigh Heads for the views, playground, surf, and downtown food.
KidTripster Tip: Australia’s sun aware campaign is one of the most effective in the world with the catchy “Slip. Slop. Slap.” mantra: slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat. Remember to apply and re-apply. Also, pack sunglasses and hats for the whole family and purchase some type of beach shade umbrella upon arrival. The summer sun of Australia is dangerous and nearly impossible to sit in for long. You’ll notice the locals all have beach shade. Any sun shelter makes the difference between a miserable sunburn or leisurely day by the water.
Amanda Calnan Vowels is a Portland, Oregon-based journalist. She and her husband once finagled the ultimate family adventure: a two-year expat assignment in Brisbane, Australia, where she worked, parented, and became fluent in Aussie slang and deadly snake identification. While foreign family travel is her kryptonite, Amanda still spends most summers finding hidden spots in her native Pacific Northwest.