The glittering lights of Surfers Paradise have long attracted holidaymakers and tourists – and it’s easy to see why the Gold Coast is considered to be one of Australia’s playgrounds. With beaches and theme parks, nightclubs and national parks, there are so many things to do on the Gold Coast.
For some Australians, this Queensland holiday hotspot can seem a bit ‘tacky’ but unfortunately that’s a hangover from decades ago when perhaps the skyscrapers went up a bit too quickly and the tourism marketing revolved around the theme parks and the short-stay international market.
These days, visiting the Gold Coast is a much more authentic experience. Or, at least, you can find more homegrown Gold Coast attractions. And that’s partly because the destination involves more than just the central district of Surfers Paradise. In fact, many people who visit the Gold Coast probably wouldn’t even go into Surfers Paradise.
I like to think of the region as somewhere you go to slow down and relax for a while. Yes, there are lots of things to do on the Gold Coast, but it’s not somewhere you come and then rush around trying to do them all. Many of the activities I’m going to suggest are good for a bit of variety – but don’t be scared just to hang out at the beach, the pool, or in the neighbourhood cafes.
The neighbourhoods of the Gold Coast
Speaking of neighbourhoods, the Gold Coast is made up of distinct sections with their own vibes, stretching along the 30 kilometres of coast. As you’re planning your trip, it’s worth thinking about where you want to be based so it’s convenient for what to do in the Gold Coast.
- Coolangatta and Currumbin are close to the airport but are relatively quiet and far from many of the main Gold Coast attractions.
- Heading north, Burleigh Heads is a popular area with a bohemian-surfer atmosphere, that doesn’t have too much development but has seen a boom in cool restaurants and cafes.
- Continuing past the houses at Miami Beach and Nobby Beach, you’ll reach Broadbeach which feels much busier and has plenty of skyscrapers. It’s still not the most crowded area, though and it’s pretty stylish (albeit a bit pricey), and a popular area for people to stay.
- Next along the coast is Surfers Paradise which is probably the most famous part of the Gold Coast. It’s where you’ll find a lot of the nightclubs and tourist shops, but it doesn’t have much of a community feel.
- And finally Southport is the commercial centre of the Gold Coast where you’ll find a lot of office buildings, but not much holiday accommodation
Perhaps you could decide where to stay based on the beach you like most, or maybe it makes sense to be close to the attractions you’re interested in. Either way, there are lots of options in the region and there are certainly a lot of fantastic things to do on the Gold Coast.
The golden sand of the beaches are, of course, one of the main attractions on the Gold Coast. If you want to spend a few hours sun baking on the sand, there’s no shortage of space. The warm water is great for swimming all year round, and the different pockets of surf are among Australia’s best.
At first, it may seem like the entire Gold Coast is just one long beach, but there are actually a series of smaller beaches along the coast, each with their own unique attributes. You can’t really go wrong at any of them, but rather than list them all, I wanted to highlight a few of the best Gold Coast beaches.
At the very southern end of the Gold Coast, Snapper Rocks is the first beach you would come to after crossing the border from New South Wales into Queensland. This is the start of the manmade Superbank which offers some of the best surfing on the Gold Coast, so it’s a popular spot for those chasing waves.
Between Palm Beach and Burleigh Heads, Tallebudgera Creek offers some quieter swimming away from the waves in the shallow inlet. The beautiful blue water glistens in the sun and there’s a lovely beach (called Echo Beach) along the side of the creek that is bordered by Burleigh Head National Park, although there are other swimming spots in the creek.
There’s a reason Burleigh Heads became a trendy surfer neighbourhood – because the surf here at Burleigh Beach is fantastic. People head straight off the rocks in front of the national park, or go in off the beach to a different set of waves.
But if you just want to hang on the sand or go for a swim, Burleigh Beach is still an excellent choice. Because you’re close to cafes and restaurants, and there are a couple of bars on the beachfront, it doesn’t feel quite as bare as some parts of the strip.
Kurrawa Beach (Broadbeach)
Although it’s technically called Kurrawa Beach, most people will refer to this stretch of sand as Broadbeach, because it’s directly opposite the main shopping part of the Broadbeach neighbourhood, with easy access from all the nearby hotels and apartments. (Officially, Broadbeach is the stretch just to the north.)
Kurrawa Beach is bordered by a dense section of bush plus Pratten Park, creating a sense of separation from the busy streets. That helps make it relaxing, and so it can be a nice spot to come for a longer period. But it also means there is little shade on the sand and you’ll have to hike up to most of the shops and restaurants.
The most famous of the Gold Coast beaches, Surfers Paradise is still popular with tourists, although you won’t find too many locals here because the parking is a nightmare. But the sand and the surf is just as good as you’ll find anywhere else along this main stretch of sand in the north.
The boulevard along the beach is nice for a stroll and there are plenty of restaurants and cafes in easy reach. I wouldn’t say it’s relaxing, though, and this is probably just a beach to come to if you’re walking distance away.
Main Beach, on the other hand, is much quieter, even though it’s really just an extension of the same sand and water you’ll find at Surfers Paradise. Where it’s different, though, is that it doesn’t have the big high-rise developments along the shoreline.
As you get further north up Main Beach, it’s all ocean on one side and park on the other – there are even some sand dunes. If you want to feel like you’ve escaped all of the hectic Gold Coast vibes, then this is an easy spot to relax. You can even have dogs up the end at The Spit.
On the water
There’s water everywhere – not just at the beach, but also in the rivers that flow down from the hinterland, and in the network of canals that make the suburbs so special. So, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of things to do in the Gold Coast that involve getting out on the water.
You can’t talk about the Gold Coast without talking about surfing. There are so many places along the coastline to catch waves, you’ll be spoilt for choice. If you’re a keen surfer, you probably already know what you’re looking for, for the top spots are at Snapper Rocks, Kirra Beach, Currumbin, Burleigh Heads – and don’t forget South Stradbroke Island.
If you’re not a confident surfer – or have never tried before – then the Gold Coast is one of the best spots to learn how to surf. There’s good variety in what’s on offer and spots like Broadbeach and Surfers Paradise are normally really gentle.
I would recommend checking out this surfing lesson at Surfers Paradise, right in the heart of the action. Or there are a few options here that are also great:
In the quieter canals, away from the surf, you can go kayaking on the Gold Coast – and it’s a wonderful way to explore this vast network of waterways. When you first arrive in the Gold Coast, you hardly notice them, but once you’re out the paddling, you’ll realise the canals are one of the best things to see on the Gold Coast.
You can also take a kayak out on Currumbin Creek, Tallebudgera Creek, and even up into the Broadwater (which can get quite busy). There are quite a few kayak rental stores – a couple of good ones include Smoothwaters Kayak Hire and Action Outdoor Hire.
Doing a kayaking tour is also fantastic because you’ll have a guide to take you to the best spots and help out if you’re a bit worried. I recommend this kayaking tour to Wave Break Island.
Perhaps you’re looking for something a bit faster. Well, then jet skiing could be for you. If you’ve got your own jet ski, there are heaps of spots to take it for a spin – particularly around Broadwater and up to South Stradbroke Island.
But assuming you’ll need to hire a jetski, I would suggest having a look at one of the tours with Extreme Jet Ski Hire or Jet Ski Safaris. There’s also this fun combo activity with a jet boat ride and then a jet ski tour.
And then there are times when you don’t want to have to worry at all about where you’re going, so you can just sit back and relax. Thankfully that’s where a cruise comes in! There are some lovely cruises in the Gold Coast that will take you along the river, serve you drinks, or maybe even have a buffet meal available.
The most adventurous option is this amphibious bus tour, that offers sightseeing from the land and the water (it’s quite a hoot if you’ve never done something like this before).
Or there are some other cruise options here for those people looking for something a bit more leisurely.
They don’t call the Gold Coast “Australia’s Playground” for nothing. If you’re looking for fun, you’ll find it here, and there are a heap of cool adventure activities on the Gold Coast that you can try. (There are only so many days you can spend lazing on the beach.)
From all across the coast, you’ll be able to see the Q1 Resort Building rising up from Surfers Paradise. The 322-metre high skyscraper was the world’s tallest residential building until 2011 (and is still the tallest building in Australia).
Now you can walk up the outside of the building with the SkyPoint Climb, which takes you about 40 metres up the building, climbing about 300 stairs. Even though it’s all external, you’re very safely strapped in the whole time. The experience takes about 90 minutes with incredible views in every direction from the top!
If you get sick of the traffic jams around Surfers Paradise, then head to Slideways Go Karting where you can definitely press the metal to the floor! The track is almost 500 metres long and goes over three levels. Most of it is indoors but there’s an outdoor section that can be opened on sunny days.
The go karts can get up to 70 km/h, but there are also sessions that are family-friendly and the speeds are limited, so even the younger kids can get involved with the rest of the family.
Supercars Driving Experience
To go even faster, you can try the Supercars Driving Experience at the Norwell Motorplex just north of the main part of the Gold Coast. There are options to be the rider or the driver and, of course, you can choose between a Holden or a Ford.
The V8s are race-prepared like the real ones in the SuperCars, and many of them have been used by professional drivers at some point. There are carious packages you can get with a different amount of laps around the 2.1km track.
Hot air balloon
The Gold Coast is stunning from the air, with the long strip of golden sand meeting the waves, and then the rolling green hinterland off to the west. You get a unique perspective of the region from a hot air balloon, which gives you the time to appreciate this aerial view.
There are a few different hot air balloon rides you can do in the Gold Coast, with some additions to make a whole day or half-day out of it. My favourite is this sunrise hot air balloon trip which has incredible photo opportunities!
Or have a look at these other options:
The views are so good from the air, I don’t know why you would want to jump out of your aircraft – but there are some people who seem to like the idea of falling through the sky! That’s why you can do this awesome tandem skydive on the Gold Coast where you’ll jump at 10,000 feet and have an incredible view of the region before you land on the beach!
If that sounds a bit too scary, then maybe you would prefer the indoor skydiving option at a facility that replicates the feeling. Book into iFLY Indoor Skydiving and you’ll get two ‘flights’ to see whether you might want to venture up for a real one sometime.
The Gold Coast theme parks are one of the things the region is famous for, and they’re as popular for family holidays as ever. There are four main theme parks and each of them is very different to the other. It would not be strange to go to more than one of them over the course of a trip.
To save a fair amount of money, you can buy the Escape Pass which gives you entry to Movie World, Seaworld, and Wet’n’Wild for any three days within a five day period. Or for just a little more, you can get the Mega Pass which gives you unlimited entry for 14 consecutive days for those three theme parks – plus the Paradise Country farm-themed park.
The most traditional of the theme parks on the Gold Coast is Dreamworld, which first opened in 1981. It has several themed lands within the park with more than 40 rides and attractions.
To name a few: there’s a Gold Rush area with a new rollercoaster called Steel Taipan and the 119-metre-high Giant Drop; the Ocean Parade district has some of the biggest rides, including The Claw, The Gold Coaster, and Tail Spin; and the DreamWorks Experience which has rides for younger kids based on movies like Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda.
Movie World is probably my favourite Gold Coast theme park and is based on the Warner Bros movies, including the DC Comics. It doesn’t have as many rides as Dreamworld but there are some great thrill rides like the Batwing Spaceshot, Superman Escape, and DC Rivals HyperCoaster – plus calmer ones aimed at younger visitors.
Where Movie World stands out is with all the characters roaming the streets plus the shows that happen during the day and evening. It’s not just about queuing for rides and it makes it a more varied day out.
Right next to Movie World you’ll find Wet’n’Wild, which is the most visited theme park in Australia. As the name suggests, it’s all about waterslides and other similar attractions. You can get up quite some speed on the thrill slides like Black Hole, Kamikaze, and Tornado, or there are family ones like Mammoth Falls and River Rapids.
With the pool areas and lunch spots, it’s easy to spend a day out at Wet’n’Wild and it caters to kids and adults. On a hot Gold Coast day, it’s actually quite a nice respite from the beach.
I feel like the world is slowly changing and the idea of keeping performing dolphins in captivity is becoming a turn-off (personally I try to avoid this kind of thing now). But Sea World is still popular and they do a lot of good environmental work with marine life in Australia.
Along with the dolphin show, there’s a jet ski performance, and a live stage show with Paw Patrol. As an aquarium and marine zoo, there are also enclosures with animals like penguins, polar bears, and sharks. The few rides in the park are fun, but they’re nothing like the adrenaline-inducing coasters at the others.
Sometimes it’s easy to just think of this part of Queensland as being about beaches and theme parks. But there are also a lot of interesting cultural things to do on the Gold Coast. The region has become more sophisticated in recent years, which is fantastic because it means you can have a more textured experience when you visit the Gold Coast.
One of my favourite Gold Coast attractions is the new gallery at Home of the Arts – usually referred to as HOTA and pronounced ‘hotter’ (get it?). Opened in May 2021, the HOTA Gallery has several exhibition spaces over six levels, showing a wonderful collection of modern art.
Just like the exterior of the building, which is covered in bright and bold colours shapes, the gallery’s collection is vibrant and energetic. Much of it is related to the Gold Coast region, but there are works from artists across Queensland and the world.
This is a good (if not better) than some of state galleries you’ll find in the capital cities, so make sure you find some time to pop in.
Jellurgal Aboriginal Cultural Centre
The relatively small Burleigh Head National Park in the southern Gold Coast is a beautiful natural spot, popular for walks and with a couple of lovely swimming spots. But for thousands of years, it’s also been a significant spiritual site for the local Indigenous people.
To learn more about it, I recommend visiting the Jellurgal Aboriginal Cultural Centre at the edge of the park and taking one of the tours through the various landscapes. Learn about Indigenous culture of the region, the spiritual legends of the national park, and the secret sacred sites up in the mountain.
It’s a really interesting tour and gives you an important perspective on the history of the land that is now such a popular tourist destination.
Australian Outback Spectacular
The Gold Coast is hardly the Outback, but you can still get a little taste of it at the Australian Outback Spectacular show. This large arena performance has real horses and other farm animals, plus you can have dinner and drinks at the venue.
The show is pitched as an Australiana experience, with local songs, bush tucker, some comedy, and horse riding tricks. It’s an impressive production but the actual story is rather superficial and it’s got its fair share of cliches.
You can book your tickets here and see if they’re available for the night you want.
Because of all the large buildings and tourist attractions, it can sometimes be easy to forget that the Gold Coast is a naturally stunning place. Of course there are the beaches, which I’ve already talked about, but there are also a few national parks on the Gold Coast that are in easy reach – along the coast and in the hinterland.
Burleigh Head National Park
There’s no good reason not to visit Burleigh Head National Park when you’re on the Gold Coast. It’s right on the main road that heads along the coast and is easy and small enough to pop in for a quick walk and a swim.
The most popular of the walking trails at Burleigh Head National Park takes you along the coastline, past pandanus trees, the rocky shore, and the welcoming beach at Tallebudgera Creek. But there are also trails that go up the hill, through rainforest and into surprisingly different biodiversity.
As I mentioned earlier, taking a tour of the national park with a guide from Jellurgal Aboriginal Cultural Centre will give you a fascinating insight into the spirituality of the site.
Nerang National Park
Heading up into the Gold Coast hinterland, you’ll reach Nerang National Park within a 30 minute drive from Surfers Paradise, making it another easy one to access for a short trip.
The beauty of Nerang National Park is that it’s relatively underdeveloped and feels like a patch of wilderness that has been protected for us to use however we want. With wonderful swathes of dry rainforest and open eucalypt forest, you can escape the coast for a lovely bushwalk.
The park is also popular for mountain biking with more than 20 official trails, starting with beginner areas right up to difficult tracks, including a couple that were built for the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games!
Tamborine National Park
Probably the most popular of the Gold Coast national parks, Tamborine National Park is made up of 14 sections around Mount Tamborine, which has been an important icon in the region for thousands of years.
The large palm trees give the park a subtropical atmosphere, but there are also forests of silvery eucalypt trees that open up to reveal waterfalls and pools. Walking trails of various lengths (some as short as 400 metres) give you easy access to the natural highlights, while there are plenty of picnic areas to make it a day trip.
With wineries and adventure activities, there are a few ways to explore your time up on the mountain, and these are a few options I would recommend:
Springbrook National Park
You can immediately feel the the weight of time at Springbrook National Park, part of the Gondwana Rainforests World Heritage Site that protects landscapes that have been here since dinosaurs roamed the planet. The lush foliage with waterfalls and impressive views makes this one of the best national parks on the Gold Coast.
There are lots of ways to explore Springbrook National Park, with a series of walking trails (up to 54 kilometres long!), or easy to reach viewpoints with vistas over canyons and down towards the coast.
There are also some excellent tours from the Gold Coast that’ll take you to the highlights, and you might like to consider one of these options:
Lamington National Park
Also part of the Gondwana Rainforests, Lamington National Park has the most extensive areas of subtropical rainforest in the world and is an enormous site to explore with walking tracks along the McPherson Range, past creeks and waterfalls.
There are two main access points to Lamington National Park. The first option is to visit Binna Burra, which has the most walking options and is less than an hour’s drive from Surfers Paradise. Binna Burra Lodge offers luxury accommodation, tents, or camping sites.
The other area is called Green Mountains, which also has impressive rainforest trails, viewpoints, caves, and accommodation at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat.
If you would prefer to take a tour from the Gold Coast, there’s this wonderful one that also stops at a local winery
If you head to any of the Gold Coast’s national parks, you’re bound to see some of the wildlife, including the super cute pademelon (my personal favourite). But there are some other ways to get an Australian animal experience while you’re here.
Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary
One of the best animal sanctuaries in Australia is right here on the Gold Coast. Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary was founded more than 70 years ago and these days it’s a leader in animal rehabilitation. The hospital treats more than 15,000 native animals a year, including koalas, flying foxes, and snakes.
For visitors, there’s plenty to see beyond the hospital, with enclosures of dozens of animals including crocodiles, Tasmanian devils, wombats and cassowaries. Plus there’s lorikeet feeding, a birds of prey show, and the opportunity to have a photo with a koala (Queensland is one of just two states where you’re allowed to hold them).
David Fleay Wildlife Park
Much smaller than the one at Currumbin, David Fleay Wildlife Park is different because it’s run by the state’s national park service. It’s set amongst natural rainforest and bushland prioritises protecting the endangered animals that would naturally have been found in Queensland.
It’s the only wildlife park where you can see the bridled nailtail wallaby (which people thought was extinct for 30 years!), but there are also favourites like koalas, kangaroos, emus, and platypus.
During the migration season, the whales swim right past the Gold Coast on their way up to warmer waters, and then back down again with their new calves. You are often able to see them right from the coast – but heading out on a boat offers a much better perspective.
Food and drink
The food scene on the Gold Coast has improved markedly over recent years. It used to be mainly a mixture of cheap fast food or expensive touristy offerings, but now some of the country’s top chefs have set up shop here and there is a huge range or cuisines.
On top of that, the fertile lands around the Gold Coast mean there’s plenty of fresh produce that you can try. Here are a few ways to find out more about the local food scene.
Food and wine tours
It’s always nice to have a local recommendation for somewhere to eat – and it’s even better to be able to try multiple recommendation! That’s why I like the idea of a food tour, where someone in the know will take you around and introduce you to local businesses where you can eat and drink their best offerings.
Most of the food tours in the Gold Coast focus on the hinterland, where things are grown – plus there are some wineries up there, which can also be included.
The Gold Coast has some of the best breweries in Australia and I love spending an afternoon doing some tastings at somewhere like Burleigh Brewing or Balter (their Hazy IPA is perfect for a hot day!). Perhaps it’s something about the weather or the surf that makes the people here appreciate good beer so much.
If you’re keen to visit a few breweries and learn more about them (and not do the driving yourself), then I would recommend you join Hop On Brewery Tours for one of their Gold Coast tours to four different locations.
Although it’s not technically the Gold Coast, you can get a tour from here down to the Tweed Hinterland, where there’s a huge range of food and drink being grown and made in the verdant hills.
It’s worth having someone show you all the best local producers, which is why I would recommend this Tweed Hinterland Food Tour. It’ll take you to an organic farm, a brewery on an avocado farm, a distillery, and a restaurant for a long lunch.
While there’s plenty to do on the Gold Coast and you certainly never need to leave the neighbourhoods here, there are some incredible spots nearby that make for excellent day trips. Especially if you’re staying for a week, it’s nice to get out and see something different.
Although it’s technically off the coast of Brisbane, Moreton Island is easy to reach from the Gold Coast, and you’ll see why it’s such a popular destination. An island lined with white sandy beaches, surrounded by beautiful blue waters, and filled with lush wilderness.
There are lots of activities on offer on the island (even though it’s relatively underdeveloped, there’s a fair bit of tourism infrastructure) so you can go kayaking, snorkelling, hiking, buggy-riding and much more.
Head over independently on the ferry from Brisbane, or join one of these tours, which might offer a Gold Coast pickup (they do get crowded in peak season, though):
North Stradbroke Island
Moreton Island can get a bit busy sometimes, but you won’t have that issue at North Stradbroke Island, which is much larger and has less tourism development. It’s also much closer to the Gold Coast, which cuts down on the travel time for a day trip,
The long beaches along its coastline are stunning, as are the freshwater lakes and the walks that go along the coast and dip into the bush.
To get the most out of a visit, I recommend this North Stradbroke Island tour, which will give you a wonderful insight into the Indigenous culture, history, and wildlife of the island (with plenty of time to relax too).
Lady Elliot Island
And for something really special, you can fly up to the Great Barrier Reef on a small plane from Gold Coast Airport. Lady Elliot Island is the southernmost part of the reef and it has a small airstrip, so you can get there really quickly.
Lady Elliot Island island is beautiful, with opportunities to snorkel all around it. There’s a sheltered lagoon where you’ll almost always see turtles and manta rays swimming just metres away from you – plus all the usual colourful coral and tropical fish.
The day trip from the Gold Coast includes lunch and all your equipment rental – and the scenic flight in both directions is almost worth it in itself! If you’ve got time, you might like to consider staying overnight in the eco-friendly accommodation in the island.