Outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that Australia's interior is entirely empty. All the big cities cling to the coast like a scared toddler to a blankie. What's more, most of the second tier cities are on the coast, too. Australia has got sizeable settlements outside the capitals, but the likes of Townsville, Newcastle, Wollongong, Geelong and Bunbury are also coastal.
There are a few biggish inland cities, though, and some of them offer plenty for visitors. We've picked out the largest ten, using the latest estimated resident population stats from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The significant urban area measurement – the closest realistic approximation of what the city is – has been used.
Queensland's capital of beef is the biggest city for an awful long way in any direction. Historic buildings line the Fitzroy River, while the Mount Archer National Park and Capricorn Caves are worthwhile diversions. Rockhampton may be on the Bruce Highway, but it's not quite on the coast. It's around 40km to the truly coastal Yeppoon, which is the gateway to the Keppel Islands. See visitcapricorn.com.au
Aerial view of Mildura. Photo: John White Photos
What should really be largely empty Mallee country has been transformed by irrigation. The historic buildings on the Chaffey Trail tell how Mildura was transformed into an agricultural powerhouse. There's also plenty of picturesque wine tasting to do – the Trentham Estate on the bank of the Murray River is particular scenic. But Mildura is all about the surrounding national parks – see giant roos and pink lakes in the Murray Sunset National Park, and take a day trip to Mungo National Park to learn how the archaeological finds there completely changed the world's view of Indigenous history. See visitmildura.com.au
Lake Albert, Wagga Wagga. Photo: Dee Kramer/Destination NSW
Defence and higher education tend to lure people to Wagga, but the city also occupies a rather lovely spot on the Murrumbidgee River. The National Art Glass Gallery and the Museum of the Riverina should do you for cultural attractions, but there's also a perhaps unexpected chance for some beach time. Back in December 2019, Tourism Australia rated Wagga Beach as one of the best 101 beaches in the country. See visitwagga.com
An extremely strong contender for the title of largest city most Australians have never heard of, Melton sits between Melbourne and Ballarat on the Western Freeway. It's technically a city in its own right rather than part of the Melbourne sprawl. But it's only a matter of time before that sprawl catches Melton and subsumes it. There are slim pickings for tourists, the vast majority of whom will be just driving through. The Melton Botanic Garden and Long Forest Nature Conservation Reserve are about as good as you'll get. See melton.vic.gov.au
Launceston Cataract Gorge & First Basin.Photo: Jarrad Seng/Tourism Tasmania
Tasmania's second city is an underrated all-rounder. The delightful Cataract Gorge is a 10 minute walk from the city centre – boat trips head along it should you so desire. But the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery is lots of fun too, with plenty of interactivity, while the James Boag HQ ticks the brewery tour box and Design Tasmania shows off top drawer local woodworking. See northerntasmania.com.au
Couple enjoying a riverside picnic at Noreuil Park, Albury. Photo: Alexandra Adoncello/Destination NSW
The biggest urban area on the Murray has a smattering of historic buildings to wander around, but the river is the star attraction. Kayaking tours drop you off up stream, then allow you to lazily float down towards Norieul Park. The Yindyamarra Sculpture Trail combines a nature walk with Indigenous Art. And the Bonegilla Migrant Experience offers a fascinating insight into how post-WWII immigration changed Australia. See visitalburywodonga.com
Photo: Bendigo Tourism
Once the powerhouse of the Victorian goldfields, Bendigo has settled into its role as a regional city with enough culture, dining and drinking to prevent it slipping into backwater status. The top attraction for visitors is the Central Deborah gold mine, where you can explore the gold rush past but, more importantly, head deep underground on a tour. See bendigoregion.com.au
Sovereign Hill Photo: Anthony Evans/VIsit Vic
The rival goldfields city has a decent collection of handsome old buildings in the centre, but that's not what you come to Ballarat for. One of the best tourist attractions in Australia can be found in the Golden Point suburb. Sovereign Hill is a massive recreated goldfield town, with mine tours, wheelwrights, candlemakers and uniformed soldiers firing 19th century guns. It's extensive and immersive.
Japanese Garden, Toowoomba. Photo: Dan Proud/TEQ
Queensland's largest inland city tends to fall resoundingly off the tourist radar, but the capital of the Darling Downs does a nice line in parks and gardens. The Japanese Garden tended by the University of Southern Queensland is delightful, and the Botanic Gardens in Queens Park aren't too shabby either. Otherwise, try the DownsSteam tourist railway and museum for steam train rides. See southernqueenslandcountry.com.au
An aerial view of Canberra, including Lake Burley Griffin. Photo: Visit Canberra
The ABS assessment of the national capital's population includes neighbouring Queanbeyan in New South Wales. It's by far Australia's largest inland city, though, and has by far the most to do of Australia's inland cities. Highlights include visiting the Australian Parliament building, observing the perennially moving Last Post ceremony at Australian War Memorial, taking a hot air balloon ride across Walter Burley-Griffin's planned city. See visitcanberra.com.au
Disclosure: David Whitley has been a guest of Tourism Australia and the state tourism authorities.