Wollongong is a beautiful coastal city, less than 1.5 hours drive south of Sydney and an under 3 hours drive northeast of Canberra. Its superb location makes it an ideal spot for day trips from Sydney & an excellent stop-over during a road trip between Sydney and Canberra.
For many Australians, Wollongong has been better known as an industrial port city. However, with its immense natural beauty and reduced industrial activities, Wollongong has, over the years, grown into the third largest city in New South Wales with a booming tourism industry.
Located on a flat coastal stretch and leaning against the lush green Illawarra Range, Wollongong offers various surfing beaches, picturesque rock pools, and rainforest-covered mountain ranges. You can also find one of Australia’s most pictured bridges and the largest Buddhist temple in the Southern Hemisphere here in Wollongong.
There is a lot to discover in and around Wollongong. I suggest spending at least one full day in Wollongong to explore its essential attractions. If time permits, you can also spend two to three days in Wollongong to soak in its beauty.
Lawrence Hargrave Drive
From Sydney to Wollongong, the fastest route is via Princes Highway & Princes Motorway. However, it is far less scenic than driving to Wollongong via Lawrence Hargrave Drive.
Lawrence Hargrave Drive is a picturesque coastal drive connecting Wollongong and its northernmost suburbs. It hugs Wollongong’s breathtaking coastline and forms part of the famous Grand Pacific Drive. If time permits, you can literally spend the whole day discovering the pristine beaches and stunning coastline along Lawrence Hargrave Drive.
Although you can visit Lawrence Hargrave Drive from either direction, I suggest checking it out during your drive from Sydney to Wollongong instead of the other way around. When travelling along Lawrence Hargrave Drive from Sydney to Wollongong, you will have the ocean directly on your left and the mountain range nestled on your right. Since most scenic lookouts and beaches are on the ocean side of Lawrence Hargrave Drive, travelling from Sydney to Wollongong direction also makes it easier for you to access these lookouts and beaches.
When driving from Sydney to Wollongong via Lawrence Hargrave Drive, make sure you check out Bald Hill Lookout. Located at the start of Lawrence Hargrave Drive, just before the steep descent along Illawarra Escarpment, Bald Hill Lookout provides a sweeping view of Wollongong’s northern coast. On a clear day, you can also obtain an impressive view of the iconic Sea Cliff Bridge from Bald Hill Lookout.
Sea Cliff Bridge
Sea Cliff Bridge is undoubtedly the highlight of Lawrence Hargrave Drive. Completed in 2005, this 665-metre-long bridge is constructed along the rocky coast between Coalcliff and Clifton, offering an unparalleled view of this rugged coastline and the wild Pacific Ocean.
Although it is a relatively new bridge, the impressive view of Sea Cliff Bridge, with a green mountain range and wild blue ocean as its background, has made it one of Australia’s most photographed bridges. It has also appeared in many famous car commercials.
Although you can not stop and park your car on the actual bridge, there is a lookout, with a small parking lot, at the southern end of Sea Cliff Bridge for visitors to park safely before soaking in this impressive view. If this car park is full when you visit, don’t stress. Keep driving a few hundred metres down the road, and you will find many more parking spots at the nearby parks.
A pedestrian walkway is built along the ocean side of the Sea Cliff Bridge. It only takes about 15 minutes to walk from one end to the other. However, in my experience, it was really windy and cold on the bridge, so make sure you are dressed for the occasion.
Between May and November each year, Sea Cliff Bridge also serves as an excellent whale-watching platform for visitors to view the migrating whales along this coast. Just make sure you stick to the designated pedestrian walkway and do not interfere with passing traffic.
Mount Keira Lookout
Mount Keira forms part of the Illawarra Escarpment and is located only 4 kilometres northwest of Wollongong city centre. With 464 metres in elevation, Mount Keira Summit provides a sweeping view of Wollongong and its surrounding areas.
Mount Keira Summit is easily accessible, with only a 15-minute drive from Wollongong CBD and a 40-minute drive from Sea Cliff Bridge. At the summit, you can obtain an impressive panoramic view of Wollongong, with a lush green mountain range to its north & picturesque Port Kembla and Lake Illawarra to its south. It makes the perfect place for visitors to get acquainted with Wollongong’s beautiful landscape.
If interested, you can also take a short walk to Five Islands Lookout via Dave Walsh Track. This walk only takes about 5 minutes (one-way) but provides a more intimate view of Wollongong’s southern suburbs. Although the lookout was closed due to a significant landslide when I visited, I was happy with the views along the walk and around the lookout. There were also interesting sculptures around Five Island Lookout, which you should also check out.
If you stay in Wollongong for more than one day, you may also wish to check out its iconic Mount Keira Ring Track. It is a 5.5-kilometre loop track through the rainforest & encircles Mount Keira. It takes about 3 to 4 hours to complete, depending on fitness level. You can also find many beautiful lookouts and adorable native wildlife along this track.
Wollongong Botanic Garden
Perfectly positioned at the foot of Mount Keira and only a 5-minute drive from Wollongong CBD, Wollongong Botanic Garden offers everyone a peaceful oasis with its colourful rose garden, beautiful succulent garden, and various rainforests.
When you are here, be sure to take a relaxing stroll along the little creek within Wollongong Botanic Garden to admire its tranquil lake and charming Japanese wooden bridge. A cute coffee van with delicious baked goods can also be found within the botanic garden, making it an excellent place for refreshment.
Wollongong City Centre
Like many other city centres, Wollongong’s city centre is the Central Business District (CBD), the hub for food and shops, and the cultural centre of Wollongong. Although much smaller in scale when compared with Australia’s capital cities, Wollongong city centre is still worth exploring for an hour or two.
Since Wollongong’s city centre is relatively small and mainly centred around Crown Street, navigating around Wollongong city centre is easy. Free short-term parking is available around its city fringe. With relatively flat streets, you can easily explore this charming little town on foot.
Depending on your personal preference, there are a few places you may wish to check out in Wollongong city centre. You can check out Illawarra Museum to better understand the history of Wollongong; visit Wollongong Art Gallery to appreciate its thousands of art collections; explore the back streets around the art gallery to admire its beautiful street arts; check out the various churches and cathedrals around Wollongong city; shopping and dining along the buzzing Crown Street.
After lunch in the city, you will then head to the nearby waterfront area to discover the mesmerising and heritage-listed Wollongong Harbour.
Wollongong Harbour is a shipping harbour, first built in 1837. It is characterised by its peaceful Belmore Basin, picturesque ocean baths, pristine surfing beaches, and charming lighthouses. It is, in fact, the only harbour with two lighthouses on Australia’s east coast.
With well-maintained walkways and beautiful scenery, Wollongong Harbour is perfect for a leisure stroll. There is also plenty of free parking around the harbour, making it even more accessible.
To get the most out of this compact day, you will be parking at one of the designated parking spaces just beneath Flagstaff Point Lighthouse, before admiring the stunning City Beach and Wollongong Head Lighthouse Rockpool from nearby lookouts. Although named a rock pool, it is more of a blowhole. If you want to avoid getting wet, make sure you don’t get too close to it, especially on a windy day.
From the rock pool, you will head up to the Flagstaff Point Lighthouse for a sweeping view of the wild Pacific Ocean and this beautiful harbour. Next to this ivory-white lighthouse, you can also find a bunker with pounder guns pointing towards the ocean. These were from the 1800s when Flagstaff Point was used as a military fort.
By following the water north, you will find another lighthouse sitting at the tip of a breakwater. This is Wollongong Harbour’s original lighthouse, Wollongong Breakwater Lighthouse. Wollongong Breakwater Lighthouse is a wrought iron lighthouse built in 1871. After just over a hundred years of service, it has been deactivated since 1974.
From Wollongong Breakwater, you will continue to follow the water north along the peaceful Belmore Basin before reaching the picturesque Wollongong Continental Baths at the northern end of Belmore Basin.
Depending on your pace and preference, plan at least one hour for a walk around Wollongong Harbour.
After taking in all the amazing views at Wollongong Harbour, you will now head off to Wollongong’s most famous attraction, Nan Tien Temple. Since Nan Tien Temple usually closes at 5 pm, you will need to leave Wollongong Harbour by around 3 pm to allow enough time to explore the temple. If not, you can visit the temple first before checking out Wollongong Harbour.
Nan Tien Temple
Nan Tien Temple is best known as the largest Buddhist temple in the Southern Hemisphere. It is also a vital drawing card for visitors to Wollongong. Even if you are not a Buddhist, you will still enjoy a visit here to discover its impressive shrines, awe-inspiring pagoda, and tranquil oriental gardens.
Built on a gentle ascending hill, the building complex of Nan Tien Temple can be viewed from the far end of Glastonbury Avenue when driving in. Once you are here, the most eye-catching building within the temple ground will be the Great Mercy Shrine, the Great Hero Hall, and the 8-level pagoda halfway on the hill.
The Great Mercy Shrine and the Great Hero Hall are the main prayer halls within Nan Tien Temple. They are both Chinese-style buildings decorated with many detailed Buddha statues and beautiful flying eaves.
Further up the hill, you will find the eye-catching 8-story tall pagoda across the lush green oriental garden. This charming golden-coloured pagoda is a distinctive landmark of Nan Tien Temple, and you can view it from many areas within and around the temple ground.
Spanning over 50 acres, a walk around Nan Tien Temple will take at least one hour. If you are interested in learning more about Buddhism and the architecture itself, you will likely need to plan a lot more time around this temple.
Mediation retreats and Tai Chi classes are also held at Nan Tien Temple for anyone interested. A Tea House catering vegetarian meals can be found near the Great Mercy Shrine. There is also a Pilgrim Lodge at the back of the temple, catering accommodations for pilgrims and the general public.
A modest dress code does apply when visiting Nan Tien Temple. In a nutshell, visitors should refrain from wearing sleeveless tops, short skirts, and flip-flops. Since you will need to take off the shoes before entering the shrines, you may also want to wear a pair of presentable socks.
Lake Illawarra is a beautiful coastal lagoon south of Wollongong. Wedged between Illawarra Escarpment and the Pacific Ocean, Lake Illawarra receives both freshwaters and saltwater, making it an excellent spot for recreational fishing and prawning.
With the stunning scenery around Lake Illawarra, it is also a prime location for boating, kayaking, and paddle boarding. Well-maintained walking tracks can be found along the lake, making it perfect for a leisure stroll around sunset. Various picnic facilities, kids’ playgrounds, restrooms, and kiosks are also available along Lake Illawarra to cater for different needs.
Holborn Park and Kanahooka Park are some of the most popular spots for visitors to access and enjoy the beauty of Lake Illawarra. They are also relatively close to Nan Tien Temple and Wollongong city, making them convenient locations to enjoy a peaceful sunset stroll along Lake Illawarra.
Stay in Wollongong
As the third largest city in New South Wales, Wollongong offers a decent selection of accommodations in and around its city centre. Most of them are priced between AUD 100-200 for a standard double room, which can be checked here at booking.com.
During my recent visit, I visited Wollongong as part of a road trip between Sydney and Canberra. Hence, I stayed overnight at the Parkhaven Motel in Goulburn, about halfway between Wollongong and Canberra. Although the motel was a bit dated, it was well looked after and spotless. The manager also turned the heater on to warm the room before my arrival. Since I only paid AUD 124 for that double room (October 2022), there really was nothing to fault with this cosy little motel.