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Flinders Ranges, South Australia
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History & Culture

South Australia: Explore Australia’s Most Surprising State

7 min read
Published on Feb 27, 2024
Christian Baines
By Christian BainesContributing Writer

If Australia’s states were friends on a night out, South Australia would be the quiet, stylish one, sipping their wine with a knowing smile while their friends dominate the conversation. They know they’re the surprising one you can’t do without. They know all the best chefs in town and what drink to pair with every dish. They can discuss luxury trains, opal mining, bush camping, and Australian native animals at length, and will stun the audience at open mike night before going right back to their wine. 

And you’ll definitely want a glass of what they’re having. 

Liquid Lunch: South Australia is the country’s home of wine

A group of people drinking wine outdoors next in a vineyard
McLaren Vale is one of Australia’s most popular wine towns. (©Tourism Australia)

With so many highlights near the festival-loving city of Adelaide, South Australia can feel like the best of Australia in one package. Wine is the state’s most famous export, particularly Shiraz from the beautiful Barossa Valley. But balance things out with a taste of McLaren Vale and the Adelaide Hills as well, and be sure to check out each region’s ever-changing roster of restaurants, where the country’s top chefs put South Australia’s delicious local produce to work. 

South Australian wildlife, old and new

A couple looking at a kangaroo hiding in tall grass
Kangaroo Island abounds with wildlife, including namesake kangaroos. (©Tourism Australia)

Kangaroo Island is an exciting showcase of natural Australia, with native animals ranging from kangaroos and koalas, to playful seals and sea lions. The island is also famous for Flinders Chase National Park, and the aptly named Remarkable Rocks. If you’re feeling brave, South Australia is one of the few places in the world you can steel your nerves for a cage dive with great white sharks. Back on dry land, explore the beautiful sinkhole and cave gardens of Mount Gambier, or journey back to prehistoric South Australia at the incredible Naracoorte Caves. 

Chic & Tasty: It’s time to head to Adelaide

A sailboat full of people leaving a port in Adelaide
Adelaide has a picturesque location on the River Torrens. (©Tourism Australia)

Adelaide itself is a bit more low-key than other Australian capitals. That’s just how the locals like it, and after a day or two, you’ll appreciate why. Adelaide enchants visitors with the culinary delights of Adelaide Central Market, the rich cultural offerings of the South Australian Museum and the Art Gallery of South Australia, and Adelaide Botanical Garden. Cocktail bars, cabaret lounges, and other lively spaces tucked just beyond the city’s unassuming streets keep the city hopping after dark. And don’t let its relaxed appearance fool you. Make a beeline for Leigh or Peel Street in the city’s west end to soak up the vibrant culture in local bars and restaurants. Or hit up Vardon Avenue in the east end for the kind of hidden “if you know, you know” experience usually reserved for locals. 

Also, be sure to check Adelaide’s festival calendar before you arrive! From Australia’s biggest Fringe festival, to the world’s biggest cabaret festival, to Feast Queer Arts and Cultural Festival, Illuminate Adelaide, Adelaide Motorsport Festival, OzAsia Festival, Tasting Australia and many more, they don’t call it the Festival State for nothing. There’s almost sure to be a hot event going on while you’re in town. With that in mind, book accommodation well in advance to make sure you get a good rate. 

Add an Outback adventure to your cultural getaway

A dirt road through Bunyeroo Valley
Flinders Ranges are a gorgeous stretch of Outback in South Australia. (©Tourism Australia)

There’s a lot of South Australia beyond Adelaide and the Southeast, however. The city is a hub for three of Australia’s most iconic rail journeys, The Ghan, connecting it with Darwin via Katherine and Alice Springs, The Great Southern, traversing the Outback to Brisbane via Victoria and New South Wales, and the Indian Pacific, which crosses the vast Nullarbor Plain to Perth. South Australia’s own desert landscapes and unique salty lakes offer rich rewards to any traveller willing to brave the heat. Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges is Australia’s Outback at its most dramatic, with camping, hiking, and fly-over tour options available.  

To the northwest lies Coober Pedy, a small desert town with a big treasure-hunting legacy. The home of opal mining in Australia, Coober Pedy is famous for its underground dwellings, built to combat the fierce summer heat. It’s an ideal stop on any trip toward the Northern Territory and offers a very different glimpse of Outback life. 

Plan Your Time in South Australia

A group of people overlooking a vineyard in Barossa Valley from a suspended balcony
The Barossa Valley is one of Australia’s premiere wine regions. (©Tourism Australia)

With so much to see and do in South Australia, where should you prioritise your time? Naturally, it depends on what you came to see and do. Only one tip applies across the board, however. Bring your appetite! 

For a Weekend: Adelaide & the Barossa Valley 

If you’ve only got 2-3 days for South Australia, focus on Adelaide, where the best of the state’s culture and flavours come together. Devote a day to exploring the city proper, taking advantage of its market culture (an expert guide helps here), then spend a day in the Barossa, visiting award winning wineries and exploring the German influences that have shaped South Australia. Don’t forget to check local listings and festival programs, and book ahead for hot ticket shows and tables at top restaurants. 

Five Days or More: Kangaroo Island & the Southeast 

With an extra day, take an overnight trip to Kangaroo Island (you can connect via air or ferry). This gives you just enough time to explore its highlights including Seal Bay and Flinders Chase National Park. If you’ve got a week, take things further. Rent a car and add in some favourite local getaways like McLaren Vale and Victor Harbor. A week is also a good timeframe for a road trip to Mount Gambier, exploring the cabernet country of Coonawarra, the Limestone Coast, and Naracoorte Caves, while still giving you time for a Kangaroo Island visit. 

The Outback Adventure: Opals & The Ghan

A bird's eye view of the dirt road leading into Coober Pedy
Coober Pedy is known as the opal capital of Australia.

Seeing the Outback area of the Flingers Rangers in South Australia takes a little more planning, but it’s worth it. Wilpena Pound and salty Lake Torrens offer a striking natural contrast you’ll only find in the desert. They’re only five hours’ drive north of Adelaide, but it’s best to break up the trip with a stop in one of the coastal towns along the way to Port Augusta. Or, you could fly direct to Port Augusta (about 45-minutes). 

Right in the centre of South Australia, Coober Pedy is a bit further out there. You’ll probably want to split the nine-hour drive over two days (or take a 2-hour flight from Adelaide), and spend at least a full day in town, exploring its fascinating opal industry and underground dwellings. If you’re driving on to Alice Springs, this can be done in one day, but make sure you stay hydrated, with a reliable vehicle and a way to contact road assistance if needed. It’s a hefty drive between towns. The landscapes however are incredible, with brilliant sunrises and sunsets, and night skies unsullied by light pollution. 

If you’d rather leave the Outback driving to someone else, join an organized tour, or book a berth on The Ghan, the legendary train between Adelaide and Darwin. Depending on the schedule, The Ghan offers a desert sunrise stop in Marla, in northern South Australia, or a night-time star field excursion in Manguri, just outside Coober Pedy.

Related Topics
History & Culture
Australia & New Zealand
Christian Baines
Christian Baines
Goway - Contributing Writer

Christian’s first globetrotting adventure saw him get lost exploring the streets of Saigon. Following his nose to Asia’s best coffee, two lifelong addictions were born. A freelance writer and novelist, Christian’s travels have since taken him around his native Australia, Asia, Europe, and much of North America. His favourite trips have been through Japan, Spain, and Brazil, though with a love of off-beat, artsy cities, he’ll seize any opportunity to return to Paris, New York, or Berlin.

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