An hour south of Sydney, Wollongong is a coastal city bursting with beaches, magnificent natural scenery and inspiration for days out.
The city is jostled onto a natural coastal plain by the sandstone Illawara Escarpment, climbing to several hundred metres just inland.
A few attractions on this list take advantage of the widescreen views from the escarpment, while the Grand Pacific Drive meanders along the coastline and can leave you lost for words.
There are 17 surf beaches open in Wollongong in summer, all with free parking on the foreshore, and if the Pacific waves are too much the city has a few saltwater pools right on the seafront.
To mix things up you can head off to museums, zoos and an excellent water park, or retreat to a Buddhist temple complex or rich botanic garden.
1. Grand Pacific Drive
Wollongong is on a 140-kilometre coastal route, setting off from Sydney’s CBD and finishing up in beautiful Shoalhaven.
The route wends its way through the Royal National Park (second-oldest on the planet) past cliffs, cinematic beaches, tracts of coastal rainforest and up to countless places where you can step out of the car and take in the scenery.
One stretch sure to take your breath away is the Sea Cliff Bridge (2005), nearly half a kilometre long and snaking with contours of the sandstone cliff-face.
You can get out and walk or ride on the parallel paths, and there are lookouts on the cliff-tops so you can capture this manmade wonder and its Pacific backdrop from above.
2. Wollongong Botanic Garden
In the highest part of Wollongong, on the delightful grounds of Gleniffer Brae Manor House is the city’s world-class botanic garden.
This is all set along a creek, feeding a small lake, and has important collections of native and exotic plants.
To name a small few, there’s a palm garden, rose garden, rainforest collection dryland garden, succulent collection and a garden for flowering trees and shrubs.
In the palm garden alone are more than 800, rare and endangered species, while the rose garden boasts all sorts of varieties and cultivars, from Hybrid Tea to Floribunda.
The Towri Bush Tucker Garden gives you an insight into the many plant species used in Aboriginal culture for food, shelter and medicine.
The Wollongong Botanic Garden is free to enter, has a gigantic children’s playground and puts on a whole programme of activities and events for the local community and visitors, ranging from guided walks to cinema screenings.
3. Wollongong Harbour and Lighthouses
One of the prettiest sights along the coast is Wollongong Harbour, on a basin first dredged and carved out to ship coal from local mines in the 1840s.
Now heritage-listed, the harbour is a point of departure for fishing charters, and combines natural and manmade beauty.
At the eastern edge of the harbour’s mouth is the Wollongong Breakwater Lighthouse, built in 1872 when coal shipping was at its peak and decommissioned in 1974. Roosted atop Flagstaff Hill to the south is the operating Wollongong Head Lighthouse (1936), with fluted walls and a range of 19 nautical miles.
In the 1880s a concealed gun emplacement was built on the hill to protect the harbour.
The three guns you see today are the original 68-pounders, cast in 1861.
4. Nan Tien Temple
Berkeley, a southern suburb of Wollongong, is the setting for the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere.
Designed like a Chinese palace with flying eaves, Nan Tien Temple was built using modern techniques in the early 1990s.
The complex is embedded in landscaped gardens on a peaceful hillside and incorporates two vast prayer halls with Tibetan-style architecture, as well as meeting rooms, a museum, accommodation and a restaurant.
In the courtyards are serene, Japanese-style gardens.
You can come to be dazzled by the architecture, enjoy the tranquil grounds and browse an exhibition.
The temple also hosts all sorts of retreats and classes, for mindful doodling, meditation, Buddhism and Tai Chi.
5. Jamberoo Action Park
There’s a lot to love about this water park in Jamberoo, a short drive south of Wollongong.
The setting is a big part of that, on steep topography, using the slopes for its many gravity-fed rides.
The headline attractions at Jamberoo Action Park are too long to list, but a structure that catches the eye right away is the humungous cone of Perfect Storm.
This ride has outrageous production values for a water slide, plunging you into a giant vortex surrounded by darkness except for special effects like lightning flashes and thunder cracks.
Listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s largest spider sculpture is Funnel Web where you top speeds of 30km/h on a four-person raft.
There’s lots for smaller children to get up to, at spots like Banjo’s Billabong, four storeys of slides, climbing features, water cannons, cranks and valves.
6. Symbio Wildlife Park
Posted atop the Illawarra Escarpment near Stanwell Park Beach, Symbio Wildlife Park is a family-run zoo in 16 acres of pristine landscaped gardens.
This is a place to get up close to typical Australian animals like koalas, kangaroos, wallabies and dingoes, but there are also lots of exotic species, from red pandas to ring-tailed lemurs, meerkats and even cheetahs.
A variety of safe and humane close encounters are available, as simple as buying animal feed for the park’s farmyard species, or feeding kangaroos and wallabies or cuddling koalas.
There’s also a day-long schedule of presentations for meerkats, dingoes, Tasmanian devils, cheetahs and those koalas.
7. Science Space
The prime science education centre for New South Wales is part of that new generation of museums where kids can learn by getting involved.
Along those lines there are more than 100 quirky and engrossing exhibits on anything from light to electricity, dinosaurs and nanotechnology.
Central to any visit is a show at “NSW’s best planetarium”, which has a super-crisp 4K projection system, able to blast off for a tour of the universe or descend to unseen ocean depths.
There’s also lots of razzle-dazzle at the Illawarra Coal Science Theatre, which puts on interactive and occasionally explosive live science experiments.
8. North Wollongong Beach
The next beach up from Wollongong Harbour is the city’s favourite place to bathe or surf in the Pacific.
This is the only local beach that is patrolled by lifeguards all year, and has a lot of features and amenities for families.
There are rock pools, picnic areas, cafes, big grassy spaces and a playground an easy walk away at Stuart Park.
As is the norm for Wollongong, all the facilities are kept sparkling clean, and running behind is a continuous multiuse track, which we’ll talk about later.
South of the beach you can hit the water and not have to worry about the currents at the Continental Pool.
This is one of a series of outdoor saltwater pools along the Wollongong coast.
9. Port Kembla Beach
About ten kilometres south of Wollongong is a bay that is special, even by Wollongong’s high standards.
Port Kembla Beach is fringed by a low cliff, covered in vegetation, and at the south end is a set of rock pools revealed at low tide.
Port Kembla beach has real history too, and has been frequented by surfers since the beginning of the 20th century.
The surf club here was founded in 1910, and is based on the high fore dune at the north end of the beach.
Also on the northern rocks is an Olympic-sized saltwater pool for swimmers, pumped with new water every day.
Follow the coastline to the headland and you’ll be at Breakwater Battery, built in 1939 to defend Port Kembla against submarines.
10. Minnamurra Rainforest Centre
Head for the eastern tip of the Budderoo National Park on Tourist Drive 9 and you’ll be at a rare remnant of the primeval rainforest that once covered most of the Illawarra region.
There’s a newly updated visitor centre that reopened in 2020, bedded in a sandstone canyon where you can witness the multitude of species that flourish in this habitat.
This can be done on a 1.6-kilometre loop, weaving through the canyon along suspension bridges and over raised boardwalks.
It will take about an hour to complete this trail, stopping every so often to appreciate the waterfalls and lush vegetation and spot animals like Australian water dragons, king parrots, swamp wallabies and lyrebirds.
11. Wattamolla Beach
A slice of paradise up the coast in the Royal National Park, Wattamolla Beach is worth every minute of the journey.
Tucked a couple of hundred metres inland, between Martin Head and Providential Point, is a cove, golden sandy beach and a lagoon fed by a waterfall.
The sand extends along a bar, way back into the lagoon, so you’ll have plenty of room to yourself.
There’s safe swimming in the lagoon’s peaceful waters, and you can have a bite in the ample shade of the cabbage tree palms.
The waterfall is seasonal, and people hike up to sit on the ledge and take in the view of the lagoon, beach and ocean beyond.
12. Scenic Lookouts
Always on the western horizon, the Illawarra Escarpment gives you magnificent views down the slope to Wollongong’s communities, the Pacific coastline and the deep forest in between.
Like a balcony a few hundred metres in from the coast, the escarpment has a long line of lookouts: Starting in the north, just past the Sea Cliff Bridge, you’ve got Bald Hill at Stanwell Tops and the Southern Gateway Centre Lookout and Sublime Point Lookout, both at Bulli Tops.
Backing Wollongong’s CBD is Mount Keira, rising to more than 460 metres and on a 5.5-kilometre looped trail.
Finally Mount Kembla dominates the historic mining village of the same name, and affords knockout panoramas of the coastline and Lake Illawarra.
13. Wollongong to Thirroul Bike Track
Starting at Belmore Basin close to Flagstaff Hill and its historic lighthouse, you can make a very scenic 15-kilometre ride north to Thirroul on a designated track.
This route sticks to the coastline, which oscillates along a chain of sandy bays, including Wollongong North Beach, but also Brighton Beach, Bulli Beach and Sandon Point Beach.
The way is paved so is also suited to rollerskaters and skateboarders, and is great for families as there are almost no roads to deal with.
You can take your time and enjoy the coastline, and the constant views of the Illawarra Escarpment rearing up to the west.
There are cafes and restaurant all along the route, and you can pause at any time to picnic, feel the sand between your toes or swim in a saltwater pool.
14. Australian Motorlife Museum
The second-largest motoring museum in Australia is right here in the Illawarra tourism area and gives you a complete summary of the development of consumer technology between 1880 and 1950. So as well as some extremely rare motorcars you’ll find motorbikes, petrol pumps, radios, gramophones, typewriters, tools, telephones, lawnmowers and a great deal more.
Naturally the museum’s vehicles inspire a lot of interest, as there’s a 1904 Australian-built Innes, and one of only two surviving motorcycles by Brisbane manufacturer David Spencer, from 1906. The museum has such a quantity of vintage appliances that it was able to loan lots of items for the production Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby (2013).
15. Illawarra Light Railway Museum
Operating a narrow-gauge and miniature railway, this museum preserves Illawarra industrial history, as well as light railway heritage in general.
You couldn’t pick a better outing if you have a train-obsessed child! On site are railway artefacts from the region, like signal box, the entire Yallah station building, a fettlers’ shed and a workshop and carriage restoration shed.
The museum looks after a big line-up of steam and diesel locomotives, as well as several passenger cars and a variety of other rolling stock.
You can also check out a host of stationary engines, boilers, generators, compressors, pumps and winches.
The museum is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, but operating days are every second Sunday of the month.