12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Townsville

Down-to-earth Townsville, in the dry tropics of North Queensland, is the largest tropical town in Australia and basks in more than 320 days of sunshine a year. In the town center, high-rises hint at its role as the de facto capital of the region, but it still manages to pull off plenty of touristy charm. The Strand, a palm-lined promenade skirting Cleveland Bay and its golden-sand beach, is the city's pride and joy. On the pink-tinged headland at one end of this popular walking path, the fascinating outdoor exhibits of Jezzine Barracks trace Townsville's rich military history and aboriginal heritage. On the other end, Ross Creek is home to the city's port. From here, you can hop aboard a cruise to the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef or take a 20-minute ferry ride to Magnetic Island, with its beautiful bays, bushland hikes, and wild koalas.

Behind the city, 290-meter-high Castle Hill, a pink granite monolith, provides a panoramic lookout for both locals and tourists, who love to hike to its peak. Other popular things to do include diving one of the world's best wreck dives, exploring marine life at the world-class aquarium, and wandering through the city's beautiful parks and botanical gardens.

1 The Strand

The Strand
The Strand

Stretching for 2.5 kilometers along the calm waters of Cleveland Bay, The Strand is a popular beachfront promenade and a magnet for both tourists and locals. This is a great spot to soak up the tropical vibe when you first arrive in town. Coconut palms sway in the breeze, the blue-green waters of the bay beckon beyond the golden-sand beach, and Magnetic Island slouches lazily on the horizon.

Children love the playgrounds and the colorful Strand Water Park, where tipping buckets, mini slides, and sprinklers spritz them on hot days. Adults and kids alike can cool off in the calm lagoon pools or swim in the ocean protected by marine stinger nets. Biking, jogging, and strolling along the promenade are other popular things to do, and you can also fish off the jetty, tone on the outdoor fitness equipment, and kayak or paddleboard in the calm waters. This is also a great spot to enjoy a beach picnic or gelato, and plenty of cafes and restaurants are nearby. At the northern end of the Strand, Jezzine Barracks is a popular tourist attraction. Ferries to Magnetic Island and boat tours to the Great Barrier Reef leave from the marina at the southeastern end of the Strand.

2 Magnetic Island Day Trip

Magnetic Island Day Trip
Magnetic Island Day Trip

Only eight kilometers off the coast of Townsville, Magnetic Island (affectionately known as "Maggie" by the locals) is technically a suburb of Townsville. True to its name, this rugged and rocky island lures many day trippers from the mainland thanks to its beautiful beaches, calm bays, and abundant wilderness areas. Magnetic Island lies within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage-listed area, and more than half of the island is national park, with 24 kilometers of scenic walking trails. The Forts Walk is the most famous. Along this 90-minute round-trip hike, you can see intact World War II gun emplacements and a command post, as well as 360-degree ocean views. Magnetic Island is also one of the best places in Australia to spot koalas in the wild, snoozing in the branches of eucalyptus trees along many of the trails, and the island is home to many other animals and a diversity of birds.

Granite boulders, eucalyptus trees, and towering hoop pines rim the golden beaches, and coral reefs lie just offshore. You can snorkel along a self-guided marked trail at Nelly Bay and Geoffrey Bay, which is also home to a large colony of rock wallabies. Boat tours to other reefs and beaches are also popular, as many of the bays are inaccessible by land. Other popular things to do here include horseback riding on the beach, fishing charters, kayaking, and SCUBA diving.

Many travelers stay overnight on the island, so they can spend time exploring all the attractions. Arcadia Village Motel is an affordable choice, steps from the popular swimming area of Alma Bay, and upscale Peppers Blue on Blue Resort offers studios and family-friendly apartments overlooking Magnetic Island's marina.

Getting to the island is easy. Ferries from Townsville take about 20 minutes, and once you arrive, taxis as well as car and motor scooter rentals are available. A Magnetic Island round-trip car ferry ticket offers you the convenience of exploring the island in your own vehicle and takes approximately 40 minutes.

3 Castle Hill

View over Townsville from Castle Hill
View over Townsville from Castle Hill

In the center of Townsville, Castle Hill is the city's most prominent landmark, a 290-meter-high pink granite monolith, with beautiful 360-degree views from its peak. You can see all the way across the city and beyond the curvaceous coastline to Magnetic Island, or look inland over the patchwork of fields and houses. Walking tracks lace the hill, and many visitors and locals hike the trails to the top as part of their daily exercise routine. Depending which trail you use, the one-way trip averages about a kilometer, but you can also drive up if you're feeling lazy.

Castle Hill has an interesting history. During World War II, American soldiers used the hill as a lookout point and reputedly offered to destroy it and repurpose the rock to build a bridge to Magnetic Island. Thank goodness this never came about, because today the hill is one of the city's most popular tourist attractions. If you're hiking up, it's best to time your outing for the early morning or late afternoon when the temperatures are cooler.

4 Billabong Sanctuary

Koala at Billabong Sanctuary
Koala at Billabong Sanctuary Marc Dalmulder / photo modified

Billabong Sanctuary is home to a loveable cast of native Aussie animals, including koalas, kangaroos, cassowaries, crocs, dingoes, and wombats. Best of all, you can get up close with many of these animals, interact with them, and pose for photos. Highlights include cuddling koalas and wombats, hand-feeding kangaroos and wallabies, and holding one of the reptiles. Regular shows and keeper talks run throughout the day, including a croc feeding show and free-flight bird show, so you can learn about the animals and see them in action. This is a great day out for the whole family - especially children.

Location: 17 kilometers south of Townsville on the Bruce Highway

5 Jezzine Barracks & the Army Museum North Queensland

Gun at the Army Museum North Queensland
Gun at the Army Museum North Queensland john skewes / photo modified

In a beautiful seafront setting on Kissing Point headland, at the northern end of the Strand, Jezzine Barracks provides an overview of the region's fascinating military history and aboriginal heritage. This is a beautiful spot to stroll in the sunshine and soak up some of the stories that helped shape this town. The centerpiece of this 15-hectare precinct is the restored Kissing Point Fort, which has been in continuous use from 1885 through 2006 and played a key role in Australia's defence. From the observation decks here, you can admire beautiful views over The Strand, the city, and the sea.

The Wulgurukaba and the Bindal people are the traditional owners of the land, which they called Garabarra, and you will also learn about their culture as you stroll the coastal boardwalks with art installations and interpretative signs. The ethnobotanical trail displays traditional aboriginal plantings, and kids can burn off steam in the playground. The walking trail can be quite hot in the middle of the day, so it's best to time your visit for earlier in the morning or in the late afternoon.

Also part of the complex is the free Army Museum North Queensland, with excellent exhibits on the history of the Australian Army in North Queensland and related military conflicts, including the Boer War, WWI, WWII, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War. Friendly volunteer docents lead informative tours throughout the three galleries.

Address: Mitchell Street, North Ward, Townsville

6 Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium

Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium
Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium loloieg / photo modified

If you can't make it out to Australia's World-Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, you can at least enjoy a glimpse of some of the creatures that live there at the world's largest living coral reef aquarium. The coral reef exhibit at Reef HQ is open to the elements and is home to more than 150 species of marine animals, as well as many different types of hard and soft corals unique to the Great Barrier Reef. A viewing tunnel provides a close-up view of the predator exhibit, where black-tip reef sharks and giant trevally prowl. Conservation is a strong theme here, and special presentations such as predator dive shows; turtle talks; shark feeding shows; and creature feature workshops, with hands-on animal encounters, keep everyone educated and entertained. The turtle hospital is also a highlight and a heartbreaking way to see how pollution impacts marine life. You can save time on the day of your visit by purchasing a Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium General Entry Ticket in advance.

Address: 2-68 Flinders Street, Townsville

Official site: http://www.reefhq.com.au/

7 Great Barrier Reef Day Trip

Snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef
Snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef

Townsville is a popular jumping-off point for trips to one of Australia's most precious tourism treasures, the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef. Day trips typically include a 2.5-hour boat ride to a nearby reef, where you can snorkel or dive with sea turtles, stingrays, reef sharks, Maori wrasse, and a dazzling diversity of other marine life among the colorful coral reefs. Adrenalin Snorkel and Dive travels to Lodestone Reef, and they also offer day trips to Kelso Reef, an hour and 45 minutes from Townsville, as well as Palm and Orpheus Island through SeaLink Queensland. During peak season, Remote Area Dive offers dive day trips to Pelorus and Orpheus Islands. The Great Barrier Reef Dive and Snorkel Cruise from Townsville or Magnetic Island is a popular option for both divers and snorkelers. This full-day adventure includes lunch, snacks, drinks, and all your equipment.

8 Riverway

Riverway lagoon pool
Riverway lagoon pool jojo / photo modified

Riverway is a new development on the banks of the Ross River, with plenty of parklands, a shady boardwalk along the river, and cultural and sporting venues. This is a great place to take the family for some active fun. Popular activities include taking a dip in the free lagoon pools; enjoying a barbecue or picnic on the riverfront; and strolling, biking, or jogging along the shady promenade. Kids love looking for turtles and ducks in the river, and you might even spot a wallaby. Markets and free alfresco movie nights add to all the fun. Art lovers appreciate the gallery and public art trail, and if you work up an appetite, you can enjoy a meal in the cafe. Riverway is also dog-friendly, so you can bring your furry friend along for all the fun, as long as it is on a leash.

9 Museum of Tropical Queensland

HMS Pandora exhibit, Museum of Tropical Queensland
HMS Pandora exhibit, Museum of Tropical Queensland john skewes / photo modified

Dealing with all things related to tropical Queensland, from prehistoric times to today, this excellent museum is packed full of fun, interactive exhibits that keep both kids and adults engaged and entertained. A favorite is the HMS Pandora exhibit, which tells the story of this historic ship that was sent to capture the Bounty (of mutiny fame), but sank off the coast of Cape York in 1790. The wreck was discovered again in 1977, and artifacts in this exhibit shed light on the crew and 18th-century maritime life.

Other highlights include exhibits on antique diving equipment and tropical Queensland's diverse ecosystems. Children will love the shipwreck adventure and the Enchanted Rainforest, with fun features like rope bridges and slides, where they can learn about this dense ecosystem and its diverse plants and animals. The museum also hosts visiting exhibitions on intriguing subjects, from immigrants to dinosaurs.

Address: 70 - 102 Flinders Street, Townsville

10 Whale Watching Tours

Humpback whale
Humpback whale

Seeing a humpback whale breach from the water is an unforgettable sight, and you have a good chance to witness this near Townsville on a whale watching cruise. From July through September, humpback whales swim the warm waters around the Palm Islands, just north of Townsville. Tours typically cruise along the sheltered bays of Pelorus and Orpheus Island in search of these gentle giants. Most include a picnic lunch on Yanks Jetty at Orpheus Island, where you can feed the fish and, if conditions are suitable, swim or snorkel in the clear water. The cruises usually depart from Lucinda, about an hour and 45 minutes by car from Townsville, but they include ground transportation to the launching point. Tours by Townsville Whale Watching are led by a marine biologist, and you can also hop aboard the SeaLink Islands Highlights Cruise, around the Palm Island group. Keep an eye out for turtles, dugongs, and dolphins as well.

11 Botanic Gardens

Torch ginger at Townsville Palmetum
Torch ginger at Townsville Palmetum john skewes / photo modified

Blessed with plenty of sunshine and tropical rain, it's no surprise that Townsville is home to not just one, but four beautiful gardens. At the foot of Castle Hill, heritage-listed Queens Gardens, established in 1870, is Townsville's oldest botanical garden and an excellent example of a tropical colonial garden. Its focus is on ornamental plants, in particular those with eye-catching flowers, foliage, and fruit. Paved walking paths wind through lush palms, frangipani trees, fig trees, cactus, wild ginger, and roses. Kids love the playground and small aviary.

Near the Ross River, Townsville Palmetum, displays around 300 species of palms and is one of the largest public collections of palms in the world. This is also a popular place to enjoy high tea at Tumbetin Lodge. Anderson Garden is the city's largest garden, with 25 hectares of palms, cycads, an extensive collection of pandanus, and a tropical orchard. This is the only botanic garden in Townsville open to vehicles. About a 20-minute drive inland, Dan Gleeson Memorial Gardens is a beautiful picnic spot, with ponds, perfume gardens, native and exotic plantings, and water features.

12 SS Yongala Dive

Round ribbontail ray on the SS Yongala wreck
Round ribbontail ray on the SS Yongala wreck

On 23 March 1911, the passenger ship SS Yongala sailed north from Mackay enroute to Cairns, but would never reach its intended destination. With no wireless radio on board and only lights to communicate with the mainland, the captain had no knowledge of a cyclone (hurricane) brewing in the region. The storm struck the ship full force and sunk her just south of Townsville, sending all 122 passengers to their death. The ship lay undiscovered for almost 50 years, before divers found it in 1958.

Today, the SS Yongala is one of the world's most famous wreck dives. It's home to a startling density and diversity of sea life, including turtles, rays, sharks, sea snakes, barracuda, grouper, and large schools of trevally. The Scuba Dive the SS Yongala Wreck on the Great Barrier Reef excursion from Townsville is a convenient way to see this famous dive site. It includes lunch, two open-water dives, and transport from Townsville.

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