The nationwide festivals listed here all include, necessitate and are, in some cases, the imaginative product of prolonged beer-swilling. Why else would you drive to the edge of the Simpson Desert to watch a horse race? More seriously, each mainland capital tries to elevate its sophistication quotient with a regular celebration and showcase of art and culture, of which the biennial Adelaide Arts Festival is the best known.
Besides the major events listed here, there’s a host of smaller, local events, many of which are detailed throughout the Guide. All cities and towns also have their own agricultural “shows”, which are high points of the local calendar. The Christmas and Easter holiday periods, especially, are marked by celebrations at every turn, all over the country.
Sydney Festival Sydney, NSW; starts the first week . Three weeks of festivities all over the city – in parks, theatres and cinemas – with something for everyone, from new film and outdoor jazz to contemporary art and current-events lectures.
MoFo TAS; mid-Jan . Launched in 2009, this is one for the hipsters – a small week-long Hobart festival of alternative rock and arts curated by the cutting-edge Mona gallery.
Australian Open Tennis Championship Melbourne, VIC; mid- to end Jan . The year’s first Grand Slam attracts hordes of zinc-creamed tennis fans to see the best players in international tennis compete for two weeks at Melbourne Park.
Tamworth Country Music Festival NSW; mid-Jan . Ten days of Slim Dusty and his ilk, attracting over 50,000 people and culminating in the Australian Country Music Awards.
Big Day Out Various locations; late Jan to early Feb . Australia’s and New Zealand’s largest outdoor music festival, with over 250,000 people gathering at six different locations over successive weekends to see Australian and international indie and alt-rock bands. Kicks off in Auckland, then moves on to the Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and finally Perth.
Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras NSW; early Feb to early March . Sydney’s proud gay community’s festival runs throughout Feb and culminates at the beginning of March with an extravagant parade and an all-night dance party.
Perth International Arts Festival Perth, WA; mid-Feb to early March . Australia’s oldest and largest arts festival, attracting renowned international artists, performers and attendees to indoor and outdoor events all over the city for three weeks.
Adelaide Arts Festival SA; late Feb to mid-March in even-numbered years . The country’s best-known and most innovative biennial arts festival, featuring opera, theatre, music and dance, and including the largest literary festivals in the world. Not to be missed.
Australian Grand Prix Melbourne, VIC . Formula 1 mania takes over Melbourne for four days, with action centred on the purpose-built Albert Park race track. As well as the high-adrenaline 58-lap race, which takes place on Sun, off-track entertainment includes air displays, rides, go-karting and glamour in the form of the pit girls.
Womadelaide Adelaide, SA; first or second weekend . Part of the Womad festival circuit; three-day party featuring world music, folk, blues and jazz.
Moomba Festival Melbourne, VIC; second weekend. A long weekend of partying in Melbourne, beginning and ending with fireworks, with lots of water-based fun on the Yarra River in between. Don’t miss the “Birdman Rally” in which various flying contraptions assemble at Princes Bridge and attempt to defy gravity.
Melbourne International Comedy Festival Melbourne, VIC; . Leading laughathon that attracts more than a thousand home-grown and international comics throughout April. Based around the Melbourne Town Hall, but with programmes in over fifty other city venues, spanning stand-up comedy, plays, film, TV and street theatre.
Sydney International Film Festival Sydney, NSW; early June . Important film festival, running for over two weeks and based at four CBD venues including the glorious State Theatre.
Barunga Cultural and Sports Festival Katherine, NT; Queen’s Birthday weekend (second weekend) . This three-day festival, held on Aboriginal land near Katherine, offers a rare and enjoyable opportunity to encounter Aboriginal culture in the NT. No alcohol.
Laura Dance and Cultural Festival Cape York, QLD; third weekend (held in odd-numbered years) lauradancefestival.com. Three-day, alcohol-free celebration of authentic Aboriginal culture.
Imparja Camel Cup Alice Springs, NT; second Sat . This event originated with camels charging down the dry Todd River; the camel-racing now takes place at Blatherskite Park, with free buses to the site. Entry fee.
Darwin Beer Can Regatta NT; early Sun . Mindil Beach is the venue for the recycling of copious empties into a variety of “canstructed” seacraft. Also a thong-throwing contest; Territorian eccentricity personified.
Melbourne International Film Festival VIC; end July to mid-Aug . The country’s largest and most prestigious film festival, lasting for nineteen days with a focus on Australian, cult and arty films, plus a multimedia component.
Isa Rodeo Mount Isa, QLD; second or third weekend . Australia’s largest rodeo – a gritty, down-to-earth encounter with bulls, horses and their riders.
Henley-on-Todd Regatta Alice Springs, NT; third Sat . Wacky races in bottomless boats running down the dry Todd River; the event is heavily insured against the river actually flowing.
Birdsville Races QLD; first weekend . Once a year, the remote Outback town of Birdsville (population approx 120) comes alive for a weekend (Fri & Sat) of drinking and horseracing – a well-known and definitive Australian oddity.
Brisbane Festival Brisbane, QLD; mid-Sept . Huge seventeen-day festival featuring performing arts, food and drink, music, writing, kids’ stuff and fireworks.
Royal Melbourne Show VIC; mid-Sept . Eleven-day agricultural bonanza, featuring sheepshearing, dog and horse shows and performing pigs. Rides, candyfloss and contests for everything from Jersey-Holstein cows to wood-choppers.
Shinju Matsuri Festival Broome, WA; third weekend . Probably the most remote of the big festivals, but the town packs out for WA’s ten-day Oriental-themed pearl festival.
AFL Grand Final Melbourne, VIC; last Sat . Huge, testosterone-charged sporting event. The Australian Football League final is held at Melbourne’s MCG and is accompanied by lots of beer drinking and celebrating, depending on which team wins.
Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix Phillip Island, VIC . Held over one weekend, this is one of the last races of the World Championship and a popular pilgrimage for all motorbike enthusiasts.
Melbourne Festival VIC; mid-Oct . One of Australia’s pre-eminent annual arts events, this seventeen-day festival has a cast of thousands drawn from the fields of music, multimedia, opera, dance and theatre. Ticketed and free performances are held both indoors at various venues and on Melbourne’s streets.
Melbourne Cup Flemington Racecourse, VIC; first Tues . Australia’s Ascot, a 148-year-old horse race that brings the entire country to a standstill around the radio or TV.
Targa Tasmania Statewide, TAS; first or second weekend targa.org.au. One of Australia’s top motor events with 300 cars, many vintage, on a six-day, 2000km rally. A petrol-head’s paradise.
Christmas Day Sydney, NSW. Australia’s largest festive day event is held on Sydney’s Bondi Beach – usually with bands and DJs and a fair slug of alcohol. The days of free partying are long gone and the festivities are now by ticket only, although a section of the beach remains accessible to the public.
New Year’s Eve Sydney, NSW. The fireworks display from Sydney Harbour Bridge is a grand show, and a fine example to the rest of the world of how to welcome in the New Year. To get the best views along the water’s edge, get there while it’s still light.
Sydney–Hobart Yacht Race Sydney, NSW . Crowds flock to the harbour to witness the start of this classic regatta, which departs Sydney at 1pm on Boxing Day and arrives in Hobart three days later.