The Blue Mountains in New South Wales has long been a day-trippers’ paradise and a weekend escape for Sydney-siders who long to breathe the fresh high altitude air, walk along bushland tracks and through fern-filled valleys and cosy up around blazing log fires in old world hotels.
Despite the evocative name, ‘mountains’ is a bit of a misnomer. The area of beautiful ridges, escarpments (cliffs), canyons and valleys is in fact an eroded high plateau, etched into amazing shapes by millions of years of water and wind erosion. The blue hue, seen from the distance, is caused by the evaporation of oil from the dense eucalyptus forests that cover the hills and valleys.
Located about 100 km directly west of Sydney, the Blue Mountains consists of a series of towns and villages built on the rim of this large plateau. The further west one goes, the higher the altitude. However the highest township of Mount Victoria (120 km west of Sydney) is only 1043 metres above sea level.
The dramatic sandstone cliffs and valleys are easily accessed thanks to excellent, well-maintained walking trails, high look-outs that afford wonderful views and some rather steep (but walkable) stone and metal staircases that lead down to the valley floors below.
A modern, tourist railway carriage, known as the Scenic Railway, also transports walkers down into the valley in less than a minute, while a large glassed-in gondola known as the Skyway will take them from one ridge to another high above the valley floor.
Some of the best look-outs are also just a short walk from the car park -beautiful Sublime Point at Leura, the iconic Echo Point with the area’s most famous sandstone towers known as The Three Sisters at Katoomba and Govetts Leap at Blackheath.
Start with these Blue Mountain Itineraries
Blue Mountains Art Deco and Decadence … The Roaring 20s Festival lives year-round
The Blue Mountains originally developed as a cool climate retreat for day-trippers and a clutch of wealthy Sydneysiders who built holiday homes on beautiful parcels of land with spectacular views.
While the ‘mountains’ continues to be a popular destination for hikers and outdoors enthusiasts, it has many facets and offers something for everyone – romantics love the old world guesthouses and cosy B&Bs, foodies flock to acclaimed restaurants that source their produce locally, shoppers have dozens of boutiques and markets to explore, art-lovers have plenty of galleries and studios to browse, and kids are rarely bored with activities like ziplining, caving, riding the Scenic Railway, visiting weird and wacky magic shops and checking out museums chock full of vintage toys and trains.
While the Blue Mountains experiences the full four seasons and is great to visit all year round, it comes into its own in winter. That’s because the chilly weather is ideal for bushwalking (hiking) by day, and sitting by an roaring open fire by night sipping on a fine wine.
Spring and autumn (fall) are also great times to visit as the mountains’ many parks are a blaze of colour. In spring the streets of the lovely town of Leura are pretty with pink cherry blossoms; in autumn the mountains take on a golden hue as the leaves turn yellow, russet and orange.
Summers can be very hot and the only outdoor pursuits that won’t have you sweating are canyoning and tubing through the cold mountain-fed streams. However summer has its drawcards – fun festival take place in January and February including the Lady Luck 1950s event, the Roaring 20s and All the Jazz and the Ukulele festival, which are great fun.
And, in case you haven’t heard, when it’s summertime here in the Southern Hemisphere it’s wintertime in the Northern Hemisphere. So if you live in North America or Europe or anywhere above the equator, when we say a trip or destination is great for the summer, we mean December-February, when it’s the dead of winter for you. That makes it an even bigger opportunity to visit, don’t you think? You get two summers!
While Katoomba (and other towns such as Leura) can be explored in a day trip, it’s best to have at least one overnight stay in the Blue Mountains.
Two to three days will allow time to go on a bushwalk, check out the shops, enjoy a leisurely high tea and drive to a few of the townships.
Christmas and Eastern Holidays are the traditional high seasons in Australia generally.
Higher rates will generally apply at these times in the Blue Mountains. Hotel rates are more expensive on weekends.
For good hotel deals, book a mid-week stay.
Winter can be an ideal time to visit, as the weather is perfect for long bushwalks and sitting around a warming log-fire at night.
Temperatures can get below 0 degrees Celsius at night, but days can be crisp and sunny and may range between 5 and 10 degrees. On vary rare occasions in winter, it may snow. However, if it does it will make the evening news as it’s so unexpected.
Autumn is warmer and perfect for the ‘fall colours’, while spring sees the whole area in bloom.
Summers can be very hot; sometimes hotter than Sydney despite the mountains’ altitude. Summer temperatures range from 20 to 25 according to official reports, but it can get much hotter in high-summer.
And the weather can be erratic too with the occasional very cool summer’s day. Rainfall is less in the winter months from June to August.
There are a wealth of festivals in the Blue Mountains.
The main events are the Lady Luck festival featuring Rockabilly dancing and hot-rods (January), the Roaring 20s and All that Jazz festival (February), Ukulele festival (February), Music festival (March), Winter Magic (June), Yuletide (July) and the Leura Garden festival (September/October).
Yuletide, also known as Christmas in July, is a truly unique mountain event that had its origins in Katoomba. The story goes that a couple of Irishmen were visiting the area and discussing how they missed their homeland’s cold weather at Christmas.
They decided to arrange a special Christmas dinner in July when the weather is cold. The first Yuletide event was held at the Mountain Heritage Hotel in the early 1980s.
Australia has the following public holidays:
January 1: New Year’s Day; January 26: Australia Day; March/April: Good Friday and Easter Monday; April 25: Anzac Day
December 25: Christmas Day; December 26: Boxing Day, while the Queens Birthday holiday is also celebrated in New South Wales on the 2nd Monday in June and Labour Day is another public holiday on the first Monday in October.
On national public holidays, banks, post offices and liquor outlets may be closed or open for limited hours. Some holidays, such as the Queen’s Birthday and Labour Day, are celebrated at different times in different states and territories.
Generally Australians make the most of a “long weekend” and head away for a short break. It is likely to be quite busy in the Blue Mountains during Christmas holidays, school holiday, Easter and long weekends and prices may be higher.
The Blue Mountains occupies the same time zone as Sydney, that is Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST), which is 10 hours head of UTC, or Co-ordinated Universal Time. However as Sydney has Daylight Saving, the zone is actually 11 ahead in summer time (October to April).
Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST) covers Queensland, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria, and Tasmania. Central Standard Time (CST) is used in the Northern Territory and South Australia, and Western Standard Time (WST) is the standard in Western Australia. When it’s noon in New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria, Queensland, and Tasmania, it’s 11:30am in South Australia and the Northern Territory, and 10am in Western Australia.
All states except Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia observe Daylight Saving Time (DST) during spring and summer. At 2AM on the first Sunday in October clocks are advanced one hour. On the first Sunday in April at 2AM, clocks shift back one hour to standard time. However, not all states switch over to daylight saving on the same day or in the same week, so it pays to check if you are travelling at these times.
Warm layered clothing in winter. Hiking shoes or boots, daypack, hat and plenty of sun screen.
Light clothes in summer with cardigan, jacket or wrap for evenings.
Most overseas travellers say that Australia is an expensive destination, particularly when it comes to hotel accommodation.
Prices in the Blue Mountains tend to be on par with other regional destinations in Australia and New South Wales for the same standard of accommodation.
Expect to pay a premium for the handful of four and five star hotels in the region, although these prices will be less than Sydney tariffs.
Café and restaurant prices are on par with Sydney prices and the quality is just as good. Many city-based chefs have moved to the mountains to open upmarket restaurants.
Tickets for attractions such as museums, galleries and tourist experiences are affordable and are generally good value.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $AU.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $20 per person
$$ => Tickets $21-70 per person
$$$ => Tickets $71 per person
$ => Rooms less than $200 for a double
$$ => Rooms $201-300 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $301 for a double
$ => Up to $20 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$ => $21-35 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$$ => $36 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $20 per person
$$ => Tickets $21-$50 per person
$$$ => Tickets $51 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping, and the major companies like Hertz, Budget, Avis and Europcar all operate around Australia, alongside smaller local companies that are worth investigating.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Ride-sharing company Uber is relatively new to Australia and is currently under scrutiny by state governments where it operates. It currently operates in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, the Mornington Peninsula and Geelong in Victoria, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
Rides are ordered through a smart phone app. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
Hopefully, your trip to Australia goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation — About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical —Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption — For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay — Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage — Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. Standard medical and travel insurance is advisable for travel to Australia. Divers including the Great Barrier Reef or other Australian diving destinations should also ensure they have the appropriate insurance.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework — check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions — Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance — If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
Australian dollars come in $1 and $ coins, and $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 notes. Each is a different colour, so they are easy to tell apart. Other coins are 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents and 50 cents. The $1 and $2 coins are gold, all the others are silver.
Prices sometimes end in a variant of 1 or 2 cents (for example, 52 cents or $1.78), a relic from the days before 1-cent and 2-cent pieces were phased out. In these cases, prices are rounded to the nearest 5 cents, so 52 cents rounds down to 50 cents, and 78 cents rounds up to 80 cents.
If you get money from an ATM, you may incur charges (often $2 or $3 per transaction). Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, Australian banks will allow you to get cash without an extra charge. Many grocery stores, gas stations and major retail outlets let you get a limited amount of “cash out” when paying for your goods — this is an easy way to get cash while on the go.
Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout Australia. Visa and MasterCard are universally accepted in Australia; American Express and Diners Club are less commonly accepted, so it pays to check first. Always carry some cash, because some traders won’t take cards for purchases under $10 or $15.
Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in a destination far from home. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card — which doesn’t make sense if they are lost or stolen. So make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access.
Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that don’t offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.
Tipping is always appreciated, but is not widely practiced or expected in Australia. It is usual to tip around 10% to 15% or round up to the nearest A$10 for a substantial meal in a restaurant, but certainly not mandatory. Some taxi passengers round up to the nearest round figure in a cab, but it’s okay to insist on every bit of change back. Tipping hotel porters and housemaids is sometimes done, but no one tips bar staff, barbers, massage therapists and spa employees or hairdressers.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and chemist shops (pharmacies/drugstores) will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
The Blue Mountains is one of the most accessible destinations from Sydney.
A driving trip to the main town of Katoomba takes about 90 minutes on a recently upgraded highway, the M4.
However as the highway has been a work in progress for more than 20 years, expect roadworks in various parts of the journey as road-widening is always going on. The never-ending highway roadworks are a thorn in the side for most mountain residents.
A local bus company runs regular services between towns and villages in the mountains.
Two tourist hop-on-hop-off services (a bus and a trolley ‘car’) transport visitors around Katoomba and Leura taking in more than 20 attractions.
The Blue Mountains is made up of several towns, however, the main centre of Katoomba is approximately 100 kilometres (65 miles) due west of Sydney, with driving time around 90 minutes to two hours. Motorists take the M4 motorway west of Sydney.
A train line connects Sydney with most of the Blue Mountains towns, departing from Sydney’s Central Station.
Trains run regularly, every hour or so, with the journey to Katoomba taking about two hours.
Various private coach operators run day trips to the Blue Mountains, which also combine visits to other attractions such as a wildlife sanctuary on the way.
A car is the best away to get around, especially to access the start of the many walking tracks and lookouts in the national park.
The train connects most of the towns in the mountains, with the journey between each town, such as Katoomba and Leura, taking only about five minutes.
The Blue Mountains Bus Company runs commuter services throughout the mountains on 10 different routes between Emu Plains in the lower mountains and Mount Victoria in the upper mountains.
A tourist hop-on-hop-off ride stopping at 29 different sites in Katoomba and Leura is operated by Trolley Tours, using a replica vintage-style tram (on wheels), or a street car.
Another company, Blue Mountains Explorer Bus, also operates a hop-on-hop-off tourist service on a red double-decker bus also departing from Katoomba. It also visits 29 sites.
Springwood in the lower mountains and Katoomba in the upper mountains are the main hubs.
Those in the know recommend that for the best price passengers should buy a separate train ticket to Katoomba from Sydney’s Central railway station and then buy a Trolley Tours ticket on arrival in Katoomba.
This option is recommended rather than the advertised combined Link Ticket, which includes the train ride and a ticket on the Blue Mountains Explorer Bus. As both trolley and the Explorer Bus visit the same sites, the Trolley is cheaper for those only wanting to stay a day.
However, the Blue Mountains Explorer Bus ticket does include discounts into some of the 72 attractions in the area and as the bus ticket is valid for a week this might be a good option for those staying a few days. The bus company also has various passes on offer such as the Cockatoo Pass that includes sentry into Scenic World and the Waradah Aboriginal Dance group at a discounted rate.
Trains to the Blue Mountains are operated by Sydney Trains, a division of the government-run Transport for NSW. Passengers must have an plastic Opal card, which is loaded with funds to pay for the fare. Opal cards are available at railways stations, news agencies and convenience stores. Seniors and pensioners can travel to the Blue Mountains on the Opal’s $2.50 a day fare.
The Blue Mountains Bus Company also uses Opal cards.
Tickets for the privately-run Trolley Bus are valid for one day and are on sale at the Trolley Shoppe at 76 Main Street, Katoomba.
The privately-run Blue Mountains Explorer Bus ticket is $40 and is valid for 7 days; tickets are available online, and at 283 Main Street, Katoomba. They can also be bought along with a rail ticket from Sydney’s Central Station.
It’s fair to say that the Blue Mountains can offer all things to all people. The area abounds in opportunities to take in art and culture, while the many wonderful natural vistas are a photographer’s dream.
The Blue Mountains region has a wealth of outdoor pursuits ranging from easy bushwalks along fern-edged mountain trails to amazing look-outs, to more challenging adventures such as caving and canyoning.
Good food and fine wine are produced in the region and dozens of restaurants offer excellent cuisine, while there are not only cafes galore but four outlets making their own chocolates.
The area is also steeped in Aboriginal history; local indigenous operators run tours to sacred sites and beauty spots, while the Waradah Aboriginal Centre in Katoomba showcases the culture of Australian’s first nation people.
Geographically, the Blue Mountains took shape around 170 million years ago in the Pliocene Epoch when the land around the region was dramatically raised during an event known as the Kosciusko Uplift.
The original inhabitants of the area were the Daruk Aboriginal people (known today as the Darug), a tribe that lived in several areas surrounding what is now Sydney.
Just 25 years after Sydney was settled by the British in 1788, three explorers (Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth) set out to find a passage through the Blue Mountains. With just four servants, four pack horses and five dogs, the men carved a path through the mountains in 18 days, arriving at Mount Blaxland (west of Mount Victoria) on May 29, 1813. The following year, engineer William Cox began work on a road across the mountains.
After gold was discovered in 1851 at Ophir (a town west of the mountains), thousands of prospectors made their way through the region by horse and carriage in search of their fortune.
In 1867 the first train journey took place between Emu Plans (a outer Sydney suburb) and Weatherboard (now known as Wentworth Fall, and over the next decade the line was extended west to Katoomba and beyond.
With the arrival of the motorcar in the 1920s, the Blue Mountains entered its heyday. This coincided with the dawn of the post-war epoch that ushered in a devil-may-care feeling of fun for fun’s sake (for those with money that is!) As the Blue Mountains already had a clutch of stylish hotels, it was well-prepared for the influx of well-heeled tourists.
The Blue Mountains fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the decades, but it has always been a favourite destination for outdoors’ pursuits and winter escapes. In the past decade or so, several renowned Sydney chefs have opened restaurants in the region and local farmers have hit the headlines with their quality products such as honey, breads, olive oil, handmade chocolates and wines and other treats.
The Blue Mountains has some excellent award-winning restaurants and many casual cafes and diners serving fresh, local produce. While there is no specific cuisine, the main style would be what the foodies term Mod Oz – dishes created from a fusion of Mediterranean and Asian styles. There is a strong emphasis on locally-grown produce sourced from growers and farmers within a 200 km radius, which takes in the areas west of the mountains such as Orange and Bathurst. Some of the best restaurants in the area are Silks and Leura Garage (Leura), Ashcroft’s and Vesta (Blackheath), and Darley’s at Lilianfels and The Rooster (Katoomba).
The Blue Mountains has always attracted artistic folk, who love the free-spirited and new age ‘vibe’ of the region. There are several private galleries in Katoomba and Leura as well as the new Blue Mountains Cultural Centre in Katoomba, which has a permanent collection of work and changing exhibitions. The centre also sponsors a project called Street Art. The Norman Lindsay Gallery at Faulconbridge displays a huge collection of the prolific artist’s paintings (many of which are nudes), sculptures and drawings.
The 1994 movie ‘Sirens’ tells the story of artist and libertine Norman Lindsay who lived and painted in his Blue Mountains studio from the 1920s until his death in 1969. Lindsay’s most famous works were nudes. The film, which starred Sam Neal as Lindsay and Elle McPherson, Kate Fischer and Portia de Rossi as his nymph-life muses, portrays the artist’s unconventional and decadent lifestyle. Hugh Grant stars as the uptight religious minister who visits Lindsay’s gallery to remonstrate with him about an erotic painting that depicts a crucifix. The movie was shot at the artist’s former home and gallery at Faulconbridge in the lower Blue Mountains.
The hills are certainly alive with the sound of music. Three music festivals take place each year. January kicks off with the Lady Luck festival where Rockabilly fans can frock up like extras from “Happy Days” and dance to an array of live bands in the main street of Katoomba. In February the Ukulele Festival takes place in the Carrington Hotel, also in Katoomba, while the Blue Mountains Blues and Roots festival (a blend of blues, soul, new world and folk music) is the big event in March.