While it is easier and faster to travel between 1 Sydney and 2 Melbourne by taking a one-hour direct flight, driving has its own advantages with little trips and diversions that may be taken along the way.
There are two main routes between the cities. The most direct route is 874 km on the Hume Highway (M31), a dual-carriage highway. For those with time to spare, there is the Princes Highway (A1) which follows the coast for most of its length, a distance of 1,032 km (640 miles), although not necessarily within sight of the sea. Other alternate inland roads include the Olympic Highway between Albury and Sydney via Cowra and Bathurst, and also the Monaro Highway route via Canberra.
Both roads are busy during the summer school holiday season from Christmas until the end of January, with many accommodations booked fully. A spot of good weather in either spring or autumn is often the best time to enjoy the coastal road, although hard to plan for.
- See also: Driving in Australia
The drive between Sydney and Melbourne generally takes at least a minimum of 10 hours when following the speed limit, hence it is advisable to take several breaks along the way to break up the journey. Speed cameras are common, whether mobile or fixed, there are also many highway patrols and you may see a fine coming your way if you are heavy on the gas pedal. Wildlife is common on the road at night, driving during day is considered much safer to avoid a collision with a stray kangaroo.
Petrol stations (servos) are plentiful on both routes. EV chargers are widely available on the Hume Highway, but still spotty on the Princes Highway, so plan ahead.
There are no toll roads along either route, but quite a few in and around both Sydney and Melbourne. Set up a Linkt account in advance, which can be used to pay all tolls in both.
Direct drive via Hume Highway
A fairly straightforward if boring route. The entire length is dual carriageway, but only parts are fully grade separated, meaning there are still some at-grade intersections particularly in rural areas. The distance can be covered in a single very long day, but unless you're in a blazing hurry it's better to stop overnight.
A selection of places of interest along the way, with distances from central Sydney:
- 1 Berrima (130 km) is a pretty village in the Southern Highlands with lots of nice cafes.
- 2 Goulburn (195 km) is Australia's oldest inland city.
- 3 Canberra (216+80 km), Australia's capital, has plenty of sights. While not directly on the Hume, the detour via the Federal Highway and back up to Yass adds only about an hour to the journey.
- 4 Gundagai (375 km) is not much to look at, but at almost exactly halfway through it's a classic spot a for a short break, with iconic Dog on the Tucker Box.
- 5 Holbrook (491 km) with a dry-land submarine
- 6 Albury-Wodonga (566 km) straddles both the Murray River and the NSW/Victoria border, and the riverside parks are a great pitstop.
- 7 Glenrowan (643 km) is a small village that milks every tourist dollar it can from the legend of bushranger Ned Kelly.
- 8 Euroa (714 km) has a pleasant riverside park, some nice eating options and the Big Magpie.
Coastal drive via Princes Highway
The Princes Highway route is the coastal drive from Sydney to Melbourne, a distance of 1,032 km (640 miles). The highway continues onward Adelaide, and while the name changes, as Highway 1 it goes around the length of Australia all the way back to Sydney, a distance of 14,500 km!
With the exception of the initial freeway-grade stretches from Sydney to Nowra and again from Traralgon to Melbourne, the Princes Highway is mostly two-lane highway (one each way) with the occasional passing lane, and thus much slower going than the Hume. While it can be done in two days with a single overnight stop, if you want to have any time to enjoy the sights you'll want to spend at least four days on the road. The South Coast has lots of wildlife from whales, dolphins to seals if you keep an eye out, and plenty of seagulls and pelicans. There are countless unspoilt beaches along the coast — white sand beaches, surf beaches, tidal river beaches — such that you might actually get sick of it all, and taking the Kings Highway just before Batemans Bay and then the inland drive via Monaro Highway could be an option.
Illawarra and Shellharbour
- 1 Royal National Park, through Audley Weir and possible stops at Wattamolla and Garie Beach, although Audley Weir is sometimes flooded after heavy rain and you'll have to use the entrance at Waterfall instead.
- Grand Pacific Drive starting from Stanwell Tops to Austinmer via Sea Cliff Bridge
- 2 Kiama for its blowhole, and nearby Minnamurra Rainforest
Shoalhaven and Eurobodalla
- 3 Jervis Bay has some of the world's whitest beaches at Huskisson and Hyams Beach.
- There's awesome surf at 4 Ulladulla and Mollymook, and many surf competitions are held here.
- 5 Batemans Bay has great oysters from the Clyde River.
- Pebbly Beach and South Durras are hidden gems where wild Eastern Grey Kangaroos can be found feeding peacefully. Contrary to the name, Pebbly Beach has great sand, though you'll have to step more carefully through the grass patches thanks to the kangaroos. There's also a good trail to walk on Durras Beach.
- 6 Mogo for Mogo Zoo where there's wildlife, native and non-native, to cuddle and feed.
- 7 Narooma for seal and dolphin sightings, stay overnight at Montague Island
- Charming 8 Tilba is a great place for a cup of tea.
- 9 Merimbula - beaches and the Magic Mountain amusement park
- Stop at 10 Bega for its cheese factory, there's lots of free samples
- 11 Eden for whale watching, Killer Whale Museum and Marine Discovery Centre. Green Cape Lighthouse is also worth a look.
Over the Victorian border
The 185 km section between Eden and Orbost is the remotest stretch of the road, winding its way up and down the hills of numerous national and state parks, with only scattered services.
- 12 Mallacoota - some 20 km off the road, this is the largest settlement in the aptly named Wilderness Coast and the main access point for the remote Croajingolong National Park
- 13 Cann River - a handy pitstop at the halfway mark, with some good cafes and bakeries
After Orbost, the terrain flattens out into the farms and pastures of rural Gippsland, with lots of beaches and boating opportunities along the Gippsland Lakes and the southern coast.
- 14 Lakes Entrance - popular low-key family resort
- 15 Wilsons Promontory, the most southerly point of the Australian mainland, with great trekking
- Penguins at 16 Phillip Island
Inland drive via Monaro Highway
The 285 km Monaro Highway starts in Canberra and traverses the eastern side of the Snowy Mountains via Cooma and Bombala, ending at Cann River. While it can get cold in winter, the elevation of the route is low enough that snow is unlikely and chains are not required.