The tropical city of Cairns is top on a lot of people’s Australia road trip itineraries. Tropical North Queensland is one of the most vibrant and exciting areas of Australia, and Cairns, with its many amenities and beautiful esplanade, is a great base to enjoy the region.
But you might be wondering exactly what to do in Cairns. While many travellers quickly head out to the areas around Cairns (and we’ll talk about them later in this post!) there are still some great things to do in Cairns city centre.
But first, the logistics:
How to Get to Cairns
Many people visit Cairns on an east coast Australia road trip which checks off all of the best spots along the coast from Cairns to Sydney or Melbourne.
Roadtripping is definitely the best way to visit Cairns. Some people do fly in – international flights leave from ?. But as this is an overland travel blog, I’m gonna encourage you to not fly as much as possible 😉
You can also take a coach to Cairns from other spots on the east coast. Greyhound and Premier are both providers.
Where to Stay in Cairns
Hostel: The most famous backpacker hostel in Cairns is without a doubt Gilligan’s. It’s a hostel/ bar/ club, so is the place to go if you’re looking to hang out and meet people – but maybe not the right place for a chilled out stay! The dorms are, however, very well furnished and there’s a lovely pool on site. It’s kind of like a ‘backpacker resort’ in Cairns city centre. Click here for more information.
Guesthouse: YAL Cairns is a motel, offering cheap rates, friendly staff and comfortable facilities. Reviewers have said that the owners will go above and beyond to make sure their guests have a comfortable stay. It calls itself ‘a motel that makes a difference’ because some of its profits go into supporting charities in the local community; so by supporting them, you’re helping the wider world! Click here for more information and to reserve your spot.
Mid-Range Hotel: The Sunshine Tower Hotel has friendly staff and good-sized rooms which are spotlessly clean. There’s a swimming pool on site and rooms have large balconies. Click here for more information.
Luxury Hotel: Pullman Reef Hotel Casino is the lap of luxury in Cairns; it has bedrooms with wonderful ocean views, a swimming pool, fitness centre and restaurant on site and the bedrooms are awash with natural light; many with balconies. Click here to reserve your spot.
What to Do in Cairns
Hang Out at the Bat Tree
Many people head to the Daintree Rainforest to experience tropical north Queensland wildlife; but one tree is home to thousands of animals in itself. The council provided this fig tree as a home for the city’s population of flying foxes and – provided you’re not scared of the creatures – they are a fantastic sight to behold.
They spend the day hanging upside down asleep (although, from the sounds that they make, you wouldn’t think it!) and wake up as the sun sets. This is a very impressive spectacle to witness, as the creatures extend their wings and take off into the setting sun.
While not every resident is enthusiastic about the bats, they are vital for the preservation of the rainforests of Tropical North Queensland, so it is important that people visit the bat tree and learn about the creatures before making any judgements!
Aussie Breakfast in Style
Aussies do breakfast right, and Cairns is a great place to enjoy it. My favourite spot was Dolphin Cafe, which serves up all the Aussie favourites including veggie and vegan options. Cairns isn’t famous for its coffee, but most places in Australia serve up great coffee – so you’ll definitely get the chance to enjoy some of that too!
Great Barrier Reef Tour
This isn’t really one of the things to do in Cairns, because it takes place a few kilometres off shore, but tours at least leave from Cairns! You can either do a snorkel or dive tour on the Great Barrier Reef. I’m going to be honest, it’s a bit underwhelming – the bleaching is very obvious – but I know it’s a big tick on many people’s bucket lists.
If you’ve never dived before, there are plenty of tour operators willing to take you for a fun dive. If you have your open water, you can dive a bit deeper and go further (and you don’t have to be linked to an instructor the whole time!).
There are also plenty of snorkel tours available, if you don’t want to dive.
Catamaran Dinner Cruise
Cairns is part rowdy backpacker town, part sophisticated place. If you’re erring more on the side of sophisticated, and don’t want to spend a night partying with backpackers (nothing wrong with that, I’ve definitely been a drunk backpacker in Cairns, but it’s definitely a phase you grow out of…) then howabout a Catamaran Dinner Cruise off the beachfront.
Click here for more information.
Great Barrier Reef Scenic Flight
Second only to getting under the water and experiencing the Great Barrier Reef from below – seeing it from a birds-eye perspective is a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s the biggest living thing in the world (and let’s try and keep it living…) and it’s very visible from above. Click here to learn more about helicopter scenic flights at the Great Barrier Reef.
Swim in the Lagoon
You can’t swim off the beaches in Cairns, due to lethal jellyfish and potential crocodiles (when you dive you get a stinger suit, and crocs won’t be that far out), so the alternative is the Cairns lagoon. It’s basically a huge outdoor swimming pool that looks out over the sea, but it’s a great place to socialise and cool off in the intense Tropical North Queensland heat. And best of all – it doesn’t cost a cent, making it one of the best free things to do in Cairns.
Bungee Jumping Cairns
If the rest of Cairns is sounding too chill for you, why not add some bungee jumping into the mix? A great way to get a rush of adrenaline, Bungee Jumping Cairns is the only bungee tower in the country. It’s located in a beautiful setting – in the middle of the jungle – which you’ll be able to appreciate fully after the jump (probably not before!).
There are many places to skydive along the east coast of Australia – it was one of the best things I did in Byron Bay – but Cairns is incredibly popular. You’ll be able to see where reef meets rainforest, as Cairns is really a city nestled in the most spectacular nature. You can choose from a high (15,000 foot) or low (7,500 foot) skydive.
Stroll Along the Esplanade
Cairns’ Esplanade is a sophisticated, chic place lined with palm trees and looking out over the beautiful ocean. If you’re wondering what to do in Cairns in the evening, it’s a great place to have a chilled out stroll and enjoy the city lights behind you.
Enjoy the City’s Raucous Nightlife
You’re probably not going to want to do this if you’re travelling in Australia as a family, but if you’re a backpacker in Cairns, you might want to enjoy some of the city’s finest nightlife. By ‘fine’, I mean dingy bars blasting Triple J’s hottest 100 (it’s an Aussie radio show), with stages that have made many a backpacker lose their dignity. But the drinks are cheap, and there are often deals on food as well. I’d only recommend entering one of these bars if you’ve drunk a lot of goon.
Not so many travellers know that there is free Zumba and other exercise classes on offer in Cairns. The Active Living programme offers Zumba, Yoga, Aqua Aerobics and more, and travellers and locals alike attend.
There are many farmers’ markets on offer in Cairns, where you can enjoy local and seasonal produce. These include:
- The Cairns Esplanade Market runs from 8am – 4pm on Saturdays, and are probably the best way to enjoy Cairns market culture.
- If you’re heading into Kurunda, there are the Kurunda Rainforest Markets on every day from 9am – 3pm.
- Just north of Cairns the Palm Cove Markets are on at Fridays on 5pm – 9pm.
- Back in Cairns city, Rusty’s Market offers perhaps the best selection of farm produce, and are open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
The Cairns Art Gallery
The Cairns Art Gallery features Indigenous and contemporary European-inspired art exhibitions. It generally has a range of temporary exhibtions on, so check out the website to see if there’s one you want to visit before your trip. Or just swing by, as it’s free to enter and is open from 9am – 5pm Monday to Friday, 10am – 5pm Saturday and 10am – 2pm Sunday.
There’s another great art gallery in Port Douglas (see below for more information!) called the Bundarra Fine Art Gallery which specialises in Aboriginal art from the region.
Cairns Botanical Gardens
Not quite as dramatic as the areas surrounding Cairns, but still definitely worth a visit on an afternoon in the city, is the Cairns Botanic Gardens. They’re regarded as one of the best expositions of tropical plants in the country, and are made up of various different gardens. Some are open all the time, the Flecker Gardens are open from 7:30am to 5:30pm. Admission is free.
Things to do Near Cairns
I’m going to be completely honest, when compiling this list of what to do in Cairns it did come to my attention that the best things to do in Cairns are mostly outside of the city. I’d really recommend hiring a car or van while you’re in Cairns; it’s without a doubt the best way to see the spectacular nature of Tropical North Queensland. If you don’t have one, I’ve included links to various tours that operate in each area.
Just an hours’ drive from Cairns (there’s also apparently a bus – I wasn’t aware of this when I was in Cairns but Google says otherwise), Josephine Falls is a great respite from the heat of the city. Just a short walk from the car park, the falls are dramatic but inviting and there’s a rather adrenalin-boosting natural slide as well!
Tully River, Falls and Gorge can all be enjoyed on a day trip from Cairns. The falls only flow after a particularly wet wet season, but the gorge is always worth checking out. Ravenshoe, where the falls are located, is also home to Queensland’s highest pub.
Further down the river, it’s possible to go white water rafting; and it’s regarded to be one of the most impressive in Australia, as it streams through World Heritage Rainforest. Click here for more information.
Rainforest Skyrail and Kurunda Scenic Railway
Kurunda’s Rainforest Skyrail is one of the most unique ways to see the rainforest. You can take the skyrail (cable car) up and a train back down; you can enjoy a 360 view of the spectacular world-heritage rainforest while going up, and a unique experience of taking the train back down. The skyrail is 7.5 kilometres long and it’s possible to get off and see the surroundings twice en-route.
To take the skyrail, you’ll need to get to Smithfield Terminal which is 15 minutes’ north of Cairns city centre (google maps location here). There is also a skyrail transfer which can be organised through your accommodation. It costs $82 to return on the skyrail and $114 to go on the skyrail and return on the train.
Daintree National Park
If there’s one day trip from Cairns that you must make, it’s Daintree National Park. This place is really special – it’s the world’s oldest rainforest, and is home to 34% of mammals, 40% of birds, 28% of frogs and 65% of ferns found in Australia. There are 12,000 insects that call this rainforest home as well. Other residents include the endangered cassowary bird and plenty of saltwater crocs – don’t go swimming here!
You can drive through the park, and go on short walks, or if you’re up for it a longer trek to the peak of the ominously named Mount Sorrow. There’s ziplining, tea tasting and once you get to the north of the park you’ll be at Cape Tribulation, where the rainforest and reef meet. It’s the only place in the world where two World Heritage Sites meet.
Go Back in Time in Historic Herberton
The historic village of Herberton was created in 1973 to preserve everyday life in North Queensland from the 1880s. It’s a great spot to quite literally step back in time and enjoy experiencing village services like shops, pubs, banks, chemists, and grocers.
Also available to browse are collections of antiques, collectibles, machinery and vintage vehicles. Other exhibits include The Coach House, the Sewing Machine Room, Martin’s Chemist and the Suspension Bridge.
It’s Queensland’s largest open-air museum and visitors love to visit to really get a sense of the tin mining lifestyle at the end of the nineteenth century.
You can also visit the camera museum in Herberton. Some know it as ‘the world’s most unique museum’ – the spy and camera museum, located in Herberton which is close to Cairns is a must-do for any fans of James Bond or photography.
Visit Mission Beach and Climb Up Bicton Hill
Situated in Clump Mountain National Park, in the laid back town of Mission Beach about two hours from Cairns, Bicton Hill is a favourite local walk. The 4 kilometre walk takes hikers to a spectacular viewpoint of the Mission Beach area and gives them the chance to see some flora and fauna of the area.
Mission Beach is a fun place to spend a day or two; there are some safe for swimming nets, cool villages, short rainforest hikes and it’s a popular place for skydiving.
You can also check out the world’s largest cassowary statue (because I know that was on your Australia bucket list).
If it’s one thing Australia loves, it is ‘big’ things. Tropical North Queensland alone has a big mango, a big peanut, and others. The big cassowary is located in Mission Beach and is well worth checking out.
The cassowary bird only calls this pocket of Far North Queensland home, and they are sadly very endangered. It is a fascinating bird – the second heaviest, with hidden spikes on their wings and with very dangerous feet, they’re actually considered the most dangerous bird in the world. Feeding them is illegal.
That being said, they are a majestic creature to spot while touring in Tropical North Queensland. However, if you can’t find one, at least check out the world’s biggest cassowary sculpture in the Mission Beach area.
Just 27 kilometres north of Cairns is the beautiful area of Palm Cove. As the name suggests, it’s lined with palm trees, and is one of the best beaches near Cairns. It’s quite resort-y, but there are restaurants and bars, and plenty of beach views to enjoy.
Find a Pure Paradise on Fitzroy Island
Not the most popular diving destination in Tropical North Queensland, Fitzroy Island is however a good spot to see some tropical fish and the Great Barrier Reef. Known as a destination ‘where the rainforest meets the reef’ and is home to snorkeling, diving and trekking opportunities.
It is located a short boat ride from Cairns, but there is enough there to occupy a day or longer. Also present on the island is a turtle rehabilitation centre; where visitors can see injured turtles and learn about how they can help the breed. As the Great Barrier Reef is home to six of the seven species of turtles, this is a great way to learn about the breed.
Learn About Aboriginal Dreaming in Mossman Gorge
Most tourists head straight to the Daintree Rainforest, but Mossman Gorge is a great option for those looking for somewhere a little different. There are hiking trails through the dense rainforest, as well as beautiful rivers, creeks and water features.
Visitors can try to spot different animals and birdlife, including the elusive cassowary bird that is only found in this area of Australia.
Another way to get a unique perspective on Mossman Gorge is to take an Aboriginal Dreaming tour. The Indigenous guides will take visitors through the gorge, telling them about how they survived on this land for millennia.
Find Adrenalin on the Bloomfield Track
A must for any thrill seekers, the Bloomfield Track is strictly for 4WD cars and connects Cape Tribulation (at the north of the Daintree Rainforest National Park) and Cooktown. Drivers and passengers have the opportunity to see plenty of wildlife with virtually nobody else around, camp in the bush and experience nerve-wracking creek crossings – some which are home to saltwater crocodiles!
The track was constructed in the early 1980s, which caused the famous Bloomfield Blockade – a significant environmental protest. While this meant that the track got off to a controversial beginning, it has since become an area with World Heritage Protection, where eco-tourism is enforced.
Road Trip the Atherton Tablelands
The Atherton Tablelands are a fantastic day trip from Cairns, or can also be done as a multi-day trip. Most famous for their waterfalls and fresh produce, a day exploring the Atherton Tablelands should be spent enjoying both.
The Waterfall Circuit is a must-do in the area, with the Millaa Millaa Falls (pictured) being the most popular spot. This was made famous by none other than Peter Andre and this absolute belter:
One of my favourite areas in the region is Lake Eacham, which is occupied by an apparently friendly crocodile (that still wasn’t enough to convince me to get in…) and there are also some quirky and fun towns like Yungaburra, which proclaims itself to be ‘cooler than Cairns’.
Another spot on the Atherton Tablelands is the Cathedral Fig Tree, a huge 500 year old strangler tree that is set back in some rainforest. It’s a really unique piece of flora and there’s lots of information about how it looks the way it does and what the future holds for the tree.
You can see the Atherton Tablelands on a self-drive tour or with a group tour.
Hang Out in Port Douglas
Port Douglas is a super chill town an hours’ drive north of Cairns, at the start of the Daintree Rainforest. If you’re doing a Daintree Rainforest trip, I’d actually recommend spending a few nights in Port Douglas. Attractions here involve some epic lookouts like the one pictured, the weekend markets, many classy restaurants and bars, and accommodation to suit every style – there’s a definite backpacker scene, but also plenty of upmarket accommodation options and family campsites.
Places to Stay in Port Douglas
Hostel: Dougie’s Backpackers Resort is the go-to hostel in the town. It’s run by former backpackers and has an awesome, chilled out vibe. There’s a BBQ, bar, kitchen and tropical gardens, with various accommodation options ranging from dorms to private rooms to tents. Click here to reserve your spot.
Guesthouse: Port Douglas Motel has bright, cheerful rooms and is very close to four-mile beach. The studios have a kitchenette, and there is a pool on site. Click here to read more.
Mid-Range Hotel: Uyoung Diving Resort has modern rooms around a central pool, with friendly staff and clean facilities. Click here to read more and book.
Luxury Hotel: Central Plaza Port Douglas has all you need for a luxury stay in the town, with an outdoor pool and tennis court. The apartments are 1, 2 or 3 bed and are clean and furnished well. Click here for more information and to reserve.
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