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Last updated: 7th February 2020
Cairns is set in the heart of tropical Far North Queensland and provides the gateway to two incredible UNESCO sites; the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics World Heritage Rainforest. There are plenty of things to do in Cairns and it is visited by almost 3 million tourists each year!
I spent nearly 6 months in Cairns in 2017 and it’s actually the place where Adam’s and my relationship properly started, so it holds a special place in my heart! We explored much of this spectacular area together and have comprised this list of our favourite things to do in Cairns, Australia to help you have the best time there too!
No matter what you’re looking for, Cairns has it all; from beautiful tropical beaches to the stunning ancient Daintree Rainforest, incredible marine life on the Great Barrier Reef, enchanting waterfalls and even a great party scene! You’ll find it hard to be bored and won’t run out of things to do!
Explore the Great Barrier Reef
No visit to Cairns would be complete without exploring the Great Barrier Reef. I feel like the Great Barrier Reef is deserving of being number 1 on the list of things to do in Cairns (although the rest of the list is in no particular order!), primarily because I’m obsessed with marine life and like to think of myself as a mermaid!
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest reef systems and one of the healthiest. It is comprised of 3,000 coral reefs, 600 continental islands and 300 coral cays, and boasts great visibility year-round, making it the perfect place to snorkel or dive.
Fun fact: The Great Barrier Reef is the only living structure on Earth that can be seen from outer space!
Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef
If you aren’t keen on scuba diving, then fear not, you can snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, and I’m sure you won’t be disappointed by either. Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef still provides an amazing way to explore the reef and witness some incredible marine life. While there’s no guarantee to what wildlife you’ll see, I’ve seen turtles both snorkelling and diving!
Dive the Great Barrier Reef
Diving the Great Barrier Reef provides the most immersive experience of the reef, allowing you to truly explore the Great Barrier Reef (and if you’re anything like me, pretend to be a mermaid).
If you are a certified scuba diver then I am sure that diving the Great Barrier Reef will already be on your bucket list for Cairns! However, even if you’re not certified, many different companies offer Introduction to Scuba programs or you can even get scuba certified while in Cairns.
Spend the Night on the Great Barrier Reef
In my opinion, the best way to truly explore the Great Barrier Reef is to spend the night there! A night on the reef is a magical experience; watch the sunset over the ocean, then enjoy stargazing before falling asleep to the sound of the waves lapping gently against the boat or pontoon.
For this reason, I’d highly recommend a liveaboard, where you stay out at sea overnight on the boat. This allows you to get to the best dive or snorkel spots and gives you much more time to explore the reef (plus a lot fewer people around!). A liveaboard provides more flexibility as the boat can move to dive sights with the best conditions.
I went out twice with Divers Den, once on their Ocean Quest liveaboard and once on Aquaquest from Port Douglas… both were awesome. I’d highly recommend checking out this guide to find the best liveaboards in Australia.
It’s also possible to stay on a pontoon on the reef rather than a boat. There are many different companies offering 2-day trips to the reef, staying on a pontoon. Pontoons do not have as much flexibility as liveaboards as they are at a fixed site. However, they often offer other additional activities such as glass-bottom boat rides, semi-submersible submarine riad or even scenic flights.
Exploring waterfalls absolutely has to be on your list of things to do in Cairns. There are SO many waterfalls around Cairns that you’ll be spoilt for choice.
The most popular and well known are those on the waterfall circuit in the Atherton Tablelands. There are lots of different tour companies that offer various day trips to the waterfalls, but personally, I’d recommend getting a few friends together and hiring a car. These are some of my favourites:
- Nandroya Falls
- Elinjah Falls
- Zillie Falls
- Babinda Falls (stop at the pie store in Babinda on the way!)
- Kuranda Falls
- Crystal Cascades
Spot Platypus at Atherton Platypus Park
I may have squealed with excitement the first time I saw a platypus. They’re the strangest creatures, and a lot smaller than I expected.
They are pretty rare to see in the wild, but the Platypus Park at Tarzali Lakes offers a 90% sighting rate. It is, therefore, an absolute must on your list of things to do in Cairns if you’re an animal lover like me!
We waited around 10 minutes before spotting our first one, then saw around 4 or 5 more. It’s well worth the visit, and you can easily include it on the way to other spots such as the many waterfalls around Cairns.
Visit Rusty’s Market and the Night Markets
One of my favourite things to do in Cairns is to visit Rusty’s Market. The market on Sheridan Street is open every week from Thurs-Sun and has lots of local and exotic fruit and veg to choose from.
The prices are usually much better than any supermarket price, and by Sunday afternoon the prices are often halved to sell things off. Pick up some rambutan and mangosteen…. They’re delicious. Or just wander around and try a bit of everything on offer from the tasters!
The Cairns night markets are a good place to pick up souvenirs and gifts for family. The food in the food court isn’t the best in Cairns, however, if you need a late-night snack (or feast) many of the stalls sell of the food really cheap from around 10:30pm!
Visit Kuranda Village
One of the things you have to do while in Cairns is to visit Kuranda Village. Kuranda Village is nestled into tropical Wet Tropics World Heritage rainforest and even the journey there is a wonderful experience.
The village is famous for its wonderful markets. The Kuranda Markets are open daily and are spread over two locations; Kuranda Original Rainforest Markets and the Heritage Markets. You’ll find some beautiful Aboriginal artefacts, handmade goods and jewellery. The Kuranda Markets are the perfect place to find an unusual, unique gift or souvenir.
There are also plenty of food stalls, cafes and restaurants. It’s well worth taking a full day to explore the markets and enjoy the village.
To get to Kuranda village you can either take the Skyrail which takes you up over the rainforest canopy or the Kuranda Scenic Railway which winds its way up through the rainforest. I’d highly recommend taking the Skyrail in one direction and the scenic train the other to experience both!
Getting to Kuranda Village by Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway offers unique views over the Daintree rainforest allowing you to get a better appreciation of the vastness of the oldest continually surviving rainforest on earth.
Additionally, you can take your time exploring the boardwalks or take one of the complimentary ranger-guided tours to find out more about the rainforest before making your way to Kuranda Village.
After testing out all the different gondolas, I’d highly recommend the Canopy Glider, the open-air gondola as it allows you to really feel immersed in the forest.
Getting to Kuranda Village by Kuranda Scenic Railway
The Original Kuranda Scenic Railway provides a breathtaking journey taking in stunning views of the ancient rainforest as well as steep ravines and crashings waterfalls.
The journey from Cairns to Kuranda takes approximately 2 hours, including a 10-minute stop at Barron Falls Station for an incredible view of the spectacular Barron Falls.
Check the Kuranda Scenic Railway website to check the current timetable and any closures.
Relax at the Beach
To make the most of that tropical North Queensland weather, one of the best things to do in Cairns is to go to the beach. While there aren’t any beaches in Cairns city, there are many beautiful, tropical beaches within easy reach!
For a quick beach escape, hop on a bus to Palm Cove, where you’ll find the beach lined with gorgeous palm trees. Further afield to the north, you’ll find the beautiful Cape Tribulation, a unique beach where two World Heritage sites meet; the Daintree Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef. If you venture south, then you’ll be rewarded with the beautiful Mission Beach.
If you’re looking for a truly tropical paradise then I’d highly recommend visiting one of the nearby islands.
Things to know before swimming at the beaches!
Be aware that between November and May is stinger season. During this time jellyfish frequent the waters and there is a risk of being stung. You will see stinger nets in the water on most beaches to provide a safer area for swimming. It is also worth checking that the beaches are open as they do occasionally close during stinger season if dangerous jellyfish are spotted in the water. You can buy or rent a stinger suit to give you extra protection.
Stingers aren’t the only thing to be aware of, saltwater crocodiles are also found in these waters. On average, 1 person per year is killed by a crocodile in Australia, in comparison to 3 killed by bees. So while, statistically, you are unlikely to have any issues with crocs, you do need to be aware of them and act responsibly. Make sure you check signs on the beach and stay away from the water in areas where advised.
Go Island Hopping
Sprinkled off the coast of Cairns are many beautiful, tropical islands and a visit to at least one of these paradisical locations should be on your list of things to do in Cairns. The most accessible of these islands are Fitzroy Island and Green Island.
The crystal clear waters around the islands also provide safe swimming spots away from crocs, although stingers may still lurk in the water during stinger season.
My personal favourite is Fitzroy Island, located just a 45-minute boat ride from Cairns. The best thing about this spot for me is that you can actually swim in the ocean here, free from the fear of encountering a crocodile. It is also larger and quieter than Green Island.
With its perfect white coral sand and turquoise waters, Nudey Beach is one of the most picturesque beaches I’ve seen in Australia. You can also stay overnight on the island if a day trip isn’t enough for you, check here for current availability and prices.
Similar to Fitzroy Island, Green Island is also only a 45-minute boat journey from Cairns and boasts lush green landscapes and tropical beaches. Green Island is smaller than Fitzroy Island (it’s possible to walk around the entire island in 20 minutes!) and has more tour groups visiting, so can, therefore, be busier.
One benefit of Green Island over Fitzroy Island is that the beaches are golden sand, rather than coral, making them more comfortable to walk and relax on. Green Island also offers more dining choices than Fitzroy.
It is also possible to stay overnight on Green Island, check here for current prices and availability.
Take a Dip in the Cairns lagoon
If you’re tired out from the more adventurous things to do in Cairns and don’t want to leave the city, then the Cairns esplanade lagoon is the place for you! Cairns has a tropical climate year-round, so take some time to lay back and soak up the sun.
Cairns lagoon is the perfect spot to do this and allows ample opportunity for some interesting people watching. There’s also public BBQs here, so get into the Aussie spirit and cook something up on the barbie.
The water here also provides a safe space to swim away from stingers and crocs!
Have a Stroll Through the Cairns Botanic Gardens
The botanic gardens are home to a variety of tropical plants and are the perfect spot for an afternoon stroll if you’re looking for more relaxing things to do in Cairns. A great thing about Cairns botanical gardens is that admission is free and most of the gardens are open all day every day!
It’s a really easy 10-15 minute cycle from Cairns city centre or there are public buses to get you there. Pack some insect repellent though as the bitey bugs there also like to come out in the afternoon!
Take a Road Trip to Port Douglas and the Ancient Daintree Rainforest
Just north of Cairns is the coastal town of Port Douglas where you’ll find plenty of restaurants, boutiques, art galleries and quirky stores.
Port Douglas is only an hour or so from Cairns so can easily be visited as a day trip. However, if you have more time it’s well worth heading further north along the Great Barrier Reef Drive up to Cape Tribulation to explore the ancient Daintree Rainforest.
The Daintree Rainforest is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the oldest tropical rainforest in the world, estimated to be approximately 100-180 million years old! As you become immersed in the lush landscape, you feel like you’ve been transported to another, magical world, and it’s easy to see how the inspiration for the movie Avatar was conceived here.
On the way, be sure to stop at the spectacular Mossman Gorge and do their guided Dreamtime Walk to learn about the area and aboriginal culture.
When you reach Cape Tribulation you are at a truly remarkable site; the only place in the world where two World Heritage sites meet, the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest.
If you want some more inspiration then check out our Port Douglas to Daintree 4 day itinerary.
Adventure-packed things to do in Cairns
Cairns is a hub of adrenaline-filled things to do, from bungee jumping to sky diving and white water rafting, there’s certainly plenty to get your heart racing.
Bungy Jumping and Giant Jungle Swing
Bungy jumping in Cairns will give you the ultimate thrill. The 50m purpose-built bungee tower is set amidst lush tropical rainforest to give you epic views before you take the plunge!
At the same AJ Hackett site, you’ll also find the Giant Jungle Swing where you can experience the world’s fast jungle swing with 1 or 2 friends. You’ll reach an incredible 120km/h as the swing swoops through the rainforest.
Take a huge leap outside of your comfort zone (pun intended!) and try skydiving in Cairns. Enjoy breathtaking views of the Great Barrier Reef on a scenic flight before jumping from 15,000 feet.
Zipline through the Daintree rainforest and experience this ancient landscape in a whole new way. Fully immerse yourself in the rainforest as you fly through the canopy on a network of ziplines.
Hot Air Balloon
A hot air balloon ride in Cairns provides a much more gentle way to take in the aerial views of North Queensland. The scenic flight will take you over the Atherton Tablelands with views of Mareeba Valley at dawn.
Taking a scenic helicopter flight over the Great Barrier Reef is the one thing to do in Cairns that I really regret not doing while I was there! Some friends of mine did it and they had the most amazing time (and most spectacular photos of the heart reef). If you can afford it, then I would absolutely recommend splashing out and experiencing the Great Barrier Reef this way.
White Water Rafting
Experience Grade 3 white water rapids along the Barron River. White water rafting through Barron Gorge National Park provides an incredible thrill as well as spectacular scenery along the way.
Enjoy Some Good Coffee and Delicious Food
Having spent so much time in Melbourne, my coffee snobbery has reached a whole new level and the first thing I had to do when I got to Cairns was to find the best coffee. My absolute favourite would have to be Blackbird, their cold brew is incredible! However, in very close joint second place are Pantry 15 and Caffeind.
For cocktails, head to Three Wolves… their espresso martinis are amazing (they use Blackbird coffee). They have a happy hour every day so it’s well worth going and trying a few cocktails then.
Pantry 15 and Caffeind both do great food, but my top brunch spot has to be Lillipad. The portions are huge (I would always have enough to take home), they’re reasonably priced and the food is delicious. I’d highly recommend the Parisian style eggs (my mouth is watering thinking about them!).
And finally, don’t forget to check out Gelocchio for the best gelato in Cairns. The thing I love most about them is that you can order a single scoop and still get two flavours… salted caramel and chocolate every time!
Dance the Night Away
The fun doesn’t stop in Cairns when the sun goes down and one of the top things to do in Cairns is PARTY!
Cairns is renowned for its partying scene and is a backpackers hub. You can easily find a party any night of the week in this vibrant city.
There are a number of bars and clubs in Cairns and the great thing about Cairns is that it’s small enough that you can walk from one to another easily. Here are some of the ones we went to most often…
- Woolshed: Think dancing on the tables chaos.
- Gilligan’s: Backpackers carnage.
- Pier Bar: Slightly more civilised on the waterfront.
- Cotton Club: Sip cocktails here before heading upstairs to the Woolshed.
- Three Wolves: For espresso martinis.
- Salt House: Stylish, marina front bar, best visited for “hospo night” on Mondays.
- P.J. O’Briens: Every city has to have an Irish bar right?