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!
We explored much of this spectacular area while living in Cairns for nearly 6 months. We 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!
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☀️ Best Things to Do in Cairns: Overview
The top 21 best things to do in Cairns are:
- Explore the Great Barrier Reef
- Chase (Many) Waterfalls
- Spot A Platypus at Atherton Platypus Park
- Visit Rusty’s Market and the Night Markets
- Visit Kuranda Village
- Relax at the Beach
- Take a Day Trip to a Tropical Island
- Cool Off in the Cairns lagoon
- Have a Stroll Through the Cairns Botanic Gardens
- Take a Road Trip to Port Douglas and the Ancient Daintree Rainforest
- Get Your Caffeine Fix at Blackbird
- Indulge in Brunch at Lillipad
- Treat yourself to Dessert
- Head to Three Wolves for Cocktails
- Dance the Night Away
Partake in One of the Extreme Things to Do in Cairns:
- Bungy Jumping and Giant Jungle Swing
- Sky Diving
- Hot Air Balloon
- Helicopter Ride
- White Water Rafting
⛵️ The Top 21 Things To Do in Cairns
Below we cover in detail the top 21 things to do in Cairns, including our favourite places to visit, day trips, restaurants, bars, and more! Make sure you don’t miss out on anything in this beautiful part of Tropical North Queensland.
🤿 1. Explore the Great Barrier Reef
No visit to Cairns would be complete without exploring the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef is without a doubt something that needs to be added to your Australia bucket list and definitely deserves to be number 1 on the list of things to do in Cairns (although the rest of the list is in no particular order!).
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the top landmarks in Australia. Comprised of 3,000 coral reefs, 600 continental islands and 300 coral cays, it is the world’s largest reef system and one of the healthiest. It also boasts great visibility year-round, making it the perfect place to snorkel or dive.
Diving and snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef was a huge one to tick off my travel bucket list, and it did not disappoint!
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. This is also a great family friendly activity if you’re travelling Australia with kids.
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 your scuba certification while in Cairns.
I highly recommend booking a diving tour with Divers Den. I went on two different tours with them and can’t recommend them highly enough!
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 option is available for both divers and snorkelers, allowing you to get to the best spots and giving 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. You may also have the chance to see some sharks up close too!
I went out on two overnight tours 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.
🌊 2. Chase (Many) Waterfalls
Exploring waterfalls absolutely has to be on your list of things to do in Cairns. There are SO many waterfalls near 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 our favourites:
- Nandroya Falls
- Zillie Falls
- Elinjah Falls
- Babinda Falls (stop at the Babinda Bakery on the way!)
- Kuranda Falls
- Crystal Cascades
Check out our post on the best waterfalls near Cairns for a full list of the most spectacular waterfalls in the area.
💦 READ MORE: Best Waterfalls near Cairns
🦫 3. Spot A 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.
🍍 4. 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 the 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 off the food really cheap from around 10:30pm!
🚊 5. 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 booking a combo ticket to take the Skyrail in one direction and the scenic train in the other to experience both! You can also book a day trip to Kuranda to have all the planning taken care of for you.
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.
🏖 6. 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. Continue a bit further and you’ll reach Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas, which as the name suggests, provides a long golden sand beach as far as the eye can see!
Even further north, you’ll discover the beautiful Cape Tribulation, a headland with remote beaches 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!
While going to the beach is a great thing to do in Cairns, it does come with a warning!
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.
🏝 7. Visit a Tropical Island
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.
To get there, you can book a boat transfer which includes 7-hours of free time on the island, plus the option to add a glass-bottom tour or snorkelling.
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.
The easiest way to get to Green Island is by booking a tour. There are many different tour options, including glass-bottom boats, snorkelling, and even scenic flights.
It is also possible to stay overnight on Green Island, check here for current prices and availability.
The Low Isles is another great day trip from Cairns. These two islands are surrounded by 55 acres of coral reef which is easily accessible from the island making it a great place to snorkel. It’s also a great place to spot turtles just off the beach!
It’s not possible to stay overnight on Low Isles. However, it is definitely worth booking a tour to visit for the day.
🏝️ DISCOVER MORE TRAVEL INSPIRATION: Dream Destinations for your Travel Bucket List
👙 8. Cool Off 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!
🌺 9. 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!
🌳 10. 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. Stop by Thala Beach Nature Resort and admire their field of palm trees or spend the night there if you have time!
Port Douglas is only an hour or so from Cairns so can easily be visited as a day trip. However, the Great Barrier Reef Drive up to Cape Tribulation and the ancient Daintree Rainforest is one of the best road trips in Australia if you have more time.
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.
You can rent a car and take a self-guided day trip or book a full-day tour for a guided experience. There are a number of great tour options from Cairns that include the Daintree and Port Douglas.
🌿 READ MORE: Port Douglas to Daintree Itinerary
☕️ 11. Get Your Caffeine Fix at Blackbird
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.
Hands-down the best coffee in Cairns can be found at Blackbird. In particular, their cold brew is incredible!
However, in very close joint second place are Pantry 15 and Caffeind.
🍳 12. Indulge in Brunch at Lillipad
Pantry 15 and Caffeind both do great food, but the 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!).
🍦 13. Treat Yourself to Dessert
If you’re after something sweeter then try out the milkshakes at The Courtyard.
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!
🍸 14. Head to Three Wolves for Cocktails
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.
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💃 15: 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?
🪂 16-21. Partake in One of Several Extreme 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.
16. 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.
17. Sky Diving
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.
19. 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.
20. Helicopter Ride
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.
21. 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.
🤔 Final thoughts on the Best Things to Do in Cairns
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There are so many incredible things to do in Cairns, no matter what your interests. I hope you found this guide useful as you plan your time in this beautiful part of Australia.
As always, leave us a comment with your thoughts on this guide! We’d love to know if you’ve visited any of these waterfalls or if there are others you feel should be included.
Finally, don’t forget to check out some of our other guides to Queensland:
14 thoughts on “🐠 The 21 Best Things to Do in Cairns for Any Type of Traveler (2023)”
Holy macaroni! Cairns is BE-A-UUUUUUUUUUU-TI-FUL!
I’m literally typing this with my mouth open. Drop dead gorgeous place. Definitely so much to do and see there. Putting this on my bucket list of places to go 🙂
I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Cairns really is gorgeous and totally worth adding to your list!
OMG! That place looks amazing!! Thanks for this little guide.
Yay! I’m so happy you like it 🙂
What an amazing place! Is this real?! Wow! Just wow! This is my time first hearing this place but I’m amazed! What a wonderful place! You captured the most stunning views!
It’s a really gorgeous part of Australia. Definitely worth a visit!
Great tips! When I went I did the GBR, enjoyed the coffee (great coffee everywhere I went in OZ) and experienced the tropical weather. Gotta go back to check off the rest
I really miss the Australian coffee!!
Very beautiful places!! I would love to visit the Cairns and the barrier reef!
It’s totally worth a visit!
I like the article
thanks for the advice 🙂 we are going on a cruise with P&O to cairns and airlie beach in september next year, i do not know much about the area, bar that its beautiful 🙂 so this list was really helpful. again thanks 🙂
Youre going to have the time of your life Debbie! We’re so glad you found the guides helpful!