things-to-do-cairns

Are you looking for the best things to do in Cairns? Then you have come to the right place! Welcome to the top tourist hub of North Queensland in Australia and your international gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Whether you have a few days to a couple of weeks, there are plenty of things to do in Cairns to keep yourself entertained.

Cairns has a population of over 150 thousand people, and while it’s not the largest north Queensland city, it’s definitely the most popular. You’re going to find so many cool experiences in one place. From year-round tropical weather, beautiful beaches, waterfalls, and The Great Barrier Reef, to exploring the world’s oldest tropical lowland rainforests. Cairns has it all!

Let’s explore the Best Things to do in Cairns and start planning your vacation!

How to get to Cairns

By Air

Cairns is an International Gateway with plenty of ways to fly direct from overseas terminals. Not only that, but you can fly there from most Capital cities in Australia and several smaller terminals. Some of the airlines would be Qantas, Jetstar, Virgin Australia, Alliance & Regional Express.

By Car

Even if you fly into Cairns, it could be more feasible to hire a car which you can secure online before flying. Apart from that, hiring a car will make it easier to visit the sites in your schedule. If you’re looking for transport from the airport to your accommodation, then book your private transport here in advance.

Considering a Road Trip? The coastal highway between Brisbane and Cairns is one of the more popular road trips in Australia. It features some of the best beaches in Queensland, freshwater swimming holes, wild animal interactions, and so much more.

By Train

Queensland Rail operates the “Spirt of Queensland” train journey between Brisbane and Cairns. This runs five times a week and takes about 24 hours to complete. This might be a great option if you intend to stop off along the way, without having to worry about driving yourself.

How to get around Cairns

While there is a public Bus option available in Cairns ( Sunbus operated by Translink), the best way to get around in Cairns is to hire a car. The Public Bus service will not visit everywhere on this list and not all are operated by a tour. Consequently, hiring your own vehicle would be the better option and ensure you can get to the best locations.

You have all the major brands available like Avis, Hertz, Budget, EastCoast Car Rental, and Thrifty. Additionally, you can collect rental cars from either the Cairns Airport or from the city (depending on the company). Plan out your trip and save money by hiring a car for only the days you need it.

Best Time to visit Cairns

Cairns is great to visit at any time of year, but you might need to consider the things you want to do first. The summer weather runs between December and March, which is also the monsoonal season. The Tropical weather gets up to 31 to 32 degrees Celsius (87F), and the humidity rating will stay around 90%. However, the rain makes the waterfalls and swimming areas divine, and trips to the Great Barrier Reef will be paradise.

The temperatures cool down from June to August but only get as low as 25 degrees Celsius (77F), so Cairns is a year round warm weather destination. There is very little rain, and the waterfalls are sometimes too cold for swimming. However, the Great Barrier Reef trips are still possible, and swimming will be warm enough in the ocean. There are also fewer stingers around!

Cairns is a very popular city to visit, and there can be crowds at any time of year. However, there are always going to be fewer people around the off seasons, during the week, and not on school holidays. The best picks for the best time of year to visit Cairns would be the in-between seasons like March, April, October, and November. Although, it would also depend on what you’re used to and what kind of holiday you’re after.

There’s so many attractions and so many different things to do in Cairns Australia that it will be hard trying to choose between them all. The city is very safe, easy to get around, and convenient to get to from anywhere in the world. When you’re planning your next tropical holiday, make sure you add Cairns in North Queensland to your list!

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Best tours in Cairns

If you’re planning to explore Cairns and surroundings, then these are the best guided tours. All of these tours include air conditioned transport with hotel pick up and drop off, certified guides and sometimes also lunch and the entrance fees. You can reserve now and pay later, with cancellation up to 24 hours in advance to receive a full refund.

  • Self-Guided Kuranda Day Trip, Scenic Rail & Skyrail. Visit Kuranda by traveling on the Kuranda Scenic Railway and return by the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway while you marvel at the views. Explore the village located in pristine rainforest and enjoy free time visiting markets, shops and food stalls.
  • Great Barrier Reef Cruise & Scenic Helicopter Flight. Tick off this bucketlist thing and embark on a full-day Outer Great Barrier Reef Cruise from Cairns with a scenic helicopter flight. Travel on a large, state-of-the-art vessel and go snorkelling or add diving.
  • Great Barrier Reef Flight, Skyrail & Kuranda Scenic Rail Combo. Take a 40 minute scenic flight over the Great Barrier Reef and visit Kuranda with the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and return by the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Explore the village and enjoy free time visiting markets, shops and food stalls.
  • Barron Gorge: Half-Day Barron River White-Water Rafting. Get an introduction to white-water rafting on the Barron River. Enjoy the fun and excitement of up to two hours on the river on grade three rapids.
  • Outer Great Barrier Reef Full-Day Tour with Lunch. Discover some of the most spectacular destinations in the Outer Great Barrier Reef during this tour from Cairns with time to snorkel and explore. Enjoy a gourmet buffet lunch, a glass of wine, and a light snack.
  • Great Barrier Reef Snorkel & Dive Full-Day Adventure. Cruise to vibrant coral gardens and diverse marine life at the Outer Great Barrier Reef on board the Silverswift catamaran. Sail to 3 different reef sites and snorkel among colorful coral reefs and reef fish.
  • Fitzroy Island Return Catamaran Transfer. Enjoy a self-guided day to Fitzroy Island on this return catamaran transfer from Cairns. Experience a national park covered in lush tropical rainforest, boasting granite outcrops, open woodlands, mangroves, and coral beaches.
  • Green Island Half-Day Morning Cruise. Enjoy a half-day snorkel adventure and sail to the Great Barrier Reef by catamaran. Visit tropical Green Island to snorkel among colorful coral gardens and reef fish.
  • Daintree and Mossman Gorge Tour with Cruise Option. Discover the only place on earth with 2 natural World Heritage listed sites side by side. Explore the Daintree River and Rainforest, Cape Tribulation, Mossman Gorge, all in one adventure-filled day.
  • Tully River: Guided Rafting Trip with Gear & Lunch or Dinner. Conquer grade 3 and 4 rapids on this rafting trip on the Tully, Australia’s premier white water rafting river. Get all the gear and training you need for a safe adventure, then enjoy lunch or dinner.

17 Best Things to do in Cairns

Swim at Crystal Cascades

With a tropical climate and heavy rainfall in the summer, there are so many different waterholes and waterfalls around Cairns. Therefore, plenty of options for swimming and especially, to help you cool down on those hot summer days. The Crystal Cascades would have to be one of the closest, easiest to get to from Cairns, and should not be missed.

It is located at the end of Redlynch Road, about 25 minutes from Cairns central. Conveniently, there is a nice size car park, bathroom facilities, and Barbecue tables to help you throughout your day. The Cascading swimming waters flow past a sealed bitumen pathway with several entrances into the rock pools. About halfway up the path the swimming area is closed, but you can enjoy the scenes and view the larger waterfall and the end.

cairns-crystal-cascades-waterhole-swimming-spot

Great Barrier Reef Snorkeling off Islands or Outer Reef

The Cairns Marina or the Reef Fleet terminal has numerous companies that explore the Great Barrier Reef on day trips. You can choose between places like Green Island, Fitzroy Island, or visit Great Barrier Reef Pontoons in the outer reef with deeper waters. Either way, you’ll experience underwater life first-hand during a Great Barrier Reef Cruise, and it is one of the most loved and family-friendly things to do in Cairns.

Book here your Outer Great Barrier Reef Full-Day Tour with Lunch

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The Boat ride out to the reef will take anything from 1.5 to 2.5 hours to get to its destination and lasts for either a half or full day. All of them will include a snorkel, mask, and fins to help you explore the amazing reef ecosystem and help you find many different species of fish. The choice of abundant Marine life can include but are not limited to turtles, reef sharks, batfish, damsel fish, angel fish, or even Clownfish like Nemo.

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Explore Kuranda Village

One of the best ways to see Kuranda Village is by driving through the rainforest yourself and stopping along the way. Direct travel will take about 40 minutes from Cairns which will meander through the Barron Gorge National Park. However, you do have the flexibility to stop as much as you like, at places like Barron Falls and complete other tours.

Book here your Self-Guided Kuranda Day Trip, including the Scenic Rail & Skyrail

The Village itself is small and a great stop for morning tea, lunch, or picking up locally made products. Apart from that, you have four other nature experiences that can be purchased separately. This includes Bird world, the Butterfly Sanctuary, the Barron River crocodile Cruise, and the Koala Gardens Nature Park. In every one of these parks, you can experience local Australian wildlife, as well as other unique creatures from around the world.

koala-kuranda-village-cairns

Take a helicopter flight above the Great Barrier Reef

Soar above the sky like a bird and cross off that bucket list thing to do in Cairns by purchasing a Great Barrier Reef Scenic Helicopter Flight. Choose an experience between the Rainforest, Great Barrier Reef, Sandy cays, or Islands off the coast. You can even choose between 30-minute, 45-minute, or 60-minute flights. If you combine a flight with a reef cruise, for example with this heli flight & cruise package, you’ll get the best of both.

great-barrier-reef-helicopter-flight

View Barron Falls

Barron Falls is about 125 metres high and one of the largest waterfalls in Queensland. However, this waterfall is just for viewing and is such an amazing site when in full flood. It takes about 40 minutes to drive there from Cairns and has a decent size platform and lookout points to see it.

From December to March each year, you’ll see Barron Falls at its finest, especially after a large amount of rain. The sheer power of the flowing water is unbelievable, and you won’t regret the visit. For the rest of the year, the water flow will reduce to a mere trickle but still a popular stop for tourists.

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Travel on the Kuranda Scenic Railway

Apart from Driving, the Kuranda Scenic Railway is an alternate way to get to the small village of Kuranda, but this trip is more about the Journey itself. The Train ride will take about two hours from Cairns to Kuranda, and you’re entertained almost the whole way there. This is an “old school” train, with open windows, and wooden bench seats, which have been refurbished for today’s tourists.

Book here your Skyrail & Kuranda Scenic Rail Combo including a Great Barrier Reef Flight

kuranda-scenic-railway

The whole ride will include a running commentary detailing the ins and outs of the train, the rainforest you’re driving through, tunnels, and the tracks. Along with a 15 minutes stopover to the amazing Barron Falls, which is one of the biggest waterfalls in Queensland. Additionally, you could upgrade your ticket to gold glass and enjoy some light snacks, refreshments, and table service.

Once you arrive at Kuranda, can choose to return back to Cairns on the train, enjoy your day at Kuranda, or return via the Skyrail Gondola. Either way, you’ll absolutely love this day trip from Cairns.

Book here your Self-Guided Kuranda Day Trip, Scenic Rail & Skyrail

Day trip from Cairns

Venture out of the city on an organised tour or hiring a car to see what the Tropical North Queensland area has to offer. Just short distance away, you have the famous Daintree National Park, one of the oldest rainforests in the World. 

Book here your Daintree and Mossman Gorge Tour with Cruise Option

Apart from that, you could visit Port Douglas and spend the day on the beautiful Four Mile Beach. Furthermore, Mossman Gorge is a short distance from there and plenty of places for crisp waterfall swimming.

Both Palm Cove and Cape Tribulation are small towns with plenty of character. These are your major points to see first-hand where the Rainforest meet the Great Barrier Reef and the perfect place for a lunch stop on your road trip.

Other fun things to do in Cairns, or just a bit outside of Cairns are water rafting, bungy jumping, visiting the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park or have an Island day and visit some of the beautiful islands off the coast.

  • Fitzroy Island Return Catamaran Transfer. Enjoy a self-guided day to Fitzroy Island on this return catamaran transfer from Cairns. Experience a national park covered in lush tropical rainforest, boasting granite outcrops, open woodlands, mangroves, and coral beaches.
  • Green Island Half-Day Morning Cruise. Enjoy a half-day snorkel adventure and sail to the Great Barrier Reef by catamaran. Visit tropical Green Island to snorkel among colorful coral gardens and reef fish.
  • Tully River: Guided Rafting Trip with Gear & Lunch or Dinner. Conquer grade 3 and 4 rapids on this rafting trip on the Tully, Australia’s premier white water rafting river. Get all the gear and training you need for a safe adventure, then enjoy lunch or dinner.
daintree-national-park

Walk the Esplanade

The Cairns Esplanade is roughly 2.5 kilometres long and will pass by parklands, toilets, barbeques, picnic tables, playgrounds for the kids, and a swimming lagoon pool. This is also where you can purchase a ticket to ride the iconic Reef Eye Ferris Wheel, which gives you an overall view of the area. 

While locals will use this for daily exercise – tourists will use it for a relaxing sunset walk, to look out for local wildlife in the mangroves, or for a scenic pathway to their next stop. The actual boardwalk portion is suspended above the city’s mud flats and is an interesting view at low tide. Watch out for crabs or photograph the pelicans or other birdlife. Keep in mind there is no swimming anywhere in these waters, as it’s common to see Crocodiles basking in the sun.

cairns-esplanade-boardwalk

Ride the Skyrail Gondola

The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway will be your next option to visit the small town of Kuranda, or you use it as an adventure on its own. The cableway takes about 1.5 hours each way, which has options to get off at Red Peak Station for the Rainforest boardwalk, or Barron Falls for a different side of the waterfall.

Apart from that, the Gondola will give you an overall ride viewing the Wet Tropics Rainforest, which is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed zone. It fits up to six people at a time, with an option for a glass bottom at an extra charge. Either way, the journey surrounds you with epic sounds of the rainforest, wildlife and is one of the best things to do in Cairns.

Like the Kuranda Scenic Railway, you can choose to ride back to Cairns straight away. However, if you have the time, then spend a few hours in Kuranda before returning.

Book here your Self-Guided Kuranda Day Trip, Scenic Rail & Skyrail

skyrail-gondola-cableway-cairns

Swim in the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon

Prefer a pool to the ocean, then the Esplanade Lagoon might be just what you’re looking for. This is a favourite spot for the kids and is perfect for some family-friendly fun. It’s open from 6am every morning until 9pm at night, which gives you plenty of time to fit it into your holiday plans.

Entry is free to enjoy this 4800 square metre saltwater pool, which is conveniently lifeguarded during the day. You also have toilets, Showers, Lockers, and Barbeques to support a friend’s gathering, family catch-up, or small birthday party.

cairns-esplanade-lagoon

Take a scenic drive through Waterfall Circuit

Take a 1.5-hour drive south of Cairns, and you can experience one of the most photographed Waterfalls in Australia. This is called Millaa Millaa Falls, which is part of the Waterfalls circuit in the Atherton Tablelands. Along with Millaa Millaa, you can see two other waterfalls – Ellinjaa Falls and Zillie Falls.

This circuit is only 20 kilometres long and well worth the visit to enjoy a cool refreshing swim. All these falls are flowing all year run, but have less water coming down in the winter from June to October. Make a day of it with a picnic lunch and a nice scenic drive through local bushland.

Book here your Atherton Tableland Wilderness Tour with Lunch including a visit to Millaa Millaa Falls

Millaa-Millaa-Falls-cairns

Shop at Rusty’s Markets

If you’re looking for some Market shopping, then make sure you add Rusty’s, or the Cairns night markets to your list of things to do. It’s open every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 5am and features over 180 stalls of locally sourced and made products. This includes fruits, vegetables, fashion, jewellery, bread, coffee, chocolate, flowers, and so much more.

It has been running for over 45 years, is well-known around Australia for its variety, and they’re adding new stalls, all the time. Wander around and see what Cairns locals have to offer, purchase some fresh food for dinner or try some of the delectable desserts.

See a Salt Water Crocodile in the Wild

Cairns is a great home base for seeing various National Parks contained within the Wet Tropics UNESCO World Heritage listed area. One great thing about this area is lots of streams, lakes, and rivers full of salt Water Crocodiles. Luckily, there are plenty of safe and convenient tours to be able to see these deadly reptiles in their own habitat.

One of these boat cruises leaves from Kuranda and gives you a look along the Barron River. Alternatively, you can day trip into the Daintree Rainforest and take one of the tours. Either way, you will learn about these ferocious creatures, where they like to hide, and how to avoid them on your travels.

cairns-salt-water-crocodile-close

Swim at Babinda Boulders

Babinda Boulders are located about 1 hour south of Cairns and a short via off the Main A1 highway. This place is pretty big and very popular with tourists and locals. On one hand, you have a beautiful gorge to swim in, and alternatively, you can take a short walk to see the Devil’s Pools.

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There’s a large car park, Barbeque, and Bathroom facilities, which helps make the most of your day with family or friends. On the other hand, the Devil’s Pools is not for swimming but is an amazing site to see with large boulders and cascading waters flowing through.

cairns-babinda-boulders-swimming

Meander through the Cairns Botanical Gardens

Don’t have time to make it to Kuranda or the Daintree National parks? Then you might like to visit the Cairns Botanic Gardens. It’s renowned as being one of the best tropical plant displays in Australia! The massive 38 hectares will teach you so much about the surrounding area.

It’s open from 7.30am to 5.30pm every day, and you can choose to wander around on your own, take a free tour, host an event or check out the visitor centre and café. See gardens like the Bamboo Collection, the Rainforest boardwalk, Aboriginal plant use, Saltwater lake, Zhanjiang Friendship gardens, and much more. Additionally, If you are a bird lover or photographer, you going to love the flowers and vast array of bird life hanging around.

cairns-botanical-gardens

Visit the Cairns Aquarium

This is a brilliant option to keep the kids entertained, open every day, and accessible in any kind of weather. The Cairns Aquarium is your way of getting up close and personal with the underwater species and ecosystem contained within Tropical North Queensland.

From the rainforest river systems, mangroves, and the Great Barrier Reef, you can dive into the presentations, talks, a touch pool, and watch the shark feedings. Even better, you can enjoy unique experiences like scuba diving and twilight visits after dark. Expect to see something that you didn’t know existed!

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Visit the Zoom and Wildlife Dome

Get your excitement into gear and challenge yourself with the world’s first zip line and rope course contained within a wildlife park! This is an all-weather activity and contains crossings, tunnels, a climbing wall, cargo nets, and zip lines. For added excitement, you’re completing this course over Goliath, the 4 metres salt water Crocodile.

This is conveniently located in the heart of Cairns city and beside the Reef Casino. It’s open from 9am to 5pm and also highlights a crocodile show, koala talks, and feeding tours. As well as seeing creatures like snakes, birds, and some of Australia’s most treasured creatures.

zoom-wildlife-dome-cairns

About the guest writer

BIO

Chris Fry is the writer and photographer behind Aquarius Traveller, where she shares her journeys, provides valuable information and inspiration for your land and underwater travels. She lives in Australia, and has travelled to 36 countries and across Australia.