11 Amazing Things to Do in Cairns, Australia (Reef & Beyond)

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I had it in my head that I wouldn’t like Cairns, Australia. I’m not sure why, but I was wrong.

As one of Australia’s biggest tourist towns, Cairns is vibrant with plenty of restaurants and cafes to keep me happy.

Cairns is located in Tropical North Queensland, so the weather in Cairns is amazing. You can walk around at night and have plenty to do, and the days are filled with an enormous amount of choice to explore the surrounding regions.

Cairns is more about getting out on the Great Barrier Reef, into the Atherton Tablelands and the nearby Daintree Rainforest,  but the city itself is not too bad to use as a base.

Table of Contents:

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  1. Things to do in Cairns
  2. Places to eat in Cairns
  3. Places to stay in Cairns

Things to do in Cairns, Australia

Swim at the Cairns Esplanade lagoon

Definitely a favourite feature of the Tropical North Queensland towns are their man-made pools by the beach.

Just in case you didn’t know, the cruelty of the Aussie north is you get stinking hot summers, but you can’t swim in the beaches, they’re full of stingers – jellyfish that can seriously harm you, even kill you.

There’s also a few crocs around too. (see more about our deadly Australian animals here)

The main beach in Cairns is also more of a mud flat. Not to fear, the man-made Cairns lagoon gives you exactly what you need.

Crystal clear waters, beach views and life guards. The Cairns Esplanade lagoon is a cool place to laze around, read your book and meet other travelers.

Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Cairns Lagoon - Queensland, Australia

Rusty’s Farmer’s Market

OMG. I would be hanging out at Rusty’s Markets every week if I lived in Cairns.

I think it’s the cheapest farmers’ market I’ve visited in Australia so far. 50 cent avocados, hello! Get here on a Sunday at around 2pm just before it shuts, there’s slash down prices galore.

You might want to check with the Woolworths supermarket too, on a day we were in there they had a trolley full of fruit and veg they were selling for $3 all you could fill in a bag. There was a bit of wrestling going on to fill the bags with the best goods.

I really loved that idea to prevent wastage.

Rusty's Farmers Market, Cairns, Australia
Rusty’s Farmers Market

Explore The Great Barrier Reef

Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, a true wonder of the world that is 2,300km long, which is why it’s such a popular place to visit and probably the main reason you’re visiting. It so should be!

I’m happy to say The Great Barrier Reef is just as magnificent and magical as you’ve heard. I loved our full day tour exploring the underwater world with the girls. It was such a cool experience for them at such a young age.

Visiting the Great Barrier Reef can be expensive, but it’s a once in a lifetime thing. Budget for the expense so you don’t feel guilty or stressed when it comes time to hand over the cash for this incredible World Heritage Site.

We debated about the cost, but knew it was something we may never get to do again, and hey, it’s the Great Barrier Reef.

Moore Reef - Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Moore Reef – Image by ReefMagicCruises.com

We asked some locals at the Caravan Park we were staying at for advice, checked in with our facebook community and jumped on Tripadvisor to do more research.

We’d always wanted to go to the Outer Reef, because that’s where the best snorkeling and diving is. You might only visit the Reef once, you will want to see it at it’s best!

Tours range from small boats where you dive or snorkel off the boat, to bigger tours where you moor at a pontoon and from there participate in many different activities.

The Pontoon Experience

Because we have two young kids we decided the pontoon experience would be most practical. We didn’t fancy being stuck on a cramped boat all day with a two and six-year-old, it would have been stressful and gaining access to the water would have been tricky.

We chose the pontoon experience at Marine World based out at Moore Reef with Reef Magic Tours after hearing they were probably the best for families. The family price was $495 including lunch, but hey it’s the Great Barrier Reef and it’s Australia.

Grab your tickets here through our partner Get Your Guide. 

Marine World - Image by ReefMagicCruises.com

Marine World – Image by ReefMagicCruises.com

The pontoon was a great choice.

After our 90-minute high-speed catamaran ride out from Cairns our vessel moored at Marine World and we jumped on the pontoon.

It gave us all room to move around without being confined to a boat. Plus the stairs that lead down from the main deck to a submersed snorkel platform allow you to sit down and put on your mask and fins, making it easy to slide into the water.

Marine World at Moore Reef

The all-weather Marine World platform caters for all activity levels and was a great base for the day.

We had our own table and chairs on the sundeck, use of fresh water showers and changing rooms and lockers, and a yummy morning/afternoon tea plus a full buffet lunch.

The best part was the confidence Kalyra got by snorkeling in the sheltered coral lagoon. The snorkel area is supervised at all times, they had snorkeler rest stations scattered around if you needed a break in the water, and we could clearly see the bottom at all times.

AND we met “Wally” the big Maori Wrasse!

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
Kalyra snorkeling by herself

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

Snorkeling in Cairns, Queensland, Australia
“Wally” the big Maori Wrasse – image by ReefMagicCruises
Marine World, Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Sheltered coral lagoon at Marine World – Image by ReefMagicCruises.com

Introductory Scuba Dive

If’ you’re going to visit the Great Barrier Reef you’ve gotta do a dive right?!

Craig decided this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment and put his hand up for an introductory dive. This was going to be only his second time ever diving, his first being two years ago off Shelley Beach in Sydney.

Learning how to dive on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia
Craig ready for his dive!

For $125 he got a 30-minute dive with an instructor and just one other person. Intro dives have no more than 4 people per instructor making it reassuring for any first timers.

He loved it.

His dive reached a maximum of about 8 metres in the beautiful coral lagoon, a sheltered area with dense coral cover and a ton of fish life, including some time swimming with big WALLY!

“It’s another world down there, I can definitely see the addiction to diving” he beamed.

Of course, he had to take the compulsory selfie:

Scuba Diving the Great Barrier Reef - Cairns, Queensland, Australia
Craig diving in the Great Barrier Reef

Not only did we snorkel and dive, but we were able to see more of the reef on a glass bottom boat and a semi-sub.

We loved our family day out on the reef.

Great Barrier Reef, Cairns, Australia
semi-sub on the outer wall of Moore Reef – image by ReefMagicCruises
Giant purple clam - Great Barrier Reef, Cairns, Australia
Giant purple clam

If you or your family are heading to Cairns, Marine World is a great option. Besides what we did Reef Magic Cruises also have an adventure snorkel safari and certified diving packages.

You can also book some ReefQuest snorkeling and dive tours here. 

The other major tour operators out of Cairns include Quicksilver and Reef Experience.

Green Island

Green Island, Cairns, Queensland, Australia
Green Island – Image by Great Adventures

We also spent the day on Green Island located 45 minutes by boat from Cairns.

It’s a sand island and is great for a relaxing day and for families, Kalyra loved seeing a few fish and stingrays!

You can snorkel straight off the shore and we felt the area near the jetty was much better than snorkeling off the patrolled beach. There’s also a nice boardwalk through the forest to the other side of the island, and whilst the kiddies played in the water I enjoyed a massage.

There are three departure times and our family ticket cost $215 and we went with Great Adventures.

Snorkeling on Green Island in Cairns, Australia

Green Island, Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Green Island, Cairns, Australia

Visit Kuranda on the SkyRail and Scenic Railway

One of the most popular things to do in Cairns apart from visiting the Great Barrier Reef is riding the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway up to the hinterland town of Kuranda and then taking the Scenic Railway back down.

The Skyrail was opened in August 1995, and at the time was the longest gondola cableway in the world.

Read more – Riding the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway to Kuranda

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway in Cairns, Australia

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway - Cairns, Australia

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway - Cairns, Australia

Kuranda Scenic Railway - Cairns, Australia

Kuranda Scenic Railway - Cairns, Australia

Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park

I think it’s very important that we incorporate experiences that allow us to see the Aboriginal perspective and learn about the culture of the traditional owners of our land.

I want my girls to grow up never noticing the outer differences, but seeing the traditional owners of the land as intelligent and intuitive tribe connected to and respectful of the land, the spirit world and each other.

I adore and am fascinated by their culture. The oldest living civilisation on the planet hold the same revere for me as those crocs.

I love Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park for its simplicity and the down to earth way the local people share their culture. It’s a tourist destination, but does not feel like a tourist trap.

We watched dancing shows, made a fire with sticks, and got up on stage and danced and sung with them. I loved how they shouted the Aboriginal names for things as they were telling their stores.

We also learned abbot the didgeridoo, bush medicine and food, and had a chance to throw boomerangs and spears.

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White Water Rafting on the Barron River

Looking to get wet and adventurous. There are a few thrills on the Barron River through rapids called The Meat Cleaver, The Suckhole and the Rooster.

And a rafting trip is always made that much more special by a crazy rafting guide. Marty was full of life, quick with a joke and a wry smile. His loud booming laughter echoed off the steep ravines and towering trees wrapped in vines amid dense undergrowth.

Check out Raging Thunder Adventures. Say hi to Marty for us!

White Water Rafting tours in Cairns

White Water Rafting in Cairns, Australia

White Water Rafting in Cairns, Australia

Free Fitness Classes at the Esplanade

I really wanted to partake in these free exercise classes, but it was a little difficult as we were staying a bit out of town. Every day there is a free exercise class such as yoga, pilates and boxing. There’s also a lovely boardwalk if you prefer to stretch your legs that way.

Cairns Esplanade, Queensland, Australia
The Esplanade

The Cairns Night Markets

I wasn’t blown away by the Cairns night markets, but it’s a good way to pass an hour or so. I’d suggest just skipping the market part and heading straight to the massage section. $15 for 40 minutes – unheard of in Australia.

The Atherton Tablelands

There are plenty of day trip opportunities (or longer) in The Atherton Tablelands, a region about an hour south-west of Cairns in Tropical North Queensland.

Many of our readers jumped out to tell us The Atherton Tablelands was one of their favourite places in Australia. So we visited. Highlights included:

Millaa Millaa Falls, Atherton Tablelands, Queensland, Australia
Millaa Millaa Falls, Atherton Tablelands

Atherton Tablelands Hot Air Balloon Ride, Queensland, Australia

Atherton Tablelands Mountain Biking, North Queensland, Australia
Lovely day for a ride in Atherton Tablelands

Visit Mossman Gorge and The Daintree

We think you need to escape from Cairns to spend time in The Daintree Rainforest.

Don’t do it as a day trip – it’s exquisite and you need to get your relax on in the green jungle. Stay at Port Douglas or within The Daintree for a couple of days and explore.

Mossman Gorge is just north of Port Douglas and was my favourite part of The Daintree Rainforest.

Read More – Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation Drive

Mossman Gorge, Queensland, Australia
Mossman Gorge
Mossman Gorge, Queensland, Australia
Mossman Gorge
Daintree Natioanl Park, Queensland, Australia
Daintree National Park
Cape Tribulation, Daintree National Park - Queensland, Australia
Cape Tribulation, Daintree National Park

Enjoy a Beer at the Courthouse Hotel

We stopped by the Courthouse Hotel for a few drinks in the outside garden on a sunny afternoon and enjoyed some live music and a friendly atmosphere. And our kids had some space to run around on the grass.

Not a bad spot for a beer at all and seemed to be lots of seating inside as well. I suspect this place gets a little livelier in the evening.

We’ve also heard The Botanical Gardens are nice to visit, and if you can find the Crystal Cascades swimming hole then you’ve found a local treasure!

Places to Eat in Cairns

Lilypad Cafe

Our friend Lauren Bath recommended we stop here for breakfast, which specializes in fresh vegetarian cuisine. As a former chef in the Cairns area, we followed her advice.

It seems hundreds of other people must have as well as there were no available tables.

We managed to jab one as we turned to walk out with sadness in our hearts. The food portions were HUGE and fresh. It can feel a little cramped at a table of four though.

Lillypad Cafe, Cairns, Australia

Paleo Cafe

The original Paleo Cafe. It’s the place we love to come to for coffee with coconut milk, delicious smoothies and healthy meals.

We’ve been to so many of them now that we’re a bit ho hum. That’s the problem with franchises, they can all be a bit the same after awhile. But, we definitely recommend you stop in here for a feed. It’s truly worth it and your body will thank you. Prices are a little high for serving sizes.

Paleo Cafe, Cairns, Australia

Cock and Bull Pub

Whoa! Monster serving sizes at the Cock & Bull.The service was a little ordinary, but the serving size is massive and the food good, so definitely worth stopping in here for some pub grub.

Go for either the Roast or the vegetarian lasagne. So tasty and so HUGE!

Cock & Bull Pub in Cairns, Australia

Tips from our Facebook Fans

We put the question to our Facebook community: “What are your tips for Cairns?” This is what they said:

Kristina Jo – You should go to Hartley’s Crocodile Farm! It’s a fun trip, especially for the kids. And don’t forget to check out the Northern Beaches, I would recommend Trinity Beach and Clifton Beach because they are pretty quiet but Palm Cove and Ellis Beach are very busy and touristic.

Clarissa BrennenDo the awesome 4sum Bungy jump, skydive, reef & Tully rafting & there is a huge swing at the bungy site also. Cape trip & Daintree are wonders that you will really enjoy. Paronella Park. Some of the tropical horizons tours take you to waterfall spots for a swim but most of the companies do.

Carolina Gutierrez Go The Public pool! It’s so nice! Also you must visit the different islands cause those are beautiful, especially The Whitsundays!

Michelle BroughTropical Zoo is good along with free pool in town that comes with free wifi. Port Douglas is nice for lunch.

Jaimee-Ray RayNight markets have a crepe! Go to the rainforest zoom on top of the casino.

Ruth HigginPort Douglas, a trip up the creeks on the Lady Douglas, it was pouring with rain when we were there in Jan. but such a cheap but very informative trip with two lovely ladies.

Layla TurnerGreat Barrier Reef trip. But pick your boat carefully. Some don’t go to the outer reef and only go to crowded spots. It was 7 years ago but I went with Passions of Paradise. They go to the outer reef and Michelmas Cay, which is a stunning island and there was no one else there except our group it was truly amazing.
They are more expensive because they go further out but it’s worth it, the staff are amazing, qualified and made me feel really safe snorkeling out there in the middle of nowhere. There’s also a huge buffet lunch included and fish feeding on the way. Check them out, its worth the extra cash!

Danielle Danimezza Melnyczenko Butterfly Sanctuary in Kuranda. It’s a special place for me and so beautiful. The girls will find it fascinating!

Places to Stay in Cairns

We stayed in our camper trailer at the Coconut Holiday Park about 6 km south of Cairns town centre. The girls loved it, there were plenty of things to keep them entertained like water parks, pools, mini-golf and open air movies.

It’s where we met The Block Shoppers who became our traveling companions on and off for the next couple of months. We miss them!

If you need more luxury, Mantra Hotels has two properties in Cairns, here and here,  or for low budget the YHA Hostel, and you can see more places to stay on Booking.com

You can also find a local home to rent through Airbnb.

Coconut Holiday Park
Coconut Holiday Park

Plan Your Trip to Cairns

We’ve been traveling consistently for 17 years and have come to rely on a few trusted websites that save us money and time when booking accommodation, flights and car rental. Below are our preferred partners:

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Best selling tours in Cairns

Do you have any tips for things to do in Cairns? Share in the comments section below.

14 thoughts on “11 Amazing Things to Do in Cairns, Australia (Reef & Beyond)”

  1. I am heading to Cairns for the first time for 4 days in April! We have booked a night on Fitzroy Island and will do a day trip snorkelling the outer reef. Also looking forwar to swimming in the Esplanade pool and walking along it. Looking to head up to Palm Cove and Northern beaches while we are there too. Will definitely be back to explore Cape Trib, Daintree, Kuranda and Atherton Tablelands on another trip 🙂

  2. I am planning to visit Cairns sometime this year, but haven’t made any travel plans yet! Glad I found this before planning my trip, as I’m going to want to include some of these activities!

  3. Wow, that is a great round-up of things to do in Cairns. We did a boat cruise down the Daintree River and crocodile spotted which was pretty special, but otherwise all of the above.

  4. Que de bon souvenirs, mais lorsque j’y suis allée il n’y avait pas le téléphérique !!!
    Merci pour ces magnifiques photos

  5. I loved your article!
    I am going to Cairns this summer and I was amazed by the pictures you uploaded underwater on the great barrier reef? did you take them with an action camera (like gopro) or were they taken by the snorkeling company and then sold to you? In case you had tu buy them, how much were them?
    I’d appreciate the info
    Thanks!!!

    1. We bought them from the snorkel company. I think it was $15 per photo. You can buy a USB stick with heaps of photos on it for around $70 – I think from memory.

  6. Thanks for sharing your tips on Cairns guys! I haven’t read a more comprehensive guide to cairns anywhere else on the web! It looks like the kids had a great time!

  7. Cairns wasn’t my favourite place to be honest, but it’s definitely worth a couple of nights stay. I really enjoyed the trip north to Daintree and Cape Tribulation though. A must do!

  8. Great blog you have here 🙂 . I sailed the Great Barrier Reef early last year and it was incredible. You got some great underwater pictures and I really like your Green Island shot 🙂 .

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