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.
Not to mention, thanks to its Tropical North Queensland location, the weather in Cairns is amazing. You can walk around at night and have plenty to see and do, and the days are filled with an enormous number of choices from snorkeling tours to hiking in the surrounding national parks.
I quickly discovered that Cairns is more than just a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. It’s also the gateway to the Atherton Tablelands and the nearby Daintree Rainforest. For nature lovers, the city is not too bad to use as a base for hiking adventures.
We were blown away by the number of things to do in Cairns. So to help you plan your trip to Cairns, here’s a list of the best attractions in Cairns, plus a few hidden gems.
- Things to do in Cairns, Australia
- 1. Swim at the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon
- 2. Visit Rusty’s Farmer’s Market
- 3. Explore The Great Barrier Reef
- 4. Visit Kuranda on the SkyRail and Scenic Railway
- 5. Go White Water Rafting on the Barron River
- 6. Take A Free Fitness Class at the Esplanade
- 7. Enjoy The Cairns Night Markets
- 8. Visit The Atherton Tablelands
- 8. Take a Trip To Mossman Gorge and The Daintree
- 9. Get Breakfast at Lillipad Cafe
- 10. Have a Monster-sized Dinner at Cock and Bull Pub
- 11. Take a visit to Cairns Botanic Gardens
- 12. Check Out Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome
- 13. Take a Helicopter Ride over the Barrier Reef
- 14. Relax at Four Mile Beach
- 15. Try Spear Fishing at Cooya Beach
- 16. Take a Day Trip to Fitzroy Island
- 17. Explore the Chillagoe Caves (Queensland Outback)
- Tips from our Facebook Community
- Where to Stay in Cairns
- Final Thoughts on Things to Do in Cairns
- More Tropical North Queensland Tips
Booking Last Minute trip to the Great Barrier Reef?
Travelling can be stressful if you don’t plan ahead when visiting the Great Barrier Reef, so here are some of the top tours, hotels, and more to help you prepare quickly and effortlessly!
Top Experiences and Tours in the Great Barrier Reef
- Kuranda Day Trip with Kuranda Train and Skyrail: Explore the prinstine rainforests!
- Great Barrier Reef Snorkeling and Diving Tour An award-winning, luxury vessel with up to 80 passengers.
- Daintree and Mossman Gorge Tour with Cruise Option: the only place on earth with 2 natural World Heritage listed sites side by side.
Top Hotels in Cairns
- Ingenia Holidays Cairns Coconut about 6 km south of Cairns town centre.
- Hilton Cairns: Luxury on absolute waterfront
- The Cairns Colonial Club Resort is a family friendly resort offering affordable accommodations. It is set on 11 acres of award-winning tropical gardens just 10 minutes’ drive from the city center
Things to do in Cairns, Australia
So without further ado, here are the top things to do in Cairns. Whether you want to explore the Great Barrier Reef, relax and chill, or learn about the local history and culture, these Cairns attractions are for you.
1. Swim at the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon
Definitely, a favourite feature of the Tropical North Queensland towns is 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 from the beaches, they’re full of stingers – jellyfish that can seriously harm you, even kill you.
There are also a few crocs around too. Sadly, Australia is full of deadly creatures, but fortunately, you can avoid them easily.
The main beach in Cairns is also more of a mud flat, and not that nice anyway.
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.
2. Visit 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.
3. 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.
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 are. You might only visit the Reef once, but you will want to see it at its 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.
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 to all activity levels and was a great base for the day.
We had our own table and chairs on the sundeck, use of freshwater 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!
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.
For $125 he got a 30-minute dive with an instructor and just one other person. Intro dives have no more than 4 visitors 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 reef and a ton of marine 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:
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.
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.
Snorkelling from Green Island
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.
4. 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 Kuranda Scenic Railway back down.
The Skyrail was opened in August 1995, and at the time was the longest gondola cableway in the world.
The scenic journey takes you past Barron Falls, a beautiful waterfall that’s nestled in the rainforest.
You also get a bird’s eye view of some of the best wet tropics landscape, period. From our diamond view gondola, we could look down through the floor to see the amazing plants and flora below.
5. Go White Water Rafting on the Barron River
Looking to get wet and adventurous? There are a few thrills on the Barron River in the Barron Gorge National Park 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.
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!
6. Take A Free Fitness Class 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.
7. Enjoy 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.
8. Visit The Atherton Tablelands
There are plenty of day trip opportunities (or longer) in The Atherton Tablelands, a region about an hour southwest 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.
8. Take a Trip To Mossman Gorge and The Daintree
We think you may need to escape from Cairns and find some relaxing nature on your trip, and if I’m reading your mind right, then a trip to The Daintree Rainforest would be the ultimate choice.
Don’t do it as a day trip – it’s exquisite and you need to get your relax on in the green jungle. You can 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.
9. Get Breakfast at Lillipad Cafe
An acquaintance 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.
10. Have a Monster-sized Dinner at 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 lasagna. So tasty and so HUGE!
11. Take a visit to Cairns Botanic Gardens
A visit to the Botanic Gardens is a must on any trip to Cairns. It has one of the best collections of native Australian plants and fauna in the country.
As well as this, it’s also an educational day out for the kids. Every two weeks, they run a Little Taccas arts and crafts workshop for under 5s, and they also have a Little Sprouts workshop that teaches children about gardening.
If you’re not visiting with children, you may enjoy the walking tours, which will tell you all about the unique plant life and animals you see here.
12. Check Out Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome
Looking for some adrenaline-fuelled things to do in Cairns? Then you’ll love a trip to Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome.
This is the world’s first challenge ropes course nestled inside a wildlife park. You can cuddle a koalas, zip through the skies on one of three ziplines, or do a Dome-Climb to see incredible views of the CBD.
One of the zip-lines even flies over a 4 meter salt water crocodile.
Don’t say we didn’t warn you, this place is not for the faint-hearted!
13. Take a Helicopter Ride over the Barrier Reef
We mentioned before that a trip to Cairns without visiting the Great Barrier Reef would be a sin. It would be like visiting Paris and skipping the Eiffel Tower!
But we know that not everyone is a fan of swimming, snorkeling or diving. If that’s you, then you might prefer a helicopter flight!
You can soar above the reef and see it in all it’s magnificent glory. There is no better way to experience the size of the reef than by seeing it in the air. It’s just, wow!
14. Relax at Four Mile Beach
We mentioned earlier how the sad truth about Cairns is the beautiful weather but there’s nowhere to safely swim.
If you want to visit some fantastic Queensland beaches, head out a little way to Four Mile Beach (a four-mile-long beach, duh!) just north of Cairns.
It has soft, golden sand and crystal-clear blue water – it’s like a tropical island paradise but on the mainland.
The beach is well maintained and great for families since the waves are more gentle here.
You’ll find palm trees lining the beach and there’s always a gentle, cool breeze.
You can spend your days relaxing, swimming, or sunbathing under the palms. It’s the perfect spot to relax and enjoy being on one of Australia’s top beaches.
15. Try Spear Fishing at Cooya Beach
If you’re looking for some unique things to do in Cairns, perhaps you might enjoy trying spearfishing at Cooya Beach.
The beach is much more like a mud-plane, and is a great place to hunt for mud crabs as well as try spear fishing.
We had a great time trying to catch some fish with our spears. You can read all about our experience here.
16. Take a Day Trip to Fitzroy Island
You wouldn’t believe the tropical beauty that you can find just a short distance from Cairns. You can reach several tropical islands all within a day trip – it’s incredible!
One of the most striking tropical islands near Cairns is Fitzroy Island. It’s a tiny island that’s home to less than 50 people, but it’s worth visiting for Nudey Beach.
And no, it’s not a nudist beach, but a gorgeous powdery white sand beach with access to the Great Barrier reef.
Sit in the soft sand or snorkel in the corals from the shore. A trip to Fitzroy will not disappoint.
17. Explore the Chillagoe Caves (Queensland Outback)
We’re sad that the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park is closed, but you can still see some excellent examples of Aboriginal rock art at the Chillagoe Caves.
The Chillagoe – Mungana Caves National Park is nestled in the Outback Queensland and is known for its sacred caves.
You can only visit the caves on a guided-ranger tour, but these tours take you to see three of the most incredible caves in the site; Donna, Trezkinn and Royal Arch caves.
Learn about aboriginal art and culture on these fascinating tours.
Tips from our Facebook Community
We put the question to our Facebook community: “What are your tips for Cairns?” The response was pretty epic, and we’re delighted to share some other fun things to do and places to eat and stay from our community:
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 Brennen – Do the awesome 4sum Bungy jump, skydive, reef & Tully rafting & there is a huge swing at the bungy site also. Cape Trib & Daintree River are wonders that you will really enjoy. Paronella Park also has some of the tropical horizons tours that take you to waterfall spots for a swim but most of the companies do.
Carolina Gutierrez – Go the public swimming pool! It’s so nice! Also, you must visit the different islands cause they are beautiful, especially The Whitsundays!
Michelle Brough – Tropical Zoo is good along with a free pool in town that comes with free wifi. Port Douglas is nice for lunch.
Jaimee-Ray Ray – Night markets have a crepe! Go to the rainforest zoom on top of the casino.
Ruth Higgin – Port 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 Turner – Great 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 is 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, it’s worth the extra cash!
Danielle Danimezza Melnyczenko – Australian Butterfly Sanctuary in Kuranda. It’s a special place for me and so beautiful. The girls will find it fascinating!
Where to Stay in Cairns
We stayed in our camper trailer at the Ingenia Holidays Cairns Coconut (Formerly 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!
Final Thoughts on Things to Do in Cairns
So there you have it, our top things to do in Cairns, and as you can see, there’s so much to see and do!
Whether you’re looking for some fun for all the family, or you’re on a couples weekend away, you’ll find plenty of attractions in Cairns to keep you busy.
If you’re ever stuck for choices, you can’t go wrong with a visit to the national parks. Cairns is all about nature, so be sure to check some of this out while you’re there.
We hope this guide helped you decide on things to do in Cairns and offered some inspiration for planning your itinerary.
More Tropical North Queensland Tips
Are you planning to visit other parts of Tropical North Queensland? Then these other guides may be useful to you.
Do you have any tips for things to do in Cairns? Share in the comments section below.