Remote, tropical, underrated. Cairns is the main city in Far North Queensland and I can concur that when a region needs to have “far” in it’s name, it feels pretty off grid. But that’s one of it’s main draw-cards and why it’s such a unique place to visit.
Since I first flew here in 2014, my perception of Cairns has changed a lot. It often feels like it’s own little bubble separate from the rest of Australia and wrings a distinctive vibe that took a while for me to “get”. However when you peel back the layers, I discovered more to this bloated town than just it’s proximity to incredible natural beauty.
Perched near the tip of ‘Straya, Cairns is a modern and scenic metropolis that’s cradled in lush jungle-clad ranges. It’s a gateway to so much incredible nature, like Queensland’s highest mountain (I’ll crack that hike one day), the world’s largest reef system, Australia’s widest single-drop waterfall, the world’s oldest rainforest (with one of the world’s most ancient -and dangerous- bird species) ~ this place is just packed with superlatives!
Even though I’m a born and bred Londoner, I’m not much of a city girl these days which is why Cairns suits me to a tee. It’s never busy, it’s easy to get around, it has a low population density and it’s probably the most laid-back city in Queensland- which is saying something. Out of all the places I’ve travelled to in Europe, South-East Asia & Australia, it would be my favourite city to move to if I had to go back to one.
But I’m gonna be honest. Over the years I’ve met a few people who, like me, visited Cairns for the first time and thought it had a bit of a ‘peculiar’ vibe. I’m still not quite sure if I can put my finger on why, and I definitely don’t have this perception anymore.
However I think it has something to do with it’s remoteness and levels of quirky.
If you consider it’s history & geography, it makes sense. For so long it grew in relative isolation, and the first airport didn’t even emerge here until 1984. 😳
What began as a working port village serving the nearby mines and agricultural lands, only developed into a humble ‘tourist town’ after WW2. The area was like it’s own land-locked island for most of it’s life and I think this is partly why it’s so unique. A bit like Australia, but on a smaller scale.
Since returning last year, I feel that Cairns is beginning to find it’s groove and grow into itself, ditching the 1980’s cheesy tourist look in favour of showcasing it’s arty & hipster side.
With the sprouting of cool new businesses such as the upmarket Crystalbrook Hotels, Hemingway’s Brewery, Cairns Performing Arts Centre, Three Wolves Bar & Distillery and The Chambers restaurant, a new lease of life has been injected. It still has a local feel and still plenty of quirky characters (which I love) but it’s becoming much more than just a tourist town.
Over the two years we’ve lived in Port Douglas, the Sailor and I visit Cairns regularly and often find any excuse to enjoy it’s perks. We also spent two months here last year when we moved back to the region, which was a great chance to experience it like a local and explore more nooks & crannies.
So, dear ones, I’ve written up a list of my top things to do in Cairns that get’s you delving deeper into the heart of the city ~ from culture to nature, adventure and historical insights.
Have fun! x
Best Things to do in Cairns for 2020
As Cairns has no beach on it’s doorstep, technically the northern beaches are a part of the area. This includes 10 beaches spanning 28k up the coast, which only takes between 15 mins and half hour to get to.
So in this article I’ll cover things to do from Cairns to Ellis Beach (the last Northern Beach), including a small portion of the Atherton Tablelands on the outskirts of the city.
I won’t include day trips that go deeper into the Tablelands or the Daintree etc. as they deserve their own post (come back soon for my Far North QLD itinerary!), but you can check out my other articles on them:
The Sailor and I regularly do this walk when we visit Cairns, usually at sunset or before lunch when it’s a bit cooler. It’s a proper chilled and scenic route, and great way to soak up the local vibes. Sometimes there’s also an event or markets to check out by the lagoon.
The 1.7k path takes you from Hemingway’s Brewery (who do amazing craft beer- you should stop for a pint!) around the Marina and along the Esplanade. At the end we like stopping at Muddy’s Cafe for a brunch or coffee if doing this walk during the day.
Or before dinner we love stopping by for a cocktail at Riley’s ground floor bar (below), which is fast becoming the city’s hottest sunset spot. They also have a cool roof top bar called Roccos which gives you panoramic views of the city, but don’t forget your shoes as it’s no thongs allowed- something we always forget! If you’re a local you can also apply for a local’s card which gives you 15% off food, drinks & stays.
@travel_mermaidRiley’s Resort in ##Cairns♬ original sound – travel_mermaid
On holiday I’m not usually much of a museum person, but I always think you should leave knowing something new about where you’ve visited. Since checking out Cairns Museum last year, it’s really piqued my curiosity in the history of Far North Queensland.
You’ll find out about the region’s Traditional Owners, local characters and how Cairns transformed from humble origins into a thriving international city. This place is really well curated and makes for a great rainy day activity or way to escape the heat.
Prior to colonisation, it’s estimated that around 5’000 Indigenous people lived in the rainforest in and around the Cairns, which was one of the most densely populated regions in Australia.
The area is the traditional home of the Yidinji and Djabugay indigenous peoples, who are also called ‘Bama’, meaning ‘The Rainforest People’ because of their close affinity with nature. We’re lucky to have a number of experiences from Cairns to Cape Tribulation where we can learn about their ancient culture. Here are two I’d recommend closest to the city.
Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel
A trip to the Great Barrier Reef is definitely something you need to do in Far North Queensland, and I love that Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel offers it alongside indigenous storytelling.
This eco-certified tour incorporates indigenous culture with a full-day of snorkeling or diving at two sites. Currently, this is the only experience of it’s kind in Australia. Check out more details here.
Tjapukai Aboriginal Culture Park
Although primarily aimed at tourists, the experience looks fun and insightful without being cheesy, and I’m really keen to go when lockdown lifts. These guys have been operating for years, and started off as a small dance company in Karunda before expanding.
The park is a whopping 10-hectares, which includes: a dance space & gallery, a museum, movie theatre, cultural village (where you can learn to play a didgeridoo, throw a boomerang or sample bush tucker) and a restaurant with an emphasis on native foods. Allow 4 hours if coming for the day- check out more details.
If you’re more of a night owl, they also hold a night experience which combines traditional dance, music & storytelling around a fire with dinner (allow 2.5-3hours) – view info.
When your hotel pool or Cairns Lagoon ain’t cutting it anymore and you’re craving some beach vibes, then you should check out one (or more) of the 10 Northern Beaches.
Palm Cove is the most popular with tourists and has the most amount of provisions like restaurants and hotels, but the others are generally pretty local and quiet. There’s also a nudist beach in the mix (Buchans Point), so whatever rocks your boat eh. 😉
Personally I think the further up the coast you go (to Palm Cove & Ellis Beach), the more beautiful the beaches get .. but maybe I’m just being spoilt, most are pretty hot. During stinger season (November to May) you’ll probably want to head to one that has a swimming enclosure so you can enter the water safely.
To get there, it’s easiest of self drive, otherwise Uber is an option or check out the local bus service which stops at a handful of beaches.
If you fancy basing yourself by the beach for a few days, then there you’ll find most hotels on Booking.com (tick the beaches in the filter section). I loved staying in Palm Cove, but if you’re watching the wallet then maybe check out Trinity or Clifton Beach.
Otherwise, we enjoyed camping on Ellis Beach (there’s beachfront cabins on offer too), and if you’re without gear then don’t fear, CampersOz in Cairns loan out everything you need for a pretty good rate.
Brought to you by The Three Wolves – aka, my favourite cocktail bar in Cairns. If you’re into this liquid dessert (aka. Gaelic Coffee, Tennessee Mouthwash, Drop of the Pure) then these guys hold weekly tastings in their distillery just opposite. Find out more on their web.
According to a survey by American based MoveHub, Cairns is the second ‘most hipster’ city in Australia after Gold Coast. 😱 It’s based on a 5-point system per 100’000 residents (including- the number of vegan eateries, coffee shops, tattoo studios, vintage boutiques & record stores) so it wasn’t hard for Cairns to perform well, considering it only has 150’000 locals! As an ex-Melbourne local, I don’t think Fitzroy or Carlton have anything to worry about, but on a smaller scale, Cairns is amping up the ‘cool’.
When it’s not stifling hot and muggy during the throes of summer, I love walking around Cairns. It’s well interconnected with a few laneways & street art pieces to explore, it never gets “busy” and I’m fascinated with the architecture. Since heading to Cairns Museum I realised there’s so many cute histories here and each building tells a tale.
Thankfully one proud and enthusiastic local called Georgia decided to fill a gap in the market and set up Cairns’ first walking tour in 2019. There’s a few types on offer- I’m keen to do the History Tour first- but she also does a Hipster & Street Art tour, and a Rusty’s Food Lovers tour. Check her web for more deets.
- Rusty’s Market was set up by a local character called Rusty Rees who started off using the site as a dance hall ‘Trocadero’. It mainly showcases local produce and other titbits at awesome prices- I always stop by when I come to ‘Cans’.
- Night Markets: The first night markets in Australia, offering street food & a range of locally made goods + Rosie’s pop-up massage. Not stalls are not my cuppa but there’s a few goodies in the mix.
6k return/2.5-3 hours/strenuous
If you’re a bit of an adventurer and reasonably fit, then doing the return hike from Crystal Cascades to Copperlode Dam is a great workout. The first half is an unrelenting uphill slog so it’s definitely not a walk in the park! But you’ll be prized with awesome views of the dam at the summit, and can cool off in a freshwater dipping pool underneath a waterfall back at the Cascades.
Good to know
To head here, you’ll need to drive to Crystal Cascades (there’s no public transport) and follow the signs from Redlynch. Park up and just past the first BBQ pit there’s a sign in front of the trail to your left.
The path is really well marked and undulated so you won’t get lost. The first few hundred meters is the steepest and hardest, but then it gradually opens up. About halfway up you’ll reach a power pole & viewpoint of Yorkeys Knob (what an epic name, btw). Then when you reach the road at the summit, take a right towards the kiosk which overlooks the scenic Copperlode Dam. The dam is also called Lake Morris, and it’s the main water supply for Cairns.
Visiting the iconic GBR is undoubtedly top of the list for tourists in Cairns, and it should be. As I mentioned in my Port Douglas post, the diversity of sea life is what steals the show as opposed to “colourful” coral. To see the best of down under, head to the outer reef where common characters such as turtles, giant clams, gentle giants Maori Wrass, Clownfish, stingrays, reef sharks are often found.
As Cairns accommodates more tourists than Port Douglas, some of the sites here do get busier. The islands are little rippers but plan your visit well to ensure you’re not a part of a big crowd. I thought Green Island was stunning but I probably won’t visit again during the peak season, unless I went early.
There’s a crazy amount of info & tours to sift through when planning a reef trip from Cairns which nearly fried my brain 🤯! So let me simplify it for ya.
Firstly, decide what kind of trip you want to go on.
- Island/Coral Cay : A good choice for those that don’t want to spend too much time on the boat or who get easily seasick, and for peeps that want more island time. You can snorkel from just off the beach (or jetty) and there’s usually a good amount of shade too. Green Island, Fitzroy Island and Michaelmas Cay are close to Cairns.
- Outer Reef – recommended : There are many outer reef systems near Cairns and they house a higher diversity of marine life, so I’d suggest this tour.
- Pontoon : Some boats moor at a pontoon on the outer reef. They’re stable and spacey platforms that offer easier access into the water and come with a few more bells and whistles (like an underwater observatory, sun deck etc) so this could be a better option for families. Although some pontoons can hold up-to 120 people so it may be a bit of a meat fest.
Then choose which operator you want to go with.
I’d always suggest going with eco-certified operators to minimise your impact on an already vulnerable reef. Compared to Port Douglas, it’s a bit harder to find boats in Cairns that offer smaller tours of 30-45, so you’ll often be looking at groups of up to 60. Here are my top picks :
◇ Reef Magic Cruises
This operator pitches up at the Marine World pontoon located on Moore Reef on the Outer GBR. Reef Magic are really well rated and all tours come with a marine biologist ~ check out their full-day tour.
◇ Tusa Snorkel & Dive
Tusa take guests to two outer reef sites, chosen on the day based on the weather & conditions. Passenger numbers limited to 65 and they are really well rated ~ view their full-day tour.
◇ Great Adventures
These guys offer a few types of trips, but the one I’d recommend takes you to a stunning coral cay called Michaelmas. Their sailing catamaran is primarily driven by wind power which is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint, and a good option for people who want a sailing and reef experience. See this experience.
There were two free exhibitions at Cairns Gallery when we visited and I really enjoyed both. We saw an awesome array of paintings & sculptures by aboriginal artist John Mawurndjul, and quite an emotional piece by photographer William Yang about his family in Far North Queensland. They both had an insightful video to watch too which made the experience more immersive.
William’s story really highlighted his family’s struggle but also celebrated their heritage. I didn’t realise that the goldfields in Far North Queensland attracted a large number of Chinese settlers, who outnumbered Europeans in some areas. They contributed greatly to the early successes of the region but similarly to the rest of Australia at the time, most were subjected to racial discrimination and were largely marginalised members of the community.
To find out more about current exhibitions, visit the gallery’s website.
There’s a few awesome spots to kitesurf in Far North Queensland and this is one of them. If you have your own gear you can just rig up on the beach, or if you’re a beginner (like moi) then get in touch with Pacific Watersports who do lessons over on Double Island- the set-up looks epic!
Fore more spot details or for a list of others nearby, check out Kiterr.com.
This lush rainforest is nestled in the fringing Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, just a 20 minute drive from Cairns. It houses a network of thousands-of-years-old trails, originally blazed by the traditional landowners- the Djabugay Aboriginal people, who walked them for trade, to gather seasonal food and visit ceremonial sites. If the trees could talk, I’m sure they’d have storied to tell.
We left the car at Wrights Lookout and took the return Surprise Creek track, combining it with a part of the Mcdonald’s trail. It was an easy and peaceful hike that felt really remote, with only a few other enthusiasts about.
Afterwards you can visit the impressive Barron Falls (below…there wasn’t much rain beforehand) and finish up with a walk around the hippy village of Karunda- I’d recommend rewarding yourself with a good snag and beer at German Tucker Karunda.
Karunda is an interesting place and often recommended as a day trip from Cairns. Apparently the hippies first moved to the region in the 60’s and set up a shanty settlement on Holloways Beach (one of the Northern Beaches) before moving on to Karunda a decade later.
If you’ve visited Palm Cove and ever wondered what that island is across the water, then that’s Double Island! Kayaking or SUP-ing there is a really fun, low-impact way to journey over, and there’s some awesome snorkelling on offer when you arrive.
This place was once an all-island “exclusive” retreat for the very rich and famous, with the likes of Brad Pitt, Jenny Aniston and Keanu Reeves coming for a stay (apparently the resort even added a gym so he could train for The Matrix), as well as being a possible honeymoon destination for Prince William & Kate.
Whilst the resort is sadly in disrepair since a Hong Kong based businessman bought it in 2012, the island is still very much open to day-trippers. It’s about a 1.7k/half hour kayak over (longer for SUP) and amongst the surrounding reef you’re likely to spot a range of marine life, including Green and Hawksbill turtles.
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Yikes, that was a long one! Well done if you lasted to the end!
I hope you found this article on things to do in Cairns useful. The city is forever developing and evolving so I’m sure there’ll be a few more highlights in the pipeline over the next few years.
If you’re visiting the region for the first time and want to travel around, I’d suggest about 3 nights in Cairns if you’re on a 2 week trip. Check back again soon for my suggestions on where to stay in the city as well as my ultimate Far North Queensland itinerary.
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