After first winding up the east coast in 2014 and settling in nearby Port Douglas, I’m finally sharing all of my favourite things to do in Cairns. I’ve been visiting this tropical city on-and-off for over seven years and it’s changed quite a bit since I first came. Most guides on the internet are written by people who only spend a few days in the city and mainly include day trips you can take from here, but I’ll be highlighting things to actually do “in” Cairns! This is the most up-to-date and comprehensive guide on the web.
If you’re looking to experience the real magic of Far North Queensland then you need to venture out of the city. The great thing about Cairns is that it’s positioned just an hour away from all of nature’s best bits like The Great Barrier Reef, The Daintree Rainforest, The Atherton Tablelands and the beach town of Port Douglas.
Some people base themselves in Cairns for their entire vacation and just take day trips which is an easy option. It depends what you’re looking for but personally I’d recommend hiring a car and heading out of the city for the majority of your stay. I really love Cairns and I think it makes for a great holiday, but there’s just so much to see and do in Far North Queensland that only a few odd days here and there won’t be doing it justice.
What to expect from Cairns?
Cairns has become one of my favourite cities in Australia. As a local I may be a bit bias, but I think it has a lot to offer. It’s surrounded by towering rainforest-clad ranges so it’s very scenic, and you can literally drive or sail in any direction to find some of Australia’s most iconic World Heritage sites.
With a relatively small population (150’000), Cairns never feels busy and rush hour doesn’t exist. We enjoy coming here to visit many of it’s awesome restaurants (particularly for Asian food!), cool bars, hiking trails and waterfalls, markets and it always feels like we’re on holiday. The weather is also beautifully tropical so expect full-on Bali vibes in the humid wet season!
As tourism has always been the primary industry in Cairn, sadly quite a few businesses didn’t make it through COVID and you’ll notice many empty shops to let. Most were struggling prior to the pandemic, but there’s still plenty of awesome local business to support on your trip to Cairns.
A whole wave of cool new haunts have opened in recent years (and are still opening) like centres for the arts & culture, great new eateries, bars & breweries. The suave trio of 5* Crystalbrook hotels has also revamped the hotel scene and a new dining precinct is in the works. It’ll be interesting to see how Cairns continues to evolve over the next decade, particularly as homes have been snapped up here since the pandemic.
So without further ado, here are my favourite things to do in Cairns that’ll get you delving deeper into the heart of the city. Enjoy! ✣
Where are the best things to do in Cairns?
Roll up, roll up. For all the best things to do in Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef, this is your ultimate guide. Just a few details first…
Even though it’s a coastal city, Cairns actually has no beach on it’s doorstep- shock! Well there’s none in central Cairns anyway. It has a sandy strip next to the esplanade that opens up into the ocean but it’s right next to the estuary where crocs live, so you really don’t want to go swimming there!
But if you’re after a beach holiday then don’t worry, you’ll find those here too. The ten Northern Beaches are a part of Greater Cairns which includes the tourists favourite Palm Cove (below), and they’re only a 15-30 minute drive away.
You may have also read a lot about visiting the hippie rainforest village of Kuranda? Technically it’s on the Atherton Tablelands but because it’s more or less on the outskirts of the city (albeit in the hinterland) and just a 20 minute drive away, I’ve included it here too.
For all other places to visit that are NOT in Cairns, i.e. Port Douglas, the Daintree, Atherton Tablelands etc, you can check out my other articles on them! This post is for Greater Cairns only peeps.
15 Best Things to do in Cairns for 2021
Whenever I head somewhere new, I love to walk around first and get my bearings. I’ve mapped out one of my favourite routes here which is really chilled-out, scenic, and a great starting place to soak up the local vibes. Sometimes there’s also an event or markets to check out by the lagoon and often you’ll see pelicans by the esplanade.
To begin the 1.7k trail, start at Hemingway’s Brewery (who do amazing craft beer- you should stop for a pint!) and walk along the Marina & Esplanade. At the end we like to stop at Muddy’s Cafe for brunch or coffee if doing this walk during the day.
If you’re here around dusk, check out Riley’s rooftop bar Roccos for a sundowner and panoramic views of the city. Or for a more casual option (and if you forget your shoes…it’s no thongs allowed) then their ground floor bar at Paper Crane is a great alternative.
@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 on 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.
Particularly during the hotter months from October to March, you’ll probably be thankful for the extra space to cool off in! If your hotel doesn’t have a pool or you fancy a change of scenery, then Cairns lagoon is a good central option. Check the council website for opening hours.
Cairns is the traditional home of the Yidinji and Djabugay people who are also called Bama meaning ‘Rainforest People’. Alongside the rest of Far North Queensland, the region has one of the largest aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander populations in Australia (17%) so this is a great place to learn more about their culture. Here are two experiences I’d recommend closest to Cairns.
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 from a unique perspective alongside indigenous storytelling. This eco-certified tour incorporates aboriginal 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
This cultural centre first started off as a small aboriginal dance company in Kuranda many moons ago before expanding to a 10-hectare site in Cairns after great success. Tjapukai has 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.
Brought to you by The Three Wolves – aka, the pack behind Cairns’ first distillery, award-winning gins and four awesome local bars. They hold daily tours and gin tastings at their distillery-come-cocktail bar Wolf Lane– find out more on their website.
Otherwise if you just fancy stopping for a drink then they’ve recently opened in the evenings from Thursday to Sunday. Distillery Bar is a slightly more intimate and quiet alternative to The Three Wolves jut opposite and I’d highly recommend their selection of delicious cocktails (try their Davidson Plum Sour).
According to a survey last year by MoveHub, Cairns has been branded 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 exactly hard for Cairns to perform well considering it only has 150’000 people! While it may not rival Fitzroy or Carlton in Melbourne, on a smaller scale Cairns has some cool places to check out.
Since 2019, one proud local called Georgia set up Cairns’ first and only dedicated walking tour. There’s a few 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 details.
Otherwise just throw away your map and get lost on a self-guided wander.
Good to know
Rusty’s is a bit of an institution in Cairns. It’s quite hard to imagine it now, but it started from “a cloud of marijuana” (or so the story goes) during the town’s hippy days. When a group of flower people approached local car-lover Rusty Rees and asked if they could use his garage to set up a Saturday market, it marked the humble beginning of Rusty’s.
Now it’s the heart of the town every weekend offering a range of locally sourced fruit and veg- including every Queenslander banana you can imagine. You’ll also find a range of Asian staples, local coffee, deli goods, fresh coconuts and Cairns’ best Thai som tum, plus much more. Try to come on an empty stomach to sample some food!
As well as the offerings, I love the vibe here. If you want to see the real heart and soul of the city and mingle with the locals then it’s the place to be. Check the market website for more deets.
Visiting the Great Barrier Reef is undoubtedly top of the list for tourists in Cairns, and it should be. Whilst the reef has experienced it’s fair share of stress from climate change (like most coral reefs globally) there are still many awesome sites to discover that will make you fall in love with it- as it did with us.
To see the best of down under, I’d recommend heading to the Outer Reef which houses a greater diversity of marine life. We visited an Outer Reef spot from Port Douglas and saw everything from turtles to rays and awesome coral gardens – tap here to find out more.
From Cairns, there’s a crazy amount of info & tours to sift through when planning a reef trip which nearly fried my brain! 🤯 So let me simplify it for you.
Firstly, decide what kind of trip you want to go on.
- Outer Reef : There are over 20 outer reef systems near Cairns which take longer to reach (around 90 mins) but you’ll be rewarded for it. Most tours come with a Marine Biologist which really enhances your experience so make sure yours has one. You’ll need an adventurous spirit as you’ll be snorkelling/diving off the boat all day, otherwise you could try… 👇🏼
- Outer Reef 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 note that pontoons can typically hold up-to 120 people so it may be a bit of a meat fest.
- Island/Coral Cay : A good choice for those that don’t want to spend much time on the boat (or who get easily seasick) and fancy more island time. You can snorkel 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.
Then choose which operator you want to go with.
I’d always suggest going with eco-certified operators to minimise your impact. 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 or 120 in some cases. 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.
◇ Ocean Spirit
Eco-certified Ocean Spirit Cruises are a part of the long-establish Quicksilver Group. They’ll take you to a stunning coral cay called Michaelmas where you can enjoy snorkelling around it’s fringing reef. Their sailing catamaran is primarily driven by wind power which is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. See this experience.
Remember to pack...
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 a pretty steep uphill slog but you’ll be prized with awesome views of the dam at the summit.
OR, if you’re feeling lazy and just want something short ‘n’ easy, I got you covered too! Using the same starting point, take the short 1.2k walk along the well-maintained path at Crystal Cascades instead. You’ll pass a series of freshwater swimming holes before reaching the main waterfall, just find your perfect spot to cool off along the way.
(Insider Tip: Shh, Fairy Falls is just a short bushwalk away for a quieter alternative!)
Crystal Cascades to Copperlode Dam: 6k return/2.5-3 hours/strenuous
Getting Here: Drive to Crystal Cascades (there’s no public transport) and follow the signs from Redlynch. 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 at the road by 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.
Good to know
When you need to sink your toes in the sand, then you should check out one (or more) of the 10 Northern Beaches. Palm Cove is the most popular as it’s made for holidaymakers and feels really chilled, with a wide range of hotels, restaurants and boutiques. Many of the others are generally pretty local and quiet, however 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 to self drive, otherwise Uber is an option or check out the local bus service which stops at a handful of beaches.
If you fancy staying by the beach for a few days then you’ll find most hotels on Booking.com (tick the beaches in the filter section). I enjoyed Palm Cove, but if you’re watching the wallet then maybe check out Trinity, Clifton or Holloways Beach.
Otherwise, we had fun camping on Ellis Beach (there’s beachfront cabins on offer too), and if you’re without gear then CampersOz in Cairns loan out everything you need for a pretty good rate.
Cairns Gallery is usually really well curated with some great exhibitions on offer- and it’s free! I’ve been a few times and seen some insightful Aboriginal artwork and local contemporary pieces. To find out more about current exhibitions, visit the gallery’s website.
There’s quite a big following of kiteboarders and foilers in Cairns so the Northern Beaches is a popular spot. If you have your own gear then just rig up solo, or if you’re a beginner then get in touch with Andy and Luke at Pacific Watersports. The Sailor and I had a few lessons with these cool Kiwis and they’re really good. Depending on the tide, they’ll either take you to Yorkeys Knob which has a nice flat lagoon further down the beach (their main spot) or at Double Island opposite Palm Cove.
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 in Kuranda, just a 20 minute drive from Cairns. It houses a network of thousands-of-years-old trails, originally blazed by the Djabugay Aboriginal people who walked them for trade, to gather seasonal food and visit ceremonial sites. There’s a whole heap to explore which are listed in this brochure – choose your own or take my personal favourite, the Douglas Track.
It starts off in dense rainforest which has some interesting flora and at the summit you’re prized with ripper view of Cairns, The Northern Beaches & nearby ranges. This is also cassowary territory, so keep your eyes peeled for these beauts.
Please Be Wary...
To get here: follow your GPS to ‘Speewah Regional Park Campground’ and park up just before it, opposite the Djina-Wu Track sign. Take this 765m trail which begins on a boardwalk before leading you to a junction where you’ll begin the Douglas Track. It’s really well signed and undulated so you won’t get lost.
After about 1.5 hours (approx. 4.5k) you’ll come to a crest with a sign to your right saying ‘Glacier Rock’. Take it and walk 250m up to the lookout for incredible views. We completed the return track in 3.5hrs.
Fancy seeing more? If you have time then try making a stop at the impressive Barron Falls (below). Then check out the rainforest village of Kuranda to see their Original Rainforest Market and reward yourself with a good snag and beer at German Tucker. Apparently 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 Kuranda a decade later.
The Cairns Botanic Gardens really surprised me. For some reason I was expecting it to be dull and boring but it was actually one of the nicest days out I’ve had in Cairns!
Because of the tropical climate here, it’s extremely well suited to house lots of beautifully weird and interesting plants. Even though Cairns isn’t exactly a monster urban jungle, it was nice to escape the concrete and hit the green. It really feels like you’re in the rainforest and it’s only 10 minutes up the road!
Cairns Botanic Gardens is positioned in the leafy and upcoming Edge Hill neighbourhood which houses a few cool restaurants you could sneak off to before or after (check out Noah & Ozmosis).
The gardens are split into a number of different sections- we didn’t have enough time to visit all as it’s huge. Probably best to spare a good 3-4 hours.
Highlights were the Aboriginal Plant Use Garden, the historic Flecker Garden, The Rainforest Boardwalk and Watkins Conservatory that had all kinds of cool flouring plants.
Tanks Art Centre is around here too and worth peeking into. It was closed when we came but it has a gallery and theatre which holds a range of concerts and shows.
Also about were some pretty crazy tree trunks. My winners for the most nuts go to:
If you’ve visited Palm Cove and ever wondered what that saucy double-breasted 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 you can spend some time snorkelling there when you arrive.
This place was once an all-island ‘exclusive’ retreat for the glitterati, 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). It was even suggested as a possible honeymoon destination for Prince Wills & Kate- I don’t think I could have made up a better intro myself.
Whilst the resort is sadly in disrepair since cyclone Yasi in 2011, the beaches are 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 & Hawksbill turtles and rays.
(Insider Tip: Shh, at the northern side of the island there are some secret hidden caves to explore!)
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Yikes, that was a long one. Well done if you lasted to the end! I hope you found my article on things to do in Cairns useful.
If you’re visiting the region for the first time and want to travel around, I’d suggest one or two nights in Cairns if you’re on a 2 week trip. Check out my latest article which lists my favourite stays in the city, whether you’re on a budget or dropping the dollars.
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