Remote, tropical, uber chilled-out. 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 draw-cards and why it’s such a unique place to visit.
Perched near the tip of ‘Straya and surrounded by nothing but jungle for donkeys miles, ‘Cans’ is a modern & scenic ‘gateway’ city to so much incredible nature ~ from Australia’s widest single-drop waterfall, to the world’s largest reef system, Queensland’s highest mountain and the world’s oldest rainforest (with one of the world’s most ancient & dangerous bird species!).
The region is stuffed with superlatives, but there’s plenty going on beneath these jungle-clad ranges too.
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 never gets busy, it’s easy to get around and has a low population density. Plus it’s probably the most laid-back city in Queensland, which is saying something!
Whilst it’s ultimately a tourist town, and proudly so, I think Cairns is developing into much more. It’s stripped itself of many cheesy 1980’s tourist and backpacker haunts in favour of showcasing it’s hip and arty side, with a wave of cool new business opening up of late.
According to a survey by American based MoveHub, Cairns has even been branded the second ‘most hipster’ city in Australia after Gold Coast. 😱 More deets on that coming up later!
As Port Douglas locals, the Sailor & I visit Cairns regularly (often finding any excuse to visit!) and we also spent two months here last year, exploring 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, history … and whiskey!
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. It’s a proper chilled and scenic route, and a 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 if strolling before dinner, we love stopping by for a sundowner 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. 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, whilst 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 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 basing yourself by the beach for a few days then 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, Clifton or Holloways 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.
As mentioned in the intro, Cairns has been branded the second ‘most hipster’ city in Australia after Gold Coast according to a survey by American based MoveHub. 😱 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.
- Oceana Walk: Not a market but a cool little shopping strip we discovered recently where you’ll find hip & eclectic vintage goods, fashion and food provid0res.
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. Whilst the reef has experienced it’s fair share of devastations 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. It takes longer to get there (around an 90 mins) but you’ll be rewarded for it. Most of these 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 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.
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 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.
◇ 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.
Remember to pack...
✣ Green Island houses an eco-resort, but note it will get busy during the day with day-trippers.
✣ Fitzroy Island has a lovely resort too and the island is less busy. The beach doesn’t have the same soft sand as Green Island but there’s more in the way of rainforest walks. We camped here which is a great way to save a few bucks.
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 Cairns Northern Beaches has a few 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 Andy and Luke at Pacific Watersports.
The Sailor and I had a few lessons with these Kiwi legends and they provided some of the best instruction we’ve had (and there’s been a few teachers!). Depending on the tide, they either do lessons in 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, 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.
There’s a whole myriad of trails to explore which are listed in this brochure. You’re free to choose your own route, making it as long or short as you like.
We explored the Douglas Track recently, which is one of the most enjoyable walks I’ve done around Cairns & Port Douglas. It starts off in dense rainforest which has some interesting flora to nerd over, and at the summit you’re prized with a 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. The trail is really well undulated and signed so you won’t get lost.
After about 1.5 hours and approx. 4.5k you’ll come to a crest with a sign on your right saying ‘Glacier Rock’. Take this and walk 250m up to the lookout. Enjoy the pukka views and stop for a bevvy (if you packed one!) before making your return trip. We completed the track in 3.5hrs.
Fancy seeing more? If you have time then try making a stop at the impressive Barron Falls (below) and the hippy village of Karunda before driving back to your stay.
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 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.
Whilst the resort is sadly in disrepair since a Hong Kong based businessman bought it in 2012, 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.
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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 about 3 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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