Cairns Australia is one of the largest cities in Far North Queensland and it’s the best place to base yourself to explore the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest.
As well as these epic outdoor sights, the city itself has some underrated attractions to visit while in the surrounding region, there are some awesome things to do from Cairns, including hidden waterfalls, swimming holes and volcanic lakes.
Cairns might be one of Queensland’s most popular travel destinations, but away from the touristy spots, there are a lot of unknown attractions waiting to be found and there are some great off the beaten track spots in Cairns Australia to complement the well-known sights.
I’ve tried to list as many of the best things to do in Cairns as possible but let me know in the comments if there’s anything that I might have missed.
A Brief History of Cairns
Cairns is found on the east coast of Australia, in the tropical north of Queensland. The city was founded by Europeans in 1876 and is named for the man who was then the Governor of Queensland, Mr William Wellington Cairns.
The city was established as a port to export goods from the surrounding region, but in recent decades it’s become more of a hub for tourism, as it offers easy access to the Great Barrier Reef and to the Daintree Rainforest.
These locations are often included in some of the most popular Australia tours, especially the Great Barrier Reef.
Before the city came to be, local Aboriginal tribes had called this region home for thousands of years. The Traditional Owners are the Yirrganydji people, but their way of life was to be irrevocably changed with the arrival of Europeans.
Captain Cooke and his crew of the Endeavour were the first Europeans to chart the coast in 1770, and they were stranded in northern Queensland after almost sinking during their passage through the gauntlet of the Great Barrier Reef.
Today, the city has grown into the largest community this far north in the state, with a population that swells during the peak tourist season.
The Best Time of Year to Visit Cairns
Cairns Australia is a tropical city and its location ensures that it experiences very distinct wet and dry seasons, while it’s not unusual for the region to be hit by unexpected flooding and cyclones.
The wet season generally lasts from November to March, with the worst of the rain falling in December and January. This is the low season and you will find many hotels and companies wind down during this time of year. It’s also the hottest and most humid time of year to visit.
The dry season generally lasts from April through to October and is rather cool and pleasant, at least in comparison to the wet season. This is also peak season when it can get REALLY busy in Cairns.
Be warned though that any time of year the weather can be unpredictable and take a turn for the worse. This is rainforest country, so expect rain even in the dry season. When I visited at the end of March, there were extraordinary and unexpected floods that closed roads for days, and this was when the rainy season was supposed to be drawing to a close.
Things to Do in Cairns
Cairns Australia has something for everyone. There are iconic natural sights, spectacular beaches, tropical rainforests, waterfalls, art galleries, markets and much more. Cairns might not be the cheapest destination in the world, but with remember you can check the pound to AUD rates and make transfers before you depart to get the most out of your time in Far North North Queensland.
There are lots of things to do in Cairns and from the must-sees to the unknown attractions, here are the best of them all.
The Great Barrier Reef
No guide to the best things to do in Cairns could ever call itself complete without mentioning the Great Barrier Reef. This is one of the best things to do from Cairns, as the city acts as a sort of hub for exploring the offshore reef and is really the gateway for anyone looking to visit this vast ecosystem.
The reef is over 1400 miles long, and this World Heritage Site stretches from Bundaberg in the south all the way north to Papua New Guinea. It’s a diverse, colourful and astounding place to see.
There are many ways to experience the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns and you can join day trips wich travel out to the islands and to different sections of the coral reef, where you can snorkel, dive, swim and even enjoy trips in submersible vehicles or glass bottom boats. It’s best to do some research before you sign up for any old boat tour though of course.
Try to find a reputable company, with smaller group sizes and licenses to visit more of the areas, and a responsible ethos, because now more than ever before, this great natural wonder is under threat.
Fitzroy Island is an alternative destination in the Great Barrier Reef for those looking to spend less time on a boat and more time on land.
This is a protected national park that also serves as a holiday resort. That sounds almost contradictory, but aside from a few small developments, this is still, in fact, a spectacularly scenic place to visit.
There are snorkelling and hiking opportunities but perhaps the most interesting sight is the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre which is the largest such centre in Far North Queensland, caring for and saving countless turtle lives each year. Fitzroy Island is located 45 minutes by fast cat away from Cairns and you can day trip or spend the night at the resort.
Green Island is also found just 45 minutes away from Cairns, and this might be somewhere you want to avoid if you are looking for peace and solitude.
Although undeniably beautiful, Green Island is most definitely on the tourist radar. It’s one of the more popular day trip destinations and you can swim, snorkel the reef and enjoy the beaches, but just be warned, you won’t be alone.
Around the Great Barrier Reef, you can find several man-made pontoons which allow you to experience the natural world from the comfort of this stable platform in the ocean.
These pontoons are unique because they have underwater viewing areas, there are helicopter pads that allow you to enjoy scenic flights over the reef and of course, you can get in the water to snorkel and dive.
If you don’t want to spend all day on a boat, this is a great experience, and equally, the pontoons also offer you the chance to stay overnight and to wake up to a sunrise over the corals.
Scenic Flights over the Great Barrier Reef
One of the most gratifying angles of the Great Barrier Reef is from above. To really appreciate the vast scale of this huge, living organism in the ocean, then one of the most breathtaking things do at Cairns is to take off on a scenic flight.
There are companies offering helicopter tours and small aircraft flights over the reef, and although not the cheapest activity, you will have the most unique view.
Snorkelling and Diving
With such a diverse underwater world to explore, to truly experience the Great Barrier Reef then you really need to snorkel or dive the coral.
On the islands, you can literally walk out onto the reef while the boat tours will take you to some of the best spots near to Cairns. Many offer try dives for first timers, and what better place for your first dive than Cairns?
Whale Watching From Cairns Australia
If you travel to Cairns Australia during the right season then you will have the chance to see the extraordinary sight of whales migrating along the coast.
Between May and September, you are likely to see these magnificent marine mammals around the Great Barrier Reef, as they move towards their breeding grounds. There are dedicated boat trips during this time of year that take visitors out in search of whales.
Things to do in Cairns CBD
It’s not all about the Great Barrier Reef though. The city itself is a great place to spend time and there are a great many things to do in Cairns CBD too, from exploring museums and galleries to swimming in the famous Cairns Lagoons.
Here are the best things to do in Cairns itself.
The Cairns Esplanade has long been the centre of life in the city. This is one of the best places to visit in Cairns because there is always something happening here.
The Esplanade stretches along the shorefront of the CBD, encompassing bars, cafes, restaurants and BBQ facilities. There are grassy areas where you can play sport, you can join the free exercise classes and you can enjoy the varied street performers throughout the day.
The Cairns Lagoon is somewhat of a city icon. This was my favourite place to visit in the city, because on a hot day – and most days in Cairns are going to be hot! – you can just jump into the water and cool off.
The lagoon is an outdoor swimming pool that’s located by the Esplanade and provides a safe place to swim within the city centre.
Cairns Lagoon pretty much sums up the laid-back Aussie lifestyle in one swimming pool.
The Cairns Marina is not only where you will find all the tour companies and boats that leave for the Great Barrier Reef, but it’s where you can find some of the more upmarket bars and restaurants in the city these days.
In a great location overlooking the harbour and the mangroves, it’s a beautiful place for lunch or dinner. If you have some cash to splash I’d recommend trying the local dishes at Ochre, as this is one of the few restaurants in Cairns Australia that actually has an Aboriginal inspired menu.
Cairns Botanic Gardens
The Botanic Gardens are found outside of the city centre and are a welcome retreat from the busy streets.
The gardens date back almost as far as the city’s founding and in the last century have become a beautiful, cultured area.
Its a place for pleasant strolls, while botanic enthusiasts will enjoy the wide variety of local plants and trees that are found here. There’s even a pleasant restaurant serving breakfast and lunch.
Tanks Arts Centre
The Tanks Arts Centre is a more unusual Cairns attraction. These oil tanks were built for storage during World War II but have since been converted into a spectacular art gallery.
Found by the Botanic Gardens, they offer a unique experience for those with a keen interest in local art.
Doongal Aboriginal Art
Art lovers will enjoy a visit to Doongal Aboriginal Art too. Located in Cairns CBD, this art space offers local indigenous artists a place to not only display their work but to sell it too.
They have a huge array of art pieces from across Queensland and further afield.
Cairns and the surrounding region is host to some exceptional markets. One of the best is the Cairns Nightmarkets, which is held every day throughout the year in the city centre.
While it’s become a bit touristy – you can buy plenty of tacky souvenirs here – I loved it for the food.
There’s a great canteen area where you can buy a tonne of great Asian inspired food, from Laksa to dumplings, and a lot of it involves you simply being given a plate and filling it up with as much as you possibly can for just a few dollars.
Held every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Cairns, Rusty’s Market has become somewhat of a phenomenon in the city.
A favourite amongst tourists and locals alike, this is a lively place where you can find stalls selling everything from antiques to top quality coffee and everything in between.
The market has been in business for over 30 years now and has become more than a permanent feature on the Cairns weekend scene.
Cairns Mangrove Boardwalk
Found in an unassuming location between the city and the airport, the mangrove boardwalk doesn’t see too many visitors.
In fact, most people probably don’t even realise that this little piece of the Queensland Wet Tropics can be found so close to Cairns. It’s humid and hot in the mangroves but it’s a lovely natural setting to experience.
The Cairns Museum will give you a great overview of the city’s history, although, like most Australian museums, the focus tends to be primarily on the European settlement of the region.
Nonetheless, it’s an intriguing place to wander through, with the many exhibitions demonstrating the tough life of the tropics through the decades.
An unusual place to visit, and a place you may not expect to find in tropical Cairns, is the Samurai Gallery.
Collated and curated by a local enthusiast, this is the largest collection of Samurai artefacts and exhibits to be found in Australia.
Cairns Art Gallery
Cairns Art Gallery is a wonderful place to spend a few hours perusing the exhibits and learning more about contemporary art and culture in the region.
Located in a restored heritage building, there are changing galleries all through the year alongside a nice cafe where you can sit out on the veranda after taking in your fill of the artwork.
Things to Do From Cairns
Aside from the great many things to do in Cairns, the city is the perfect place from which to launch out on day trips or even longer excursions to the surrounding regions.
From the nearby tourist town of Kuranda to the Daintree Rainforest, there are a lot of things to do from Cairns.
Located just a short journey to the north of Cairns CBD is the beautiful beachside community of Palm Cove.
This is one of the best beaches in the nearby area and it’s just a short drive or bus ride away. You can visit on a day trip, sit under the palms and swim in the safe, netted off area of the water to avoid nasty crocs or jellyfish.
There are plenty of hotels here too if you fancy spending longer out here too.
The Babinda Boulders are one of the most epic sights you will encounter in Queensland. Found by the small town of Babinda around an hour’s drive to the south of Cairns, this is a place that’s steeped in as many legends as it is beautiful.
You will find raging torrents of water plummeting over smoothed, granite boulders that far an unusual scene in the middle of the rainforest.
Many people have died here in the past, so be careful where you venture, but at the top of the boulders, there is a safe, shallow swimming area with absolutely crystal clear water.
Just don’t stray from this, or you may become part of the local legends too. And don’t worry, there are no crocs here. Usually.
A bit further down the road from Babinda and you will find the stunning spectacle of Josephine Falls.
Hidden away in the rainforest, a short but humid hike along boardwalks leads you to some truly astounding viewing platforms that offer a glimpse through the dense jungle of the crashing, multi-layered waterfall.
This is one of the best places to go swimming in the area, and there are plenty of natural slides that have formed from the rocks too.
Be careful though, as during the rainy season this place can be a deathtrap. Many tourists have lost their lives and many more have had to be rescued when swimming because after heavy rains the river further upstream can burst its banks and sent flash floods down into the pools – sometimes several days after the rains have stopped too.
Like much of Queensland, Josephine Falls are beautiful but potentially perilous for the unwary.
The Atherton Tablelands is a great area of rural villages, small towns and farming communities that are found inland from Cairns.
Away from the coast, this a much cooler area and a visit to the Atherton Tablelands is a great chance to escape the heat and the humidity of Cairns. There really is a lot to do up here, and you can easily spend a few days exploring.
The highlights include the Crater Lakes National Park, where you can enjoy the sight of volcanic craters that have over time turned into lakes, or the nearby Curtain Fig Tree, which happens to be one of the largest and most impressive Fig Trees I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.
There are plenty of farm shops, dairy farms and in the town of Carrington, you can call in at the local Bat Hospital to learn more about these mammals that are under threat across Australia.
The Crystal Cascades is just a short, half hour drive away from the city and it’s one of the best things to do in Cairns because this awesome area of waterfalls is crocodile free and full of cool, fresh water.
It’s a local favourite and can be busy with day trippers on the weekends, but in midweek, it’s a beautifully secluded spot to travel to from Cairns.
Tarzali Lakes Platypus Park
If, like me, you would love to see the unique platypus in its home territory, then look no further than a visit to Tarzali Lakes.
Two hours south of Cairns, this is pretty much one of the only spots where you can be 99 percent guaranteed to see a platypus.
This is a charming nature reserve in the mountains but start early because platypus tend to come out at night and the best time to spot them is at sunrise.
Kuranda is Cairns’ traditional touristic day out. It’s a bit of strange place to visit because this mountaintop market town primarily exists to cater to tourists looking to buy souvenirs and cliche Aussie items such as boomerangs or kangaroo burgers, but it’s an established part of the wider Cairns community and still makes for an intriguing excursion.
The Kuranda Markets is held here every day and it’s advertised as the ‘Market in the Rainforest’, and indeed, it is a fantastic place to buy souvenirs and gifts if you are on holiday. A better experience though is actually getting to Kuranda in the first place. The drive up is spectacular, but you also have the option to take either the Scenic Railway or the Kuranda Skyrail.
The Scenic Railway takes you from Cairns to Kuranda, on a railway line through the jungle that dates back to the 1890s. The Kuranda Skyrail takes you above the rainforest and straight up over the trees for beautiful a panoramic of the area.
Barron Falls is one the most magnificent waterfalls you will see anywhere in the world.
The best lookout spots are found just outside of Kuranda, while the Scenic Railway even has a stop just for the waterfall too.
This is a crashing, powerful waterfall in the wet season, but in the dry season it can dry up rather quickly.
That’s not to say it’s not spectacular still, because the height of the cliffs here reaches well over 100 metres and the surrounding rainforest is marvellous to walk through.
Tully Gorge National Park
Just over two hours to the south of Cairns is the Tully Gorge National Park.
The raging Tully River flows through the gorge and has become a favourite for those looking for adventure, as the white water is perfect for rafting.
If you are not looking to get wet or searching for an adrenaline rush, then there are some great hikes through the national park and some scenic lookouts over the Tully River.
Port Douglas is a great little community in Far North Queensland and a location that’s frequently used as a gateway to either the northern areas of the Great Barrier Reef or into the Daintree Rainforest.
There’s an interesting nightlife here, and you can visit the Iron Bar, a classic Aussie pub where they actually race cane toads, and where racing occurs most evenings during the dry season.
Mossman Gorge is an hour to the north of the city and makes for one of the best things to do from Cairns in the area.
The gorge cuts through spectacular rainforest and there are some epic hikes here.
Local indigenous tour guides also run popular walks through the rainforest which give you the rare opportunity to learn more about the local culture and about the flora and fauna that’s found here from the people that know it best.
The Daintree River cuts through the Daintree Rainforest and out into the ocean above Port Douglas, and this extensive ecosystem is full of unusual wildlife that’s hidden along the banks.
The most impressive creature you will find here is the saltwater crocodile, and there are some excellent local boat captains who run tours along the river in search of these fearsome animals.
I’d recommend booking a tour along the Daintree River with Solar Whisper, who run solar-powered boats that barely make a sound and increase your chances of spotting wildlife.
One of the best things to do near Cairns is to explore the vast Daintree Rainforest.
This is the world’s oldest rainforest and it’s a wild and beautiful place to visit. Head north, over the Daintree River to see the best of it.
You can hike along mangrove boardwalks and swim in freshwater creeks. If you head far enough north, you will discover Cape Tribulation, the source of Captain Cooke’s woes in the 18th century but the scene of one of the most golden beaches you will find anywhere in Far North Queensland.
All Words and Photos by Richard Collett