Located in the northeast corner of tropical Queensland, the city of Cairns is one of Australia’s most popular destinations. Although it’s quite small as far as Australian cities go, it’s a huge draw for tourists due to the Great Barrier Reef to the east and lush rainforests to the north and west.
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Cairns is the perfect destination for adventure seekers. With so many incredible natural wonders nearby, the city really stands out from its sister cities.
The large number of adventurous things to do in Cairns, Australia draws fun and energetic crowds that result in a vibrant atmosphere. This city is one of our favourite destinations in all of Australia thanks to the incredible nature that surrounds the city and a sheer number of adventurous activities available nearby.
The Best Time to Visit Cairns
Cairns has generally consistent weather all year round. Temperatures will be hot and steamy no matter when you visit. Diving and snorkeling conditions are good throughout the entire year, too.
Cairns does have a wet and dry season but all things considered, they aren’t all that different. If you really want to avoid the rains, you’re better off visiting between April and September.
Top Things to Do in Cairns, Australia
When it comes to the best attractions in Cairns, you won’t find them in the city itself, but rather in the region to the West and to the North of Cairns. The best advantage of staying in Cairns is that you are conveniently located within 1-2 hours of most attractions in the Far North Queensland region which makes it easy to organize tours to any destination in the area.
If you are looking to get the most of your time in Cairns, here are some things you should do.
Explore the Great Barrier Reef
Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and you absolutely cannot miss it while in town. Made up of nearly 3,000 smaller reefs, the world’s largest coral system is one of the most precious natural wonders of the world.
The reef is over 3,000 km (1864 miles) long, so while you won’t be able to explore the entirety of this famous Cairns attraction, you should definitely try!
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most well-known diving destinations in the world. And while parts of the Great Barrier Reef can be accessed from a number of destinations along the East Coast, some of the best dive spots in the Great Barrier Reef are found just a short boat ride away from Cairns.
These include spots like Nathan’s Reef, Escape Reef, Osprey Reef, Ribbon Reefs and many others.
Liveaboard to the Outer Great Barrier Reef
Experienced diver? Consider joining a Liveaboard to the Outer Barrier Reef. Trips to the Outer Great Barrier Reef range from quick, 3N/4D adventures, to longer 7N/8D diving safaris and start at just $185/day
Day Trip to the Great Barrier Reef
Looking for a shorter trip? Passions of Paradise offer a fantastic day trip to the Great Barrier Reef for those with little or no previous diving experience. Their day trip allows you to snorkel, swim, or dive in two different locations along the reef and to experience the diverse reef structures and the marine life that lives within them.
Visit the Daintree National Park
The Daintree National Park is undoubtedly one of the best day trips from Cairns. Part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland, this incredibly diverse ecosystem is a huge highlight for anyone visiting Cairns.
There are two spots open to visitors with Daintree National Park: the Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation.
Daintree Rainforest River Cruise
Don’t miss an opportunity to explore the most densely populated mangrove estuaries in the world and get a chance to spot some local wildlife. Crocs, snakes, lizards, birds and more are plentiful in this area and your trusted local guide will be able to point them out to you along the way.
Daintree River Cruise Centre, the operator that runs these tours is one of the oldest eco-certified operators in the area, so you can trust that your experience will be ethical and respectful to the wildlife that calls this river home.
The majority of the area near the Mossman Gorge is covered in inaccessible rainforests and mountain woodlands, but access to the Gorge itself is still possible from the Mossman Gorge Centre. The Mossman Gorge is particularly popular with those that want to immerse themselves in the lush green rainforest environment.
There are 3 short walking trails, plus the famous Rainforest Circuit Track that begins on the far side of Rex Creek bridge and meanders through the rainforest.
To get the most of your time in the Mossman Gorge consider joining one of the guided tours to learn more about the gorge and the flora and fauna of Daintree National Park.
The Dreamtime Gorge Walk, conducted by the local Indigenous people, is a great option. This Mossman Gorge tour takes visitors on a guided walk along the track, identifying culturally significant sites, demonstrating traditional plant use, identifying bush food sources and providing a great explanation of life in the rainforest. This is a group tour, so be prepared to share a rainforest with 15-20 other visitors.
If you are looking for a more private and unique experience, we recommend this Exclusive Daintree Tour with FNQ Nature Tours, a fantastic sustainable tour operator based out of Cairns.
Another great way to experience the Daintree National Park is on a day trip to Cape Tribulation, a small town located about 140km north of Cairns. The drive along Cape Tribulation Road is incredibly picturesque passing through the dense Daintree National Park.
Cape Tribulation beach itself offers a very different perspective on the Daintree National Park, as it is the unique spot where the rainforest meets the reef!
It’s easy to visit Cape Tribulation on your own, but if you are looking for a unique guided experience, consider organizing this Private Daintree Afternoon Tour with FNQ Nature Tours. The highlight of this tour is definitely the guided night walk that will allow you to experience the Daintree National Park in a very unique way.
Explore Atherton Tablelands
If you’re wondering what to do in Cairns and want something completely unique, visiting the Atherton Tablelands area is an excellent choice for a day trip. The Tablelands area is known for great wildlife, beautiful rainforests, stunning waterfalls and some unique local produce, like the region’s famous cheese.
We explored this awesome part of this region with FNQ Nature Tours on their unique Tablelands Exclusive Tour.
Millaa Millaa Waterfall
One of the most popular Cairns attractions and the highlight of Atherton Tablelands, Millaa Millaa is a striking waterfall perfect for cooling off on a hot day. The swimming hole below the falls is deep and cold, and you can swim right up to the waterfall’s pummeling flume.
There are over 17 other waterfalls in and around Atherton Tablelands area, just outside of Carins that are fun to explore and offer an excellent way to cool down on a hot day.
Lake Barrine is another great spot for wildlife and nature in Atherton Tablelands and a great way to get a taste of the unique flora and fauna of Tropical North Queensland without visiting the crowds at the Daintree National Park.
The Lake itself is home to many creatures that can be spotted on a guided boat tour, like turtles, snakes, eels, and more, while the Crater Lakes National Park that surrounds the lake offers an opportunity to experience a typical rainforest environment.
Visit Kuranda & Barron Gorge National Park
With stunning waterfalls, gorgeous hiking trails, and lush jungles, the Kuranda region and its main attraction, Barron Gorge National Park, is one of the most exciting Cairns attractions and another destination for a day trip from Cairns.
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
This gondola ride over the rainforest is not for the faint of heart. You’ll soar over the tall trees suspended in a glass-bottom car for unbelievable views of the park, Cairns, and the sea. Along the way, you can stop at two different points for canopy walks. This unique Cairns attraction is a 7.5 km (4.5 miles) long ride and although it can get quite busy and a bit touristy, it’s still a very picturesque ride. You can pre-book your Skyrail Rainforest Cableway ticket HERE
Kuranda Scenic Railway
The Kuranda Scenic Railway is known as one of the most beautiful train rides in all of Australia. The 115-minute journey from Cairns to Kuranda navigates dense rainforest, waterfalls and 320-metre steep ravines. It’s a beautiful ride with some spectacular views along the way!
An interesting way to visit the Kuranda region is to combine take a Kuranda Scenic Railway with a Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, for a different perspective on the area. You can pre-book this great Combo Ticket HERE
Take a short and easy hike to the Barron Falls lookout point to witness this impressive waterfall first hand. The waterfall splits into many sections at the top, spreading out over a vast expanse of rock.
Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
Right at the entrance of Barron Gorge National Park is the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. Although it’s a popular Cairns tourist attraction, it’s also a great place to learn about Aboriginal history and customs right at the source.
The center hosts a variety of shows and activities that visitors can participate in, such as dancing, cooking, boomerang crafting, and spear throwing. A visit here is one of the top things to do in Cairns, Australia.
Try Some Extreme Sports
Cairns is often named the “adventure capital of Australia”. There’s no better place in the country to try out some extreme sports and get your adrenaline pumping.
Whether it’s sky-diving, bungee jumping in a nearby national park, or white water rafting on the Tully River, there are plenty of extreme activities in Cairns for every type of traveler.
These are the ones we particularly recommend:
- Sky Diving from 15,000 Feet – get a chance to fly over the treetops of the Daintree Rainforest and get an aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef. This is the ultimate adrenaline rush experience!
- Canopy Tour over the Daintree Rainforest from Cape Tribulation– an unforgettable way to experience the Daintree Rainforest from a unique perspective as you zipline through the canopy on this fun 2-hour zip line tour.
- Full-Day Tully River White Water Rafting Trip – spend a day on the Tully River, regarded as Australia’s best river for white water rafting. Prepare for Grade 3 and 4 rapids, a riverside BBQ lunch, and a whole lot of fun!
- Rainforest Bungee Jump – experience an adrenaline rush like you have never before as you bungee jump off a 50m Tower inside the Daintree Rainforest.
- Giant Jungle Swing Experience – if bungee jumping feels a bit too extreme, why not swing through the rainforest on a multi-person swing instead? Hold on to your friends/loved ones as you experience high speeds and acceleration as you drop from 45 meters to one meter in 3.5 seconds.
- Rainforest River Tubing Adventure – the least extreme of all activities on this list, this tubing adventure will have you drifting down Mulgrave River or through the Behana Gorge on a giant inflatable tube. Navigate small rapids and soak up the scenery on a gentle journey through the rainforest.
Sunbathe on Mission Beach
While there are countless amazing beaches near Cairns, one of the most stunning is Mission Beach. Just a two-hour drive south of the city, this is the perfect place to escape to for a relaxing and peaceful day at the beach.
Explore Lava Tubes in Undara Volcanic National Park
Undara Volcanic National Park is said to have the longest lava tubes in the entire world. Here, you can take a tour through them with a local guide where you’ll learn all about how they were formed as well as how the geology of the park functions in the present day.
Afterward, spend the day hiking through this beautiful park and experiencing the beautiful scenery. This is definitely one of the more undiscovered day trips from Cairns.
Go Hiking in Lamb Range
Hiking in the beautiful Lamb Range is one of the best things to do in Cairns for active travelers. Dotted with waterfalls, rugged mountains, and thick jungles, this area is the perfect place for a wild adventure.
The region is very undeveloped, making it a remote natural experience perfect for spirited hikers, but lack of infrastructure makes it challenging to explore the Lamb Range on your own.
If you are keen for some hiking, FNQ Nature Tours run private hiking tours in Cairns for travelers of all fitness levels and are an ideal tour operator to accompany you on this type of adventure.
Best Hotels in Cairns
Riley & Crystalbrook Collection Hotels
The Crystalbrook Collection is a series of luxury hotels with a focus on sustainability. We recently had the pleasure of staying at Riley, a brand new eco-hotel right on the city’s waterfront and absolutely loved our room, the hotels’ beautiful facilities and awesome on-site restaurants.
It was truly one of the best eco-hotels we’ve stayed at during our time in Australia. Rates at Riley start at just $200 AUD per night, a great price for the value!
Two more eco-friendly hotels, Bailey and Flynn, will be opening in late 2019 and early 2020 respectively.
YHA Cairns Central
If you’re looking for budget-friendly yet an eco-conscious option, check out the YHA Cairns Central hostel.
We love YHA Hostels and have stayed in many of them around Australia. They’re modern, fun, and affordable. Best of all, they keep sustainability at the forefront of their values. The Cairns YHA is no exception.
Best Restaurants in Cairns
For seafood direct from the ocean, Prawn Star is your best bet. Located right on the harbour’s edge, you can watch the ships come in for the night as you dine on delicious crab, fish, mussels, crayfish, and more. Eating here should definitely be on your list of the top things to do in Cairns.
The Lillipad Cafe
Incredible breakfast and lunch are served up at the Lillipad Cafe. You’ll find sustainable seafood, gorgeous crepes, and heaping health food bowls.
For delicious and low-key vegetarian food, head to Snoogies. At this healthy restaurant, you’ll find all sorts of colourful dishes from salads to power balls to raw juices and everything in between.
Located at Riley’s Hotel on Esplanade St, Greenfields serves up simple, healthy, vegetarian/vegan, and often raw dishes that are guaranteed to make you feel good inside and out.
Paper Crane is one of the newest editions to Cairns. Located at Riley’s Hotel, this stylish restaurant with a modern Asian fusion menu serves up delicious meals. Here, you’ll find menu items like local mud crab served Singapore-style, vegetable gyozas, and ramen.
Rocco is the place to go if you love Mediterranean food. Located on the rooftop of Riley’s Hotel, Rocco is the hip new restaurant in Cairns. On the menu, you’ll find dishes like grilled calamari, Turkish bread and dips, roasted eggplant, and haloumi cheese and more. This is also THE place for the best drinks in Cairns. Make sure you try the Punch Pot!
How Much Time Do You Need in Cairns?
Cairns is the kind of place where you could spend a few days to a few weeks!
Between excursions to the Great Barrier Reef, adventure sports, national parks, and day trips to the rainforest and beyond, you could spend a month here having adventures every single day. Since most people don’t have that long on their trip, we’d recommend five days at the absolute minimum. Anything more than that is an excellent bonus.
Cairns is one of our all-time favourite Australian destinations. With so many exciting things to do and see, we’ve checked off some big bucket list item in this city. We especially love it because of all the amazing nature and wildlife nearby. We implore you to not miss thrilling Cairns on your next trip to Australia!