20 things to do in Cairns

20 things to do in Cairns


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things to do cairns
20 things to do in Cairns you will love. Photos: Tourism and Events Queensland.

A Queensland city with a relaxed vibe, Cairns is the gateway to two World Heritage areas: the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics Rainforest. From snorkelling or diving the reef to soaring above the tropical rainforest there are so many things to do in Cairns to tick off your bucket list.

If you only have time to visit one place in Queensland and want an amazing experience, you can’t go wrong with Cairns.  

Most visitors come for the Great Barrier Reef and leave with so many more reasons to return. Here are some of the best things to do in Cairns and the surrounding region. 

Things To Do In Cairns For Free

1- Cool off in the Cairns Lagoon

cairns lagoon
Take a swim or hang around a pool party at the Cairns lagoon are some things to do in Cairns for free.

The Cairns Lagoon is an impressive landmark on the waterfront and a popular spot to cool down on a hot and humid day. 

This massive outdoor pool on The Esplanade is the place to go swimming and sunbaking or join in the fun at a Cairns pool party on Sundays. 

The live music on a pop-up stage attracts both locals and visitors for poolside fun all-year-round. 

The Cairns Esplanade Lagoon is free and open from Thursdays to Tuesdays (6.00 am to 9.00 pm), Wednesdays (12.00 pm to 9.00 pm). 

2- Spend the day at the beach

cairns beaches
Cairns beaches may not be high on the to-visit list: the best beaches in Cairns are on Fitzroy Island, Green Island and 30-minutes away in Palm Cove.

Although Cairns beaches are not known as the best in Queensland, there are some amazing beaches that aren’t too far away. 

Holloways Beach is a 10-minute drive from the city centre but if you’re really hankering for a good day out on the beach near Cairns, head north to lovely Palm Cove for a palm-fringed beach within walking distance of cafes, bars and luxury resorts. 

Fitzroy Island (pictured above) and Green Island also have some lovely beaches with snorkelling straight off the beach. 

3- Shop at the markets

cairns market
Cairns Esplanade Lagoon market.

Markets in Cairns are packed with hand-made products and local produce.  

A special thing to try in Cairns is sugar cane juice made from sugar cane harvested locally. 

There are several markets around, including these markets operated by the Cairns Council. 

  • Cairns Esplanade Markets
  • Tanks Markets
  • Cruise Liner Markets
  • Palm Cove Markets

The Port Douglas markets have been running for 20 years and are an institution in the region. 

Cairns Night Markets is a permanent market that operates 365 days a year on the Cairns Esplanade for shopping from 5 pm to 11 pm.

Rusty’s Market is open from Friday to Sunday and has 180 stalls selling fruit and vegetables, fresh bread and seafood.

There are international food stalls and heaps of souvenirs. 

ThingsTo Do in Cairns With Kids

4- Snorkel off a reef pontoon

cairns reef tours
Spending the day at a reef pontoon is one of the top things to do in Cairns.

If you’re travelling with the family or in a mixed group with divers and non-divers, a day tour to an outer reef pontoon is a great choice.

These pontoons can accommodate large numbers of people and have toilet facilities, food and activities for all levels of swimmers.

There are pontoons at Agincourt Reef, Hardy Reef, Moore Reef and Arlington Reef. 

If you’re a scuba diver then ticking the Great Barrier Reef off your bucket list is one of the top things to do from Cairns. 

Check out these day tours to the Great Barrier Reef

5- Ride the Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest Cableway 

cairns tourist attractions
Riding the Kuranda Skyrail is one the things to do in Cairns that impresses most people.

A few minutes out of Cairns, cable cars soar over the lush rainforest up the mountains to Kuranda.

Board a Kuranda Skyrail gondola from Smithfield Terminal, stopping at Red Peak Station and Barron Falls Station to explore the rainforest. 

Kuranda has a charming mountain vibe, with galleries, cafes and wildlife sanctuaries. 

Top off the day by returning to Cairns on the Kuranda Railway. 

See a range of tours to Kuranda here.

6- See the marine life at the Cairns Aquarium

Cairns Aquarium has plants, animals and habitats unique to Queensland’s Wet Tropics.

The aim of the aquarium is to protect and conserve the biodiversity of these ecosystems through educating and inspiring visitors. 

The displays, daily shows and talks are packed with information and will equip you with everything you need to know about nature in these two World Heritage regions. 

The aquarium’s newest project is the marine turtle rehabilitation facility, which is run by volunteers from the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre.

The facility has holding tanks with life support systems for the turtles. The first turtle, Dianne was admitted in June 2018 for a shark bite. 

Reserve your Cairns Aquarium ticket here

7- Visit Tjapukai Cultural Park

cairns with kids
An educational thing to do in Cairns with kids is to visit Tjapukai Cultural Park.

Learn about ancient Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture at this award-winning attraction.

Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park has been entertaining and educating audiences for over 26 years. 

Tjapukai By Day offers a programme of activities, from traditional dancing to boomerang and a show about the Dreamtime story of creation. 

It’s worth going at night for Night Fire the Aboriginal Dreamtime corroboree, dinner at the Flame Tree Bar & Grill and the experience of sitting around the fire chatting to Tjapukai warriors. 

Book your Tjapukai experience here

8- Take a day trip to Green Island

Green Island is a 27km from Cairns (a 45-minute ride by boat) and the island can be visited as a day trip. 

Why go?

For the kids, there’s a host of water-based activities including snorkelling, fish feeding, island walks and the unique Seawalker which allows anyone to walk on the sea floor with a helmet. 

Green Island also has a marine park called Marineland Melanesia, which is home to Australia’s largest captive crocodile and where the twice-daily crocodile shows are fantastic for kids. 

Formed 6000 years ago, Green Island has a unique ecology and is the only sand cay on the Great Barrier Reef with a rainforest. 

Snorkelling, diving or riding in a glass-bottom boat around Green Island reveals beds of seagrass, where small fish hide from predators, turtles and dugongs. 

Green Island is also a magnet for migratory birds and more than 55 species of birds, including seabirds as well as land birds, can be spotted on the island while 15 kinds of birds nest there. 

Check out some Green Island tour options here

9- Ocean Walking at Agincourt Reef

cairns tourist attractions
The Oceanwalker Experience on Agincourt Reef is one of the memorable things to do in Cairns.

Ocean walking with a helmet along the Agincourt Reef on the very outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef is an experience to remember. 

The Oceanwalker is a way to see the reef even if you can’t dive, as fresh air is pumped into your helmet. 

Walk on a reef platform underwater among coral and reef fish.

The experience is suitable for non-swimmers, those who wear glasses and anyone over the age of 12.  

Check out some Great Barrier Reef tours here

10- Spend The Day On Michaelmas Cay  

cairns attractions
A snorkelling tour at Michaelmas Cay is one of the things to do in Cairns away from the crowds.

40km from Cairns, go snorkelling away from the crowds at Michaelmas Cay. 

On this is a small sand cay that is a breeding ground for seabirds, such as Sooty Terns and Crested Terns, you’re likely to find yourself among thousands of birds.

In peak breeding season, up to 20,000 pairs of seabirds making Michaelmas Cay a fantastic place to go birdwatching.

The waters around Michaelmas Cay have giant clams and Green Sea Turtles sometimes nest on Michaelmas Cay too. Check out some tours here

11- Take A Scenic Helicopter Flight 

thing to do in cairns
Besides going on a snorkel or scuba diving tour, the next best thing to do in Cairns is to fly above the reef.

Experience the wonder of Cairns and Tropical North Queensland from the sky.

If you’re the kind of traveller who loves seeing the world from a different perspective, or the type of person who loves flying above a landscape, one of the best places to take a helicopter tour is in Queensland.

Viewing the Great Barrier Reef from the seat of a helicopter is no longer the only helicopter trip available in Tropical North Queensland.

In recent times, flight-touring around Cairns has soared to new heights, with the region’s helicopter operators coming up with creative touring menus that show off the area’s other attributes.

From landing at a mountain retreat for a blissful hot stone massage to touching down for a romantic champagne breakfast on a secluded sand cay, helicopter flights are a great way to experience the area around Cairns.

You can fly to a remote part of the Queensland Outback and land near a waterhole, then jump out and spend the day cooling down in a billabong.

For remote wilderness adventures, there are helicopter tours that take you to remote outback pubs, wildlife-watching, sleeping under the stars and landings at remote sections of the Great Barrier Reef.

Of course, landing on a pontoon in the vicinity of the Great Barrier Reef has got to be a bucket list experience most people would love to do. Find out more here

12- Swim With Minke Whales

cairns with kids
Swimming with dwarf Minke whales is an amazing Cairns thing to do.

For two months each year, the Great Barrier Reef is the place to swim with dwarf minke whales. 

In fact, the Great Barrier Reef is the only place in the world where you can swim with this type of whale and they say the experience is comparable to swimming with humpback whales in Hervey Bay.  

Swimmers hang on to a rope attached to the boat and are likely to see the Dwarf minke whales spy hopping, doing head rises or even breaching. 

Things to do in Port Douglas

13- Swim with turtles around the Low Isles

cairns to do
Taking a cruise to the Low Isles is a relaxing thing to do near Cairns and Port Douglas.

The Low Isles is great for young families, beginning snorkellers and those who can’t swim very well. 

Several tour operators have tours to the Low Isles, which is a great spot to swim with turtles. 

Another reason to go to the Low Isles is it’s a calm cruise to the coral cay and once you’re there, you’ll spend a lot of time on land (when you’re not swimming or snorkelling). 

Full-day and half-day tours to the Low Isles leave from Port Douglas and is a lazy way to spend the day, with a more than even chance of seeing turtles. 

Check out tours to the Low Isles here

Distance from Cairns to Port Douglas: 67km (about a 1-hour drive). 

14- See animals at Wildlife Habitat

Near Port Douglas, Wildlife Habitat has grassland, wetland and rainforest habitats filled with animals. 

Cuddle a koala, meet curious cassowaries and get up close to a snake or lizard. 

Breakfast with the birds, lunch with the Lorikeets, join a nocturnal tour or just wander around making friends with wildlife. 

Book your ticket here.  

Distance from Cairns: 62 km (about a 1-hour drive). 

Day trips from Cairns 

15- Look for animals in the Daintree Rainforest

things to do in cairns australia
Visiting the Daintree Rainforest is one of the bucket list things to do in Cairns as a day trip or longer.

Join one of the crocodile cruises to see crocodiles, birds and snakes and other animals in the Daintree Rainforest.

The Daintree Rainforest is an ancient forest that is between 110 to 200 million years old and is one of the most complex rainforest systems on earth.

Check-in at the Daintree Discovery Centre, which has aerial walkways, a canopy tower, cassowary circuit and bush-tucker trail. 

It’s possible to visit the Daintree on a day trip or spend a few days exploring the Daintree Rainforest’s hiking trails, lookouts and swimming holes.

Distance from Cairns: 125 km (about a 2.5-hour drive).

16- Discover Cape Tribulation

things to do near cairns cape trib
One of the most amazing things to do near Cairns is to visit Cape Tribulation.

Cape Tribulation is where the rainforest meets the reef and the only place where two World Heritage sites exist side by side.

Walk along the boardwalks through the rainforest to Myall Beach and its white sand all the way.

Join Tropical Sea Kayaks for a Robinson Crusoe experience or fly through the canopy with Jungle Surfing Canopy Tours.

Go horseback riding or join a night walking tour. See a range of tours here

Distance from Cairns: 140km (about a 3-hour drive).  

17- Explore Mossman Gorge

cairns sightseeing
Mossman Gorge is a Cairns sightseeing trip that doesn’t involve the ocean.

Mossman Gorge is the gateway to the Daintree National Park and the Mossman Gorge Centre is a good place to start exploring. 

Hike through the rainforest or join a guided indigenous rainforest tour with the native Kuku Yulanji people. 

Cape Tribulation, the Daintree Rainforest and Mossman Gorge are often packaged as a day tour, although it’s a long day packed with activities and wondrous experiences. 

Distance from Cairns: 80 km (about a 1.5-hour drive).

18- Treat yourself to a rainforest or Aboriginal spa therapy

Succumb to some self-indulgence and lie back in the world’s oldest living rainforest as your Daintree Eco Lodge and Spa therapist uses ancient Aboriginal techniques on your travel-weary body.

Peppers Beach Club Spa in both Port Douglas and Palm Cove are renowned for their Vichy massage tables, and hot and chilled Kodo Gubbera stone treatments using primordial rocks found in the Kimberley.

The Healing Waters Spa at Silky Oaks Lodge uses clays, herbal extracts and flower and plant essences set in the rainforest gardens inspired by the pure water from the Mossman River.

19- Explore the Atherton Tablelands

things to do in cairns for free
A day trip around the Atherton Tablelands is a soothing thing to do for a Cairns day trip.

Discover farms, forests and country towns of the lush Atherton Tablelands.

The green landscape is a soothing sight, especially along the waterfall circuit which has picturesque views, forest hikes and cooling dips in waterholes. 

Tolga Bat Hospital is an interesting place to visit. 

20- Kayaking on Lake Barrine

cairns activities
Away from the ocean, one of the things to do near Cairns is to kayak Lake Barrine.

Lake Barrine is in Crater Lakes National Park, about a one-hour drive from Cairns and is a crater created by a volcanic eruption 10,000 years ago. 

The natural freshwater lake is a lovely spot for a paddle, a swim and a hike through the rainforest or afternoon tea and scones in the lakeside teahouse. 

Distance from Cairns: 60 km (about a 1-hour drive).

21- Tully River Whitewater Rafting 

Get an adrenaline rush on an exhilarating whitewater rafting adventure on the Tully River, which is one of Australia’s best rivers.

This is where the Australian Canoe and White Water Championships were held in 1991.
The fast-flowing grade 3 and 4 rapids are enough of a challenge to get the adrenaline pumping while the scenery through the lush rainforest is stunning.

Water levels are high enough all year round as the flow of water is regulated via the Kareeya Hydro Power Station.

The river runs through Tully Gorge National Park, where the rainforest is World Heritage-listed.

You don’t need to be experienced in rafting to take part in this activity but you’ll need a sense of adventure as you’ll get very wet.

Whitewater rafting trips are available from Cairns and Mission Beach and lasts about five hours.

Distance from Cairns: 174 km (about a 2.5-hour drive). 

22- Explore Undarra Lava Tubes

The Undarra Lava Tubes are the oldest lava tubes in the world and the longest in Australia. 

Stretching for 160km, they are also one of the longest in the world. 

Unique features of this natural wonder include Bayliss Cave, which is one of the world’s most biologically diverse, lava ponds, craters and springs. 

Undara was an active shield volcano for millions of years until a massive eruption occurred during the Cainozoic Era (about 190,000 years ago). 

That lave flow would have been big and fast-flowing enough to fill up Sydney Harbour in about six days. 

The1200 °C lava rivers created the lava tubes and caves. 

Distance from Cairns: 300 km (about a 4-hour drive). 

What’s on in Cairns

  • January – Chinese New Year
  • June – Cairns Airport Adventure Festival
  • July – Cairns Indigenous Art Fair

Getting to Cairns

Fly directly to Cairns from 12 destinations in Australia, including Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Darwin. There are flights to Cairns from 10 international destinations here.

Brisbane to Cairns train

Another way to get to Cairns is to travel on the Spirit of Queensland, which travels five times a week between Brisbane and Cairns. The train travels 1681 km and takes 25 hours. 

Cairns to Cooktown

Cape Tribulation to Cooktown is a spectacular drive past the Wujal Wujal Aboriginal community, Cedar Bay National Park, Black Mountain and Keating’s Lagoon.

Named after Captain Cook’s arrival in Australia in 1770, Cooktown has a colourful history and a few places to visit such as the James Cook Museum, Botanic Gardens and Nature’s Powerhouse.

Cairns accommodation

Here’s a list of where to stay in Cairns, with choices to suit a range of budgets. 

Cairns Esplanade accommodation

Rydges Esplanade Resort

The Esplanade, Cairns

Cairns Plaza Hotel

Pacific Hotel, Cairns

Shangri-La Cairns The Marina

Cairns apartments

Cascade Gardens (boutique apartment)

Water’s Edge Apartment, Cairns

Vision Apartments, Cairns

Cheap accommodation in Cairns

Mad Monkey Backpackers Waterfront

NRMA Cairns Holiday Park

Featured Cairns resort

Thala Beach Nature Reserve

Located on a private peninsula between Cairns and Port Douglas, Thala Beach Nature Reserve is an ideal location from which to explore the hinterlands, Daintree Forest, Cape Tribulation and that infamous underwater world.

Its accreditation of eco-tourism is very apparent on arrival.

Built out of sustainable materials the timber bungalows, lodge, restaurant, spa and Herbie’s beach shack almost disappear into the vegetation.

Activities include bird watching, nature and wildlife walks, stargazing tours, sea kayaking, swimming off the pristine coastline, working your way through Ospreys Restaurant and the spa menu, and of course, relishing in all that beauty from your private balcony.

Compare prices for hotels in Cairns here


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I'm a writer, photographer and video blogger based in Queensland, Australia, when I'm not on the road. I've lived in three continents and my career as a travel journalist has taken me to all seven continents. Since 2003, I have contributed travel stories to mainstream media in Australia and around the world such as the Sydney Morning Herald, CNN Traveller, The Australian and the South China Morning Post. I have won many travel writing awards and I'm a full member of the Australian Society of Travel Writers.


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