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.
- 3 free things to do in Cairns
- Top 5 things to do in Cairns with kids
- Things to do in Cairns for your bucket list
- Things to do in Port Douglas
- Day trips from Cairns to Daintree Rainforest
- What’s on in Cairns
- Getting to Cairns
- Cairns accommodation
3 free things to do in Cairns
1- Cool off in the Cairns lagoon
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 9.00pm), Wednesdays (12.00pm to 9.00pm).
2- Discover Cairns beaches
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- Wander the Cairns markets
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.
Top 5 things to do in Cairns with kids
4- Spend the day on a reef pontoon
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
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.
6- See 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.
7- 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.
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.
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.
Things to do in Cairns for your bucket list
9- Ocean walking at Agincourt Reef
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.
10- Spend the day on a coral cay
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.
11- Take a scenic helicopter flight
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
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
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.
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.
Day trips from Cairns to Daintree Rainforest
15- Look for animals in the Daintree Rainforest
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.
16- Discover 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.
17- Explore Mossman Gorge
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.
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
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.
The Tolga Bat Hospital is an interesting place to visit.
20- Kayaking on 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.
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.
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.
Here’s a list of where to stay in Cairns, with choices to suit a range of budgets.
Cairns Esplanade accommodation
Pacific Hotel, Cairns
Cascade Gardens (boutique apartment)
Water’s Edge Apartment, Cairns
Vision Apartments, Cairns
Cheap accommodation in Cairns
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.