Cairns is a flourishing tourist destination that tops many travelers lists when visiting Australia. Located in Tropical North Queensland, the gorgeous city sees mild winters, is full of stunning scenery, and with a lively nightlife, you'll find plenty of things to do in Cairns.
First, let’s talk about budgeting in Cairns
Before I get into activities I want to touch a bit on budgeting for Cairns. You should know when it comes to visiting Cairns most of your money is going to be spent on the activities available here. Accommodation and food/drinks prices in Cairns are incredibly reasonable. But, diving, bungee jumps, day tours, and all the other activities Cairns offer add up quickly and are not cheap. If you are trying to visit Cairns on a budget you will need to keep this in mind.
Best Things To Do in Cairns
Cairns Wildlife Dome
One of my favorite things to do in Cairns because who doesn't want to hold a koala!? The Cairns Wildlife Dome is on the top of the Reef Hotel Casino and is a small animal exhibit/theme park underneath a glass dome. The zoo experience is best for travelers who don't have time to visit the Daintree Rainforest while in Cairns. A wide range of animals can be found throughout the 'zoo' with the most popular activity being holding a koala.
You can buy the koala experience ticket as a stand-alone option (what we did). The whole experience takes less than 15 minutes—from purchasing tickets to holding the little guy and getting a quick professional photo. So yeah, pretty quick overall. The experience is so short because koalas naturally sleep most of the day, are incredibly shy creatures, Australia has many regulations in place to protect these animals. One of their laws is any captive koala can only be held for 30 minutes a day. The experience is pretty straightforward, buy a ticket, wait in line for the experience to begin, once it's your turn the trainer will place the koala in your arms, and then finally face you towards the camera for a quick photo. I asked a woman in line to video the interaction for me and it was seriously a 12-second video. But honestly, worth every penny.
Cairns Night Market
A great place to visit for dinner or to grab a memento from its vast selection of souvenirs, you shouldn't miss the Cairns Night Market. Open 365 days per year, the shops begin opening around 5 PM. Although it is called a night market, the food court (and delicious food stalls) are open all day from 10 AM to 11 PM.
Read on: Full Cairns Travel Guide
Drink The Night Away
Cairns is a legendary backpacker's city and you'll find plenty of bars to visit. A great nightlife scene has risen up and if you want to go all out, Lyquid is considered the best nightclub in town.
Cairns Botanical Gardens
Botanical Gardens are found in every major city in Australia and are always listed as the top things to do. The Botanic Gardens in Cairns is not different, boasting large exhibitions of tropical plants only 5 minutes from the airport. If you have the time stop here on your way out of Cairns. There are various paths to wander through, all with beautiful tropical landscapes.
Open daily: 7:30 AM -5:30 PM
Cairns City Pool
You should know there is not an actual swimming beach in central Cairns, but there are many choices north and south of the city. Since there is no beach, right in the center of Cairns is a notable and popular large outdoor, lagoon-style pool. You'll find it busy regardless of the season with both tourists and locals.
Best Day Trips from Cairns:
Great Barrier Reef
Quite obviously, you will probably want to visit the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef system. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The reef is made up of 3,000 coral reefs, 600 continental islands, and 300 coral cays. Lots to discover is an understatement. You can either book a day cruise or a liveaboard dive and snorkeling cruise.
Home to the most diverse range of plants and animals on earth, including the rare tree-dwelling kangaroo and the endangered cassowary the Daintree Rainforest is a must-see while visiting Cairns. Just a two-hour drive north of Cairns most travelers see the area in either a long day trip from the city or choose a two-day overnight stay in a gorgeous wilderness lodge.
Kuranda Scenic Railway
Travel on the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway to the nearby town of Kuranda. The railway was built 120 years ago and originally used as a commuter railway. Now though, it is a tourist railway taking you on a two-hour train journey. You'll cross into dense rainforest, wind past rough mountainsides, and pull up alongside tumbling waterfalls.
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway & Kuranda Village
Nestled inside the tropical rainforest is the mountain village of Kuranda. The journey to and from Kuranda is one of the best things about Cairns. the highlight. The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is a 90-minute experience that takes you above the rainforest canopy before descending you deep into the heart of the jungle. The trip includes stops at two rainforest stations, Red Peak and Barron Falls, both beautiful destinations with various paths leading you alongside giant ferns and pristine nature. Find out more info here.
Once in Kuranda, known for its lively arts community, be sure to check out the local markets. Open daily, the market sells a wide range of jewelry, leather goods, and Aboriginal art. You'll also find bookshops, galleries, and boutiques lining the village streets.
The Atherton Tablelands is a highland region located a scenic one hour drive west from Cairns. It offers some excellent rainforest activities and is especially great if you’re looking for somewhere peaceful and picturesque. If you have the time you'll want to spend a few days here.
The region is a refreshing change from the crowds in Cairns with a solid tourism industry but never truly reaching capacity. Despite being quieter than Cairns, there’s still plenty to do: Check out the Tableland Express steam journey, Hou Wang Miau Chinese Temple, Gallo Dairyland dairy farm, Coffee Works boutique roastery, Lake Barrine tea house, or the Tyrconnell Historic Goldmine.
A 45-minute high-speed ferry will quickly deliver you to gorgeous Fitzroy island. Once there you can take various rainforest hikes, snorkel straight from the beach, or even kayak above parts of the outermost Great Barrier Reef.
More info on Fitzroy Island here.
You could also head to Green Island, a coral cay 30 km (19 miles) off the Cairns shore. The cay is surrounded by sugar-white beaches and the bluest of waters.
More info on Green Island here.
Hinchinbrook Island, Australia's largest national park island, is a more off-grid experience with mangrove forests, secluded beaches, and protected bays.
More info on Hinchinbrook Island here.
White water rafting
Around Cairns there three rivers that are used by white water rafters. Since the area gets so much rain, the rivers are typically overflowing, making perfect rafting conditions.
Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Culture
Two World Heritage sites collide, literally the only place on Earth this happens, and Cairns is the gateway for both. The Tjapukai Cultural Center and Rainforestation National Park both offer introductions to this different way of life. Including explanations on traditional weapons, tools, bush tucker, song and dance of the area.
Dolphin and Whale Watching
You don't have to be a certified diver to have an amazing wildlife experience. Cairns is known for its abundant marine life, and many tour companies operate cruise tours where you can watch dolphins and whales right from the deck of a boat.
Your best shot of seeing them is between July and September, during the migration period for 2,000+ humpback whales. These beautiful creatures swim an incredibly 10,000 km roundtrip, coming from the Antarctic waters to birth and nurse their calves.
Palm Cove: The Closest & Best Beach
Palm Cove is considered to be Cairns' best beach, it also has a charming seaside village. Its name comes from the paperback palms that line the Esplanade. You can enjoy a relaxing day of sun, or do one of the popular activities like kayaking, snorkeling, or scuba. Do you play golf? There's a 9-hole golf course a short walk (1 km) from the beach.
This place is a serious hidden gem of Tropical North Queensland. The freshwater swimming hole known as Crystal Cascades has several small waterfalls flowing into large pools right in the tropical rainforest. The area also has BBQ and picnic facilities if you want to make a day out of it.
One Last Thing:
Please protect yourself from the sun in Australia!
You should lookout every day for the Ultraviolet (UV) Index Forecasts. Local weather reports will give out the UV index, which represents the daily solar UV radiation intensity, and it is imperative you protect yourself from the sun. Getting a sunburn anywhere is dangerous but even more so in Australia. You should be using strong SPF 30+ sunscreen (or more) every single day.
Sunscreen is available for purchase throughout Australia at various supermarkets, convenience stores and pharmacies. It won’t be hard to find. I also recommend wearing sun-smart clothing, including a hat and sunglasses. In general, look for the following things when picking out ‘sun-smart’ clothing:
Fabric structure: The more you can see through the fabric, the more UV can pass through it. The tighter the fabric structure, the better the sun protection. Look into packing clothes that have tightly woven, lightweight natural fabrics such as linen, cotton or hemp. These types of fabric also keep you cooler than synthetic equivalents.
Layering: an additional highly effective way of increasing protection from UV.
Color: Darker colors absorb UV rays better than white or pastel colors of the same fabric.
Sun-smart clothing isn’t simply a marketing gimmick—some clothing has an ultraviolet protection factor (or UPF rating) which is a rating of how much UV protection a fabric provides. Below are some great ‘sun-smart’ clothing items I recommend packing for any trip that involves lots of time in the sun.
Planning a trip to Australia in general, can be overwhelming. Everyone has an opinion on this beautiful location and you may be frozen and unable to plan anything. Rest assured that no matter what you choose to do in Australia or where you choose to stay in Australia you're going to have a beautiful time.
One last thing... even though researching ahead of time is great, I definitely recommend bringing an Australian travel guide along with you. Here are some of the travel guides I used during my trip...
And of course, if you have any questions DO NOT hesitate to reach out to me via Instagram, Twitter, or just shoot me an email (tessajuliette at gmail dot com).