Cairns Australia Travel Guide

If your main goal while visiting Australia is to dive the Great Barrier Reef you have undoubtedly heard of Cairns. The small city of Cairns is Australia’s gateway to northern Queensland and holds some of the most beautiful nature on planet Earth. You can visit the Daintree rainforest, hike the Atherton Tablelands, dive the outer reefs, board a sleep-aboard for a true Great Barrier Reef experience, or simply backpack around the incredibly friendly tourist area. The choice is yours in Cairns and all of them are excellent choices. It's not a surprise Cairns tops many first-time Australian travelers list of must-do cities.

Read on: The top cities you can’t miss on your first trip to Australia

One of your first questions that arise will certainly be: How long should I spend in Cairns? And from here it gets a bit tricky. Cairns is a quintessential tropical city, with so many things to do and see. Typical life here is at a slower pace and truly enjoying every moment before rushing off to the next. I know you will be tempted to head to Melbourne or Sydney as soon as possible since these are huge cities with so much to offer, but I beg you to take your time in Cairns. Definitely give yourself 3-4 days, and more if you are diving the Great Barrier Reef. 3-4 days will give you a fair amount of time to explore the area, while also allowing you to actually relax and lounge by the (city) pool.

The bottom line before we begin...

Planning a trip to Australia can feel intimidating. You are probably flying across the world, sitting in an uncomfortable chair for many hours, and you will definitely want to make the most of it. This travel guide to Cairns will help you plan your trip and guide you on what to see, get a sense of costs in Cairns, and learn how to save big money while traveling in Australia. With so much information packed into one article, I’ve included jump-to links below to help you navigate and read specific sections.

Cairns Weather (by Season)

Cairns is a city located in Far North Queensland. The area experiences hot, humid, wet summers (December – February) and mild, dry winters (June – August).

You should also know about Ultraviolet (UV) Index Forecasts: Local weather reports will give out the UV index, which represents the daily solar UV radiation intensity. It is imperative you protect yourself from the sun and especially being sunburned by using SPF 30+ sunscreen. Sunscreen is available throughout Australia at all supermarkets, convenience stores and pharmacies. But I also recommend wearing sun-smart clothing, including a hat and sunglasses.

Summer in Cairns
December – February

Starting in December and running through February, summers in Cairns see average temperatures 73 - 88°F (23 - 31°C). Summer starts the wet season with a good amount of rain falling in the summer months. Days are especially long in December, with sunrise at approximately 5:40 AM and sunset at 6:45 PM.

Cairns is a gorgeous place to visit. I highly recommend making this your homebase.

Cairns is a gorgeous place to visit. I highly recommend making this your homebase.

Autumn in Cairns
March – May

Starting in March and running through May, the weather during both day and night is still pretty warm in autumn. Temperatures average between 70 - 84°F (21 - 29°C). Heavy rainfall is still a problem in March but begins to stop in April. Although, you should know (especially if you are trying to dive the Great Barrier Reef that the weather remains very windy until August.

Winter in Cairns
June – August

Starting in June and running through August, winter in Cairns is slightly cooler and you will enjoy far lower humidity. This is a big reason winter is Cairns peak tourist season. Temperatures are usually between 62 - 78°F (17 - 26°C) and you'll enjoy very low rainfall. Days are shortest in June, sunrises around 6:45 AM and sunsets around 5:50 PM.

Spring in Cairns
September – November

Starting in September and running through November, Spring in Cairns is the end of the dry season and humidity will begin to build as you get closer to summers start. Temperatures typically range from 68 - 84°F (20 – 29°C). Spring is a great time of year to dive the Great Barrier Reef, starting in November the reef comes alive with the annual coral spawning.

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Best Time of Year to Visit Cairns

The walkways around Cairns are perfect.

The walkways around Cairns are perfect.

As you may know, the best season to visit a destination may not be during peak season, as crowds can get out of control and ruin an experience. That being said, the peak tourist season in Cairns is from May to November. During this time accommodation prices can be high.

Cairns is located in tropical North Queensland means you have to think about the wet season and its effect on your travel plans. The wet season in Cairns starts in December. Expect the weather to be very wet and humid with high rainfall. Two of the main sights: Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Rainforest are especially susceptible to flooding. During the wet season parts of the Daintree National Park can only be accessed by 4-wheel drive, but 4-wheel drive buses also run during this time to take you out there safely.

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Do You Need a Visa to Visit Australia?

Yes, most travelers will need a Visa to enter Australia before they make their way to Cairns. This website makes it extremely easy to find and apply for the correct Australian visa before you arrive.

Australian holiday tourist visas are the most common and most travelers will apply for the Electronic Travel Authority (subclass 601). Although it is technically free to apply online you will have to pay an online application service charge of AUD$20. This visa allows you to stay for up to 3 months. When I applied for my tourist visa, approval time took only 24 hours.

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Driving to Cairns

Bruce Highway, a 1700 km road, runs along the coast and connects Cairns to the state capital of Brisbane. The drive will take a total of 22 hours (no stops), but most travelers allow at least 2-3 days of solid driving to access Cairns this way. If you have a good amount of time in Australia I highly recommend taking this drive at a nice slow pace. Towns along the coast and great stopping points with tons of marvelous sightseeing points you won't want to miss.

Read on: Brisbane Travel Guide

Flying into Cairns

Cairns has a great international airport, Cairns International Airport (code: CNS), but I use the international term loosely. Unless you are flying from a surrounding country like Japan, Bali, Singapore, New Zealand, or Hong Kong you will have to fly first to a major cities airport in Australia (like Sydney or Melbourne) before flying into Cairns via a domestic flight.

The good news is domestic flights from Australia's biggest airports to Cairns are plentiful and not expensive. Some low-cost carrier options include:

  • Virgin Australia from Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane

  • Jetstar from Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Darwin, Perth, the Gold Coast, and Brisbane

  • Tiger Airways from Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane

Cairns airport has two terminals (a domestic terminal and an international). Both are within walking distance from each other.

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How To Get From Cairns Airport to Cairns City Center

You have a couple of options when traveling from the airport to your hotel in the city center. The airport is extremely close to the city, only a 10-15 minute drive.

Shuttle bus transfers: Easily available from the Cairns Airport departing the airport hourly. Cost around $15 AUD (one way) or around $30 AUD (return) to Cairns city. Shuttles should be booked before you arrive in Cairns. A good shuttle service in Cairns is Coral Sea Coaches.

Taxis: Easy to acquire, taxis depart Cairns Airport and will cost you around $25 AUD to $35 AUD when traveling to Cairns City.

Uber: Yes! Uber is available in Cairns. More info on that is below.

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Is Uber Available in Cairns?

Yes! Always a good thing to hear, Uber is available all around Cairns including picking you up at the Cairns airport. Like most cities, Uber in Cairns is cheaper than a typical taxi making it the best way to get around the city without waiting on a bus. There is even an Uber Pool option (you share a ride to get even better savings).

If you've never used Uber before you can use this link to get $2 off each of your first 3 Uber rides. Use code 'tessaj350ue' to sign up.
Details:
https://www.uber.com/invite/tessaj350ue

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How to Get Around Cairns

Cairns is a highly walk-able city and this is the way most people enjoy their time here. For reference, I stayed at the newer hotel Riley, full review here, and it was considered the edge of town. From my hotel on the 'edge of town', to the main pier in the center of town was barely a 15-20 minute walk.

If you want to visit the suburbs or Northern Beaches look into Sunbus buses. They depart frequently from the city center and tickets are cheap and easy to acquire. A 'daily' bus ticket lasts from morning till the last service late into the night. For heading back to the city, last buses depart around 10 PM or 11 PM. If you are heading out of the city and back to the suburbs, final departures are around 11 PM or midnight.

Read on: Why you shouldn’t miss the Great Ocean Road when traveling to Austalia

Best Things To Do in Cairns

Cairns itself has a good amount of things to see and do but most activities use Cairns as the gateway, especially to destinations such as Kuranda and the Daintree Rainforest. Cairns is a great place to base yourself out of for one day or overnight trips. I highly recommend venturing further north, plan to spend at least a few nights up there. Not only are there fewer crowds but it is also a really underappreciated part of the country.

I've listed a few things to do below. For more in-depth information, check out this article which goes into detail the very best things to do in and around Cairns.

You should know: When it comes to visiting Cairns most of your money is going to be spent on activities. Accommodation and food/drinks prices in Cairns are all-around 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.

Don’t forget to pack your tripod, DSLR Camera, and remote clicker for the journey! If you want to read more about what camera equipment I pack for every trip, check out this article.

Read on: More tips for visiting Australia on a budget

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Best Hotels in Cairns

The great things about Cairns is an abundance of accommodation styles for all budgets.

Hostels in Cairns

Cairns is a legendary backpacker's city and you'll find plenty of popular, fun, and cheap dorm-style accommodations. As for actual prices, dorm rooms are quite cheap in Cairns. Beds in dorm rooms (think 6-8 beds in a room) start around $17 AUD. As with most hostels, the fewer beds in a room the higher the price. Prices will jump to around $30 AUD per night for a room with only 4 beds. Hostels in Cairns also have private rooms (usually sleeping two) with a shared bathroom, these typically start around $55 AUD but can be as high as $90 AUD.

The Riley hotel in Cairns was out home away from home and such a great way to start our trip to Australia.

The Riley hotel in Cairns was out home away from home and such a great way to start our trip to Australia.

Budget to Mid-range Hotels

These offer a more typical hotel experience and usually come with air-conditioning, free WiFi, and maybe even breakfast. Prices for this kind of hotels (usually in the 3-star range) start around $185 AUD ($132 USD).

I would consider where I stayed, the new Riley Resort, a mid-range hotel. You can read my full review here. I truly enjoyed my experience at Riley so much. The food was great, the spa was a dream, and the location was perfect. If you are visiting Cairns I highly recommend this fabulous hotel.

Airbnb in Cairns

You'll find tons of options on Airbnb in Cairns at a wide variety of prices. A shared room (in a home) will start around $50 AUD but these beds typically are big enough for two people. Whole apartments and houses can be found for as little as $85 AUD. Airbnb in Australia is a great option and I highly recommend it. It offers you the uncommon opportunity to stay in a local home in Cairns and learn local secret spots.

Best Luxury Hotels in Cairns

If you're looking for a 5-star hotel I suggest Cairns City Center near the pier. This is a popular option for upscale tourists with a couple of hotels to choose from. For an even more luxurious vacation, you can also check out Port Douglas instead. (This is also a good option for travelers who want to dive the Great Barrier Reef).

Read on: Everything you need to know to plan a trip to the Great Barrier Reef

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Restaurants & Food Not To Miss in Cairns

Just like hotels, there are plenty of restaurants, bars, and other drinking establishments for every taste and budget. The general atmosphere of Cairns is laid back and unpretentious. There are so many restaurants, bars, and coffee shops within the city, each unique and overflowing with international tourists.

A few places to check out:

  • Little Loco Cafe was a great spot for breakfast and light lunches. They had tons of outdoor seating and focused on healthy options.

  • Imm Thai Cafe is a great option if you are looking for a nice cheap dinner. The portions were huge and the food came out fast. Everything was super delicious although you may have to wait for a table.

  • Perrotta’s at the Gallery is a slightly more upscale restaurant in Cairns. It is still very casual and a popular spot for lunch and brunch. Their covered patio provides a great place to enjoy your meal while staying out of the sun.

  • Cairns Burger Cafe has some of the best burgers in the small city of Cairns. They get very busy so you can expect a wait. They do takeout as well if you want to bring it back to your hotel.

  • Sushi Train was one of the first places we ate at while in Cairns and we loved it. Cheap sushi and a quick meal.

  • For a high-end meal, check out either Rocco or Paper Crane at the Riley Hotel. Rocco is Cairns’ highest rooftop bar with perfect views serving a take on Mediterranean fare. Paper Crane serves modern Asian fare made with the freshest product from Queensland’s.

  • Lyquid is considered the best nightclub in town.

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Tipping in Australia

Taxis Drivers: Tips are not required, but many cab drivers will encourage foreign customers into leaving a tip. It is ok to not tip.

Restaurants: Tips are also not required when dining out at restaurants unless exceptional service is provided. High-end restaurants may add a tip of 10% to the bill.

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12 More Helpful Tips for Traveling to Cairns

  • Stinger season: Keep this in mind!! Stinger season (or jellyfish season) runs generally between November and May in both Cairns and Port Douglas. Box jellyfish and Irukandji (the smallest of the box jellyfish family) can be deadly, so don't mess around and downplay stinger season. The good news: out on the Great Barrier Reef your risk of marine stingers is low. Regardless, most diving companies will automatically supply all divers with stinger suits during these months and go over the cautions of stinger season while in the water.

  • Beaches: There is no 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.

  • Pack a converter: Electricity is Type I, aka three-prong plug or two-prong. Most nice hotels have USB ports in the room but be sure to pack a travel converter for your electronics. I suggest this one.

  • Currency: Australians use the Australian dollar (AUD $). When I was there the exchange rate was .72 AUD for every $1 USD. Be sure to check the current exchange rate before you leave.

  • Language: Australians use English but you can expect to hear a lot of interesting phrases. ‘brekkie’ and ‘mate’ are common enough and easy to figure out.

  • Driving: Aussies drive on the left side of the road. When crossing a road be careful. Look to the right, then the left and then right again before crossing the street.

  • Bars and drinking: The drinking age in Australia is 18. FIX: The majority of bars close before 3 AM and some will close as early as 11 PM if there are close to residential buildings. A limited number of venues have 24-hour licenses.

  • Signage: Japanese tourists are especially catered for in Cairns. Many shops' signs are written in Japanese, as well as English. Also, many menus are available in multiple languages including Chinese and Japanese.

  • Crime and safety: Pick-pocketing and theft aren't common in Australia and the rates they happen are actually lower than in big cities in Europe /Asia. Even still, keep an eye—and hand—on your belongings.

  • Solo Travel: Cairns is an incredibly safe place to travel—even if you’re traveling solo. And even if you are a solo female traveler. Violent attacks are rare in Cairns and the people of Cairns are nice and helpful.

  • Budget trips: Uber shares are your best friend, drink local beer, and take advantage of public transport. Read all my tips for how to plan a budget trip to Australia here.

  • Be Prepared: The most common incidents visitors find themselves in are due to the region’s climate and wilderness. Lather on the sunscreen and always be prepared with tons of water. Staying hydrated is so important here. You should also carry mosquito spray since there is a risk of Dengue Fever.

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Final Thoughts

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...

Also, a super common question I get is: What camera do I use for my travels. The body is a Nikon D5600 and I use the kit lens and a Sigma wide-angle lens which I am genuinely obsessed with.

My full list of travel gear, that I take on every trip can be found here.

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). 

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