The Best Things to Do & See in Cairns

Cairns Australia - overview

A travel guide to the many fantastic things to do in Cairns, Australia! Whether you have a few hours or days, you need this ‘must-see, must-do’ list for Cairns to help you plan a unique travel itinerary.

Welcome to Cairns, a vibrant city in the heart of Tropical North Queensland. It’s an adventurer’s paradise with many things to do and see. Cairns is not just a city; it’s also the gateway to some of Australia’s most iconic natural wonders. These include the Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven wonders of the natural world, and the ancient Daintree Rainforest, a UNESCO World Heritage site that spans millions of years.

As a local Queenslander, I may sound biased when I say Cairns is one of the best destinations in Australia. But believe me, when you see how much there is to do and see here, you’ll agree wholeheartedly! 

Cairns is not just about natural wonders; it’s also about vibrant markets, exotic food trails, adrenaline rushes, Aboriginal cultural experiences, and so much more. Now, let’s dive into the best things to do in Cairns and beyond!

Discover the Spectacular Great Barrier Reef

Okay, so we are starting with an obvious one. But The Great Barrier Reef is arguably the most well-known attraction in Cairns, so it’s only fitting it takes first place on our list of the best things to do in and from Cairns. This World Heritage-listed marvel stretches over 2,300 kilometres and boasts an expansive underwater ecosystem that is home to a stunning array of marine life.

Whether you’re an experienced diver or a snorkelling beginner, you can discover the stunning underwater world of the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns. 

Plenty of snorkelling and diving tours are available, and operators such as Reef Magic Tours even have their own pontoon. Even if you are a beginner, you will feel comfortable seeing the bottom at all times while experiencing an array of colourful corals and incredible fish life. Regardless of your snorkelling experience, you can explore the vibrant coral gardens and swim alongside colourful fish when you visit the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns.

 Soar Above the Reef

Consider a helicopter ride for a bird’s eye view of the reef’s magnificence. Witness the incredible scale of the Great Barrier Reef from the air, a sight that will leave you in awe. This unique perspective offers a chance to appreciate the reef’s sprawling beauty in a truly unforgettable way.

Related: 31 Famous Australian Landmarks Everybody Needs to See

 Visit Serene Islands

The Great Barrier Reef is dotted with tranquil islands, each offering unique experiences. Take a day trip to Fitzroy Island, a tropical paradise with pristine beaches and excellent snorkelling opportunities. Green Island, a beautiful coral cay, is another fantastic destination for snorkelling straight off the shore.

Related: 10 Dreamy Islands off Queensland’s Coast

Explore the Charming Cairns Esplanade Lagoon

The Cairns Esplanade Lagoon is a man-made pool located in the bustling Central Business District of Cairns. It offers a unique and exciting experience for locals and tourists and is considered one of Cairns’ top things to do. 

This saltwater lagoon stretches over 4800 square metres and provides a safe and enjoyable swimming spot all year round, free from the risks of stingers and crocodiles. Entry to the lagoon is free, making it accessible to everyone as a recreational space. 

Aside from swimming, the Cairns Lagoon also offers excellent barbecue facilities. It’s a perfect place to spend the best part of a day relaxing and soaking up the sun.

Unearth the Hidden Gems of Rusty’s Market

If you’re looking to immerse yourself in the local scene of Cairns, then a visit to Rusty’s Market is a must. This bustling farmers’ market is a food lover’s paradise, offering various fresh and affordable produce. From ripe avocados to exotic fruits, you’ll find everything you need to satisfy your culinary cravings. However, Rusty’s Market is more than just a place to buy food; it’s a cultural experience that gives you a glimpse into the local community. 

Rusty’s Market is located in the CBD between Grafton and Sheridan Streets and is open every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It’s such an iconic destination in Cairns that you only need to ask any local for directions.

Embrace Adventure in the Atherton Tablelands

The Atherton Tablelands are situated southwest of Cairns and have a slightly cooler climate. It’s the perfect destination for those who enjoy food, nature, and adventure with plenty to discover, such as exploring the Waterfall Circuit, visiting farmers’ markets, mountain biking, and hiking. Whether you’re an avid adventurer or just looking for a relaxing day trip from Cairns, there’s something for everyone in the Atherton Tablelands.

The Atherton Tablelands were first settled by dairy farmers more than a century ago, and the dairy industry is still flourishing. If you plan to visit the region, consider visiting Mungalli Creek Dairy. They have the largest selection of biodynamic organic products in Tropical North Queensland, making it a must-see destination for those interested in organic and sustainable farming.

Head to a classic country market for all the best food producers in one place. The Yungaburra Farmers’ Market is the largest and oldest and is held on the fourth Saturday of every month. The market has embraced the food truck trend, and can snack on crispy potato skewers, fresh ham and cheese croissants, or flaky cannoli while wandering between stalls.

The sound of running water is a constant companion in The Atherton Tablelands, and the entire area is threaded with creeks and rivers that lead to stunning waterfalls. Millstream Falls, just outside the town of Ravenshoe, is the widest single-drop waterfall in the country and flows dramatically over an old basalt lava flow. 

During the wet season, you should definitely visit Tully Gorge near Ravenshoe to witness the magnificent Tully Falls. This waterfall plunges 300 meters down the sheer walls of rock and rainforest to the river below. Tully Gorge is part of the Misty Mountains Wilderness Tracks, the first long-distance-track network in a high-altitude rainforest. It allows hikers to explore deep into the pristine, high-altitude rainforest with crystal-clear creeks, stunning waterfalls, and panoramic views.

Don’t miss the hot air balloon rides, offering a panoramic view of this beautiful region.

Related: The Best Things to Do & See From Port Douglas, TNQ

Visit Kuranda: The Village in the Rainforest

Nestled amid lush rainforests, Kuranda is a picturesque village offering a wealth of attractions. There’s plenty to explore, from the cute town to wildlife parks and the spectacular Barron Falls. 

Check out Kuranda’s markets, peruse the local galleries (Kuranda Arts Co-operative is a non-profit that the artists themselves staff), or visit Australia’s largest butterfly flight aviary.

Board the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

One of the highlights of a trip to Kuranda is the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. This gondola journey offers a bird’s eye view of the rainforest, showcasing the region’s stunning landscapes. On your way, you’ll pass the breathtaking Barron Falls, a sight not to be missed.

Related: Epic Adventures To Have in North Queensland

 Experience the Kuranda Scenic Railway

The Kuranda Scenic Railway offers another exciting way to explore the region. This historic train ride takes you through dense rainforests, past waterfalls, and along the steep ravines of Barron Gorge National Park. The journey promises mesmerising views and a unique, immersive experience.

Experience the Thrill of White Water Rafting

If you are an adrenaline junkie, you must try white water rafting on the Barron River or the Tully River. You will navigate through swirling rapids and experience the thrill of this exhilarating water sport. Several tour companies offer this adventure; with experienced guides and safety measures in place, you can be assured of an exciting yet safe experience.

Enjoy the Vibrant Cairns Night Markets

When the sun sets, Cairns comes alive with its vibrant night markets. From clothing and jewellery to food from around the world, the market offers a diverse array of stalls. It’s a great place to pick up some souvenirs and taste global flavours. Don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy an affordable massage in the market’s dedicated section.

Related: Head to Palm Cove and indulge in these incredible restaurants!

Unearth the Secrets of Chillagoe Caves

Located around three hours from Cairns, the Chillagoe Caves are a fascinating network of limestone caves and well worth putting on your Cairns itinerary if you have the time. You can book a full-day CHILLAGOE & OUTBACK tour from Cairns that is convenient and informative.

The Chillagoe landscape began to take shape around 400 million years ago when the area was submerged under a shallow sea. Today, the towering limestone formations can be seen as outcrops rising above the surrounding plains. Beneath the surface, a network of caves and caverns have been formed by the dissolving of the limestone. These underground wonders are adorned with stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstones, and are also home to ancient Aboriginal art and fossils of long-extinct animals. By taking a guided tour, visitors have a unique opportunity to explore these caves and learn about their historical significance.

Savour Local Cuisine At Some of Cairns’ Best Restaurants

Cairns offers a culinary scene as diverse as its landscapes. Stop by Lillipad Cafe for a hearty breakfast or enjoy a monster-sized dinner at Cock and Bull Pub

To enjoy one of Cairn’s locals’ favourite restaurants, head to Ganbaranba and try their ramen. You can easily spot this place by the long queue outside every night. Offering delicious, affordable, authentic Japanese ramen and a casual atmosphere, you can enjoy a variety of traditional ramen soups and gyoza.

Prawn Star Cairns is a unique floating restaurant at Marlin Marina that serves fresh and locally sourced seafood straight from the trawler. The owner, Danny Moore, bought and restored an old fishing trawler a few years back and turned it into a restaurant. Today, Prawn Star extends across four boats, offering diners freshly caught seafood to enjoy on the back deck of each boat. The restaurant’s laid-back and charming atmosphere is created with fairy lights strung across the boats, music, and communal shared tables. 

Relax Amidst Nature at Cairns Botanic Gardens

The Cairns Botanic Gardens, home to a vast collection of Australian native plants and fauna, offer a tranquil retreat. The gardens are also a hub for educational activities, with workshops for children and guided walking tours. This lush oasis is a serene spot to unwind amidst nature.

Take a Road Trip

Cairns boasts an array of car rental services that cater to every need and budget, and you can even hire a car at Cairns Airport. One of the most exciting activities to do in Cairns is to take a road trip and explore the stunning coastline of Queensland. 

Whether you have a single day or several for this driving adventure, you’ve got plenty of choices. 

One option is to drive from Cairns up to the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest, immersing yourself in the richness of its biodiversity. Spending a few days there before heading back gives ample time to soak in the beautiful vistas and partake in various activities this unique ecosystem offers.

A drive north along the scenic Captain Cook Highway unfolds a panorama of some of Queensland’s best beaches and charming towns. An essential stopover on this journey is the Four Mile Beach, renowned for its pristine sands stretching into the horizon.

Relax at the stunning seaside village of Palm Cove, where you can make a day of it – enjoy the beach, book a spa treatment, and dine at one of the gorgeous beachfront restaurants.

Or, hit the highway on the Great Barrier Reef Drive. This 140 km from Cairns to Cape Tribulation is one of Australia’s most beautiful drives, taking you from the city to the jungle and showing you two World Heritage Areas, spectacular views over the Coral Sea and gorgeous local villages and beach towns.

Related: An Epic 16 Day Honeymoon Itinerary (you can self drive if you like)

Immerse in Aboriginal Culture With a One to Three-Day Adventure

The Bama Way, a unique cultural experience highlighting the rich heritage of the Aboriginal communities, is one of the fascinating things to do in Cairns. The word ‘Bama’, pronounced as ‘Bumma’, is often used in Far North Queensland to denote an Aboriginal person. However, in the Kuku Yalanji and Guugu Yimithirr tribes, it means ‘person’, irrespective of race or nationality. This journey is a remarkable opportunity to connect with and understand the Aboriginal culture more deeply. 

The Bama Way links three individually owned and operated Aboriginal tours:

  1. There is the Kuku Yulanji Cultural Habitat Tours, where you can learn about the tribe’s traditional lifestyle and connection with the land.
  2. At Cooya Beach with The Walker Family Tours, you’ll experience traditional fishing methods and learn about the significance of land and sea to their way of life.
  3. In Wujal Wujal, you can join Guurrbi Tours with Aboriginal Elder Willie Gordon from Hope Vale, located north of Cooktown. Elder Willie shares ancient stories and shows significant rock art sites that hold great cultural importance.

These tours offer an immersive cultural experience, allowing you to travel by air-conditioned 4WD vehicle from Cairns through Port Douglas and north to Cooktown. As you journey along this story-line, you’ll gain an appreciation for the rich heritage and vibrant culture of Australia’s indigenous people. The Bama Way is not just a tour; it’s a journey into the heart of ancient traditions and stories that shape the identity of these tribes. As such, it’s one of the most memorable things to do in Cairns for those seeking a deeper understanding of Australia’s indigenous cultures.

As you can see, Cairns offers so many things to do with its unique combination of breathtaking landscapes and thrilling adventures, making it the perfect destination for nature lovers and adrenaline junkies alike. Cairns has it all. Pack your bags and embark on an unforgettable journey to this vibrant tropical city.

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