Gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest, Cairns is not only one of the must-visit destinations for international travellers on any trip to Australia, but extremely popular with the locals as well, with over 3 million visitors each year.
It’s easy to understand why Cairns is such a popular destination. The tropical city in northern Queensland offers plenty of interesting experiences on its own before you even look at it as somewhere to base yourself for any number of day trips throughout the region.
Cairns Esplanade & Lagoon
A stroll down Cairns’ famous Esplanade is a great way to get your bearings when you arrive in the city.
Stretching the entire length of the Cairns waterfront. Basically from the airport (Although, I wouldn’t recommend walking from the airport if you have luggage) to Trinity Inlet in the south.
One of the key attractions is the 4,800 square metre salt-water public pool known as the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon.
Patrolled daily by lifeguards, this pool is a fantastic alternative to the beach where you don’t need to worry about stingers (jellyfish) or crocs (crocodiles) particularly around the muddy banks of the waterfront at low tide. That said there are plenty of stunning beaches just a short drive from Cairns.
If you have kids, it’s also worth checking out Muddy’s Playground, while the parks along the esplanade also feature a skate park, beach volleyball courts as well as a number of cafes and restaurants.
Obviously, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the key attractions around Cairns. But what if I told you that you could immerse yourself in the reef (well, close enough too) without getting your feet wet or having to know how to snorkel? Well, you can at Cairns Aquarium.
In terms of aquariums around Australia, Cairns Aquarium is up amongst the best, showcasing not only the sea life of the reef but also the inhabitants in and around the waterways of the neighbouring rainforests.
The large aquariums are stunning, in particular, the two-storey reef display giving you the concept of what it might be like diving on the reef for those of us who aren’t certified.
You’ll also be guaranteed to see a number of species that a notoriously difficult to spot in the wild, even if you are planning several days out amongst the creatures on the reef.
It’s also a particularly good option for something to do if you have to stumble upon one of Cairns’ rainy days (it is surrounded by rainforests after all). While hands-on displays are great for the kids.
Cairns Aquarium is well worth the price of admission, but keep an eye out for some of the combo deals for multiple Cairns attractions and save yourself some money.
Located along the Cairns Esplanade not far from the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon, the Cairns Night Markets are a great place to grab yourself a cheap dinner and some touristy trinkets.
Open from 4:30pm each and every evening with more than 70 stalls and shops the Night Markets are popular with locals and tourists alike.
In particular, the food court within the markets which offers a variety of outlets where you can get a decent yet extremely cheap feed.
The food court also offers a place to sit down and eat or, as you’ll see so many other people do, head out onto the esplanade and soak up one of the warm evenings common in Cairns.
Well worth checking out at least once while you are in Cairns, although I’m sure you’ll find yourself stopping by a couple of times during your stay.
Barron Falls, or as the local aboriginals named it Din Din, is a massive cascade waterfall in the rainforest near the village of Kuranda (a 45-minute drive outside of Cairns) within the Barron Gorge National Park.
During the dry season (or the very start of the wet season as per my photo above) the waterfall is just trickle down the rock face but in the wet season transforms into a torrent of water, resembling something more like the famous Niagara Falls, that is truly impressive.
The best way to check out Barron Falls is from the scenic railway station, which I’ll explain more about shortly.
However you don’t need to catch the train to get to that vantage point. Should you drive up to Kuranda, just follow the signs. Barron Falls is really well signposted from Kennedy Highway. From the carpark just follow the walkway through the rainforest to the lookout.
The first lookout you come across is ok. However, I really recommend that you follow the walkaway further around where you’ll get a much better view of the waterfall, and if you time it right, you might just see the heritage train making its way up the mountain.
Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
Speaking of the Kuranda Scenic Railway, it’s an attraction in its own right and one of two unique ways to see the rainforests that surround Cairns.
Both the Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway will transport you through the Barron Gorge National Park to the touristy village of Kuranda. Giving you stunning view the entire journey.
Once you arrive in Kuranda there is plenty to see and do including the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary and the Rainforestation Nature Park, but the real star of the show is the journey through the rainforest to get there (and back).
The heritage railway route is its own unique experience, with sensational views of the aforementioned Barron Falls. While the Skyrail glides over the top of the rainforest.
What I would recommend is taking up the option of doing the scenic railway to the top and the Skyrail back down to the bottom.
Both vendors sell the combined ticket option and giving you the best of both worlds and saving you a bit of money over just taking the railway (which is a bit pricey).
Great Barrier Reef Cruise/Green Island
If we’re being honest with each other, one of the main reasons for visiting Cairns is to get out on the Great Barrier Reef… Is it not?
You’ll have no shortage of options for exploring the Great Barrier Reef once you arrive in Cairns. A number of different cruise operators run daily tours to separate parts of the reef. Not to mention helicopter tours etc.
Now if you don’t have any diving experience, not a strong swimmer, or just looking for something that’s a bit more of an overview of the reef before exploring it further, then I recommend heading out to Green Island on the Big Cat Green Island Cruise.
I’ve found visiting Green Island is the best way to get out onto the reef no matter how confident you are with your swimming ability.
In addition to the spectacular beach that surrounds it, Green Island has a number of facilities including a hotel and a handful of restaurants.
It’s also home to Marineland Melanesia which part zoo, aquarium and Melanesian artefacts museum, but the real reason people visit is the collection of saltwater crocs that it is home to.
However ever, at the end of the day, you are really going to want to spend the bulk of your time either out on the water or underneath it.
Even if you aren’t a strong swimmer one side of the island is usually fairly protected from the elements so you get experience the reef without pushing yourself too hard.
Tickets for the Big Cat Green Island Cruise include the option of snorkel hire or glass bottom boat tour, while you’ve also got the option to purchase a semi-submarine tour or something call SNUBA (not quite snorkel and not quite scuba?) to really explore more of the coral and sea life that occupies the reef.
Pro Tip: Bring your own snorkelling gear, which you can buy fairly cheaply in Cairns anyway, and choose the glass bottom boat tour as your option to get the best of both worlds.
Let’s just say that Cairns isn’t short of hidden away waterfalls and swimming holes. However, what makes Babinda Boulders standout is the picturesque granite outcrops that have been shaped by the Babinda Creek.
This will definitely your go-to location while in Cairns if you consider yourself an Instagrammer. But make sure you get there early, or you’ll have some competition for the best photo of the day.
Babinda Boulders is a little off the beaten path and about 1-hour drive south of Cairns. But once you get there you’ll quickly discover that it’s not a hidden secret getaway either.
From the carpark it’s only a short stroll to the main swimming hole and picnic area. But make sure you follow the Devil’s Pool Walk to really see the best that the Babinda Boulders has to offer.
Just one thing to keep in mind while you are there, that its best stick to the main swimming area if you are looking to cool off. The fast flowing currents through the waterfalls are particularly dangerous further downstream.
Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome
This one is a bit of hybrid. Cairns Zoom & Wildlife Dome is both a ropes course and a wildlife experience. Confused? Don’t be.
The ground floor is where you’ll find the local wildlife exhibits, including crocs, a wide range of local birdlife and cuddly koalas which you can even get a photo with.
While up above you’ll find a number of rope courses and zip line experiences that aren’t necessarily just for the kids.
Located within the Reef Hotel Casino precinct, Cairns Zoom & Wildlife Dome is a family-friendly activity within the heart of the city.
Another one that is particularly good if you’re looking for something to do on a rainy day in Cairns.
Nothing says tropical holiday more than palm trees at the beach and that’s exactly what you’ll find at the aptly named Palm Cove.
Located just a 30-minute drive north of Cairns, this little beachside town is home to a number of resorts, spas, cafes and restaurants making it the sort of place you’d like to visit to slow the pace down a little.
Palm Cove is a good place to just sit down for relaxed coffee or brunch before chilling out on the beach all day. Especially if you’ve had an action-packed few days of reefs and waterfalls.
That said, if you’ve read any of my other posts, you might have gathered that I’m not the sort of person that likes sit around and do nothing. At least for any extended period of time. But I quite enjoyed stopping into Palm Cove for a relaxed breakfast and coffee before heading up to Port Douglas along the Captain Cook Highway.
So no matter what your travel style, well worth stopping in check out Palm Cove.
Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls
I know I’ve already said this, but Cairns has an abundance of waterfalls and swimming holes.
You’re actually spoilt for choice with amazing waterfalls in the mountainous areas that surround Cairns.
That said, what I would recommend that you do is head out to the Atherton Tablelands where you’ll find a whole bunch of different waterfalls that you can explore in a day trip.
Millaa Millaa Falls, Zillie Falls (pictured) and Ellinjaa Falls are all located in quick succession (literally a few minutes drive from each other) along the aptly named Waterfall Way. Making it the best place to start your day.
You’ll almost certainly find a crowd at Millaa Millaa Falls after it was made famous by a Herbal Essences advertising campaign a few years ago, but if you time your trip right you might your own little sanctuary at the others nearby.
If you are really keen, also make sure you also check out Malanda Falls, Emerald Falls and Crystal Cascades. You can do all these waterfalls as a loop in a single day as a round trip out of Cairns. Especially if you are looking to create a bunch of content for Instagram. No judgements here.
Australian Armour and Artillery Museum
For something a bit different why not check out the Australian Armour and Artillery Museum.
While Cairns isn’t necessarily known for its military history, this private collection of tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery dating back to World War Two is worth exploring if you have any remote interest in the topic.
What makes the Australian Armour and Artillery Museum stand out though is that they offer armoured vehicles rides and a shooting range where you can fire a selection of WW2 era rifles. Something you might get a kick out of, so to speak.
It certainly not for everyone, but a unique interactive experience which I haven’t seen anything else like it around Australia.
Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
Looking to discover a bit more about the local Aboriginal culture and customs? Then Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park is for you.
Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park is located in the little tourist hub alongside the based station for the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and the Australian Armour and Artillery Museum.
During the day Indigenous performers bring ancient Aboriginal culture to life through traditional dance, art and interactive demonstrations including throwing boomerangs.
While at night Tjapukai’s signature evening activity, Night Fire, is a unique dinner and cultural performance unlike anything else in Queensland.
At the very least it’s well worth general admission experience during the day, but its the evening performance that’s its famous for.
Bonus: Port Douglas
Just an hour or so drive north of Cairns, Port Douglas can be visited as either a destination in its own right as the gateway to the Daintree Rainforest or a quick day trip out of Cairns.
If you ask me, the drive up the Captain Cook Highway along the coast makes the trip worth it alone.
Unlike the relative hustle and bustle of Cairns, Port Douglas has very much a more relaxed “tropical island” vibe. From it’s large tropical resorts to its quaint little bars and cafes its definitely a change of pace.
That said, there is plenty to experience once arrive in Port Douglas as well, in particular, Four Mile Beach and the lookout on Flagstaff Hill.
Do yourself a favour and head up to Port Douglas for at least the day. You might discover that you might want to hang around a bit longer too.
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