Cairns, Queensland – The Ultimate Guide

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I have absolutely no doubt that Cairns is high on your list of destinations to visit around Australia.

With the reef on one side and the rainforests and mountains on the other, there are plenty of reasons to visit this tropical destination. Not only for international travellers but for the locals as well, with the city attracting over 3 million visitors each year.

Gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest, it’s easy to understand why Cairns is such a popular destination.

The tropical city in Far North Queensland caters to all travel experiences. From simply relaxing by the beach to adventurously exploring all of the natural wonder and everything in between. A trip to Cairns and the surrounding region can be whatever you want it to be.

That said, there are a handful of things that you need to know before you get to this part of Queensland. And in this post, I’ve compiled all of my best advice and tips from my time visiting Cairns that will help you in your planning and when you first get there.

Best Time Of Year To Visit Cairns

Being a tropical destination, Cairns is best visited during the winter months (for the rest of Australia).

The city is warm year-round, however during the summer or as it is better known in northern parts of Queensland, the wet season, the weather can be a bit extreme.

Heavily rainfalls are quite common through December to March, while tropical cyclones do occur between November and May.

That said, it doesn’t rain all the time in the summer, there are some very hot clear days. It’s just the weather swings very dramatically between the two during this time of year.

Where Is Cairns Located

Cairns is located in Far North Queensland. About a 2.5-hour flight or 1700km drive north of Brisbane.

It’s the northernmost city in Queensland, and second only to Darwin in terms of Australia as a whole.

Best Place To Stay In Cairns

Cairns, Queensland

No matter your budget or what you happen to be looking for accommodation wise, Cairns will have you covered.

Very much a tourist city, Cairns caters to over 3 million visitors each year with a huge range of options from simple backpacker hostels all the way to luxury resorts, all within a stone’s throw of the water.

Within the city of Cairns, the southern end of The Esplanade is where you’ll find the biggest concentration of accommodation options. It’s also a good place to base yourself if you would like to be centrally located to the key attractions and restaurants.

Hotels

My best suggestion would be to look at staying at either the Oaks Cairns Hotel or the Mantra Trilogy. Both hotels are extremely conveniently located, very comfortable and offer stunning views out over the water.

For those looking to stretch your travel budget a bit further, but still remain within easy walking distance of everything, you’ll find a variety of cheaper options if you stay a little further along The Esplanade.

I can recommend the Cairns Rainbow Resort as a good hotel-style option just a couple of minutes walk away from everything. However, if you are planning on staying longer than a few days, or with a group of people, then I would suggest the City Plaza Apartments to give yourself the added convenience of having your own kitchen etc.

Resorts

If luxury resorts and spas are more your style, then staying within Cairns city probably isn’t the way to go.

Palm Cove just a short drive outside of Cairns is a great option if you would still like to spend some of your time exploring Cairns while you are in the area. My top recommendation in Palm Cove is The Reef House – MGallery by Sofitel.

Otherwise, to really get away from it all, Coconut Grove up in Port Douglas is another solid pick for just a place to relax and unwind.

Other

For those a little more inclined to the backpacker experience, there are many, many options, but the Cairns Central YHA is located right in the centre of town, which will definitely come in handy to save on travel costs.

How To Get To The City From Cairns Airport

Cairns Airport is really close to the city. I mean like really, really close.

So close in fact that if you were really keen walking into the city from the airport would definitely doable (maybe give yourself an hour/hour and a half). I mean I wouldn’t recommend it, but it would be possible.

In terms of more practical ways to get to and from the airport then I would recommend using the local Taxis or Uber. Given the proximity, neither option is all that expensive.

That said, once you start looking at exploring beyond the city, in particular the rainforests and waterfalls. I would strongly recommend that you rent a car and the airport gives you the most options in that regard.

In terms of rental car companies at the airport, Thrifty and Budget I find are the most convenient options without any hidden fees or costs.

If you are looking to be adventurous while you are in Cairns, it’ll just make the rest of your time easier if you organise rentals before you leave the airport. And Cairns is a really easy city to drive around.

How To Get Around Cairns

Within the city of Cairns, particularly along the waterfront, almost everything is within comfortable walking distance. The city, particularly the main area where the tourists tend to want to explore, isn’t that big.

Translink does run a public bus service from Cairns to the surrounding suburbs but within the city itself, your best bet is to walk.

Just to give you context, I’ll rent a car some I can easily explore the surrounds of Cairns at my own pace, but the only time I’ve driven around within Cairns while staying in the city is to pick up groceries from the Supermarket. Otherwise, it was just as easier the walk.

That said, parking almost everywhere is free, so driving places isn’t a hassle either.

Transport Options To Get Beyond Cairns

Obviously, I’ve just mentioned the bus Translink service. And there are also Taxis and ride-sharing options like Uber as well if for whatever reason you don’t feel like driving.

However to really make the most of your time in Cairns, I would strongly recommend that you rent a car as I just mentioned in my getting to and from the airport section.

A lot of the natural attractions that make the city such a popular destination are really only accessible by car, especially the beaches, waterfalls and rainforests.

In my travels around Australia, I’ve found that Thrifty and Budget are the most convenient rental car options.

The best part of driving around Cairns is that shouldn’t encounter hidden costs by renting a car and driving around. There aren’t any toll roads and parking in most instances is free.

The only hassle you might find is trying to find a parking spot at some of the most popular attractions during the middle of the day, but this can be easily avoided by visiting earlier or later in the day.

Best Things To Do In Cairns

As I’ve mentioned a few times already, there is no shortage of things to do while in Cairns. Here I’ve picked out my top suggestions so you know what to do when you first arrive.

Cairns Esplanade & Lagoon

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 outside of the city of Cairns. But as always in this part of Queensland, you’ve got to be very conscious of the local wildlife before entering the water. So the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon presents a concern free option to go swimming.

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.

Cairns Aquarium

Cairns Aquarium

Obviously, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the key attractions that Cairns is best known for. 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 which gives you the concept of what it might be like diving on the reef for those of us who aren’t certified to do so on the actual reef.

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 Great Barrier 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.

Night Markets

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 and 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 offers a variety of outlets where you can get a decent yet extremely cheap feed. Making the Night Markets an extremely popular dining option for everyone who visits Cairns, no matter if you are staying on the backpacker hostels or the five-star resorts.

The food court also offers a place to sit down and eat. But what you will find that most people do is take their takeaway meal head out onto the esplanade and soak up one of the warm evenings common in Cairns.

The Night Markets are 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

Barron Falls, Cairns

Barron Falls, or as the local aboriginals refer to 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. However, during the wet season, the waterfall transforms into a torrent of water, resembling something more like the famous Niagara Falls, which is truly impressive.

There are a couple of vantage points to check out Barron Falls, but easily the best view 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 lookout. Driving up to Kuranda is a very good alternative and definitely a cheaper option.

Following the Kennedy Highway, Barron Falls is really well signposted and a really straightforward drive. Although a little reassurance for Google Maps also helps.

Once in the carpark, there is a well laid out walkway through the rainforest that will take you to a couple of lookouts with stunning views out over the falls.

The first lookout gives you a decent enough view, especially if you are with someone who isn’t particularly mobile. However, I really recommend that you follow the walkaway all the way to the end. Which just happens to be the scenic railway station for the best view of the waterfall.

If you time it just right, you might just see the heritage train making its way up the mountain as well.

Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

Kuranda Scenic Railway

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 (over in the case of the cablecar) the Barron Gorge National Park to the touristy village of Kuranda. Both give you a stunning view for the entire journey.

That said, the trip to the town is the only attraction. Once you arrive in Kuranda there is plenty to see and do as well.

Both the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary and the Rainforestation Nature Park are very popular attractions in the town, but the 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.

The best way to make the most of this experience is to take the option of the scenic railway to Kuranda and then Skyrail back down to the bottom.

Both vendors sell the combined ticket option, giving you the best of both worlds and helping save you a bit of money over just taking the railway (which is a bit pricey).

Great Barrier Reef Cruise/Green Island

Green Island in the Great Barrier Reef

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 the helicopter tours etc.

Now if you don’t have any diving experience, are not a strong swimmer, or just looking for something that’s a bit more of an overview of the reef before exploring it further, especially if you’ve never been to the reef before then I recommend heading out to Green Island on the Big Cat Green Island Cruise.

There are a number of different islands to visit, but 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 is part zoo and aquarium as well as Melanesian artefacts museum. However, the real reason people visit is the collection of saltwater crocs that it is home to. Especially if you’ve never seen salties in real life.

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 can get the experience of being out on 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 called SNUBA (not quite snorkel and not quite scuba either?) 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.

Babinda Boulders

Babinda Boulders

Let’s just say that Cairns isn’t short of hidden away waterfalls and swimming holes. However, what makes Babinda Boulders stand out is the picturesque granite outcrops that have been shaped by the Babinda Creek.

This will definitely be your go-to location while in Cairns if you consider yourself an Instagrammer or influencer. But make sure you get there early, or you’ll have some serious 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 exploring Babinda Boulders. It’s best to 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. A number of people have drowned being pulled under the rocks by the strong currents through the waterfall section.

Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome

This one is a bit of a 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. But it’s the combined experience is what makes this unique.

Cairns Zoom & Wildlife Dome is another one of those great indoor options, especially if you are looking for a You will find it located within the Reef Hotel Casino precinct, Cairns Zoom & Wildlife Dome is a family-friendly activity to do on a rainy day in Cairns.

You will find it located within the Reef Hotel Casino precinct within the heart of the city.

Palm Cove

Palm Cove, 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 to sit around and do nothing. At least for any extended period of time.

However, I personally 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 even just for a stroll along the beach.

Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls

Waterfall in the Atherton Tablelands

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 in the Atherton Tablelands.

You’ll almost certainly find a crowd at Millaa Millaa Falls after it was made famous by several advertising campaigns over the last couple of years (Herbal Essence and Great Northern Brewing Co just to name a few), but if you time your trip right you might have your own little sanctuary at the other waterfalls 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 social media. No judgements here.

Australian Armour and Artillery Museum

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 (that’s more a Townsville thing), 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.

It’s not something I’ve seen offered anywhere else in Australia and something you might get a kick out of, so to speak.

It is certainly not for everyone, but of a very few unique interactive experiences that you won’t find something similar elsewhere in Australia.

Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park

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 base station for the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and the aforementioned Australian Armour and Artillery Museum.

During the day Indigenous performers bring ancient Aboriginal culture to life through traditional dance, art and interactive demonstrations. Including the 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 the general admission experience during the day just to discover more about the ancient culture. But it’s the evening performance that Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park is most famous for.

Bonus: Port Douglas

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.

Unlike the relative hustle and bustle of Cairns, Port Douglas has very much a more relaxed “tropical island” vibe.

From its large resorts to its quaint little bars and cafes it’s definitely a change of pace from what you would have experienced while in Cairns.

And if you ask me, the drive up the Captain Cook Highway along the coast makes the trip worth it alone.

That said, there is plenty to experience once you do arrive in Port Douglas as well, in particular, Four Mile Beach and the lookout on Flagstaff Hill.

You would be really doing yourself a favour by including a road trip up to Port Douglas for at least the day while you are in Cairns. But you might discover that you’ll want to hang around a bit longer too.

Captain Cook Highway on the way to Port Douglas

Where To Find Food In Cairns/What To Do In The Evenings?

Again coming back to the tourism focus of Cairns, there isn’t a shortage of options for your evenings in the city either.

As I’ve already mentioned, my first tip is to check out the Night Markets. It’s just what you do in Cairns and when you get there you’ll understand.

You’ll also find a huge variety of restaurants and pubs in this part of Cairns, particularly along Shields Street. My personal recommendation would be to try either Rattle n Hum or The Woolshed (or both) for dinner and drinks. If you are looking to kick on into the evening, there are good options as well.

That said, if you are looking for something a little more low-key or relaxed just take a stroll around the block and you’ll find something. There are sit-down restaurants and takeaways catering to all sorts of tastes.

Cairns’ relaxed atmosphere and typically warm evenings are ideal for just taking your time to find something at your own pace.

If you’re looking for something a little more upmarket, then head towards the waterfront, particularly where all the reef cruises depart from. That’s where you will find the concentration of fine dining options.

Cairns, Queensland

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Photo of author

By Rhys Vandersyde

Traveller, Photographer, Content Creator - I've spent the last 20 years actively seeking out new destinations and new adventures. Find out more about me here: vandersyde.com.au
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