21 Best things to do in Cairns, Australia

Cairns is the capital city of Far North Queensland, situated around 1,700 km from Brisbane, and a short drive by car from Port Douglas. 

It is famous for its tropical climate, beautiful beaches, and for being a good base to explore the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree National Park & Mossman Gorge, and the fertile Atherton Tablelands. 

Cairns is also a haven for outdoor activities such as hiking, snorkeling, and diving, and adventure seekers, with bungee jumping, skydiving, and hot air balloon rides. 

It also has a good range of restaurants, cafes, bars, nightclubs, and night markets, offering lively nightlife and good shopping experience.

Some of the best things to do in Cairns is taking tour of the Great Barrier Reef, visiting the Mossman Gorge & Daintree National Park, swimming at the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon, taking a scenic railway ride on the Kuranda Train, exploring the Cairns Botanic Gardens, visit the nearby of beaches such as Palm Cove and Port Douglas.

21 Best things to do in Cairns, Australia

1. Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest coral reef system in the world, spanning more than 2.300 kms along the Queensland coastline. 

Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef as many tours depart from the city. There are charter boats, helicopter flight, and dive tours on the reef. 

You can explore the amazing underwater universe, with lots of marine life such as tropical fish, turtles, rays, and whales.

You can try snorkeling and scuba-diving excursions, as well as glass-bottomed boat tours, and take a kayaking tour between Mission Beach and Dunk Island. 

2. Cairns Botanical Gardens

The Cairns Botanical Gardens is located 4 km from Cairns city, in Edge Hill. It covers an area of  97 acres, featuring Australia’s best tropical plants such as palm trees, bamboos, and orchids.

It is formerly known as the Flecker Garden, founded in 1886. It now has four distinct sections including the Flecker Gardens, Mt. Whitfield Conservation Park, Centenary Lakes, and Tanks Art Centre.

Cairns Botanical Gardens has an onsite cafe and restaurant, a great place to relax and enjoy a meal. Nearby you can find the Botanic Garden Library, managed by the Friends of the Botanic Gardens.

3. Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome

The Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome is the first adventure rope course in the world that is located within a wildlife park. The course features a variety of challenging obstacles, including high ropes, ziplines, and crossing over moving logs and other ropes. 

The course is suitable for all ages and skill levels, and is located in a glass dome on top of The Reef Hotel Casino. It’s perfect for an hour or a day worth of fun and adventure. 

Visitors can also get close to Australian wildlife, including koalas, cockatoos, snakes and crocodiles, as well as enjoy watching native birds, such as cockatoos and parrots, flying freely around the dome while they navigate the course. 

4. Cairns Aquarium

Cairns Aquarium is one of the best things to do and see in Cairns for families and kids because it features a wide variety of marine life from North Queensland with 16,000 creatures from the coral reef, rainforest, and mangroves. 

It also offers educational programs and interactive exhibits designed to teach visitors about the importance of conservation and the animals that call the Great Barrier Reef and Tropical North Queensland home. 

Cairns Aquarium is open from 10 am to 3 pm everyday. It is situated on the corner of Florence and Abbott Streets. 

5. Kuranda Scenic Railway

The Kuranda Scenic Railway is a railway line in Queensland, connecting Cairns and Kuranda. The railway passes through rainforest, over bridges and through tunnels, and waterfalls, offering scenic views of the surrounding landscape and the Barron Gorge National Park.

The trip from Cairns to Kuranda takes around 2 hours total, with a brief 10-minute break at Barron Falls Station to view the Barron Falls.

The railway operates as a tourist attraction, and is known for its historical significance as well as the beautiful views it offers. The railway has been in operation since 1891 and is considered an important piece of Australia’s railway heritage.

6. Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is a scenic cable car ride, located in the heart of Tropical North Queensland. It is a 7.5 kms journey that takes you over the World Heritage-listed Rainforest canopy and deep into the lush vegetation. 

 Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is located only 15 minutes from the Cairns CBD. It can be reached from the Smithfield Terminal on the corner of the Cook Highway and Cairns Western Arterial Road. 

The cableway provides views of the tropical rainforest, and the Coral Sea. There are also two stops along the way, Red Peak and Barron Falls, where visitors can disembark and explore the rainforest on elevated boardwalks and take guided tours. 

The cableway is a popular tourist attraction in Cairns, known for its unique perspective of the rainforest and the opportunity to learn about the area’s ecology and history.

7. Cairns Esplanade

Cairns Esplanade is one of the best things to do and see in Cairns because it has been the focal point of the city since the late 19th century. 

It is a popular area with facilities for swimming, walking, jogging, skateboarding, yoga, and cycling, as well as providing beautiful views of the Coral Sea.  

The area is a 2,5 km long promenade, stretching along the shores of Cairns Harbour. It features mangroves at one end and a public swimming area & terminal for boats at the other end. 

You can dip yourself in the Cairns Lagoon in the hot days, while kids can play at the Muddy’s Playground with a large café, picnic tables, and the BBQ facilities.

The Esplanade has a good selection of restaurants, cafes, and shops to dine and enjoy the views of the Coral Sea.

8. Palm Cove

Palm Cove is a small seaside village, situated only half an hour from Cairns CBD. It is known for its tropical beaches, and for being a good base to explore the Kuranda mountain village, Port Douglas seaside resort, Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation, and the Great Barrier Reef.

Palm Cove beach has beautiful white sand and the palm trees, making it a popular place for swimming. You can also spend a day relaxing with therapeutic and pampering treatments.

Palm Cove also offers a wide variety of dining and accommodation options from rolling resorts, stylish beach houses, to self-serviced apartments, and a Caravan Park on the beachfront esplanade.

9. Crystal Cascades

Crystal Cascades is a secluded swimming hole located in a cool tropical rainforest that can be accessed by self-driving or on a canyoning tour. It is located around 20 minutes drive from Cairns city.

The area features a number of small waterfalls that flow into large pools surrounded by granite boulders. There are cool, refreshing water, rainforest trees, picnic tables and BBQs facilities. 

The only way for most people to discover Crystal Cascades is through the recommendation of a local or by accidentally stumbling upon it while exploring the surrounding area.

Be cautious of potential hazards such as submerged rocks in nearby pools and always pay attention to and follow any signs or warnings.

10. Daintree Rainforest, Mossman Gorge & Cape Tribulation Tour

The Daintree Rainforest, located in Tropical North Queensland, is a popular destination known for its age as it is believed to be over 135 million years old, making it the oldest rainforest on the planet. 

Spanning over 1,200 square kilometers, it is also the largest rainforest in Australia and is home to many species of plants and animals that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The Daintree National Park comprises two sections, Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation. 

Visitors can enjoy a variety of activities such as visiting Mossman gorge, taking a croc cruise on the Daintree River, crossing the river on the Ferry, and traveling to Cape Tribulation. 

Additionally, it is even possible to visit the Great Barrier Reef from Cape Tribulation by taking an Ocean Safari tour.

11. Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park

The Aboriginal Cultural Park hosts dance and performances showing the ancient culture of the Aboriginal. The park covers an area of 25 acres, combines modern technology and theater to create an entertaining and educational experience. 

At the Aboriginal Cultural Park, you can see artifacts of the Tjapukai people at the Magic Space, watch a performance at the Creation Theatre, take a look at the History Theatre, Dance Theatre, Tjapukai Camp, The Gallery, and The Boomerang Restaurant.

Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park is conveniently located in Smithfield within easy drive from Cairns, Kuranda, and only 45 minutes from Port Douglas. You can easily reach the park by car or by public transport.

12. Dolphin and whale-watching

While in Cairns, you can consider booking a dolphin or whale-watching tour. The best time to see Dwarf Minke Whales is from June to July; and for Humpback Whales is from July to August.

Whales from the Antarctic move north into the warmer waters of the Great Barrier Reef where the Antarctic’s waters start to freeze, offering opportunities for watchers to spot a whale.

13. Atherton Tablelands

Atherton Tablelands is a large plateau rising 700 m above sea level, located south of Cairns, offering the cooler weather, and some of the best national parks, waterfalls, and coffee plantations. 

You can visit the beautiful Lake Barrine and spot some wildlife such as eels, snakes, iguanas, and birds. There is also the Granite Gorge Nature Park where you can get closer to wallabies and swim at the Granite Creek Weir.

Atherton Tablelands is famous for its waterfalls including Millaa Millaa waterfall, Davies Creek & Emerald Creek, Windin Falls, and Millstream Falls.

If you love tea, you can visit the Nerada Tea Factory, which provides a tour to visit facilities and learn the process of making tea.

14. Green Island

Green Island is a picturesque coral cay located 27 km away from Cairns and easy access by ferries, making it a popular day trip from Cairns. 

Green Island is located in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and is one of the most visited destinations in the Great Barrier Reef region. It is almost 6000 years old, with only 12 ha in size, surrounded by 710 ha of spectacular reef. 

Green Island is Queensland’s first island national park and has the first protected marine area in its surrounding foreshore and reef. It is also home to the first underwater observatory in the world.

The Green Island Resort is famous for its sustainable practices, taking extra steps to minimize its impact on the Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage-listed site.

15. Night Markets or Rusty’s Market

Night Markets are great places to enjoy street food and to purchase souvenirs to bring home for friends and families. The market is open  from 5pm to 11pm daily.

Rusty’s Markets is open only weekends from Friday to Sunday. It is a farmer market selling fresh local fruits and vegs, as well as indigenous food.

16. Cairns Museum

If you are interested in the history of the city, you can visit the Cairns Museum in Cairns’ central business district.

Cairns Museum features exhibits on the history, culture, and natural environment of the Cairns region, including displays on the area’s Indigenous history, the sugar industry, the mining industry, and the development of tourism in the area. 

The museum also has a collection of artifacts related to the region’s World War II history. 

17. Port Douglas

Port Douglas is a scenic coastal town located 67 km north of Cairns, known for its relaxed atmosphere and tropical charm. Visitors can enjoy the famous 4 Mile Beach and take in the beauty of the Reef and Rainforest Coast, a 200 km stretch of coastline that includes Daintree and Cape Tribulation. 

To reach Port Douglas from Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, one can either drive for 20 – 23 hours or fly directly to Cairns.

The town of Port Douglas was established in 1877 after gold was found nearby, causing a population boom. However, this declined once again when the Scenic Railway from Kuranda was constructed in 1891. A major cyclone hit the town in 1911, causing significant damage. 

The town was relatively quiet until the 1980s, when Christopher Skase invested in the construction of the Sheraton Mirage and The Reef Marina, which helped elevate the town’s reputation. 

In 1996, former US President Bill Clinton and his wife visited Port Douglas as their only stop in Australia during their holiday. 

In 2006, Steve Irwin, also known as the Crocodile Hunter, died while filming a documentary, after he was injured by a stingray near Batt Reef, which is located off the coast of Port Douglas.

18. Undara Volcanic National Park

Undara, located in the Gulf Savannah region of Tropical North Queensland, is a place of ancient and captivating beauty. The Undara Lava Tubes are a striking reminder of Australia’s pre-history where you can explore the area by walking through the paths of an ancient volcano. 

Additionally, accommodations are available in the form of antique railway carriages, providing a unique and immersive experience that allows one to connect with the timeless essence of the land.

Undara Experience is a place to discover natural geological wonders, relax in a unique outback setting, and observe abundant local wildlife in their natural habitat. 

The essence of the Australian Outback is captured in the rolling savannah plains, ancient lava tubes, and the warm hospitality of the hosts. Visitors can enjoy a variety of activities, from bird watching to sunset viewing, catering to all ages and abilities.

19. Muddy’s Playground

Muddy’s Playground is a playground for kids, located on the Cairns Esplanade. It is one of the most popular things to do and see in Cairns for both tourists and locals.

Muddy’s Playground has sections of water play areas, rope bridge, flying fox, sound chimes

Slides, Play houses, Mouse wheel, and Trick track.

Muddy’s Playground is located very close to a cafe, which offers a relaxed meal, fresh juice, or coffee, and BBQs facilities if you bring your own food to cook.

Muddy’s Playground is open from 9 am to 7 pm daily. It closes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings for maintenance.

20. Cairns Lagoon

Esplanade Lagoon is located on the Cairn Esplanade, 1km from the Muddy’s Playground. Cairns Lagoon is a free large public swimming spot, in the heart of the Cairns business district. 

It is a safe place to swim and enjoy the views of the Trinity Inlet and mountains in its surrounding. There are LifeGuards controlling the safety everyday. 

You can find many restaurants and coffee shops, as well as picnic tables, and BBQ facilities, under the huge Banyan Trees nearby. 

21. Babinda Boulders

Babinda Boulders is a popular swimming hole, located south Cairns, and is surrounded by lush rainforest. south of Cairns. It is a great place for swimming on a hot day in Far North Queenslands.

The Babinda Boulders feature a creek with large rocks along its banks, with the water flowing smoothly around them and creating deep pools suitable for swimming. Despite the warm weather, visitors often remark on the chilly temperature of the water in the pools.

The Babinda Boulders are situated behind Mt Bartle Frere, which is Queensland’s highest mountain. The mountain is the source of the cool water for Babinda Creek, and the section of the creek where the water flows over large granite rocks, shaping and smoothing them, is known as the Babinda Boulders.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Cairns known for?

Cairns is the capital city of Far North Queensland that is known for its tropical climate, beautiful beaches, and lively nightlife. It is also known for its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef – the largest reef system in the world, and the Daintree Rainforest & Cape Tribulation, as well as many outdoor adventures such as hiking, snorkeling, and scuba diving. 

How do I spend a day in Cairns?

Spend a day in Cairns by walking along the Esplanade, taking a dip in the lagoon, visiting Cairns Botanic Gardens, and trying tropical dishes at a night market or a waterfront restaurant. You can book a tour to the Great Barrier Reef for snorkeling or diving at the maria.

Is 2 days enough for Cairns?

Two days is not enough to fully experience Cairns and all it has to offer, but you can still get the taste of the city and see main attractions such as the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest. To make the most of 2 days, it is recommended to plan ahead and prioritize what you want to see and do.

How can I spend 4 days in Cairns?

Spend four days in Cairns by visiting the Great Barrier Reef, exploring the Daintree Rainforest, taking a scenic railway ride to Kuranda, trying the local dishes at a night market, and relaxing on the beaches of Port Douglas and Palm Cove.

What are the free things to do in Cairns?

There are plenty of free activities to do in Cairns including exploring the Cairns Esplanade with its lagoon, playgrounds for kids, parks; visiting the beaches of Machans, Holloways, Yorkeys, Palm Cove, and Trinity; exploring the Cairns Botanic Gardens and Rusty’s Market.

What are the unusual things to do in Cairns?

Some unusual things to do in Cairns include taking a hot air balloon ride, skydiving, visiting the Butterfly Sanctuary, taking a Kuranda Scenic Railway ride, white water rafting on the Tully river, and  ziplining at the Daintree Rainforest.

What are the best things to do in Cairns at night?

Cairns has vibrant nightlife with many bars and nightclubs where you can enjoy drinks, as well as night markets for picking up souvenirs and trying street food. You can also watch a dinner show at the Tjapukai aboriginal cultural park, take a sunset cruise, or take a night diving at Great Barrier Reef.

What are the best things to do in Cairns with family?

Cairns is a destination for families with some of the activities such as the Esplanade Lagoon, Cairns ZOOM & Wildlife Dome, Cairns Aquarium, Great Barrier Reef, spotting wildlife in the Daintree rainforest, Kuranda Scenic Railway, Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, and Indigenous tours at Trinity Inlet.

See more: Where to Stay in Cairns First Time

So there you have it, the best things to do in Cairns, Australia for your next trip. If you enjoyed my post, please leave a comment below.

About Author: Linda Smith

I'm Linda Smith, the Hotel Expert, an experienced travel blogger who passionate about traveling. I'm here to share with you all my travel experiences and tips. I cover a wide range of travel topics, specializing in sharing information about the best areas, neighborhoods, and hotels in each city. I hope all these things will make your travel easier.

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