12 things to do in Cairns – Australia

As the capital of Tropical North Queensland, there are plenty of things to do in Cairns. It is the gateway to two world heritage sites, the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest. Which means if being in nature and the great outdoors is your thing, Cairns makes for the perfect travel destination.

For many, Cairns is a bucket list location. It offers a lot for both international and domestic tourists and caters to all from luxury travel to backpackers. Regardless of your budget, there is plenty of things to do in Cairns.

Things to do in Cairns

Below I’ve highlighted my favourite things to do in Cairns which have been tried and tested over multiple trips. Allow at least a week to work your way through these Cairns hot spots.

Diving the Great Barrier Reef

1. Dive or snorkel the Great Barrier Reef

At the top of the list, and rightly so is the Great Barrier Reef. A trip to Cairns would not be complete without a visit to the reef. The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system and is made up of 900 islands over 2,300 kilometres.

Boats leave for the outer reef every day. It’s worth getting on a boat to see the diversity of over 400 types of coral and over 1,500 fish species for yourself.

As an experienced diver I would highly recommend a visit to the reef. While sadly the reef is under threat to coral bleaching and predators like the crown of thorns starfish, it has some of the most extensive coral formations I’ve ever seen in reefs across the world.

2. Explore the Daintree Rainforest and Mossman

As described by Sir David Attenborough, the Daintree Rainforest is “the most extraordinary place on earth”. The world-heritage listed site contains ancient plants and has animals that can be found nowhere else on earth. Take in the jungle, zipline along the rainforest canopy and take a cruise along the Daintree River to spot crocodiles.

Mossman is about 80km north of Cairns and should be the first stop on your Daintree journey. The Mossman Gorge Centre provides a good intro to the area along with Aboriginal history. Take the time to take some of the guided bushwalks by local guides, swim in the rock pools and take in the scenery.

places to eat in Cairns
Nu Nu restaurant at Palm Cove

3. Indulge at Palm Cove

For those looking to indulge in some luxuries while in Cairns, Palm Cove is your place! Luxury hotels, spa treatments, shopping and award winning restaurants offer plenty of things to do for those looking to experience the finer things in Cairns. For a small palm lined beach village, Palm Cove turns on dreamy sunsets too.

My favourite places to eat in Palm Cove include 27 degrees for the best acai bowls and Nu Nu for award winning food in a relaxed and beach front location.

Things to do in Cairns
Relaxing at Palm Cove

4. Port Douglas

About an hour north of Cairns is Port Douglas. Port Douglas is a tropical seaside village which makes a great base to access the reef or the Daintree Rainforest. The town itself offers a lot of great food, restaurants and shopping. Four Mile Beach is high on the Port Douglas itinerary. This iconic beach is one of the best panoramic beach views in Queensland.

Swim at Cairns Lagoon
Cairns Lagoon

5. Walk the Cairns Foreshore Promenade

The Cairns Foreshore Promenade includes a boardwalk along the Cairns waterfront, restaurants, the marina and an iconic swimming lagoon.

The Cairns Lagoon is very popular with locals and tourists alike. The lagoon is monitored by lifeguards and can swim up to 1,000 people.

Things to do in Cairns
Scenic Railway to Kuranda

6. Take the Scenic Railway & Sky Rail to Kuranda

Visit the historic village of Kuranda. Here you’ll find two outdoor markets including the Kuranda Original Rainforest Market and the Heritage Market. Take your time to explore the locally made goods as well as local produce like food, coffee, chocolate and international cuisine.

Best to take the Kuranda Scenic Railway in the morning. You’ll pass through Cairns cane fields before climbing the mountains through the rainforest, slowly down to admire the Barron Falls. In the afternoon take the Rainforest Sky Rail back to Cairns, scaling over the rainforest canopy and catches glimpses of the ocean as you approach Cairns.

7. Visit the Atherton Tablelands

North Queensland’s lush hinterland plateau of the Atherton Tablelands provides a variety of attractions. From waterfalls, inland lakes, fabulous roadside produce to purchase, bush walking and hiking. But most surprisingly the Atherton Tablelands is home to one of two of Australia’s major coffee regions.

places to go in Cairns
Nudey Beach, Fitzroy Island

8. Spend a day or night on Fitzroy Island

Just a 45 minute ferry ride from the Cairns marina and you can find yourself on one of the 900 islands of the Great Barrier Reef. Fitzroy Island offers plenty of things to do while in Cairns. Spend your time at one of the coral lined beaches , snorkelling the fringe reef or explore the island via one of the three walking tracks. These tracks taking you to the lighthouse, the peak of the island or Nudey Beach.

Josephine Falls outside Cairns
Josephine Falls

9. Waterfalls of Cairns

Cairns’ mountain range contributes to the significant number of waterfalls that exist in Tropical North Queensland. There are over 20 waterfalls that can be visited within an hour from Cairns. Some of my personal favourites and those you must visit include the list below.

  • Josephine Falls
  • Crystal Cascades
  • Barron Falls
  • Stoney Creek Falls
  • Millaa Millaa Waterfall

10. Rusty’s market

Rusty’s market is iconic to Cairns and has been in operation for over 30 years. It provides locals and tourists with access to over 180 market stalls from fruit, vegetable, bakery, seafood and dairy to name a few. Located in the heart of Cairns, Rusty’s is open from 5am to 6pm Friday and Saturday. And open from 5am to 3pm on Sundays.

Cairns Botanic Gardens butterfly
Butterfly garden at Cairns Botanic Gardens

11. Cairns Botanic Gardens

The Cairns Botanic Gardens are one of Australia’s best tropical garden displays. Set on over 38 hectares the gardens contain extensive Australian native plants species. Some particular points of interest include:

  • Aboriginal plant use garden – a short walk showcasing the local plants traditionally used by Aboriginal groups from the region
  • Gondwanan Heritage Garden – another educational experience showing the evolution of bacteria to modern day flowering plants.
  • Rainforest Boardwalk – this garden is particularly special as the rainforest contains endangered plant species which can be viewed from the boardwalk.
  • Butterfly garden – what I remember as the butterfly garden is actually named to Watkins Munro Martin Conservatory. This garden was built to contain valuable, fragile plants and a collection of butterflies.
  • Fitzalan Gardens – three separate gardens connected by footbridges and paths lead through rainforest and ponds. The design has carefully considered private spaces to enjoy this tranquil setting.

12. Cairns Night Market

The Cairns Night Market is inspired by night markets in Hawaii and South East Asia. Since 1991 these markets have grown from about 30 stalls to what is now over 130 stalls. Operating every night from 4.30pm until late, the markets offer a range of street food, locally produced goods, Australian souvenirs as well as an array of trinkets.

Find more of my resources and posts on things to do in Australia here.

Things to do in Cairns
Views from Fitzroy Island

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