A complete guide to the absolute best things to do in Cairns for adventure travellers. Explore Australia’s best tropical adventure destination with highlights such as epic waterfalls to reef-lined island gems.
When it comes to the ultimate Australian travel experience, Cairns is up there with the best. This list of the best things to do in Cairns is perfect if you’re looking to design your own self-guided Cairns travel itinerary.
From exploring the incredible rainforest waterfalls to seeing the Great Barrier Reef first hand, Cairns has something for every visitor. After spending several months exploring the best hikes and waterfalls, sailing to tropical islands and checking out some of the epic adrenaline activities on offer, I’ve compiled this list of the best things to do in Cairns, Australia.
I’ve also written individual blog posts for many of the highlights on this list. In each, you’ll find detailed information on how to get to the destination, what to expect, as well as how to get the best deals. At the bottom of this post, I’ve also included a comprehensive travel guide to Cairns, which will help you find the best hotels/hostels, the best tours, places to go and see, and more tips to help you make the most of your visit to Far North Queensland.
Cairns has been a blast and one of my favourite destinations in Australia. Here it is, my ultimate travel guide to The Best Things to do in Cairns, Australia!
Best Things to do in Cairns Australia
1. Visit the Great Barrier Reef
Forget the Whitsundays— Cairns is truly Australia’s best gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. It’s the most common reason why people come to Cairns in the first place. It’s fair to say that if you’re planning a trip to Cairns, then you have to see the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest living organism. The tropical coral reef spans nearly 350 000 square kilometres up the Queensland coast. However, the majority of the coral reef is fairly far out to sea in other parts of the state. Cairns in Tropical North Queensland is the best place to base yourself for a trip to the reef since it’s the closest coastal city.
There are dozens of ways to get out there, and hundreds, if not thousands of islands and sandy cays to visit. I recently reviewed one of the most popular reef boat trips in Cairns, so if you’re looking for a great deal, you’ll find all the information you need in the link below.
CURRENT DISCOUNTED COVID DEAL FOR AUSSIES: Great Barrier Reef Full Day Trip From Cairns
2. Enjoy a Scenic Flight Over the Reef
The true scale of the Great Barrier Reef is difficult to comprehend. It’s a common saying that the best way to see the Great Barrier Reef is from the sky— and not just on the flight in.
Scenic flights depart from Cairns airport, which is only a quick 15 to 20-minute drive from town, and the same distance if you’re staying on the Northern Beaches.
Trips usually run between 30-40 minutes, which gives you plenty of time to snap some epic shots of the GBR from above. The best part is the planes can fly at a much lower altitude than commercial jetliners, so you’ll get the best possible view. If there’s one activity you book, make sure it’s a reef flight, one of the absolute best things to do in Cairns!
CURRENT DISCOUNT -43% OFF: Great Barrier Reef Scenic Flight From Cairns
3. Visit Some of Australia’s Best Waterfalls
Cairns has some of the best waterfalls on the East Coast of Australia. Lucky that, because we all know that Cairns can get HOT, especially in the summer months.
Below you’ll find some of the highlights, but I’ve also written a comprehensive guide covering all of the best waterfalls in Cairns, including some epic hidden gems you won’t want to miss.
As you might imagine, there are plenty of epic waterfalls to choose, from jungle behemoths to quaint, isolated freshwater swimming holes. The best way to explore the waterfalls is to rent a car. However, if you’d prefer a locally guided day trip, then I’ve summarised some of the best ones below.
|Most-booked waterfall tour from Cairns||$115||Josephine Falls, Millaa Millaa, Dinner Falls, Crater Lakes|
|Cheapest Atherton Tablelands Waterfall Tour||$107||Josephine Falls, Millaa Millaa, Dinner Falls, Curtain Fig Tree|
|2D1N Waterfall and Atherton Camping||$251||Barron Falls, Lake Eacham, Overnight Camping, Peterson Creek (platypus viewing), Curtain Fig Tree, Josephine Falls|
4. Hike to the Summit of the World’s Tallest Natural Pyramid
If you didn’t spot Walsh’s Pyramid on the flight in, then you won’t miss it when driving around Cairns. This mountain is known as the largest freestanding natural pyramid in the world, and is located just a short drive from town.
If you’re reasonably fit and up for a steep hike to one of the best unobstructed, 360-degree views on offer in Cairns, then don’t miss it. All in all, it takes approximately 3-4 hours to summit and return, so make sure to plan ahead.
HIKING GUIDE: WALSH’S PYRAMID HIKE FROM CAIRNS
5. Visit the Atherton Tablelands
Just behind the rainforest mountain ranges opposite Cairns are the high and flat regions known as the Atherton Tablelands. Most people don’t know this, but the best rainforest hikes and waterfalls are actually found in this area.
Getting to the Tablelands will require your own transport, but it’s well-worth planning at least a day or two for the region. Many of the things recommended on this list of the best things to do in Cairns are actually found in the Tablelands, so don’t miss it!
6. Swim with Turtles at Green Island
Cairns, where the rainforest meets the reef. There are many islands scattered around the coastline from Cairns, but perhaps none are as iconic as Green island.
Green Island is an incredible cay-island with fringing reef stretching far out from its lush shores. It’s even got its own unique rainforest flora and fauna and some resident turtles that you’ll find chilling in the shallows.
To get here, you’ll need to book a boat leaving from Cairns Harbour. There are several day-trip tours but below I’ve linked to the best-rated and best-value trip to save you time searching.
7. Camp at the Summit of Queensland’s Tallest Peak
Did you know that Queensland’s tallest peak is just a short drive from Cairns? Located in the ancient Wooroonooran National Park lies Mt Bartle Frere, an epic rainforest-covered mountain with a dedicated hiking trail.
Reaching a total altitude of 1611 above sea-level, it’s a steep and fairly difficult hike, since you start close to sea-level. You can attempt the climb in a day, but it’s better to take your time and camp near the summit for rewarding sunset views across Cairns and The Tablelands.
Based on my experience, hiking to the summit of Mount Bartle Frere was up there with my favourite things to do in Cairns, and a must for anyone chasing for the best views in the area.
FULL HIKING GUIDE: MOUNT BARTLE FRERE HIKING GUIDE
8. Ride on the Rainforest Skyrail
If you’d prefer to experience the best of the nearby rainforest in comfort, then taking the Rainforest Skyrail is a bit more timid than hiking Queensland’s tallest mountain.
Still, the Rainforest Skyrail is one of the most epic things to do in Cairns, and covers a few must-do’s in a single trip. The cable car takes you over the mountainous region of Kuranda, past some epic waterfalls and rainforest viewpoints.
A new addition to the Skyrail system is a stop at the Edge Lookout, which gives you incredible views on a glass platform over Barron Falls.
Skip the line & save: Cairns: Self-Guided Kuranda Day Trip, Scenic Rail & Skyrail
VISITING CAIRNS? READ: Packing List for Cairns
9. Take a Trip to Kuranda
Kuranda is Cairn’s very own little hippy rainforest town. Although it feels isolated, after only a short 30-minute drive from Cairns, you’ll find yourself exploring unique market stalls, delicious street food and a lively music scene in the midst of the tropical rainforest.
While you can get here by road, the best way to get to Kuranda is to take the Scenic Railway from Cairns. It takes a little longer, but the views are certainly worth it as you pass incredible waterfalls as you climb the wild Barron Gorge.
10. Explore the World’s Oldest Rainforest
The World Heritage Listed Wet Tropics Area surrounding Cairns is listed as the world’s most ancient rainforest. The Daintree in particular has existed as it is for 180 million years. To comprehend just how old that is, the dinosaurs went extinct just 65 million years ago!
If a hike through the Daintree Rainforest is on your Cairn’s to do list, then you’re in luck. I’ve documented some of the best hikes in the region, from short walks at Mossman Gorge, to strenuous climbs at Devil’s Thumb.
11. Visit Australia’s Most Beautiful Beach at Fitzroy Island
Out of all of the incredible islands off Cairns, Fitzroy is my personal favourite. It’s got a touch of everything you’d expect out of an incredible Tropical Far North Queensland island.
You’ve got rainforest hikes, incredible snorkeling and diving, white, sandy beaches, a turtle rehabilitation centre, an epic resort & campground and some of the clearest water you could imagine. It’s also the closest island to Cairns, which makes it super accessible!
Also, if you’ve never heard of it, chances are that you would have still seen it in photos and posters. Nudie Beach, on the tip of the island has been ranked as Australia’s most beautiful beach several times, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint.
If you’re only in Cairns for a few days and don’t know what island to check out, read my guide comparing the best Islands off Cairns.
12. Spot a Real Life Dinosaur
Far North Queensland is home to Australia’s own, breathing, living dinosaur— the Cassowary. You might have seen them in wildlife parks before but in Cairns and the Tropical North, they’re locals.
Okay, while you won’t see a cassowary on the Esplanade Boardwalk, you might be lucky enough to spot one if you head out to any of the waterfalls or hikes in this list of best things to do in Cairns. However, spotting a wild cassowary is pretty rare these days. Land clearing, domestic animals and road traffic have reduced the population to nearly as low as 2000!
However, if you want a 99% guarantee of a cassowary sighting, you’ll need to head to Etty Bay, where a small population come to enjoy the tropical sunset each night.
13. Try Scuba Diving
If you’ve ever wanted to try scuba diving, then what better place to do it than the Great Barrier Reef? While snorkelling trips are always fun, you just can’t compare it to the immersion of diving.
Luckily, some of the world’s best-rated scuba shops run out of Cairns. Surprisingly, trial scuba is pretty cheap and will give you a great taste of the sport. On the other hand, for those who want to go deeper than 12 metres, you could get your PADI Open Water Certificate as well.
What if you’re already certified? Diving day-trips operate from Cairns Fleet Terminal everyday!
14. Go on a Croc-Spotting Tour
Far North Queensland is home to the world’s biggest (and most dangerous) reptile, the saltwater crocodile. Locals will tell you not to swim in estuary and river systems because you never know what will be hiding under the surface.
Truthfully though, you’ll have a hard time spotting a salty on your own. But, trust me— they’re there. If you want to see them in the wild for yourself, you’ll want to go on a croc tour. They depart from right next to the Daintree River ferry everyday, so make a day out of it!
The company I went with use electric motors which are much quieter than big petrol outboards. They’re also the cheapest at only $30 a ticket!
15. Go Beach Hopping
While the clearest water and best beaches are out on the islands, Cairns still has some awesome beach spots worth visiting. Don’t worry, most have a croc and stinger net so you can still enjoy a swim without fear of dying!
Some of my personal favourites include Trinity Beach, Palm Cove and Ellis Beach. But, if you would prefer to explore some more, then make sure to read my guide to Cairns beaches too.
16. Grab a Bite at Palm Cove
One of the best places to stay and eat out during your visit to Cairns is on the Northern Beaches. Palm Cove has a tropical vibe with some of the best restaurants in town. This postcard beach has been made famous Australia-wide for it’s rows of coconut palm trees which line the golden shores.
Tip: If you’re after a good bite to eat, you won’t find a better pizza than at Il Forno at Palm Cove.
17. Unwind at Lake Placid
Okay, not the lake from the movie. There’s “PROBABLY” no crocs in this lake.
* Update Jan 2021: A local resident and frequent swimmer at Lake Placid has recently been attacked by a crocodile while swimming in Lake Placid. Far North Queensland is a wild place. Remember that crocs could be hiding anywhere, so always be croc-wise.
Lake Placid is a little-visited lake at the base of the Barron Gorge, just a short drive from Cairns. If you’re looking to escape the crowds, unwind and spot some colourful rainforest birds, this is a great bet!
18. Visit the Crater Lakes
If you’re planning a trip to the Tablelands from Cairns, then don’t miss Crater Lakes National Park. Chances are, you’ll pass them on the way, just after Gillies Range Road.
Lake Eacham and Lake Barrine are two huge, blue freshwater lakes Crater Lakes surrounded by cool rainforest. Here, you’ll find walking tracks, rare rainforest birds, picnic areas and an awesome freshwater swimming opportunity.
19. Discover a Volcanic Sink Hole at Hypipamee Crater
This particular item on the list of things to do in Cairns requires a bit of a drive. In saying that, it’s well worth visiting if you’re planning a trip to The Tablelands.
Located high on the Evelyn Tableland is an awesome little park with an epic volcanic pipe. It’s said that the deep sink hole was caused by ancient volcanic activity in the region.
There is a short walk to the crater, which also includes a stop at Dinner Falls. However, due to the altitude and dense rainforest, temperatures here are often much cooler than in Cairns, so you might skip the swim in the cooler months.
READ MORE: Dinner Falls and Mount Hypipamee Crater Loop
20. Stop By the Incredible Curtain Fig Tree
Deep in the rainforest near Yungaburra lives an incredible, ancient tree known as the Curtain Fig Tree. This particular fig tree is so huge that it has its own national park designation; the Curtain Fig National Park.
This spot is truly a hidden gem unbeknownst to most visitors but a proud icon for Tablelands locals. Don’t miss it!
21. Go Canyoning at Behana Gorge
The Behana Gorge is an epic place to spend a day exploring, swimming, and enjoying the tranquility of the Tropical Far North’s amazing rainforests. This gorge is located in the Wooroonooran National Park, just south of Cairns.
While you can visit Behana Gorge and Clamshell Falls for free, the best way to experience it is on an organised canyoning trip from Cairns. This trip is run by professional local guides who pride themselves on showing you the beauty of this incredible canyon sustainably.
22. Road Trip to Port Douglas
Port Douglas is another must-visit town in Far North Queensland. Not only will you have easy access to the Low Isles, but the township itself is also one of the most iconic destinations near Cairns.
Highlights include watching the sunset at the famous Port Douglas pier, crocodile spotting on the creek and checking out the popular Four Mile Beach.
Port Douglas is also one of the best places to base yourself if you’re planning trips out to the Daintree. So, if you’ve got time, I’d recommend splitting up your trip to make more time for this epic destination.
23. Take the Scenic Road
The Cairns to Cape Tribulation Drive is up there with the most scenic drives in Queensland, and perhaps Australia. Taking the coastal drive is one of the best things to do in Cairns if you want to see more of the coast.
It’s possible to complete the entire journey in one day. However, it’s probably best to take your time, spending a night in Port Douglas to split it up. Highlights of the journey include seeing the epic beach roads north of Cairns, crossing the Daintree River via a car ferry and seeing where the rainforest meets the reef at Cape Tribulation.
24. Spend a Day at The Low Isles
Another island destination a little closer to Port Douglas is the famous Low Island in the Low Isles. This is another flat, sandy cay island with surrounding reef and its very own resident lighthouse.
There are several boats that depart for the Low Isles from Port Douglas daily. However, the island is never as busy as the islands closer to Cairns like Green Island or Fitzroy. This makes it a perfect day trip for couples who would prefer a bit more privacy.
25. Walk the Length of Four Mile Beach
Also located near Port Douglas, Four Mile Beach is one of the widest and longest white-sand beaches near Cairns. Here, you’ll have the opportunity to swim, relax and even catch a wave on a day with good swell.
If you make it to this iconic beach, then I’d also recommend taking the coastal track that wraps around from the northern point of Four Mile Beach to the township of Port Douglas. This track leads to an epic ocean viewpoint which also almost nearly made this list!
26. Dare a Trip to Babinda Boulders & Devils Pool
Roughly 65 kilometres southwest of Cairns is the quaint town of Babinda. Here, you’ll find one of the best freshwater swimming spots near Cairns.
This is the perfect spot to cool down by swimming in fresh flowing creeks flowing from the foothills of the Bellenden Ker Range. The great thing about this spot is that you’ll have the opportunity to swim in the clear water all year round!
While Babinda Boulders is usually a pretty safe place to swim, Devil’s Pools can get notoriously dangerous in the wet season. Many people have died here and locals claim the place is haunted!
READ MORE: Babinda Boulders and Devils Pools
27. Take a Hike
As you would have found out by now, Cairns is known for many things. One of the absolute best things to do in Cairns is to go hiking. There are hundreds, if not thousands of epic rainforest trails in the vicinity of Cairns, learning to epic waterfalls, mountain viewpoints and epic sunset spots.
I have compiled a huge list of all of the best hiking trails in Cairns which you will find here. Otherwise, below are a few of my favourites close to town.
28. Hike to the Plane Wreckage on Mount William
The Mt William hike is a very little-known trail that branches off from Smiths Track near Stoney Creek, just north of Cairns.
At the top, you’ll find the remains of a 1986 plane crash, which tragically claimed the lives of eight people when it struck the ridgeline 250 metres from the highest point on Mount William. It seems that the wreck has been moved to the summit, where there are now prayer flags and a memorial where one can pay respects.
29. Drive to Tully Gorge
While the Tully Gorge waterfall lookout was once a Queensland icon, its fame as slowly dwindled to once again become a hidden-gem, only really for those who really want to make the effort to reach this incredible place.
Tully Gorge is a 293-metre rocky gully carved by the Tully River as it runs downstream from the densely forested Cardwell Range. The short walk to the lookout offers some of the most incredible, prehistoric views that have to be seen to be believed.
30. Go Bungy Jumping
Did you know that Cairns has its very own AJ Hacket Bungy activity? In fact, Cairns is the ONLY place in Australia where you can bungy jump! So, if jumping off a 50M+ platform has always been on your “bucket list”, then make sure to book a giant leap into the heart of the rainforest just near Cairns’ Northern Beaches.
31. See Where the Rainforest Meets the Reef at Cape Tribulation
Stepping right onto a reef-lined tropical beach from the rainforest is a special kind of experience that is hard to come by. Known as the final frontier, Cape Tribulation marks the start of the truly raw Australia. Rich in native flora and fauna, there’s so much to see and experience in Cape Tribulation. If you’re planning a trip to Cairns and looking for things to do, make the effort and visit this incredible part of the world to see it for yourself!
32. Explore Mission Beach and Dunk Island
Are you road-tripping down the Queensland Coast? Perhaps you want to branch out from Cairns and explore what else is on offer in Far North Queensland. If so, then heading down to Mission Beach is a must.
When visiting Mission Beach, I’d highly recommend getting the ferry to Dunk Island. If you do, you’ll leave most of the tourists behind and get to explore one of the Coral Coasts best-kept secret. There’s hikes, snorkelling, an epic sandbar, and even a huge abandoned resort! If you have time, then you could also spend the night camping on Dunk Island.
One of the best parts about visiting dunk Island is that it’s much cheaper to get here than the other Cairns Islands. You can book a return ferry ticket here for only $40.
Oh, and don’t miss neighbouring Mound Island, a tiny desert island reachable by boat or kayak.
Cairns Travel Guide
With all of the epic things to do in Cairns, you’ll undoubtedly be getting keen for your next trip. Below I’ve included a bit of a guide to help you plan and make the most of your experience in Cairns.
Cairns Accommodation Guide – Where to Stay
BRAND NEW HOTEL WITH A VIEW – OAKS HOTEL
This brand new hotel opened in September 2020 and is already rated as one of the best places to stay in Cairns! The location is right on the esplanade and features balcony rooms with a rooftop restaurant and cocktail bar.
BEST 5-STAR LUXURY HOTEL: PULLMAN REEF HOTEL CASINO
If luxury and location is what you’re after, you can’t beat the Pullman. It’s rated Cairns’ best hotel and features restaurants, a pool, live music gigs and even a casino!
BEST BUDGET HOSTEL WITH A POOL – MAD MONKEY BACKPACKERS
The best budget backpacker option in Cairns is Mad Monkey Backpackers. This one has a swimming pool, AC, a complete kitchen and even free bike hire to take you around Cairns. There are also three locations, but we thought that the village was the best. They also organise plenty of things to do in Cairns straight from the hostel.
BEST VALUE HOTEL – RYDGES ESPLANADE RESORT
This hotel offers the best bang-for-buck. In terms of an epic stay for a decent price! Location is perfect, close to the esplanade and the reviews are excellent.
When is the Best Time to Visit Cairns?
Cairns is a Queensland destination that can be visited at any time of the year. However, it’s important to know that unlike the southern regions of Australia, Cairns has two seasons; wet and dry. You’ll always get decent weather, although it can get pretty hot and humid in the wet season.
Dry Season: April to November
During this time, weather is usually dry and warm, averaging around 26-28 degrees Celcius. This is a great time to visit as there is less rain and there aren’t usually any dangerous stingers. This is the best time to visit Cairns and explore all of the epic things to do here.
Wet Season: December to March
During these hot and wet summer months, Cairns can see tropical rainfall almost daily. However, recent weather changes mean that Cairns hasn’t had a “real” wet season for a few years now. However, the weather is noticeably hotter, averaging around 32 degrees. If you visit Cairns during the wet season, the waterfalls will have better flow and you’ll generally have less wind at sea, especially around December time. However, keep in mind that tropical cyclones can occur, and you’ll probably want to wear a stinger suit when swimming.
How Many Days in Cairns is Enough?
Of course, you might be wondering “How many days in Cairns is enough? If you want to see and do it all, then I’d recommend spending at least two weeks in Cairns. If you’re rushing it a little and just want to tick off a few bucket list items, then you can choose some of the highlight options for your Cairns itinerary like a reef flight, scuba diving trip or a visit to Fitzroy Island and maybe squeeze them into a week.
Cairns is the adrenaline and adventure capital of Australia. It’s also got some of the most diverse natural wonders in the world; namely the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. Combined with all of the hikes, waterfalls, beaches and islands on offer, you’d be silly to rush through this region.
If time isn’t an issue, then I believe the optimal amount of days to say in Cairns is about a month. This will give you plenty of time to explore the best things to do in Cairns and still have enough time to relax and unwind.
TIP: NEED AN AIRPORT TRANSFER? – BOOK THE CHEAPEST $16 CAIRNS AIRPORT TRANSFER TO ANY ACCOMMODATION IN CAIRNS OR PORT DOUGLAS
How Much Does it Cost to Visit Cairns?
As you probably know by now, I always stick to a pretty low travel budget. This is because I genuinely prefer cheap things to do, like waterfall hikes and snorkelling. If you’re like me, then expect to pay around $70 per day. However, for days where you choose to do some of the more expensive things to do in Cairns, this total budget can get much higher.
Unfortunately, many tourists who visit Cairns tend to rush through this incredible destination. I can understand this, since Queensland and Australia, in general, can be an expensive place to travel. However, as I found out, most of the best things to do in Cairns are free. So, if you’re on a budget, then there’s no need to rush. Take your time, and start ticking those epic Cairns attractions off your bucket list!
COVID Price Update: If you’re an Aussie, there’s no better time than now to explore Cairns. You’ll find that epic things to do like activities, tours, and reef trips are heavily discounted for Australians, so make sure to check them out!
More Australian Travel Guides and Blogs
That wraps up the full list of the best things to do in Cairns. This post has been updated and modified significantly since I first uploaded it two years ago. After spending so much time exploring all of the incredible Cairns highlights, I can finally say that this is the best and most comprehensive list you’ll find!
Of course, there are things that didn’t quite make this list. You’ll find a bunch of more epic travel guides, hiking guides, waterfall and adventure guides in Cairns here. If you want more information for each Cairns attraction listed in this blog post, remember to click the links for the complete guides too!
If you feel like there’s an activity or experience that deserved a spot on this list, make sure to let me know by leaving a comment below.
Thanks, and enjoy
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