A complete guide to the absolute best things to do in Cairns for the adventure traveler. From epic waterfalls to reef-speckled island gems, Cairns has everything you’d expect from an Australian nature and adventure capital!
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 adventure traveller. From just a few days or a whole month, you definitely won’t run out of things to do in Cairns.
This list of 23 Best Things To do In Cairns Australia has been updated as of May 2020 to give you the most accurate and up-to-date information. I’m constantly adding to the list based on my personal experience in Cairns.
Best Things to do in Cairns Australia
With those quick tips out of the way, let’s jump straight into this complete list of the top 21 best things to do in Cairns and the surrounding area. I haven’t listed these in any particular order since your personal preferences will depend on your unique style of travel! That said, one thing that you can count on is that you’ll have an epic time however you plan your Cairns itinerary.
1. Visit The Best Waterfalls in Cairns
In my opinion, Cairns has some of the best waterfalls on the East Coast of Australia. That’s why I consider waterfall chasing one of the best things to do in Australia. There are plenty to choose from, but below I’ve outlined three of my favourites.
You can visit all of these waterfalls yourself if you have a car. If not, then I’d recommend this full-day waterfall tour to some of the best waterfalls for under $110.
READ THE COMPLETE CAIRNS WATERFALL GUIDE: BEST WATERFALLS IN CAIRNS AND SURROUNDS
Josephine Falls is located in the Wooroonooran National Park, located approximately an hour’s drive from Cairns. Here, you’ll find a wide cascading waterfall and some epic swimming holes. There’s even a small waterfall rock slide into a deep freshwater pool. In my opinion, Josephine Falls deserves its own spot on the best things to do in Cairns.
READ THE FULL POST: JOSEPHINE FALLS – WATERFALL GUIDE, CAIRNS
Similar to Josephine Falls, Nandroya is also located in the Wooroonooran National Park. This one is a little quieter and requires a scenic 40-minute hike to reach.
What’s great about this waterfall is that you’ll actually pass another waterfall on the way; Silver Falls. The tall, plunging waterfall at the top also leads down to a smaller but wider waterfall, which makes a great freshwater swimming spot near Cairns.
READ THE FULL BLOG: NANDROYA FALLS, WOOROONOORAN NP – CAIRNS
Millaa Millaa Falls
This is probably the waterfall you’ve seen at the airport and on banners advertising the Cairns as a tourism destination. Millaa Millaa is a perfect plunging waterfall and one of the most iconic Cairns attractions. To get here, you can book a tour, or drive here yourself from Cairns.
It’s so perfectly shaped and picturesque that it’s earned the title of “most photographed waterfall in Australia”. This one is on most people’s lists of the best things to do in Cairns, so make sure you come early to avoid the crowds!
READ THE FULL WATERFALL POST: MILLAA MILLAA FALLS – INCREDIBLE WATERFALL IN THE ATHERTON TABLELANDS NEAR CAIRNS
2. Walsh’s Pyramid
Although most people spot this pyramid when driving around the region, hiking Walsh’s Pyramid is actually one of the more non-touristy things to do in Cairns.
Walsh’s Pyramid is the largest freestanding natural pyramid in the world. If you’re reasonably fit, then hiking to the top of the pyramid offers some of the best unobstructed, 360 views in Cairns. It’s a pretty steep climb that takes approximately 3-4 hours return, so make sure you plan ahead.
3. Mount Bartle Frere Hike
Looking for more hikes near Cairns? You can’t get much better than Mount Bartle Frere.
Bartle Frere is the tallest mountain in Queensland, reaching a total altitude of 1611 above sea-level. It’s a steep and fairly difficult hike, since you start at a near 0 altitude. 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.
CHECK OUT THE FULL HIKING GUIDE: MOUNT BARTLE FRERE HIKE: QUEENSLAND’S TALLEST MOUNTAIN HIKING GUIDE
4. Green Island
Out of the mountains and down to the islands. Green Island is one of the best islands off Cairns, offering excellent snorkelling and a quick taste of the Great Barrier Reef.
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 and ferries. The best value that I could find was this catamaran sailing and snorkelling trip for $98.
READ THE FULL BLOG POST: GREEN ISLAND, CAIRNS – YOUR COMPLETE GUIDE TO ISLAND PARADISE
Cairns: Essential Travel Resources
Find Cheap Flights
Still in the planning stage of your trip? Currently, the best and easiest way to find cheap flights are to use Skyscanner. This works by comparing all of the available fares across every airline to help you compare flights in one place.
Finding the Best Deals On Accommodation
Whether you’re looking for hostels, hotels, guest houses, or resorts between Booking.com and Agoda, you’ll always get the best deals. I always search using the map feature to find accommodation in the best locations. Sometimes, if I want to stay in a place a little longer, I’ll use Airbnb.
TIP: For the best hostels, I usually compare reviews on Hostelworld, then check other booking sites to compare prices and deals.
Book Tours and Transport Online To Save Money
You already know that I prefer independent travel. In saying that, sometimes the best and cheapest way to get things done is to just book a tour or package. For Australia, I always use Klook, Viator and Get Your Guide.
Finding a Car in Australia
Having a car or camper is the best way to travel Australia. You can compare rental car deals on RentalCars.com, or use Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace and CarSales to purchase a car for longer trips.
Don’t Forget Adventure Travel Insurance
If you’re reading this blog then you’re more likely to be seeking epic cairns adventures over poolside sips. By far, my two favorite companies for the most comprehensive adventure travel insurance is World Nomads and SafetyWing. If you’re on the fence, you can read the comparison article.
5. Wooroonooran National Park
If you’re not already out exploring the rainforest waterfalls in the suggestions above, then here are some more reasons why you should visit Wooroonooran National Park.
The park is located approximately an hour south of Cairns and is part of the Heritage Listed Wet Tropics Region. There are loads of hikes, waterfalls and rainforest bushwalks to choose from.
Spending a day exploring this incredible National Park is easily one of the best free things to do in Cairns. You can find the National Park Map here to help you plan your trip.
6. Rainforest Skyrail
If you want to experience the best of the nearby rainforest in style, then taking the Rainforest Skyrail is probably the best way to do it.
This crazy 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.
For the full Skyrail Experience, including transfers from your accommodation in Cairns, you can book ahead here for $82.
7. The Low Isles
Another island destination a little closer to Port Douglas is the famous Low Island in the Low Isles. Another flat, sandy cay island with surrounding reef, the Low Isles is one of the best places for snorkelling near Cairns.
However, to get here, you’ll need to make your way to Port Douglas. From here, there is a fast jet boat called Reef Sprinter that takes tourists out to the Low Isles in under 15 minutes! The boat ride is seriously fast, and probably deserves its own spot on the best things to do in Cairns.
If you’re short on time and having a hard time choosing the best island for you, then I’ve written this Cairns Island Guide to help you choose.
READ THE ISLAND GUIDE: SNORKELING AND EXPLORING THE TROPICAL LOW ISLES
8. 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.
9. Four Mile Beach
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. And of course, it’s free!
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 nearlt made this list!
10. Fitzroy Island
Looking for an island a little closer to Cairns? A day trip to Fitzroy Island is one of the best things to do in Cairns if you’re after the complete island experience. There are epic hikes, a crazy amount of turtles and some healthy reef and coral to explore.
A boat ferry transfer to Fitzroy Island is the cheapest out of all the inner Great Barrier Reef Islands. So if you’re looking for cheap things to do in Cairns but still want to see the reef, then Fitzroy Island might just be your best bet.
READ THE FULL POST: FITZROY ISLAND THINGS TO DO: COMPLETE ISLAND GUIDE
11. Atherton Tablelands
Just behind the rainforest mountain ranges opposite Cairns are the high and flat regions known as the Atherton Tablelands. Travellers with their own car or transport can easily explore this epic area, complete with hikes and some epic waterfalls.
Below you’ll see a shot of Davies Creek Falls, a prime example of the hidden gems located in this area of Far North Queensland.
If you don’t have your own transport, then you can book this Atherton Tablelands Waterfall Tour, which is currently on sale for less than $88.
12. Kahlpahlim Rock Hike
The Kahlpahlim Rock hike is an epic half-day hike near Davies Creek Falls in the Dinden National Park.
This one is a little challenging, but not more so than the Walsh’s Pyramid hike. In return for their effort, hikers will enjoy changing scenery, from pine forest to dense, tropical rainforest. Once you reach the top, you’ll get some of the best views of Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands!
13. Mossman Gorge
Honestly, a trip to Cairns isn’t complete without seeing the Daintree Rainforest. It’s the most ancient rainforest in the world and is on most people’s Australia bucket lists.
The easiest way to explore some of the best sections of the Daintree Rainforest is by taking a trip to the Mossman Gorge. From Cairns, it’ll take you about an hour to reach. If you’re staying near Port Douglas, then it’s only a much shorter, 20-minute drive.
The Mossman Gorge Walk around the rainforest circuit immerses you in the heart of the Daintree. You’ll see biblical-sized fig-trees, dense rainforest vines and plenty of tropical birdlife. If it’s hot, then you can also take a swim in the crystal-clear freshwater streams. Don’t worry, there aren’t any crocodiles.
If you don’t have your own car, then you can book this complete Daintree, Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation Tour with free accommodation pickup for $185 per person.
14. Snorkel or Dive at the Outer Great Barrier Reef
Don’t get me wrong, the islands surrounding Cairns are great, but you just won’t get the complete Great Barrier Reef experience unless you make it out to the outer reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is considered the largest living organism in the world. There are literally thousands of small cays and sections of interconnected coral reef to explore. Due to the scale and since visiting the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most popular things to do in Cairns, there are plenty of options to choose from. Below I’ve listed three of the best and highest-value experiences.
CHEAPEST OPTION: Take a Great Barrier Reef DAY TRIP Cruise, including free accommodation transfers, reef snorkelling, and glass-bottom boat
THE COMPLETE GREAT BARRIER REEF EXPERIENCE: Spend the night on the reef with the overnight Great Barrier Reef Pontoon.
LEARN TO SCUBA DIVE: Get your PADI Open Water on the GRB and see the best of the reef with 5 days of diving!
HAVE YOUR OWN BOAT OR LOOKING TO CHARTER? READ ABOUT MY EXPERIENCE AT MICHAELMAS CAY.
15. Spot Wild Crocodiles
Though you probably wouldn’t want to see them when you’re swimming, spotting wild estuarine (saltwater) crocodiles from the safety of a guided boat is one of the most thrilling things to do in Cairns.
There are plenty of tours that take people out for wildlife spotting both in Cairns and around the Daintree. Most operations will pretty much guarantee you a croc sighting, especially if you choose one down the Daintree River.
16. Babinda Boulders
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!
FREE GUIDE TO BABINDA BOULDERS: BABINDA BOULDERS AND DEVILS POOLS, CAIRNS
17. Devil’s Pool
Looking to tick off two things to do in Cairns on the same day? Devil’s Pools is an epic location which is connected to Babinda Boulders via a short 15-minute track.
While Babinda Boulders is usually a pretty safe place to swim, Devil’s Pools can get notoriously dangerous in the wet season. Regardless, on calm days, the pools are a popular cliff-jumping spot for locals.
Whatever the weather, Devil’s Pools is definitely a place you’ll want to check out. The fast-flowing rivers and green pools make is an epic spot to snap some photos and explore.
18. The Cairns to Cape Tribulation Drive
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.
READ THE FULL BLOG POST: CAIRNS TO CAPE TRIBULATION DRIVE – THE MOST SCENIC DRIVE IN NORTH QUEENSLAND
19. Thala Resort Palm Tree Forest
If you’ve got a drone, then Thala Resort is a Cairns attraction you’d probably want to check out. Perfectly symmetrical palm trees run adjacent to the road entrance, making it a pretty epic photo or video opportunity.
What’s great about this spot is that it’s literally a stop right on the side of the road during the epic coastal drive, so it won’t be much of a detour at all.
20. Rex Lookout
Rex Lookout is one of the best coastal viewpoints accessible from Cairns. If you’re taking the road up to Cape Tribulation or Port Douglas, then you’ll see the pull-over bay on the side of the road.
From here, you’ll get some awesome views of Trinity Bay. If you’re lucky, then you might also get to watch some locals paragliding.
21. Glacier Rock Hike
It seems that wherever you stand in Cairns, the stark, bare face of Glacier rock stands exposed against the iconic rainforest backdrop. But did you know that you can hike it?
The Glacier Rock hike is a short out-and-back trail offering magnificent coastal views from Cairns to the Northern Beaches.
The gentle climb up to the 450M Glacier Rock lookout is a great bet for catching excellent sunrise or sunset views near Kuranda.
READ THE FULL GUIDE: GLACIER ROCK LOOKOUT HIKE IN CAIRNS
22. Mission Beach and Dunk Island
Are you road-tripping down the Queensland Coast? Perhaps you want to explore more of the surrounding region. 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.
FULL ISLAND GUIDE: EXPLORING DUNK ISLAND: BEST THINGS TO SEE AND DO
23. Helicopter over the Great Barrier Reef
This item on the list of the best things to do in Cairns is probably the most epic. If you’re after the best possible views of the reef, then the best way to do it is to get a scenic flight.
Surprisingly, a helicopter over the Great Barrier Reef isn’t absurd expensive like I first assumed. In fact, for what you get, it’s pretty decent value.
For an action-packed 30-minute helicopter over the Great Barrier Reef, you can grab this epic deal for under $300. While I didn’t rank this list, when it comes to the most epic things to do in Cairns, I think this last is probably the best!
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.
Wet Season: December to March
During these hot and wet summer months, Cairns sees tropical rainfall almost daily. The weather is also 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 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!
MORE PHOTOS OF MY CAIRNS ADVENTURES
Hopefully, this guide gave you some insightful tips to make the most of your visit to Australia’s adventure capital. Here are some more photos that I hope will inspire your visit.
Have any more suggestions for the best things to do in Cairns? I’d love to hear them. Shoot through a comment in the section below, or send me an email if you have any questions. I answer every email, so don’t be shy.
More Australian Travel Guides and Blogs
So, that wraps up this epic list of the best things to do in Cairns.
If you want more information for each Cairns attraction, remember to click the links for the complete guides. Otherwise, here are some more details that might help you plan your Cairns itinerary.
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