An inspiring travel guide covering an epic 5 day Cairns itinerary with my recommendations for an epic Tropical North Queensland adventure.
Cairns is the adventure capital of Australia and also the point where two UNESCO World Heritage Sites meet; the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics Daintree Rainforest. If you’re planning a visit to the far north, then I’ve got you covered with this epic 5 day Cairns itinerary!
Of course, 5 days in Cairns is nowhere near enough to do a deep dive into this Australian tropical travel destination. However, if you’re on a restricted time frame, then this is what you’ll want to do in order to experience the best of the islands, the Great Barrier Reef, the rainforest and some good old local Cairns culture.
At the bottom of this Cairns itinerary, I’ve also included a few tips on the best (cheapest) ways to get here, as well as how to get around and where to stay.
- Cairns Itinerary – 5 Days in The Tropical North
- More Options to Add to Your Cairns Itinerary
- Best (& Cheapest) Way to Get To Cairns
- How to Get Around in Cairns
- Cairns Itinerary Summary
- FAQ: Visiting Cairns
- Keep Reading: Far North Queensland Travel Itineraries
QuickList: The Best Cairns Tours & Outdoor Experiences
In a rush? Here's a quick list of the top 4 bookable activities in Cairns!
- Fitzroy Island Full Day Trip - the closest (and cheapest) Great Barrier Reef Island to visit from Cairns. Check out the world-famous famous Nudey Beach and hike to the island's summit
- Daintree & Mossman Gorge Trip - visit the oldest rainforest in the world in the Daintree National Park. Visit Cape Tribulation, Mossman Gorge and get an included cruise.
- Great Barrier Reef by Catamaran - visit the outer reef and snorkel or scuba dive at two pristine reef locations.
- Scenic Reef Helicopter Flight - a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Great Barrier Reef from above on a scenic helicopter flight from Cairns city.
- .... +8 more in this Cairns tour roundup.
Travel tip: By far, the best islands for snorkeling in Cairns are the Frankland Islands (pristine reef). There is only one boat trip allowed to stop on these islands and you can book this directly with BackpackerDeals + use code OLLY5 to get $5 off.
Cairns Itinerary - 5 Days in The Tropical North
Before we get into my recommendations, be warned that this one is fast-paced! There's just so much to do and see in Cairns and it'd be a shame not to explore all the best highlights when visiting.
If you'd rather just hang out in town and sip cocktails by the resort pool, then this itinerary isn't for you! Instead, skip to the bottom to find my recommendations for the best resorts!
Day 1: Island Day - Fitzroy, Green or Frankland Islands
The first epic day of adventure in this 5 day Cairns itinerary is a trip to one of the tropical islands off Cairns.
There are a few great ones to choose from and the right pick for you will depend on what you're looking to do. My recommendation is to pick either Fitzroy Island, Green Island or Frankland Islands as they are the easiest to get to on a day trip from Cairns.
Luckily, you can book a full-day tour which will cover your ferry transport and snorkelling gear to each of these. Trips to Fitzroy Island and Green Island depart from the Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal (Cairns Harbour) while Frankland Islands will include a bus pickup from your accommodation to take you to the ferry down the Mulgrave River.
Book the best prices online:
- Fitzroy Island Day Trip
- Green Island Day Trip
- Frankland Island Day Trip - use code OLLY5 for this one to get $5 off your ticket
Spending a day at one of the islands is a must for any Cairns itinerary and will often be the highlight for many! If I had to pick one, I'd recommend Frankland Island, as it is by far the best island for snorkelling!
I've stayed on both and Fitzroy is my personal favourite. Read my review on what to expect.
Day 2: Great Barrier Reef Scenic Flight & Beaches
I've chosen the reef flight as seeing the Great Barrier Reef from above is truly one of the best travel experiences you can have in the Far North. While you can certainly appreciate its beauty from the water, it's impossible to comprehend its scale and grandoise without seeing it from the air.
Luckily, a reef flight from Cairns is quite easy, includes hotel pickup and a 30-minute experience is actually quite cheap!
Since the reef flight won't take up a whole day's worth of activities, you've still got day two on this Cairns itinerary to chill out and unwind. I recommend heading to one of the sandy beaches below:
- Palm Cove - is among the best places for restaurants, bars resorts and is famous for its iconic tropical palm trees
- Trinity Beach - a local's beach and scenic hidden gem and the perfect place to unwind
- Ellis Beach - very beautiful beach with an awesome beachside bar/bistro (get the nachos)
Day 3: Kuranda Day Trip (Rainforest)
You've seen the beaches, you've snorkelled on the islands and you've even seen the Great Barrier Reef from the sky! Now it's time to explore the tropical rainforests. The truth is, there are so many great rainforest spots to explore around Cairns, with dozens of epic hiking trails and waterfalls.
However, one of the most convenient trips from Cairns is a day trip up to Kuranda.
Kuranda is a small hippy-market village located in the rainforest just above Cairns. While you can drive here in about 30-40 minutes, the best way to get here is to combine two more Cairns highlight attractions/activities; the Rainforest Skyrail Experience and the Kuranda Scenic Rail.
Check price & availability for your dates: Combined Skyrail & Scenic Rail Ticket
The Skyrail is an epic canopy cable-car experience that takes you up and over the oldest rainforest on earth with great views of the overhead canopy. There are also a couple of great stops, including the megalithic Barron Falls, before arriving at Kuranda. It departs from Smithfield and if you book the combined ticket above, you'll also get hotel pick-up and drop-off.
Once you arrive at Kuranda, there's a lot to do and see. Here are a few of my top recommendations:
- Barron River Cruise (spot freshwater crocodiles and wildlife)
- Kuranda Butterfly Sanctuary
- Kuranda Markets
On the return trip, you'll take the Kuranda Scenic Rail, an epic scenic rainforest train ride down the Barron Gorge back to Cairns. This departs from the terminal in Kuranda, making it a convenient itinerary option for spending your day in the rainforest above Cairns.
Day 4: Day Out on the Great Barrier Reef
The next plan on this 5 day Cairns itinerary is a trip out to the outer reef. While there isn't much land to explore out here like you can on the islands, the outer reef is where you'll experience the best and healthiest corals for snorkelling and diving.
As you might expect, there are loads of boats offering day-trips out to the outer Great Barrier Reef. However, in my opinion, the best trip is run by Down Under Cruise & Dive. This is one of the newest and flashest vessels in the harbour, getting you out to the reef in record time (more time in the water). The trip includes guided snorkelling or diving at two reef locations, as well as all your gear and food for the day.
The outer reef trip will take a whole day out of your 5 day Cairns itinerary. Consequently, you'll arrive back in the Reef Terminal in Cairns harbour at around 5PM, which most would call beer-o'clock!
Day 5: Waterfall Day Trip (Daintree)
Kuranda is great, and a must-visit spot that should be on anyone's list of how to spend 5 days in Cairns. However, if you want to delve deeper into the rainforest, then you certainly won't want to miss the magestic waterfalls in the Tablelands and the Wooroonooran National Park.
As I touched on earlier, there are dozens of rainforest waterfalls in the region. If you've got your own car, then check out my Cairns waterfall guide and plan a day waterfall-hopping independently.
For those without a car, you can book a Tablelands waterfall tour for quite cheap which visits some of the most scenic falls and best stops including:
Once you arrive back in Cairns, take the time to relax and unwind. This has been a hectic Cairns itinerary with plenty of things squeezed into 5 days, so you've earned the beers and cocktails at one of the many great bars and clubs in town.
Car Rentals in Far North Queensland
Cairns is one of the most popular travel destinations in Australia and car rentals quickly book out! I recommend booking well in advance. I always use RentalCars.com as they compare the widest range of rentals across dealerships in the Far North.
More Options to Add to Your Cairns Itinerary
Alright, I'm going to be honest. I've written this 5 day Cairns itinerary because it's the most common time-frame.
But if I'm being real with you, you're going to want to spend at least a week here, if not more! I spent several months exploring this region and there are still lots of things that I didn't have time for!
With that said, the above recommendations will have you covered for the best highlights including the islands, the Great Barrier Reef, the beaches, Kuranda and the rainforest. But, if you've got more time, then definitely add a couple of these below to your Cairns itinerary.
- Atherton Tablelands Hot Air Balloon
- Whitewater Rafting on the Barron River
- Spend a night on Fitzroy Island
- Overnight stay on the GBR pontoon
- Road trip to Port Douglas
- Road Trip to the Daintree
- Visit Cape Tribulation
- Spot saltwater crocodiles (Daintree River Cruise)
- Go hiking
- Explore the Tablelands
- Visit Rusty's Markets - buy some tropical fruits!
Best (& Cheapest) Way to Get To Cairns
A common misconception, especially amongst southerners (colloquially referred to as Mexicans south of the border), is that Cairns is close to other Queensland tourist hubs like the Gold Coast and Surfer's Paradise. Honestly, you couldn't be more wrong! The distance from Cairns to the Gold Coast is actually twice as far as the Gold Coast to Sydney!
Therefore, if you're planning a 5 day trip to Cairns, you'll definitely want to fly up here. Thankfully, Cairns has a large international airport and you can fly here quite cheaply from overseas and from other cities in Australia including Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.
When booking a flight, I always compare prices on CheapOAir and Skyscanner. These flight comparison websites can combine tickets to get you the best rates possible. If you're flexible, use the "Whole Month" option to find the cheapest days to fly.
How to Get Around in Cairns
If you’ve flown into the Cairns airport, then your best bet is to grab a rental car. This will give you the most flexibility for your trip to cairns. Luckily, there are loads of garages and rental companies in town meaning you can usually get a decent price.
However, to get the best rates you have to know where to look. Below you’ll find some links to the best resources for booking rental cars in Cairns.
- DiscoverCars.com – a rental car comparison site. Great way to compare rates and availability across companies.
- RentalCars.com - another rental car comparison site that is sometimes cheaper than DiscoverCars.
- Spaceships Vans – this one’s for the backpackers and budget travellers. One of the most affordable camper van options in Australia. I’ve had great experiences with them in New Zealand and Australia and always recommend them.
- Jucy Vans - another top-tier van rental company with great deals
If you don't want to rent a car, you can always get around using taxis, Uber and the local Translink bus (running from Cairns Central to the Northern Beaches).
Cairns Accommodation Guide – Where to Stay
Visiting Cairns? The best places to stay are near the Cairns Esplanade or on the sunny Northern Beaches. Below are the top 4 options for varying budgets.
- Crystalbrook Riley - If luxury and location are what you're after, you can't beat the Crystalbrook Riley. This is the best 5-star resort in Cairns and features absolutely everything you'd expect from a Crystalbrook resort.
- Fitzroy Island Resort - Sleep out on one of the picturesque Great Barrier Reef Islands at Fitzroy Island Resort. Spending the night on the island can work out cheaper than staying in town and means you get more time to explore the reef, coral beaches and rainforest walking trails.
- Gilligan's Backpackers - The best backpacker option for a great vibe in Cairns. Great place to meet like-minded travelers and has facilities including a pool. air-con, a huge shared kitchen, and a great common area!
- Pepper's Beach Club - stay at the best beach resort in the heart of Palm Cove on the Cairns Northern Beaches!
Cairns Itinerary Summary
Below is a short version of this blog post with all of the highlights in this Cairns itinerary guide. It features some of the best things to do in the area that are included in this guide.
FAQ: Visiting Cairns
As the old saying goes, "if you can't afforda travel insurance, you can't afford to travel". Cairns is an adventure paradise, you'll want a good policy that covers activities like hiking, swimming, and snorkeling. I highly recommend WorldNomads for Aussies who are traveling domestically and SafetyWing for a cheaper alternative for international tourists.
Both are great travel destinations to spend 5 days at. I've visited both and while Hamilton Island and the Whitsundays are beautiful, Cairns is much better for adventure, with a broader variety of things to do.
These are available as an add-on on all of the reef tours recommended in this itinerary travel guide.
It's a common mistake for travellers to judge Cairns just by seeing the city. Yes, walking around the Esplanade and checking out attractions like Rusty's Markets, the Cairns Aquarium, and the ZOOM Wildlife Dome are great, but it's all about the surrounding area!
Awesome idea! Head over to Port Douglas and all the way up to Cape Tribulation. There are great acommodation options in both regions!
I recommend visiting the Tropical North in the Aussie Winter (June to September). This is considered the dry season in Far North Queensland. The weather is warm (25-30 degrees celsius) and there is little rain.
Keep Reading: Far North Queensland Travel Itineraries
And that's a wrap for this fast-paced, 5 day Cairns itinerary. I hope that it's been helpful for you in planning your adventures to the Tropical North. If you've made it this far, then here are even more articles you'll want to check out for inspiration for your next visit.