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Cairns Itinerary: How to Spend 5 Days in the Tropical North

Cairns Itinerary: How to Spend 5 Days in the Tropical North

Discover the Great Barrier Reef & the Daintree Rainforest in this epic 5-day Cairns itinerary packed with 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 to visit Far North Queensland, 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 guide is a great way to ensure you experience the best of the islands, the Great Barrier Reef, the rainforest and some laidback local Cairns culture.

At the bottom of this Cairns itinerary, I’ve also included a few tips on the best and cheapest ways to get here, as well as how to get around and where to stay during your trip.

Olly gaspar

By Olly Gaspar, full-time traveler & adventure photographer for 6 years with 700+ published travel guides. I visit every place I write about & share real tips from what I learn.

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 the Frankland Islands as they are the easiest to get to on a day trip from Cairns (options below).

Luckily, there are full-day tours covering your ferry transport and snorkelling gear to each of these islands, so the choice is yours.

Note: 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.

Nudey beach on fitzroy island

Cairns Island Tours To Book

There are dozens of tours you can book to the islands. Unfortunately, there are no day trips available visiting multiple islands. So if you only have 5 days, I recommend choosing one of the below.

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 and has the healthiest coral reef.

Tip: if you have a little more time, you can stay at Fitzroy Island (Fitzroy Island Resort) and on Green Island (Green Island Resort). I've stayed on both and Fitzroy is my personal favourite. Read my review about what to expect.

Fitzroy island resort near cairns
Fitzroy Island Resort near Cairns
Green island, cairns australia
Green Island
Frankland islands near cairns
Frankland Islands

Day 2: Great Barrier Reef Scenic Flight & Beaches

The second day on this epic 5-day Cairns itinerary involves a morning Great Barrier Reef flight, followed by a relaxing day at the best beaches in Cairns.

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. This is the largest living organism on earth and to really appreciate its scale and grandois, you have to see it from above!

Luckily, a reef flight from Cairns is quite easy, includes hotel pickup and a 30-minute experience is actually quite cheap!

Alternative: It's possible to combine a full-day GBR cruise with a 10-minute helicopter flight directly from the reef pontoon. This Get High package is cheaper than a 30-minute flight from Cairns City. Read my helicopter guide for more information or book directly below.

Great barrier reef from the sky

Cairns Beaches

Since the reef flight won't take up a whole day's worth of activities, you've still got day two on your 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)
Ellis beach near cairns

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.

Skyrail rainforest cableway experience from cairns, overlooking barron falls

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:

Girl walking at kuranda train station

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.

Kuranda scenic railway overlooking barron falls, cairns

Day 4: Day Out on the Great Barrier Reef

The next plan on day four of my Cairns itinerary is embarking on a trip out to the outer reef! While there isn't much land to explore out here as 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 most flash vessels in the harbour, getting you out to the reef in record time (more time in the water).

The reef 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 5 PM, which most in FNQ would call beer-o'clock!

Great barrier reef coral

Day 5: Waterfall Day Trip in the Daintree Rainforest

Kuranda is great, and a must-visit spot that you'll find on most travel plans to Cairns. However, if you want to delve deeper into the rainforest, then you certainly won't want to miss the majestic 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.

Ellinjaa falls waterfall milla milla queensland

For those without a car, you can book a Tablelands waterfall tour which is quite affordable and visits some of the most scenic falls and best stops in the Tabelelands 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.

Josephine falls, wooroonooran national park

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 for people visiting the region.

But if I'm being real with you, you're going to want to spend at least a week here, if not more to really make the most of your trip! I've spent several months exploring this region, hiked over 30 trails, been on over 15 boat trips, and visited over 30 waterfalls– and there are still lots of places that I haven't visited!

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. That said, if you've got more time, then add a couple of these below to your Cairns itinerary.

White water rafting in cairns
Hot air balloon experience in cairns
Daintree river crocodile sitting on the banks

Best Ways 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, they couldn't be more wrong! The distance from Cairns to the Gold Coast is twice as far as the Gold Coast to Sydney!

Therefore, if you're planning a 5-day trip to Cairns, you'll want to fly up. Thankfully, Cairns has a large and convenient international airport and you can fly here relatively 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.

Lady with white dress and hat at waterfall in cairns

How to Get Around in Cairns

If you’ve flown into the Cairns airport, then your best bet for getting around 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. 
  • 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).

Rental van beside a palm-lined beach near cairns, australia

Where to Stay In Cairns

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.

Alternatively, check out my Port Douglas accommodation guide for more ideas on where to stay in Far North Queensland.

Girl sunbathing at crystalbrook riley resort in cairns

1. Crystalbrook Riley Luxury

If luxury and location are what you're after, you can't beat this 5-star resort right in the heart of Cairns Esplanade.

Fitzroy island wharf

2. Fitzroy Island Resort Mid-Range

Sleep out on one of the picturesque Great Barrier Reef Islands! Staying at Fitzroy often works out cheaper than staying in town & means you get more time to explore the reef, beaches, and rainforest walking trails.

Gilligans backpacker resort

3. Gilligan's Backpackers Budget

The best backpacker option for a great vibe in Cairns. Great place to meet like-minded travelers & features a pool, air-con rooms, a huge shared kitchen, & a great common area.

Peppers beach club four mile beach port douglas

4. Pepper's Beach Club Palm Cove

Stay at the best beach resort in the heart of Palm Cove on Cairns's Northern Beaches!

Cairns Itinerary Summary

Below is a short image version of this blog post with all of the highlights in this itinerary guide. It features some of the best things to do in the area so that you can save it for your trip!

Cairns 5 day itinerary infographic

FAQ: Visiting Cairns

Do I need travel insurance to visit Cairns?

As the old saying goes, "If you can't afford 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. Check out HeyMondo for easy, affordable insurance with a great app. (We Seek Travel readers get 5% off!)

Should I visit Cairns or Airlie Beach?

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.

Where can I take a glass bottom boat?

These are available as an add-on on all of the reef tours recommended in this itinerary travel guide.

What's there to do in the City of Cairns?

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!

What about a Cairns Roadtrip itinerary?

Awesome idea! Head over to Port Douglas and all the way up to Cape Tribulation. There are great acommodation options in both regions!

When is the best time to plan a trip to Cairns?

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.

More Cairns Travel Blogs

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.

Complete 5 day itinerary
Thanks for Reading

I'm Olly Gaspar, adventure travel journalist & photographer. Traveling non-stop since 2018, I've published over 700 travel guides on We Seek Travel. These draw on my personal experience to share unique itineraries, accommodation tips, & fun adventure guides covering hikes, viewpoints, beaches, waterfalls, & tours. Read my Publishing Ethics Statement.

Your feedback & updates are crucial to keep my guides factual & current. Got new info or updates? Drop a comment below or contact me directly.

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