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) Rainforests. 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 on this incredible destination. However, if you’re on a restricted time frame, then this is what you’ll want to do in order to experience the islands, Great Barrier Reef, the rainforest and 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
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.
Tip: Below is a short version of this blog post with all of the highlights in this Cairns itinerary guide. Make sure to read on for more details and tips for each activity.
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 beautiful 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 day trips 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 Terminal (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!
I’ve stayed on both and Fitzroy is my personal favourite. Read my guide on what to expect here.
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 grandiose 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 beaches below:
- Palm Cove – best for restaurants, bars resorts and is famous for its iconic tropical palm trees
- Trinity Beach – a locals beach and scenic hidden gem
- Ellis Beach – very beautiful beach with an awesome beachside bar/bistro
Or… Combine a GBR Cruise & Helicopter Flight
Prefer a helicopter tour? 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 actually cheaper than a 30-minute flight from Cairns City
Read my guide for more information or book directly below.
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 rainforest. 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 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.
Book: Best Outer Reef Trip
The outer reef trip will take a whole day out of your 5 day Cairns itinerary. Consequently, you’ll arrive back in the 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 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!
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-searched 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’s still 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
- Spend a night on the GBR pontoon
- Road trip to Port Douglas
- Road Trip to the Daintree
- Visit Cape Tribulation
- Jump on a croc-spotting tour
- Go hiking
- Explore the Tablelands
- Visit Rusty’s Markets
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.
If you don’t want to rent a car, you can always get around using taxis, Uber and the bus (running from Cairns Central to the Northern Beaches).
Where to Stay in Cairns for a 5 Day Itinerary
Planning a trip to Cairns and wondering where to base yourself? Below I’ve listed some of the best options near Cairns Esplanade. I’ve also written a comprehensive accommodation guide to Cairns, as well as a comprehensive Port Douglas Accommodation guide too.
Crystalbrook Riley – If luxury and location are what you’re after, you can’t beat the Crystalrbook Riley. This is the best 5-star resort in Cairns and features absolutely everything you’d expect from a Crystalbrook resort.
Tip: Make sure to head up to Rocco’s Bar at the top of the Crystalbrook Riley for great views over Cairns!
Rydges Resort – This hotel offers excellent bang-for-buck in terms of an epic stay for a decent price! The location is perfect, close to the esplanade and features include three swimming pools, two tennis courts, a jacuzzi, a fitness centre and even an award-winning restaurant.
Fitzroy Island Resort – If you’d rather sleep out on one of the picturesque Great Barrier Reef Islands, look no further than the Fitzroy Island Resort. While you can get out here on a day trip, I highly recommend spending the night so 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 is Gilligan’s Backpackers. That’s because this one has a swimming pool, AC, a complete kitchen and a great common area to meet other travellers.
Keep Reading: Far North Queensland Travel Itinerary Ideas
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.