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.

SUNSET ON THE GREAT BARRIER REEF

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.

Cairns 5 day itinerary infographic

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

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:

Spending a day at one of the islands is a must for any Cairns itinerary and will often be the highlight for many!

Tip: if you have a little more time, you can actually 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 guide on what to expect here.

GREEN ISLAND, CAIRNS AUSTRALIA
Green Island
FITZROY ISLAND CAIRNS
Fitzroy Island
Frankland Islands Day Trip from 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. 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!

Book: Best 30-minute GBR Flight

Great Barrier Reef From the Sky Cairns Itinerary 5 Days

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
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 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

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 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:

THINGS TO DO IN KURANDA AUSTRALIA, ATTRACTIONS AND ACTIVITIES

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 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!

Great Barrier Reef Coral

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!

ELLINJAA FALLS WATERFALL MILLA MILLA QUEENSLAND
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-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.

Read more: Ranked: Best Tours and Bookable Activities in Cairns

White Water Rafting in Cairns
HOT AIR BALLOON EXPERIENCE IN CAIRNS
DAINTREE RIVER CROCODILE TOUR FROM CAIRNS WITH SOLAR WHISPER

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.

  • RentalCars.com – a rental car comparison site. Great way to compare rates and availability across companies. 
  • Car Next Door – sharing economy car rental app. I usually use this if I need to rent a car anywhere as it always ends up cheaper. Use my link for $15 off your first booking.
  • 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).

rental van in cairns

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, so make sure to check that out too before you book!

Also, if you’re looking to stay in Port Douglas, I’ve got some tips on finding great accommodation deals there too.

LUXURY RESORT WITHOUT THE PRICE TAG – Rydges Resort
This hotel offers the best 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.

Check price and availability for your dates

RYDGES ESPLANADE RESORT IN CAIRNS, WHERE TO STAY ACCOMMODATION

Best 5-Star Luxury Without the Price Tag: Pullman Reef Hotel Casino
If luxury and location are 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! If nightlife is your thing, don’t go past this one.

Check price & availability at Pullman

PULLMAN CASINO CAIRNS

Stay on the islands: 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.

Review: What it’s like to Stay on Fitzroy

Check price & availability at Fitzroy Island resort

FITZROY ISLAND RESORT

Best Budget Hostel With a Pool – 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.

Check price & availability at Gilligan’s

GILLIGANS BACKPACKER RESORT

CHECK OUT THE FULL LIST OF BEST HOSTEL AND HOTEL DEALS IN CAIRNS

More Far North Queensland Travel Itinerary Ideas & Adventure Inspiration

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.

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