Guide to Cairns
The gateway to Queensland's tropical north, Cairns is a laid-back city best enjoyed outdoors.
By Ellie Schneider
Visit Cairns for the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics World Heritage Rainforest, but don't miss the great things to do in and around town. You'll find brilliant cafés, bustling markets and plenty of beaches nearby. Relax by a resort pool or spend your days exploring this tropical oasis.
Cairns is paradise as it’s where the rainforest meets the reef.
- Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Kuranda Village
- Tuck into tropical fruits and fresh seafood
- Explore the World Heritage wonders
How to get there
A range of domestic and international flights arrive at Cairns Airport, a 10 to 15-minute drive from the city centre.
3 days in Cairns
Things to do and top attractions in Cairns
See the Great Barrier Reef
No trip to Cairns is complete without visiting the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef system. It's made up of 3,000 coral reefs, 600 continental islands and 300 coral cays. Book a day cruise with operators such as Passions of Paradise or Quicksilver Cruises to snorkel and dive among vivid coral gardens and colourful fish. For a longer stay, you can book a three-day liveaboard dive and snorkelling cruise with ProDive Cairns. Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel combines a full-day Great Barrier Reef cruise with Indigenous cultural storytelling from traditional owners with historical connections to the sea country visited. The cruise offers a rare educational opportunity to explore the reef with sea rangers whose north Queensland sea country stretches from the Frankland Islands to Port Douglas. Book a scenic flight to get an eagle's-eye view of the Great Barrier Reef.
Go island hopping
Discover some of the reef's unspoiled islands from Cairns. Jump on the 45-minute high-speed ferry to reach picturesque Fitzroy Island. Here you can explore rainforest walking tracks, snorkel straight off the beach at Welcome Bay and Nudey Beach and see the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef by sea kayak. Book a day tour to Green Island, a coral cay surrounded by sugar-white beaches and sapphire waters, just 30 kilometres (19 miles) off the Cairns shore. Go off the grid at Hinchinbrook Island, Australia's largest national park island, and discover a landscape of mangrove forests, isolated beaches and sheltered bays. For a truly exclusive experience, book accommodation at reef-fringed Bedarra or Lizard islands
Get your foodie fix
Cairns has a thriving café scene, with many trendy cafés dotted along Grafton and Spence streets. Start the day with breakfast at Caffiend, a laneway café plating up dishes such as chilli eggs and French toast, with cold drip coffee and coconut lattes. Sing Sing Espresso is another popular haunt for coffee and tasty vegan treats. Tuck into wholesome salads at Silk Caffe and then indulge on its Nutella ice coffee. Take advantage of Cairns’ balmy weather and dine alfresco on The Esplanade, with rustic Greek dishes from Yaya’s Hellenic Kitchen and modern Asian fusion from The Raw Prawn. Mingle with the locals at Rusty's Markets (Friday to Sunday), where you can stock up on fresh local produce, including exotic fruits, dairy and seafood, from more than 180 stalls.
Learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture
At the only place on Earth where two World Heritage sites collide, Cairns acts as a gateway to explore Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. The Rainforestation Nature Park offers interactive introductions to the traditional weapons, tools, bush tucker, song and dance of the area. The Daintree Rainforest, located north of Cairns, overflows with ancient Aboriginal culture. Adventure North Australia will teach you to spear crabs that are later eaten around a shared table, Walkabout Cultural Adventures will help you seek out medicinal bush plants and the Flames of the Forest Aboriginal Cultural Experience involves heading into the rainforest near Port Douglas for a seven-dish banquet dinner where your Kuku Yalanji hosts share music, ceremony and storytelling.
Trek through tropical rainforest...
The World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest is about a two-hour drive north of Cairns and can be seen on a day trip from the city or over the course of two days, staying overnight in one of its wilderness lodges. The tropical rainforest is home to the most diverse range of plants and animals on earth, including the rare tree-dwelling kangaroo and the endangered cassowary. Start your day at the Daintree Discovery Centre where you can walk along the 125-metre (410-foot) long Aerial Walkway through the mid-level rainforest or take a self-guided rainforest tour. Join a gentle cruise down the Daintree River to spot wildlife in its natural habitat, including saltwater crocodiles. On foot you'll find that rainforest meets reef at Cape Tribulation, where you can easily lose hours walking through tropical lowland forest or along stretches of white sand.
...then experience it from above the canopy
The mountain village of Kuranda is tucked within the tropical rainforest, and is known for its vibrant arts community. Local markets are open daily, selling a range of jewellery, leather goods and Aboriginal art, while bookshops, galleries and boutiques line the village streets. The journey to and from Kuranda is arguably the highlight. The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway glides above the rainforest canopy then descends deep into its heart. The 90 minute experience allows time at two rainforest stations, Red Peak and Barron Falls, where you can walk among lush palm and giant ferns. On your way back to Cairns, you can travel on the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway. The two hour train journey traverses dense rainforest, winding past rugged mountains, tumbling waterfalls and the stunning Barron Gorge.