If you’re not a fan of the outdoors, you’re in the wrong city. Cairns is a tropical gem that is the perfect base for visitors wanting to dive the Great Barrier Reef and submerge themselves in the Daintree Rainforest. In fact, Cairns has so many adrenaline-packed activities that it makes braving the sometimes torrential rain and sweltering tropical heat well worth it.
Cairns’ City Centre is picturesque enough with its pier jutting into the Marlin Marina, while the Northern Beaches more than make up for central Cairns’ lack of pristine stretches of sand. And though Cairns’ tropical climate and adventure-packed activities make it a backpacker paradise (spot how many different accents you notice in a one-hour period), there are also several hubs on indigenous culture that cannot be missed, such as the Indigenous Art Gallery and the Original Dreamtime Gallery.
Cairns is quirky, coastal, vibrant and laidback. The Esplanade has predictably become a little touristy in the past few decades, but if you hunt around you’ll still find some bastions of charming North Queensland tradition, such as the Woolshed nightclub, where backpackers and locals alike dance on wooden tables until the wee hours, or Shenanigan’s Pub, where you can enjoy a two-for-one happy hour in the gecko-filled and frangipani-scented courtyard, and even put your money on a toad race. Yep, you heard us the first time.
Cairn’s Top 10
10. Crystal Cascades North Queenslanders like to cool of in air-conditioned shopping malls, but doing it at a spectacular natural waterfall is probably far more interesting.
5. Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures Walk the Gondola Gateway and take a not-so-relaxing boat cruise on Hartley’s Lagoon – just don’t get too close to the edge.
9. White Water Rafting A tropical region that gets plenty of rain means more than just picturesque jungles – it also means rafting down some class five rapids.
4. The Rainforest Experience You’ve probably heard of interactive exhibits, but interactive eating is a whole new story. Choose from Breakfast with the Birds or Lunch with the Lorikeets.
8. Sky Diving If you’ve never jumped out of a plane before, do it while taking in views of the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest.
3. Kuranda A heritage wooden train takes you up into the hills to arrive at the dazzling jungle hideaway of Kuranda, a market town filled with hippies and artists who may just entice you not to get back on the train at all…
7. Kuranda Scenic Railway Spending nearly two hours on a train could be tedious, but not when you’re travelling Gold Class with champagne and canapés.
2. Daintree Rainforest Walk the hiking trails of the continent’s largest tropical rainforest. Not all of them, obviously – the Daintree is around 1200 square kilometres!
6. Cairns Tropical Zoo Sure, zoos are everywhere in Oz, but is cuddling a koala something you can ever really get sick of?
1. Great Barrier Reef If you don’t know how to handle a scuba tank, learn. The marine life here will leave you breathless enough.
- Cairns Museum - Exhibits to promote historical awareness of Cairns history.
- Cominos House - This is one of the oldest structures in Cairns.
- Shipwreck Museum - Artefacts from explorations of the Great Barrier Reef.
- Yarrabah Menmuny Museum - Dedicated to the history of the people of the Yarrabah.
- Kuranda Scenic Railway - Constructed in the 1880s, the railway offers a nearly two-hour scenic ride into the mountains.
Cairns Art & Culture
- Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park - Experience aboriginal customs and their artwork.
- Cairns Botanical Gardens - Peaceful gardens in the middle of the city. Definitely gardening as art.
- Cairns Regional Gallery - Works by aboriginal artists as well as contemporary Australian artists.
- KickArts Contemporary Arts - Promotes contemporary art throughout the state.
- Cairns Art Society - A local organization that holds an annual ArtEscape, a winter art school.
- Rusty's Market - Offers fresh fruits and vegetables plus little bric-a-brac items.
- Orchid Plaza - A variety of shops and restaurants for a pleasant day of shopping.
- The Pier at the Marina - A group of upscale specialty shops and clothing stores.
- Cairns Centre - A large shopping mall with over 180 stores, a food court and a movie theatre.
- DFO - Direct designer outlets and specialty stores as well.
Gay & Lesbian Cairns
- Skinny Dips Resort and Spa - An exclusively gay and lesbian resort in the heart of Cairns.
- Boyz on the Beach - A men-only, clothing-optional beach just outside of Cairns.
- Turtle Cove Gay and Lesbian Resort - A very popular resort, so you will have to book far in advance.
- Ba 8 - A laid-back club in the pier area that has a live DJ on Friday nights.
- Head Office CBD - This venue prides itself on being a cruise club.
- Muddy's Playground - A great place for children to play that features a large play area.
- Crocodile Explorer - Ride the boat through the mangroves and see all the wildlife, including the crocs.
- Cairn's Wildlife Dome - A wildlife refuge covered with a huge glass dome, so you can visit year round.
- Barron Gorge National Park - Hike to the Barron Falls for some of the most beautiful waterfalls in Australia.
- Ellis Beach - The waves are more conducive to swimming than some of the other beaches.
- Paradise Palms Golf on the cart-only course at the Paradise Palms.
- Diving and snorkelling are legendary on the Great Barrier Reef.
- Cheer for your favourite cricket, rugby or Australian Rules football team at Cazaly's Park.
- Catch a basketball game at the Cairns Convention Centre. The NBL team, the Cairns Taipans, call this arena home.
- Watch professional hockey during the season or play a game yourself at Cairns Hockey Centre.
Picturesque Cairns has a nice enough city centre, but you’re missing out if you don’t visit the sandy Northern Beaches or the colossal White Rock Peak. Not that we’re knocking the city’s fake lagoon – what should in theory be ridiculous is actually rather stunning when you see it set against the vibrant turquoise sea (and you realise that it’s a far safer place to cooling off, free from box jellyfish and Irukanji!)
Cairns’ CBD is small, but it gives even the picturesque Harbour City a run for its money in terms of aesthetics (though Sydneysiders would probably dispute this). The centre focuses on Cairns Esplanade, which features a free Saltwater Lagoon Pool, complete with life guards, which is a magnet for locals and visitors alike.
The Reef Fleet Terminal juts into the Marlin Marina and boasts both Pier Shopping and the ritzy Shangri-La Hotel Cairns, where you can sip a waterfront cocktail at the Tides BDL bar, even if you’ve chosen more economical accommodation.
South of Cairns
Locals think of scenic southern Cairns as the three shopping centres south of the city on Mulgrave Road, but the real draw isn’t a group of concrete buildings. Mount Sheridan and White Rock Peak can be seen looming on the horizon from almost anywhere in the city. They’re even more epic up close, so if your thighs aren’t killing you from all the scenic walks Cairns has to offer, they will be after climbing White Rock. Fortunately, the views make the gain worth the pain!
If it’s not the middle of Cairns’ stifling summer you can walk to the popular northern suburb of Edge Hill from the city centre. Once there, the main attractions are the Flecker Botanical Gardens and Centenary Lakes, and the Tanks Art Centre – oddly but innovatively located in three converted WWII naval oil storage tanks.
Provided you’re not hot, tired and smelling like oil, there’s also a small shopping hub nearby with delis, bakeries and a few fashion boutiques.
The manmade lagoon fronting Cairns’ city centre is some attempt to make up for the city’s lack of actual sand, but for the real deal the string of leafy northern beaches are not far away. Holloway’s Beach is popular with locals trying to make the most of its netted swimming enclosure, and also boasts Cairns’ only absolute beachfront restaurant and bar – Coolums On the Beach.
Yorkeys Knob, named after the knob of land at its tip, is another popular beach. The main draw of ‘Yorkeys’ is its multi-million-dollar clubhouse Yorkeys Knob Boating Club, noted for its magnificent alfresco dining.
The shopping hub of Smithfield breaks up the pretty beaches with the monstrous Smithfield Shopping Centre, a lifestyle shopping experience and a popular way to escape Cairns’ tropical ‘blessings’ of summer rain and scorching heat. Across the highway, commercial developments and fast-food outlets abound, but just south of Smithfield is home to two of North Queensland’s biggest tourist attractions: Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park and Skyrail.
Cairns Eat & Drink
Cairns might have a small population, but its dining culture doesn’t suffer for it. Be warned, though, some of the waterfront eateries trade off their location rather than the quality of their food.
Blue Sky Brewery Bar & Restaurant The Crystal Cascades are beautiful, but they’re also tasty – Blue Sky turns North Queensland’s purest water into six premium handcrafted beers.
Kani’s Restaurant Cairns’ best steaks and most succulent seafood are served at Kani’s. Just don’t tell too many people about its veranda dining area – locals fume when it’s booked out.
Casa De Meze A Spanish/Latin-themed restaurant serving modern Australian and Mediterranean cuisine. Balcony dining recommended; salsa dancing optional.
Ochre Restaurant Bush tucker and fine dining are strange bedfellows at this modern Aussie restaurant.
The Sebel Cairns It’s rare that a hotel’s restaurant is on par with its rooms, but at the Sebel, it could even be the highlight.
Oliver’s Located diagonally across from the Reef Casino, this elegant and obligatory stopping point is anything but a gamble.
Fifty Nine Restaurant & Bar Alfresco dining at an upscale establishment is generally pleasant, but Fifty Nine brings it up a notch with views of the Coral Sea, tropical mountain ranges and manicured gardens.
Far Horizons Laidback fine-dining at its best. Order your barramundi with brandade mash and saffron beurre blanc, even if you’re not sure what they are – they taste amazing.
Hanuman Restaurant Celebrity chef Jimmy Shu creates a dynamite fusion feast with Indian, Thai and Nonya influences. Try the signature hanging Mondo barbeque.
Pesci’s Cairns’ only seafood restaurant overlooking the marina is truly one for seafood lovers, but their antipasto and meat dishes don’t exactly disappoint.
Taipans Season (basketball) runs from September to February, and brings an atmosphere to entice even the most reluctant sports fan.
Cairns’ Port Douglas Carnivale in May is an eclectic and slightly strange mix of sailing, fashion shows and golf tournaments.
If you want to get your heart pumping just a little bit, the Cairns Adventure Film Festival in May provides a dose of adrenaline that you don’t have to leave your seat for.
May’s Cairns Blues Festival has only been going for three years, but the lush tropical surrounds of Fogarty Park and the finest quality blues music didn’t take long to catch on.
Whether you think of ‘fun run’ as a contradiction in terms or not, June’s Cairns Esplanade Festival of Sports is bound to have something to tickle your fancy.
Agricultural shows aren’t usually the most interesting events in the world, but the Cairns Show attracts over 70,000 visitors each July.
The Cairns Indigenous Art Fair in August features around 150 emerging and established artists. Over 10,000 people attend each August.
The fireworks display is generally thought to be the highlight of September’s Festival Cairns, but three weeks of eating, drinking and looking at art aren’t bad either.
The Cairns Amateur Racing Festival in September is not so much about racing as it is about celebrities and socialising, but it’s fun nonetheless.
Illumination is Cairns’ annual ‘white party’ in October, but with a rainforest location and interactive 3D installations, it’s unlike anything else you’ll have attended. Go and wear white.
When To Go
The climate of Cairns is divided into two distinct seasons — wet and dry.
The wet season sets in with tropical monsoons around November, and water activities are prohibited due to those pesky box jellyfish until March.
The dry season (April to September) is the least humid and most pleasant time to visit Cairns.
What To Avoid
Cairns’ Wildlife Dome is a dome in the middle of a casino where as many animals as possible are squeezed into a small space.
Gilligan’s is a huge hostel complex in the centre of town boasting 500 beds. It’s great if you’re a backpacker, but the nightclub there is notorious for drunk youths and bouncers who make you say the alphabet backwards to get in.
Don’t walk home late at night – or at least have someone with you who’s sober enough to respond in an emergency.
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Cairns is a relatively flat city and hiring a bicycle is one of the easiest ways to get around.
Taxis are convenient for short jaunts (or late nights home), but are expensive – and they don’t pick you up from the middle of the street.
Hiring a car is the best way to get around if you want to get beyond the mud flats of the Esplanade and up to the Northern Beaches.
Cairns derives delight in its location in tropical North Queensland. Its festive atmosphere welcomes everyone with a smile as warm as the year-round sunshine. Thus everything in Cairns lives and breathes the great outdoors. It is largely popular as the suitable base for exploring the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, two Heritage sites teeming with a vast variety of flora and fauna.
The Great Barrier Reef is the ultimate dive for anyone who knows how to handle a scuba tank! The marine life to be sampled would leave anyone breathless, so to speak. On drier land, the Rainforest is steeped in interesting fossils found only in this great continent.
Cairns still has more to offer apart from these two great attractions. Green and Fitzroy Islands can be easily reached by high-speed boats in order to enjoy its idyllic beaches. The endless list of adrenaline-pumped activities such as bungy-jumping, surfing and sky-diving would again leave the Cairns holidaymaker gasping for more of this high-octane of a leisure destination.
The main draw for Cairns is the Great Barrier Reef with an outstanding marine wildlife to be seen. This World Heritage site presents boundless opportunities for exploring the rich flora and fauna inhabiting its depths. The size alone, twice that of Tasmania, would describe the vastness of the Great Barrier Reef where you can enjoy deep-sea diving, snorkelling or just basking in the warm sand admiring the views. If not coming from Cairns, it is best to choose from Port Douglas or Mission Beach as jump-off points to trips to the Reef. It only takes two hours to reach the outer corals from these locations.
Seemingly matching the sheer size of the Great Barrier Reef, just next to it is another Heritage-listed site, the Daintree Rainforest. Around 1200 kilometers, it is the largest tropical rainforest in the continent and home to a diverse range of plants and animals mostly facing extinction. You can see all these when you walk along the hiking trails or splash around the serene remote beaches.
The exciting Cairns to Kuranda Rainforest tour via the Skyrail is another highlight of North Queensland. Sweep through sights such as Cairns City, the lush tropical region and further up, feast your eyes on amazing gorges and waterfalls! Being the longest cableway in the world, this is one experience you shouldn't miss. And then as you reach the end of the cable ride, prepare for another journey through the Kuranda railway that takes you deep into the rainforest for more spectacular natural attractions.
Cairns also has wildlife parks that are a hit among families. The Rainforest Habitat in Port Douglas is a haven of for bird-watching and koala encounters. Learn more about crocs and other creatures in Hartley's Creek Crocodile Adventures along Captain Cook Highway, about half an hour away from Cairns. Kuranda has a butterfly sanctuary for those who adore these delicate winged creatures and Birdworld on the other hand, offers an open aviary where inhabitants can fly freely. The Cairns Tropical Zoo is also popular among kids who love petting the animals found within.
To make the most out of your Cairns holiday, try any of the adventure-packed activities in the region such as bungy jumping, sea kayaking, helifishing, white-water rafting, parasailing, mountain-biking, 4 wheel-drive touring and a whole lot more!
Special happenings in Cairns celebrate the great outdoors in general. Port Douglas gets into high gear with its Carnival held in May. This week-long event is mainly about sailing but there are other highlights such as fashion shows, golf tournaments and cultural shows.
A much bigger event is Festival Cairns which runs for three weeks in September, a showcase of wining, dining, arts and sports. It all leads to the fireworks display, definitely a family affair. To add a stellar ambience, the prestigious Cairns Amateur Racing Carnival draws top brass personalities from politics, entertainment and business. Cannon Park becomes bedazzled by thoroughbred horses and ladies turn up in their elegant finery.
Art connoisseurs should not miss the chance to see local artists and their works on display during the exhibition of the Cairns Art Society in November. Then it's time to celebrate country music when Walkamin Country Music Festival offers musical treats at Kerribee Park, Mareeba.
Wet Season (November to May) 20-31°C; heavy downpour but still warm in general
Dry Season (June to October) 17-29°C; sunny and hot with occasional cold spells
You know all those deadly critters Australia is famous for? Man-eating crocodiles… snakes… spiders… box jellyfish… They can all be found in and around Cairns. Heck, scientists have recently unearthed the remains of the world’s largest marsupial, the Diprotodon, which was roughly the size of a small car and used to wander these parts. So it’s a good job good job Cairns has so many extraordinary natural wonders on its doorstep to take your mind off those slithery, bitey things!
Located on the east coast of Cape York Peninsula, Cairns is snuggled between the Coral Sea and the Great Dividing Range. That means you’re within striking distance of the Great Barrier Reef on one side and the magical Daintree Rainforest on the other. Add to that gorgeous beaches, non-stop nightlife, adrenaline-pumping activities and great weather and it’s no wonder Cairns makes the rest of Oz jealous.
Cairn's Top 10
10. Atherton Tableland Sparkling waterfalls and dense rainforest are a mere 30-minute drive away and well worth the trip.
5. Aboriginal Cultural Tours Developed and operated by the Indigenous people of the region, these are a fantastic introduction to one of the oldest cultures on the planet.
9. Hot Air Ballooning An hour of floating over fabulous views from coast to mountains. Don’t go home without your certificate!
4. Green Island Can be done as a day trip, but has a luxury resort if you want to stay. Enjoy the beaches, restaurants, underwater observatory and glass bottom-boat.
8. Cairns Wildlife Safari Reserve As if Cairns didn’t have enough homegrown deadlies, they’ve imported some more, including lions, tigers and, yes, bears!
3. Kuranda Scenic Railway 120 years young and still an amazing ride. It runs from Cairns to Kuranda through the Barron Gorge National Park.
7. Crystal Cascades When the heat and humidity gets too much, cool off at this amazing natural waterfall.
2. Daintree National Park The largest rainforest in Australia. Hundreds of birds, mammals, plants and reptiles call it home.
6. Cairns Esplanade Lagoon Make a splash in a huge saltwater swimming pool on the foreshore, complete with sandy edges and lifeguards. It’s the beach minus the stingers.
1. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park The only living thing visible from space, one of the world’s natural wonders… Truly extraordinary.
When To Go
• November to March is the wet season with tropical monsoon weather. It’s also when those nasty box jellyfish are active.
• June to October is relatively dry and the best time to visit.
• April and May are still wet, but the humidity is far more manageable.
• Cairns is well-served by buses, but you can also hire bicycles if you don’t mind sweating profusely while getting around.
• Taxis roam the streets and are a welcome sight if you’ve had one too many at night.
• To explore further-flung regions, you can always hire a car.
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