Travel Guide

Top 10 things to do in Cairns

Cairns has fast become one of Australia's most popular getaway destinations, and with its location in Tropical North Queensland, it boasts great weather and proximity to the world famous Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest.

But what is there to see and do? We can help you with that!

Cairns has a reputation for adventurous and scenic experiences and is a great all-around destination for travellers looking for the best of the reef and rainforest. Here, we break down our top picks for the Top 10 Things to do in Cairns and its surrounding regions. See our full list below!

10. Enjoy the nightlife

Location: Various establishments around Spence, Grafton, Sheridan Streets, Cairns

If you're looking for a great night out in Cairns, then you won't be disappointed. There are a number of establishments dotted around the city that will cater to all of our dining, drinking and nightlife needs.

Your choice of Cairns nightlife venues will likely depend on what kind of night you're after - great, internationally renowned DJ shows can be viewed at the Velvet Underground venue at the Reef Hotel Casino; wild nights full of international backpackers can be had at The Woolshed, Gilligan's or long-running venue The Heritage, while those wanting to knock back a beer or three can head to pub/clubs such as The Jack or the Pier Bar.

The city is a popular destination for backpackers and as a result, a number of the pubs, bars and clubs cater to budget-conscious travellers with weekly deals and cheap drinks. If you're chasing a relaxed evening out with a nice dinner and a few drinks, you'll also be well catered for with a number of restaurants and bars located along the waterfront on the Esplanade.

9. The Cairns Botanic Gardens

Location: Collins Avenue, Edge Hill, Cairns

Australia's sheer size means that the scenery and flora, in particular, changes dramatically from north to south, east to west. As a result, the flora you'll encounter in Cairns is a stark contrast to that found Sydney, Melbourne or Hobart with their colder and drier climates. There are few better ways to get a firsthand view of these tropical and vibrant plants than with a visit to the Cairns Botanic Gardens.

Located just outside the Cairns' CBD, this expansive display of tropical plant life makes for a pleasant and entirely free way to pass a few hours in the city or take a much-needed break from the many other adventure activities on this list.

Officially called Flecker Botanic Gardens, they are home to a huge number of plant varieties that you've likely never seen before. The tropical flowers give off a wilder, primaeval atmosphere that differs greatly from the standard manicured carnations and roses of other similar facilities, and it's a great way to step back in time a few hundred thousand years. Their bloom colours are quite vibrant with oranges and purple-reds vividly reflecting the tropics, while large, bright-blue Ulysses butterflies can often be seen fluttering around. Other sights such as insect-eating plants, a bamboo garden and lakes and waterways are nice alternatives to admire within the garden.

The Cairns Botanic Gardens are exceptionally well-maintained by their passionate grounds staff, which is admirable as a place with flora as wild as this could soon grow out of control. The gardens feature plenty of little secret, hidden walkways that take visitors to secluded, shaded areas of the facility and help to extend what may otherwise only be a 1-hour visit into an adventure that lasts just as long as you're willing to follow them.

The gardens are also home to a few cafes where you can grab a bite to eat or a coffee to enjoy while exploring. The garden is also home to various insects including mosquitos so be sure to bring some insect repellent to ensure you have a comfortable visit. If you don't have your own you can spray yourself with the complimentary repellent supplied at the gardens.

Regular buses run to the Botanic gardens from the Cairns' city centre roughly every 25 minutes, so if you're a nature enthusiast or simply looking for a relaxing getaway, this is a spot that's both enjoyable and relaxing.

8. Go hot air ballooning With Hot Air Cairns

Location: 1 Spence St, Cairns

It's a common sight to view the Great Barrier Reef with your head under the water, but one why not take in a unique perspective and view it from above? A hot air balloon flight with Hot Air Cairns can provide you with a tranquil and stunning view point that few other sightseeing opportunities can match. The combination of clear morning skies and the slow, drifting serenity of a balloon flight, allows ample time to grab incredible panoramic photos and some fantastic memories.

Hot air ballooning is a peaceful experience with the only sounds being the other passengers, the pilot and the flames filling the balloon. The silence creates one of the most breathtaking experiences and allows you to simply revel in the wonder of the Queensland landscape undisturbed.

Cairns makes for a special hot air ballooning destination due to the tapestry of colours that come with a location that is flanked by the rainforest and reef. The vivid greens and earthy colours of the Atherton Tablelands clash brilliantly with the vibrant blues of the neighbouring ocean to form a spectacular view, particularly as the glow of the sunrise spreads out over the land below. Kangaroos and other Aussie wildlife are also often seen on the ground in this region, adding an extra Australian touch to the proceedings.

Passengers have the choice of a 30-minute or 1-hour flight, both of which include return transfers from various Cairns accommodations. Your length of flight choice almost entirely comes down to budget and time. Luxury options including deluxe transfers and breakfast packages are also available for those looking to indulge, and when coupled with the scenery on offer it makes for a highly popular package for celebrating special occasions such as anniversaries, birthdays, or even marriage proposals.

The one obvious sacrifice that has to be made in order to enjoy such an experience is the early wake-up call. Expect to rise and shine at roughly 3 am to 4 am but don't let that turn you off as it allows you to take advantage of the best time of day. In short, hot air ballooning is one of life's true must-do experiences and there are few better destinations than Cairns to rise up.

Renowned for their friendly attitude and professional, efficient service, Hot Air Cairns come highly recommended. If you're after a birds-eye view of the region, make sure your itinerary has a spot reserved for ballooning.

7. Visit Michaelmas Cay

Location: 40km from Cairns

Pristine is a word thrown around slightly too often in travel circles, but there are few better words to describe this little slice of reef paradise. Reached in roughly a 2-hour cruise from Cairns' Reef Fleet Terminal, Michaelmas Cay is a spectacularly breathtaking coral cay.

A tiny reef-island that looks as though it's a picture of a postcard, Michaelmas Cay is a stretch of sand and coral surrounded by stunning waters that are brimming with marine life. The combination of white sand, vibrant blue water and vivid reef makes for some an outstanding experience both above, in and underneath the water. Crystal clear waters are the cherry on top of this island sundae and visibility is typically at a premium here.

While this low-lying coral cay is barely large enough to classify as a true island - most of the on-shore activities are kept to a small, 50 x 50m area – it's nonetheless a reef wonder due to the sheer variety of wildlife that inhabits its reaches both on and off shore.

A large variety of sea birds make their temporary nests on the island, while the surrounding coral is protected and a large contributing factor to the diversity of marine life found within. Expect to see the likes of starfish, sea turtles and colourful tropical fish if you're going snorkelling. All it takes is a few steps from the shoreline come face-to-face with some marine wonders.

Certain areas of Michaelmas Cay are restricted for public access as the entire cay is a listed National Park and the number of operators who can visit is limited to help preserve it. Regular tours are offered from Cairns out to the cay that strikes a nice balance between an authentic reef experience and time-saving. While it's not located on the Outer Reef it's still far enough away from the more mainstream tourist spots that you'll be able to get the best of both worlds.

The cruise out to the cay is a sightseeing adventure in itself, and once there you'll have the chance to take part in a variety of activities from getting up close with sea bird colonies, snorkelling, or boarding a semi-submersible vessel that's ideal for those wanting to peer into the ocean without getting wet. If you're after a postcard-perfect experience that walks the line between scenic and convenient than Michaelmas Cay ticks all the boxes.

6. White Water Rafting with Raging Thunder

Location: 52-54 Fearnley Street, Portsmith, Cairns

Who said all the water-based fun in Cairns is reserved for the reef? Look a little inland and Cairns provides adventurous visitors with thrilling aquatic adventures on river rapids as it the home of some of Australia's best white water rafting.

All of the Barron, Russell and Tully rivers are located within reasonable distance of Cairns, and each river offers a slightly different take on the rafting experience. Featuring various grades of rapids and courses that range from scenic and ideal for families all the way up to challenging Grade 4 rapids. Local operator Raging Thunder rafts the Tully and Barron Rivers, while Foaming Fury operates on the Russell and Barron Rivers.

Which river you select will depend on a combination of how confident you are in the water and how much time and money you're willing to invest. Regardless of your choice of rivers, rafting is a very team-oriented and social activity, and Cairns offers options that can suit all comers, with expert rafting guides on each itinerary who aim to make the adventure fun for visitors while still putting safety first.

You'll be equipped with life jackets, helmets and other safety equipment to ensure peace of mind and while – especially on the Russell and Tully Rivers – you can likely expect to capsize at some point, it's always well regulated and controlled.

Barron River rafting journeys are the shortest and ideal for those who don't want to devote an entire day, while the other two rivers offer extended experiences and include breaks for lunch for you to recharge and get your bearings. Most rafting itineraries include accommodation transfers/pickups as well, so you'll have everything you need to simply come along and enjoy the thrills that make Cairns' rafting so famous. Few other activities give you a dose of adrenaline while providing an intimate look at Tropical North QLD's rainforest like white water rafting do, so don't hesitate to get wet and wild during your time in Cairns.

5. Go Bungy Jumping with AJ Hackett Cairns

Location: McGregor Rd, Smithfield, Cairns outskirts

If you're looking for an adventurous experience set to test your nerves of steel, then bungy jumping is the way to go. A rite of passage of sorts for young adults and adventure seekers of all ages alike visiting the Cairns region, this bungy experience was set up by the bungy jumping experts from New Zealand, AJ Hackett.

As Australia's only purpose-built bungy platform, it's a rush that is as unique as it is scary, however, with your fears aside it is an incredible scenic adventure as well. The 50-metre high bungy platform offers outstanding views of the surrounding rainforest and the iconic reef in the distance, although your heart will likely be pounding a little too fast to fully appreciate it.

While bungy – which originated in New Zealand and has now become a phenomenon around the world – is a widely known extreme adventure these days, AJ Hackett Cairns offers a range of 16 different jump styles to choose from. You can play it safe with a forward-facing jump or you can take it up a notch and go backwards, do a flip or go blindfolded.

The friendly, casual and light-hearted attitudes of the staff who do their best to lighten the mood while also being conscientious of first-time jumpers' nerves. There's also an undeniable sense of self-reassurance and confidence that comes as a result of completing your first bungee jump; the sense of overcoming your fears and simply “going for it” is an ego boost, to say the least.

The bungy complex, which sits around 20 minutes' drive north of Cairns, is generally laid-back with BBQ facilities and live music to take advantage of. There's also an additional thrill option, the Minjin Jungle Swing, which is an activity that swings in a wide arc through the rainforest at high speeds.

4. Visit Green Island

Location: Coral Sea, 45 minutes from Cairns

In terms of accessibility, Green Island just off the Cairns' coast is hard to beat for those looking for a quick and enjoyable spot to do all the Great Barrier Reef essentials without having to devote a large amount of time or money to do so.

While it is more popular with tourists than other nearby alternatives, there's a reason for this. Green Island is a coral cay fringed by reef and famous for two main highlights, its high number of sea turtles and its iconic SeaWalker helmet diving experience and the local photo bombing Parrotfish, Gavin.

While the water quality is never going to be able to compare with the Outer Great Barrier Reef, Green Island's snorkelling and other water-based opportunities are still superb and more than sufficient, and there's a consistent effort made by the island and its tour operators to make accessing the sights of the reef as family-friendly as possible. Semi-submersible rides are a favourite among those with kids, providing a clear look at the fish and turtles that call the surrounding waters home, while glass-bottom boat roads are also a viable sightseeing alternative.

The snorkelling on offer is also perfect for beginners, and most tour options for Green Island also include snorkel hire packages, making it an ideal and budget-conscious option for introducing the little ones to this highly enjoyable act of marine exploration. The island itself is kept very clean while still being modern, which is impressive considering the sheer volume of tourists who make the short trip over from Cairns each year.

The rainforest landscape on the coral cay is great for exploring, as there is a range of well-formed tracks that take you on a path through the rainforest. Amenities on the island also warrant a mention, as it's been developed and modernised over the years to ensure visitors won't go lacking. There is a resort, souvenir and convenient stores, public showers and lockers, and several restaurants. This makes it a viable place to spend a full day or two days, should you choose to stay overnight.

Considering that all it takes is a scenic 45-minute cruise across the Coral Sea from Cairns to reach Green Island, if you're in Cairns and looking for a taste of the reef without having to over-commit money-wise – or if you've got kids along for the ride – then it makes for one of the best choices for a Cairns experience in all but the busiest periods of the year.

3. Ride the SkyRail Rainforest Cableway

Location: Cnr Captain Cook Highway & Cairns Western Arterial Road, Smithfield, Cairns outskirts

The Great Barrier Reef isn't the only natural wonder that Tropical North QLD is home to even though it tends to receive the majority of the publicity, its accompanying World Heritage protected rainforest is a green equivalent that is equally impressive in its own way. Hundreds of millions of years old, these dense rainforests form a backbone of the Cairns region and are filled with biodiversity, and Cairns' Skyrail Rainforest Cableway offers easily the best and most accessible way to travel over – and into – its green heart.

An experience that aims to get you from A to B, that is, from the base of the rainforest to Kuranda (the Village in the Rainforest) and provide outstanding views above the treetops as the tropical landscape followed by the reef stretches out in the distance.

The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway consists of a 7.5km journey above the treetops, with passengers taken up in fully-enclosed cable cars capable of seating six people providing 360-degree views, and pausing for stops at two different locations along the way. The first stop is Red Peak station, where you can embark on a guided tour through the rainforest with a ranger who can point out all the history, ecology and other natural highlights. The second stop offers a look at the spectacular, gushing Barron Falls with several outstanding lookout points. The end goal of the trip up is Kuranda itself, which is a quirky little tourist village literally nestled within the treetops, and the ideal spot for a bit of exploration, a bite to eat, or grabbing a souvenir.

The entire experience is both gentle and safe while also surprisingly long and good value for money as you can expect to spend about 1.5 hours each way on the experience. There's also the option to upgrade to a special Diamond Car cabin that has a glass bottom, allowing you to peer directly down into the rainforest canopy, which helps add to the sense of immersion and being surrounded by greenery.

Once at the top you'll then have the choice of either taking the Skyrail back down to the bottom again or taking the Scenic Railway train option which takes an alternate pathway through the rainforest – if you're short on time, the return SkyRail option is your best bet here. There are also other wildlife attractions in the treetops featuring local fauna if you're looking to make a full day of it.

The Cairns Skyrail Cableway terminal is easily reached in around a 15-minute drive from Cairns, and a variety of local shuttle bus companies run transfers to and from Cairns to the terminal, making both self-drive and public transport options available. While your miles may vary with how much you enjoy Kuranda itself, with the Skyrail the highlight is very much the journey rather than purely the destination and it's one of the unique journeys in Australia, making it another Cairns essential.

2. Visit Fitzroy Island

Location: 30km from Cairns

If you're a tourist to Cairns who is, somewhat ironically, wanting a slightly less touristy island exploration option than Green Island, then Fitzroy Island can make for perhaps a more ideal choice. With a reputation as more of a place for locals than visitors, Fitzroy Island provides a solid all-around island destination with plenty of activities that are also quite accessible from Cairns – although not as easily as Green Island – and requires more effort to reach for an often greater payoff.

Due to a further distance from Cairns, the crossing to Fitzroy Island can be subject to wind conditions and rougher seas, however, in the end, you'll have reached what is an actual island rather than just a coral cay. It's this more solid environment that provides a greater diversity of things to do on Fitzroy Island than Green Island.

Fitzroy Island offers the likes of hiking, sea kayaking and a range of bars and cafes in addition to the standard snorkelling and lazing in the sunshine, although there are plenty of secluded places to do that here, too. Fitzroy Island is also far larger than Green Island and comes complete with not only tropical rainforest but additional spectacles in the way of dense woodlands and stony coasts that are a joy to explore.

This larger size and additional distance from Cairns also means that the population of snorkellers is far less dense than on Green Island, making it easier to get that feeling of escapism that marine exploration is supposed to provide. Fitzroy Island is quieter and more of a true getaway destination, which is why many choose Tropical North QLD in the first place.

Fitzroy Island has a great variety of walking tracks to keep visitors occupied on land, with its main Summit Walk that takes you on a path through the forestry, leading up to the island's lighthouse and providing a great outlook. After you've finished exploring, Fitzroy Island's Foxy's Bar makes for a great place to kick back with a drink and soak in stunning reef views, while the island's 5-star luxury resort provides an elite accommodation option for those looking for an extended stay.

Add to this Fitzroy's lovely Nudey Beach, the perfect spot for relaxation, and it's a tempting package that makes the extra time and effort to get here well worth it. While there's no definitive answer to which out of Fitzroy Island or Green Island is truly better as it depends on your main holiday purpose, Fitzroy gets the nod here simply due to its tendency to be less crowded and still reasonably close to Cairns.

1. Cruise to the Outer Reef

Location: Approx. 1.5 - 2 hours from Cairns

As the Great Barrier Reef is, for many, a once in a lifetime experience, an argument can easily be made that it's worth investing the time and money to get the best possible experience during your time here.

Yes, it requires the greatest amount of overall effort, but the Outer Reef simply tends to be more beautiful overall than the fringing reefs closer to the mainland. A trip further out gives you the best chance to see coral, fish and other marine life at their best and brightest, and assuming you're not requiring the comfort of lazing on a sandy beach as part of your trip, you'll have everything you need here for a truly unforgettable experience.

Divers, in particular, stand to gain the most with a trip to the Outer Reef rather than one of the islands as there are numerous popular dive sites that have been hand-picked by tour operators for their stunning array of marine life. The likes of SilverSwift, Quicksilver, Down Under Cruise and Dive and Great Adventures all offer itineraries that take prospective divers to the Flynn, Milln, Thetford and Moore reefs, with each site providing a slightly different focus.

Some provide spectacular soft corals, others a wider array of fish and different marine life such as turtles and rays. The range of underwater canyons, gorges and coral gardens on the Outer Reef is simply staggering, and multi-day tours are available that include a variety of different dive sites to ensure you get the full range of aquatic experiences.

Those with no interest in diving can still make the most of their trip to the Outer Reef with the majority cruises taking guests to moored pontoons and activity platforms. These platforms are designed to take advantage of some truly great spots on the reef and provide plenty of water-based or onboard activities to take part in for less confident swimmers.

While these can sometimes be crowded affairs, particularly during peak season and on the larger vessels, they're never unpleasantly so and are set up to provide all the amenities one could need for an extended stay on the reef without needing an island to do so. Hot showers, spacious sundecks and buffet lunches are all staples of most itineraries, while underwater viewing windows and snorkelling equipment round out the offerings.

At the very least, with a day trip to the outer reef you'll spend anywhere between 4 and 5 hours actually enjoying this Natural Wonder of the World, however, three and even five day trips that incorporate onboard accommodation, meals and even diving lessons are available for those looking for an extended experience. How long it takes to travel to the Outer Reef from Cairns is dependent on both the vessel you travel with and their choice of mooring site, however, expect anywhere from 1.5 to 2 hours' trip one way as a conservative estimate.

While it's by far the most expensive option for most travellers and it's understandable if people prefer to island-hop, if the best diving, water quality, and coral viewing are top priorities for your trip to Cairns then a trip to the Outer Reef should be at the top of your itinerary.

In addition, if you're looking for more things to do in Cairns and surrounds, including some of the best tours, attractions and activities, be sure to check out our main region section to browse for more information online.

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