Cairns or Townsville? Which Tropical Queensland City To Visit

Planning a trip to Queensland’s tropical north but can’t decide between Cairns or Townsville?

Queensland has no shortage of tropical escapes. It’s a very popular destination, especially during the winter, for residents of the southern states.

But the question I get asked the most… Which city is the best to visit? Cairns or Townsville?

Having spent a fair bit of time in that part of Australia, let me walk you through the benefits of each city to help you decide which will be best for your trip.

Castle Hill, Townsville

Let’s kick this off by breaking down the different appeals of both cities.

Despite being located in the northern tropics of Queensland, Cairns and Townsville are two distinctly different cities offering their own experiences.


Tourism is very much at the heart of Cairns. Built around the millions of international tourists flocking to see the natural wonders of the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest, the city is well accounted for by holidaymakers.

No matter if you are looking for a full-on adventure exploring the reef and the waterfalls or something much more relaxed in a full-service resort. Cairns and its surroundings will certainly have you covered.

In fact, if you would like to know more about all that Cairns has to offer, check out this post.

However, there are some drawbacks to Cairns as well. Located further north, deep in the tropics of northern Australia the weather during the summer can be quite extreme. Both very, very hot and heavy rain downpours are frequent during the summer.

Also, given its popularity, Cairns can be extremely busy during peak holiday times – something to keep in mind.


Townsville, by contrast, is a lot more diverse. While tourism is still significant, the city is also known for its military bases as well as its manufacturing and construction industries.

It’s something you notice as soon as you arrive in Townsville; it’s a little more city-like (if that makes sense).

Townsville is by no means as busy as other cities around Australia, but it has more of that infrastructure in place than you would expect from a city. A more defined CBD, a major sporting team just to name some things you might immediately notice.

Townsville’s weather is also a little more consistent. It does get hot, probably even more so than Cairns. And it is subject to the summer wet season but not to the same extremes as its more northern counterpart. Opening the city as a more year-round destination.

If you would like to know much more about Townsville, I’ve got a whole post dedicated to the city here.

Does Cairns or Townsville Have Better Flight Options?

Cairns Esplanade & Lagoon

Both cities are well serviced by their local airports, with connections to all major cities around Australia.

Cairns has a distinctly larger airport with a dedicated International Terminal as well as a domestic terminal designed to cater to more travellers. It’s just bigger with more shops and a few more gates more akin to what you might be used to at the major hubs of Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane.

Townsville Airport, on the other hand, is far more simplistic, with a couple of cafes and a newsagent, and it does get quite crowded during peak departure times.

That said, you don’t typically use either airport as a connection point, so you won’t find yourself spending too much time in either terminal. And both are well connected to all major cities around Australia either directly or via Brisbane.

In terms of other facilities, both airports are nearly identical. Both have sufficient rental car companies to choose from. Access to the city in both instances is easy and cheap by taking a taxi or ride-sharing service like Uber.

Are The Accommodation Options Better In Townsville Or Cairns?

At the end of the day, tourism is a major industry in both of these cities. So you won’t be short of options in either Cairns or Townsville.

From backpacker hostels all the way through to five-star hotels, you will certainly find something to suit your travel style and budget.

Check out these posts for my specific suggestions for Cairns and Townsville.

That all said, if you are looking for a resort-style getaway. Particularly an all-inclusive style resort where you can spend your days relaxing either on the beach or by the pool, Cairns (and its surrounds) might be the better option for you.

That’s one area that Cairns really stands out above Townsville when it comes to accommodation options.

Does Cairns Or Townsville Have More Things To See And Do

Cairns, Queensland

It really depends on what you would like to see and do while you are visiting the region.

Both Cairns and Townsville offer easy access to the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns has a few more islands a bit further out in the reef to explore, but Townsville has Magnetic Island, which is much larger with plenty to explore on the island itself, as well as offering easy access to the reef.

Cairns and Townsville both offer easy access to the rainforests that this part of Queensland is also well known for as well. Townville is closest to Australia’s tallest waterfall; Cairns is closest to one of Australia’s most popular waterfalls to visit.

Otherwise, both cities have their own appeal and unique attractions. Check out these posts to find out more – Cairns and Townsville.

How About Visiting Both Cairns And Townsville?

Wallaman Falls, Townsville

Hear me out… Are you looking to spend longer than a week in the region, maybe two or three? Why not visit both?

Cairns and Townsville really aren’t that far from each other, only 350-ish km by road.

It’s a drive that can easily be done in half a day, but there is so much interesting stuff between the two that you could spend a full day, or two, completing the trip.

The drive will also give you the opportunity to see so much more of the region than most visitors will get the chance to experience.

If you’d like to know more about the drive along the Bruce Highway between Cairns and Townsville, I’ve got a whole post dedicated to the road trip.

If you have the time, I would strongly recommend taking the opportunity to explore both cities.

Don’t feel like driving? Queensland Rail also offers a five-day-per-week train service between the two cities, but you’ll spend the full day on the train.

How Much Time In Either Cairns Or Townsville

If you are looking to allocate your time between the two cities, I would suggest two weeks for Cairns and at least a week for Townsville. Ideally.

Especially if you are taking the chance to explore both cities, take it all in at your own pace. However, I do understand that most people will try to plan their trip to fit into a narrow holiday window.

Two weeks will give you sufficient time to see all of the major attractions that Cairns has to offer, including a day or two out on the reef as well as a day or two exploring the rainforests.

A week in Townsville will give you a good amount of time to see all key attractions and even spend a day or two out on Magnetic Island.

Should your plan include visiting both Cairns and Townsville, three weeks is a good amount of time to explore both cities.

The Strand, Townsville

If you’d like to get more information to help plan your trip to and around Australia… Check out the rest of my blog posts.

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About the author

Rhys Vandersyde

Traveller, Photographer, Content Creator - I've spent the last 20 years actively seeking out new destinations and new adventures. Find out more about me here:

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