Cairns, Queensland – The Ultimate Guide


I have absolutely no doubt that Cairns is high on your list of destinations to visit around Australia.

With the reef on one side and the rainforests and mountains on the other, there are plenty of reasons to visit this tropical destination, not only for international travellers but for the locals as well, with the city attracting over 3 million visitors each year.

Gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest, it’s easy to understand why Cairns is such a popular destination.

The tropical city in Far North Queensland caters to all travel experiences, from simply relaxing by the beach to adventurously exploring all of the natural wonders and everything in between. A trip to Cairns and the surrounding region can be whatever you want it to be.

That said, there are a handful of things that you need to know before you get to this part of Queensland. And in this post, I’ve compiled all of my best advice and tips from my time visiting Cairns that will help you in your planning and when you first get there.

The Best Time Of Year To Visit Cairns

Being a tropical destination, Cairns is best visited during the winter months (for the rest of Australia), from May to September.

The city is warm year-round; however, during the summer or as it is better known in northern parts of Queensland, the wet season, the weather can be a bit extreme.

The wet season in the tropics brings heavy rainfalls, which are quite common from December to March. It’s also when the region can experience tropical cyclones, typically between November and May.

That said, it doesn’t rain every single day during the wet season. There are still many very hot clear days. It’s just that the weather swings very dramatically during this time of year. Something you might need to account for if you plan to visit Cairns at this time of the year.

Where Is Cairns Located

Cairns is located in the tropical far north of Queensland, Australia. It is situated on the east coast of Australia, about 1,700 kilometres (1,056 miles) north of the city of Brisbane.

It is also the northernmost city in Queensland and second only to Darwin in terms of Australia as a whole.

Cairns is considered the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s most incredible natural wonders, and is surrounded by lush rainforest and stunning coastal scenery.

The city is well-connected to other destinations in Australia by air and is also a popular stopover for visitors travelling to nearby destinations such as Port Douglas, the Daintree Rainforest, and the Atherton Tablelands.

Best Place To Stay In Cairns

Cairns, Queensland

No matter your budget or what you happen to be looking for accommodation-wise, Cairns will have you covered.

Very much a tourist city, Cairns caters to over 3 million visitors each year with a huge range of options from simple backpacker hostels all the way to luxury resorts, all within a stone’s throw of the water.

Within the city of Cairns, the southern end of The Esplanade is where you’ll find the biggest concentration of accommodation options. It’s also a good place to base yourself if you would like to be centrally located to the key attractions and restaurants.


My best suggestion would be to look at staying at either the Oaks Cairns Hotel or the Mantra Trilogy. Both hotels are extremely conveniently located, very comfortable and offer stunning views out over the water. If being able to walk around to restaurants and attractions and having a nice relaxed, comfortable room is a priority for you, these are your best options.

For those looking to stretch your travel budget a bit further but still remain within fairly easy walking distance of everything, you’ll find a variety of cheaper options if you stay a little further along The Esplanade.

I recommend the newly refurbished Hotel Tropiq (previously Cairns Rainbow Resort) as a good hotel-style option just a few minutes walk away from everything. However, if you plan on staying longer than a week or with a group of people, I would suggest the City Plaza Apartments, which will give you the added convenience of having your own kitchen etc.


While the hotels and apartments are good options, Cairns is probably better known for its luxury resorts and spas, which tend to be located just outside of the city.

Palm Cove, just a short drive outside of Cairns, is a great option if you would still like to spend some of your time exploring Cairns while you are in the area. My top recommendation for a resort in Palm Cove is  The Reef House Boutique Hotel & Spa. Formerly part of the Sofitel group of luxury resorts, you could treat this one as a relaxation destination all on its own.

It’s everything you’d look for to escape the world for a couple of days while still being able to check out some of the sights in and around the region.

Otherwise, to really get away from it all, Coconut Grove up in Port Douglas is another fantastic resort to relax and unwind. Many of their private apartments and suites have their own pools or spa and they are completely self-contained, so you don’t have to go out for every meal if you don’t want to.


For those a little more inclined to the backpacker experience, there are many, many options in and around Cairns.

Cairns Central YHA is a very good traditional hostel-style option located right in the centre of town, which will come in handy to save on travel costs and meet fellow travellers. But also have a look at Gilligan’s Backpackers, which offers a hybrid hostel, hotel, resort style experience with a choice of dorm and private rooms. But it’s the social element of the pool and bar, especially if you are travelling by yourself, that might make this ideal for your trip.

How To Get To The City From Cairns Airport

Cairns Airport is really close to the city. I mean, like, really, really close.

So close, in fact, that if you were really keen on walking into the city from the airport would definitely doable (maybe give yourself an hour/hour and a half). I wouldn’t recommend it, but it would be possible. In fact, I have seen a backpacker or two do exactly that.

In terms of more practical ways to get to and from the airport, I would recommend using local Taxis or Uber. Given the proximity to the city, neither option is all that expensive.

That said, once you start exploring beyond the city, in particular the rainforests and waterfalls, which is part of the appeal of the region. I would strongly recommend that you rent a car and the airport gives you the most options in that regard.

In terms of rental car companies at the airport, Thrifty and Avis I find are the most convenient options without any hidden fees or costs. That said, all major rental companies have a presence at Cairns Airport.

Given that there are so many things to do just outside of Cairns, if your goal is to see and do as much as possible while you are there, then organising a rental car for when you arrive will allow you to see and do so much more while you are there. And Cairns is a really easy city to drive around.

How To Get Around Cairns

Within the city of Cairns, particularly along the waterfront, almost everything is within comfortable walking distance. The city, particularly the main area where the tourists tend to want to explore, isn’t that big.

Walking from one end of the Esplanade to the other will take about 30 minutes. In saying that, though, most of the key restaurants and attractions are within a 15-minute stroll of the marina.

Translink does run a public bus service from Cairns to the surrounding suburbs, but within the city itself, your best bet is to walk.

Just to give you context, I’ll rent a car so I can easily explore the surroundings of Cairns at my own pace, but the only time I’ve driven around within Cairns while staying in the city is to pick up groceries from the Supermarket. Otherwise, it was just as easier the walk.

That said, parking almost everywhere is free, so driving places isn’t a hassle either.

Transport Options To Get Beyond Cairns

Obviously, I’ve just mentioned the bus Translink service. And there are also Taxis and ride-sharing options like Uber as well. If, for whatever reason, you don’t feel like driving.

However, as I mentioned in the airport section of this post, to make the most of your time in Cairns, I would strongly recommend renting a car.

A key appeal of a trip to Cairns is the natural attractions surrounding the city, and most of them are only accessible by car, especially the best beaches, waterfalls and rainforests.

In my travels around Australia, I’ve found that Thrifty and Avis are the most convenient rental car options without any hidden fees.

The best part of driving around Cairns is that you shouldn’t encounter major additional costs by renting a car. There aren’t any toll roads, and parking in most instances is free, so it’s just a matter of refuelling the car before returning it.

The only hassle you might find is trying to find a parking spot at some of the most popular attractions during the middle of the day, but this can be easily avoided by visiting earlier or later in the day.

The Best Things To Do In Cairns

As I’ve mentioned a few times already, there is no shortage of things to do while in Cairns. I’ve picked out my top suggestions, to give you some ideas to plan around when you first arrive in the city. But also make sure you give yourself time to explore and see what else you might find that appeals to you.

Cairns Esplanade & Lagoon

Cairns Esplanade & Lagoon

A stroll down Cairns’ famous Esplanade is a great way to get your bearings when you arrive in the city.

Stretching the entire length of the Cairns waterfront. Basically, from the airport (Although I wouldn’t recommend walking from the airport if you have luggage) to Trinity Inlet in the south where the marina is located.

One of the key and most iconic attractions is the 4,800 square metres salt-water public pool known as the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon.

Patrolled daily by lifeguards, this pool is a fantastic alternative to the beach, where you don’t need to worry about stingers (jellyfish) or crocs (crocodiles), particularly around the muddy banks of the waterfront at low tide.

That said, there are plenty of stunning beaches just a short drive outside of the city of Cairns. But as always in this part of Queensland, you’ve got to be very conscious of the local wildlife before entering the water. So the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon presents a concern-free option to go swimming.

If you have kids, it’s also worth checking out Muddy’s Playground, while the parks along the esplanade also feature a skate park, beach volleyball courts as well as a number of cafes and restaurants.

Cairns Aquarium

Cairns Aquarium

Obviously, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the key attractions Cairns is best known for. But what if I told you that you could immerse yourself in the reef (well, close enough to it) without getting your feet wet or having to know how to snorkel? Well, you can at Cairns Aquarium.

In terms of aquariums around Australia, Cairns Aquarium is amongst the best, showcasing not only the sea life of the reef but also the inhabitants in and around the waterways of the neighbouring rainforests.

The large aquariums are stunning, particularly the two-storey reef display, which gives you the concept of what it might be like diving on the reef for those of us who aren’t certified to do so on the actual reef.

You’ll also be guaranteed to see a number of species that are notoriously difficult to spot in the wild, even if you plan to spend several days out amongst the creatures on the Great Barrier Reef.

Cairns Aquarium is also a particularly good option for something to do if you have to stumble upon one of Cairns’ rainy days (it is surrounded by rainforests, after all). At the same time, hands-on displays are great for the kids.

The aquarium is well worth the price of admission, but keep an eye out for some of the combo deals for multiple Cairns attractions and save yourself some money. Klook’s Cairns Pass is a very good option for combining tickets to save money.

Night Markets

Located along the Cairns Esplanade not far from the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon, the Cairns Night Markets are a great place to grab yourself a cheap dinner and some touristy trinkets.

Open from 4:30pm each evening and with more than 70 stalls and shops, the Night Markets are popular with locals and tourists alike.

In particular, the food court within the markets offers a variety of outlets where you can get a decent, yet extremely cheap, feed. Making the Night Markets an extremely popular dining option for everyone who visits Cairns, no matter if you are staying in the backpacker hostels or the five-star resorts.

The food court also offers somewhere to sit down and eat. But you will find that most people take their takeaway meal and head out onto the Esplanade to soak up one of the warm evenings common in Cairns.

The Night Markets are worth checking out at least once while you are in Cairns, although I’m sure you’ll find yourself stopping by a couple of times during your stay.

Barron Falls

Barron Falls, Cairns

Barron Falls, or as the local aboriginals refer to it, Din Din, is a massive cascade waterfall in the rainforest near the village of Kuranda (a 45-minute drive outside of Cairns) within the Barron Gorge National Park.

During the dry season (or the very start of the wet season, as per my photo above), the waterfall is just trickle down the rock face. However, during the wet season, the waterfall transforms into a torrent of water, resembling something more like the famous Niagara Falls, which is truly impressive.

There are a couple of vantage points to check out Barron Falls, but easily the best view is from the scenic railway station, which I’ll explain more about shortly.

However, you don’t need to catch the train to get to that lookout. Driving up to Kuranda is a very good and cheaper alternative.

Following the Kennedy Highway, Barron Falls is well-signposted and a straightforward drive. Although a little reassurance for Google Maps also helps.

Once in the carpark, there is a well-laid-out walkway through the rainforest that will take you to a couple of lookouts with stunning views out over the falls.

The first lookout gives you a decent enough view, especially if you are with someone who isn’t particularly mobile. However, I really recommend that you follow the walkway all the way to the end. Which just happens to be the scenic railway station for the best view of the waterfall.

If you time it just right, you might just see the heritage train making its way up the mountain as well.

Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

Kuranda Scenic Railway

Speaking of the Kuranda Scenic Railway, it’s an attraction in its own right and one of two unique ways to see the rainforests that surround Cairns.

Both the Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway will transport you through (over in the case of the cablecar) the Barron Gorge National Park to the touristy village of Kuranda. Both give you a stunning view for the entire journey.

That said, the trip to the town is the only attraction. Once you arrive in Kuranda, there is plenty to see and do as well.

Both the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary and the Rainforestation Nature Park are very popular attractions in the town, but the star of the show is the journey through the rainforest to get there (and back).

The heritage railway route is its own unique experience, with sensational views of the aforementioned Barron Falls. In contrast, the Skyrail glides over the top of the rainforest.

The best way to make the most of this experience is to take the option of the scenic railway to Kuranda and then Skyrail back down to the bottom.

You can buy a combined ticket (with hotel transfers) to take one up and the other back, which will give you the best of both worlds.

Or you could bundle together all the Kuranda experiences to save some money and ensure you see everything over a day.

Great Barrier Reef Cruise/Green Island

Green Island in the Great Barrier Reef

If we’re being honest with each other, one of the main reasons for visiting Cairns is to get out on the Great Barrier Reef… Is it not?

You’ll have no shortage of options for exploring the Great Barrier Reef once you arrive in Cairns. A number of different cruise operators run daily tours to separate parts of the reef. Not to mention the helicopter tours etc.

Now if you don’t have any diving experience, are not a strong swimmer, or just looking for something that’s a bit more of an overview of the reef before exploring it further, especially if you’ve never been to the reef before, then I recommend heading out to Green Island on the Big Cat Green Island Cruise.

There are a number of different islands to visit, but I’ve found visiting Green Island is the best way to get out onto the reef, no matter how confident you are with your swimming ability.

In addition to the spectacular beach that surrounds it, Green Island has a number of facilities, including a hotel and a handful of restaurants.

It’s also home to Marineland Melanesia, which is part zoo and aquarium as well as Melanesian artefacts museum. However, the real reason people visit is the collection of saltwater crocs that it is home to, especially if you’ve never seen salties in real life.

However, at the end of the day, you are really going to want to spend the bulk of your time either out on the water or underneath it.

Even if you aren’t a strong swimmer, one side of the island is usually fairly protected from the elements. So you can get the experience of being out on the reef without pushing yourself too hard.

Tickets for the Big Cat Green Island Cruise include the option of snorkel hire or glass bottom boat tour, while you’ve also got the option to purchase a semi-submarine tour or something called SNUBA (not quite snorkel and not quite scuba either?) to really explore more of the coral and sea life that occupies the reef.

Pro Tip: Bring your own snorkelling gear, which you can buy fairly cheaply in Cairns anyway, and choose the glass bottom boat tour as your option to get the best of both worlds.

Babinda Boulders

Babinda Boulders

Let’s just say that Cairns isn’t short of hidden away waterfalls and swimming holes. However, what makes Babinda Boulders stand out is the picturesque granite outcrops that have been shaped by Babinda Creek.

This will definitely be your go-to location while in Cairns if you consider yourself an Instagrammer or influencer. But make sure you get there early, or you’ll have some serious competition for the best photo of the day.

Babinda Boulders is a little off the beaten path and about 1-hour drive south of Cairns. But once you get there, you’ll quickly discover that it’s not a hidden secret getaway either.

From the carpark, it’s only a short stroll to the main swimming hole and picnic area. But make sure you follow the Devil’s Pool Walk to see the best that the Babinda Boulders has to offer.

Just one thing to keep in mind while you are exploring Babinda Boulders. It is best to stick to the main swimming area if you are looking to cool off. The fast-flowing currents through the waterfalls are particularly dangerous further downstream.

A number of people have drowned being pulled under the rocks by the strong currents through the waterfall section. So it is better to admire these for what they are from the viewpoints and swim where it is safer.

Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome

This one is a bit of a hybrid. Cairns Zoom & Wildlife Dome is both a ropes course and a wildlife experience. Confused? Don’t be.

The ground floor is where you’ll find the local wildlife exhibits, including crocs, a wide range of local birdlife and some cuddly koalas, which you can even get a photo with.

While up above, you’ll find a number of rope courses and zip line experiences that aren’t necessarily just for the kids.

What makes Cairns Zoom & Wildlife Dome unique is the combined experience. Being able to do both in the same venue.

It’s another one of those great indoor options, especially if you are looking for a family-friendly activity on a rainy day in Cairns.

You will find Cairns Zoom & Wildlife Dome located within the Reef Hotel Casino precinct in the heart of the city.

Palm Cove

Palm Cove, Cairns

Nothing says tropical holiday more than palm trees at the beach, and that’s exactly what you’ll find at the aptly named Palm Cove.

Located just a 30-minute drive north of Cairns, this little beachside town is home to a number of resorts, spas, cafes and restaurants. Making it the sort of place you’d like to visit to slow the pace down a little.

Palm Cove is a good place to just sit down for relaxed coffee or brunch before chilling out on the beach all day, especially after you’ve had an action-packed few days of reefs and waterfalls.

That said, if you’ve read any of my other posts, you might have gathered that I’m not the sort of person that likes to sit around and do nothing, at least for any extended period of time.

However, I personally quite enjoyed stopping into Palm Cove for a relaxed breakfast and coffee before heading up to Port Douglas along the Captain Cook Highway, which is an adventure in itself. If you share a similar travel mindset to myself, you’d probably enjoy doing something similar.

So no matter what your travel style, well worth stopping in check out Palm Cove, even just for a stroll along the beach.

Atherton Tablelands Waterfalls

Waterfall in the Atherton Tablelands

I know I’ve already said this, but Cairns has an abundance of waterfalls and swimming holes. You’re spoilt for choice with amazing waterfalls in the mountainous areas surrounding Cairns.

That said, I would recommend that you make sure to head out to the Atherton Tablelands, at least as a day trip out of Cairns, to discover a whole bunch of amazing different waterfalls.

Millaa Millaa Falls, Zillie Falls (pictured) and Ellinjaa Falls are all located in quick succession (literally a few minutes’ drive from each other) along the aptly named Waterfall Way. Making them an ideal first stop on a day in the Atherton Tablelands.

You’ll almost certainly find a crowd at Millaa Millaa Falls after it was made famous by several advertising campaigns over the last couple of years (Herbal Essence and Great Northern Brewing Co, just to name a few), but if you time your trip right, you might have your own little sanctuary at the other waterfalls nearby.

If you start a little later in the day and want to get away from the crowds, you could also explore Malanda Falls, Emerald Falls and Crystal Cascades, which aren’t quite as famous but equally spectacular.

Keen on waterfalls? You can do all these as a loop in a single-day road trip out of Cairns, especially if you are looking to create a bunch of content for social media. No judgements here.

Australian Armour and Artillery Museum

Australian Armour and Artillery Museum

For something a bit different, why not check out the Australian Armour and Artillery Museum?

While Cairns isn’t necessarily known for its military history (that’s more a Townsville thing), this private collection of tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery dating back to World War Two is worth exploring if you have any remote interest in the topic.

What makes the Australian Armour and Artillery Museum stand out, though, is that they offer armoured vehicle rides and a shooting range where you can fire a selection of WW2-era rifles.

If you are visiting Cairns for the unique experiences it has to offer, this has to be right up there because it’s not something I’ve seen offered anywhere else in Australia. Not even remotely.

The Australian Armour and Artillery Museum will certainly not be for everyone, but in terms of once-in-a-lifetime experiences (without joining the military yourself), it’s well worth the price of entry.

Bonus: Port Douglas

Port Douglas

Just an hour or so drive north of Cairns, Port Douglas can be visited as either a destination in its own right as the gateway to the Daintree Rainforest or a quick day trip out of Cairns.

Unlike the relative hustle and bustle of Cairns (I use that term loosely, Cairns is nowhere near as busy as the big cities), Port Douglas has a very much more relaxed “tropical island” vibe.

From its large resorts to its quaint little bars and cafes, it’s definitely a change of pace from what you would have already experienced while in Cairns.

And if you ask me, the drive up the Captain Cook Highway along the coast makes the trip worth it alone.

That said, there is plenty to experience once you arrive in Port Douglas, in particular, Four Mile Beach and the lookout on Flagstaff Hill.

You would be really doing yourself a favour by including a road trip up to Port Douglas for at least the day while you are in Cairns. But you might discover that you’ll want to hang around a bit longer too.

Captain Cook Highway on the way to Port Douglas

Where To Find Food In Cairns/What To Do In The Evenings?

Again coming back to the tourism focus of Cairns, there isn’t a shortage of options for your evenings in the city either.

As I’ve already mentioned, my first tip is to check out the Night Markets. It’s just what you do in Cairns; when you get there, you’ll understand.

You’ll also find a huge variety of restaurants and pubs in this part of Cairns, particularly along Shields Street. My personal recommendation would be to try either Rattle n Hum or The Woolshed (or both) for dinner and drinks. If you are looking to kick on into the evening, there are good options as well.

That said, if you are looking for something a little more low-key or relaxed, just take a stroll around the block, and you’ll find something. There are sit-down restaurants and takeaways catering to all sorts of tastes.

Cairns’ relaxed atmosphere and typically warm evenings are ideal for just taking your time to find something at your own pace.

If you’re looking for something a little more upmarket, head towards the waterfront, particularly where all the reef cruises depart. That’s where you will find the concentration of fine dining options.

Cairns, Queensland

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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By 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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