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 Great Barrier Reef and one side and the Daintree Rainforest on the other, there are plenty of reasons to visit this tropical destination in Far North Queensland.

Did you know that Cairns attracts over 3 million visitors (domestic and international) each year?

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

Where Is Cairns

As I just briefly mentioned, Cairns is located in the tropical far north of Queensland, Australia.

The regional city is situated on the northeastern coast of Australia, about 1,700 kilometres (1,050 miles) north of the city of Brisbane, the Queensland capital.

Cairns is also the northern most city in Queensland and second only to Darwin in terms of Australia as a whole.

The city is considered to be 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.

A Brief History Of Cairns

The first inhabitants of the Cairns region were the indigenous Yirrganydji people, who have lived in the area for thousands of years.

While the first Europeans visited the region in 1802, it wasn’t until 1876 that the town was founded following the discovery of gold in the Hodgkinson River. That settlement, which would grow into the city we know today, was named after the Governor of Queensland at the time, Sir William Wellington Cairns.

The gold rush would be short-lived. However, the establishment of a railway line into the rich farming of the Atherton Tablelands ensured the city continued to thrive as a transportation hub of goods and passengers to and from the region.

During World War II, much like Townsville, Cairns served as a major staging point for Allied troops fighting in the South Pacific.

After the war, Cairns continued to grow and develop, not only as a major gateway to the Atherton Tablelands but also became a major centre for the tourism industry, due to its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef.

Fun Fact: Cairns was originally known as Trinity Bay.

What’s 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. Also known as the dry season.

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

This time of year in the tropics often brings late afternoon/evening storms that feature heavy rainfalls. It’s not uncommon for the region to 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.

How To Get To And From Cairns

By Air – Cairns International Airport

Cairns International Airport is the primary gateway for international and domestic travellers to the city. All of Australia’s major airlines operate services that connect Cairns to the rest of the country, particularly Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide.

Being an international airport, Cairns is also directly connected to several short-haul international destinations, like Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand and Bali.

As for getting to and from the city from Cairns International Airport, it is really close to the city. I mean, like, really, really close.

So close, in fact, that if you were really keen, you could walk into the city from the airport. In fact, I have seen a backpacker or two do exactly that. I wouldn’t recommend it, and there are definitely more efficient ways, but it is possible.

In terms of more practical ways to get to and from the airport, there is a shuttle bus, but I would recommend using local Taxis or a ridesharing service like Uber. Given the proximity to the city, neither option is all that expensive.

Otherwise renting a car from the airport is also a very good option. As we’ll get to later in this post, having your own transport is a very good way to make the most of your time in Cairns, and the airport offers the simplest access to the major rental car companies.

By Rail/Bus and Coach

Queensland Rail operates a regional long-haul train service that interlinks Cairns with Brisbane called the Spirit of Queensland.

Additionally, bus companies like Greyhound and Premier Motor Service offer routes that connect Cairns to other major cities and towns across Queensland and the Northern Territory.

By Driving

As the main road route up and down the Queensland coastline, the Bruce Highway (A1) connects Cairns to Brisbane via Townsville.

How To Get Around Cairns

Despite its popularity, the city of Cairns really isn’t big. especially the main tourist areas. And they are all connected by a well-maintained network of footpaths. Making it a really easy city to simply walk around.

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

Public Transport

Translink does run a public bus service within Cairns and to the surrounding suburbs, but I found this service a bit limited when it comes to accessing some of the key attractions around the city. To counter this, some attractions do offer shuttle bus services.


Driving yourself around is the ideal way to make the most of your time in Cairns and explore all that the surrounding region has to offer.

Given that much of the appeal of this part of Queensland is the rainforests and waterfalls, the only way to access most of these is by driving, so having a rental car will allow you to see so much more of what the city has to offer.

In my experience, Thrifty and Avis are the best options, but all of the major rental car companies are represented at Cairns International Airport.

Driving around Cairns is relatively simple, and all of the major attractions are well-signposted. Best of all, there are no tolls, and parking is free almost everywhere. So, it’s unlikely you’ll be present with unexpected expenses.

The Best Things To Do In Cairns

Sitting in between World Heritage Listed natural attractions, Cairns boasts plenty for visitors to see and do. I’ve picked out my must-dos in this blog post.

Best Places 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.

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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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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