15 Things to do in Cairns
Cairns is a national treasure located along the Northeast coast of Australia. It is a city whose mix of culture, tropical weather, and natural beauty is sure to rejuvenate both body and soul.
Founded in 1876, Cairns is named in honor of Sir William Wellington Cairns, Governor of Queensland. The city was established as a hub for miners, later growing to become a major port to export those mined resources.
Recently, Cairns has developed into a major tourist destination. Its proximity to the Tropic of Capricorn means tropical temperatures year round and emerald waters teeming with ocean wildlife. The Great Barrier Reef and the many National Parks are sure to attract nature lovers.
Cairns has everything you need, whether you’re en route to another destination or planning for an extended stay. Below, we have identified 15 of Cairns’ incredible attractions that will give you a well rounded sense of what Cairns is all about. So, grab your Archies Arch Support Thongs and prepare to experience the lush and wonderful city of Cairns!
Swim in Esplanade Lagoon
Nestled between downtown Cairns and Cairns’ Harbor, visitors can enjoy the crystal clear, protected waters of the Esplanade Lagoon.
Cairns built this beautiful, artificial lagoon in 1995 in an effort to protect swimmers from hazardous ocean life that typically frequents the area from November to May. (box jellyfish and saltwater crocodiles, or “Salties”).
The lagoon is open from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM, 7 days a week (only open 12:00PM - 6:00PM on Wednesday for weekly maintenance). It is the perfect spot to relax and enjoy clean water, a harbor view, and plenty of sunshine.
If beach swimming is more your cup of tea, you can click here for daily beach reports.
Mingle With Locals at the Night Markets
Cairns is a very lively, active city. The tropical climate allows for outdoor activity all year long. But with summer temperatures hovering in the high 30’s, it is not surprising to find people shopping, eating, and mingling at the Night Market.
In 1991, Hayden Redfern and Elise Warring created an open air night market similar to markets found scattered throughout much of Southeast Asia. What began as a small market now has more than 130 stalls and attracts an impressive 2.7 million visitors each year!
The Night Market opens daily at 4:30 PM and closes at 10:30 PM. Its impressive variety of food, local crafts, and mainstream products is certain to offer something you love!
Find more information and news on their website: https://www.nightmarkets.com.au/
All aboard the Kuranda Scenic Railway!
Surrounded by thick tropical rainforest and lush hills, winding carefully toward the interior, Cairns’ Kuranda Scenic Railway offers the ultimate wildlife and nature sightseeing tour.
Years ago, this railway was a lifeline for tin miners in Atherton, delivering much needed food and supplies from the coast. Cairns' emergence as a national tourist destination has put this historic railway back to use.
The Kuranda Scenic Railway now provides an exciting trip into the depths of the Queensland Tropical Rainforests. See wildlife, waterfalls and breathtaking vistas as you travel in comfort pulled by a powerful 1720 Class Diesel Electric Locomotive.
Ticket prices start at $76 and offer hours of adventure. Book your tour online on the Kuranda Scenic Railway website.
Soar Through the Rainforest Canopy on the Skyrail Cableway
The Kuranda Scenic Railway is not the only way to traverse the dense rainforest surrounding Cairns. The Skyrail Cableway offers an exciting alternative, allowing passengers the opportunity to soar with the eagles as they float over dense jungle vegetation.
The Cableway connects the Northwestern suburb of Smithfield with the city of Kundara to the West. Passengers selecting Diamond View cabins have a glass floor giving a bird’s eye view of the exotic landscape below.
Soaring over the Barron Gorge gives unsurpassed panoramic views of Australia’s Wet Tropics making a trip in the skyway an unforgettable experience for the entire family. Plan and book your trip on their website: https://www.skyrail.com.au/.
Flutter in the Kandura Butterfly Sanctuary
The Kandura Butterfly Sanctuary is located in the heart of Kadura village. This sanctuary is home to over 1500 butterflies that have been bred in the sanctuary laboratory.
The sanctuary offers hands-on educational experiences, teaching visitors about the role these beautiful insects play in the overall health of the Australian rainforests.
In the aviary, visitors feed and “play” with the butterflies. A small drop of nectar applied to your hand will have you swarmed in seconds! Guided tours of the facility are available.
You can pre-book your tour on the Kandura Butterfly Sanctuary and can even bundle it with other wildlife sanctuary tours.
Immerse yourself in the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park encourages you to learn more about the local aboriginal tribes, their history and their customs.
Tjapukai originally began as a dance and theater show highlighting Djabugay culture. Their strong success led to their being relocated to a larger location next to the Skyrail Cableway. Today, Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park is celebrated for its entertaining approach to teaching tourists about aboriginal tribal history.
At night, you can enjoy fine dining featuring authentic brush food while learning about aboriginal culture through song and dance. During the day programs teach visitors more about aboriginal weapons, cuisine and bush medicines.
Book your adventure on their website: https://www.tjapukai.com.au/
Face Your Fears by Bungee Jumping
For the adventurous, Cairns offers experiences that push your limits. A.J. Hackett Bungee Jumping is one of those experiences!
Inspired by the Vanuatu ritual called land diving, A.J. Hackett and Chris Sigglekow were among the first to perfect bungee jumping. In 1987, Hackett, a well-known New Zealand entrepreneur, illegally bungee jumped from the Eiffel Tower in an effort to promote his idea.
This year, A.J. Hackett Bungee Jumping celebrates 30 years of safe jumps. Will you be brave enough to jump from the 50 meter tower?
If bungee jumping is a little too adventurous, the famous jungle swing whips passengers at an eye-watering 120 km/h. You can book your jump or swing on the AJ Hackett website.
Hike in Daintree Rainforest
If you enjoy a good hike, a visit to Daintree Forest is sure to leave you satisfied. Trails checker the dense forest allowing hikers an up close look at both fauna and flora.
Daintree is roughly 125 km from Cairns, but well worth the drive. It is a part of the Wet Tropics Rainforest, the oldest, continually surviving, tropical rainforest in the world. The ancient, near mystical feel of this forest will give you a new perspective and a deeper connection to Mother Earth. The sense of human-nature connectivity and the beautiful scenery served as inspiration for James Cameron’s Avatar sceneries.
Explore the forest on your own or hire an experienced local guide. No matter how you choose to adventure, it is sure to inspire awe and bring you closer to nature.
Hot Air Balloon Over the Atherton Tablelands
Cairns and the surrounding areas are beautiful from ground level, but from hundreds of meters above, the view is absolutely breathtaking.
A ride in a hot air balloon is a once in a lifetime experience for most. The dazzling emerald color of the sea, the mesmerizing dark green of the rainforest and contrasting lines of the city landscape create a visual experience you’ll never forget. Mareeba, the closest departure point, is considered the hot air balloon capital of the world due to its amazing weather and low winds all year long.
Hot Air offers balloon rides for $229 per person.
Skydive over Mission Beach
An age-old tradition for backpackers traveling the East Coast of Australia is to celebrate reaching Cairns with a skydive. Mission Beach is the area's most popular sky dive destination offering a beautiful setting to freefall from 15,000 ft.
Shuttles take you from Cairns directly to the runway. Jumpers of all skill levels can participate: go tandem with an expert guide or solo if you’re an advanced skydiver.
The best part of skydiving at Mission Beach is the spectacular view of the Great Barrier Reef to the East.
Don’t forget to order a video of your jump; you won’t regret it! Prices start at $199 for a tandem skydive. Book your adventure here: https://www.skydive.com.au/mission-beach/
Snorkel and Wonder at the Outer Reef Pontoon
The Great Barrier Reef needs no introduction — it inspires awe and wonder even in photographs.
Snorkelling the reef gives visitors an up close look at thousands of fish, other sea life, and the coral itself. Hovering over these living structures that provide shelter and nutrients for millions of fish, shellfish and microorganisms is breath-taking.
Tour boats line much of Cairns waterways, and it is just a short 30 - 45 minute cruise to the closer areas of the reef. Tours typically leave in the morning giving you the day to explore the reef.
Book a tour here: https://www.reefmagiccruises.com/
Fly over the Great Barrier Reef
Helicopters and planes offer an alternative way to explore the Great Barrier Reef.
Once in the air, you’ll immediately realize that pictures you have seen in the past do not do it justice. The infinite expanse of reef going North and South creates a panorama more beautiful than any image you’ve ever seen.
Companies like GBR Helicopters offer inexpensive short trips perfect for small groups or couples.
Learn more about Cairns Heritage and History
Indigenous tribes have inhabited the lush tropical forest surrounding Cairns for more than 40,000 years. Cairns was also an early British settlement nearly 200 years ago.
The Cairns Museum highlights the area’s rich history, highlighting the contributions many have made to the evolution of the area. The museum also hosts the School of Art.
Passes start at $27 and can be purchased on the Cairns Museum website.
Party hard at Gilligans
Gilligans is one of the most iconic party spots in Cairns. Located in the heart of Cairns, Gilligans is both a large backpacker resort and a massive night club. A small cover charge will get you access to their three bars, including a Vegas style pool bar and night club.
Gilligans is a happening place throughout the year and a great place to meet new friends.
Find the latest information, visit Gilligans.
Treat Yourself with Local Seafood
When in Cairns, an ocean teeming with tasty fish is just meters away. Stop by Dundee’s Restaurant for local fresh catches.
Local, wild caught barramundi and garlic prawns may already have your mouth watering, and are among some of the favorites served at Dundee’s.
Dundee’s isn’t the only show in town. Along the waterfront, numerous seafood restaurants serve local favorites. We strongly recommend local catches to get a true taste of Cairns.
Cairns has it all: lush jungle, gorgeous beaches, and the world famous Great Barrier Reef. A vibrant small town feel coupled with a lively city center and lots of fun activities make Cairns an incredible vacation spot for young adults and families alike.