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8 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Cairns

Tropical and touristy, Cairns boasts an idyllic location between the Great Barrier Reef and the lush rainforests and cloud-cloaked plateau of the Atherton Tableland. Many sightseers use Cairns as a base for trips to these nearby natural jewels, but visitors will enjoy the vacation vibe and attractions in Cairns itself. Palm-lined streets and the plethora of tour operators in town add to the air of tropical adventure. A favorite pastime here is a stroll along the Cairns Esplanade, a seafront promenade flanked by parks, playgrounds, cafés, and water-themed attractions. Idyllic beaches stretch to the north and south of town, from Trinity Bay to Port Douglas, though Cairns itself lacks a decent strip of sand.

Great Barrier Reef cruises, tropical-island escapes, wilderness adventures in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, and scenic trips to the rainforest village of Kuranda are high on most sightseeing agendas. No wonder Cairns graces the top four list of Australia's most popular tourist destinations.

1 Cairns Esplanade

Seafront promenade
Seafront promenade DeRass Photography / photo modified
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Enjoy a sunrise or sunset stroll and soak up the vibe of this friendly town along Cairns Esplanade. A massive facelift transformed this seafront strip into a vibrant social hub and recreation center catering to both locals and tourists. Stretching along the seafront in town, the esplanade now boasts lush tropical parks, playgrounds, a swimming lagoon, and foreshore promenade. Birdlife is abundant in the fringing mangroves and tidal flats, and interpretative signs share fascinating tidbits about the region's ecology.

Among the treasure trove of free attractions are a bouldering park, beach volleyball courts, bike paths, a skate park, exercise equipment, water-themed playgrounds, and more. Restaurants and cafés offer a diversity of dining options, and picnickers will find barbecues dotted along the lawns.

2 Cairns Botanic Gardens

Cairns foreshore promenade
Cairns foreshore promenade
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Originally laid out in 1886, Cairns Botanic Gardens boasts one of the finest collections of tropical plants in Australia. Green thumbs can take a self-guided tour through several kaleidoscopic gardens showcasing more than 4,000 different species of plants. The formal Flecker Garden spotlights tropical habitats from around the globe with jungle and rainforest plants from Southeast Asia, Africa, South America, and Far North Queensland. From here, visitors can stroll along the Rainforest Boardwalk to Centenary Lakes, a haven for birds with both freshwater and saltwater habitats. From the main gardens, footpaths lead to a patch of rainforest on the slopes of Mount Whitfield where visitors can enjoy magnificent views of the town and the coast. Other highlights include the Aboriginal Plant Use Garden, a bamboo collection, fern house, and a Gondwanan Heritage Garden, which traces the evolution of wet tropics plants in Australia. After a stroll through the colorful blooms and botanic wonders, visitors can relax in the busy little café, or browse the bookshop. This is a favorite attraction in Cairns. And best of all, it's free.

Hours: Open daily, 7:30am-5:30pm

Admission: Free

Address: 1 Collins Avenue, Cairns

3 Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park

Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park Kay Adams / photo modified
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Tucked in lush rainforest, about a 15 minute-drive from Cairns, the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park offers enriching insight into one of the oldest cultures on earth. For more than 25 years, the center has been a popular stop on the tourist circuit and is often packaged with tours to Kuranda thanks to the adjacent Skyrail station. Dance performances, music, storytelling, and exhibits bring the fascinating culture of the Tjapukai people to life. Guests can learn how to play a didgeridoo, fling a boomerang, throw a spear, and discover the medicinal bonuses of bush tucker. Day visits with interactive activities and night visits with a buffet dinner, fire-starter ceremony, and live performances are on the lineup. After all the activities, guests can enjoy a meal at the Boomerang Restaurant, or browse the center's retail art gallery.

Address: Cairns Western Arterial Road, Caravonica

4 Kuranda

Kuranda
Kuranda
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One of the most popular day trips from Cairns, Kuranda lies nestled in lush rainforest on the hills of the Atherton Tableland. Getting to Kuranda is half the fun. From just outside Cairns, visitors can glide over World Heritage-listed rainforests on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and gaze down upon the beautiful Barron River and gorge. Another option is to take the Kuranda Scenic Railway up through the rainforest past plunging ravines and cool cascades. Self-drive travelers will also enjoy the views.

Once there, a must-see is the Kuranda Markets. Both the Original Markets and the Heritage Markets are open daily, their stalls brimming with handmade crafts, aboriginal artifacts, souvenirs, jewelry, and tropical culinary treats. Other popular attractions include the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary; Birdworld, Australia's largest assemblage of free flying birds; Kuranda Koala Gardens; and the Rainforestation Nature Park. Many visitors combine a trip to Kuranda with a visit to the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park.

5 Barron Gorge National Park

Barron Gorge National Park
Barron Gorge National Park
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Part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, Barron Gorge National Park is another jewel in the crown of Far North Queensland's stunning wilderness areas. Dense rainforest cloaks these misty peaks, and magnificent waterfalls tumble into the Barron River and its tributaries. The best way to see this unspoiled natural beauty is by taking a trip on the Kuranda Scenic Railway, or the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. A particularly striking feature, especially during the wet season, is the 260 m Barron Falls. Sightseers who want to spend a couple of days exploring this spectacular park can access the main features by car.

6 Green Island National Park

Green Island National Park
Green Island National Park
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Cloaked in rainforest and ringed by coral reefs, Green Island is a tropical island paradise a short boat ride from Cairns. Snorkeling, scuba diving, and swimming are the main activities, and those who prefer to stay dry can view the marine life from a glass-bottomed boat or underwater observatory. Exploring the island itself is just as rewarding. Well-maintained boardwalks wind through the lush greenery, and visitors can cool off in the island pool. The neighboring coral island, Michaelmas Cay, is the nesting place of many thousands of sea birds - one of the largest colonies of birds on the Great Barrier Reef.

7 Fitzroy Island National Park

Fitzroy Island National Park
Fitzroy Island National Park
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About 45 minutes by ferry from Cairns, Fitzroy Island offers a serene dose of sun, sand, and sea. Rainforest-fringed beaches are the major draw where visitors can snorkel, swim, and kayak. To the north of the island, walking trails lead to a lighthouse on the point and a panoramic lookout on the island's peak. Visitors can also explore colorful soft corals at nearby Little Fitzroy Island on a half-day kayak tour.

8 Palm Cove

Palm Cove
Palm Cove
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About a 25-minute-drive north of Cairns, Palm Cove is prized for its pretty palm-lined beach and pampering spa resorts. Peace and tranquility reign along this picturesque stretch, and many restaurants and cafés beckon by the beach. Swimming is off limits for most of the year, except in a small enclosure, due to box jellyfish and possible crocodile encounters. Instead, visitors may want to sprawl on the powdery sands and admire the blissful sea views. Animal lovers will enjoy Hartley's Crocodile Adventures, a popular croc show and wildlife park, as well as Cairns Tropical Zoo where reptiles, birds, koalas, possums, pademelons, dingoes, and wombats await.

Location: About 20 km north of Cairns

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