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11 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Cairns

Written by Karen Hastings
Updated Jun 23, 2021

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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 the town itself offers plenty of tourist attractions and a convivial vacation vibe. 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.

Visiting the Great Barrier Reef, 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 list of Australia's most popular tourist destinations.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Great Barrier Reef Cruises & Scenic Flights

Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns
Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns

A cruise to one of Australia's greatest treasures, the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, is one of the most popular things to do from Cairns. Stretching for more than 2,300 kilometers, the reef is one of the planet's richest ecosystems, with a dazzling diversity of hard and soft corals and countless species of fish, molluscs, and other marine animals, including dolphins, turtles, and sharks.

Whether you want to snorkel or dive, the best way to see this remote natural wonder is on an organized tour. The 8.5-hour Great Barrier Reef Diving and Snorkeling Cruise from Cairns whisks you out to the reef on a deluxe 100-passenger boat in just over an hour, with an on-board marine biologist. For those, who also want to see the reef from the air, the Great Barrier Reef Scenic Helicopter Tour and Cruise from Cairns is a fantastic option allowing you to customize your tour. You can fly one way to the reef and cruise back, or enjoy a round-trip flight with time for lunch, snorkeling, and swimming.

2. Cairns Esplanade

Seafront promenade
Seafront promenade | DeRass Photography / photo modified

Cairns Esplanade is a fabulous place to enjoy a sunrise or sunset stroll and soak up the vibe of this friendly town. 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 encompasses 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.

Official site: http://www.cairnsesplanade.com/

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Cairns

3. Cairns Botanic Gardens

Cairns Botanic Gardens
Cairns Botanic Gardens

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 Queensland. From here, you 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, with 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. This is one of the best things to do on a budget in Cairns; entry is free.

Address: 1 Collins Avenue, Cairns

Official site: http://www.cairns.qld.gov.au/cbg

4. Day Trip to Kuranda

Day Trip to Kuranda
Day Trip to Kuranda

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, you 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.

Taking an organized tour helps you make the most of your time in Kuranda. The full-day Kuranda Scenic Railway Day Trip from Cairns, includes two exhilarating modes of travel, taking you to Kuranda on the scenic railway and returning via the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, with plenty of time to explore the attractions in between. Best of all, you can customize the itinerary depending on your interests.

5. Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park

Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park | Kay Adams / photo modified

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. You 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 agenda. After all the activities, you can enjoy a meal at the Boomerang Restaurant.

Address: Cairns Western Arterial Road, Caravonica

Official site: http://www.tjapukai.com.au/

6. Barron Gorge National Park

Barron Gorge National Park
Barron Gorge National Park

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-meter Barron Falls. Sightseers who want to spend a couple of days exploring this spectacular park can access the main features by car.

Official site: http://www.nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/barron-gorge/about.html

7. Day Trip to Green Island

Day Trip to Green Island
Day Trip to Green Island

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 you can cool off in the island pool. The neighboring coral island, Michaelmas Cay, is the nesting place of many thousands of seabirds - one of the largest colonies of birds on the Great Barrier Reef.

On the Green Island Day Trip from Cairns, traveling to the island on an air-conditioned catamaran is part of the adventure. Once you arrive, you can snorkel from the beach, dive the reef, view the coral from a glass-bottomed boat or semi-submarine, or try a Seawalking experience.

Official site: http://www.nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/green-island/

8. Day Trip to Fitzroy Island

Day Trip to Fitzroy Island
Day Trip to Fitzroy Island

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 you 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. You can also explore colorful soft corals at nearby Little Fitzroy Island on a half-day kayak tour. The Fitzroy Island Day Trip from Cairns includes the round-trip ferry ticket, and you can upgrade your excursion with an Activity Pass, which includes a picnic lunch; sports equipment, such as snorkeling gear and stand up paddleboards; a stinger suit; and a glass-bottom boat tour.

Official site: http://www.nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/fitzroy-island/index.html

9. Day Trip to Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation

Cape Tribulation
Cape Tribulation

About 140 kilometers north of Cairns, Cape Tribulation is one of the few places on earth where two of the planet's richest ecosystems merge: The Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. Both of these natural wonders are UNESCO World Heritage sites, and you can easily visit them on a day trip from Cairns. Stroll along the shore at Cape Tribulation, and you can see where coral reefs thrive in shallow waters along the beautiful jungle-backed beach. While you're there, you can add an array of reef and rainforest wilderness adventures to your itinerary, such as ziplining through the jungle, hiking, diving, snorkeling, and kayaking.

The most convenient way to see this spectacular stretch of coast is on an organized tour. The Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation Day Tour includes a cruise down the tranquil Daintree River, a guided rainforest hike at Mossman Gorge, a visit to the beach at Cape Tribulation, and a refreshing swim in the Coral Sea. You can also hand-feed kangaroos and see other native Aussie animals at Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas. During the tour, expert guides share details about the rich tropical ecosystems, as well as the Kuku Yalanji people who first inhabited these lands.

10. Palm Cove

Palm Cove
Palm Cove

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, you 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 kilometers north of Cairns

Official site: http://www.palmcove.net/index.php

11. Cairns Aquarium

Scalloped hammerhead shark
Scalloped hammerhead shark

Opened in 2017, Cairns Aquarium offers a fascinating glimpse of some of the marine ecosystems and creatures of the Great Barrier Reef. The aquarium's mission is to encourage conservation of this World Heritage-listed ecosystems in Far North Queensland's Wet Tropics. More than 15,000 animals live at the aquarium in 10 different ecosystems and more than 70 habitats, including mangroves, tropical rainforest, river systems, the Coral Sea, and the Great Barrier Reef. See deadly marine stingers and learn about the dangers of the reef, spot barramundi and crocodiles in a billabong river system, and come face to face with scalloped hammerhead sharks. An on-site Italian restaurant serves up lunch and snacks.

Address: 5 Florence Street, Cairns

Official site: http://www.cairnsaquarium.com.au/

Where to Stay in Cairns for Sightseeing

Luxury Hotels:

  • Overlooking Trinity Inlet near a cruise terminal, the 5-star Pullman Reef Hotel packs amenities into its waterfront location. A gym, rooftop pool, three restaurants, conference facilities, and even a wildlife dome with Aussie animals provide diversions on-site. Rooms are well-appointed and spacious, with pillow menus, spa tubs, and city or water views.
  • Eco-conscious Crystalbrook Riley sits in a handy location right on Cairns Esplanade. Tech-savvy features elevate the sleek, stylish rooms here – Apple iPads control key features. In your spare time, you can sign up for some pampering at Eleme Day Spa, swim in the lagoon-style pool, tone at the gym, and dine at multiple restaurants.
  • Ideal for easy access to reef trips and island excursions, Shangri-La Hotel, The Marina, Cairns overlooks bobbing yachts backed by the green mountains beyond. Enter via the massive light-filled lobby, dine at the three restaurants, and lounge by the large pools. Rooms have plush beds, and the best picks have marina views.

Mid-Range Hotels:

  • Perfect for families, the great-value Ingenia Holidays Cairns Coconut is a seven-minute drive from town but with all its fun-filled amenities, you won't want to leave. Cool down at the water park, putt on the mini-golf course, take a dip in the sprawling lagoon-style pools, play tennis or basketball, or head to the interactive playground and giant Jumping Pillows. Prefer something more low-key? Parents can relax in the therapeutic Jacuzzi, and the resort features a handy restaurant and café. Accommodations range from three-bedroom condos to villas, self-contained cabins, and tent or caravan sites peppered amid tropical gardens.
  • Overlooking Trinity Bay and Cairns Lagoon and right near the night markets, BreakFree Royal Harbour Cairns is another great option for families. The one- and two-bedroom apartments come with either garden or ocean views. All have kitchenettes, balconies, and laundry facilities. In your spare time, you can take a dip in the pool, work out in the gym, and cook your own dinner using the BBQ facilities.
  • A five-minute walk from the Esplanade, Cairns City Palms packs in plenty of perks for a great price. Bright and clean, the rooms here come with handy kitchenettes, and you can refuel with complimentary morning scones, as well as coffee, tea, water, and juice. Guests here also have access to a TV lounge, a coin-operated laundry, computer terminal, BBQ facilities, and a swimming pool.

Budget Hotels:

  • Friendly staff enhance your stay at the affordable Balinese Motel. Decorated in Balinese style, the air-conditioned rooms come with mini-fridges and free Wi-Fi. Guests can cool off in the free-form pool. Breakfast is included in the rates, and restaurants are only a short walk away.
  • The family-run Cannon Park Motel makes a great budget-friendly base. It's 6.5 kilometers from the city center, but you are next to a major shopping mall and within walking distance of restaurants. A pool, free parking, and comfy beds are highlights.
  • Billed as a "Boho Guest House," Dreamtime Travellers Rest is an affordable eco-friendly base for backpackers and budget-seekers. Colorful, cheery rooms brighten your stay, and private rooms are also available. Amenities include a funky lounge area, a swimming pool, kitchen, and pool table. Social nights are a great way to mingle with other travelers.

More Tropical Adventures near Cairns

On the far north coast of Queensland, Cairns is a popular launching point for Great Barrier Reef tours and one of the top fishing destinations in Australia. But plenty of other exciting Aussie outdoor adventures lie nearby. The upscale town of Port Douglas is less than an hour north of Cairns, and the charming rainforest village of Kuranda is also an easy day trip away. Hop on a short flight south, and you can cruise the beautiful Whitsunday Islands, with some of Australia's best beaches, or explore the tropical attractions of Townsville. Even farther south, are the gleaming beaches of the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast, as well as the favorite 4WD destination of Fraser Island.

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