Cairns is a modern, sophisticated city, and is an ideal base to explore the wider Tropical North Queensland region with front door access to World Heritage listed Reef, Rainforest and Outback.
The city itself is where much of the accommodation is situated close to international standard restaurants, boutique shopping, modern art galleries and evening entertainment.
All the attributes of a world class modern city are to be found in Cairns: International air access, rail systems, high-standard accommodation facilities, an art gallery, botanic gardens, university, a casino and a convention centre. Over a century of architecture is reflected in the city streets – a comfortable blend of traditional Queenslander style and modern designs.
There is enough heritage in the old town left for the astute visitor to imagine what the city was once like. Modern buildings grace the skyline with a mixture of architectural designs including the Reef Hotel Casino, Cairns International Hotel and the Cairns Convention Centre.
And best of all, Cairns is close to the Great Barrier Reef.
How long does it take to get from Cairns to the reef?
Reaching the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns only takes from 35 minutes to 1.5 hours depending on where you want to snorkel and scuba dive, and the type of boat you’re in. Whereas it can take two to three hours to reach the snorkelling and diving hotspots from other towns on the reef coast.
Things to do in Cairns
Wandering around the city center and looking for something to do? The good news is that there is a lot of things to do in the centre of Cairns, all within walking distance.
1. Swim in the Esplanade Lagoon
A focal point for the city in the warmer weather is the Cairns Esplanade. Almost two kilometres of landscaped parkland fringes, a busy thoroughfare and restaurant strip on one side, and a natural harbour inlet on the other.
Each year, thousands of visitors flock to the Esplanade to take a dip under the streaming water from the iconic fish sculptures, relax on the grass, eat at sidewalk cafes, meet new people, to walk under the trees, and to watch the many bird species which come to feed on the tidal zone.
2. Muddy’s Playground
Muddy’s Playground in Cairns is for the young and the young at heart. The playground is designed to stimulate the senses, challenge the body and engage the mind. There are flying foxes, a giant swings, a water play area, an amphitheatre, an art wall and many more features that make Muddy’s Playground one of Cairns’ most popular tourist attractions.
3. Cairns Aquarium
Cairns Aquarium is one of the newest attractions in town, and is a must-see for any visitor to Cairns. The aquarium is home to over 10,000 aquatic animals, including sharks, stingrays, turtles, fish and reptiles. The aquarium has a range of interactive exhibits, educational displays and hands-on activities. There’s also a cafe and gift shop on site.
4. The Cairns Museum
The Cairns Museum is located in the heart of Cairns and is dedicated to telling the stories of the people who have shaped the Far North Queensland region. The museum has a range of exhibitions and displays, as well as a research library and archives. The museum is also home to the Cairns Maritime Museum, which tells the stories of the city’s rich maritime history.
5. Jet Boating from Cairns
Head out and explore the stunning waters of Cairns on a jet boat! Operators offering jet boat tours depart regularly. Tours typically last for 35 minutes and take in the thrills and adventure, while soaking in the scenery.
6. Cairns Night Market
The Cairns City Night Market is held every Wednesday night in the city centre. The market is a great place to find souvenirs, as well as try some of the region’s best food. There are also a number of live entertainment acts each week.
7. Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome
Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome is located in the heart of town and is home to a range of animals, from reptiles to birds of prey. Cuddle a koala and feed a kangaroo, or get up close and personal with a snake.
The dome also has zip lines, a climbing wall and ropes course. There are three zip lines – one of which takes participants directly over Goliath, a 4-metre saltwater crocodile!
There’s also the Dome Climb offering stunning city views with a side serve of adrenaline! Enjoy an external walk around a narrow platform on the outside of the roof of the Dome and take in the views!
8. Cairns Botanic Gardens
The Cairns Botanic Gardens are located on the edge of town and are home to a diverse range of plant species, as well as a rainforest walk. The gardens are also home to the Centenary Lakes, which are popular for swimming, fishing and kayaking.
9. The Cairns Art Gallery
The Cairns Art Gallery is located in the city centre and is home to a range of exhibitions, as well as a cafe and gift shop. The gallery also hosts a number of educational programs and events.
10. Rusty’s Market
Rusty’s Market is one of Cairns’ most popular tourist attractions. The market is a mecca for shoppers, with over 200 stalls selling a range of goods, from fresh produce to handmade arts and crafts. The market is also home to a number of cafes and restaurants, as well as live entertainment.
11. Cairns Local Bars
The night time comes alive in Cairns City with a local bar scene to rival Sydney and Melbourne (well, maybe on a smaller scale). The quality is definitely up there! Some of Cairns’ best bars include Rocco, Wolf Lane Distillery & Three Wolves, Flamingos and The Conservatory Bar.
Tropical North Queensland
Cairns is the gateway to most of Tropical North Queensland making it a great starting point for a tropical holiday to the Great Barrier Reef and the mainland attractions up and down the coast. The majority of the rainforest is found west of Cairns, with the Daintree and Cape Tribulation being the most accessible from the city.
Home to rare and unique wildlife, the tropical rainforests around Cairns are among the oldest, most diverse and beautiful in the world. Daintree National Park, Cape Tribulation and Bloomfield Falls are all easily accessible from Cairns.
Giant fig trees, primeval palms, delicate orchids and curious creatures such as tree-kangaroos make the Daintree an unforgettable place. Cape Tribulation is where the World Heritage listed Rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef – a truly unique ecosystem.
Tropical Waterfalls and Swimming Holes
Cool off in one of the refreshing waterfalls and swimming holes around Cairns. Bloomfield Falls, located about an hour’s drive north of Cairns, is a series of tumbling waterfalls hidden away in the dense rainforest.
The Barron Falls, just a short drive north from Cairns, offer spectacular views of the plunging waters which crash down into the gorge below. For a swim with a difference, try one of the natural rock pools at Crystal Cascades.
Cairns Best Beaches
Relax on golden sand or try your hand at surfing. There are a couple of little things to be aware of in the area though: stingers and crocodiles. Stingers are typically found in tropical waters from around November to May. Crocodiles can be found in creeks and tidal rivers near the beach, and they can be quite aggressive. It’s true – everything in Australia is trying to kill you! But if you follow the recommendations of local authorities, you will be fine.
With warm temperatures all year round in the wet tropics, it’s no wonder that locals and visitors alike love spending time at the beach. From secluded bays to long stretches of golden sand, there are plenty of beaches to choose from around Cairns.
Some of the most popular beaches include Palm Cove , Clifton Beach, Ellis Beach, Trinity Beach, Yorkeys Knob Beach and Kewarra Beach.
Far North Great Barrier Reef
Located off the coast of Cairns, Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef is home to an abundance of marine life including colourful coral, tropical fish, dolphins, turtles and rays. The reef is quite big, and while the reef close to Cairns is very popular with tourists, the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef is quite isolated.
The northern reef is accessible by boat or seaplane from Cairns, making it the perfect place to get away from the crowds and explore this natural wonder.
Haggerstone Island (pictured below) is a remote northern reef island, with its own airstrip and luxurious accommodation. Stay at Haggerstone Island for the ultimate Robinson Crusoe experience.
Lizard Island Resort is also in the northern region and is accessible by seaplane from Cairns. The resort has a range of accommodation options as well as its own private beach. Stay in the luxury resort and experience the best of the Great Barrier Reef.
Islands near Cairns
There are plenty of islands to explore off the coast of Cairns, each with its own unique charm. From the world-famous Fitzroy Island to the secluded Bedarra Island further south, there is an island to suit everyone.
Michaelmas Cay is one of the most popular day trip destinations from Cairns. The small sandy island is located in the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef and is home to a large colony of birds.
Fitzroy Island and Green Island are a popular day trip destination, as they’re only a short boat ride from Cairns.
Some of the most popular islands to the south include Bedarra Island (pictured below), Dunk Island and Orpheus Island.
Tours and Activities
There are plenty of reef tours and activities to keep you busy in Cairns, both in the city and surrounding areas. A tour to the reef can be enjoyed in many ways – by swimming, snorkelling or diving straight off the beach, by taking a glass bottom boat tour, or by going on a live-aboard diveboat.
1. Glass Bottom Boat Tour
For those who want to explore the reef without getting wet, there are plenty of glass bottom boat tours available. These tours give you the chance to see the colourful coral and marine life from the comfort of a boat.
Book now: your glass bottom boat tour.
2. Scuba Diving
If you’re feeling adventurous, why not try scuba diving? There are plenty of dive schools in Cairns that offer beginner diving courses. Once you’ve got your diving licence, you can explore the reef with a guided tour.
Book now: your Cairns scuba diving tour.
3. Live-aboard Dive Boat
For the ultimate reef experience, stay overnight on a live-aboard dive boat. These boats take divers to some of the best dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef, where you can enjoy up to four dives per day.
Discover: 2 & 3 day live aboard reef cruises.
For the ultimate adrenalin rush, try skydiving over Cairns. There are several skydiving companies that operate in Cairns, offering tandem skydives from 14,000 feet. You’ll be matched with an experienced instructor who will help you every step of the way.
Book now: your Cairns skydiving experience.
For a bird’s eye view of Cairns, try paragliding. There are several companies that offer tandem paragliding flights, which is a great way to experience this exhilarating activity. Tandem flights are available and usually last around 20 minutes.
6. Hot Air Ballooning
Float above the rainforest in a hot air balloon for a truly unique experience. There are several companies that offer hot air balloon flights in Cairns. Flights usually take place early in the morning, when the air is calm and the views are stunning.
Book now: your hot air balloon experience.
7. Walking Tours
There are plenty of rainforest walks to enjoy in Cairns, ranging from easy boardwalk trails to more challenging bushwalks.
The Boardwalk Biking and Walking Trail is an easy 4km return walk that takes you through the rainforest on a raised boardwalk. This trail is suitable for all fitness levels and is a great way to see some of the native wildlife.
For something more challenging, try the Red Arrow Walk. This 4km return walk takes you through the rainforest to the summit of Earl Hill, where you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Cairns and the surrounding area.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, try the 10km return hike to the top of Mount Whitfield. This popular walking track starts in Cairns and takes you through the rainforest to the summit of Mount Whitfield, where you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of Cairns and the surrounding area.
Other popular walking tours include a Hipster Street Art Walking Tour and a Cairns history tour, where you get to look at buildings of significance from the early colony, including architectural styles, as well as indigenous outdoor artworks.
8. Farm Tours
For a taste of the country life, try a farm tour. There are several farms in the Cairns area that offer tours and activities, such as horse riding, dairy farming and even crocodile feeding!
Whether you’re looking for adrenalin-pumping activities or something a little more relaxed, you’re sure to find something to suit your taste in Cairns.
9. Cairns Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
Enjoy a ride on the scenic Cairns Skyrail Rainforest Cableway over the tropical rainforest to Kuranda for a stroll along the main street before returning. The Skyrail takes you on a 7.5km journey over the rainforest into Australia’s Wet Tropics, with two stops along the way where you can disembark and explore the rainforest at your own pace. Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is located just 15 minutes north of Cairns.
10. Kuranda Scenic Railway
For a leisurely trip through the rainforest, take a ride on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. This historic train takes you on a journey through the rainforest, past waterfalls and across bridges. The railway journey takes around 1.5 hours and is a great way to see some of the amazing scenery in the Cairns area.
11. Explore Kuranda
Kuranda has a fun and festive atmosphere, with amazing street art and talented buskers performing on street corners.
After arriving in Kuranda, take some time to explore the village. There are plenty of shops and cafes to enjoy, as well as a butterfly sanctuary and bird park. Kuranda has two markets, the Original Market (open Thursday to Monday) and the Heritage Market, which is open Thursday to Sunday.
The Original Market is located in the centre of Kuranda and offers a range of goods, including souvenirs, clothing, jewellery and local produce. The Heritage Market is located on the outskirts of Kuranda and offers a range of handcrafted goods, including woodwork, pottery and jewellery.
There are many great resorts and hotels in Cairns to suit any budget from indulgent luxury hotels to backpacker hostels, perfect for a romantic getaway, weekend escape or family vacation.
The Shangri-La Hotel, The Marina (pictured below) is located in the heart of Cairns and offers 5-star luxury accommodation with stunning marina views.
Facilities at The Shangri-La Hotel, The Marina include a rooftop terrace, an outdoor pool, day spa, fitness centre and free Wi-Fi. Guests can enjoy a meal at the in-house bar & grill or use the on-site barbecue facilities. A wide variety of cafes and restaurants are also available in the surrounding area.
The Hilton Cairns (pictured below) is a modern hotel located on the waterfront in the city centre. Facilities include an outdoor pool, day spa and fitness centre. The hotel is also located close to many of the city’s attractions.
The Rydges Esplanade Resort Cairns is a 4-star resort located on the Esplanade, with stunning views of the harbour. Facilities include an outdoor pool, restaurant and bar. The resort is also located close to many of the city’s attractions.
Below are just a few of the best hotels in Cairns.
For those on a budget, there are many backpacker hostels located in Cairns. The Cairns Central YHA is located in the city centre and offers a range of accommodation options from dormitory rooms to private rooms. Facilities include a swimming pool, barbecue area and tour desk.
See more: Accommodation in Cairns.
Cairns International Airport
Cairns is about a 20 hour drive from Brisbane, about 1700 kilometres. But thankfully there is an air port in Cairns. Brisbane to Cairns takes around 2 hours and 10 minutes to fly (and just under 3 hours from Sydney to Cairns).
The Cairns Airport is located north of Cairns, between the city center and Cairns’ Northern Beaches and is only a 10 minute drive from the heart of Cairns. The Cairns Airport is a 25 minute drive to Trinity Beach and a 35 minute drive to Palm Cove. Allow an hour when travelling between Port Douglas and the Cairns Airport.
The Cairns Airport has a Domestic and International Terminal, with shopping and dining outlets available.
Gateway to Port Douglas
Just one hours drive north of Cairns along some of Australia’s most scenic coastal roads is Port Douglas (pictured below), offering the distinctive laid back atmosphere of a beachside resort. Port Douglas has quickly transformed from a sleepy regional fishing village to one of Australia’s premier holiday destinations.
Cairns Weather & Climate
In Far North Queensland’s Cairns, the winters are moderate while the summers are hot and humid. The yearly high temperature is 29 degrees Celsius, with a humidity of 62%.
Summer (December – February)
Summertime temperatures in Cairns typically average between 23 and 31 degrees Celsius. Rainfall is most in the summer months, when the region receives an average of about 2000 millimetres of rain year.
Autumn (March to May)
Temperatures range from 21 to 29 degrees Celsius, where its still quite warm during the day and night. From April through August, the weather tends to be windy, although the rain is less frequent. The prevailing south easterly winds are expected to persist until October.
Winter (June – August)
Winter is typically the busiest travel season because of the decreased humidity and cooler temperatures. The average temperature is between 18 and 26 degrees Celsius, and there is little to no rain.
Spring (September – November)
Temperatures in the spring range from 20 to 29 degrees Celsius. This is the time of year when the dry season ends and the wet season begins in December. Coral spawning occurs every year around November on the Great Barrier Reef.