The gateway to the Whitsundays, the Great Barrier Reef and the lush Daintree Rainforest, Cairns is so much more than just a jumping-off destination from which to explore Queensland’s tropical north. From cascading waterfalls, epic whitewater rafting, amazing hikes and island day trips to historic railways, arts, culture and markets, here are a few of Culture Trip’s top things to see and do in Cairns.
Making the most of the tropical north’s great climate, the open-air Cairns Night Markets are a local institution. Open every night of the week at the Esplanade across from the lagoon, the markets feature an array of locally made products and artisan gifts and are the perfect place to grab dinner and snacks. Another classic Cairns market, Rusty’s is well worth a visit – especially in the morning, if you can brave the early start (5am). Operating every Friday, Saturday and Sunday since 1975, Rusty’s Market has long been a pinnacle of the Cairns foodie scene.
A true botanical paradise, Cairns Botanic Gardens have the best collection of tropical plants in Australia, including orchids, fruit trees, carnivorous plants and a handful of rare species that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Established in the mid-1880s, the Cairns Botanic Gardens make for a great escape from the city, with lush pockets of rainforest, waterways, ornate bridges, sweeping lawns and heritage architecture.
Right next to the Cairns Botanic Garden, Tanks Art Centre is one of the city’s most unusual contemporary arts and cultural spaces. Housed in three old WWII naval oil storage tanks in the middle of the tropical rainforest, Tanks Art Centre is a dedicated arts and culture hub and community space, with a visual arts gallery, along with theatre, music and comedy performances, and other events including Tanks Market Days and festivals. Keep an eye on its event calendar to see what’s coming up next.
You can’t go to Cairns and not experience the Great Barrier Reef. A truly unforgettable experience, and one of the world’s most incredible natural wonders, there are many ways to experience the reef from Cairns, including day tours, scenic helicopter flights, live-aboard dive boats and overnight trips.
Roughly 1.5 hours from Cairns, in the heart of the Daintree Rainforest, Mossman Gorge is a truly unforgettable spot. One of the best ways to experience its magic is by going on a Mossman Gorge Indigenous Dreamtime Walk. Led by Aboriginal guides, this is a truly unique and spiritual experience that shows you the ancient connection between the rainforest and the First Nations People, from medicinal plants and food to tools and cultural relics.
Thrill seekers in Cairns won’t want to pass up the chance to hit up one of Australia’s best white-water rafting locations, the Tully River. Cascading through the rainforest, the river is just as well known for its scenery and wildlife as it is for its adrenaline-fuelled fun. If a full day of adventuring on the Tully River seems a little too extreme, or you’d prefer something a little slower paced, a half-day rafting trip on the Barron River is also a great option, especially for beginners.
On the slopes of Queensland’s tallest mountain, Babinda Boulders is one of the best places in Cairns. This hidden swimming spot is popular with locals, with crystal-clear waters and lush jungle scenery. Just around the corner, the fast-flowing Babinda Creek rushes down through the rainforest, past boulders and into a series of waterfalls and plunge pools known as the Devil’s Pool. It is an area of important significance for local Aboriginal people.
The perfect place to escape the tropical heat and humidity, the Atherton Tablelands are well worth visiting when in Cairns. Part of Australia’s Great Dividing Range, the Atherton Tablelands are full of unique and fascinating sights, including ancient volcanoes, complete with crater lakes and giant lava tubes, local markets like Yungaburra, teahouses at Lake Barrine and Mungalli Falls and the Tyrconnell Historic Gold Mine.
Additional reporting by Cassie Wilkins
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