The Top Things to See and Do in Cairns, Australia

Hire a kayak and enjoy some of the best views of Fitzroy Island
Hire a kayak and enjoy some of the best views of Fitzroy Island | © Jon Arnold Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Alice Duffield
27 August 2020

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.

Cairns Night Markets and Rusty’s Market

Market
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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.

Cairns Botanic Gardens

Botanical Garden
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Zhanjiang Chinese Friendship Pavilion in Cairns Botanic Gardens, Edge Hill, Far North Queensland, FNQ, QLD, Australia
© Genevieve Vallee / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Tanks Art Centre

Art Gallery
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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.

Kuranda Scenic Railway

Train Station
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Kuranda Scenic Railway, Australia
© Megapress / Alamy Stock Photo
Built between 1886 and 1891, the Kuranda Scenic Railway runs from Cairns to the historic town of Kuranda, over the Macalister Range and through the Barron Gorge National Park, passing by plunging waterfalls and through ancient rainforests. Although the train journey is spectacular, Kuranda is a tourist attraction in its own right, known for its alternative, bohemian vibe, as well as the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, Kuranda Koala Gardens and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, to name just a few.

The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

Natural Feature
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Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Cairns, Queensland, Australia
© Ozimages / Alamy Stock Photo
The ideal way to explore the Barron Gorge National Park – especially when combined with a trip on the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway – the Rainforest Skyrail is by far one of the best things to see and do in Cairns. Offering a truly unique view of the world’s oldest rainforest and its incredibly diverse ecosystem, the Skyrail slowly ascends above the canopy, past the magnificent Barrons Gorge, and onto Kuranda. The trip includes a quick stop in the Rainforest Discovery Zone, where you can go on a guided tour of the jungle boardwalks.

The Great Barrier Reef

Natural Feature
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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.

Sea Kayak on Fitzroy Island

Natural Feature
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If you are an outdoorsy person and love getting your heart pumping on holiday, take a day trip over to Fitzroy Island. Here, you can hire a kayak and enjoy some of the best views of the island while getting a great workout. If kayaking isn’t for you, that’s alright too, Fitzroy Island has plenty of other activities on offer, including hiking to scenic lookouts, snorkelling the colourful reefs and relaxing on some of Australia’s most picture-perfect beaches.

Mossman Gorge, Daintree Rainforest

Natural Feature
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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.

Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park

Museum, Park, Historical Landmark
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Aborigines are performing in the Tjapukai Dance Theatre in the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in Cairns (Queensland), Australia. (undated picture)
© dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo
Just outside the city, Tjapukai Aboriginal Culture Park was established in 1987 as a way of preserving and sharing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and traditions. One of the most interesting places to visit in Cairns, Tjapukai’s attractions include Dreamtime performances and dancing, fire-making ceremonies, art workshops, guided bush walks through the jungle and learning about traditional hunting methods including throwing spears and boomerangs.

White Water Rafting

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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.

Babinda Boulders and Devil’s Pool

Natural Feature, Swimming Pool
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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 Atherton Tablelands

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Millaa Millaa Falls, Atherton Tablelands, Queensland, Australia, Pacific
© robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

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

These recommendations were updated on August 27, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.