The Best Things to Do in Cairns, Australia

Fitzroy Island is an attractive tropical haven
Fitzroy Island is an attractive tropical haven | © Martin Valigursky / Alamy Stock Photo
Melinda Healy

It may be the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, but that’s not all that attracts tourists to Cairns. As well as having the world’s largest coral reef system on its doorstep, Cairns boasts the oldest tropical rainforest and a Tablelands region that’s brimming with nature.

Cairns is the only place in the world where two World Heritage-listed sites can be found side by side. As such, the tropical North Queensland city has plenty to offer visitors. If snorkelling and diving off the beach with the resident sea turtles, colourful fish and coral isn’t enough, there’s a glass-bottomed Skyrail that you can ride over the incredible Daintree Rainforest; the waterfront Esplanade with its own lagoon; and plenty of great culture and food to experience. Here’s our list of the best things to do in Cairns.

1. Stroll the Esplanade

Natural Feature, Swimming Pool, Historical Landmark

Cairns Lagoon on the citys Esplanade. The waterfront is one of the most popular locations in Cairns
Courtesy of Tourism Queensland

The Cairns Esplanade is perhaps the most frequented of the city’s attractions. Not only is it a go-to for active tourists and locals, it also holds historical significance: this is the spot where the first explorers dragged themselves ashore in the 1800s. With swampy mangroves on one side, cafés and restaurants on the other and a saltwater lagoon and family-friendly park area at its centre, this community space is a haven for birdlife and ideal for a stroll or family picnic. It’s best captured at dusk, which is also the busiest time.

2. Ride the Skyrail over the Daintree

Natural Feature

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. The Daintree is the worlds oldest rainforest, one of the best ways to see it is via the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
Courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland
Gliding over the world’s oldest tropical rainforest in a Diamond View glass-bottomed gondola is the best way to experience the beauty of the Daintree. The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway journeys over the MacAlister Ranges, offering one-way or return trips between the city’s Smithfield Terminal and the village of Kuranda. There are four stops on the 1.5-hour one-way journey where guests can alight and enjoy the scenery and abundance of nature the ancient rainforest provides. Barron Falls and Kuranda Village are two must-visit stops. Be sure to catch the scenic railway back at the end of the day.

3. Snorkel off the beach at Fitzroy Island

Natural Feature

Snorkelling - Cairns, Queensland, AUSTRALI. Image shot 2008. Exact date unknown.
© Travelscape Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Sheltered waters, the Great Barrier Reef and a diversity of marine life make Fitzroy Island an attractive tropical haven. Situated a 45-minute ferry ride from the CBD, this unspoilt isle is the best spot to snorkel or dive off the beach. Welcome Bay and Nudey Beach are the most popular sites, each boasting hard and soft corals just metres from the shore, and there’s even a sea turtle rehabilitation centre to explore. Whether you spend a day or stay overnight, Fitzroy is safe and warm year-round.

4. Beat the heat at the Cairns Aquarium

Aquarium

Underwater family. Cairns Aquarium has plenty of marine attractions to wow the whole family.
Courtesy of Cairns Aquarium
Home to more than 16,000 specimens, 10 ecosystems and 71 habitats across Tropical North Queensland, Cairns Aquarium opened in 2017 and became the first public aquarium to be built in Australia in 18 years. Visitors can interact with some of the world’s rarest animals and learn about the colourful, mesmerising aquatic wildlife from the Far North’s two World Heritage listed areas – the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics Rainforest. Submarine simulators, presentations, shark dives and Turtle Rehabilitation Centre tours (post-Covid) make this one of the most sought-after family activities in Cairns.

5. Picnic and swim at Babinda Boulders

Natural Feature, Swimming Pool

Babinda Boulders, a scenic popular tourist attraction and swimming spot, near Cairns, Queensland, QLD, Australia
© Genevieve Vallee / Alamy Stock Photo

This hidden paradise is at the foothills of Queensland’s highest mountain Bartle Frere (Chooreechillum), about 56km (35mi) from Cairns city. Babinda Boulders is a popular swimming hole and a place of spiritual significance for indigenous people. The Babinda Creek can be thunderous due to the high average annual rainfall, while the surrounding area is thick with tropical rainforest and lush with trees, ferns, vines, moss and lichen. Camping and swimming are permitted and there’s a sealed walking track and picnic areas to enjoy.

6. Visit the Doongal Aboriginal Art Gallery

Art Gallery

Yirrganydji Aboriginal men play Aboriginal music on didgeridoo in Queensland, Australia.
© ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock

With the world’s largest collection of locally made didgeridoos, boomerangs and an extensive range of other traditional Aboriginal artefacts, Doongal is the gallery to visit for authentic indigenous artworks. Passionate cultural art enthusiast Fred Nooravi teamed up with three Kuranda Aboriginal artists to open the gallery in 1993 and today it features as many as 150 Central Australian artists, 20 of them local and specialising in Aboriginal rainforest art. There are three galleries to peruse here and plenty of art to consider.

7. Relax at Riley on the waterfront

Spa Hotel

Riley Crystalbrook. Riley resort is ideally located on the Cairns Esplanade
Courtesy of Crystalbrook Collection

Crystalbrook Collection has joined the hotel block in Cairns, with two properties opening recently. In addition to its enviable position on the Esplanade, Eleme Day Spa and Rocco Rooftop Barand Restaurant are two good reasons to spend an afternoon at Riley. Eleme offers personalised treatments and five-star pampering for men, women, couples and groups, with the Eleme Voyages treatments considered the height of luxury. Rocco is the go-to for a sunset drink and light bite or meal. As Rocco is the city’s highest rooftop bar and restaurant, incredible views, vibes and great Mediterranean-style food are givens.

8. Learn about Aboriginal culture at Tjapukai

Museum, Park, Historical Landmark

Cairns, Australia, Aborigine men performing on stage at Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
© Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo
Cairns is the traditional land of the Yirrganydji and Yidinji peoples and the best way to learn about this part of its history is to pay a visit to the Tjapukai Cultural Park. Tjapukai has been sharing the traditional culture and traditions of the Djabugay people for decades and hosts theatre performances, boomerang and spear-throwing demonstrations, Didgeridoo playing, smoking ceremonies, bush tucker walks and evening experiences that include fireside corroborees. Although temporarily closed during Covid-19, the attraction is one of the city’s most popular.

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