The ultimate guide to Cairns


Zoe MacFarlane

Posted April 12, 2024

Head to the Far North Queensland holiday hotspot of Cairns, where the rainforest meets the reef, for a trip packed with natural wonders and adventure.

The gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is a year-round tropical paradise with countless incredible adventures a short drive away. It’s no wonder so many Victorians head to the northernmost part of Queensland every year.

With fabulous accommodation, dining, entertainment, and a variety of cultural gems, it’s the perfect base for exploring the spectacular region.

Use our handy Cairns travel guide to plan your perfect getaway, including the top activities, natural wonders, tastiest cuisine, and of course, everything to know about visiting the Great Barrier Reef. 

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Explore the beauty of the Atherton Tablelands at Millaa Millaa Falls. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
Have a safe swim at the man-made Cairns lagoon. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
Skydive across Tropical North Queensland. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
Discover a whole underwater world on the Great Barrier Reef. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

Best things to do in Cairns

Discover the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns

The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is one of the best places to visit in Cairns. There are ample ways to explore this natural wonder, whether it's in the water seeing marine life up close, viewing the reef by boat, or even by helicopter.

Boat trips are great for travellers who like to stay dry on a day out. Glass-bottom boat tours and semi-submersible submarine rides highlight the reef’s abundant marine life in comfort (and dryness).

If you’re game, however, snorkelling or scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef creates lifelong memories. Popular snorkelling day trips include Green and Fitzroy Islands. For nervous swimmers, a helmet dive tour gives you more security while you marvel at the vibrant colours of the reef. You wear a helmet connected to an air supply on the surface and you can breathe normally the whole time.

For certified divers, the Great Barrier Reef is a veritable playground. Dive operators offer multi-dive excursions, including to the pristine outer reef area. For more immersion, choose a Great Barrier Reef multi-day live-aboard tour. Cairns dive operators also offer introductory scuba dives and PADI dive courses.

Gain a bird's eye perspective of the colossal Great Barrier Reef on a scenic helicopter or seaplane tour. It’s an unbelievable experience to soar over vibrant coral, deserted islands, and the bluest water you’ll possibly ever see.


Great barrief Reef Cairns

Discover one of the seven wonders of the world exploring the Great Barrief Reef. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

Explore the city of Cairns

Cairn's Esplanade is great for sunrise promenade walks, to soak up the waterfront views, and for cool-down swims in the Cairns Lagoon. Plus, it’s croc and stinger-safe, too.

Those who prefer their marine life safely guarded behind glass can take a trip to the Cairns Aquarium, home to more than 16,000 aquatic species displayed over 10 ecosystems.

If you’re a fan of local fauna, too, stop by the Cairns Botanic Gardens. It’s considered one of Australia’s best places to see tropical flora, exotic species, and native plants. Entry and guided tours are free.

After dark, head to the Cairns Night Markets. After souvenir and local crafts shopping, grab a bite from the market’s enticing international food stalls.

Discover cultural Cairns

While travelling to Cairns, tap into the city’s rich cultural heritage. There are activities to connect to the region’s Indigenous communities, the burgeoning contemporary art scene, and the city’s multicultural markets.

Snorkelling and learning about the reef’s creation story is a way to enrich your day out at sea and add cultural insights to your trip.

The Cairns Regional Gallery is a brilliant space to tap into how vibrant and multicultural Cairns’ local art scene is. Featuring contemporary and Aboriginal artwork, plus local and international exhibits, prepare to be inspired.

You can also check the Cairns Performing Arts Centre schedule for their varied roster of live music, dance, and comedy events.

Horseback ride across Cape Tribulation. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

Horseback ride across Cape Tribulation. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

Best places to eat and drink in Cairns

As a multicultural hub, Cairns has a diverse range of cafés, restaurants, and bars to entice. The city’s coastal location means fresh seafood is on most menus, including mud crabs, barramundi, coral trout, and prawns. 

Walk the Cairns Esplanade to Marlin Marina to be spoilt for choice with delectable waterfront restaurants. Standouts include Dundee’s Restaurant and Salt House, and for casual dining, Prawn Star.  

Enjoy the abundance of Far North Queensland’s native ingredients at select restaurants. Discover kangaroo, emu, or crocodile on the menu, as well as inspired meals using bush foods. Award-winning Ochre Restaurant is a standout for its adventurous twist on local flavours. 

Nu Nu Restaurant, in Palm Cove 30 minutes north of Cairns, wows with its tropical flavours and beachfront locale. For fine dining - and the only hatted restaurant in Cairns - head to Tamarind for delectable Thai cuisine.  

Cairns also has impressive bars, breweries, and distilleries. The panoramic 12th-floor views and signature cocktails at Rocco impress, or for a sunset beachside tipple, stop by the Beach Shack on Kewarra Beach. Wolf Lane Distillery infuses native ingredients in their bespoke gins, while beer lovers can enjoy a walking tour of Cairns’ microbreweries.

Kurandra markets

Head to Kuranda to visit the local markets and try the Skyrail and Scenic Railway. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland/ Tourism Tropical North Queensland

Best day trips from Cairns

Cairn is the gateway to Far North Queensland’s ancient rainforests, hinterland gems, lush national parks, and gorgeous beaches.

Explore the Daintree Rainforest

The World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest makes for a mesmerising day out, thanks to its unique flora and fauna. For fast access to self-guided trails and Dreamtime walks, Mossman Gorge is only an hour from Cairns with frequent shuttles. 

Alternatively, drive to the Daintree Rainforest Discovery Centre for treetop and canopy walks, as well as guided tours. If time allows, you can also explore Cape Tribulation, where viewing the rainforest and the reef in one location can be truly breathtaking. Walk the trails, snorkel, go jungle surfing or book a horse ride.

Head to the beaches close to Cairns

While Cairns centre doesn’t have any beaches to swim, some of the best beaches in Australia are on its doorstep. Nearby Port Douglas has the famous white sand and crystal clear waters of Four Mile Beach. 

To the south, Etty Bay is famous for wandering cassowary birds, and you can also hop on a ferry to Fitzroy Island to explore the trail and enjoy island life. 

Visit the towns close to Cairns

Inland from Cairns, Atherton Tablelands and Kuranda make for a fun-filled day out. Atherton Tablelands has charming towns, tasty produce, and spectacular natural wonders like the Millaa Millaa Falls.

At quirky Kurunda, enjoy epic views on the Kuranda Skyrail and the Scenic Railway, and visit the heritage markets from Wednesdays to Sundays. The refreshing rockpools at Josephine Falls and Babinda Boulders are idyllic on a hot Cairns Day, with both under an hour’s drive from town.


Cairns is the gateway to beautiful beaches and water activities. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
Soaring the skies with Skypark Cairns. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
See creatures of the sea up close at Cairns Aquarium. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
A trip along the Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

Best accommodation and transport in Cairns

Travelling to Cairns is effortless, with regular direct flights from Melbourne to Cairns, and the destination airport only eight minutes from the town centre.

Basing yourself in Cairns without transport is easy, however, if you’re looking to take day trips during your stay, you can consider renting a car, campervan or RV. 

Alternatively, there are plenty of organised Far North Queensland tours for maximum effort-free travel.