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Top 10 Things to Do in Cairns

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Cairns, in Northern Queensland, Australia, is a tropical paradise with a great deal for the nature lover or adventurer to enjoy. The first activity most people think of when wondering what to do in Cairns is to explore the incredible Great Barrier Reef, which comes within 20 kilometres of the city.

Although exploring the reef and it’s dive sites is a must-do experience (which also makes our list, of course) there are many other things to see in or near Cairns, from cathedrals with a difference to culturally diverse food and extreme sports. Have a read of our top 10 things to do in Cairns.

1. Tour or dive the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling is the main thing to do in Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is easily accessed from Cairns than anywhere else.

One of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef is more easily visited from Cairns than almost anywhere else. Offering visitors amazing underwater scenery and some of the best diving sites in the world.

Arlington Reef and Green Island are the closest destinations for Cairns-based scuba dives, snorkeling tours and boat trips as they lie in an area 20 – 40 km from the town. These are just two of the 2,900 reefs and 900 islands that form the largest living structure in the world.

  • Location: Arlington Reef is 20 km east of Cairns by boat
  • Best time to visit: The summer months from September to February or March is the best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef as the water temperature is pleasant during this season. However, you get the best visibility from July to November.

This multi day reef and rainforest tour includes a day trip snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef.

2. Visit the St Monica’s War Memorial Cathedral

St Monica’s Cathedral is an attractive, modern cathedral, but the 24 colourful and unique stained-glass windows that wrap around the nave of the building are its true highlights. Created by renowned local artists Gerry Cummins and Jill Stehn and known as the ‘Creation Series’, the windows display a panoramic view of creation from start to finish. The old cathedral, built in 1927, is also worth a short trip around the corner to Minnie Street.

  • Location: 181 Abbott Street
  • Best time to visit: The cathedral can be visited during any season from Monday to Friday, 7am to 5pm, Saturday 7am to 8pm and Sunday 6am to 6pm.
  • Tip: Visit on a sunny day for the best effect, or on Sundays at 10 to hear the impressive choir.

3. Promenade along the Cairns esplanade boardwalk

Take a walk on the boardwalk to enjoy a free thing to do in Cairns.
A walk on the esplanade is a great way to explore the seaside.

Enjoying the vibrant and visually stunning esplanade is one of the best things to do in Cairns for free. Running through three kilometres of central Cairns between Chinaman Creek and North Cairns Reserve, the elegant boardwalk is crammed with free parks, playgrounds, barbeques and the ever-popular Boardwalk Lagoon swimming pools to the south. There are also a variety of bouldering rocks and climbing areas for more adventurous visitors. If your walk makes you hungry, try one of the restaurants around the southern lagoon area.

  • Location: Cairns seafront, by Lake Street
  • Best time to visit: If you want to avoid the humid weather, visit the site from April to October. Boardwalk Lagoon is open from 6 am to 9 pm everyday.
  • Tip: Enjoy fresh, off-the-boat seafoods in the cafes close to the trawler.

4. Discover the Rainforest via Cableway

Riding the skyrail is a fun thing to do in Cairns with a family.
Take a ride on the skyrail and enjoy a top view of the Baron Gorge National Park.

Situated in Kuranda, a short drive, rail journey or bus transfer from central Cairns, the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway allows visitors to explore the rainforest in Baron Gorge National Park from a different perspective. Departing every 15 minutes, the 6-person gondolas take visitors on a 7.5 kilometre journey gliding just above the rainforest canopy. Glass floored gondolas and open topped cable-cars with guides are also available for bolder cablers.

  • Location: Smithfield to Kuranda
  • Best time to visit:  Visit the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway in March during the monsoon to enjoy a lush, green rainforest. The cableway runs from 9:00 am to 3:45 pm
  • Tip: The cableway gets very busy, so book well in advance, especially in the high season.

5. Ride the Cairns to Kuranda Scenic Railway

There are lots of things to do in Cairns besides diving in the GBR.
Ride the revamped scenic railway through the rainforest.

Built over a century ago and running through some of the most attractive landscape in Australia, the Kuranda Scenic Railway combines scenery with style. What was once a mining railway has been revamped to provide tourists with a winding trip through the World Heritage-listed rainforest north of Cairns. It also snakes between hills, gorges and waterfalls — all while onboard attractive vintage carriages.

On arriving in Kuranda, there is plenty of time to enjoy butterfly and bird sanctuaries, heritage markets and riverboat tours, as well as the cableway mentioned above.

  • Location: Cairns Station, Bunda Street to Kuranda Station
  • Best time to visit: Visit the railway during December to April (or in the green season as the locals call it). The Baron Falls is at its best during this time of the year.
  • Tip: Upgrade to gold service for inclusive food and drinks in premium surroundings.

Check out this 4-day tour to discover the Great Barrier Reef along with a ride in the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and the Kuranda Scenic Railway.

6. Chill on Ellis Beach

Remote enough to offer relaxation and unspoiled views, yet accessible enough via the Captain Cook Highway to enjoy easily, Ellis Beach offers a place to relax and unwind in the sun. Just follow the highway North to Palm Cove or catch a bus. The beach stretches north from here for several kilometres. Keep your eyes peeled for wild wallabies, cockatoos and more as you relax. Just offshore, Double Island and Haydock Reef also offer some interesting diving opportunities.

  • Location: 20 km north of Cairns via the Captain Cook Highway
  • Best time to visit: May to September is the best time to visit Ellis Beach with June through August being the busiest time of the year with minimum precipitation.
  • Tip: Be careful of the many jellyfish when swimming. The Ellis Beach Surf Lifesaving club sections off an area with nets for enjoying the water from November to May.

7. Enjoy the coral reef from a boat

Ride a boat and enjoy one of the popular things to do in Cairns.
The Green Island Reef is a popular spot to view the reef.

The many Cairns tourist attractions include boat tours suited to all kinds for all budgets. Those visiting the coral reef are most popular and widely available, but visitors can also cruise along the glorious coastline and fish, eat or just enjoy the blazing sunshine and blue sea.

  • Location: Find boats in central Cairns or around Marlin Marina and the Esplanade
  • Best time to visit: Boat tours can be enjoyed during any season of the year.
  • Tip: We recommend taking an evening boat trip along the coast for beautiful views. Cheaper ferries also run regularly to Green island and the more distant Fitzroy island.

Check out one of our most complete boat tours of the reef in Australia's Reef & Rainforest tour.

8. Indulge in Extreme Sports at Behana Gorge

Ridges, creeks, and gorges make Cairns a destination for adrenaline junkies of all kinds. Of these, Behana Gorge is one of the best for climbers, abseilers and canyoners. You can even take a cliff jump, vibe off a rock slide or chill with a snorkel after an action-packed day.

Those interested in an easier going, but still challenging trip can take the hilly 45-minute walk to Clamshell Falls, enjoying the sight of the craggy, tree-lined cascade and the gorge below. The gorge is a thirty-minute drive south of Cairns, but tours are available.

  • Location: Behana Canyon, South of Cairns
  • Best time to visit: Visit during the monsoon from December to April, especially after a heavy downpour to enjoy the gushing gorge in all its glory.

9. Try the fresh food in and around Rusty’s Market

If you’re a foodie looking for a slightly different experience, you can’t do much better than Rusty’s Market. The huge indoor and outdoor space is crammed full of all types of tropical fruit and vegetables, often picked within the last 24 hours, as well as the area’s famous coffee and wine. These same products can also be tasted in the many fine restaurants that surround the market, which range from coffee bars, to steak houses, to Asian restaurants.

  • Location: Grafton Street, Cairns City
  • Best time to visit: The Market is open on weekends from Friday to Sunday throughout the year.
  • Tip: Plan on getting a meal at the Market. It cannot get any better with the variety of cheap, local and international meals to choose from.

10. Explore Daintree National Park

Daintree National Park is among the earth's oldest ecosystems.
Take a stroll in Daintree National Park and feel one with nature.

Although a little farther away then the other attractions mentioned, this UNESCO world heritage site is well-worth a visit and is one of the top places to visit in Australia. Daintree Rainforest National Park is best visited on a tour due to its size and environmental diversity. Twelve hundred species of flowering plants, eight hundred types of tree and hundreds of exotic creatures inhabit the park.

The park is split into the large Mossman Gorge Section of rugged tropical rainforest, and the smaller, coastal Cape Tribulation section. The Bouncing Stones Beach is worth a visit, as it is a spiritual place for the Kuku Yalanji Aborigines and a home for many bouncy ball like rocks. The Great Dividing Range also runs through the park, creating large areas of mountain woodland.

  • Location: 100 km northwest of Cairns
  • Recommended time of day: The dry season from May to September is a great time to visit the park, as the temperature is mild and humidity is down to a minimum.
  • Tip: We recommend taking at least a day to fully enjoy the park’s natural beauty and the numerous activities available.

Cairns is perfectly situated in the natural paradise that is Northern Queensland. Surrounded by renowned forests, lush farmlands and rugged ridges, not to mention the Great Barrier Reef, it is ideal for the explorer, foodie and adrenaline junkie alike. If this isn’t enough, there are plenty more things to do in central Cairns: modern culture runs through the town, from its two cathedrals to its lively esplanade and culinary scene.

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