Cairns is a city that was built on tourism, a place you’ve always used as a landing pad on the way to the Reef, the Rainforest, to little brother Port Douglas. But brush aside the backpackers and there are plenty of reasons to pause in Cairns these days – just a gateway no longer. Here are the places and experiences in Cairns that the locals love.
1. The tropical coffee quarter
In the past Cairns wasn’t particularly renowned for its cultured cups of coffee, but brews they are a-changin. Among the multitude of options, some good some not so, there are some great caffeine stops emerging.
Blackbird Espresso, along Oceana Walk on Grafton Street, leads the way, with excellent Ethiopian and Columbian blends. Try the scrumptious banana bread for a balanced binge. Blackbird runs coffee cupping events for budding aficionados, and the chalk board loyalty scheme is quaintly old school.
Nearby in the Melbourne-esque Instagram-haven of Graffiti Alley (also off ‘coffee quarter’ Grafton Street) is Caffiend. It’s a tight fit, and you may end up sitting on a milk crate, but it’s worth it for the chilli eggs and coconut latte (if you’re feeling bold).
Another notable coffee stop is the industrial-interiored home-décor-shop-cum coffee purveyor Frame Espresso on McLeod Street.
2. Off to market
Often the most obvious gems are right under your nose. On the surface, Rusty’s Markets appears to be just a place for fruit and veg, but has actually been offering a well-rounded weekend day out for locals since 1975.
Pick up papayas, passion fruit and avocados fresh from the Tablelands, plus there are plenty of crafty trinkets and clothes for sale in the 180 stalls (open Friday, Saturday and Sunday).
Make a breakfast and/or lunch in the food trucks, where you can slurp on a fresh coconut, sip some sugar cane juice with cumquat and sample one of the best samosas in town from the ‘Hare Krishna’ man.
A fresh-roasted coffee from Barista Sista and live music complete your laid-back morning.
Down near the Lagoon, local Torres Strait Islanders sell a nice array of local art at Cairns Esplanade Markets (Saturdays between 8am and 4pm), where there is plenty of other browsing to be done among the pottery and skincare stalls.
3. So many restaurants, so little time
Cairns has more food choices than you can poke a selfie-stick at, but, as with any tourist-rich city, the trick is sorting the gems from the rubble.
Dundee’s restaurant is the pick of water-view-embracing establishments on the Esplanade. You come here for the seafood and the view – try the calamari and apple salad for something fresh, light and different.
On top of Cairn’s ever-increasing Asian-food choices is the grandiosely titled Ganbaranba Noodle Collosseum in Bolands Centre, the go-to place for (Japanese) ramen soup.
If you feel like a step-up from a pub burger, head to Jimmys Burger & Co on Shields Street; the sole vegetarian choice on the menu, the Shroom burger, is a good one.
Collins Avenue in trendy and distinctly un-touristy Edge Hill (about 10 minutes’ drive from downtown) hosts a couple of get-away-from-the-crowds faves, including NOA for its share plates, coffee and quiet ambiance, and a hand full of other options.
Perrotta’s at the Gallery is a cultured choice for brunch; the crispy Spanish mackerel fish tacos are worth a bite.
If you’ve a hankering for baked goods, get in the car or jump off the Kuranda Scenic Railway at Freshwater Connection for Le Crouton’s baguettes, pastries, deli-style sandwiches and rye breads. There can be queues at peak times, but the croissants should take you to a happy place thereafter.
4. Drinkie views
Bars in Cairns are all about that view, so inevitably you will gravitate towards the seafront.
Local residents must have thanked their lucky stars when Salt House opened. The Marina Point restaurant and bar is a good mix of popular and chic.
The Balinese-style dark-wood and pool open-air design really suits the tropical vibe; while the grass area outside offers a good place to flop later.
The nearby light and breezy Pier Bar is a sunset worshipper’s haven with a casual, chilled atmosphere early on, even if it can get a bit overrun later in the weekend evenings.
Mondo Cafe Bar and Grill at the Hilton is where locals often go to show someone a good time and the view.
Taste a truly local brew, such as Two Turtles Pale Ale, straight from the source at Barrier Reef Brewing, open for tastings Thursday and Friday afternoons and evenings, about 15 minutes north of the centre.
5. Feeling energetic?
Thanks to the Esplanade, Cairns is a follow-your-nose kind of city. Follow the 3.2-kilometre boardwalk along the foreshore, but just remember, no matter how warm it is, do not swim along the seafront (crocs).
To get a little more physical, head to the Botanic Gardens and follow one of three walking options in the stunning Mount Whitfield Conservation Park.
The red, green and blue arrows offer various levels of adventure through grasslands, rainforest and to a couple of lookouts. There’s a 10-kilometre loop if you’re feeling energetic.
Need a little more adventure? Crystal Cascades is the best pick for a secret fresh water swimming hole in the rainforest with a few waterfalls thrown in for good measure. It’s about 20 kilometres west of town (follow the Redlynch Intake Road).