Often referred to as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is what happens when gorgeous gorges, mountainous rainforest and a seascape of reef blissfully collide.
The city is a dazzling playground of restaurants, culture and all the nature-fueled benefits that come with being set within a tropical paradise. Here is how to spend your time in Cairns.
As one of the seven wonders of the natural world, the warm and diverse waters of the Great Barrier Reef have long been a magnet for tourists. And the only pre-requisite to exploring them is knowing how to swim.
There are a number of reef operators who can take you out to the best spots. Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel is a unique and educational experience that incorporates the world’s oldest living culture into the tour. The guides will share the stories of their people, which have been passed down by Traditional Owners over tens of thousands of years – one guide is even a direct descendant of the legendary Edward Mabo.
Spend your day scuba diving and snorkelling as Indigenous rangers recount the Dreamtime stories of the Gimuy Walubara Yidinji, Gunggandji, Mandingalbay and Yirrganydji people, helping you gain a deeper cultural understanding of this diverse ecosystem.
Dreamtime operate a rare roving reef permit, providing exclusive access to more than 16 outer reef sites. This is a unique opportunity for both divers and snorkelers, allowing you to explore the underwater beauty of these exclusive locations.
Appreciate the scale and beauty of the Great Barrier Reef from above. Book a helicopter tour and allow the world’s largest coral reef system to become a swirling tapestry of colour beneath you. Gain a unique perspective on the watery home of over 500 species of fish, 500 types of coral, 134 species of sharks and rays, six species of marine turtles and more than 30 mammals as you fly over the shallow reefs below.
GBR Helicopters go above and beyond (literally) the traditional reef experience, offering touchdowns at floating pontoons where you can dive and snorkel. You can also extend your flight to swoop over the Daintree Rainforest, and tick off two World Heritage sites in one trip.
Located just outside Cairns, Tjapukai Cultural Park was founded by a group of international theatre artists in conjunction with six Djabugay men. The result is Australia’s most accessible venue to experience authentic Aboriginal culture and heritage.
See traditional Indigenous principles brought to life through dance, art and interactive demonstrations. The boomerang and spear-throwing demonstrations will certainly lift your heart rate.
By night, meet the Bama Indigenous rainforest people, who will perform at a corroboree celebrating Aboriginal Dreamtime stories. End the evening with a feast of native delicacies featuring kangaroo, crocodile ribs, damper and bush tucker; all of which are significant to the cultural and spiritual identity of First Nation people. It’s an unmissable experience.
A lesser known fact about Cairns is that there are also a number of incredible waterfalls to discover throughout the region.
Crystal Cascades is one of the most idyllic swimming holes in the area. Those who make the trip will find a secluded fresh waterfall, hidden in a wonderfully cool tropical rainforest. It’s also one that locals like to keep to themselves, so you didn’t hear it from us.
Right next to Crystal Cascades is Fairy Falls. The deep plunge pool is also safe to swim in and is only a 15-minute walk from the carpark. To reach this tranquil swimming spot you need to walk until the track forks and then stick to the creek. If you start to go uphill you’re heading in the wrong direction. You’ll also see various signs alerting you to the stinging plants – pay attention!
Josephine Falls is another option that’s located an hour’s drive south of Cairns. This gorgeous, deep green pool comes complete with a tiered cascade waterfall and ‘Slide Rock’ (nicknamed for obvious reasons). You can also find Stoney Creek Falls, a shallow swimming hole that’s perfect for kids, a further 15 minutes’ north.
The Kuranda Scenic Railway runs from Cairns to the nearby town of Kuranda; navigating 15 tunnels, 93 curves and an array of beautiful bridges through World-Heritage listed rainforest, past waterfalls and steep ravines. It’s both a charming and romantic way to observe the stunning scenery.
The once-commuter railway was first built in 1891. Since then, it has served as a means for both locals and visitors to conveniently travel through the astonishing scenery of Barron Gorge National Park. The 100-year-old carriages are each fitted with individual lounge-style chairs and offer a dedicated host service. Gold Class ticket holders are served a morning or afternoon tea made with the best Queensland and Atherton Tableland produce.
Tours depart twice a day from both Cairns and Kuranda and the trip takes just under two hours each way.
Feast on local delicacies
One of the major drawcards of visiting Cairns is the chance to dine at a number of highly regarded restaurants that are dedicated to serving up authentic Australian cuisine.
Prawn Star comes in a close second for seafood. It’s located in an old trawler in the Marlin Marina. Friendly locals serve up the day’s local catch in a more casual setting.
But when it comes to the Cairn’s dining scene, dinner at Ochre Restaurant is the real no-brainer. This institution is an award-winner many times over, thanks to Head Chef and owner Craig Squire’s ability to incorporate unique native foods throughout his menu. He is recognised for showcasing Australian produce to the world. Book a table at Ochre to experience it for yourself.
For those brave of palette, try inventive dishes such as salt and native pepper leaf crocodile, Daintree tea smoked duck breast, or an Australian antipasto platter featuring emu wontons and salmon green ant gravlax.
A great way to immerse yourself in the cultural fabric of any city is by visiting its major gallery space. To get your fix in Cairns, head to The Regional Art Gallery that is housed within the old Public Curators Building.
The space offers spectacular insight into the region through the work of both established and up-and-coming Indigenous artists from in and around the area. Through these wonderful creations – oil on canvas, ceramics, glassware, sculpture and photography – the artists pay homage to both ancient forms of artistic expression and more modern techniques.
Rusty’s Market transforms the CBD of Cairns into a hive of activity three days a week. Its 30-year history has branded it the cultural heart of Cairns.
Expect to find rows upon rows of fresh food, manned by stallholders speaking Italian, Chinese, English or Greek. It’s an energy that goes far beyond the selling of fruits and vegetables, but rather a meeting place where all come together, and people from all walks of life are welcome.
Drop in any Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. The markets are in the CBD between Grafton Street and Sheridan Street—just ask any local.
Take a day trip to an island
Spend a day exploring one of the many islands located just off the mainland from Cairns. Crystal-clear water, white sand, and all the secluded havens you could ever want in life are all within reach. The only problem is choosing which island to go to.
Fitzroy Island is a 60-minute ferry ride away, and a haven for water sports and rainforest walks. Stay a few days and hike to secluded beaches, or take a guided tour of the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre. It’s also an ideal spot for those seeking the traditional tropical experience without the crowds.
Another option is Green Island, an often-forgotten coral cay that’s too beautiful not to visit. Conveniently, there’s not much to do on this secluded sandy paradise. Spend your time basking in the sun, snorkelling off the beach, or exploring Marineland Melanesia. Here you can see the largest croc in captivity and learn more about the marine life that surrounds Green Island.
Those seeking solitude can head to Cape Tribulation – a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site where the Daintree Rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef. The jungle is hot and steamy, especially in the summer months, but this means that the soil is rich, well irrigated and perfect for growing bananas, mangoes, passionfruit, papaya and a multitude of weird and wonderful tropical fruits.