It’s known as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, but the heart of Tropical North Queensland also has plenty of urban attributes to explore.
Smack bang in the heart of Tropical North Queensland, Cairns is known more for its convenience than cool: it’s the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics Heritage Area, as well as the luxurious holiday enclaves of Port Douglas and Palm Cove to its north.
But if you linger a little longer you’ll discover that Cairns is more than just a ‘Point A’ with its hip and happening culinary scene and a host of activities to keep the whole fam bam interested. Here are our picks of the city’s best places to eat, drink, play and stay.
Hightail it to Caffiend for your morning caffeine hit. Using coffee from local roasters The Tattooed Sailor and produce from local farmers for their menu, this homely cafe serves up a mean brekkie (chilli eggs, bacon and egg brioche, seasonal smoothie bowls and the like) while supporting local artists with a rotating display of art and regular exhibitions.
Address: 5/72 Grafton Street, Cairns
Ochre Restaurant is a no-brainer when it comes to dining out. This highly awarded Cairns institution is renowned for incorporating unique native foods throughout its menu and establishing what you could call a Native Australian cuisine. You can try inventive dishes such as salt and native pepper leaf crocodile, Daintree tea smoked duck breast, or an Australian antipasto platter that comprises emu wonton and salmon green ant gravlax.
Address: 1 Marlin Parade, Cairns
Apex Milk Bar
Sometimes you just feel like a big burger, right? Head to Apex Milk Bar, a longstanding diner that has been serving delicious feel-good food since 1960, in the same location! The beef burgers are made with 100 per cent Tablelands beef, the sauces are handmade, and the bread is baked daily. There’s also hot dogs, fish and chips, milkshakes and coffee on the menu.
Address: 24 Hoare Street, Cairns
Sun-dappled deck, bobbing yachts, mountains in the not-too-distant distance… The expansive Salt House waterfront restaurant is a great place to while away an afternoon. With a menu designed around local and seasonal produce, it features brick-fired pizzas, tapas to share, and a number of meats cooked on the custom-built Argentinian wood-fired grill.
Address: Marina Point, 6/2 Pierpoint Road, Cairns
Remember when jaffles were a thing? THEY STILL ARE. Jafflehead serves the simple toasty favourite with some pretty unique fillings. Try the El Chapo (Mexican spiced chicken, red beans, corn, jalapeños, sour cream and cheese), the Reuben (corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian mayo and cheese) or a sweet option such as The Floyd (Nutella, marshmallows, banana and puff pastry). But we can’t go past this basic option: Can O’ Worms (tinned spaghetti and cheese). It will have you dusting off that jaffle maker at home.
Address: 39 Lake Street, Cairns
The Conservatory Bar
The Conservatory Bar may be small in size but its chilled-out vibes, impressive wine list and charming Queenslander-style design has garnered it a big following. Come for a tipple, enjoy the live music and order one of its impressive grazing boards to share with friends.
Address: 12-14 Lake Street, Cairns
I’ve got 99 problems but beer ain’t one. With 20 varieties on tap, including at least 10 of its own brews and ciders, Hemingway’s Brewery has the beer lovers among us covered. Housed in a heritage-listed building at Cairns wharf with historical images above the bar and incredible views across Trinity Inlet, it’s a really cool space to enjoy a frothy and some great pub grub.
Address: 4 Wharf Street, Cairns, Queensland
Flamingos Tiki Bar
This place is kitsch cool to a tee. Hidden beneath street level, Flamingos Tiki Bar is all about neon, palm trees, tropical prints, hula girls and creative drinks flourished with fruit. Order a signature cocktail, such as a Daintree Daiquiri, a Flamingo Sling, a Shark Bait Hoo Ha Ha (go on, chant it…) or browse the extensive spirits list for your poison of choice.
Address: 43 The Esplanade, Cairns
Crocs and stingers – not the kind of marine life you want to bump into while leisurely swimming. Avoid them both at the city’s manmade saltwater lagoon with views out to Trinity Inlet (open year round, free entry). It’s the perfect spot to cool off with kids; there’s a nearby playground and water play area, a heap of open space for picnics as well as public barbecues to use, and a scenic boardwalk that takes you along the waterfront.
Address: Cairns Esplanade, Queensland
Rusty’s farmers’ markets
Boasting more than 180 stalls, Rusty’s Markets is the best place to come to browse the region’s local produce – exotic fruit, artisan bread, organic meats and the like – as well as international foods, jewellery, clothing and more. Open Friday to Sunday, this iconic market is worth visiting for the lively atmosphere alone.
Address: 57–89 Grafton Street
Oceana Walk shopping
If you’re a lover of quirky things then you’ll probably lose yourself down the little laneway that is Oceana Walk. This retail arcade is home to a collection of eclectic stores selling everything from boho-chic clothing to eco toys to vintage books and vinyl records. Be sure to stop by Blackbird Laneway espresso bar for a pick-me-up of fresh, locally roasted coffee.
Address: 62 Grafton Street, Cairns
Cairns Art Gallery
Get cultured at Cairns Art Gallery, the city’s only visual art museum. Housed in a heritage building, the gallery holds around 30 exhibitions throughout the year ranging from sculpture to photography to installation, with a strong focus on local and Indigenous artworks.
Address: 40 Abbott Street, Cairns
Cairns Botanic Gardens
Green thumbs rejoice. Just a short drive north of the CBD, Cairns Botanic Gardens is known as one of the best exhibits of tropical plants in the country. It also has an Aboriginal plant-use garden, a rainforest boardwalk, a freshwater lake and a nature playground. It’s a great spot to take the kids to stretch their legs and the best bit, it’s free.
Address: Collins Avenue, Edge Hill, Cairns
Cairns’ newest hotel, Riley is part of the luxurious Crystalbrook Collection and is a welcome addition to the city’s accommodation options. Understated luxury is the name of the game here in its spacious, elegantly appointed rooms, most of which have balconies. When it comes to food and drink, there are three options: a rooftop bar and restaurant serving a Mediterranean cuisine, a more casual modern Asian kitchen, and a clean eats cafe. Guests can bliss out at the onsite day spa, swim in the huge lagoon-style pool or manmade beach, or hire some of the eco bikes to explore the city.
Address: 131–141 The Esplanade, Cairns