Top 16 Things to Do in Cairns, Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef

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You can use a boat to and fro Cairns Australia.

In your lifetime, if you make it to Australia, there is absolutely one place you should visit – the Great Barrier Reef. “Great” is just one of the superlatives that describes a coral reef system so large that it can be seen from outer space.

To experience the Great Barrier Reef, most people begin their adventure in the tropical town of Cairns, located in north Queensland in the northeast section of the Australian continent. Over the past 30 years, Cairns has grown from a sleepy hamlet for scuba divers and backpackers to a booming tourist mecca.

The most popular adventure activities include:

  • Hot air balloon rides
  • White water rafting
  • Helicopter tours
  • Ziplining
  • Skydiving

If you’re traveling to Cairns with kids, family-friendly attractions include an aquarium, botanical gardens and even a giant Ferris wheel.

Here are tips for navigating the area and my top things to do when visiting Cairns.

Essential Info for Visiting Cairns

Although Cairns was our destination on our recent wedding anniversary trip, visitors from North America and Europe start in Sydney or Melbourne as we did.

Cairns is typically the port of entry for most visitors to the Far North section of the state of Queenlands, but nearby towns such as Port Douglas, Palm Cove and Trinity Beach are all part of the metropolitan area and can be easily accessed by car or taxi.

To reach the nearby mountains that rise dramatically from the sea, visitors can ride the Kuranda Scenic Railway to the Kuranda National Park or rent a car to explore the Mossman Gorge and the Daintree Rainforest to spot native wildlife such as crocodiles, koalas and kangaroos.

Beyond the reef, Australia’s premier tourist destination has an embarrassment of eco-friendly adventures including the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Wet Tropics of Queensland which includes the lush Daintree Rainforest.

Although the Great Barrier Reef stretches south to just north of Brisbane, the northern reef near Cairns is considered the most spectacular and the most abundant in marine life. It’s no surprise, then, that the Cairns marina is full of tour boats, catamarans and pontoons that whisk travelers out on reef cruises to experience this world-famous ecosystem. Snorkel, scuba dive or peer from glass-bottom boats into the clear turquoise water. A rainbow of colorful fish and coral awaits.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Make sure to have Apple Pay, Google Pay or service on your phone to pay electronically for goods, hotels, taxis, etc. Throughout our two-and-a-half-week stay, we used the phone to pay for everything including transit, small-town gas stations and even the snack shop on the boat. The only time we used cash was to tip our diving and snorkeling instructors.

Scuba diving gears to choose from to dive in the waters in Cairns Australia.
Scuba diving gear on board a boat. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Get Out onto the Water (Safely)

As the departure point for most Great Barrier Reef tours, the Cairns Marina and surrounding wharf serve as the gateway to a wealth of aquatic adventures. The hub of water activity is the Reef Fleet Terminal across from the main pier. Looking very much like an airport check-in counter, the terminal buzzes each morning with scuba divers, snorkelers and day trippers checking in with tour operators before walking to their boats. There are also check-in booths for some multi-day live-aboard tours and the Spirit of Cairns Dinner Cruise.

Marinas adjacent to the terminal are home to boat captains offering daily fishing charters for small or large groups to catch barramundi, coral trout and red emperor. For fishermen, the scene heats up from September to December when black marlin can be caught offshore.

SheBuysTravel Tip: At stand-alone buildings in Cairns and at hotels, there are travel agents and tour operators eager to book guided tours and water activities. Don’t let them mislead you. These third-party tour agents only represent select operators. If you have not booked a trip in advance, visit the Reef Fleet Terminal late morning or early afternoon to find a tour that suits your budget and, importantly, your comfort level at sea.

The Cairns Lagoon in Australia.
Cairns Lagoon. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Swim at Cairns Lagoon (but Not at the Beach)

Walking along the Cairns Esplanade or driving along the miles of beaches north and south of Cairns, it may be surprising to see no one swimming or bathing in the ocean. The reason is simple: during the warmer months from November to May, the oceanfront, mangrove channels and freshwater rivers are infested with dangerous box jellyfish and stingers. A few beach areas have been netted to encourage swimming, but even those small sections warn of jellyfish and crocodiles.

What’s a tourist town to do? The answer: build a 50,000-square-foot saltwater “swimming hole” known as the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon. Open year-round, free to everyone, monitored by lifeguards and without a single fence or wall on any side, there’s nothing like this uber-popular man-made swimming pool at any beachfront in the world. The “lagoon” is open most days from 6 am to 9 pm and features public toilets, showers and lockers.

SheBuysTravel Tip: This is the busiest place at the waterfront, so keep an eye on valuables or use the lagoon’s lockers.

The Cairns esplanade in Australia
Esplanade. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Walk the Cairns Esplanade

Connecting the docks along the Cairns Lagoon is the Cairns Esplanade. What used to be a small series of boardwalks and pathways to the muddy beach along Cairnes downtown was redeveloped in 2004 with walking paths, playgrounds and public art installations. Whether seeking a spot to relax on a beach towel to soak up the sun or a scenic stroll to take in the views, the Esplanade is the place to be.

Sidewalk by Botanic Gardens. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Cool Off with Locals at the Cairns Botanic Gardens

Take a tip from the locals. On hot steamy days, cool off by walking on the sidewalks and under the palm trees of the pathways inside the Cairns Botanic Gardens. Nestled in one of the few hilly sections of the city, the Botanic Gardens showcase an impressive collection of rare and endangered tropical plants, as well as a wide variety of tropical trees, shrubs and flowers. Wander through the Flecker Garden with a stunning array of vibrant and exotic blooms or the Gondwana Garden with ancient plant species that have survived since the time of the supercontinent which connected Australia with Antarctica, Africa, South America, New Zealand, the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Peninsula around 180 million years ago.

The Cairns Aquarium in Australia.
Cairns Aquarium. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

See Sharks and Rays on Land

Not sure you’re up for snorkeling, but hoping to see the region’s marine life? Visit the Cairns Aquarium for an opportunity to discover the incredible marine life of the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. Visitors can marvel at the grace and power of sharks and rays in the Oceanarium and come face-to-face with saltwater crocs in the Wetlands exhibit. Witness the vibrant colors and unique behaviors of countless tropical fish species.

Buy art at the NorthSite in Australia.
NorthSite. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Buy Art at the NorthSite

NorthSite is a leading art gallery and fine-art retail space located within Bulmba-ja Arts Centre, a surprising hub of indigenous and contemporary Australian art. With over 30 exhibitions and programs for diverse artists and audiences each year, it supports more than 300 artists. It’s the only place to purchase original and rare Lino prints and etchings by leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.

Dine out or shop all night at the Downtown Cairns Australia.
Downtown Cairns. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Dine Out and Shop all Night

The Esplanade roadway and Wharf Street to the south resemble a mini Miami Beach filled with restaurants, noisy clubs and tourist shops of every ilk. The dining scene has quick, cheap places to eat or sit-down restaurants serving fresh seafood, Australian cuisine and international fare. For shopping, the Cairns Central shopping mall in the heart of downtown is a popular destination, and bargain hunters should make sure to visit the stalls inside the Cairns Night Markets and Food Court.

SheBuysTravel Tip: From Friday to Sunday, make sure to stop at the famous Rusty’s Market with 180 stalls featuring exotic fruit, vegetables and flowers, sumptuous delicatessens with fresh breads and seafood, plus the clothing and jewelry.

The Reef Eyel in Cairns Australia
Reef Eye. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

See the World from the Reef Eye

Dominating the Cairns waterfront is the Reef Eye Ferris Wheel which provides an awe-inspiring vantage point from which to take in the beauty of Cairns and the Coral Sea beyond. The fully enclosed, climate-controlled gondolas allow passengers to comfortably see the city of Cairns and the waterfront, rain or shine.

Take a ferry to Green Island from Cairns Australia.
Ferry to Green Island. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Getaway to an Island for a Day

Although there are more than 900 islands in the Great Barrier Reef, most are not inhabitable. From Cairns, there are two islands that can be reached by a 45-minute ferry ride.

Fitzroy Island is a Continental island so, like the mainland to which it was once connected, visitors can hike up a rocky trail to the summit to a rainforest environment or enjoy a day at the beach. Take the Fitzroy Flyer ferry to the island for a full-day trip away from the paved streets and muddy seaside of Cairns to pristine white sands. Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard. Snorkel the reef a short distance from the shore or walk to the popular Nudey Beach. For overnight stays, stay at the 99-room Fitzroy Island Resort or book a much more affordable campsite.

Another popular island destination reached by ferry is Green Island, where visitors can spend a half day or stay overnight at the 46-room Green Island Resort, which offers luxury accommodation. Unlike the neighboring, rugged Fitzroy Island, Green Island is a 6,000-year old coral cay with white sandy beaches and relatively flat walking trails through a tropical rainforest.

Want to splurge? Consider an overnight excursion to Lizard Island. You’ll pay a hefty price for a roundtrip flight ($1000 at time of publication in 2024), but the reef snorkeling and scuba diving here, including the Cod Hole, Watson’s Bay and the Clam Garden are epic. Read more about my experience in my review of the luxurious Lizard Island Resort.

Visit the Kuranda Koala Gardens in Cairns Australia
Kuranda Koala Gardens. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Meet a Koala at Kuranda Koala Gardens

Want to get up close and personal with some of Australia’s most iconic native animals such as koalas, kangaroos and wallabies? Then take a trip up the steep mountain to the tourist town of Kuranda, the gateway to the Atherton Tablelands. At the Kuranda Koala Gardens, the kangaroos and wallabies are free to interact with visitors.  Guests can observe and hold koalas to take photos in their natural eucalyptus tree habitats.

SheBuysTravel Tip: While holding a koala is permitted in Queensland, it’s not permitted in the rest of the country.

Observe butterflies in the Butterfly Sanctuary in Cairns Australia.
Butterfly Sanctuary. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Experience One of the World’s Largest Butterfly Aviaries

Until recently, the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary in Kuranda was the world’s largest. Here in Kuranda, visitors can observe more than 1,500 tropical butterflies as they flutter freely through the aviary’s boardwalks and gardens. In addition to the immersive butterfly experience, the sanctuary offers educational exhibits and behind-the-scenes tours of the breeding laboratory, where up to 4,000 caterpillars are “hand-raised” before being released into the aviary.

Two exotic birds in a native habitat at Birdworld in Cairns Australia.
Exotic birds in native habitat at Birdworld. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Feed a Tropical Bird

Birdworld Kuranda is home to one of Australia’s largest collections of free-flying birds, including almost 60 native and exotic species. The attraction features a large aviary where visitors can observe and interact with a diverse array of birds including Amazonian macaws, endangered cassowaries, rainbow lorikeets and more.

SheBuysTravel Tip: In Kuranda consider buying a combo ticket which includes the Birdword and other attractions. It’s a good deal if you are seeing more than one attraction.

Have tea at the scenic Kuranda Railway in Cairns Australia.
Kuranda Scenic Railway. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Ride a Scenic Railway

Winding its way through the lush Barron Gorge National Park, the award-winning Kuranda Scenic Railway is one of the most famous and long-standing attractions in Cairns. This historic railway line, which first opened in 1891, offers passengers a breathtaking journey as it climbs over the Barron River to the Wet Tropics of Queensland rainforest, ending with a stop at Kuranda. Along the 21-mile route, the train passes by cascading waterfalls, towering mountains and dense tropical vegetation. It’s a two-hour trip each way, so many people make a day of it, taking the train to Kuranda, shopping, eating lunch and visiting other Kuranda tourist attractions. There are two ticketing options with bench-style seats for a basic fare and more comfortable lounge seats at a much higher cost.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Consider booking a one-way rail ride to the mountain and a cable car one-way ride back down the mountain with this package.

Fly over the rainforest using a skyrail in Cairns Australia.
Skyrail. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Fly Over a Rainforest

The SkyRail Rainforest Cableway is a 5-mile gondola ride that begins near the Cairns International Airport. The ride takes passengers on an aerial adventure with stunning vistas of waterfalls, rivers and the rugged Barron Gorge National Park. The SkyRail experience includes two stops along the way, allowing visitors to disembark and explore the rainforest environment up close. At the Barron Falls station, witness the powerful Barron Falls, one of the region’s most impressive natural attractions. The Rainforest Station, meanwhile, offers a chance to enjoy the dining and shopping at Kuranda before returning back to Cairns.

Visit beaches such as Palm Cove by The Reef House hotel in Cairns Australia
Palm Cove by The Reef House Hotel. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Take a Break at Nearby Beaches

Decades ago, the only reason to stay outside of Cairns city was to drive to Port Douglas where a few liveaboards and day tours to the reef disembarked. Since then, quieter, upscale communities such as Trinity Beach at the Trinity Inlet and Palm Cove have sprung up in the area. Trinity Beach is a relaxed seaside village with family-friendly and moderately priced apartments for short-term stays. Although not exactly a hidden gem anymore, Palm Cove is an upscale resort with a surprisingly wide collection of sit-down restaurants located across from a manicured beach like Carmel or Amelia Island in the United States.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Both towns are a short drive from Cairns. Although a car is not required, the drive from a rental office at the Cairns airport is easy and well-marked. Be aware, however, you’ll be driving on “the wrong side of the road.”

Visit the Daintree Rainforest

A bit farther afield from Cairns, explore tropical North Queensland at the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest continuously surviving tropical rainforest in the world, dating back over 180 million years. Visitors can explore this natural wonder through guided tours, river cruises and hiking trails. At Cape Tribulation, walk along the pristine, deserted beaches, where the rainforest meets the ocean.

R.C. Staab is a New York-based author, playwright, musical theater writer and lyricist. His latest book, New York City Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for New York City’s Hidden Treasures, was published in Spring 2023. His first book 100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die was published in 2020 and is now in its second printing. In 2021, he walked the entire 139-mile coastline of the Jersey Shore from Sandy Hook to Cape May the book, generating more than 200,000 views on social media. He frequently contributes to New Jersey Monthly magazine and online travel publications. He is long-time member of the Society of American Travel Writers having traveled to 49 of the 50 US States and more than 60 countries. He specializes in cultural tourism, adventure travel and historical sites. His off-Broadway musicals and plays have been produced in New York, San Francisco, England and the Midwest. He is a two-time nominee for England’s Best New Song competition. He lives in New York City with his wife, Valari, and his dog, Skye.
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