Once considered little more than a convenient jumping off point for the reef, Cairns is now a fabulous destination in its own right. Don’t make the mistake of only spending a night or two here as you will find plenty to keep you entertained for much longer. There’s a vibrant new arts precinct, chic small bars, boutique coffee roasters, award winning restaurants, microbreweries, and plenty more things to discover in and around the CBD. Here’s our guide to the perfect 4 days in Cairns for travellers of every age and budget.
Getting around in Cairns
Cairns International Airport is a 10 minute drive from the CBD. The pedestrian-friendly downtown area is easy to navigate on foot and you’ll find shopping, drinking, dining, bars, and dozens of things to do just a short stroll from your hotel. A car is handy for day trips but if you’re mainly staying in town and doing a few day trips, it’s cheaper and easier to catch taxis or Ubers to get wherever you need to go in and around Cairns.
After you’ve arrived in Cairns, head downtown to your favourite hotel. There is no shortage of accommodation in Cairns, whatever your taste and holiday budget. Crystalbrook Collection has three impressive brand new hotels to choose from. There’s Flynn, a contemporary 311-room hotel with Coral Sea views and several signature dining venues. Riley is a 5 star resort style hotel and Bailey has modern apartments for those who prefer to self cater.
For something more affordable, the Oaks Cairns Hotel is located across the road from Cairns’ saltwater swimming lagoon and offers a choice of well-priced rooms. If you’re going to be out and about most of the time, the internal rooms at the Oaks are a bargain price for a hotel in such a prime location.
This afternoon get your holiday off to a chilled start with a swim at the lagoon which accommodates up to 1,000 swimmers and is patrolled by multiple lifeguards. For dinner with a lively vibe, drop into Boardwalk Social where the locals come to listen to live music and enjoy the cool sea breezes which float across the waters of the Coral Sea.
Pick up breakfast at one of the cafés in town before heading to the nearby Cairns Aquarium. This is the only aquarium in the world dedicated to the habitats and species of just one region and it is home to more than 16,000 sea creatures, great and small. General admission includes daily talks and animal presentations or you can upgrade to a small group tour like the Marine Life Encounter which offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the aquarium.
For lunch, it’s hard to go past Candy Café which dishes up some of the best café fare in town. Sauce Brewing Co. offers tasting paddles of beers with a local twist and generous grazing platters. For a unique souvenir, check out the quirky cans at the adjoining bottle shop. Down the road, Perrotta’s at the Gallery has a modern Mediterranean menu and you can browse the Cairns Art Gallery and its excellent gift shop once you’ve finished eating. For an afternoon pick me up, drop into Caffiend for coffee and a chocolate brownie or strawberry tart. Or both.
After a day spent exploring, a refreshing drink to quench your thirst will almost certainly be in order. Fortunately, Cairns has enough bars to suit every taste and mood. Some of the quirkier choices include Prawn Star, a row of prawn trawlers which have been converted into laid back drinking spots serving freshly caught seafood, and Flamingos Tiki Bar. This tropical basement oasis has glass windows overlooking the street and is like a trip to Hawaii without the jetlag (or the US dollar cocktail prices). Try the electric blue Maui Wowie or channel Tropical North Queensland with a Pineapple and Hibiscus Margarita.
It’s a short stroll across the road to the Harbour Walk boardwalk which is lined with an impressive choice of restaurants for dinner. Walk ins are possible at many spots but you’ll need to book for the likes of local favourite Waterbar & Grill Steakhouse which draws a crowd every night of the week. Whether you opt for a sophisticated dish like grilled prawns with African maize meal, pickled vegetables, and red curry sauce or a classic steak, you can’t go wrong here. For equally good steaks and a sophisticated date night vibe, the indoor dining area at CC’s Bar & Grill offers a taste of the outback with a dash of European flair.
After an early breakfast, a half-day Cairns river tubing adventure awaits. It takes around 30 minutes to reach the Mulgrave River where guides fit your life jacket and help you put on yellow helmets that make everyone look like a Minion. Once you’re suited up, it’s time to grab an inflatable tube and jump in the water. This tour is suitable for ages 5 and up and more chill than thrill but negotiating rapids in a red floating donut can be harder than it looks. Getting tossed out is part of the fun as the water is crystal clear and barely waist deep.
When you get back to Cairns, ask to be dropped off at Rusty’s Markets which is famous for its intoxicating mix of nationalities, international produce, and delicious food. Locals have been coming here since the 70s to stock up on fresh fruit and veges; out-of-towners mainly visit for the vibe, the food stalls, and to post colourful photos on Instagram. Don’t miss flower grower Heidi Piccolo’s gorgeous tropical blooms. Top choices for an affordable and delicious lunch include a locally roasted brew created by award-winning roaster Billy Haoda at Billy’s Coffee, a bahn mi from Thi Thi’s Cafe, and pretty much anything from Frenchies Patisserie which is located directly opposite Billy’s. Just look for the long queue.
When night begins to fall, slip down the red brick laneway 100 metres past the art gallery and into the sultry surrounds of cocktail bar Three Wolves. Book a table on Friday or Saturday nights or drop in early for happy hour from 4pm. The vibe is as warm as a Cairns evening and the cocktails wouldn’t look out of place in New York’s coolest bars.
From here, head up the road and take the lift to Rocco for another drink and to watch the sunset or go straight to dinner. Downstairs from Rocco, Paper Crane has an appealing Asian/Australian fusion menu with standout dishes such as vodka flamed prawns and sizzling chicken pad kaphrao. Around 80 percent of the produce at this restaurant is sourced within a three-hour drive of Cairns.
Book an afternoon flight home so you can enjoy one last morning in Cairns. A helicopter trip over the reef or the rainforest is a must-do if the weather (and your budget) allows. If not, there are plenty of other things to keep you entertained. Take a gondola ride on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway for a unique perspective on one of the planet’s most significant rainforests. Or, near the entry to the Skyrail, you’ll find the Australian Armour & Artillery Museum which is the largest museum of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Every Wednesday is Open Hatch Day with a complimentary 11.30am tour led by a tank expert and the chance to peer inside rare tanks. With so much to see and do in Cairns, you might need a holiday after your holiday when you get home.
Disclosure: The writer travelled to Cairns with assistance from Tourism Australia.
Looking for things to do while you’re in Cairns? Go white water rafting on the Barron River, take a day trip to Paronella Park and the Mamu Tropical Skywalk, ride the Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail, check out Cairns’ thriving coffee scene, or head out of town and spend a few nights at the luxurious all inclusive Mt Mulligan Lodge . If the weather is good, a day trip to Fitzroy Island is a top choice if you don’t mind venturing slightly further afield.