Cairns is one of Queensland’s best known holiday destinations and considered by many to be the unofficial capital of Far North Queensland. The Great Barrier Reef is right on your doorstep in this tropical tourist town along with a stunning rainforest, both of which are easy to access, and there are plenty of other great things to do in Cairns as well. This guide tells you all you need to know about getting to and from Cairns airport, the best hotels in Cairns, the best Cairns day trips, the best Cairns restaurants, the best Cairns tours and the very best Cairns things to see and do while you’re in town.
It’s warm enough to swim throughout the year in Cairns with temperatures ranging from a minimum of 21°C to highs of around 32°C in the height of summer. Winter is the most popular time to visit as the temperature, humidity and rainfall are all at their lowest at this time of year. You can expect a lot of families and higher accommodation prices during the middle of the year, particularly when the June/July school holidays are happening throughout Australia. On the upside, tours generally run at higher capacities at peak season which makes it easy to book activities on your preferred day. During the hotter low season months, some tours only run a few days a week instead of every day.
Spring runs from September to November and offers sunny, dry days with a low chance of rain. The weather starts to heat up around this time and you will often get early wet season rains in October, particularly in the later part of the month. The wet season in Cairns usually runs from November to April which is also cyclone season but don’t let this put you off. Summer offers bargain prices, no crowds and plenty of specials when it comes to tours and accommodation. Provided you can handle the humidity, the temperatures are generally only a few degrees warmer than winter and everything is green and lush.
Getting to and from Cairns Airport
The Cairns CBD is just under seven kilometres from Cairns Airport and takes around 15 minutes to reach by car. You can pick up a hire car at Cairns Airport or use a rideshare company such as Uber or Ola. These are an efficient and cost effective way to travel to and from Cairns airport and are cheaper than a taxi. The FNQ Airport Shuttle can be booked online and starts at $10 per person for a one way trip.
Best Cairns hotels
The resort style Riley is part of the Crystalbrook Collection and has stellar water views together with 311 rooms and suites, three bars and restaurants and a day spa. The centrepiece is a freeform 1,000 square metre pool with views of the Coral Sea. Chic tropical decor, a great location and excellent dining make it a top choice.
Pullman Cairns International
Pullman Cairns International was built in 1987 and has standard rooms which are bigger than the average suite. Each one comes with a work desk, internet access, a spacious Italian marble bathroom, and a private balcony. The hotel is within walking distance of pretty much everything and has a large lagoon style pool with plenty of deck chairs.
Flynn is a contemporary 311-room hotel that is located in the heart of Cairns with Coral Sea views from many of the blissfully quiet rooms and several signature dining venues. All that’s missing from the jaw dropping see-through pool above the drinking and dining spot Boardwalk Social is an inflatable unicorn. If you aren’t game to bare all in your bikini, there’s a second pool surrounded by luxe cabanas on level two together with an Eléme Day Spa.
Oaks Hotel Cairns
This 76-room five-storey hotel is located in a prime position on the Esplanade and doesn’t need its own pool as Cairns’ famous swimming lagoon is directly across the road. Room rates at the Oaks Hotel Cairns offer amazing value for a new hotel in the heart of the CBD. The casual Oak & Vine Restaurant and Bar on the roof of the hotel has excellent views, well-priced drinks and delicious share plates.
The Hilton Cairns may not be the newest hotel in town, but it delivers on quality and style with superb water views. With a prime location right on the waterfront and boardwalk, this 5 star hotel is less than a minute’s walk from the Cairns Marina. With flowing outdoor walkways and a lush tropical atrium filled with towering palm trees, massive ferns and creepers, there is no doubt you’re in Tropical North Queensland.
Bailey offers the best of both worlds with a choice of hotel rooms and apartments in the one complex. The soft green colour of Bailey reflects the eco-focus of the hotel and Cairns’ tropical landscape. Bailey features Australian artwork, with many pieces created by Indigenous artists, and has 255 guest rooms and residences, three restaurants and bars, meeting spaces, a pool each for the hotel and residences, and a 24-hour fitness centre.
Best Cairns restaurants
The Salt House at the Cairns Marina looks across the Cairns Inlet toward the Coral Sea, with views of passing yachts and sea birds. It’s open for breakfast (weekends only), lunch and dinner, and offers day beds for relaxing in between. The venue has an open kitchen with a big wood-fire grill, raw bar and seafood platters. Dundee’s on the Waterfront is a classy restaurant serving Modern Australian cuisine and bush tucker for those after something different. Mondo Cafe Bar and Grill has plenty of alfresco charm with tables shaded by an enormous Poinciana tree. Blackbird Espresso serve superb house baked treats to go with their excellent brews during the day. Waterbar & Grill Steakhouse 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.
Tamarind is the signature restaurant at the Reef Hotel Cairns and has won multiple awards and has a five course tasting menu with wine matching. Ochre Restaurant serves meals featuring Australian native foods and there are plenty of choices for vegetarians and gluten-free diners. For lunch, it’s hard to go past Candy Café which dishes up some of the best café fare in town. Perotta’s at the Gallery is popular for brunch and lunch particularly on the weekends. It’s known for its innovative modern Italian/Mediterranean menu and you can browse the works at the Cairns Art Gallery when you’ve finished eating. Paper Crane has water views and overlooks the Esplanade. The compact menu is a fusion of seafood, Asian and modern Australian with standout dishes such as vodka flamed prawns and pad ka-prao wok-fried beef. The beef is ethically farmed and more than 80 percent of the produce at this restaurant is sourced within a three-hour drive of Cairns.
Best Cairns bars
The Pier Bar overlooks the Coral Sea and has a laid-back tropical vibe that is perfect for evening drinks that kick on after the sun goes down. The Sailing Bar at The Salt House is lit by a wall of lanterns and has live music five nights a week from 8pm. Outside you’ll find The Deck Bar which is more casual but also worth a look provided the weather is good. Prawn Star serves drinks and fresh seafood on the deck of an original prawn trawler.
Boardwalk Social at Flynn is a buzzing local hot spot with live music, great cocktails, big screen TVs and a party vibe. Sauce Brewing Co. offers tasting paddles of beers with a local twist and generous grazing platters in the heart of town. For a unique souvenir, check out the quirky cans at the adjoining bottle shop.
Slip down an alleyway lined with cool street art and you’ll discover a boutique gin distillery, Wolf Lane Distillery, which doubles as a bar. Ask for a Davidson Plum gin cocktail recommendation and let the talented bartenders work their magic. You’ll also find the sultry cocktail bar Three Wolves down this lane as well. 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.
Flamingos Tiki Bar is a tropical basement oasis with 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.
Oak & Vine Restaurant and Bar on the roof of the Oaks Hotel Cairns is a casual bar with great views, well-priced drinks and a tasty share plate menu. For something more upmarket with an equally impressive view, there’s the chic Rocco on top of the glam Riley tower. Dress to impress and enjoy the sweeping ocean views and sparkling lights.
Best things to do in Cairns
Cairns swimming lagoon
Join the good natured throng at the saltwater lagoon on the Esplanade (‘the nard’ to the locals) which can accommodate 1000 swimmers. It is patrolled by lifeguards and security guards and is open from 6am and 10pm every day of the year.
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
Take a gondola ride on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway for a unique perspective on one of the planet’s most significant rainforests. Allow approximately 2 hours for the 7.5km journey and keep an eye out for electric blue Ulysses butterflies on the way.
Australian Armour & Artillery Museum in Cairns
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.
Stroll along the Cairns Esplanade and boardwalk
In addition to the lagoon, the Esplanade offers the Harbour Walk boardwalk for strolling, public art for photo ops, a bouldering park and fitness circuit, a craft market, restaurants, bars and live entertainment. It’s especially pretty at sunset.
Cairns Art Gallery
This museum of fine arts showcases work from Australian artists, including Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, as well as international exhibits. Entry is free. The gift shop has a range of tasteful and very tempting gifts, many of which are made locally.
Explore Rusty’s Markets
Rusty’s Markets 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.
Cairns Aquarium 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. Tickets and tours for Cairns Aquarium can be booked in advance and Cairns Aquarium family tickets are also available. 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 and Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre plus the chance to slip squid into the velvety soft mouths of sting rays.
Best Cairns day trips
Tour the Daintree Rainforest
This tropical rainforest reaches the edge of the sea and starts about two hour’s drive north of Cairns. Much of the rainforest is part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You’ll need a four-wheel drive vehicle to explore in-depth but it’s easy to cross the Daintree River on a cable ferry and drive to Cape Tribulation in a normal sedan. Daintree day tours are also available and an easy way to visit this beautiful region.
White water rafting in Cairns
White water rafting in Cairns on the Barron River is a unique way to experience the lush landscape and natural beauty of Tropical North Queensland. If you are a rafting novice or travelling with older or younger family members, this rafting experience is perfect as the Barron River only has a few Grade 3 rapids and they’re quite gentle. There is enough excitement to get your heart racing but nothing so big that it’s going to scare you.
Snorkel or dive the Great Barrier Reef
At almost 2,000 kilometres long and 80 kilometres wide at some points, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest living organism. Astronauts reported that it is visible from space. If you are planning on visiting the reef on a day trip, try to allow at least two days to visit the Great Barrier Reef. This will give you some flexibility to reschedule if the day you had planned to visit the reef is forecast to be rainy or windy. We’ve got some handy tips if you’re planning a trip to the Great Barrier Reef.
Stroll around Palm Cove
Palm Cove is an easy 30 minute drive north of Cairns and has a glorious beach and plethora of palm trees (hence the name). It is easily accessible by public transport or you could take a tour which includes some of Cairns’ top highlights.
Cairns river tubing
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 tubing 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.
Visit Paronella Park
Paronella Park is a rainforest-draped Spanish castle built by romantic visionary José Paronella in the 1930s. José was a local cane farmer who was inspired by childhood memories of Catalonian castles to build a turreted folly beside Mena Creek Falls. Most of the park is a ruin these days but with a little imagination and the help of a guide, the lichen covered picnic tables, delicate fountains and remains of a grand ballroom will take you and your kids back to Paronella Park in its glamorous heyday. If you don’t want to drive, there are some great day tours to Paronella Park.
Visit the best Cairns waterfalls and waterholes
Why visit a theme park when you can zip down a (free) waterslide in the rainforest? Cascading water has turned a 10m long sloping rock face at Josephine Falls into a natural waterslide. After you’ve walked to the highest viewing platform to check out the view, head down to the natural waterslide or have a swim in the pool at the bottom. Nearby you’ll find the Babinda Boulders, a beautiful creek and swimming waterhole. The easiest way to reach these spots is by hire car or you can join a day tour.
See turtles being rehabilitated at Fitzroy Island
Fitzroy Island is just 45 minutes from Cairns but feels like a world away. Along with enjoying the tropical vibe, hiking through Fitzroy Island National Park, and snorkelling the fringing reef, day trippers and Fitzroy Island Resort guests can visit the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre. This voluntary non-profit organisation is dedicated to the rehabilitation of sick and injured turtles. It’s easy to visit Fitzroy Island on a day trip.
Disclosure: The writer has been to Cairns many times and always enjoys visiting this tourist-friendly town in Tropical North Queensland.
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