Your Ultimate Guide to Cairns
1st August 2023
Cairns in a nutshell
There are so many things to do in Cairns, you’ll never have enough time to do it all! With the Great Barrier Reef on its doorstep, the oldest rainforest in the world only moments away, and a bubbly urban scene certainly worth exploring, Cairns has it all.
Home to over 150,000 people, the city was founded in 1876 and named after Sir William Wellington Cairns following the discovery of gold in the region. In 1903, Cairns was officially declared a town with a registered population of 3,500 and from here it began to grow rapidly. Today Cairns is a thriving tourism hub in Tropical North Queensland and gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest.
But European settlers were of course not the first people to inhabit Cairns. The Yirrganydji people are the original custodians of the land within Djabugay country which runs northwards from Pana Wangal (Trinity Inlet at Cairns) to Diju (Port Douglas). Before European settlement, the Yirrganydji people’s lifestyle involved hunting and gathering along the coast of the rainforest as well as along the beaches and river mouths. Following the arrival of Europeans, the region was used for timber extraction, farming and gold mining, meaning that Yirrganydji people were displaced from their traditional country.
Things to do in Cairns
Considered a gateway to some of the world’s most incredible natural treasures, many people plan a trip to Cairns in order to place themselves in the perfect spot for one day experiences, weekend trips and even once in a lifetime holidays in Tropical North Queensland. Home to the iconic Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest, a stay in Cairns is all about exploring the outdoors. And if some of the world’s best natural sites weren’t enough, there’s also the stunning Atherton Tablelands where waterfalls, crater lakes and rolling hills set the scene for hiking and exploration.
But even within the city itself, visitors are surprised at the amount there is to do. You’ll find brilliant cafés, busy markets, seaside restaurants and bustling bars across the city. The Cairns Esplanade shows off the best of the city, with its parks, restaurants, cafes and volleyball courts which summarise the laidback vibes of the city.
In this Ultimate Guide to Cairns, we share with you some of the best things to do, spots to eat, places to stay and more, whilst discovering this incredible region Tropical North Queensland. Regardless of whether you have a weekend or two whole weeks, our guide will help you craft the perfect getaway. Let’s go!
Looking for accommodation? At the bottom of this article, find a 10% voucher code!
Wander through Cairns Botanic Garden
A tropical paradise within a tropical paradise, Cairns Botanic Garden is renowned as one of the best exhibitions of tropical plants in Australia. Filled with tropical and native plants, the gardens are 38 hectares large and are maintained to high standards. You’ll see plants here that you won’t see anywhere else in the world! Your entrance to the gardens is free, however there are collection boxes around the gardens which you can put some spare change into, in order to support the park’s maintenance into the future. Learn as you wander, with the help of informational signs about the flora and horticulture.
Visit the world’s most ancient rainforest
One of the main drawcard experiences in Cairns, is Daintree Rainforest. Located in Tropical North Queensland, the 135 million year old rainforest is the oldest in the world. If that doesn’t persuade a visit, we don’t know what will! Over 1,200 square kilometres in size, the region is home to animal and plant species which are found nowhere else in the world. Visit Daintree with a day trip from Cairns and take a river cruise, or perhaps embark on a fantastic hike through the scenery. Hikes vary in length; anywhere from half an hour to half day options. However you choose to discover Daintree, you’ll be bowled over by the unique wildlife. Home to the cassowary, the Estuarine Crocodile, the Golden Orb Spider, the Goanna, the Musky Rat-Kangaroo and even Giant Tree Frogs, this place is a wonder for wildlife enthusiasts.
Admire rainforest views from a cable car
Don’t visit Cairns without a visit to Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. An iconic, ‘must-do’ experience in the region, the Skyrail here takes guests over and through the World Heritage listed Wet Tropics Rainforest. Hanging above the flora and fauna, not only will you capture out of this world views, but you’ll also be doing your bit to avoid harming the rainforest. Suspended in a gondola over the trees, you’ll be leaving behind no footprint. Built in 1995, Skyrail has promoted the protection of Australian rainforests for many years and it helps to educate guests on a daily basis. The cableway itself stretches for 7.5 kilometres between Smithfield and Kuranda, with 32 towers in between, and during your trip, you’ll reach 40 metres high!
Explore Rusty’s Markets
There’s nothing like a local market to help you uncover the true spirit of a place. In Cairns, this is no exception. At Rusty’s Markets, over 180 stalls sell exotic fruits, vegetables, flowers, breads, dairy, seafood and much more throughout the day. Coffee, chocolate and sumptuous delicatessens make for the perfect pit stop during a day of exploration. One of the best known markets in Australia, Rusty’s has been operating since 1975 when it had 6 stalls. The market is named after the late Emrys ‘Rusty’ Rees, who developed and expanded his vision into the thriving market it is today. Drop into Rusty’s – located between Grafton and Sheridan Streets – during your visit to Cairns and shop til you drop!
Visit Kewarra Beach
Renowned amongst locals for being quiet, calm and relaxing, Kewarra Beach is a 20 minute drive from Cairns CBD. A favourite for dog walking and fishing, the beach area offers a laid-back environment for days spent outdoors. During the warmer months, swimming is allowed within the patrolled area. At Kewarra Beach Resort, grab a pizza or some tapas and cocktails on the sand with views of the ocean. Otherwise, drop into the resort for some fine-dining which takes place amongst lofty palms.
Visit some local breweries
For many, finding a place to kick back with a cold beer makes up a big part of the travelling experience! And when in Cairns, why not find a place to have a drink where your beer has been made on site? At Hemingway Brewery, 50% of profits go towards the Great Barrier Reef Legacy, which means the more beers you buy, the more you protect the natural treasures of the region. Set inside a heritage-listed building overlooking Trinity Inlet, this cosy spot serves tasty brews with a great atmosphere. If you’re really into your beers, you could take a tour with Cairns Brewery Tours and tick off the list of Cairns Breweries with the help of a local guide. Enjoyable, fun and educational, tours with these guys will see you visiting not only breweries but also distilleries!
Wander Cairns Esplanade
Inside the city, travellers will find more than enough to keep them busy. A great deal of the best things to do in Cairns, can be found at Cairns Esplanade. A focal point for both visitors and locals, Cairns Esplanade is comprised of a number of restaurants, cafes, activities and sites. It’s frequented by those in all walks of life, including backpackers, locals, couples, joggers, CBD workers having lunch on the grass and much more! During a visit to Cairns Esplanade, you can visit:
- an aquarium
- Cairns ZOOM and Wildlife Dome
- Cairns Night Markets
- the Esplanade Lagoon
- countless restaurants, bars and cafes
However, if you’re simply looking for a stroll, head here during sunset hours and admire the setting sun with views over the sea!
Learn about local history at a museum
There’s much more to Cairns than untouched natural beauty and the Great Barrier Reef. In fact, the town itself is home to lots of attractions and it has a fascinating history. During your Cairns Weekend Escape, drop into a museum or two and uncover the history and essence of this fascinating Queensland city.
Whilst there are a number of museums to visit, including those covering maritime history, the sugar cane industry and more, a great place to start is the Cairns Museum! Offering a great snapshot of the city’s dynamic frontier region and its people, Cairns Museum’s vast collection reveals the memories of the people, places, events and changing environments in Far North Queensland. The Cairns Museum has five galleries. During your visit you’ll learn all about accounts of the Bama Traditional Owners, the sugar cane industry, tourism development, the benefits and advantages of living in the tropics, as well as the reef and rainforest and the weather! Comprised of both permanent and temporary exhibits, the museum covers a large portion of local history.
Take a dip in Cairns lagoon
When people think of Cairns Esplanade, they think of the lagoon! The perfect way to soak up some sun, Cairns Esplanade offers guests a safe swimming destination in which to relax with views of the mountains and Cairns’ city skyline. Bring with you a picnic, your swimmers and a blanket and you could be here all day! Dotted along the board walk, you’ll find plenty of BBQ facilities, whilst there are also lots of parks and some play equipment for the kids. This area is certainly a crowd pleaser, whether you’re visiting with family or friends.
Take a once in a lifetime trip to the Great Barrier Reef
It’s visible from space, iconic all across the world, and often referred to as a symbol for global environmental degradation; the Great Barrier Reef is certainly a international bucket-list destination. Known for its breathtaking beauty, visitors flock here year round to admire the world’s largest coral reef and abundance of marine life which comprises of over 3000 individual reef systems and coral cays. Hundreds of tropical islands and some of the most stunning beaches in the world are all found here. As a visitor to Cairns, you must visit the Great Barrier Reef. Book onto a day tour (or if you have the time a weekend tour) and enjoy activities such as scuba diving, aircraft and helicopter tours, sailing trips, cruise trips and whale watching tours. There are endless trips to choose from – you just have to find the right one for you!
Check out these top Great Barrier Reef Tours:
- Great Barrier Reef Cruise to Quicksilver Port Douglas Pontoon
- Great Barrier Reef Scenic Flight & Cruise Packages
- Premium Great Barrier Reef Cruise to 3 Reef Locations
- Great Barrier Reef Cruise to Reef Magic Pontoon
- Great Barrier Reef Dreamtime Cruise with Indigenous Sea Rangers
Enjoy world class beaches
Tropical North Queensland is home to some of the best beaches in Australia. The white sand, turquoise waters and palm trees make it look just like a Caribbean paradise. However, there are a few things to be aware of when heading to the beach. Firstly, between the months of November and May, stingers in the water require that swimmers wear full body suits and only swimming in net protected areas is allowed. In addition, crocodiles in the area mean that you must remain aware of the areas that you can and cannot swim. But don’t let this put you off! A visit to a local Cairns beach is highly recommended during a visit. Here are some great options for a lazy beach day:
- Trinity Beach – in northern part of Cairns where the water is calm and a stinger enclosure exists from November to May.
- Clifton Beach – north of Cairns, this is a wide sandy beach with a stinger net as well as picnic tables, barbecues, and a playground.
- Palm Cove – an idyllic escape packed with luxury spas and top restaurants.
- Green Island – a coral cay part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park World Heritage Area.
- Kewarra Beach – a calm and relaxing beach 20 minute drive from Cairns CBD/
Cafes, bars and restaurants in Cairns
Cafes in Cairns
There’s so much great coffee in Cairns and so many great spots to sip on it, at times you might feel like you’re in Melbourne. Below, we share a couple of great spots for a morning coffee:
Succuliving & Co
As the name suggests, Succuliving & Co is green and full of plants. Located just away from the city centre, the cute little cafe has a succulent nursery and a lovely little spot to drink your coffee. Hanging pots, cactus walls and sun-soaked seating is the name of the game here.
The Chambers Cafe, Restaurant & Bar
Trendy and architecturally interesting, The Chambers Cafe, Restaurant and Bar is located in the heart of Cairns. Once the National Australia Bank branch, this place was restored in 2018 and it still houses some great original 1920s features. Brickwork and steel beams make Chambers feel hip, whilst views into the street put you in touch with the busy city. Visit for great coffee!
Guyala Cafe is located on Cairns Esplanade, making it the perfect spot for a morning coffee in the city. Located in the non-for-profit Spinal Life Australia community centre, the cafe offers food which is inspired by indigenous ingredients. The cafe is owned by, Oliver James, who is actually a judge for the World Barista Competition! So you can pretty much guarantee the coffee is world class.
Bars in Cairns
Cairns is known for its laid-back and relaxed atmosphere, and its bar scene reflects its vibe. Whether you’re looking for a place to enjoy a refreshing drink after a day of exploring the Great Barrier Reef or the Daintree Rainforest, or you just want to have a night out with friends, Cairns has something for everyone.
Your drinking tour of Cairns should start at Hemingway’s Brewery – a local, independent brewery and bar that serves a range of handcrafted beers, along with a menu of pub food and live music. They pride themselves on their unique, innovative and artisanal options.
Want to relax after a day tour or discuss the day’s events over a few drinks? Salt House is a great option. Go and enjoy the sunset with a signature cocktail and a platter of oysters and tapas to share.
If you are up for some live music and a social atmosphere, the Conservatory Bar is the place for you. This bar is known for its wide array of wine selections (800+ wine bottles) from around the world.
Restaurants in Cairns
Situated on the ocean and with access to incredible seafood, but also located near regions of incredible farmlands and produce, Cairns is a great spot to try some tasty grub. Whether it’s tasting menus, pizzas, burgers or seafood, you’re in the right place for an indulgent stay. Check out our favourite restaurants below:
One of the most renowned restaurants in Cairns is Ochre. Inside this restaurant with a great sea view, find emu wontons and kangaroo sirloins, as well as lots of other Indigenous bush food. If you’re paying a visit to Cairns, you’d be crazy to pass up the opportunity to eat here.
Straight from the sea, onto your plate, Prawn Star is the best spot for seafood in Cairns. Grab a seafood platter and a cold beer here amongst a casual atmosphere of locals and travellers.
Locals just love Ganbaranba. Often spotted alongside a long queue, this place is where you’ll find the best ramen in the city. Heartwarming and affordable, Ganbaranba is all about super fresh noodles, iced teas and tasty gyozas.
SA Weekend Escapes Top Hotel pick!
The unique and peaceful Kewarra Beach Resort sets the scene for serene escapes in Cairns. Beautifully appointed individual bungalows and spacious suites here are discretely situated throughout the 33 acres of lush tropical gardens. Enjoy drinks on your private terrace with views of the sea, or opt for drinks at the ‘on-sand’ bar.
For more information about Kewarra Beach Resort, or to book a room, click here.