So you have your reef tour sorted, and now you are looking for things to do in Cairns for the rest of your visit. Beyond the reef, the region has a lot to offer.

Booking a reef dive is at the top of the list when visiting North Queensland, but it isn’t the only thing to do in Cairns. It would be a shame to travel to Tropical North and miss some of the best things to do in Cairns. So, if you’re ready to see more in this beautiful part of the world, here’s what we think you should include in your visit.

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So let’s go find some fun things to do in Cairns….

Our Cairns Attractions Map

This map includes all the things we have listed below. Click on the map to save it on your device for your visit. Each item also has its only location link in the list below.

Explore the Cairns Esplanade

Cairns Esplanade is a hub of outdoor activities and the go-to-meeting place for locals. The street dates back to 1876 when the landscape looked much different. Likely caused by dredging, the once sandy beach has been transformed into a muddy tidal swamp. The muddy banks are now home to thousands of species, including Australasian birds. To protect these animals while maximizing the area’s current form, there are viewing platforms and a boardwalk for the public’s pleasure.

Cairns Waterfront at sunset
Cairns Lagoon

Here are a few of the many free things to do on the Cairns Foreshore Promenade and Esplanade, including:

  • Travel the full length of the 2.5 km boardwalk, which is wheelchair accessible
  • Watch the kids go wild at Funship Playground and Muddy’s Playground
  • Pack a picnic or snag one of the free electric BBQs for a hot lunch with a view
  • Stay agile with fitness stations, bouldering park and free fitness classes
  • Take a refreshing swim in the Cairns Lagoon. This 4800sqm saltwater swimming pool is open every day except Wednesday from 12 pm to 9 pm.
  • Appreciate the public art with sea-themed sculptures in the lagoon and throughout the esplanade.

Where: Esplanade, Cairns
Google Map: View the map

Walk over to Cairns Wharf

If you continue to the southern end of Esplanade Street, it connects with Wharf Street and the Cairns Wharf. Cruise ships dock at the Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal for easy access to the city. The area around Wharf Street has been developed to provide more top things to do in Cairns.

  • Fig Tree Playground – a treehouse-style play area built under a giant fig tree
  • WharfONE Cafe – a popular local hangout for delicious coffee and cafe-style meals. Open every day from 7 am to 2 pm (except on Saturday and Sunday when WharfONE closes at 3 pm)
  • Hemingway’s Brewery – Cairns’ award-winning brewery with a second location in Port Douglas. Open every day from 12 pm to 10 pm.

Where: Wharf Street, Cairns
Google Map:
View the map

Swim at the Northern Beaches

As lovely as the Cairns Lagoon is, you may have been expecting white sandy beaches. Many beaches in Tropical North Queensland are inhabited by saltwater crocodiles and marine stingers, especially in the warmer months. But don’t worry, we’ve got you covered so you can cool off in Cairns’ year-round warm weather.

Trinity Beach Queensland
Trinity Beach

Here are a few patrolled beaches with stinger enclosures that are easily accessible:

  • Holloways Beach – 11 km from Cairns
  • Trinity Beach – 20 km from Cairns
  • Palm Cove – 25 km from Cairns
  • Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas – 66 km from Cairns.

You could plan a day trip from Cairns to Green Island and Fitzroy Island for more stunning beaches within the world heritage listed Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Shop the Local Markets

Despite the popularity of its reefs, Cairns is still a small, quiet Australian town. If you’re looking for things to do in Cairns that are livelier, try hitting some of the local markets to pick up Australian souvenirs, cheap snacks, and works by local artisans.

The first popular market you should try is the Cairns Night Market. It opens at 4:30 pm and closes at 10:30 pm, and runs 365 days a year. There’s also a food court in the market which is open from 10 am and closes at 11 pm if you’re looking for an easy snack throughout the day.

Tropcial fruit at Rusty's Market in Cairns
Buy the freshest tropical fruit at Rusty’s Market.

The second choice, but by no means inferior, is Rusty’s Market. A local icon in Cairns since its opening in 1975, it’s named after the late Emrys ‘Rusty’ Rees, who developed the market into the thriving food hub it is today. Now owned by Gilligan’s Backpacker Hotel & Resort, it opens at 5 am on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. This old-style farmer’s market is one of the most popular spots for foodies in Cairns and offers some of the tastiest and freshest products in Far North Queensland.

Where: Rusty’s Market – 57-89 Grafton St, Cairns
Google Map: 
View the map

Experience an Aboriginal Culture Tour

Learn more about the ancient history and culture of Tropical North Queensland from the Traditional Owners with one of these Indigenous-led tours departing Cairns:

Aboriginal man performing a smoking ceremony in Cairns
Pamagirri Aboriginal Experience at Rainforestation Park Credit: Tourism Events Queensland
  • Mandingalbay Ancient Indigenous Tours – guided eco-cultural tour and Deadly Dinners
  • Adventure North Australia – Traditional Aboriginal fishing and Aboriginal art and culture tours
  • Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel – a full-day cruise to two outer reef sites with demonstrations of traditional dances and the didgeridoo onboard
  • Pamagirri Aboriginal Experience at Rainforestation Park – Dreamtime Walk and Pamagirri Dance Performance together make a one-hour, award-winning experience in Kuranda.

Additionally, the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in Smithfield closed down in 2021 but is rumoured to be reopening with new owners shortly.

Where: Rainforestation Park – 1030 Kennedy Hwy, Kuranda
Google Map: view the map

Fly over the Great Barrier Reef

A bucket list way to see the world-heritage Great Barrier Reef is by air. A thirty-minute helicopter flight will take you over the city of Cairns and out to the most extensive coral reef system in the world. From your vantage point, you can see Green Island, Arlington Reef, Vlasoff and Upolu Sand Cay from above.

Green Island from the air
Flying over Green Island Credit: Tourism Events Queensland

Keep an eye out for marine life such as manta rays, turtles and whales during whale season (July to September). During the scenic flight, the pilot will be your guide with helpful insights.

Where: Cairns hotel pick-up and drop off – book your experience or find out more.

Board a Hot Air Balloon

For a scenic flight view, board a hot air balloon to see the lush Atherton Tablelands from overhead. The entire Atherton Tablelands covers 64,768 square kilometres from the Cape York Peninsula bioregion to the north, part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area to the east, Einasleigh Uplands to the south, and the Gulf Plains to the west. The landscape varies from the dense rainforests, dry savannahs, and wetlands.

Hot air balloon Cairns
Hot air balloon Cairns Credit: Tourism Events Queensland

The scenic hot air balloon ride will depart from Mareeba, one of the more populated towns in Atherton Tablelands. Along with a guided tour and panoramic views, you may spot wildlife such as kangaroos and nature birds.

Where: Cairns hotel pick-up and drop off.

Follow the Arrow Trails on Mount Whitfield

Outdoor hikers will be keen to hit the trails on Mount Whitfield, just 10km north of Cairns CBD. There are four fun linked circuit walks of various lengths, which can be combined or completed separately. All trails are moderate, with picturesque views and different starting points.

  • Red Arrow – 1.5 km return starting at the trailhead near the Botanic Gardens Visitor Centre and connecting with the Blue Arrow trail
  • Yellow Arrow – 1.9km return starting on Aeroglen Drive and connecting with the Blue Arrow trail
  • Green Arrow – 3km one way starting at Bel Air Drive and connecting with the Blue Arrow trail
  • Blue Arrow -6km return beginning halfway along the Red Arrow circuit. This track connects to a 400m sidetrack to the summit of Lumley Hill.

Where: Collins Ave, Whitfield QLD 4870
Google Map: view on the map

If you are not a local, we suggest reading our guide on Driving in Australia before you get behind the wheel.

Get Wet While White Water Rafting

Make your Cairns visit even more memorable with an action-packed adventure on the water. On this half-day whitewater rafting tour of Barron Gorge, you’ll encounter rapids up to grade three with moderate, irregular waves. This level is not too challenging for beginners while still making it exciting for those more experienced. In the Barron Gorge National Park, you’ll see scenic mountain scapes outside of the city.

Where: Cairns hotel pick-up and drop off.

Not sure where to base yourself when you visit the Great Barrier Reef – Check out guide to the pros and cons of Port Douglas, Palm Cove and Cairns.

Spot Wildlife at Cattana Wetlands

Cattana Wetlands is a crucial wildlife habitat for native species such as agile wallabies, black-necked storks, rainbow bee-eaters, and frogs such as the dwarf green treefrog. Previously used for sugarcane farming, the 80ha site, only 15 minutes’ drive from Cairns, has been rehabilitated into forests and lakes. The city council has also constructed walking trails, boardwalks, viewing platforms and picnic tables for visitors to enjoy.

Where: Dunne Road, Smithfield
Google Map: view map location

Visit the Botanic Gardens

Consider a trip to the Botanical Garden when you’re looking for things to do in Cairns. Cairns is a humid tropical wonderland for plants, and the flora at the gardens is different from anything you’ll see in colder cities.

Cairns botanic gardens
The new Visitors Centre at the Cairns Botanic Garden – Credit: Kgbo, via Wikimedia Commons

The Botanical Gardens in Cairns have some of Australia’s best tropical garden exhibitions. You can wander through on your own, take a tour, check for upcoming events like themed tours and talks, or grab a picnic basket, find a shady area, and relax!

Where: 78-96 Collins Ave, Edge Hill QLD
Google Map
View the map

Meet the Animals

Australia is known for its weird animals, like kangaroos and koalas. But did you know that Cairns is one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the world? It boasts a huge variety of unique Australian animals – from giant crocodiles and koalas to wallabies, butterflies, and endangered birds.

Meet this koala in Cairns
Get up close to these guys at the Koala Gardens at Kuranda

If you’re interested in checking out the local wildlife and maybe having a cuddle (not with a crocodile), here are the best places and things to do in Cairns:

Cairns zoom and dome
Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome Credit: Tourism Australia

Visit Some Waterfalls 

Cairns gets a lot of rain. Best of all, it rains in this area during summer, which means it’s warm and comforting. All that water has to go somewhere, which is why visiting waterfalls is one of the best things to do in Cairns. There are several famous waterfalls in the area, but if you’re in the Tablelands, make sure you check out the Millaa Millaa Falls.

Millaa Millaa Falls near Cairns
Millaa Millaa Falls

The Millaa Millaa Falls is one of the most photographed in Australia. Surrounded by lush rainforest, they’re close to the Zillie and Ellinjaa Falls and offer cool, clean water where you can swim. If you have time, bring a picnic basket with you and indulge in a meal in the grassy area overlooking the falls.

Water falling over Barron Falls near QUeensland
Barron Falls – Queensland, Australia

On the other hand, the Barron Falls is best enjoyed in the wet season when they’re at full force. The water is diverted for hydroelectricity during other times of the year, and the falls are much less impressive. The falls stretch over 131m from the Atherton Tablelands towards the Barron Gorge and the lowlands. At full force, the pounding waters are an awe-inspiring sight.

Ride the Skyrail to Kuranda

Kuranda is a charming little town about half an hour from Cairns. But it isn’t easy to get to. There is a road heading up there, but it’s narrow and kind of scary, with huge trucks roaring between the trees. You’ll have a much better time if you ride the Scenic Railway or Skyrail to Kuranda.

The Kuranda Scenic Railway near Cairns
The Kuranda Scenic Railway has been operating since 1891

The Skyrail is a 7.5km cableway station just 15 minutes drive from Cairns. The cableway soars above the thick rainforest of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Barron Gorge National Park. The views from the Skyrail are stunning, and it’s a much more relaxed way to get to Kuranda and all its charms. The cableway gondolas come in several varieties, including glass-bottomed gondolas that allow you to watch the rainforest without any obstructions.

View of Barron falls from the skyrail in Cairns
Skyrail Barron Falls view Credit: Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.

Once you’re done with the Skyrail, make sure you stop by the Rainforest Interpretation Centre to learn about the rainforest. If you have more time, take an Aboriginal cultural walking tour from the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway Barron Falls Station.

Where: 1671 Innisfail Japoon Rd Mena Creek
Google Map
View the map

Take a Tea Plantation Tour

A stop at the Nerada Tea Plantation should be on your list of things to do in Cairns if you enjoy tea. Located in the Atherton Tablelands, just an hour and a half from Cairns, Nerada is Australia’s largest producer of Australian-grown tea in the world.

The fields at the Nerada Tea Plantation near Cairns
Take a tour of Nerada Tea Plantation.

The plantation is spread across 360 hectares of lush, verdant land and focuses on environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable practices. While you’re there, shop some of the products, take a tour, or just try some samples and see how you like it.

Where: 933 Glen Allyn Road, Malanda QLD 
Google Map
View the map

When you’re in Cairns, make the most of your time. See some of the sites beyond the reef and head into the hinterland. Find some of the incredible things to do in Cairns that many tourists miss. When you head home, you’ll have photos and memories that few travellers can match!

See these day trips from Cairns for more information on:

  • Great Barrier Reef
  • Port Douglas
  • Cape Tribulation
  • Daintree Rainforest
  • Daintree River
  • Fitzroy Island
  • Tully Gorge
  • Mossman Gorge

Credit: Main image Tourism Australia.

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