Things to do in Cairns

Cairns is a modern city with a relaxed vibe, and makes a great base for a range of activities in tropical north Queensland. Although it’s best known as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, there are plenty of other popular things to do in Cairns.

As well as natural gems like the nearby World Heritage-listed Daintree Forest and Atherton Tablelands region, the city also has an exciting restaurant scene, rich Aboriginal cultural experiences and day cruises to picturesque islands not too far off its shores.

If you’re spending a few days in Tropical North Queensland and looking for things to do in Cairns, why not try these experiences?

1. Snorkel or dive the incredible Great Barrier Reef

The spectacular natural wonder of the Great Barrier Reef is a snorkelling and diving paradise, so it’s not surprising an underwater adventure here is one of the top things to do in Cairns.

Head out from Cairns for a boat trip of about 90 minutes to the spectacular Great Barrier Reef. Made up of close to 3,000 coral reefs, the snorkel and dive sites here are home to a vast array of marine species, including colourful fish and coral formations. Scuba Diving Cairns and book either a day trip, or choose to stay overnight for more time experiencing the reef during the day and by night.

Fish and Coral on the Great Barrier Reef

2. Visit the world heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest

The Daintree Rainforest just north of Cairns is a lush tropical region, part of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics of Queensland. The region is less than two hours’ drive from Cairns, making it an easy day or overnight expedition.

Cross over the river on the historic Daintree Ferry and immerse yourself in nature with the many hikes and rainforest tours available. Some of the wildlife there – from reptiles to frogs, fish and birds – are only found in this part of the world. They include the tree kangaroo, large cassowary bird, the sooty owl and Ulysses butterfly. A tranquil river cruise is your chance to spot saltwater crocodiles. For a more adventurous way to see the forest, try ziplining, four-wheel driving or a night nature walk.

3. Spend the day on an island near Cairns

The Great Barrier Reef isn’t the only attraction off the shores of Cairns – there are a host of beautiful islands to explore. Snorkelling, walking, helicopter and glass bottom boat rides, kayaking and paragliding are all on offer.

Fitzroy Island is one of the largest islands, with walking tracks through the tropical rainforest. Green Island is a small jewel of a coral cay, close to the city. Both are very popular with day trippers – but we reckon the best island near Cairns is Normanby Island in the Frankland Islands group – a real hidden gem.

Frankland Islands
The Frankland Islands

The Frankland Islands are a protected national park located a little to the southeast of Cairns, and home to abundant wildlife both in the water and on land. Frankland Islands Reef Cruises is the only company with a permit to take visitors there on a day trip, and only 100 visitors per day are allowed to safeguard this pristine environment.

The day starts with a scenic coach ride from Cairns through tropical farmland, a gentle rainforest river cruise and then a 30-minute crossing to Normanby Island. Once there you can snorkel, dive, kayak, explore the island with a guided walk and swim off the white sand beach.

Experts say the Frankland Islands snorkelling experience is right up there with the best outer reef dive sites thanks to its healthy coral reefs. Take a guided snorkel trip and you could see turtles, manta rays, giant clams and clownfish.

4. Experience Kuranda Mountain Village

Kuranda Village, in the heart of the rainforest, is famous for so many activities – it’s a real highlight to browse art and craft markets and village shops, with everything from hand crafted clothing and jewellery to Aboriginal art, cafes and restaurants are on offer. You might also want to walk the rainforest, jump on a quad bike or cruise the river to relax and admire the region’s natural beauty.

One of the best things about Kuranda is how to get there and back – one is the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway that takes you through the treetops, down into the forest through Barron Gorge, and stopping at Red Peak and then Barron Falls train station – home to the largest waterfall in Cairns, set among palms and ferns. Another way is the Kuranga Scenic Railway, a great way to see the falls and bridges dotted through the forest.

5. See the Atherton Tablelands

The Atherton Tablelands is renowned for is range of diverse landscapes, waterfalls and parklands, and for the rich produce locally available. Visit the farmers’ markets there to stock up on cheese, meats, fruits and vegetables, or visit a coffee or tea plantation and see how these crops and beverages are grown and produced.

The Atherton Tablelands features amazing waterfalls like Millstream (the widest single drop fall in Australia) and Tulls (300m high). And there are so many other falls to be seen on a trek through the misty mountains in the rainforest.

6. Take a sunset cruise

After a busy day sightseeing and adventuring, relax with a tropical dinner cruise taking in the sights of Cairns Harbour and Trinity Inlet. Spirit of Cairns is a luxury sailing catamaran offering dinner cruises four nights a week.

Enjoy the cool breeze and the views as you wander the decks with a drink in hand, then sit down to a three-course set menu. With regularly changing menus featuring delicious local produce, it’s the perfect way to end another day in paradise.

Spirit of Cairns dinner cruise

7. Need more ideas? Ask the experts

For more ideas on things to do in Cairns, ask the locals! Drop into the Cairns Tourist Information Centre and let the friendly staff recommend their top activities for Tropical North Queensland and beyond.

The Cairns Tourist Information Centre is handily located in the central city and is open daily. Whether you’re interested in reef trips, rainforest tours, adrenaline and adventure, fine dining or relaxation, they’ll have the best local advice.

Main image courtesy of Tourism Tropical North Queensland