Top 10 Things to do in Cairns, QLD

Cairns has fast become perhaps Australia’s most popular sunny getaway destination, and with its location on the northern Queensland coastline boasting great weather and proximity to both the stunning Great Barrier Reef and a short drive from the likes of the Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation and more, it’s not hard to see why.

Couple this with a reputation for adventure experiences and solid nightlife and dining scenes to boot and Cairns has pretty much everything one could want when looking for a tropical escape in Australia. But with such a wide array of options for how to spend your time in Cairns, what exactly are the best things to do?

Here, we break down our list of the Top 10 Things to do in Cairns and surrounds based on a combination of customer feedback, staff input and advice from locals and other people in-the-know.

10. Enjoy the Nightlife

Location: Various locales around Spence, Grafton and Sheridan Streets, Cairns, QLD.

You don’t have to leave the city to have a good time in Cairns; while most people will travel here for the sightseeing there’s an equal amount of fun to be had at the numerous pubs, bars and nightclubs that can draw hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world in to enjoy some entertainment after dark. There’s a reason why Cairns was listed in our Top 3 Destinations to Visit in your 20’s – the fact that it’s so easy to access the spectacular Great Barrier Reef combined with an energetic nightlife scene makes it the obvious choice for younger adventure seekers who’d rather stay local than make the tiring flight abroad.

It’s thus extremely popular with backpackers and has a lineup of pumping clubs and bars oriented around this market – if you’re on the youngish edge of the scale you’ll have plenty of opportunities to let loose. The majority of Cairns’ nightlife takes place in the city centre oriented around the popular dining and drinking hubs of Grafton and Shields Streets – and it’s here that the city is at its most raucous, with multiple venues offering night experiences that carry on into the wee hours of the morning.

Given the nightlife district’s relatively compact size it makes venue-hopping an easy and viable experience.

Your choice of Cairns nightlife venues will likely depend on what kind if night you’re after. International DJ’s often play at the Velvet Underground at Reef Hotel Casino; international backpackers tend to love The Woolshed, Gilligan’s or The Heritage, while those wanting to knock back a beer or three can head to pub/clubs such as The Jack or the Pier Bar. Simply put, if you stick to the areas around Spence Street, Grafton Street and Sheridan Street you’ll be spoiled for choice. Given the nightlife district’s relatively compact size it makes venue-hopping an easy and viable experience.

Cairns clubs have a 3 am lockout time, so be sure you’ve chosen the venue you want to stay in until sunrise as you’ll be denied entry when trying to enter thereafter. Despite the rowdy nature of some of Cairns’ nightlife scene, it’s generally quite a safe party city and the closeness of most accommodation in the city helps to keep both the cab prices and associated headaches to a minimum.

9. The Cairns Botanic Gardens

Location: Collins Avenue, Edge Hill, Cairns, QLD

Australia’s sheer size as an entire continent means that scenery changes drastically from north to south, east to west, and this is doubly true as far as the country’s plant life is concerned. Cairns’ tropical location means that the flora you’ll encounter while in the region is a stark contrast to that on offer in the likes of Sydney, Melbourne or Hobart with their colder and drier climates. There are few better ways to get a firsthand taste of this than at the Cairns Botanic Gardens. Sitting just outside the centre of Cairns, this highly accessible, expansive display of tropical plant life makes for a pleasant and free way to pass a few hours in the city or take a much-needed break.

Officially called Flecker Botanic Gardens, the Cairns Botanic Gardens are home to a huge number of unusual plant varieties that you’ve likely never seen before. Tropical flowers give off a wilder, primaeval atmosphere that differs greatly from the standard manicured carnations and roses of other similar facilities and it’s a great way to step back in time a few hundred thousand years.

Cairns’ tropical location means that the flora you’ll encounter while in the region is a stark contrast to that on offer in the likes of Sydney, Melbourne or Hobart.

Their bloom colours are likewise quite unorthodox and vibrant; oranges and purple-reds sum up the tropics in a nutshell, while large, bright-blue Ulysses butterflies can often be seen flitting from plant to plant and adding their own hues to the proceedings. Other sights such as insect-eating plants, a bamboo garden and plenty of lakes and waterways are a constant reminder that you’re not in the Sydney CBD anymore.

The Cairns Botanic Gardens are exceptionally well-maintained by their passionate grounds staff, which is admirable as a place with flora as wild as this could soon grow out of control. The gardens feature plenty of little secret, hidden walkways that take visitors to secluded, shaded areas of the facility and help to extend what may otherwise only be a 1-hour affair into an adventure that lasts just as long as you’re willing to follow them. Couple this with a couple of lovely little cafes to grab a bite to eat or a coffee to enjoy while exploring, and it’s a veritable oasis in the middle of the city. Insect repellent is also a must when visiting, it’s the tropics, after all, and mosquitoes and other 6 legged friends can make things less pleasant. Repellent is supplied free of charge by the gardens, so be sure to cover yourself before commencing your exploration on muggy days.

Regular buses run to the Botanic gardens from the Cairns city centre, departing roughly every 25 minutes. So if you’re a nature enthusiast or simply looking for a way to get away from other, more touristy affairs for a while, it’s a spot that’s both enjoyable, relaxed and easy to visit while in Cairns.

8. Go Hot Air Ballooning with HotAir Cairns

Location: 1 Spence St, Cairns, QLD

It’s a common sight to view the Great Barrier Reef with your head under the water, but one of the more underrated ways to take in the full vastness of its scale is, coincidentally, from high above instead. A hot air balloon flight with operator Hot Air Cairns can provide you with a tranquil and stunning viewpoint that few other sightseeing opportunities can match. The combination of clear morning skies and the slow, drifting serenity of a balloon flight allows ample time to grab panoramic photos and memories that are much harder to obtain doing anything else. Hot air ballooning is an eerily peaceful experience; other than the volume of passenger/pilot’s voices and the occasional bursts of heat directed into the balloon. The silence creates one of the most mesmerising atmospheres to simply revel in the wonder of the Queensland landscape undisturbed.

Cairns makes for a special hot air ballooning destination due to the tapestry of colours that come with a location that straddles the best of both rainforest and reef. The vivid greens and earthy colours of the Atherton Tablelands clash brilliantly with the vibrant blues of the surrounding ocean to form a spectacular view, particularly as the glow of the sunrise spreads out over the land below. Kangaroos and other Aussie wildlife can also often be seen on the ground in this region, adding an extra Australian touch to the proceedings.

Cairns makes for a special hot air ballooning destination due to the tapestry of colours that come with a spectacular location that straddles the best of both rainforest and reef.

Options for balloon rides come in both 30 minute and 1-hour flavours, which both include return transfers from Cairns accommodation, with your length of flight choice almost entirely coming down to budget. Luxury options including deluxe transfers and breakfast packages are also available for those looking to indulge. When coupled with the scenery on offer it makes for a highly popular package for celebrating special occasions such as anniversaries, birthdays, or even marriage proposals.

The one obvious sacrifice that has to be made in order to enjoy such an experience is the early wake-up – expect to rise and shine at roughly 3-4am – but it’s a necessary evil to take advantage of the best time of day and witness the Cairns sunrise. In short, hot air ballooning is one of life’s true must-do experiences and there are few venues that come close to the beauty of Cairns and Tropical North QLD. Famed for their friendly attitude and professional, efficient service, HotAir Cairns come highly recommended. If you’re after a birds-eye view of the region, make sure your itinerary has a spot reserved for ballooning.

7. Visit Michaelmas Cay

Location: 40km from Cairns, QLD

Pristine is a word thrown around slightly too often in travel circles, but there are few better words to describe this little slice of reef paradise that’s easily reachable from Cairns via a roughly 2 hour (strikingly scenic) cruise. A tiny reef-island that’s every bit the picturesque postcard-style destination you might expect from the Great Barrier Reef. Michaelmas Cay is a stretch of sand and coral surrounded by vibrant waters that are brimming with marine life. This makes for some truly outstanding snorkelling amongst its characteristic blend of hard and soft corals. Crystal clear waters are the cherry on top of this island sundae, and visibility is typically at a premium here.

While this low-lying vegetated sand cay is barely large enough to classify as a true island – most of the on-shore activities are kept to a small, 50 x 50m area – it’s nonetheless a reef wonder due to the sheer variety of wildlife that inhabits it. A large variety of sea birds make their temporary nests on the island, while the surrounding coral is protected and a large contributing factor to the diversity of marine life found within.

Expect to see starfish, sea turtles and an immense variety of colourful fish in the waters surrounding Michaelmas Cay.

Expect to see starfish, sea turtles and an immense variety of colourful fish should you poke your eyes into the waters surrounding Michaelmas Cay. This is an ideal snorkelling venue for those who may not be too confident in the water or with the concept of scuba diving – all it takes is a few steps from the shoreline come face to face with some marine wonders. Certain areas of Michaelmas Cay are restricted for human access – the entire cay is a listed National Park – and the number of tour operators who can take you there has likewise been limited in an attempt to preserve its condition from an excess of human or tourist influence.

Regular tours are offered from Cairns out to the cay that strikes a nice balance between an authentic reef experience and time-saving. It’s not quite as far out as the true outer parts of the Great Barrier Reef, but at the same time far away enough from the more mainstream tourist spots that you’ll be able to get the best of both worlds. Trips to Michaelmas Cay take just under 2 hours one way from Cairns and make a single, full day adventure highly doable.

The cruise out to the cay is a sightseeing adventure in itself and once there you’ll have the chance to take part in a variety of activities. From getting up close with the (unusually tame) colonies of sea birds, doing the aforementioned snorkelling or boarding a semi-submersible vessel that’s ideal for those wanting to peer into the ocean without getting wet. If you’re after a postcard-perfect experience that walks the perfect line between scenery and convenience, Michaelmas Cay ticks all the boxes.

6. White Water Rafting with Raging Thunder

Location: 52-54 Fearnley Street, Portsmith, Cairns, QLD

Who said all the watery fun that Cairns offers had to be experienced in the ocean? Look just a little bit inland, and the Cairns region provides adventurous visitors with the opportunity for thrilling aquatic adventures on its various surrounding rivers as the home of some of Australia’s best white-water rafting. All of the Barron, Russell and Tully rivers are located within reasonable distance of Cairns, and each river offers a slightly different take on the rafting experience featuring various grades of rapids and courses that range from scenic and ideal for families all the way up to high-octane, challenging Grade 4 affairs (with rafting being graded on a 1-4 scale; 1 is the easiest).

While there are different routes to take that can alter the difficulty grades of each river somewhat, the general order in terms of difficulty of each river goes:

  • Barron River (easier, closer to Cairns making half-day trips possible; good for families and those who want to take things easier while still having fun; allow around 2 hours worth of on-water rafting).
  • Russell River (good balance between difficulty and accessibility; less crowded than other rivers due to only a single operator running here; can be dependent on water levels and may not always be running)
  • Tully River (the premier Cairns rafting experience for both challenge and scenery; requires a substantial investment of time to experience; features largest number of rapids including some Grade 4.)

Which river depends on how confident you are in the water, how much time you’re willing to invest and how much you’re looking to pay.

Which river you select will depend on a combination of how confident you are in the water, how much time you’re willing to invest, and how much you’re looking to pay, amongst other variables. Regardless of your choice of rivers, rafting is a very team-oriented and social activity, and Cairns offers options that can suit all comers, with expert rafting guides on each itinerary who aim to make the adventure fun for visitors while still putting safety first. You’ll be equipped with life jackets, helmets and other emergency equipment to ensure peace of mind and while – especially on the Russell and Tully Rivers – you can likely expect to capsize at some point, it’s always well regulated and controlled.

Barron River rafting journeys are the shortest and thus ideal for those who don’t want to devote an entire day, while the other two rivers offer an extended experience and include breaks for lunch for you to recharge and get your bearings. Most rafting itineraries include accommodation transfers/pickups as well, so you’ll have everything you need to simply come along and enjoy the thrills that make Cairns’ rafting so famous. Few other activities give you a dose of adrenaline while providing an intimate look at Tropical North QLD’s rainforest like white water rafting do, so don’t hesitate to get wet and wild during your time in Cairns.

5. Bungee Jumping with AJ Hackett Cairns

Location: McGregor Rd, Smithfield, Cairns outskirts, QLD

Cairns is known worldwide as an adventure destination, and there are few activities more symbolic of Cairns than bungee jumping. Whether you spell it bungee, bungy or by any other method, Cairns was established as the home of bungee in Australia by operator AJ Hackett, and ever since it’s become a rite of passage of sorts for young adults and adventure seekers of all ages alike. As Australia’s only purpose-built bungee platform, it’s a rush that is as unique as it is scary; in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 30 years, the experience involves ascending the 50m-high bungee platform – which incidentally offers outstanding views of the surrounding rainforest and out to the reef, although your heart will likely be pounding a little too fast to fully appreciate it – and, once a safety harness is attached, taking the plunge and leaping off the side. Still with us? Good.

While bungee – which originated in New Zealand and has now become a phenomenon around the world – is a widely known extreme adventure these days, AJ Hackett Cairns put their own spin on the standard bungee experience by offering a veritable smorgasbord menu of 16 different jump styles to choose from. Regular, forward-facing vanilla jumps (a.k.a the Swan Dive) are for the boring among us, after all – other more hardcore adrenaline junkies may instead choose to go backwards, jump off the roof of the tower, blindfold themselves or even ride a BMX bike off the edge as gravity takes effect!

You haven’t truly done Cairns until you’ve swallowed your fear and done a bungee jump.

All this, of course, is all well and good for the strong of heart and bowel, but what is for many an otherwise very intimidating experience is made much easier but the friendly, casual and light-hearted attitude of the Cairns bungee staff who do their best to lighten the mood while also being conscientious of what a life-changing moment this can be for first-time jumpers. There’s also an undeniable sense of self-reassurance and confidence that comes as a result of completing your first bungee jump; the sense of overcoming your fears and simply going for it is an ego boost, to say the least.

The bungee complex – which sits roughly a 20-minute drive to the north of Cairns – also helps with this, as the atmosphere there is generally laid-back and conducive to a good time with BBQ facilities and live music to take advantage of. There’s also an additional thrill option in the form of their Minjin Jungle Swing activity which will see you swinging in a wide arc through the rainforest at high speeds and can be done in a group, so there’s plenty of variety in terms of what’s on offer here. Simply put, you haven’t truly done Cairns until you’ve swallowed your fear and done a bungee jump, so go ahead and take the plunge – you’ll be more than glad you did!

4. Visit Green Island

Location: Coral Sea, 45 minutes from Cairns, QLD

In terms of accessibility, Green Island just off the Cairns’ coast is hard to beat for those looking for a quick and consistently enjoyable spot to do all the Great Barrier Reef essentials without having to devote a large degree of time or money to do so. While it can tend to be more touristy than other alternatives, there are reasons for this. Green Island takes a minimal investment for a delightfully beautiful return; it’s a coral cay fringed by reef and famous for two main highlights; it has a high number of sea turtles and its iconic SeaWalker helmet diving experience and their photobombing Parrotfish Gavin.

While the water quality is never going to be able to compare with the Outer Great Barrier Reef, Green Island’s snorkelling and other water-based opportunities are still superb and more than sufficient. There’s a consistent effort made by the island and its tour operators to make accessing the sights of the reef as family-friendly as possible. Semi-submersible rides are a favourite among those with kids, providing a clear look at the fish and turtles, while glass-bottom boat roads are also a viable sightseeing alternative.

Green Island is hard to beat for those looking for an enjoyable spot to do all the Great Barrier Reef essentials without having to devote a large degree of time or money to do so.

The snorkelling on offer is also perfect for beginners, and most tour options for Green Island also include snorkel hire packages, making it an ideal and budget-conscious option for introducing the little ones to this highly enjoyable act of marine exploration. The island itself is also kept very clean while still being modern, which is impressive considering the sheer volume of tourists who make the short trip over from Cairns each year. This is doubly so given the rainforest that grows on the cay, which still draws an array of bird life despite the increasing amount of human traffic.

This landscape is ripe for exploration as well, as there is a range of well-formed tracks on Green Island that takes you on a path through the rainforest and provides a dose of greenery while you’re drying off. Amenities on the island also warrant a mention, as it’s been developed and modernised over the years to ensure visitors won’t go lacking. A modern hotel, shops to buy snacks and souvenirs, public showers and lockers and several restaurants can all be found on Green Island, making it a viable place to spend a full day – or two days, should you choose to stay overnight.

Getting there is easy, as all it takes is a pleasantly scenic 45-minute cruise across the Coral Sea from Cairns to reach Green Island. If you’re in Cairns and looking for a taste of the reef without having to overcommit money-wise – or if you’ve got kids along for the ride – then it makes for one of the safest choices for a Cairns experience in all but the busiest periods of the year.

3. Ride the SkyRail Rainforest Cableway

Location: Cnr Captain Cook Highway & Cairns Western Arterial Road, Smithfield, Cairns outskirts, QLD

The Great Barrier Reef isn’t the only natural wonder that Tropical North QLD is home to – while it might receive the majority of the publicity, its accompanying World Heritage protected rainforest is a green equivalent that is equally impressive in its own way. Hundreds of millions of years old, these dense rainforests form a backbone of the Cairns region and are filled with biodiversity, and Cairns’ SkyRail Rainforest Cableway offers easily the best and most accessible way to travel over – and into – it’s green heart. An experience that aims to both get you from A to B, that is, from the base of the rainforest to Kuranda (the Village in the Rainforest) and provide outstanding views above the treetops as the tropical landscape followed by the reef stretches out in the distance.

The SkyRail Rainforest Cableway consists of a 7.5km journey above the treetops, with passengers taken up in fully-enclosed cable cars capable of seating 6 people and providing 360-degree views. The cart pauses for stops at two different locations along the way – the first at Red Peak station for the chance for a guided tour through the rainforest, the second offers a look at the spectacular, gushing Barron Falls with several outstanding lookout points. The end goal of the trip up is Kuranda itself, which is a quirky little tourist village literally nestled within the treetops, and the ideal spot for a bit of exploration, a bite to eat or grabbing a souvenir.

The Cairns SkyRail is an experience that aims to both get you from A to B and provide outstanding views above the treetops.

The entire experience is both gentle and safe while also surprisingly long and thus good value for money – expect to spend about 1.5 hours each way on the experience. There’s also the option to upgrade to a special Diamond Car cabin that has a glass bottom, allowing you to peer directly down into the rainforest canopy, which helps add to the sense of immersion and being surrounded by greenery. Once at the top you’ll then have the choice to take the SkyRail back down to the bottom or jump aboard the Scenic Railway train which takes an alternate pathway through the rainforest. If you’re short on time, the return SkyRail option is your best bet. There are also other wildlife attractions in the treetops featuring local fauna if you’re looking to make a full day of it.

The Cairns SkyRail Cableway terminal is easily reachable in around 15-minute drive from Cairns. Additionally, a variety of local shuttle bus companies run transfers to and from Cairns to the terminal, making both self-drive and public transport options available. While your miles may vary with how much you enjoy Kuranda itself, with the SkyRail the highlight is very much the journey rather than purely the destination – and it’s one of the unique journeys of its kind in Australia, making it another Cairns essential.

2. Visit Fitzroy Island

Location: 30km from Cairns, QLD

If you’re a tourist to Cairns who is, somewhat ironically, wanting a slightly less touristy island exploration option than Green Island, then Fitzroy Island can make for perhaps a more ideal choice. With a reputation as more of a place for locals than visitors, Fitzroy Island provides a solid all-around island destination with plenty of activities that’s also quite accessible from Cairns.

Due to a further distance from Cairns, the crossing to Fitzroy Island can be subject to wind conditions and rougher seas, however, in the end, you’ll have reached what is an actual island rather than just a coral cay. It’s this more solid infrastructure that provides a greater diversity of things to do on Fitzroy Island than Green Island.

Fitzroy Island is a destination for the more discerning traveller, offering the likes of hiking, sea kayaking and a range of bars and cafes in addition to the standard snorkelling and lazing in the sunshine. Fitzroy Island is also far larger than Green Island and comes complete with not only tropical rainforest but additional spectacles in the way of dense woodlands and stony coasts that are a joy to explore.

If you’re a tourist to Cairns who is wanting a slightly less touristy island option, then Fitzroy Island can make for perhaps a more ideal choice.

This larger size and additional distance from Cairns also means that the population of snorkellers is far less dense than on Green Island, making it easier to get that feeling of escapism that marine exploration is supposed to provide. Fitzroy Island is quieter and more of a true getaway, which is what many choose Tropical North QLD for in the first place.

Fitzroy Island has a great variety of walking tracks to keep visitors occupied on land, with its main Summit Walk that takes you on a path through the forestry, leading up to the island’s lighthouse and providing a great outlook. After you’re done exploring, Fitzroy Island’s Foxy’s Bar makes for a great place to kick back with a drink and soak in stunning reef views, Also, the island’s recently-completed 5-star luxury resort provides an elite accommodation option for those looking for an extended stay. This recent development on the island has made it a hugely popular spot for honeymoons and other special occasions. However, those looking to ease the burden on the wallet have the option of booking a spot at Fitzroy Island’s camping ground.

Add to all this Fitzroy’s lovely Nudey Beach – the perfect spot for relaxation – and it’s a tempting package that makes the extra time and effort to get here well worth it. While there’s no truly definitive answer to which out of Fitzroy Island Green Island is truly better as it depends on your main holiday purpose. Fitzroy gets the nod here simply due to its tendency to be less crowded and still reasonably close to Cairns.

1. Cruise to the Outer Reef

Location: Various locales, approx. 1.5 – 2 hours from Cairns, QLD

As the Great Barrier Reef is, for many, a once in a lifetime experience, an argument can easily be made that it’s worth investing the time and money to get the best possible experience during your time her. There are few other options in Cairns that can match forking out the dough to make the trip to the Outer Great Barrier Reef. Yes, it requires the greatest amount of overall effort, but the Outer Reef – due to a variety of factors – simply tends to be more beautiful overall than the fringing reefs that surround the reef’s islands. A trip further out gives you the best chance to see coral, fish and other marine life at their best and brightest. Assuming you’re not requiring the comfort of lazing on a sandy beach as part of your trip, you’ll have everything you need here for a truly unforgettable experience.

Divers in particular stand to gain the most with a trip to the Outer Reef rather than one of the islands. Numerous popular dive sites have been hand-picked by tour operators for their stunning array of marine life and there are multiple quality companies to choose from who have their diving operations down to a tee.

It requires the greatest amount of overall effort, but the Outer Reef tends to be more beautiful than the fringing reefs closer to the mainland.

The likes of SilverSwift, Quicksilver, DownUnder Cruise and Dive and Great Adventures all provide itineraries that take prospective divers to the likes of Flynn, Milln, Thetford and Moore reefs. Each site has a slightly different focus, some with spectacular soft corals, others with a wider array of fish and other marine life such as turtles and rays. The range of underwater canyons, gorges and coral gardens on the Outer Reef is simply staggering, and multi-day tours are available to ensure you get the full range of aquatic experiences.

Those with no interest in diving can still make the most of their time on the Outer Reef as well. The majority of Outer Reef trips take guests to moored pontoons and activity platforms designed to take advantage of some truly great spots on the reef, with plenty of just-off-the-boat or onboard activities to take part in for less confident swimmers. While these can sometimes be crowded affairs – particularly during peak season and on the larger vessels – they’re never unpleasantly so and are set up to provide all the amenities one could need for an extended stay on the reef. Hot showers, spacious sundecks and buffet lunches are all staples of most itineraries, while underwater viewing windows and snorkelling equipment round out the offerings.

At the very least, with a day trip to the outer reef, you’ll spend anywhere between 4 and 5 hours actually enjoying this Natural Wonder of the World. However, three and even five-day trips that incorporate onboard accommodation, meals and even diving lessons are available for those looking for an extended experience. How long it takes to travel to the Outer Reef from Cairns is dependent on both the vessel you travel with and their choice of mooring site, but you can expect anywhere from 1.5 to 2 hours’ trip.

While it’s by far the most expensive option for most travellers and it’s understandable if people prefer to island-hop, if the best diving, water quality, and coral viewing are top priorities for your trip to Cairns then a trip to the Outer Reef should be a the top of your itinerary.

In addition, if you’re looking for all the top things to see and do in and around Cairns including activities, attractions and more, be sure to check out our main region section to browse and book online!


Experience Oz Staff

This article was produced in a combined effort by Experience Oz staff members. Experience Oz is the home of "things to do" in Australia and New Zealand, with over 3,000 awesome experiences across Oz + NZ!

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