Tyler Australia 2 Comments

Visit Mission Beach, day trip to the Great Barrier Reef, and explore Daintree Rainforest…these all top the list of the best things to do in Cairns, Australia.

Cairns, one of the largest cities in North Tropical Queensland, is known as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Situated only a 40-minute boat ride from the reef, tourists flock to this coastal city to enjoy the best that the reef has to offer. Take a scuba or snorkel trip out to the Great Barrier Reef, visit one of the nearby islands, or even splurge on a helicopter ride out to a remote cay.

Apart from adventuring out to the reef, you’ll also find a wide range of activities both in and around Cairns.

Visit the city’s esplanade, where you’ll find a public lagoon along a main road full of great restaurants and bars. Spend a day exploring the nearby town of Kuranda, an Aboriginal village within the nearby rainforest. Take a trip south to Mission Beach, and on your way stop for a quick adventure at Josephine Falls or Babinda Boulders. Lastly, don’t forget to spend a day exploring the vibrant Daintree Rainforest, the world’s oldest tropical rainforest where jungle meets the reef.

Best Things to Do in Cairns

In no particular order, here are 15 of the best things to do in Cairns.

1. Scuba Dive or Snorkel at the Great Barrier Reef

Cairns is regarded as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, attracting over a million divers each year. This Australian city is the best place to use as a home-base when traveling out to the reef, so it’s no surprise that this is at the top of our list.

Found off the coast of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR for short) is the largest coral reef in the world and one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.

Encompassing an area of about 133,000 square miles, this ecosystem is about as large as countries like Japan or Italy! The GBR is composed of several thousand smaller reefs, almost 1,000 islands, and over 1,500 diverse species of marine life. The reef can even be viewed from space.

The Great Barrier Reef | Things to Do in Cairns

The Great Barrier Reef | I Shafiq/shutterstock.com


Liveaboard Tours Great Barrier Reef

We found that the best way to explore the reef is through a liveaboard tour, a multi-day boat tour centered around scuba diving. Divers will live, eat, and sleep on the boat while meeting fellow divers as a unique chance to experience this natural beauty. There are plenty of great companies that operate out of Cairns, and some of them don’t even require you to be scuba certified (but you will have limited options for reef diving).

If you’d like to learn more about our liveaboard experience, check out this article.

If you’re not interested in scuba diving, there are plenty of great snorkeling opportunities at the reef and near Cairns, such as at Fitzroy and Green Island. You can also take a flight over the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns, one of the most memorable ways to see the GBR.

2. Fitzroy Island

Spending a day out at the GBR is the top thing to do while in Cairns. And while the most popular way to do this is through a scuba trip, what about spending a day on an island surrounded by coral?

Fitzroy Island | Things to Do in Cairns

Fitzroy Island | shutterstock.com

Fitzroy Island is a fairly large island only 45 minutes from Cairns via boat. Not only is it surrounded by some fantastic spots to snorkel, but you’ll also find a great rainforest full of walking tracks. Hike out to a lighthouse or the summit of the island, where you can enjoy sweeping views that overlook the island and surrounding reef. Make sure to also visit the spectacular Nudey Beach, a short walk from the port.

On the island, there’s also a resort where travelers can spend a night. If you want more information, visit here and check out this catamaran and snorkeling trip to Fitzroy Island from Cairns.

3. Green Island

Smaller than Fitzroy but just as beautiful, Green Island is a beautiful cay formed by the GBR’s coral over 6000 years ago. This is also the only cay in the reef that has a rainforest!

A 45-minute boat ride from Cairns, this island is surrounded by coral and one of the best spots to snorkel the GBR. Similar to Fitzroy, you’ll also find a resort on the island if you wish to spend the night.

Green Island | Things to Do in Cairns

Green Island | shutterstock.com

For those interested in snorkeling, Green Island is the better choice over Fitzroy Island. If you’d like a destination with more options, we recommend picking Fitzroy. You can learn more about traveling to Green Island here.

4. Skydive Mission Beach

For all of you adrenaline seekers out there, how about a view of the Great Barrier Reef that you just can’t beat anywhere else? Not only is skydiving at Mission Beach one of the most scenic skydive locations in Australia, but it’s also one of the most beautiful in the entire world.

On a clear day you’ll jump from a plane at 15,000 feet and be treated to incredible views of the reef, nearby islands, and the vast rainforests and coastline below. To top it off, you’ll actually come in for a landing on Mission Beach itself! Afterwards you can sit back and enjoy a few piña coladas as a celebration. Name another skydive location where you can do all of that!

We tried to skydive here twice, but unfortunately it got canceled both times due to rain. This is still on our bucket list, meaning we will definitely be coming back to cross this wild adventure off our list.

We did end up skydiving in Sydney. If you’re looking for a spot to skydive while in Australia, or consider yourself an adrenaline junky, you absolutely have to skydive here!

Skydive Mission Beach is about a 1 hour 45 minute drive from Cairns. We recommend booking as early as possible in the day in case a weather delay comes up. Get pricing and hours on the official website.

5. Josephine Falls

A smaller adventure off the beaten path, Josephine Falls is a great natural beauty only an hour south of Cairns. This is a great spot to chill, with a natural swimming hole as well as short walking tracks that take you around the falls.

Located in Wooroonooran National Park, Josephine Falls is considered the best waterfall near Cairns, and a great spot for an afternoon adventure. Do make sure to check signs for restricted swimming zones as conditions can be rough.

Josephine Falls | Things to Do in Cairns

Josephine Falls | Things to Do in Cairns

6. Babinda Boulders

This Aboriginal site with a haunting legend makes for another afternoon adventure outside of Cairns.

Well known for its canyon full of large slick boulders, this makes for a fun spot to explore. You’ll find tiny lagoons to swim in, but do not swim in the actual canyon! This will be heavily marked, but currents can be dangerous and deaths have occurred there before. Stay on the walkways and swim only at the designated spots.

Babinda Boulders is right by Josephine Falls, so it’s a great place to visit if you’re in the area.

Babinda Boulders | Things to Do in Cairns

Babinda Boulders | Things to Do in Cairns

7. Kuranda

Kuranda is an Aboriginal rainforest town famous for its vibrant culture and markets. The village is very popular with those who travel to Cairns, seeking an escape into the jungle to learn about Aboriginal culture.

Walk the main road, pop into the array of shops, and wander the markets. There are also smaller exhibits where you can hold koalas and see birds. To get to Kuranda, take either the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway or the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Both take about 60-90 minutes to travel between Cairns or Kuranda.

When we visited Kuranda we didn’t find it to be the vibrant, mystical village that people had made it out to be. On a Monday midday, it almost seemed like Kuranda was a ghost town. Most of the shops were closed, and there was hardly anyone walking around town. The town itself is not that large either, just one main street and several smaller side streets that aren’t as impressive. We may have just visited on a less-popular day and gotten seriously unlucky, but this is something that no one talks about. In our opinion, the transportation to Kuranda is better than visiting the town itself.

Kuranda Shop

Shopping in Kuranda | Things to Do in Cairns


Kuranda Railway Station | Things to Do in Cairns

8. Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is one of the two main ways to reach Kuranda. On the outskirts of Cairns’ city center you’ll find the Smithfield Terminal, where you’ll depart on a 40-minute gondola ride over Australia’s Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. With sweeping birds-eye views out over the rainforest below, as well as a handful of stops along the way, this cableway is our preferred method of reaching Kuranda.

Although it takes 40 minutes to reach Kuranda via the cableway, we recommend allocating a little over an hour for this excursion due to the stop at Barron Gorge.

Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest Cableway | Things to Do in Cairns

There are 3 stops along your route: Red Peak, Barron Gorge, and Kuranda.

There is a short, 5-minute nature trail on boardwalks at Red Peak which I don’t believe is worth your time. Simply transfer onto the next gondola and ride for an additional 15 minutes to Barron Gorge. Here you’ll find an awesome, thunderous waterfall that spans the massive Barron Gorge. There are boardwalks here where you can walk out to a better vantage point, and you’re also treated to amazing views of the gorge from the gondola. From here it’s 10 minutes to Kuranda.

Barron Gorge | Things to Do in Cairns

Barron Gorge | Things to Do in Cairns

Do note that, in order to ride the skyrail, you must book in advance. You can find the official website here. You can also upgrade your booking to the diamond view gondola for an extra $28, which includes a private gondola with a glass floor. We did this and in our opinion, this wasn’t worth it as the special gondolas are scarcer and the glass floor can easily fog up on a rainy day. However, if you’d like the privacy and extra views, it may be worth the upgrade.

This tour includes a ride on the Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, the Kuranda Scenic Railway, with time in Kuranda. It includes your tickets and is done with a guide, perfect for those who want to spend the day visiting Kuranda without the hassle of navigating these transportation options.

9. Kuranda Scenic Railway

This 130-year-old+ railway is the other preferred method of transit to Kuranda. The scenic railway has a certain charm reminiscent of the Hogwarts Express from Harry Potter. On your 90-minute ride between Cairns and Kuranda, you’ll pass through tunnels, by waterfalls, and enjoy a brief 10 minute stop at Barron Gorge. If you’re looking for a more historic ride, the Kuranda Scenic Railway is perfect.

Both the Skyrail and Scenic Railway are some of the best ways to explore the area around Cairns, even if you’re not planning on spending much time in Kuranda. We recommend taking the Skyrail to Kuranda and the Scenic Railway back to Cairns.

Kuranda Train

Kuranda Railway | Things to Do in Cairns

Kuranda Scenic Railway | Things to Do in Cairns


Barron Gorge Australia

Barron Gorge | Things to Do in Cairns

10. Take a Day Trip to Daintree Rainforest

Daintree Rainforest is a vast, marvelous rainforest located in North Tropical Queensland. Not only is this gem the oldest tropical rainforest in the world (over 135 million years old!), but it’s also the largest rainforest in Australia, encompassing an area of over 1200 square kilometers. Daintree is a very popular day-trip destination from Cairns and Port Douglas, taking about an hour and a half to reach the rainforest from Cairns.

Once in Daintree, you have a wide variety of options for exploring this World Heritage Area. Take a river cruise, wander the many jungle walking paths, and keep an eye out for some rare species of flora and fauna found nowhere else on Earth. This is also where the rainforest meets the reef, and Daintree hosts a wide array of beautiful beaches to walk along. Just keep an eye out for crocodiles as they’re known to patrol the waters.

If you’d like to learn more about Daintree or plan a tour, take a look at our Guide to Daintree Forest. You can also take this day trip tour from Cairns, which visits the top spots in Daintree Forest and includes your transportation.

Noah Beach Daintree | Things to Do in Cairns

Noah Beach


Alexandra Lookout Daintree Australia

Alexandra Lookout

11. Coastal Drive along the Captain Cook Highway

For those with the simple wish of finding a drive with great views, look no further than the Captain Cook Highway. The thoroughfare connects Cairns and the nearby town of Port Douglas, separated by a roughly hour-long drive. Along the way you’ll be treated to some great coastal views and several pristine beaches we recommend stopping at.

Things to Do in Cairns

Rex Lookout | Things to Do in Cairns

Do note that the road itself can be dangerous as it is narrow and has limited spots to stop and go once you get closer to Port Douglas. If you’re looking to stop at some beaches along the drive, we recommend the nearby Trinity Beach and Holloways Beach. These are closer to Cairns, as well as both safer and easier to access via the Captain Cook Highway.

This coastal drive is also ideal if you’re planning on visiting Port Douglas, which is a great home base for those traveling into Daintree National Rainforest. If you’re traveling to Daintree from Cairns, you will end up driving north along the Captain Cook Highway.

12. Helicopter Ride to Vlasoff Cay

Imagine flying off to a remote island in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef, surrounded by nothing but pristine waters and a beautiful coral reef. A helicopter ride out to Vlasoff Cay is an experience like none other, offering you the ideal escape from reality to unwind at a natural paradise.

Apart from an already stunning 20-minute helicopter ride, the main draw is the chance to spend 2 hours on the white sands of Vlasoff Cay. The best part is, you’ll (most likely) have the entire place to yourself. Although it is on the pricey side, this is such an unforgettable experience that it’s a must-do on a high budget trip to Cairns.

I recommend booking with Nautilus Aviation. They get excellent reviews, and their tour package includes complimentary beach chairs, umbrellas, snorkel equipment, picnic gear, and sparkling wine. The 2 hours you have on the cay may just end up being the best of your entire trip! A booking costs AUD $949 per person, with a minimum of 2 people required to book. We recommend booking months in advance as this is an extremely popular thing to do, so they sell out fast! You can learn more at their site here.

13. Cairns Aquarium

Want to see the vibrant marine life of the Great Barrier Reef but the weather isn’t cooperating? The Cairns Aquarium has got you covered.

With over 16,000 aquatic animals across nine distinct ecosystems, this giant collection of sea life is definitely worth a visit. We found this to be a great aquarium with some pretty fascinating exhibits near the end, as well as an underwater tunnel that gives you some incredible angles of a group of sharks and rays. On a free afternoon in Cairns, the Cairns Aquarium is the perfect place to visit.

Get hours and pricing on the official website.

Cairns Aquarium Photo | Things to Do in Cairns

Cairns Aquarium

14. Take a stroll along Cairns’ Esplanade

The Esplanade, situated right off of the town’s coastline, is a fantastic place to take a dip on a hot day. The open park area is free and easy to access, and on a sunny day can be seen drawing some pretty large crowds.

Enjoy a stroll along the man-made lagoon and along the coast. The area is also a hotspot for public events and live entertainment.

Cairns Fish

Cairns lagoon | Things to Do in Cairns


Cairns Harbor

Marlin Marina | Things to Do in Cairns



15. Cairns Botanic Gardens

The Cairns Botanic Gardens offers a massive collection of tropical flora, making it the easiest way to experience the nearby rainforests for those on a time crunch. Located just outside town by the airport, a visit here is perfect if you have a free afternoon in Cairns. Wander the boardwalks as you immerse yourself in the jungle atmosphere that is adored by visitors from near and far.

Cairns Botanic Gardens

Get hours and pricing on the official website.

Cairns Itinerary

Learn how to put all of this together in our 5 Day Cairns Itinerary, which includes the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree Rainforest, Fitzroy Island, the Green Island, skydiving at Mission Beach, and time in Cairns.

Where to Eat in Cairns

Waterbar and Grill Steakhouse: Being a steakhouse located right on the water, do expect a slightly more expensive meal here. Don’t worry, what you’re paying for is absolutely worth it. Not only is it so relaxing to enjoy a meal by the ocean, but their fresh seafood and steak are delicious. Other travelers we met also raved about this spot while we were in Cairns, so this makes the perfect place to treat yourself.

Waffle on Cairns: Ever wanted a waffle for lunch but felt guilty if you’d order one? Waffle on Cairns solves that problem with their mix of both sweet and savory waffles, served for breakfast and lunch. Not only are they absolutely delicious, but they’re served as a work of art. I ate here for breakfast one day, and after finding out how delicious the waffles are, came straight back here for lunch the same day. You have to check this spot out while in Cairns.


Waffle on Cairns

Jimmy’s Burger & Co: Jimmy’s has a pretty standard menu for burgers, fries, and the like, but they totally shine with their shakes. You can order a delicious “thickshake,” or if you want an extra kick, a spiked shake as your dessert. My go-to order is the Bailey’s and Chocolate shake combo, a delicious concoction that I ended up ordering more times than I’d like to admit.

Villa Romana: Located right off Cairns’ Esplanade, Villa Romana has everything you’d wish when it comes to Italian food. Tasty food and a good view, this spot is worth visiting.

Rattle n Hum Cairns: About a 30 second walk from the Esplanade and lagoon, Rattle n Hum is a beautiful sports bar with a wide selection to pick from. Not only is their menu fantastic, but you can also enjoy a few games of billiards or even pinball after finishing your meal.

Dundees on the Waterfront: Located on the edge of Marlin Marina, this seafood restaurant gets great reviews and has a solid menu featuring anything you could think of. They even serve kangaroo and crocodile satays!

Cairns Itinerary

Take a look at our 5 Day Cairns Itinerary for advice on how to plan your time in Cairns. Even if you don’t have a full 5 days, we have suggestions on how to visit Cairns with less time.

Where to Stay

I stayed at Gilligan’s Hotel & Resort. This is a hotspot in Cairns and maybe one of, if not the most popular, place to stay in town for young travelers. This hostel/hotel/nightclub is captivating for its high energy. You’ll find a resort-style pool and several bars along with dancefloors. Gilligan’s hosts a special event each night, so be on the lookout as there may be something you definitely don’t want to miss. We stayed here for 2 nights in a dorm-style room and had no issues with noise while sleeping despite the nightclub only a story below us.


If you are looking for something more high-end, Crystalbrook Flynn is a 5-star hotel that gets exceptional reviews. The Abbott Boutique Hotel, Dreamtime Travellers Rest, and City Terraces are mid-range hotels that also get excellent reviews.

If you have any questions about the best things to do in Cairns, let us know in the comment section below.

More Information for Your Trip to Australia

QUEENSLAND: Get started with our Cairns Itinerary. Visit the Great Barrier Reef, either on a multi-day liveaboard tour or on a cruise out to Lady Musgrave Island. Spend the day in Daintree Rainforest and two of Australia’s best zoos.

SYDNEY: Get started with our Sydney Bucket List, which contains 40 of the best things to do in Sydney. We also have a guide to 20 great restaurants and bars in Sydney, the best beaches in Sydney, where to stay in Sydney, the Spit to Manly walk, and a Guide to Skydiving in Sydney.

MELBOURNE: Melbourne is one of our favorite cities in Australia. Learn about the Best Things to Do in Melbourne and get a recap of our experiences here.

TASMANIA: In Tasmania, hike to Cape Raoul and Wineglass Bay, explore the Tasman Peninsula, spend some time on Bruny Island, visit Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, and cruise to Tasman Island.

Read all of our articles about Australia in our Australia Travel Guide.


Things to Do in Cairns Australia


Note: This post contains affiliate links. When you make a purchase using one of these affiliate links, we get paid a small commission at no extra cost to you.

All rights reserved © Earth Trekkers. Republishing this article and/or any of its contents (text, photography, etc.), in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.

Comments 2

  1. Avatar for Bill Nixon
    Bill Nixon

    Was surprised that during your visit to Kuranda you found it half empty. It is usually very busy. Suspect you may have visited during the wet season, a period when tourists tend to stay away because of the poor weather and the fact swimming in the ocean is not recommended, due to the danger of being stung by quite dangerous jelly fish and other marine creatures. From May to September is the best season to visit North Queensland.

    1. Avatar for Julie

      Hello Bill. Nice to hear from you again! Tyler was in Cairns in late April and he did have a few days of very rainy weather that altered his plans, such as skydiving. He heard great things about Kuranda and was surprised too at how quiet it was, but overall he had a great experience. Cheers, Julie

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *