In the north of Australia, you will find the relatively small town of Cairns, but this small town has more to offer than you might think. The main reason people know Cairns is that it is the gateway to the amazing Great Barrier Reef. If you have no interest in diving or snorkelling, don’t think that Cairns has nothing else to offer you, because for a small town it has a great range of Australian vacation feelings.
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- Great Barrier Reef
- Chill Out on the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon
- Hike through Mount Whitfield Conservation Park
- Whitewater Rafting
- Trip to Atherton Tablelands
- Take a Trip to Cape Tribulation
- Bungee Jumping
- Cairns ZOOM and Wildlife Dome
- Cairns Aquarium
- Cairns Botanic Gardens
- What to do around Cairns?
Great Barrier Reef
Let’s start with the reason most people are familiar with Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns offers the opportunity to jump on a boat from here and venture into the most beautiful reef in the world. There are several ways to explore the reef, this can be done from the ground at Cairns Aquarium, which offers the possibility to walk dry under the splendour of the reef. If you prefer to go into the water, choose a boat trip where you will have the opportunity to snorkel or dive.
Cairns is one of Australia’s most popular places to dive on the Great Barrier Reef. As such, you have plenty of options here and there is sure to be something for your budget and preferences. For example, choose a one-day snorkel tour if you don’t want to dive and just want to see the Great Barrier Reef for once. A little more budget, or do you want to dive as well? Then there are one, two, and three-day tours where you make several dives. No experience with diving? No problem at all! Then you can join an introductory dive under the guidance of experienced dive instructors. There are also reef possibilities with departure from Port Douglas, a village on the beach north of Cairns. You can also get your PADI in Cairns relatively cheaply (for Australian standards).
There is a wide range of trips available, including liveaboard dive boats, day boats, scenic helicopter flights, fishing excursions, and even luxurious vacations on board spectacular superyachts
Chill Out on the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon
Cairns has one large promenade along the water that is perfect for chilling out, people-watching, and an evening stroll. You can chill out in the lagoon, for example, which is a gigantic public swimming pool where you can cool down. People-watching is best at the public fitness plazas where you can see the fitness bunnies taking themselves a little too seriously, and an evening stroll is best done over the market that is set up at night.
At one end, there is a shallower section that’s ideal for young children. The opposite end is more in-depth. There’s a kiddie water park with fountains and whatnot a little further down the esplanade.
Hike through Mount Whitfield Conservation Park
Mount Whitfield Conservation Park is located about 5 kilometres from the city centre of Cairns. It is an ideal place to go independently into the jungle of Cairns and take beautiful walks. There are short walks of 1.5 km, but also more challenging ones of 6.5 km, which you can extend with side-tracks to impressive viewpoints. Along the way, you will encounter not only the cooling shade, green plants, and colourful flowers but also all kinds of wildlife.
Moreover, this park is known for its beautiful birds and also wallabies are regularly encountered. You can also combine a visit to this park with a visit to the Flecker Botanical Gardens. And if like many backpackers, you think botanical gardens are not cool enough, you will now think: “Yeah, well, botanical gardens, I’m not elderly yet, am I?” But just try to think of these gardens as an extension of the jungle hike, but with more explanations and beautifully landscaped paths. It won’t disappoint you.
The Lakes Cairns (0.23 mi), Whitfield House (0.30 mi), Kookas Bed & Breakfast (1.29 mi), NRMA Cairns Holiday Park (0.87 mi), and Cairns Sheridan Hotel (0.67 mi) are hotels that are close to Mount Whitfield Conservation Park.
Near Mount Whitfield Conservation Park are The Hungry Hummingbird (0.05 mi), Archie & The Bear Cafe (0.05 mi), The Healthy Hub Cafe (0.11), Ocean World Seafood Market (0.30 mi), and Poemphun Thai Takeaway (0.48 mi) for dining options.
Ready for adrenaline, rapids, and probably a wetsuit? Then you should definitely go rafting near Cairns. During a rafting tour on the Tully River, you’ll race like crazy across the river while being surrounded by ancient rainforests. Although you can also do this activity from Mission Beach, and it’s a little cheaper there because of the transportation, you can also just do it from Cairns if that’s more convenient.
Bring a towel and some dry clothing so you may change after your rafting excursion. Don’t forget to pack some cash for refreshments and souvenirs. Prior to going rafting, it is advised to apply sunscreen; however, avoid applying it to the back of your legs (since rubber and sunscreen make for a slippery combination!) or directly above your eyes.
Rafting has inherent risks, just like any adventure sport. Before starting the rafting trip, each participant must sign a liability release form. Before any rafting, river guides offer thorough safety talks. Where necessary, river guides set up on-shore safety protection, and they keep an eye on the passengers’ security during each rapid.
Trip to Atherton Tablelands
Does your heart beat faster because of waterfalls, green rolling hills, and cows? Then you should take a trip through the Atherton Table Lands. You can do this trip independently with a rental car, but you can also choose to join a tour. The Uncle Brians Tour is very popular because in one day you will see the highlights and have a lot of fun.
Epic Sunrise Hot Air Balloon Trip, Crystal Caves, Windin Falls, Herterton Historic Village, Kahlpahlim Rock Hike, Innot Hot Springs, the Curtain Fig Tree, and many other things to do can be found in Atherton Table Lands.
The most popular route is the Kennedy Highway, which is located north of Cairns. In its ascent of the rocky MacAlister range, this begins at Smithfield (Kuranda Range Road) and winds through Kuranda. Alternatively, you can take the Palmerston Highway from Innisfail or the steep and twisting Gillies Range Road south of Cairns.
Take a Trip to Cape Tribulation
Cape Tribulation is one of the places in Australia where the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforest meet. The rainforests you find here are the oldest living rainforests in the world and are one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. You’ll find trees that are over 2,000 years old, spiders that eat meat lollipops, and if you’re lucky a Cassowary. You can see it all by private transport, but there are also many one and two-day tours where you not only see the highlights but also do a river cruise to spot crocodiles, for example.
Cape tribulation offers activities such as walking the Marrja, Kulki, and Dubuji boardwalks, horseback riding on the beach, hiking the mount sorrow ridge trail, tasting exotic fruits at cape trib farm, climbing a coconut tree, and driving to the point (Bloomfield track), among others.
According to many people, bungee jumping is even scarier than skydiving, and we can certainly agree with that. From a plane you are so high that you don’t see the ground coming towards you, but with bungee jumping … how exciting. Have you always wanted to bungee jump? Then Cairns is the place to do it in Australia. With the world-famous company AJ Hacket, you jump from a 50-meter-high platform in the middle of the rainforest. If you’re a real daredevil, you can also dip your head in the pool of cold water below. Are you up to it?
Children over the age of 10 who wish to Bungy must weigh at least 45 kilograms to jump alone, or at least 30 kilograms to jump in tandem, with no more than a 50-kilogram weight gap between the two jumpers. Solo Bungy jumpers must weigh at least 45 kg, and the total weight of all jumpers must not exceed 235 kg.
Another thing that many backpackers do while travelling through Australia is skydiving. It is a once-in-a-lifetime thing anyway and Australia offers beautiful spots above the Great Barrier Reef, and so does Cairns. While many backpackers choose to skydive at Mission Beach because that’s the popular spot, Cairns is also a fantastic option. You jump above Cape Tribulation and with good weather can also see the Table Lands in the distance. Oh, and if you look the other way, you can see the Great Barrier Reef shining through the azure sea. And one more not unimportant fact: Skydiving in Cairns is cheaper than in Mission Beach.
The majority of skydiving facilities will state that the maximum weight for a tandem passenger is between 230 and 250 pounds for males and 200 to 220 pounds for women. Typically, there is only a minimum age and no minimum weight (16 years old).
You can snap as many images before and after your leap. Skydiving prohibits cameras, phones, GoPros, Selfie Sticks, etc. You should leave it to the specialists because carrying your own is extremely risky before and after your jump. On the ground, you can snap as many shots as you wish. Skydiving prohibits cameras, phones, GoPros, Selfie Sticks, etc. Carrying it yourself is too risky.
As mentioned, Cairns is one of the popular places to start or end your trip through Australia. So there are always lots of backpackers in Cairns and that means parties! The great thing about going out in Cairns is that the hostels often also have a bar, so you can easily catch up with hostel mates. Then there are several bars with happy hour, cheap drinks, and wide opening hours. In short: ideal for a night (or two) of going out.
Gilligan’s, The Attic Lounge Bar, The Woolshed, The Cotton Club, P.J. O’Brien’s – The Irish Pub, The Pier Bar, Salt House, Rattle ‘n Hum, Ultimate Party Bus, The Jack, and The Courtyard are just a few of Cairns’ most well-known nightlife establishments.
Cairns ZOOM and Wildlife Dome
Cairns ZOOM & Wildlife Dome is unlike any other wildlife park because it allows visitors to zipline over a 4.5-meter saltwater crocodile. As a first step, it is perched smack dab in the heart of Cairns’ central business district atop The Reef Hotel Casino.
Goliath, the saltwater crocodile who inhabits these dizzying heights, maybe the most well-known resident of this wildlife sanctuary, but he is far from alone. Keep your eyes out for Snowy, the only known white kookaburra, who may safely enjoy his life without worrying about being attacked because of his unusual appearance.
You can get the quintessential “I was in Cairns” photo while cuddling a koala on the ground while you’re not zipping over the sanctuary on a zip line. And while we’re on the topic of photo ops, you should definitely make time to visit the Dome Climb for Cairns’s greatest panorama. There is a walkway around the outside of the building that is 30 meters in the air and offers stunning panoramas of Trinity Inlet, the Coral Sea, the Cairns Central Business District, and the beaches to the north. You can take pictures as you stroll over this 60cm wide platform because you will be securely tethered.
Under-18s must have a legal guardian or parent. A parent or guardian must pay for normal admission and stay in the Wildlife Dome entire ZOOM, but they are not required to participate. Unaccompanied 15- to 17-year-olds with a written waiver from a parent or legal guardian older than 18 can enter the Wildlife Dome. No one under 18 can supervise a 14-year-old.
Visitors are asked to wear closed-toe shoes (shoe rental is provided), slacks or shorts (no skirts or dresses), and a top without any dangling accessories that could get caught on the harness.
Cairns Aquarium houses around 15,000 animals, fish, plants, and other things native to the reef and rainforest of Tropical North Queensland, making it a great option for those who would rather not go snorkeling or scuba diving but still want to see the region’s vast range of aquatic creatures. Some of them can only be found in this particular area, while others are extremely rare or even lethal.
The magnificent Deep Reef exhibit is a recreation of a drop-off in a coral reef in deep water, allowing visitors to see marine life up close and personal who would otherwise need to be certified scuba divers. Visit the Oceanarium and Underwater Tunnel to see graceful leopard sharks, gigantic rays, gropers, and other large predators up close. There are daily shark and ray feeding demonstrations as well as touch and talk exhibits where you can get up and personal with harmless sea creatures including bright blue sea stars and plump sea cucumbers. Learn about the rescue and release efforts for sea turtles by going on a turtle rehabilitation tour.
After exploring the indoor Under the Pier exhibit and the outdoor coral and rainforest-themed Daintree Deck, visitors can relax with a meal at Dundee’s at the Cairns Aquarium. Not to mention the proximity to the largest aquarium in the world. The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from a glass-bottom boat or a semi-submersible if you don’t want to get wet.
Free WiFi is offered everywhere in the building so that visitors may easily upload images of their stay to social media.
In Cairns Aquarium’s unique gift shop, you may buy apparel, accessories, housewares, stationery, toys, and unique products handcrafted by local craftsmen who support their conservation work.
Cairns Botanic Gardens
The Cairns Botanic Gardens are a tropical oasis just five minutes from the city center and are a free attraction for visitors.
The uncommon and exotic tropical plants here have thrived since the garden’s 1886 inception.
Gardens are home to one of only two Amorphophallus Titanum in all of Australia, so take it seriously.
With a maximum weight of 70 kilograms and a leaf length of about seven meters, this Jurassic-looking flowering plant is easily the largest unbranched inflorescence (a plant in which the flowers constitute the branch and stem).
The Flecker Gardens and Watkins Munro Martin Conservatory are available for visitation daily between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. (subject to weather conditions). Everything else in the garden is accessible at any time.
What to do around Cairns?
As you’ve been able to read so far, Cairns is a good base for visiting the beautiful places in the area. Many of these places are nice for an hour or two, after which you’ll want to move on. In other words, the area around Cairns is perfect for a road trip!
So rent or buy a car and in 3-5 days make the following road trip of about 700 km from Cairns to:
- Kuranda. This hippie village has nice markets and beautiful nature. You can also get there via a spectacular train ride, but it is quite pricey.
- Barron Falls. These spectacular 260-meter-high waterfalls can be easily viewed from Kuranda.
- Port Douglas is a stylish and laidback coastal town, especially nice for a cup of coffee.
- Mossman gorge track. Walk through an ancient rainforest along the river to a point where you can enjoy paddling or clamber on the bollards in the water.
- Daintree & Cape tribulation is the place where the rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef meet. A beautiful green place where you definitely want to spend the night! You can also do a river cruise with crocodiles here. If you like to wake up with the sounds of animals in the background, choose to spend the night in this piece of beautiful nature in very special accommodation. You can sleep in one of the luxurious treehouses, where you find yourself in the heart of the green forest.
- Mareeba Wetlands – nice to stretch your legs and check out the many birds.
- Windin Falls – in about an hour you can walk to an epic natural infinity pool!
- Millaa Millaa Waterfall – a waterfall like you see in fairy tales. If you stay longer in this park, you can see many more cool waterfalls on the waterfall circuit.
- Nandroya falls – a big fat jet of water that falls 50 meters down. In the pool below, you can swim.
- Mena creek falls – you can see this cool waterfall from a beautiful suspension bridge.
- Josephine falls – is another beautiful waterfall where you can enjoy dipping.
- Babinda boulders & Devil’s pool – a nice place to swim. There are also nice turtles in the water, and you can camp for free.
- Josephine Waterfalls – are you looking for a fun activity that costs practically no money (except for the ice creams)? Then you can visit several waterfalls from Cairns. One of them is the Josephine waterfalls. The waterfall has naturally shaped slides that you can enjoy sliding into the freshwater with. The waterfall is surrounded by beautiful nature, so don’t forget to bring a delicious lunch, because you can easily entertain yourself there for a few hours.