Getting to Cairns (pronounced “cans”) can be quite the task when coming from North America. But it is absolutely worth it! There are so many amazing things to do in Cairns, Australia – including visiting the Great Barrier Reef and the Ancient Daintree Rainforest.
Cairns and the surrounding area is really the best option for a base. (We highly suggest Palm Cove!) There may not be as many flight options as in Australia’s bigger cities, but Cairns is definitely worth a visit. It is also really easy to go on self-driving tours once there. Although, there are no shortage of amazing guided tours to the attractions near Cairns, if you prefer not to drive.
Overall, this area of Australia is a dream for nature lovers, as well as anyone interested in aboriginal culture and foodie fun!
The BEST Things to Do in Cairns Australia & Beyond
Cairns has plenty of exciting activities, but it is also the perfect base to explore the Great Barrier Reef, nearby islands, cute local towns, and the amazing Daintree Rainforest. Here is a list of our top things to do in Cairns:
1. Walk Along the Cairns Esplanade
No trip to Cairns is complete without a stroll along the Cairns Esplanade. This area is so beautiful, and it is great for people watching!
You also get a great view of the ocean – with the Great Barrier Reef out in the distance. Although you can’t swim in the ocean here, there is a large public pool (the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon) that is very popular with locals and tourists – especially kids!
If out at night in Cairns, be sure to look up to spot the many Flying Foxes (a type of very large bat) out to hunt for their dinner. These things are huge and totally caught us off guard the first night! (Note: Cairns city night markets are also very popular most nights!)
2. Take a Ride on the Ferris Wheel
For low-effort views of the city, take a ride on the iconic ferris wheel. You can also see this beauty lit up at night, depending on where you are staying. But it’s lovely to take a ride during the day to take in the mountains and ocean beyond the city.
3. Go on a Ride on the Cairns Skyrail
The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is a must when visiting Cairns and it is just a short drive away. It stops at a wonderful nature walk through the lush rainforest, an up-close view of epic Barron Falls, and ends in the historic Kuranda Village. It’s the perfect warm weather activity and a popular Cairns attraction.
You should plan a few hours for this excursion – especially if you want to get something to eat and shop in Kuranda. If you have more time, you could also take the Kuranda Scenic Railway train back from Kuranda instead. However, the views on the Skyrail are definitely worth at least a one-way trip! You won’t get better photos of the falls anywhere else, and you may even see local widlife!
4. Take In the Jaw-Dropping Views of Barron Falls
Barron Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Northern Queensland. If you can’t afford to take the Skyrail or Railway, there is a hike to it from Kuranda. Simply drive up into the rainforest and park in Kuranda Village. It is only a 0.7 out-and-back walk
This trail takes you to view the upper portion of the falls. While seeing the falls from above on the Skyrail is amazing, it is still worth any glimpse you can get of it. So, this hike is a great option as well!
5. Go Shopping for Unique Souvenirs in Kuranda
Kuranda Village is a really cute little spot with many unique souvenir stores, places to eat or grab a treat, and even some hiking trails. They have a farmer’s market some days as well as many local artisans with booths.
The Koala Gardens and Birdworld are other popular attractions here.
6. Stop by a Brewery in Cairns
At the end of a long day of exploring, a nice cold beer really does the trick for us! We went to a few breweries in Cairns (including the very popular Hemingway’s). However, Sauce was our favorite for a laid-back feel. They also had great food! Salt House is also an awesome dinner option.
If you want to go out to meet people, a bar might be a better fit. Luckily, there are plenty of options for those as well! (Flamingo’s Tiki Bar, and Wolf Lane Distillery look like nice options.)
7. Stroll Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas
Only about an hour from Cairns is Port Douglas. This cute little beach town is a great spot for taking in a more relaxed pace. There are also multiple tours operating out of here, just not quite as many as Cairns.
Our favorite activity in Port Douglas is a sunrise walk on Four-Mile Beach. We loved getting to see the ocean, mountains, and rainforest all in one place. You can also walk up Flagstaff Hill at the far end of the beach to a lookout.
8. Sample Port Douglas Dining & Bars
There are plenty of restaurants in Port Douglas, as well as bars and cute coffee shops. Plus, many little stores for souvenirs, clothes, and gear. I actually bought a prescription snorkel mask here (game changer!!!).
For food, The Mexican for dinner was great, and we grabbed Toast for a quick, cheap lunch. But Little Larder is supposed to be really good as well. Jimmy Rum’s, Paddy’s, Rattle n Hum, Barbados, and Hemingways are all very popular bars open a bit later.
We stayed at the Port Douglas Motel during our visit and loved how cute it was while also being very centrally located!
9. Take a Speed Boat Out to the Reef
The Reef Sprinter speed boat to the Low Isles snorkeling site was our first taste of the Great Barrier Reef. While it was nice to get a little adrenaline rush on our way out, the conditions were pretty poor. However, in better weather, we’d highly recommend it.
Reef Sprinter is conveniently located in Port Douglas. Plus, the speed boat is great for anyone with motion sickness, too! Next time I do think I would choose to go to the outer reef option instead since that is known to be a more impressive place to snorkel!
10. Take in the Beach Resort Feels at Palm Cove
While much smaller than Port Douglas, Palm Cove has an even more chill vibe and really stole our hearts. We walked from the Pullman Palm Cove Sea Temple Resort where we were staying (SO NICE!) over to town. It was a very short walk along the beach and through some palm trees. However, the resort also has complimentary bikes to rent to guests.
Even on a more moody day, Palm Cove is just beautiful. I love how the palm trees line the beach and the walkways in town. It just feels like the type of iconic beachy resort town you see in movies.
Palm Cove is the perfect place to shake off some jet lag, take a breather between epic activities around Cairns, or just plan an extended lazy beach vacay! Just remember not to swim in the water here due to the saltwater crocodiles.
11. Taste Local & Global Flavors at Coco Mojo
While visiting Palm Cove, we decided to take a short 15-minute drive over to Coco Mojo because they had an amazing tasting menu we wanted to try. It was some of the best food we’ve had in a long time, and they even have entire vegetarian and vegan menus.
However, these places in Palm Cove looked great also: Vivo, Apres, La Mesa Mexican, NuNu, and Rattle n Hum. There are also tons of great options for a cup of coffee (most even offer my go-to, oat milk!).
12. Go on a Cruise to Spot Crocodiles in the Daintree River
About two hours from Cairns is the amazing Daintree Rainforest – a can’t-miss when in this area. If you are visiting Cairns, plan a day to drive up north into the ancient Daintree. You can also stop by Mossman Gorge on the way – rich in aboriginal culture!
Although there are multiple options, we booked with Solar Whisper Cruise due to their commitment to respect the local wildlife and nature. It was a really well-done tour with an extremely knowledgeable guide, even though we only saw a few small crocodiles.
However, if seeing big crocodiles is a must for your trip, be sure to book during the right season and time of day. June through September (the cooler months) are supposed to be best. We went in October when it was also at high tide, which makes it harder to spot them. Next time, I’d call ahead to inquire about optimal times!
(Note: If you do not want to drive up to the Daintree on your own, there are day tour options available out of Cairns!)
13. Eat Exotic Fruit Ice Cream
I love fruit. So, it should be no surprise that I added the fruit-focused Daintree Ice Cream Company as a must for our day trip, and it did not disappoint! They have a perfect little sample cup of four of their flavors, plus even a dairy-free sample cup.
This was a really fun stop in a beautiful area and turned out to be a highlight of the day for us.
14. See Where the Rainforest Meets the Reef at Cape Tribulation
If you have already made it all the way up to the Daintree, be sure to drive a little further to go to Cape Tribulation. This little town is iconic because it is where two UNESCO World Heritage Sites meet: the Daintree Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef.
There are a few hiking trails, some beautiful beaches, and multiple restaurants (some of your best food options up this way).
Warning: The beaches may look idyllic, but these are not for swimming. This area is known to have “salties” – saltwater crocodiles. Don’t even walk too close to the water’s edge!
If you want to go snorkeling, you need to take a tour that takes you to the outer reef, where it is safe and more clear!
15. Stop at Alexandra Lookout After the Ferry
For your very first impressive view of the Daintree and how it meets the reef, be sure to stop at Alexandra Lookout.
Note that while all the great nature viewing in this area is free, you do need to take a car ferry to get over to the Daintree. So, be sure to budget for that.
The ferry is just after the Daintree River tours area. After you drive off the ferry, don’t miss Alexandra Lookout for a great photo opp!
16. Explore the Daintree Rainforest Boardwalks
The Daintree is the world’s oldest rainforest and a truly spectacular place. Plus, it is FREE to hike along the multiple boardwalks and try to spot native bugs, birds, and other creatures. So, it is a great budget trip option and fun for all ages.
Daintree Rainforest Boardwalks:
- Mardja Boardwalk – 1.2km
- Dubuji Boardwalk – 1.2m
- Kulki Boardwalk – 600m
- Jindalba Boardwalk – 600m
There is also an astounding variety of plant life in the Daintree. Stop and look at the details to really appreciate the wonder.
17. Try to Spot the Elusive Cassowary
If you are lucky, maybe you will even spot a Cassowary on one of the boardwalks or while driving through the Daintree. These majestic birds are other-worldly and absolutely breathtaking to see in person.
Just be sure to give Cassowaries their space since their talons can be deadly. They are actually nicknamed “murder birds.” But, we’ve never seen a more unique creature!
Read the full story of our day in the Daintree – including lots of tips and awesome photos!
18. Stop for Water-Side Walks Near Cairns
If you have some time to kill between other activities, there are some lovely walks just north of Cairns. O’shea Esplanade and the Holloways Beach areas are both really nice for a stroll.
19. Take a Day Trip to Fitzroy Island
We weren’t sure what to expect when we booked our ferry to Fitzroy Island, but it ended up being one of our favorite places we explored during our trip to Cairns. It is just everything you could want from an island getaway.
Fitzroy has stunning white sand beaches, a cute beach-side bar with tropical drinks, and FANTASTIC snorkeling. A tropical island paradise, for sure!
I’m pretty sure we were both crying happy tears into our snorkel masks at a few points while snorkeling at Fitzroy Island. It was just absolutely breathtaking to see such an array of underwater life abounding with a variety of colors and textures. You can rent snorkel equipment and kayaks on the island, so they make exploring extra easy!
The best part was getting to snorkel right from the shore. I loved getting to go lounge on the sand when I needed a break. And, since it is an island, you don’t have to worry about the saltwater crocodiles as you do on the mainland beaches in Cairns and Tropical North Queensland. Green Island is another popular option for a day trip from Cairns with a similar experience.
20. Take an Overnight Snorkel Tour with Diver’s Den Out of Cairns
The absolute best thing we did on our trip to the Cairns area was an overnight trip to the Outer Great Barrier Reef with Diver’s Den. It was so unique and special and the perfect way to see the Great Barrier Reef.
After two snorkeling stops on the way to the main boat, we got settled into our room, had a snack, and went out for MORE snorkeling. That night, we were invited to take part in the “Sharks in the Dark” experience after dinner. It was insane!
We then got to snorkel twice in the morning after breakfast, relax in the sun for a few hours, then hop a transfer boat back to Cairns. It was the absolute best – with top-notch snorkeling in crystal clear water showcasing colorful coral reefs!
If you do one thing while visiting Cairns, do this! It’s an amazing experience. Where else can your sleep ON the Great Barrier Reef? It really is the best way to see the reef and one of the best value tours for what you get.
Read all about our overnight trip with Diver’s Den – including prices and snorkel sites!
Our One-Week Cairns Australia Itinerary
We spent five and a half days exploring Tropical North Queensland, with the majority of our trip based out of Cairns. The Great Barrier Reef was our big focus, followed by the Daintree Rainforest.
We definitely could have spent WAY more time exploring both, but we do feel like this itinerary gave us a great taste of these magnificent world wonders!
Here is how we split up our time planning things to do in Cairns and beyond:
Day One: Daintree Rainforest Area
- Drive two hours from Cairns Airport
- Solar Whisper Cruise to see crocs
- Cross over into the Daintree on the ferry
- Daintree Ice Cream Company (be sure to check opening/closing times)
- Cape Tribulation (plan for lunch here)
- Exploring various Daintree boardwalks
- Sunset at Rex Smeal Park is also supposed to be great (but we just missed it!)
- Stayed at Port Douglas Motel & ate at The Mexican in Port Douglas
Day Two: Port Douglas & Palm Cove
- Sunrise walk on Four-Mile Beach (optional walk up Flagstaff Hill to lookout)
- Reef Sprinter speed boat to Low Isles snorkeling site
- Lunch in Port Douglas at Toast for sandwiches
- Explore around Palm Cove and walk along the beach walkway (can also rent bikes)
- Dinner at Coco Mojo
- Stay at Pullman Palm Cove Sea Temple Resort & Spa
Day Three: Palm Cove to Cairns
- Walk along the beach to get coffee in town
- Stop on way to Cairns for water-side walks
- Take ferry to Fitzroy Island, have lunch then hike to beach and go snorkeling
- Dinner in Cairns at Sauce after sunset ferry from Fitzroy Island
- Stay at DoubleTree by Hilton in Cairns with great views of the city (thanks American Express Hilton Honors credit card for getting us extra perks!!!)
Day Four: Overnight Snorkel Tour with Diver’s Den
- Snorkel at two different snorkel sites on outer reef
- Transfer to main boat for the night, snorkel again
- Eat dinner with dessert then “Sharks in the Dark” experience
- Stargaze and get rocked to sleep
Day Five: Outer Reef Snorkeling & Return to Cairns
- Snorkel twice in the morning after breakfast, relax in the sun
- Transfer after lunch to transport boat back to Cairns
- Get dropped off at Cairns hotel (included in overnight dive boat package)
- Dinner and drinks in Cairns at Salt House
- Went for a drink at Hemingway Bar
- Stay at DoubleTree by Hilton in Cairns again
Day Six: Skyrail to Kuranda
- Spend a few hours exploring stops on Skyrail (rainforest, Barron Falls, and Kuranda Village)
- Flight to Sydney in late afternoon
- Dinner at the Opera House Bar after checking into InterContinental Sydney, an IHG Hotel (which we got with points)
Bonus Day: Fly In or Out of Sydney
If your flight is going to route you through Sydney anyway, you may as well stop in and explore for a bit! We chose flights that would allow us to explore Sydney for a little more than 24 hours and really enjoyed it.
We loved wandering around in “The Rocks” area to see the old buildings and go to a few museums. We also went to see the iconic Opera House and explored the Royal Botanical Gardens.
Getting to Cairns Australia from the United States
We had to take an overnight 11-hour flight to Melbourne to get to Australia as soon as possible during our vacation time and make the most of our week. Luckily, living in Hawaii makes the trek much shorter than going to Australia from the United States mainland! (We highly recommend a Hawaii stopover on your way there or back, if possible.)
That first night we crashed at the Holiday Inn Melbourne Airport because it was within walking distance and had an on-site restaurant. The next morning, we flew a few more hours to Cairns and went straight into exploring!
There should be more options that go directly to Cairns, depending on the airline and your budget. We were just being as cheap as possible! Yes, Melbourne is totally out of the way and we don’t know why they did it that way either.
When planning, remember that Australia is a day ahead of the U.S. Also, if it is a celebration trip, be sure to make a note when booking your reservations! We got so many complimentary desserts, and each hotel had a chilled bottle of bubbly waiting for us.
Final Thoughts on Spending a Week in Cairns Australia
We’ve explored a lot of this wild world, but this trip to Australia will always stand out as a favorite! The warm tropical climate definitely helped to make the trip a success (and easier to pack for!).
We did all of these activities in Cairns and the rest of our Australia trip for under $6,000, but did get some of the hotels and flights with points. We were also exhausted pretty much the entire time, but that’s okay. We only really hit a wall the last day with the gloomy weather in Sydney. However, we pushed through!
If you get a chance, even if it is a short trip, don’t miss the Great Barrier Reef and other things to do in Cairns!