20 Best Things to do in Cairns Tropical North Queensland!

Main sites, attractions & activities on your Cairns & Great Barrier Reef holiday


20 Things to do in Cairns


Are you looking for the best things to do in Cairns Tropical North Queensland?

Well, you’ve come to the right place. In this travel blog post I’ll showcase 20 brilliant experiences you simply must embrace!

Below is how it is structured.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Things To Do In Cairns
2.1 The Great Barrier Reef
2.2 Beaches
2.3 Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation
2.4 Cairns Esplanade
2.5 Kuranda Scenic Railway
2.6 Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
2.7 Atherton Tablelands
2.8 Hartley's Crocodile Adventures
2.9 Helicopter Tours
2.10 Barron Gorge National Park
2.11 Cairns Botanic Gardens
2.12 Fitzroy Island
2.13 Palm Cove
2.14 Night Markets
2.15 Fishing and Boating
2.16 Hot Air Ballooning
2.17 White Water Rafting
2.18 Rusty's Markets
2.19 Cairns Aquarium
2.20 Hotels in Cairns
3. Final Thought

I hope this post gives you all the tourist information you need to make the most of your time in this vibrant Queensland holiday destination.

(This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you if you interact with them).

Read Time: 12 Minutes



Want to visit Cairns in Tropical North Queensland for your next holiday? Well, you will need to get organised.

Overall, there are more than enough sites, landmarks and attractions in Cairns to keep you busy for months, let alone a two week annual holiday! So, if you have limited time available, it would pay to prioritise what appeals to you the most.

That’s why I have put together this travel post.

From partaking in Cairns Barrier Reef Tours and checking out outstanding beaches to venturing into spectacular national parks and embarking on thrilling activities like hot air balloon rides and white water rafting, I want to showcase to you the best things to do in Cairns Queensland.

All up, there are 22 experiences on this list, and it’s up to you what you choose. However, you can take it from me, that all of them will provide you with memories that will remain with you for a lifetime.


Things To Do In Cairns

Truth be told, the list of things to do around Cairns outlined below could easily be doubled, such is the sheer wealth of places you can go to and activities you can enjoy.

Therefore, you could say that the ones highlighted below represent just the tip of the iceberg. Notwithstanding, there is still something for all tastes and preferences on it.


1. The Great Barrier Reef

Undoubtedly, one of the best things to do in Cairns is visit the world-famous Great Barrier Reef. As the earth’s largest living structure, one of the seven natural wonders of the world and a World Heritage-listed site, it is certainly Queensland’s star tourist attraction and probably Australia’s biggest too.

The Great Barrier Reef spans over 344,400 square kilometres, starting from Bundaberg down south all the way up to the tip of the Cape York Peninsula. It is home to 215 species of birds, 30 species of dolphins and whales and around 1625 species of fish. Additionally, six of the world’s seven turtle species live here, along with over 3000 different types of molluscs (shells).

There are several different tours that allow you to explore the reef, including snorkelling, scuba diving, overnight sailing and via a helicopter ride. Why not check out some of the Cairns Great Barrier Reef tours offered by Get Your Guide.


When you visit Cairns Great Barrier Reef Snorkelling is one of the best things to do in Cairns!
Seeing the Great Barrier Reef is one of the best things you can do when you visit Cairns.


2. Beaches

One of the many reasons to visit Cairns is that it provides you with a great base to head to some of the best beaches in Tropical North Queensland.

Starting from Cardwell, about two hours south of the city and extending all the way up to Cape Tribulation, about three hours north of it, is a fantastic selection of beaches and coastal suburbs. Pretty much all of them are idyllic paradises, with shimmering water, spectacular backdrops and pristine stretches of shoreline that rival anything you’ll find in any other region of Australia.

Some are so remote, you’ll not see another soul there, while others have a good range of family-friendly facilities and amenities including surf-lifesaving patrols and stinger nets.

You’ll need a car to visit some of the more remote beaches like Cow Bay, Thornton’s Beach or Ellis Beach, though you should be CrocWise whilst you are there. However, closer to the city, Palm Cove, Holloways Beach and Yorkey’s Knob are all terrific options which are easier to get to by public transport.

If time permits, checking out Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas and Trinity Beach is one of the best Cairns things to do, while Machans Beach is the closest beach to the CBD.

Overall, the best month to visit Cairns to enjoy the region’s beaches tends to be October or November. Though April and May are good times to head to them too.


One of the best things to do in Cairns and Tropical North Queensland is go to the beach
One of the best things to do in Cairns and the wider Tropical North Queensland region is go to the beach.


3. Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation

While you can do several Cairns day tours from the city, one you simply must commit to is a trip up to the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation. It will take about three hours to get there one way, but it is worth the journey to visit the largest rainforest in the country.

Spread across 1200 square kilometres, the Daintree Rainforest is a special place because it virtually contains a complete record of how plant life has evolved on Earth over a staggering 180 million years. In addition, it is home to ancient families of plant and animal species that are not found anywhere else in the world.

There are many highlights contained within the rainforest, but two you should make a point of visiting are the Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation. Ideally, you should spend two to three days here, although there are several day long tours and excursions you can go on from Cairns.


View Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation in Tropical North Queensland
Visiting Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation is one of the best things to do in Cairns and Tropical North Queensland


4. Cairns Esplanade

When the locals and tourists are not on the nearby beaches or exploring the Great Barrier reef, then the chances are you will find them on the Cairns Esplanade. This central, waterfront hub is home to some of the best things to do in Cairns for free. So, you should make a point of coming here when you have some time to kill.

The main attraction is undoubtedly the Cairns Lagoon, which is a massive swimming area that provides an awesome spot to cool off from intense heat of the day. It is open from 6 am to 9 pm most days and is spectacularly lit up at night.

If you don’t fancy a dip, there is a massive walking path that you can walk, jog, roller skate, or ride electric bikes on. It offers fabulous views of the water and passes by three children’s playgrounds, several public amenities, BBQ facilities, shaded picnic tables, and grassy areas that are perfect for sunbathing, relaxing, and people-watching.

The Cairns esplanade also accommodates several street performers and artists, which gives it a lively, congenial feel. There are also plenty of shops, cafes, and restaurants that offer air-conditioned relief over the road from it.


Swimming in the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon is one of the best things to do in Cairns
Walking along the esplanade Cairns Queensland is a fabulously entertaining experience.


5. Kuranda Scenic Railway

If you are looking for Cairns attractions that will enable you to explore away from the city, the Kuranda Scenic Railway is a terrific option.

Originally constructed in 1891, this tourist railway service is one of the best things to do in Cairns with kids because, let’s face it, how many children aren’t fascinated by trains?

Still in operation today, the heritage-listed service runs along the railway line from Cairns-to-Kuranda which takes you through the Great Dividing Range and into the Atherton Tableland to the town of Kuranda. Along the way you’ll see some incredible scenery including the magnificent Barron Falls and be able to marvel at hand-carved tunnels and this magnificent feat of engineering.

There are several ways you can explore the railway line, including on these wonderful tours.


Train running on the Kuranda Scenic Railway line
Taking the train on the Kuranda Scenic Railway line is one of the best things to do in Cairns.


6. Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

If you’ve got a head for heights, one of the best things to do in Cairns is see the Daintree Rainforest from the unique perspective of the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.

Starting from the Smithfield terminal just 15 minutes north of Cairns and running all the way along the Atherton Tableland to its terminal in Kuranda, this incredibly scenic, multi-award winning, 7.5-kilometre tourist cableway runs above the magnificent Barron Gorge National Park.

Containing the equivalent weight of 100 sedan cars, you don’t have to worry about whether the galvanised 40.5 mm steel rope cable will be able to hold you. Instead, you should focus on checking out the lush, vibrant scenery below as you effortlessly glide above the canopy, before eventually making your way down to the forest floor. Once there you can explore it up close and personal – keep an eye out for koalas, kangaroos, wombats and crocodiles!

If you are interested in riding the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, here are some of the tours you can go on.


Riding the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway on a cloudy day in Tropical North Queensland
Riding the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is one of the best things to do in Cairns


7. Atherton Tablelands

You can be forgiven for thinking Cairns holidays are all about its coastal areas. But one of the best things to do in Cairns is visit the beautiful Atherton Tablelands, which is a stunning highland region about an hour and 20 minute drive from the Cairns CBD.

The Tablelands, as it is locally known, features a spectacular mix of savannah, wetlands and rainforest, which are home to a diverse range of wildlife species including wallabies, tree kangaroos and birds. It is a beautiful area to drive around and has plenty of fabulous spots to photograph and look out too.

The area is also home to a number of charming small towns including Atherton itself, Mareeba, Kuranda and Herberton. Additionally, it incorporates the compelling Waterfalls Circuit, which is a 17 km loop that connects various cascades including the magnificent Millaa Millaa Falls and Zillie Falls, as well as Ellinja Falls and Nandroya Falls, which both have plunge pool areas you can swim.


Lovely scenic views at the Atherton Tablelands near Cairns in Tropical North Queensland
Visiting the Atherton Tablelands is one of the best things to do in Cairns, Tropical North Queensland


8. Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures

Tropical North Queensland is known as Croc Country and while you should never go seeking them out at their natural estuary habitat, you should consider visiting Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures.

One of the longest running Cairns tourist attractions, this 10-hectare ecotourism park and wildlife sanctuary is not far from Wangetti and is incorporated within the Wet Tropics of Queensland rainforest. As well as being able to take self-guided or guided walks, visitors can also see presentations with the animals as well as a selection of other exhibits such as snake shows.

If you love wildlife you’ll find visiting this place one of the best things to do in Cairns. It has some of the best crocodile tours Cairns has to offer.


Crocodile at Hartley's Crocodile Adventures in Tropical North Queensland
Seeing the crocodiles at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures is one of the best things to do in Cairns


9. Helicopter Tours

One of the best ways to experience the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns and the surrounding landscapes is to take a helicopter tour of the region.

This fantastic 45 minute tour is one of the best things to do in Cairns if you are pressed for time as it showcases the area’s main highlights across land and sea.

During it you’ll get to see the thunderous waterfall at Barron Gorge in a way that will break you out into goosebumps. You’ll also enjoy stunning views of the verdant rainforest and marvel at the sheer size and beauty of the Great Barrier Reef including, the iconic Arlington Reef. It is a truly unforgettable way to experience the magic that Queensland Cairns has to offer.


Cairns Helicopter Ride Tropical North Queensland
A Cairns Helicopter Ride is one of the best things to do in Cairns on your visit to Tropical North Queensland


10. Barron Gorge National Park

If your idea of a good time is to explore thundering waterfalls, rugged gorges, bosky rainforest and imposing mountains then one of the best things for you to do in Cairns is
book a tour to the Barron Gorge National Park.

As one of the main Cairns tourist attractions, this magnificent park sprawls from the coastal lowlands of Lake Placid to Kuranda, in the upper reaches of the Atherton Tableland. It also lies firmly in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.

If you don’t fancy seeing the park from the aforementioned Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, your best bet is to head to the Barron River, which extends for 60 km from the Mount Hypipamee rainforests, across the Tableland, into Barron Gorge then onto the Coral Sea. You can explore it in various ways including hiking, fishing and white water rafting.

The star attraction is the Barron Falls, which presents an incredible cascade, which is most impressive from the Din Din Barron Falls lookout which is not far from Kuranda. The best time of year to visit Cairns to see it at its best is during the wet season, when the flow is positively raging.


Explore the rugged beauty of Barron Gorge National Park near Cairns in Tropical North Queensland
Exploring the rugged beauty of Barron Gorge National Park is one of the best things to do in Cairns


11. Cairns Botanic Gardens

If your holiday budget is tight and you are looking for some of the best things to do in Cairns for free, then you should add the Cairns Botanic Gardens to the list.

Situated in the suburb of Edge Hill, in the northern part of the city, this fabulous tropical paradise possesses one of Australia’s finest collections of exotic plants and other botanic delights.

Some of its major highlights include its fabulous Bamboo collection and the beautiful Fitzalan Gardens, which is named after the garden’s first caretaker and comprises three different gardens connected by footbridges and paths, and scenic water lily pond. Other points of interest include Flecker Garden, the Zhanjiang Friendship Garden, two shimmering lakes and the stunning Gondwanan Heritage Garden.

The botanic gardens are a fabulous place to stroll around and enjoy nature. However, if you intend to come here you will have to do it without your dog as they are not allowed in any part of this Cairns Tropical North Queensland tourist attraction.


There are lots of wonderful plants to see at the Cairns Botanic Gardens
Seeing the plants at the Cairns Botanic Gardens is one of the best things to do in Cairns City


12. Fitzroy Island

One of the best things to do in Cairns Australia during your holiday there is to visit a nearby island. Many Cairns Holiday packages come with a trip to one of them already included. But if yours doesn’t and you fancy doing a tour, I would recommend heading over to Fitzroy Island.

Accessible via a 45-minute ferry ride, the island lies just offshore from Cape Grafton. Whilst there you can enjoy the island’s incredible beaches and verdant rainforests.

You can also partake in snorkelling, hiking, fishing and a glass-bottom boat tour, as well as visit a Turtle rehabilitation Centre. For those who want to stay overnight, there is even a resort on the island.


View of Fitzroy Island in Tropical North Queensland
Visiting Fitzroy Island is one of the best things to do Cairns


13. Palm Cove

Just a 25-minute drive up the Captain Cook Highway resides the beautiful Palm Cove.

Known for being an upscale enclave with a stunning palm-tree lined beachfront, several top class luxury resorts and a slew of outstanding restaurants, paying a visit here is one of the best things to do in Cairns when you fancy slowing the pace of your holiday right down.

The area has a very tranquil ambience that is perfect for rest and relaxation and you’ll want to make the most of it by sitting under a palm tree and taking in stunning view of the Coral Sea. There is also a stinger net here which makes swimming on the beach very safe and a jetty where you can fish.

If your budget can stretch to it, a meal at Nu Nu on a deck that directly faces the palm trees and ocean, is an absolute must. You’ll find their sensational menu here.


View of the Palm Trees at Palm Cove in Tropical North Queensland
Visiting Palm Cove is one of the best things to do in Cairns


14. Night Markets

If you consider yourself a shopaholic, then one of the best things to do in Cairns is to head on over to the Night Markets.

Located on Abbot Street, this place has been an institution in the city since it first opened in 1997. It contains over 100 vendors who sell everything from gifts, leather goods and fresh food to hats, Indigenous arts and crafts and opals.

It’s an absolute shopper’s paradise, and best of all it is open seven days a week until 11.30 pm!


Artist at work at the Cairns Night Market in Tropical North Queensland
Visiting the Cairns Night Market should be on your list of the best things to do in Cairns


15. Fishing and Boating

If you are looking for fishing tours Cairns offers plenty. Here are some of the most enjoyable ones to book.

For those who like new experiences, the Aboriginal fishing tours are one of the most enjoyable things to do in Cairns during your Tropical North Queensland holiday.

You’ll be fascinated to try out the techniques the traditional owners of the land have used for thousands of years.


Fishing and Boating is a popular activity to do in Cairns, Tropical North Queensland
Fishing and Boating is one of the most popular things to do in Cairns when holidaying in Tropical North Queensland


16. Hot Air Ballooning

One of the most spectacular things to do in Cairns is a hot air balloon ride over the Atherton Tablelands.

You’ll have to get up early to do it – this small group tour takes place at sunrise. But you are sure to be wowed by the incredible scenery that unfurls below you.

Overall, the tour lasts for around five hours and includes a glass of sparkling wine and a light breakfast. Make sure your camera is fully charged as you’ll definitely want to take plenty of photos.


Hot Air Balloon Ride Over Cairns Tropical North Queensland
Taking a hot air balloon ride is one of the best things to do in Cairns and Tropical North Queensland


17. White Water Rafting

Those who want a high-octane, adrenaline-fuelled experience during their Tropical North Queensland holiday, should consider this white water rafting tour in the Tully Gorge National Park.

During it, you’ll get to paddle your raft through about 45 different rapids, some of which are categorised as Grade 4, as you zip past a stunning World Heritage–listed rainforest. So, it’s one of the best things to do in Cairns if you want an activity that will get your heart rate up!

When not navigating the rapids, this tour also gives you the jump off rocks into the refreshing tropical waters. You will also get to enjoy a pub lunch and be chaperoned at all times with experienced river guides.


Whitewater Rafting Cairns
Whitewater Rafting is one of the best things to do in Cairns during your holiday


18. Rusty’s Markets

If you happen to be in town during Friday, Saturday or Sunday, you should pay a visit to Rusty’s Market.

This local institution on Grafton Street is a vibrant fruit and vegetable farmers market that also sells ready to eat food and excellent coffee. It has been held regularly since 1975 and is one of the best things to do in Cairns at the weekend.

Try to get there early as it does get busy.


Woman shopping at Rusty's Market on Grafton Street in Cairns
Browsing the stalls at Rusty’s Market is one of the best things to do in Cairns


19. Cairns Aquarium

The Cairns Aquarium only opened in 2017, but it is now firmly established as one of the best things to do in Cairns with kids.

Overall, there are more than 16,000 animals displayed across nine different ecosystems and eleven zones including crocodiles, sharks, freshwater fish, emerald tree monitors and stingrays. Some of the major attractions include a 360-degree Oceanarium, the largest freshwater exhibit in Australia, a mangrove boardwalk, 20-meter underwater tunnel and the only 10-metre Deep Reef Tank in Australia.

Aside from the exhibits, you can book a number of experiences including a twilight tour with a three-course meal, a Turtle Rehabilitation tour and a marine life encounter. All of which will provide you with a real thrill.


Clownfish at Cairns Aquarium in Tropical North Queensland
Seeing the marine exhibits at Cairns Aquarium is one of the best things to do in Cairns


20. Hotels in Cairns

If you visit Cairns, you are going to need a place to stay. Thankfully, there are several excellent hotel options available throughout the city, which I have written about in a separate post here.

Depending on which one you book you might find one of the best things to do in Cairns is simply stay in!

Between them, these hotels have a wide range of facilities and amenities that include exceptional outdoor swimming pools, world-class spa treatments, exceptional restaurants and state-of-the-art gyms. Collectively, they will no doubt contribute to your enjoyment of your Tropical North Queensland holiday.


Some of the best hotels in Cairns lit up at night
Cairns has some fantastic hotels to stay in during your Tropical North Queensland holiday.


Final Thought

Outlined above is just 22 of the many things to do in Cairns. Rest assured this is merely the tip of the iceberg,

Overall, the region possesses a perfect blend of natural wonders, adventure activities, cultural experiences and beaches that are sure to keep you busy during your holiday in Tropical North of Queensland.

So, ultimately, the more time you can spend enjoying them the better.


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