Skip to main content

19 best things to do in Cairns if it’s your first visit

A forest with a waterfall.

Always said you’d visit Tropical North Queensland ‘one day’? Well, there is no better time than the present! With so many things to do in Cairns, it is the ultimate destination to base yourself in when exploring the best of Australia’s sunshine state. From ancient rainforests to unique wildlife, and the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, there is a reason (our hero) Sir David Attenborough calls this area of Queensland his favourite place on earth.

If you’re looking for a list of the absolute best things to see, taste and experience in Cairns, you’ve come to the right place.

1. Chase the waterfalls of the Atherton Tablelands

Calling all waterfall enthusiasts! If you haven’t heard of the Atherton Tablelands, ooooh baby, you have been missing out. With some of Australia’s most breath-taking waterfalls all within super close proximity, this charming area just outside Cairns is perfect for an adventurous day out.

Three of the most popular waterfalls – Millaa Millaa, Zillie and Ellinjaa – are located along the Waterfalls Circuit. If you have more time for exploring, discover some of the lesser known (but equally as epic) falls including Tchupala Falls, Davies Creek Falls, Emerald Creek Falls, or Josephine Falls.

P.S. Keep an eye out for platypuses in the falls. They can be a little shy, but you might just get lucky!

2. Reach new heights on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

For an incredible panoramic view of Cairns, sweeping all the way from the rainforest to the sea, you absolutely must jump on the iconic Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. The journey between the Skyrail terminal just north of Cairns and the historic village of Kuranda will have you hanging above the canopy, gliding over Australia’s Wet Tropics World Heritage Area and the mighty Barron Falls.

Along the way, stop off at Red Peak and wander along the boardwalk, taking the opportunity to immerse yourself in the ancient rainforest landscape. The second stop offers a fresh perspective of Barron Falls, with The Edge Lookout providing the perfect spot to appreciate such an impressive waterfall.

You can choose to do a return trip on the Skyrail or combine your experience with a one-way trip on the Kuranda Railway for a change of scenery.

3. Day cruise on the Outer Great Barrier Reef

You definitely, 100%, abso-freakin-lutely will not regret the extra effort required to reach the Outer Great Barrier Reef. Take a day trip out on the Coral Sea for an unparalleled snorkelling or diving experience, where the crystal-clear waters offer incredible visibility of colourful coral species, a variety of tropical fish and other unique marine life. Day tours from Cairns visit stunning coral reefs including Agincourt Reef, Breaking Patches, Hastings Reef and Saxon Reef.

If learning to scuba dive has held a place on your bucket-list for far too long, take the opportunity to tick that box once and for all by joining our epic 5-day Learn to Dive trip. After two days of PADI Open Water Dive Course classroom and pool training in Cairns, you’ll head to the outer greater Barrier Reef to discover the magic of this natural wonder in up to nine dives at a variety of our 16 exclusive dive sites.

A group of people sitting on a boat and enjoying delicious food while exploring the stunning sights of Cairns.
Keywords: things to do in Cairns, boat, food

Image source:Contiki

4. Discover the Daintree Rainforest

Just 1.5 hours from Cairns and 30 minutes from Port Douglas you’ll find the true jewel of Tropical North Queensland – The Daintree Rainforest. Can you believe that this UNESCO World Heritage listed rainforest is over 100 million years old? That makes it the oldest in the world. The diversity of nature here is completely unmatched, and it’s worthwhile discovering the magic of the Daintree with an expert guide or taking the time to visit the Daintree Discovery Centre for advice on planning your day.

Just as extraordinary as the rainforest itself are the experiences you’ll find within it, from hiking trails to swimming holes, paddleboarding along the Mossman River or crocodile spotting. Contiki travellers on our North Queensland Adventure visit the Daintree and have the incredible opportunity to meet the local Kuku Yalanji people, where we learn about the rich indigenous culture and history of this region.

5. Take a trip to Walsh’s Pyramid

One of Cairn’s most recognisable attractions, Walsh’s Pyramid stands at a remarkable 922 metres tall, making it the highest free standing natural pyramid in the world.

Admire its beauty from ground level, or if you’re up for the challenge, a difficult 6-kilometre return track can take you to the mountains peak for unforgettable views of the landscape below. You’ll likely be out of breath, but we guarantee the experience is totally worth it.

6. Day trip to Palm Cove

Palm Cove is a dreamy beachside village just 30-minutes north of Cairns, where boutique hotels, fine-dining restaurants, and tropical palm trees line the esplanade. Relaxation is a key characteristic of life here; walk around barefoot, picnic under the shade of a palm tree, or enjoy a well-deserved massage or treatment at one of the towns many day spas.

Side note: If you find the ocean is calling your name while you are in Palm Cove, be aware of marine stingers and swim within netted areas.

7. Go sky-high over the Great Barrier Reef

Got some cash to splash? While it may be hard to beat the underwater world of the Great Barrier Reef, the view from above is pretty mind-blowing. From the perspective of a helicopter, you gain a true appreciation for the size of the reef, and seeing incredible marine life like manta rays, green turtles, sharks and whales from above is an experience you will never forget.

Feeling inspired?

The 21 best places to visit in Australia

The 21 best places to visit in Australia

Read more

8. Wander the streets of Kuranda

Affectionately known as the ‘Village in the Rainforest’, Kuranda is an enchanting mountain village not far from Cairns. The cooler mountain climate is a welcome escape from the heat of the coast, allowing visitors to roam the buzzing streets in search of striking local art, handicrafts, and a freshly squeezed juice.

The top attractions to visit during your time in Kuranda include the Rainforestation Nature Park, Barron Falls, the Butterfly Sanctuary, the Koala Gardens, and the Kuranda Heritage Markets.

9. Cool off at the Cairns Esplanade and Lagoon

A highlight of the Cairns city centre is the waterfront esplanade and saltwater swimming lagoon. One of the best things to do in Cairns is enjoy a stroll along the water’s edge, followed by a dip in the safe, stinger and croc free lagoon pool. Access to the swimming pool is free, and it’s open 365 days a year to provide necessary relief from the tropical heat. There are heaps of quality restaurants and coffee shops nearby to keep you sustained throughout the day, or for a classic Aussie day out, pack a picnic and chill out under a shady Banyan tree in the surrounding parks.

10. Adventure to Green Island

Looking for a tropical paradise where you can snorkel right off the beach? Green Island fits the bill. Perfect for a day trip from Cairns, Green Island is a stunning coral cay that is part of the inner Great Barrier Reef, where smaller fish, turtles and delicate coral all call the reef home. There is a variety of ways to explore the reef including snorkelling, stand-up paddle-boarding, and glass bottom boats. There’s plenty to do on land too, and the Green Island Boardwalk deserves a special mention for its sustainable structure and postcard perfect views. If you’re hitting the beach, make sure to slip, slop, slap and enjoy your time in the Tropical North Queensland sun!

11. Visit Thala Beach Nature Reserve

We know you have definitely seen this slice of paradise on your Instagram feed, but when it comes to planning your next trip to Cairns, you may not know exactly where to find the endless rows of tropical palms… That’s where we step in! You’ll find Thala Beach Nature Reserve along the picturesque Great Barrier Reef Drive, about 1-hour north of Cairns. The palm trees are merely an entrance to a family-owned eco-lodge of hidden bungalows that offer a beautifully private escape among nature.

whitehaven beach the whitsundays

Image source:Sasha McAlister

12. Feed your soul and stomach at Rusty’s Market

One of the most popular attractions in Cairns, Rusty’s Market has become a local icon, and is the place to go for the freshest seasonal produce, direct from farmers across the region. With over 180 stalls selling a variety of fruit, vegetables, treats, and handicrafts, as well as food vans to cure your immediate cravings. The markets are open every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

13. Journey through the forest on the Kuranda Scenic Railway

A ride on the Kuranda Scenic Railway is simply one of the best things to do in Cairns. This train is not just a way to get from A to B – the refurbished vintage carriages transport you back to when the historic railway was constructed in the 1890’s and provides a unique setting for you to enjoy the inspiring views of Barron Gorge and the valley below.

14. Fitzroy Island day trip

Yet another beautiful island off the coast of Cairns, Fitzroy Island is almost completely surrounded by coral reef, and as soon as you set eyes on its turquoise waters, you’ll be unfairly tempted to dive straight in. The pure white sands of Nudey Beach see it regularly named as one of Australia’s most beautiful beaches (FYI, it’s only Nudey by name, so keep those bathers on!). On dry land, the island’s tropical rainforest is protected by Fitzroy Island National Park, where sun-drenched trails lead to ‘ahhhhh’-worthy lookouts for panoramic views of the surrounding waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

A woman enjoying snorkeling in the ocean near Cairns, Australia.

Image source:Contiki

15. A wild day of white-water rafting on the Barron River

Mother-in-Law. Cheese Churn. Rooster Tail. Hells Gate. A white-water rafting adventure like no other in Australia, discover the meaning behind the fear-inducing names of the exhilarating rapids along Barron River. Situated in the peaceful surroundings of Barron Gorge National Park, your journey down the river’s natural rapids will be anything by calm. Guided tours pick you up from Cairns for hassle-free day experiencing a different side to Tropical North Queensland.

16. Road trip to Port Douglas

Who doesn’t love a road trip? The 1-hour journey from Cairns to Port Douglas along the Great Barrier Reef Drive is one of the most captivating drives in Australia. Ancient rainforest out one window, and views of stunning white sand and turquoise ocean from the other. The drive passes by popular seaside locations like Palm Cove, Ellis Beach, The Gatz Balancing Rocks, and Trinity Beach. The reward at the end of the drive, arriving in Port Douglas, is also pretty sweet.

17. Join a croc-spotting tour

While you’re in the heart of crocodile country, its proooooobably best not to go looking for these salty dinosaurs when travelling around Cairns and Tropical North Queensland. Instead, take a crocodile cruise along the Daintree River and keep an eye out for them lurking in the mudbanks and mangroves as you float through the rainforest.

18. Take the leap at Skypark Cairns

Did you know, Cairns is the only place in Australian where you can experience the thrill of bungy jumping? And what better place to scream your lungs out as you leap off a platform over 50-metres high, than surrounded by lush tropical rainforest! So, warm up your vocal cords and prepare for an exhilarating day in paradise.

19. Get back to nature at Cape Tribulation

From the deep green of the rainforest to white sand beaches, and the sparkling blue of the Coral Sea, the headland of Cape Tribulation is hard to miss, perfectly positioned on the most picturesque spot of Queensland’s east coast. As part of the Daintree National Park, Cape Tribulation is home to unique Aussie wildlife, including the Daintree River ringtail possum, Bennett’s tree-kangaroos and the endangered southern cassowary. Visit Kulki Beach on the northern side of the headland, or for more wildlife encounters (of the marine kind) head out to the Great Barrier Reef on a local dive boat.

Is 4 days in Cairns enough?

You can fit plenty of Cairns most popular experiences in a well-planned 4-day itinerary. Spend a day exploring the coastal areas north of Cairns like Port Douglas and Palm Cove. Experience the best of Kuranda in a day with both the Skyrail and Railway journeys. Don’t miss a day trip to the Atherton Tablelands, stopping along the Waterfall Circuit.

What is the best month to go to Cairns?

April to September is a great time to visit Cairns. The winter weather is comfortably warm, the conditions on the Great Barrier Reef are ideal for snorkelling or diving, and the better chance for clear skies during the dry season means you can plan plenty of outdoor adventures.

Up next

Stop dreaming and make sh*t happen!

North Queensland Adventure

1 country, 9 days

North Queensland Adventure

View trip
Learn To Dive

1 country, 5 days

Learn To Dive

View trip