We Seek Travel is a backpacking travel blog by Olly, who aims to tell his traveling stories through stunning, authentic visuals. His photos give readers a real connection to his travel story, from sunny Australia to chilly Iceland, in the hopes they inspire them to get the most out of their own adventures, too.
When it comes to the ultimate Australian travel experience, tropical Cairns — the gateway to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef — is up there with the best. From seeing the colorful coral firsthand to visiting incredible rainforest waterfalls, Cairns has something for everyone.
If you’re looking to design your own Cairns travel itinerary, this rundown of the 14 best things to do in Cairns will be right up your street. This list of the best things to do in Cairns was compiled after spending months exploring the best hikes, waterfalls, and island sailing trips. If you want to read the We Seek Travel full version click here.
Visit the Great Barrier Reef
Cairns is one of Australia’s best gateways to the Great Barrier Reef, and a formidable rival for the Whitsundays. It’s the top reason why people come to Cairns in Tropical North Queensland and, if you’re planning a trip here, you really can’t leave without seeing the Great Barrier Reef for yourself.
The reason why? The tropical coral reef may span nearly 350,000 square kilometers up the Queensland coast — however, most of this coral reef is located far away from the shoreline. Therefore, Cairns is the place to be as it’s the reef’s closest coastal city.
There are many ways to get out to the reef, from private catamaran cruises to multi-day snorkel trips. With 100s, if not 1000s of islands and sandy cays (low reef islands) to choose from, every sailing experience from Cairns will be truly unique.
Enjoy a scenic flight over the reef
If sailing isn’t your thing, why not catch a quick sightseeing flight to see the coral reef? Scenic flights depart from nearby Cairns Airport, only a 20-minute drive from town or Cairns’ Northern Beaches.
Flights usually last between 30-40 minutes, giving you plenty of time to take some amazing aerial shots. Best of all, these planes fly at a much lower altitude than regular jets, guaranteeing you the best possible view of the world’s most famous coral reef.
Swim with turtles at Green Island
With many islands scattered around Cairns’ coastline, it can be hard to choose where to try first. However, one island is unmissable — Green island, an incredible cay island with coral reef stretching out from its shores. To get here, you’ll need to catch a boat from Cairns Harbor.
Whether you’re more into snorkeling or viewing the seabed from the comfort of a bottom-glass boat, you’re sure to be wowed by the colorful marine life. The island’s even got its own unique rainforest flora and fauna, and some very chill resident turtles that you’ll find splashing in its clear waters.
Ride on the Rainforest Skyrail
The Rainforest Skyrail is one of the top things to do in Cairns. The cable car takes you over the mountainous region of Kuranda, past some truly impressive waterfalls, then onto some rainforest viewpoints. A stop at the Edge Lookout is a new addition to the Skyrail system, affording you incredible views over Barron Falls from a glass platform.
Take the train to Kuranda
Kuranda is Cairn’s very own rainforest town. While you can get here by road, the best way to get to Kuranda is to take the Scenic Railway from Cairns. It takes a little longer, but the views are totally worth it. You’ll pass incredible waterfalls as the train climbs the wild Barron Gorge.
Once in Kuranda, you’ll find yourself exploring a lively music scene, hippy market stalls, and delicious street food in the middle of the tropical rainforest.
Explore the world’s oldest rainforest
Cairns is surrounded by rainforests with many ways to explore them. The UNESCO World Heritage even listed the Wet Tropics of Queensland to protect the world’s oldest rainforest. The Daintree, for example, has existed for 180 million years — way before the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago!
Visit Fitzroy Island to see Australia’s most beautiful beach
Of all of the amazing islands near Cairns, Fitzroy is my personal favorite. It’s got everything you’d expect from a tropical Queensland island. It’s also the closest island to Cairns, making it super accessible and handy for a day trip.
Expect white, sandy beaches: incredible snorkeling and diving; a turtle rehabilitation center: rainforest hikes; and some of the most pristine waters imaginable. Nudie Beach is frequently ranked as Australia’s most beautiful beach, and certainly doesn’t disappoint in person.
Scuba dive in pristine waters
If you’ve ever wanted to try scuba diving, then the colorful Great Barrier Reef is the place to try it. Some of the planet’s best-rated scuba shops run out of Cairns and, surprisingly, trial scuba experiences aren’t too expensive here.
Go croc spotting
North Queensland is home to the world’s biggest (and most dangerous) reptile, the saltwater crocodile. If you want to see them in the wild for yourself, try a reputable croc tour and make a day out of it. Locals will tell you not to swim in the river because who knows what is hiding underneath the surface? Truthfully, you’ll have a hard time spotting a salty on your own, but trust me — they’re there!
Grab a bite to eat at Palm Cove
One of the best places to stay and eat out during your visit to Cairns is on the Northern Beaches. Palm Cove has a tropical vibe with some of the best restaurants in town. Tick 2 must-dos off your Cairns to-do list by combining the Kuranda Scenic Railway with a visit to Palm Cove. This postcard beach has been made famous Australia-wide for it’s rows of coconut palm trees that line the golden shores.
Go beach hopping in Cairns
Even with the islands’ pristine waters close-by, Cairns still has some great beach spots worth a visit. Some of my personal favorites are Trinity Beach, Palm Cove, and Ellis Beach. And don’t worry — most have a croc and stinger net, so you can enjoy a swim without worrying about bumping into any beasts.
Visit the Crater Lakes and Babinda Boulders
Lake Eacham and Lake Barrine are 2 huge, blue freshwater lakes surrounded by the rainforest. Here, you’ll find rare rainforest birds, walking trails, picnic areas, and a refreshing freshwater swim. Best of all, you can swim in the clear water all year round!
Go canyoning at Behana Gorge
Behana Gorge is the place to spend a day swimming, exploring, and enjoying the Tropical Far North’s tranquil rainforests. This gorge is located in Wooroonooran National Park, just south of Cairns. Even though visiting Behana Gorge and Clamshell Falls is free, the best way to explore is on a guided canyoning trip from Cairns. Professional local guides will show you the natural gems hidden in this incredible canyon.
See where the rainforest meets the reef at Cape Tribulation
Exiting the rainforest straight onto a reef-lined tropical beach is up there with great experiences. Cape Tribulation is rich in native flora and fauna, so if you’re planning a trip to Cairns and looking for the best things to do, try a day trip that covers it all. There’s just so much to see and experience, from the rainforest itself, to guided cruises to see local wildlife, or even a stroll on the beach.