If ever the statement “so much to do, so little time” rang true of a destination, Cairns would be it. With the Great Barrier Reef in its front yard and the Wet Tropics rainforest out the back, aside from your bathers, time is the best thing you can pack for a visit to Tropical North Queensland. If it’s your first time in the North Queensland capital, start with these 16 things to do in Cairns.
Visit the Great Barrier Reef
First priority: ‘Seas’ the day with a visit to the Great Barrier Reef, the World Heritage-listed wonder sitting on Cairns’ doorstep.
You’ll find a marina full of tour boats to take you out to the nearby islands and outer reef, so whether you’ve only got a morning to see the Great Barrier Reef at speed, or more nights to languish on a liveaboard, you’ll find a reef tour to suit.
Go under water without getting wet at the Cairns Aquarium
Tropical North Queensland might be full of big nature experiences but seeing all of its diverse eco-systems is damn near impossible unless your holiday has no discernible end date.
Enter the Cairns Aquarium which connects you with 16,000 species of animals across 10 different ecosystems and 71 different exhibits – while also owning the bragging rights as the only aquarium in the world to showcase wildlife from two World Heritage-listed sites.
Not only can you expect the regular behind-glass aquarium style experience, at Cairns Aquarium you can also go diving with the sharks (no experience required), or take a Marine Life Encounters tour which involves a personal guide through the aquarium including back of house and newly created turtle hospital.
Wander the Cairns Botanic Gardens
Established in 1886, the tropical plants here are as well established as they are rare.
Seriously, the gardens are home to one of only two Amorphophallus Titanums found in Australia.
This Jurassic-looking flowering plant can grow up to 70kg, with each leaf reaching almost seven metres, making it comfortably the largest unbranched inflorescence (aka a plant where the flowers make up the branch and stem) in the world.
There are a number of guided walks you can join to explore gardens and spot wildlife.
Get active outdoors
Swap the four walls of your hotel gym for something much more interactive – Cairns’ great outdoors.
Join the tide of locals who pound the 2.5km Cairns Esplanade pavement each morning for one of the most scenic workouts overlooking the Coral Sea.
Leave your sports watch at home – Cairns Regional Council has placed markers every 500m so you can easily monitor your distance.
For more fitness inspo, head to this fitness lover’s guide to Cairns.
Swim in the rainforest
With an annual weather pattern that puts the ‘tropical’ in Tropical North Queensland, knowing where to cool off is just as important as knowing where to stay in Cairns.
Looking for more waterfalls and waterholes? Check out 20 to chase near Cairns.
Discover Rusty’s Markets
If you thought the colours of the landscape up here were bright and bold, wait until you see the region’s local produce at Rusty’s Markets.
Rusty’s has been operating from its Grafton St location for more than 30 years, packing over 180 stalls into one city block with everything from sarongs to Vietnamese coffee, fruit and veggies to crocodile-leather bracelets.
Fresh produce is the star attraction here, drawing some of Tropical North Queensland’s most acclaimed chefs to collect their supplies, including Nick Holloway of the award-winning Nu Nu Restaurant in Palm Cove.
Go bar hopping
Playing tourist is thirsty work at the best of times, but add in a tropical climate and humidity and you’ll want to keep this list of the best bars and breweries in Cairns marked in your favourites.
You’ll find everything from speakeasy-inspired gin joints and rooftop bars overlooking the Coral Sea to breweries pouring frothies mixed from the healing waters of Mossman Gorge, all within Cairns’ city footprint.
Hit the shops
Souvenirs come in all shapes and sizes in Tropical North Queensland from pocket-sized linen tea-towels to hand-painted didgeridoos.
Have yourself a seafood feast
Few destinations can cut down the food miles between trawler and table quite like Cairns.
If you’re looking for a seafood smorgasbord, check out this list of the best seafood restaurants in Cairns to treat your taste buds.
For a dinner to remember, head down to the marina and hop aboard Prawn Star, where four restored fishing trawlers, now moored and decorated in festoon lights, deliver a simple (but superb) vision: fresh seafood and cold beers.
Catch an art exhibition
Tropical North Queensland plays muse to more than a few artists and has the art gallery scene to prove it.
For Indigenous art, Bulmba-ja in Cairns showcases the works and stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Turn back the pages of history at the Cairns Museum
If you like to get to know a city through its history, explore The Cairns Museum on Lake St in Cairns’ CBD.
Covering everything from Indigenous stories to those of the cane pioneers, the Cairns Museum shares just about every side of the Tropical North Queensland story.
This museum doesn’t just focus on Cairns’ obvious icons like the reef and rainforest, but interesting moments in time including toad plagues, mould outbursts and the impact of the 1970s hippie movement.
Explore Cairns’ best playgrounds
When you’re travelling with little kids, knowing where the nearest playground is becomes just as important as the whereabouts of your caffeine-fix.
Tropical North Queensland has a few favourite playgrounds worth adding to your tiny traveller’s itinerary, like Muddy’s Playground, which is shaded by towering Fig Trees on the Cairns Esplanade.
This playground makes others pale in comparison with a flying fox, slides and rope bridge and onsite café, Muddy’s Café, for mum and dad.
If you want to make your playgrounds progressive, also add Fig Tree Playground aka the ultimate treehouse and Centenary Lakes home of nature-play to your holiday itinerary.
Take a dip in the Cairns Lagoon
Few public pools are as iconic as the Cairns Lagoon, with 4800 square meters of saltwater swimming space fronting the Coral Sea.
With safe swimming conditions right in the heart of the CBD, this free swimming hole draws a crowd, day and night (well, until 9pm).
Make a day out of it by packing something to throw on the free BBQs nearby, or join one of Cairns Council’s free fitness events – with everything from pilates to volleyball on the schedule.
Catch a show
There’s always something on in Cairns, but there’s only one place to get an overview of all events happening in Council-owned venues – Ticketlink.
Here you’ll find a list of what’s on at The Tanks, Munro Martin Parklands and Cairns Performing Arts Centre.
Of course if you’re looking for other events, jump across to see what’s on throughout the region here.