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Top 10 Things to Do in Cairns on a First Visit, QLD

Tropical North Queensland offers a tempting alternative to overseas travel. Cosmopolitan regional hub Cairns has much of the flavour of an international resort destination, minus the flight time and passport queues. Here's a checklist of ten amazing things to do around town.
Ten of the best things to do in Cairns
Ten of the best things to do in Cairns. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

Cairns has a way of whisking you off to distant places, carried on the cooling Coral Sea breeze.

The azure waters and coral beaches of Fitzroy and Green Islands could well be those of Fiji or French Polynesia, while the rainforest-clad peaks of the encircling Gillies Range are reminiscent of Maui or Phuket. Exploring the rainforest village of Kuranda brings sudden flashbacks of Ubud or Chiang Mai, and the sights, sounds and smells of the Cairns Night Markets are a non-stop magic carpet ride to the steamy back-streets of Bangkok or Singers. It’s actually quite hard to shake the feeling of being somewhere else, even though this is our own patch of paradise and no passport is needed to get here!

The gateway to Tropical North Queensland has long reigned as an Australian holiday hotspot, but if it’s your first visit, forget any preconceptions you may have about Cairns. Because this is a destination packed to the palm-tree-tops with surprises.

Here are ten of the best things to do in Cairns on a first visit.


Ways to see the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns

Cairns Tours, Activities & Attractions


1. Go on a self-guided heritage walk

Cairns is not short on intriguing incongruities and one of them is the trove of tropical-meets-classical period architecture that peppers the streets of the bustling CBD. Download a self-guided heritage walking tour map from the City of Cairns website and head off to explore. You’ll clock the former Cairns City Council Chambers (now the City Library) — constructed in the Academic Classical Style of the late 1920s — and  the epic columns of the Cairns Post building, which dates back to 1908. While they’ve long been refurbished and repurposed as commercial buildings, the former Cairns Post Office and the Old Telegraph Office retain their stunning period details, as does the home of the Cairns Art Gallery. Built in the 1930s, it once housed the State Government Insurance Office.

Ten of the best things to do in Cairns
Ten of the best things to do in Cairns: Cairns Art Gallery. Image: Adam Ford

While you’re at the gallery, take the opportunity to recalibrate at Perrotta’s at the Gallery — a shaded terrace café with lots of lovely ceiling fans.

2. Explore the city’s past at the Cairns Museum

The question of how Cairns came to hold such a trove of ornate architecture is answered at the must-visit Cairns Museum on Lake Street. Housed in the former School of Arts building (circa 1907), the museum follows a chronological path from early Indigenous occupation of the region, to the establishment of Cairns as a port town on the back of the gold rush, the building of a rail line through the Atherton Tablelands to transport timber and sugar, the inter-war building boom, and finally, the city’s rise as a tourist mecca in the second half of the 20th century. From sugar cane wagon wheels and World War II ration cards, to 1960s swimsuits and stuffed cane toads, there’s something interesting to zero in on at every turn. Expect to spend a good three or four hours here.

3. Do a city tour and visit the Cairns Botanic Gardens

Traipsing about the city centre on foot is hot work for much of the year, so you may like to roll steps one and two into one pleasantly air-conditioned city sightseeing experience with Cairns Discovery Tours. Their excellent city tour takes in all of the key sights around the CBD and includes a guided visit to the Cairns Museum (which guests are free to return to later in their stay at no extra cost). This is also an opportunity to tick off sweeping Barron Gorge and immerse yourself in the verdant beauty of the Cairns Flecker Botanic Gardens, located about four kilometres north of the city.

Ten of the best things to do in Cairns
Ten of the best things to do in Cairns: Watkins Munro Martin Conservatory

Your guide will lead you along paved pathways and boardwalks framed by lush foliage, as dappled sunlight filters down to ground level and birdsong fills the air. This real life dream sequence culminates with a walk through the Watkins Munro Martin Conservatory, which houses a range of rare tropical plants and a dazzling flutter of butterflies.

4. Let your cares drift away at the Esplanade Lagoon

It’s not easy to improve paradise, but Cairns has nailed it with the shimmering Esplanade Lagoon. Born from the need for a safe swimming option (the waters along the Tropical North Queensland coast may look inviting but there are some serious nasties that dwell within), this world-class recreational facility has a shaded-spot-for-a-beach-towel with your name on it. As you laze in the warm water, it’s hard to detect where the lagoon ends and the Coral Sea takes over, or for that matter exactly where the endless blue sky comes into the equation. Five silver flying fish (a sculptural work titled Woven Fish by contemporary Indigenous artist Brian Robinson) glitter in the sun, as fountains dance and families play. It’s an altogether delightful spot to while a day away.

Ten of the best things to do in Cairns
Ten of the best things to do in Cairns: Esplanade Lagoon

5. Delve into the deep blue at Cairns Aquarium

From the creeks and streams deep within the Queensland Wet Tropics rainforest to the ribbon reefs that preface a drop into the ocean depths, the diversity of marine life that inhabits the waters of Tropical North Queensland is truly mind-blowing. And while those short of time may not be able to visit the outer Great Barrier Reef itself, its wonders come to you at the state-of-the-art Cairns Aquarium. The privately owned facility opened in 2017 and is organised into a chain of environments that lead guests on an ever deeper journey of discovery. One of the many highlights is the Oceanarium, which contains more than a thousand litres of water. Sit and watch spellbound as groupers, cownose rays and reef sharks weave between one another with effortless precision. Keep an eye out for divers entering the tank to hand feed the larger species.

Ten of the best things to do in Cairns
Cairns Aquarium. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

Good things also come in small packages. The dainty seahorses are captivating, as are the clownfish living in symbiotic solitude within the soft tentacles of accommodating sea anemones.

Watch our video of ten top things to do in Cairns:

Ten Amazing Things to Do in Cairns, QLD | City Guide – The Big Bus

Welcome to The Big Bus tour and travel guide’s YouTube Channel. Sitting pretty in Tropical North Queensland, the city of Cairns has undergone an extraordinar…

6. Meet marine turtles on Fitzroy Island

While it’s not accessible to the general public, Cairns Aquarium is home to one of the regional facilities operated by the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre — a 100% volunteer-based organisation that rescues, treats and rehabilitates injured or sick marine turtles. Once an animal reaches the rehabilitation stage, it will be transferred to a sister facility on nearby Fitzroy Island to convalesce.

Ten of the best things to do in Cairns
Do a Turtle Tour on Fitzroy Island. Image: Adam Ford

Recovering turtles aren’t the only ones enjoying this piece of quintessential tropical paradise, with its soft coral beaches, crystal clear water and forested interior. The island is home to a popular resort and also attracts day trippers keen to switch over to island-time, if only for a few hours. The trip on the Fitzroy Flyer launch from Cairns takes just 45 minutes and there are facilities for the use of day visitors, including a beach hut for stinger suit hire, bar/bistro and small general store for the purchase of sandwiches and drinks. Visitors can also book on a tour to meet one of the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre’s current patients.

7. Visit the village in the rainforest

Having had a taste of the region’s sublime coastal beauty, it’s time to turn your attention to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics rainforest, which can be experienced on a day trip from Cairns to the charming village of Kuranda in the Atherton Tablelands. As the crow flies, Kuranda is just 30 kilometres north-west of Cairns, but at 330 metres above sea level there’s some climbing involved. It was the establishment of the Tablelands railway line back in the 1880s that put Cairns on the map, and today the Kuranda Scenic Railway tourist rail service pays fitting homage to those who designed and built this engineering marvel.

The heritage train departs from Cairns railway station and winds its way up the range to Kuranda — which probably boasts more market stalls per capita than anywhere else in the world. There are several market venues, an array of Indigenous arts and crafts shops, a couple of pubs, plenty of cafes and food outlets, and three or four small wildlife parks. Birdworld is quite the experience (just remember to batten everything down, including your earrings!).

Ten of the best things to do in Cairns
Hit the markets in Kuranda. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

Special mention to both classes of travel on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. The standard Heritage Class offers a charm all of its own, and you’ll really feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Treat yourself to an upgrade to Gold Class on the return journey. It may be hot and humid outside, but the chilled glass of bubbles waiting for you on board will work wonders. Plush seating, drinks and nibbles are all included in the ticket price. Alternatively, pair your trip up to Kuranda by train with a ride on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway back down the range.

8. See what’s brewing at Hemingway’s

Hemingway’s Brewery at the historic Cairns Wharf is a bit of a walk from the city centre, but it’s the kind of place travellers can’t get enough of. A large airy space, plenty of tables and seating, a well-priced menu of pub-style favs, attentive service, and a range of ice-old crafted-on-site beers on tap mean you can’t really go wrong here. The period detail of the cavernous wharf building offers heritage gravitas to the proceedings. Our bet is you’ll end up here more than once!

9. Check out some cool cocktail bars

While Cairns is about as far from the eclectic laneways of Melbourne as it’s physically possible to get in Oz, the Three Wolves cocktail bar in a red brick laneway off Abbott Street bridges the divide. ‘Wow’ is the word that springs to mind. This chic bolthole with its subway tiled bar, subtle lighting, hipster-wolf wall art and epic cocktail list is another must-check-out during your stay.

Ten of the best things to do in Cairns
Ten of the best things to do in Cairns: Three Wolves. Image: Adam Ford

Also make a date to drop by the city’s newest rooftop bar — Oak & Vine — on the corner of Shields Street and the Esplanade. Enjoy sweeping sea views as you sip on a watermelon martini or minty mojito and sup on juicy snapper ceviche, topped with red onion, chilli, coriander and fresh lime juice.

10. Soak up the beachfront beauty of Palm Cove

We started this tale with a list of comparisons, and end it with what is possibly incomparable. The oceanfront hamlet of Palm Cove is situated 30-or-so minutes’ drive north of Cairns, and has to be one of the world’s prettiest stretches of beachfront. If you’re doing that tour with Cairns Discovery Tours, Palm Cove is on the itinerary. Otherwise, fire up your Uber app or take the bus (around $10 each way). Gently sloping palm trees form a natural avenue of honour that stretches from the Alamanda Great Barrier Reef Wedding Chapel at one end of the strip, to the Palm Cove Jetty at the other. Take your partner by the hand and meander between the two. The best things in life are indeed free.

Ten of the best things to do in Cairns
Palm Cove. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

Where to stay in Cairns

Comfort Inn Cairns City

Located just a stone’s throw north of the CBD proper, Comfort Inn Cairns City is an affordable accommodation option that’s close enough to the action to be convenient, but far enough away to escape the crowds and late night revelry in the city’s bars and restaurants. The Esplanade, Munro Martin Parklands, Cairns Aquarium and St Monica’s Catholic Cathedral (home to the famous Creation Windows — the world’s largest themed stained glass windows) are all within easy walking distance, and the hotel sits conveniently on the approach into Cairns from the airport.

Ten of the best things to do in Cairns
Image: Comfort Inn Cairns City

There are 53 rooms in total, spread over two levels and configured as twin, queen, and family suites. Guest amenities include a number of off-street parking spaces, a fully equipped laundry and complimentary Wi-Fi. Two in-ground saltwater pools provide welcome afternoon respite from the heat and humidity.

The writer travelled as a guest of Choice Hotels.

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Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Cairns on a first visit? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

Adam Ford

About the writer

Adam Ford is editor of Top Oz Tours & Travel Ideas, and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger, and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.

 

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  1. After being overseas for 8 weeks, coming back home to Cairns was the high light of our o/s trip. We didn’t see any place as charming and as colourful as Cairns. With a climate matching Singapore, it’s so comfortable to get around in tropical shorts and T-shirt and sandals. Very laid-back lifestyle, accompanied with over 300 days of sunshine per year, Cairns has it all. The GBR is the largest living organism on Earth and you can visit it 7 days a week, tropical rainforests, some the oldest on Earth, beautiful beaches and rivers, and mountains. There are several lakes on the lush green Atherton Tablelands, and tea plantations where you can enjoy locally grown teas and world class coffee. Just west of Cairns are rugged ancient caves gorges and volcanic horizontal blowholes, that were created by hot lava. Narrow freshwater gorges lined with timid freshwater crocodiles that scatter away when people approach in small boats. So much to see and do.

    1. Hi Paddy. Thank you for the feedback. You have made some great suggestions. It is a fabulous part of the world. Thanks again. Regards, Adam Ford (Editor)

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