12 Awesome Things to do in Cairns

12 Awesome Things to do in Cairns

So, you’ve finally made it to Cairns, the finishing point on your east coast adventure or perhaps it’s your starting line and you’ve got some time to kill before you head off.

Either way your looking to maximise your time here as you’ve just discovered that there is so much more to this place than just the Great Barrier Reef.

Cairns was my last stop on my east coast adventure and quite by accident I ended up staying over 2 weeks in this cool little city. It has a totally different vibe to the other, larger cities of Australia.

It’s more laid back and stress free.

Perhaps it’s the hot and humid summers which lend itself to a slower way of life or the many holidaymakers that are looking for a break from reality. Either way Cairns ticks along at a most pleasant pace.

It’s also well setup for backpackers.

With an abundance of hostels to choose from right in the centre of the city and all within walking distance to Cairns’ best nightlife it’s an easy place to make new friends.

Or as in my case meet up with old ones that you made on the way up the coast.

For those travelling north on their east coast trip, Cairns has traditionally become the place where you all meet up at the end. You may have said farewell to those friends you made on your Fraser Island adventure, those you sailed the Whitsundays with and rode rapids with in mission beach.

However, that was only a see you later with a promise that you would share a drink (or two) when you all made it up to Cairns.

I think it was probably one of the main reasons why I liked this place so much and why I stayed so long.

Yes, I still made new friends while there, but I already had a core network of friends. The days that we weren’t off on little adventures were filled with doing nothing together – which always felt like so much more – and nights were spent hanging out in the bars waiting for happy hour to kick in.

Cairns was my chance to recharge my batteries after a jam-packed, adrenaline-filled east coast adventure.

Yet in between the periods of much needed rest I discovered a unique place with an abundance breath taking scenery and adventures to suit everyone and every budget.

These are my top 12 things to do while you’re in Cairns;


1. Go Chasing Waterfalls with Uncle Brian

Just a short drive from Cairns you can follow the waterfall circuit and experience a multitude of spectacular waterfalls.

If you don’t have a car (or a friend who has one) then don’t worry you can jump on an Uncle Brian’s fun, forest and waterfalls tour just like I did.

It was one of my highlights of the whole east coast trip.

millaa milla waterfalls cairns east coast australia
That time I pretended I was posing for a herbal essence advert

From learning about the rainforest, to sliding down a waterfall slide at Josephine falls this day had me smiling from ear to ear for the following days.

Not to mention the delicious lunch and heaps of snacks that were provided.

Read more about this adventure on the Chasing waterfalls with Uncle Brian post

2. Visit the Great Barrier Reef.

Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and is often the main reason why people visit.

As I told my travel agent when he asked me if I wanted to book onto a daytrip, “as one of the 7 wonders of the world, it would be kind of rude not to go”.

There is obviously an abundance of different tours that you can book on from day trips, to scenic flights, you can even stay overnight on a pontoon if you want to.

Personally, I can’t recommend enough the Island Diver crew who took us out to see 3 different reef systems on the MV Sunkist.

Great barrier reef coral snorkel
Even just by snorkelling you can get up close to the coral

The crew were really friendly and super knowledgeable. Plus, its one of the only small family business boats left running and has an enthusiastic view on educating their clients on the environmental impact on the reef.

The tour includes an introductory dive where you have the chance to find Nemo and even some reef sharks if your lucky.

Due to health reasons I am not allowed to scuba dive, but this wasn’t a problem as you can still see so much just by snorkelling alone. Be warned though, the currents at some of the reefs can be quite strong and you will work up a decent appetite!

Read more about the Great Barrier Reef here.

3. Visit the Aquarium

Not the sea-faring kind or don’t have the budget to get out on the open ocean?

Never fear, you can still experience the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef at the Cairns Aquarium.

As the only aquarium in the world that is exclusively dedicated to the habitats and species of tropical North Queensland you can marvel at not just the creatures of the Great Barrier Reef but of The Wet Tropics, The Gulf Savannah and Cape York Regions too. And all without getting wet!

The Cairns aquarium is home to over 15,000 animals from 10 different ecosystems and 71 habitats.

School of fish – Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

You can join one of the several daily talks and presentations to learn even more about the aquatic life housed here. There are even 2 “touch talks” where, under supervision, you can touch some of the incredible creatures including lizards, sea stars and sea cucumbers.

Looking for something a bit extra? Well the Cairns Aquarium also offers unique experience such as behind the scenes tours, turtle rehabilitation centre tours and sleeping with the sharks!

Check out the Cairns Aquarium Website for more information

4. Explore the Rainforest

While Cairns may be known for the Great Barrier Reef, I found I spent more time exploring the Rainforest than the sea floor.

The Daintree Rainforest is as magical and as complex an ecosystem and the Great Barrier Reef and only requires a vehicle to get there. There are many ways to explore this ancient Rainforest to uncover its secrets and hidden gems.

Personally, I chose to enlist the help of Uncle Brian once again joining the Cape Tribulation tour.

From lookouts, to immaculate, empty beaches and cool swimming holes Uncle Brian showed us some of the best views of the Rainforest.

cape tribulation beach, daintree rainforest eact coast australia backpacker adventure
The view from Cape Tribulation beach

We even took a detour to the Daintree Ice Cream company who make their ice cream using a variety of in season fruits. I was given a tub with a selection of weird and wonderful flavours, some of which I had never heard of before. Some of which I really enjoyed and some, well, not so much.

Read more about the Daintree Rainforest here.

5. Explore Kuranda, the Village in the Rainforest

This small, relaxed town in the middle of the Rainforest is a world away from the holiday destination of Cairns. Yet its only a short, scenic drive.

Ditch the car though and opt for a more interesting way of reaching Kuranda.

kuranda Scenic Railway, Australia, Cairns
From the moment you step on the platform you are transported back in time

Get a bird’s eye view of the rainforest as you drift along on the Kuranda Sky rail or take the Kuranda Scenic railway and step back in time as the old-styled train winds its way up through the hills taking in the stunning views.

Wander around the historic markets, cuddle a koala or take a hike into the rainforest. From an afternoon to several days Kuranda is a gem in the middle of the rainforest. A gem that shouldn’t be missed.

Find out more about the village in the Rainforest here.

6. Visit Tjapukai Aboriginal Culture Park

Museums and the whole culture thing are not everyone’s cup of tea when travelling and that’s fine.

However, Tjapukai is somewhere I believe that should be on everyone’s list of things to do in Cairns.

Tjapukai aboriginal centre boomerang
Showing off my new found boomerang throwing skills with my aboriginal guide, Joe

Best described as an almost living museum, Tjapukai is an interactive hub that allows you get first hand knowledge and experiences of the aboriginal culture. From live dance shows and storytelling, to face painting, boomerang and spear throwing, it is anything but boring.

The aboriginal people are such a huge part of Australia’s history it would be a shame to ignore it completely. After visiting Tjapukai I really felt like I had a better understanding of aboriginal culture and of Australia as a whole.

You can find out exactly what I got up to at Tjapukai here.

7. Chill out by the Lagoon

Need a break from all the adventuring?

Then head over to the lagoon just meters from the harbourside.

An open air, freeform swimming pool complete with sandy beach is the perfect place to wile away a sunny afternoon.

Cairns Lagoon free open air swimming pool
Chill out, go for a swim and even have a BBQ!

Especially when the actual beach and sea isn’t an advisable place to hang around. Think crocodiles and stingers (Australian for jellyfish).

So, put your swimmers on, grab a towel and your sunscreen and head down to the lagoon. There are even some free BBQ facilities if you want to make a day out of it!


8. Check out the Markets

From the weekend markets down on the esplanade near the lagoon, the night markets to Rusty’s Markets your bound to find something you like.

My personal favourite was Rusty’s market on Grafton Street.

Open Friday through Sunday it is a place full of colour and life. From the sweet-smelling food trucks, the handmade craft gifts to the mountains of fruit and veg, this place had me coming back for more.

All local produce and cheap you will be spoilt for choice. Exactly how many avocados can you carry?

Rusty's market cairns, avocados
Avocados for days

Don’t forget to pick up some bananas. I was recommended to try them as they were supposedly so much sweeter than the ones you will find in the supermarkets. My friend wasn’t wrong. The tastiest bananas I have ever had.


9. Ride the Rapids down the Tully River

If your looking for something a little more adrenaline filled then I would point you in the direction of my absolute highlight of my east coast adventure, Whitewater rafting down the Tully river.

While I did this from Mission Beach, the rafting company, Raging Thunder, also do pickups from Cairns.

Raft the river through the rainforest that towers above you on both sides. Feel like you’ve wandered onto a Jurassic Park film set all while paddling your way through some seriously furious rapids.

whitewater rafting tully river adventure
Riding the rapids like a boss!

Plus, if you take the extreme version you even get the chance to swim down one of the rapids!

Disclaimer: you will get wet. In fact, I spent as much time in the water as I did in the raft although that was mostly out of choice.

Read all about my Whitewater rafting adventure here.

10. Skydive over the Great Barrier Reef

For some reason people decide that they want to chuck themselves out of planes.

Fair play to you.

While I’m not really a skydive kind of person I couldn’t not include this on a list of things to do in Cairns as so many of the people that I met had opted to do this.

here are several options for skydives along the east coast including over the Whitsundays and one a Mission Beach where you get to land on the beach. However, jumping out of a plane to see the Great Barrier Reef below seems like the best of the bunch.

Everyone that I talked to said that they loved it and while some would probably never do it again, they certainly didn’t regret doing.

So, if you’re into chucking yourself out of planes then you can find out more about it here.


11. Bungy Jump

Yes, that’s right if jumping out of plane isn’t enough for you then you can always go bungy jumping too!

Just a 20min drive from Cairns you can get your adrenaline fix. Offering both standard bungy jumps and BMX bungy jumps, which apparently involves riding a BMX bike of a jump ramp, this is another adrenaline rush that seemed popular with the backpacker community.

If that doesn’t sound like something, you’d like they also have the option of the jungle swing.

A swing that swoops you through the rainforest from 45m high to 1m 3.5 seconds. The kicker though, is that it is you who has to set it going or well I guess you would be stuck there forever.

You can find out more information here.


12. Party the Night away at Gilligan’s

Ah Gilligan’s. The infamous backpacker Cairns night out.

Both a hostel and a club this is the place where you will no doubt eventually end up. Don’t try to resist its actually not that bad.

I wouldn’t recommend staying there is you want to get some sleep mind. Besides there are plenty of other hostels within walking distance.

Yes, there are other bars to hang out at, my favourites of which include the Woolshed and P. J. O’Brien’s (the latter of which does some good pub grub) but Gilligan’s is that one place that you always end up going.

You know what I mean, even though you’re like let’s try someplace new somehow you always end up there.

However, there’s much I liked about it.

Such as the reasonably priced alcohol (I guess it is a backpacker bar) the different areas catering to different vibes and especially the outdoor space.

While a whole section of this is dedicated to the smoking area, I actually really enjoyed sitting outside having a drink and a chat to both the people I had gone there with and those I met on the night (again that’s the nature of backpackers for). Beer gardens aren’t really a thing over here, which is strange considering the climate!

Anyway, whether you sneak in for an afternoon drink or go all out-party mode, if you miss out on Gilligan’s have you really even been to Cairns?

Until next time

Keep Adventuring

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