The top things to do in Cairns

Discover the top things to do in Cairns including a day trip to the Great Barrier Reef, a journey into the rainforest or an escape to Green and Fitzroy Islands for a day in a tropical paradise.

The top things to do in Cairns

Discover the top things to do in Cairns including a day trip to the Great Barrier Reef, a journey into the rainforest or an escape to Green and Fitzroy Islands for a day in a tropical paradise.

Other things to do in Cairns

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Top 10 Things to do Cairns

Tropical North Queensland's adventure playground is one of Australia's fastest-growing travel hotspots in terms of international recognition that makes up for its relatively small size with a wide array of activities and attractions both man-made and natural. While the chief attractions of note in Cairns are the stunning Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest, Cairns offers numerous other adventures on land, sea, and even air - many of which are ideal for those who crave adventure.

The city features a bustling nightlife, plenty of accommodation on both ends of the economic spectrum, year-round warm weather and a slow but increasingly developing infrastructure as well as a compact size that combines to make it a pleasant balance between the laid-back and the upbeat.

Cairns is largely a city that has built its backbone on tourism and travel, and as a result, nearly every industry in operation in the city and its surrounds are oriented towards providing guests with opportunities for sightseeing or adventure in some fashion. This results in one of the highest number-of-things-to-do vs. city size ratios in Australia for visitors - but with so much to choose from in a limited itinerary, what are the best Cairns experiences overall?

The plethora of regions, natural landscapes and world heritage coral reefs and rainforests are a lot to cover in one visit - especially if you are a first-timer. Cairns tours can help you cover a lot of ground in a day and get the lowdown on the hidden gems that the locals like to keep a secret.

With a huge array of Cairns reef tours to choose from, it can be a little overwhelming. We take a detailed look at the Top 10 Things to do in Cairns & surrounds including the best attractions such as the Cairns Aquarium, Green Island, Fitzroy Island and more. With our handy guide to Cairns, you'll find yourself wanting to escape to Tropical North Queensland to tick off all the best things to do in Cairns.

1. Day Cruise to the Outer Barrier Reef

Location: Approx. 1.5 - 2 hours from Cairns, QLD

As the Great Barrier Reef is, for many, a once in a lifetime experience, an argument can easily be made that it's well worth investing the extra time and money to get the best possible experience during your time here.

While it requires the greatest amount of overall effort to reach, the Outer Great Barrier Reef simply tends to be more beautiful overall than the fringing reefs closer to the mainland. A trip further out gives you the best chance to see coral, fish and other marine life at their best and brightest, and - assuming you're not requiring the comfort of lazing on a sandy beach as part of your trip - you'll have everything you need with most tour operators either on board their boat or on one of the popular "activity platforms" which dot the reef.

Divers, in particular, stand to gain the most with a trip to the Outer Reef rather than one of the islands as there are numerous popular dive sites that have been hand-picked by tour operators for their stunning array of marine life. The likes of SilverSwift, Quicksilver, Down Under Cruise and Dive and Great Adventures all offer itineraries that take prospective divers to the Flynn, Milln, Thetford and Moore reefs, with each site providing a slightly different focus.

Some provide spectacular soft corals, others a wider array of fish and different marine life such as turtles and rays. The range of underwater canyons, gorges and coral gardens on the Outer Reef is simply staggering, and multi-day tours are available that include a variety of different dive sites to ensure you get the full range of aquatic experiences.

While it requires the greatest amount of overall effort to reach, the Outer Great Barrier Reef simply tends to be more beautiful overall than the fringing reefs closer to the mainland.

While it requires a greater effort to reach, the Outer Great Barrier Reef gives you the best chance to see coral, tropical fish and marine life at their healthiest and brightest for snorkellers and divers alike.

Those with no interest in diving can still make the most of their trip to the Outer Reef with the majority cruises taking guests to moored pontoons and activity platforms. These platforms are designed to take advantage of some truly great spots on the reef and provide plenty of water-based or onboard activities to take part in for less confident swimmers.

While these can sometimes be crowded affairs, particularly during peak season and on the larger vessels, they're never unpleasantly so and are set up to provide all the amenities one could need for an extended stay on the reef without needing an island to do so. Hot showers, spacious sundecks and buffet lunches are all staples of most itineraries, while underwater viewing windows and snorkelling equipment round out the offerings.

At the very least, with a day trip to the outer reef you'll spend anywhere between 4 and 5 hours actually enjoying this Natural Wonder of the World, however, three and even five day trips that incorporate onboard accommodation, meals and even diving lessons are available for those looking for an extended experience. How long it takes to travel to the Outer Reef from Cairns is dependent on both the vessel you travel with and their choice of mooring site, however, expect anywhere from 1.5 to 2 hours' trip one way as a conservative estimate.

While it's the most expensive option for most travellers and it's understandable if people prefer to island-hop, if the best diving, water quality, and coral viewing are top priorities for your trip to Cairns then a trip to the Outer Reef should be at the top of your Cairns itinerary.


2. Visit Fitzroy Island

Location: 30km from Cairns, QLD

If you're a tourist to Cairns who is, somewhat ironically, wanting a slightly less touristy island exploration option than Green Island, then Fitzroy Island can make for perhaps a more ideal choice. With a reputation as more of a place for locals than visitors, Fitzroy Island provides a solid all-around island destination with plenty of activities that are also quite accessible from Cairns – although not as easily as Green Island – and requires more effort to reach for an often greater payoff.

Due to its further distance from Cairns, the crossing to Fitzroy Island can be subject to wind conditions and rougher seas, however, in the end, you'll have reached what is an actual island rather than just a coral cay. It's this more solid environment that provides a greater diversity of things to do on Fitzroy Island than Green Island.

Fitzroy Island offers the likes of hiking, sea kayaking and a range of bars and cafes in addition to the standard snorkelling and lazing in the sunshine, although there are plenty of secluded places to do that here, too. Fitzroy Island is also far larger than Green Island and comes complete with not only tropical rainforest but additional spectacles in the way of dense woodlands and stony coasts that are a joy to explore.

Fitzroy Island provides a solid all-around island destination with plenty of activities that are also quite accessible from Cairns.

Fitzroy Island remains one of the lesser-known paradises of North Queensland with a great variety of walking tracks, sea kayaking and snorkel adventures plus a beach bar to accompany your days lazing in the sunshine.

This larger size and additional distance from Cairns also means that the population of snorkellers is far less dense than on Green Island, making it easier to get that feeling of escapism that marine exploration is supposed to provide. Fitzroy Island is quieter and more of a true getaway destination, which is why many choose Tropical North QLD in the first place.

Fitzroy Island has a great variety of walking tracks to keep visitors occupied on land, with its main Summit Walk that takes you on a path through the forestry, leading up to the island's lighthouse and providing a great outlook. After you've finished exploring, Fitzroy Island's Foxy's Bar makes for a great place to kick back with a drink and soak in stunning reef views, while the island's 5-star luxury resort provides an elite accommodation option for those looking for an extended stay.

Add to this Fitzroy's lovely Nudey Beach, the perfect spot for relaxation, and it's a tempting package that makes the extra time and effort to get here well worth it. While there's no definitive answer to which out of Fitzroy Island or Green Island is truly "better" as it depends on your main holiday purpose, Fitzroy gets the nod here simply due to its tendency to be less crowded and still reasonably close to Cairns.


3. Ride the SkyRail Rainforest Cableway

Location: Cnr Captain Cook Highway & Cairns Western Arterial Road, Smithfield, Cairns outskirts, QLD

The Great Barrier Reef isn't the only natural wonder that Tropical North QLD is home to even though it tends to receive the majority of the publicity - its accompanying World Heritage protected rainforest is a green equivalent that is equally impressive in its own way. Hundreds of millions of years old, these dense rainforests form a backbone of the Cairns region and are filled with biodiversity, and Cairns' Skyrail Rainforest Cableway offers easily the best and most accessible way to travel over – and into – its green heart.

An experience that is far more than just getting you from A to B, the Skyrail runs from the base of the rainforest to Kuranda (the Village in the Rainforest) and provides outstanding views above the treetops as the tropical landscape followed by the panorama of the reef stretches out in the distance.

The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway consists of a 7.5km journey above the treetops, with passengers taken up in fully-enclosed cable cars capable of seating six people providing 360-degree views, and pausing for stops at two different locations along the way.

The first stop is Red Peak station, where you can embark on a guided tour through the rainforest with a ranger who can point out all the history, ecology and other natural highlights. The second stop offers a look at the spectacular, gushing Barron Falls with several outstanding lookout points. The end goal of the trip up is Kuranda itself, which is a quirky little tourist village literally nestled within the treetops, and the ideal spot for a bit of exploration, a bite to eat, or grabbing a souvenir.

The SkyRail provides outstanding views above the treetops as the tropical landscape followed by the panorama of the reef stretches out in the distance.

The Great Barrier Reef isn’t the only natural wonder in Tropical North QLD. The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway will take you soaring in the air on a 7.5 journey above the treetops of the world heritage Daintree Rainforest with outstanding views of the tropical landscape.

The entire experience is both gentle and safe while also surprisingly long and good value for money as you can expect to spend about 1.5 hours each way on the experience. There's also the option to upgrade to a special Diamond Car cabin that has a glass bottom, allowing you to peer directly down into the rainforest canopy, which helps add to the sense of immersion and being surrounded by greenery.

Once at the top you'll then have the choice of either taking the Skyrail back down to the bottom again or taking the Scenic Railway train option which takes an alternate pathway through the rainforest – if you're short on time, the return SkyRail option is your best bet here. There are also other wildlife attractions in the treetops featuring local fauna if you're looking to make a full day of it.

The Cairns Skyrail Cableway terminal is easily reached in around a 15-minute drive from Cairns, and a variety of local shuttle bus companies run transfers to and from Cairns to the terminal, making both self-drive and public transport options available. While your miles may vary with how much you enjoy Kuranda itself, with the Skyrail the highlight is very much the journey rather than purely the destination and it's one of the unique journeys in Australia, making it another Cairns essential.


4. Visit Green Island

Location: Coral Sea, 45 minutes from Cairns, QLD

In terms of accessibility, Green Island just off the Cairns' coast is hard to beat for those looking for a quick and enjoyable spot to do all the Great Barrier Reef essentials without having to devote a large amount of time or money to do so.

While it is more popular with tourists than other nearby alternatives, its mixture of convenience and scenery are not to be ignored. Green Island is a coral cay fringed by reef and famous for two main highlights - its high number of sea turtles, and its iconic SeaWalker helmet diving experience and local photo bombing Parrotfish, Gavin.

While the water quality is never going to be able to compare with the Outer Great Barrier Reef, Green Island's snorkelling and other water-based opportunities are still superb and more than sufficient, and there's a consistent effort made by the island and its tour operators to make accessing the sights of the reef as family-friendly as possible. Semi-submersible rides are a favourite among those with kids, providing a clear look at the fish and turtles that call the surrounding waters home, while glass-bottom boat roads are also a viable sightseeing alternative.

Green Island is easily accessible from Cairns via ferry and is blessed with fringing coral reefs. Snorkelling and glass-bottom boat rides are a favourite with families, providing a clear look at the fish and turtles that call the surrounding waters home.

The snorkelling on offer is also perfect for beginners, and most tour options for Green Island also include snorkel hire packages, making it an ideal and budget-conscious option for introducing the little ones to this highly enjoyable act of marine exploration. The island itself is kept very clean while still being modern, which is impressive considering the sheer volume of tourists who make the short trip over from Cairns each year.

The rainforest landscape on the coral cay is great for exploring, as there is a range of well-formed tracks that take you on a path through the rainforest. Amenities on the island also warrant a mention, as it's been developed and modernised over the years to ensure visitors won't go lacking. There is a resort, souvenir and convenient stores, public showers and lockers, and several restaurants. This makes it a viable place to spend a full day or two days, should you choose to stay overnight.

Both Big Cat Cruises and Great Adventures offer trips across to Green Island, with competitive pricing and good service making for a financially reasonable day on the water.

Considering that all it takes is a scenic 45-minute cruise across the Coral Sea from Cairns to reach Green Island, if you're in Cairns and looking for a taste of the reef without having to over-commit money-wise – or if you've got kids along for the ride – then it makes for one of the best choices for a Cairns experience in all but the busiest periods of the year.


5. Go Bungy Jumping

Location: McGregor Rd, Smithfield, Cairns outskirts, QLD

An iconic and adventurous experience of Cairns that's set to test those even with nerves of steel, bungy jumping is truly the region's "ultimate plunge". A rite of passage of sorts for young adults and adventure seekers of all ages alike visiting the Cairns region, this bungy experience in the tropics was established by those renowned bungy jumping experts originally from New Zealand - AJ Hackett.

As Australia's only purpose-built bungy platform, it's a rush that is as unique as it is scary, however for those who can set their fears aside, it's an incredibly scenic adventure as well.

The 50-metre high bungy platform offers outstanding views of the surrounding rainforest and the iconic reef in the distance, although the heart may likely be pounding a little too fast to fully appreciate it.

It's a rush that is as unique as it is scary, however, for those who can set their fears aside, bungy jumping in Cairns is an incredibly scenic adventure as well. Come and tick a Cairns bungy jump off your adventure bucket list.

While bungy – which originated in New Zealand and has now become a phenomenon around the world – is a widely known extreme adventure these days, it's expanded beyond the basics to where AJ Hackett Cairns now offers a range of a staggering 16 different jump styles to choose from. Play it safe with a forward-facing jump, or take it up a notch and go backwards, do a flip or go blindfolded; the choice is yours.

The friendly, casual and light-hearted attitudes of the staff who do their best to lighten the mood while also being conscientious of first-time jumpers' nerves. There's also an undeniable sense of self-reassurance and confidence that comes as a result of completing your first bungee jump; the sense of overcoming your fears and simply “going for it” is an ego boost, to say the least.

The bungy complex, which sits around 20 minutes' drive north of Cairns, is generally laid-back with BBQ facilities and live music to take advantage of. There's also an additional thrill option, the Minjin Jungle Swing, which is an activity that swings in a wide arc through the rainforest at high speeds.


6. Go White Water Rafting

Location: Barron, Tully & Russel Rivers, QLD

Who said all the water-based fun in Cairns had to be reserved for the Great Barrier Reef? Look a little inland, and Cairns also provides adventurous visitors with thrilling aquatic adventures on river rapids as it the home of some of Australia's best white water rafting.

All of the Barron, Russell and Tully rivers are located within a reasonable distance of Cairns, and each river offers a slightly different take on the rafting experience. Featuring various grades of rapids and courses that range from scenic and ideal for families all the way up to challenging Grade 4 rapids.

Local operator Raging Thunder rafts the Tully and Barron Rivers, while Foaming Fury operates on the Russell and Barron Rivers.

Each river [near Cairns] offers a slightly different take on the rafting experience.

Which river you select will depend on a combination of how confident you are in the water and how much time and money you're willing to invest. Regardless of your choice of rivers, rafting is a very team-oriented and social activity, and Cairns offers options that can suit all comers, with expert rafting guides on each itinerary who aim to make the adventure fun for visitors while still putting safety first.

You'll be equipped with life jackets, helmets and other safety equipment to ensure peace of mind and while – especially on the Russell and Tully Rivers – you can likely expect to capsize at some point, it's always well regulated and controlled.

Barron River rafting journeys are the shortest and ideal for those who don't want to devote an entire day, while the other two rivers offer extended experiences and include breaks for lunch for you to recharge and get your bearings. Most rafting itineraries include accommodation transfers/pickups as well, so you'll have everything you need to simply come along and enjoy the thrills that make Cairns' rafting so famous.

Few other activities provide such a dose of adrenaline while providing an intimate look at Tropical North QLD's rainforest like white water rafting does. If you don't have a car, you can join a white water rafting tour from Cairns.

So don't hesitate to get wet and wild during your time in Cairns.


7. Visit Paronella Park

This is one of the most enchanting places you're likely to experience in Tropical North QLD. Featuring beautiful gardens, amazing buildings and plenty of history, North QLD's Paronella Park makes for an enchanting place both to stay and explore.

8. Go Hot Air Ballooning

Location: Multiple Locations, Cairns, QLD

It's a common sight to view the Great Barrier Reef with your head under the water, but one why not take in a unique perspective and view it from above? A hot air balloon flight can provide you with a tranquil and stunning viewpoint that few other sightseeing opportunities can match. The combination of clear morning skies and the slow, drifting serenity of a balloon flight, allows ample time to grab incredible panoramic photos and some fantastic memories.

Hot air ballooning is a peaceful experience with the only sounds being the other passengers, the pilot and the flames filling the balloon. The silence creates one of the most breathtaking experiences and allows you to simply revel in the wonder of the Queensland landscape undisturbed.

Cairns makes for a special hot air ballooning destination due to the tapestry of colours that come with a location that is flanked by both the rainforest and reef. The vivid greens and earthy colours of the Atherton Tablelands clash brilliantly with the vibrant blues of the neighbouring ocean to form a spectacular view, particularly as the glow of the sunrise spreads out over the land below. Kangaroos and other Aussie wildlife are also often seen on the ground in this region, adding an extra Australian touch to the proceedings.

Cairns is a special hot air ballooning destination flanked by both the rainforest and reef. Enjoy a once in a lifetime sunrise during a 30 minute or 1 hour flight with return transfers from Cairns.

Passengers have the choice of a 30-minute or 1-hour flight, both of which include return transfers from various Cairns accommodations. Your length of flight choice almost entirely comes down to budget and time. Luxury options including deluxe transfers and breakfast packages are also available for those looking to indulge, and when coupled with the scenery on offer it makes for a highly popular package for celebrating special occasions such as anniversaries, birthdays, or even marriage proposals.

The one obvious sacrifice that has to be made in order to enjoy such an experience is the early wake-up call. Expect to rise and shine at roughly 3 am to 4 am but don't let that turn you off as it allows you to take advantage of the best time of day. In short, hot air ballooning is one of life's true must-do experiences and there are few better destinations than Cairns to rise up.

Renowned for their friendly attitude and professional, efficient service, both Hot Air Cairns and Raging Thunder Ballooning come highly recommended. If you're after a birds-eye view of the region, make sure your itinerary has a spot reserved for ballooning.


9. Kuranda Birdworld & Koala Gardens

Visit two of the best wildlife attractions in Tropical North Queensland the Kuranda Koala Gardens and Birdworld. See some of your favourite Aussie animals both on the ground and in the air at these two fun-filled parks located within easy walking distance from the top of the Kuranda Skyrail. If you want to see both attractions, save on tickets with our 2 Attractions combo Pass.


10. Cairns Aquarium

Location: Florence Street, Cairns, QLD

The new flagship of Cairns' attractions scene, Cairns Aquarium opened in September 2017 and serves as the star of the region's potential wet-weather attractions, showcasing the diverse marine life of the Great Barrier Reef in fine form.

Located right in the heart of Cairns city within convenient walking distance of the majority of accommodation options, the aquarium is an ultra-modern, multimillion-dollar facility set out over an expansive 3 levels. The aquarium features over 15,000 denizens of the deep and shallows, distributed among 70+ live exhibits that allow for great visibility and up-close encounters.

The Cairns Aquarium is an ideal way both for families and those perhaps skittish in the water to experience the Great Barrier Reef while staying entirely dry, and covers a range of different environments from as far north as Cape York, down to the Wet Tropics region and the Reef itself. Kids, in particular, will benefit here, as its touch tanks have been a veritable child-magnet since its opening, and allow the little ones to go hands-on with the likes of starfish, sea cucumbers and various other aquatic oddities.

The Cairns Aquarium is an ideal way for families and those perhaps skittish in the water to experience the Great Barrier Reef while staying entirely dry. See over 15,000 sea creatures as well as an array of daily talks here.

The overall level of attention to detail here is wonderful, and no species goes under-represented; while there are a number of icons such as shark species, seahorses and the colourful "Nemo" anemone clownfish, there's equal care taken to showcase the state's reptiles, mangrove regions and rainforests as well.

As with many high-end aquariums however, it's the underwater tunnel which serves as the star of the show at Cairns Aquarium. The extensive tank above holds an impressive 300,000 litres and provides a wonderful, close-up perspective of schools of sharks, rays, and various stunning and colourful other Great Barrier Reef species.

The experience here is rounded out by an array of daily talks and presentations that go further in-depth about various aquatic habitats and their inhabitants, providing interesting facts while keeping things simple enough to be comprehended by younger visitors to the aquarium.

Lastly, its Aqualuna Restaurant makes for one of the country's most unique dining experiences, offering a direct view into the main tank while enjoying a quality bite to eat - something which can be enjoyed either before or after your adventure through Queensland's exhibited waters.

If the weather turns sour during your visit to Cairns, or you're looking for a wonderful "primer" to the marine life in the adjacent ocean before heading out there proper, Cairns Aquarium makes for an essential entry on any such Cairns itinerary.

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