Cairns & Tropical North Queensland has everything you need to enjoy the best holiday ever. The mix of coral reefs, isolated beaches, lush rainforests, and scenic ocean road drives make Cairns our favorite place to explore in Australia. Please keep reading to discover our Top 7 things to do in Cairns and Tropical North Queensland.
Cairns, the gateway to Tropical North Queensland
Cairns, the gateway to Tropical North Queensland, is also known as the ‘Adventure Capital of Australia’. It is a place where travelers realize their bucket list dreams – bungee jumping, skydiving, parachuting. There are water-based activities like white water rafting, sea kayaking, cruises, sailing, diving, snorkeling, and crocodile watching. And land-based activities include horseback riding, cable cars through the jungle, and scenic coastal road trips. Nowhere else can you find such an extensive range of activities in a spectacular setting.
There are so many activities that you could easily spend a few weeks here. We rank it as Australia’s most livable city. And if you wish to stay longer, there is ample work available from restaurant and bar jobs, hostel and resort jobs, and au pair positions. There is also farm work and fruit picking in the surrounding area.
Our Top 7 Things to Do in Tropical North Queensland
We’ve traveled extensively through the area for the last 20 years. The most important recommendation we would give you is to plan to stay longer. We have so many things to do in Cairns that we love. Here are some of our favorite things to do in Cairns, which are also the reason that Cairns has a thriving tourist industry.
Along with it being the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and all the adventure activities of Tropical North Queensland, Cairns is the nightlife mecca for travelers. There are plenty of bars (with music beckoning you on every corner) open till late, plying you with happy hour drinks and meal deals.
Additionally, Cairns has become a foodies scene. There are high-quality restaurants, often with astounding sea views. Plus, for those who like to get high, there’s Rocco – the highest rooftop bar in the city. It’s on the tower at the 5-star hotel, The Riley, and offers panoramic views over the Coral Sea.
Cairns is an excellent base for your Tropical North Queensland holiday. There is a plentiful supply of hostels and hotels, cafes and restaurants. There are countless shops selling clothes and souvenirs; it will keep you busy by day and night. The night markets sell everything from tropical shakes to clothes and jewelry, and massage. And when you are all shopped out and partied out, nature and beaches are waiting to help you unwind.
Cairns is one of our 7 Best Places to Visit in Australia.
Read the article and see our six other Best places to visit in Australia.
The Great Barrier Reef
The iconic Great Barrier Reef is the world’s most extensive coral reef system and one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It is an astonishing 2000 kilometers in length and has over 1000 islands. Therefore, it is the perfect place for diving, snorkeling, and boat cruising. This unique experience is one to add to the bucket list and one of the best things to do in Cairns.
There are many boat trips available from Cairns to take you on your reef experience. Whether you are after a day trip or an overnight trip, there is sufficient variety. There are snorkel tours with extravagant seafood lunches, budget-price backpacker tours, and introductory dive trips, to name a few.
The one we chose included a day cruise with a seafood lunch, two introductory dives, and a return by helicopter to Cairns. If you can afford to splash out, we highly recommend this fun adventure. To see the Great Barrier Reef from the air is thrilling. You can arrange trips from your hostel/hotel or the many travel agents around town.
Fitzroy Island is a national park with plenty of water activities on offer, and accommodation is available at a 4-star resort. This unspoiled island, surrounded by pristine rainforest and idyllic beaches, is a great place to unwind and relax. There are rainforest walking tracks to explore the island. You can snorkel right off the beach. Also, there are sea kayaking and glass bottom boat tours available on the island.
An island experience is a must when visiting Queensland. And Fitzroy Island is only 45 minutes from Cairns, so it makes an ideal day trip. But, we would recommend staying a few days and indulging in living on a tropical island for a few days. It is one of our favorite islands in Australia, and staying in a beachfront cabin on a tropical island is a memory you will cherish for a lifetime. Plus, nestled in the rainforest and right on the beach is the bar/restaurant. It’s one of our favorite things to do in Cairns – the cocktail hour at sunset on Fitzroy Island.
Day trip by scenic rail to Kuranda Village
Just out of Cairns, take the Kuranda Scenic Rail to Kuranda Village. The rail follows a twisting mountain track and takes you to a secluded village in the rainforest. Kuranda is part of the Atherton Tablelands, and there are many parks offering rivers and lakes for swimming and boating.
At Kuranda, there are two daily markets. These charming outdoor markets offer regional arts and crafts, local produce, and tasty treats. These rainforest markets originating in the 70s retain their authentic “hippy’ atmosphere.
Return to Cairns by the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. The 7.5 km award-winning picturesque cableway runs above the Barron Gorge National Park. Dubbed the world’s most beautiful rainforest experience, the views above the canopy are dramatic.
When they say, “It’s about the journey, not the destination,” they are talking about Kuranda. However, having said that, Kuranda is one of those charming places with so many delightful spectacles. Don’t miss a visit to the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, the wildlife park, and The Australian Butterfly Sanctuary.
The Waterfall Circuit
There are many national parks in Far North Queensland that boast rainforests and waterfalls. Our favorite, the Waterfall Circuit, is a drive starting from Cairns. Hire a car from Cairns for the day. Heading South, you will pass farmland and sugar cane plantations, lakes, and lush waterfalls.
Within an hour from Cairns, you will be at Lake Barrine. The lake formed when a volcano erupted, and it left a crater that filled up with water. Stop for morning tea in the beautiful heritage teahouse. The views are heavenly. Also, there are 45-minute rainforest & wildlife cruises around the volcanic crater brim.
The drive to the waterfalls stops first at the spectacular heritage-listed Milla Milla Falls. They are one of the most photographed falls in Australia, and they are a great swimming spot. We’ve seen many waterfalls around Australia. Even though they are heavily touristed and can get crowded, they are our favorite.
Zillie Falls and Ellinjaa Falls are the next stops. They are an Instagrammers Dream.
As we love freshwater swimming and waterfalls views, we also always go to the lesser-visited Pepina and Mungalli Falls.
Not part of the waterfall circuit is our favorite stop on the day trip. We also visit Josephine Falls and Babinda Boulders on the way back to Cairns. We prefer swimming in these falls as they are less crowded. Also, we love the rainforest walk to Josephine Falls and the huge boulders at Babinda Boulders.
Coastal Road Trip
It’s hard to leave the cosmopolitan yet laid-back Cairns, but the scenic trip ahead is awe-inspiring.
It’s unquestionably worth renting a car for a day trip to drive to Port Douglas. Though if you have time, you will feel less rushed if you stop a night or two in Port Douglas.
Driving 70 kilometers north, this trip offers the most spectacular coastal scenery in Australia. Picture this – coconut trees swaying in the breeze, glorious long white beaches, lush rainforest meets the sea.
North of Cairns, there are many stunning beaches and bays to explore. Among them, one of our favorite things to do in Cairns is to visit Palm Cove, only thirty minutes away from Cairns City.
Palm Cove is a quaint village that boasts many cafes that serve delightful seaside dining. The beachside holiday destination is packed with compelling leisure activities, and there are many fun things to do in Palm Cove.
Further along the coast, once you get to pretty Ellis Beach, you will be driving right on the oceanfront. The many lookouts offer remarkable views. Rex Lookout has the most unbelievable panorama, so make sure to stop here.
Far North Queensland is one of our favorite road trips in Australia.
For our favourite Australian road trips, read Road Trip Australia – Don’t Miss our Top 5 Road trips.
Port Douglas township is a laid-back village with palm tree-lined award-winning beaches. It’s no wonder it’s turned into a resort for the rich and famous. The town offers a boutique shopping strip, sophisticated restaurants, and boat trips to the reef. We particularly love having drinks at the marina. And the beaches here are the best for swimming.
Port Douglas is a great base to explore the surrounding area. And the resorts in Port Douglas are world-class.
Not far from here are World Heritage-listed areas Mossman Gorge and Daintree National Park. With its sublime rainforest setting, Mossman Gorge ranks as one of our favorite freshwater swims in Australia.
Daintree National Park is a one-hour drive from Port Douglas. Combine your visit to the world’s oldest tropical rainforest with a trip to Cape Tribulation National Park. This enchanting area is where the rainforest meets the sea. We should list it as No. 8 of our favorites of Far North Queensland as it is a journey like no other. Starting by crossing the Daintree River by car ferry, you drive through the remote, lush jungle into the primeval wilderness. If you can, spend a few days to explore this spectacular area.
And, for the intrepid traveler, you can travel up the coast past Cooktown (a quaint village at the gateway to the wilderness) to the top of Cape York Peninsula. It is one of the wildest and least populated parts of Australia.
Beach and freshwater swimming, hot tropical weather, lush rainforest – it’s the closest you’ll come to paradise on Earth. Mix in the incredible reef, scenic coastline, hair-raising adventures, and tropical islands; it’s all part of the parcel of the Tropical North Queensland experience.
People from all over the world dream of the tropical paradise that surrounds Cairns in steamy North Queensland. Eat your heart out!