Cairns Travel Guide + 7 Day Travel Itinerary
The Best Things to do in Cairns | Australia + a Suggested 7 day Travel Itinerary
Welcome to the City of Cairns, located in Tropical North Queensland, Australia. While Cairns is only a tiny city of 150 thousand people, it will receive over 500 thousand tourists yearly. This is primarily because of The Great Barrier Reef and the nearby ancient Rainforests to explore. With highlights like this, you certainly need to isolate the best things you can do in Cairns in a short amount of time.
While you can get a taste of Cairns over a few days, it’s so much better to experience it over 7 days and help you appreciate its raw, natural beauty. So whether you’re looking for family-friendly activities, free things to do, or action/ adventure entertainment – Cairns has what you’re looking for, and you can find out how below!
- The Best Things to do in Cairns | Australia + a Suggested 7 day Travel Itinerary
- Best Things to do in Cairns – The Cairns Travel Bucket List
- Snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef
- View Barron Falls from the Lookout
- Exploring the Rainforest
- Take a ride on the Reef Eye Ferris Wheel
- Swim in the Esplanade Lagoon
- Visit the Cairns Botanical Gardens
- Take a Scenic Helicopter Flight
- Walk along the Cairns Esplanade
- Swimming at the Crystal Cascades
- See the fishes at the Cairns Aquarium
- Go Scuba Diving at the Great Barrier Reef
- Get your thrill on at the Zoom and Wildlife Dome
- Take a road trip along Great Barrier Reef Drive
- Waterfall chasing through the Atherton Tablelands
- Where to stay in Cairns
- A Recommended 7-day Cairns Travel Itinerary
- Day 1 – Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef
- Day 2 – Swimming in the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon & Reef Eye Ferris wheel
- Day 3 – Day trip to Kuranda Village and through the rainforest
- Day 4 – Visit the Zoom & Wildlife Dome & the Cairns Aquarium
- Day 5 – Day trip to Daintree National Park & Crocodile Cruise
- Day 6 – Chasing waterfalls in the Atherton Tablelands
- Day 7 – Souvenir Shopping and Departure
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- Best Things to do in Cairns – The Cairns Travel Bucket List
Best Things to do in Cairns – The Cairns Travel Bucket List
Snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef
Everyone comes for the Great Barrier Reef, and Cairns has some of the best snorkelling in North Queensland. While you can’t just step off the beach to see the reef, there are plenty of tour options you can compare. The Reef Fleet Terminal at the Cairns Marina hosts all the companies taking tours to the reef. These can be booked over the phone, online, or by visiting them in person.
The difference between them would primarily be price, and this all depends on where you go to. The weather and tides will determine which snorkelling sites that best suit the day’s conditions. Although you do have a choice between the inner reef and the Outer Reef.
The Inner Reef will take you to places like Green Island and Fitzroy Island. The Islands are fully serviced, and you can simply snorkel straight from the beach. Alternatively, the outer reef will take about 2 hours to travel and snorkelling around deeper waters.
In the end, all your snorkelling equipment will be provided, and some will include a buffet lunch.
View Barron Falls from the Lookout
Barron Falls would have to be one of the largest waterfalls in Queensland and especially impressive doing the summer season. This takes about a 40-minute drive from Cairns and provides an extra-large platform and lookout point to see it. Unfortunately, Barron Falls is only for viewing and not for swimming, as the water flowing can get extreme. However, this makes it one of the best and shouldn’t be missed on your visit to Cairns.
Exploring the Rainforest
Cairns centres around the Wet Tropics of Queensland, which is a UNESCO World Heritage listed area. This includes 30 National Park areas like the Kuranda National Park, Daintree National Park, and the Barron Gorge National Park. Consequently, this is your second biggest highlight when visiting Cairns.
One of the best ways to visit the Kuranda National Park would be travelling one way on the Kuranda Scenic Railway into the mountains. While in Kuranda, you can pick up some lunch, purchase some locally made products or see some of the Australian wildlife in the parks. Finally, ending with a return trip to Cairns on the Skyrail Gondola Cableway. Travel in style with a glass bottom gondola and watch the rainforest pass you by under your feet.
As for the Daintree, there are daily tours to explore this impressive rainforest. Still, one of the biggest highlights would be the crocodile cruises. See these massive creatures first-hand and in the wild while you cruise around in a safe and conformable river vessel.
Take a ride on the Reef Eye Ferris Wheel
Take in those 360-degree views and go as far as 35 metres in the air in an enclosed compartment. The Reef Eye Ferris Wheel is a fun addition for the Kids and a way for you to see a bird’s eye view of Cairns. Tickets cost only $10 for adults, giving concession and family discounts. Consequently, the compartment holds up to 6 people and is open from 10am to 10pm, 7 days a week.
Swim in the Esplanade Lagoon
We all love free things to do, and the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon would be the easiest to get to. The lagoon is around 4800 square metres in size and is conveniently lifeguarded throughout the day. You’ll find shallow areas for the Kids, deeper parts for the Adults, bathrooms, and change rooms. So you can host a party, enjoy a family gathering or enjoy a quiet relaxing day in the sun. Either way, you will definitely want to add this to your list.
Visit the Cairns Botanical Gardens
Return to nature and visit the Cairns Botanical Gardens in the city’s heart. This one is especially great for exploring a rainforest without visiting the National Parks and being free to visit. It’s one of Australia’s best plant displays and features many tropical plants from the region. It’s over 38 hectares in size and has detailed gardens of bamboo, a rainforest boardwalk, Zhanjiang Friendship Gardens, and all surrounding a saltwater lake.
Take a Scenic Helicopter Flight
If you were ever going to take a scenic helicopter flight in Australia, this would be the place to do it. Choose between flying over the coral reef systems, the Rainforest, Cairns city, or even the sandy cays. Whichever way you go, you’re certainly going to amaze your mind with vibrant colours, clear waters, and all-over excitement.
Walk along the Cairns Esplanade
The Cairns esplanade is about 2.5 kilometres long. It passes by the Marina, the Esplanade Lagoon, and the Reef Eye Ferris Wheel. Most locals will use this for exercise, but it’s perfect for tourists on a relaxing sunset walk. You’ll pass by plenty of parklands, exercise equipment, toilets, public barbeques, and picnic tables. While the high tide can be a nice watery view, the low tide reveals the mud flats and brings the pelicans and other birds searching for food.
Swimming at the Crystal Cascades
The Crystal Cascades is a natural waterhole and cascading waterfall available for swimming near Cairns. This is another free spot to visit and the perfect way to cool off in Cairn’s summer heat. Tropical North Queensland is prone to lots of summer rainfall, making all the waterfalls impressive and fresh.
These are one of the closets waterholes to get to from Cairns, and it takes only 25 mins to get there. You have a large car park, bathrooms, change rooms and barbeque facilities to make a day of it. The bitumen pathway has a slight elevation, and you simply find the best spot along the edge to jump in.
See the fishes at the Cairns Aquarium
If you’re a little hesitant about snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef, you might like to check out the Cairns Aquarium. It’s open daily, convenient in any weather, and a big hit for younger children to learn. This is your chance to get up close with the Tropical Fish and see fish like Nemo and Dory.
The Underwater species supplied in this park are primarily contained in the Tropical North Queensland ecosystem. This includes the river systems, mangroves, and the ever-popular, Great Barrier Reef. You can get involved in the presentations, visit after dark for a twilight hour, or even try your hand at scuba diving.
Go Scuba Diving at the Great Barrier Reef
Get your thrill on at the Zoom and Wildlife Dome
The Zoom and Wildlife Dome is located in Cairns central, beside the Casino. This is an all-weather enclosed facility full of zip lines, cargo Nets, climbing Walls, tunnels, and crossings. Essentially, you’ll be making your way through the circuit and challenging your senses with the rope course while strapped into your harness. What makes this even more exciting is the wildlife animals like birds flying around and even a four-metre crocodile hanging out below you.
This is another excellent chance to see some of Australia’s famous animals, like the koala, snakes, and a crocodile feeding show.
Take a road trip along Great Barrier Reef Drive
The drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation takes almost 3 hours. Still, this area is exceptional and aptly named, The Great Barrier Reef Drive. This is the perfect stop to see the beautiful blue colours of the Great Barrier Reef waters meet the green colours of the tropical rainforest. Consequently, The Great Barrier Reef Drive hugs the coastline and allows you to see the Rainforest and Reef on a unique scenic drive.
Waterfall chasing through the Atherton Tablelands
The Atherton tablelands area starts about 1 hour south of Cairns and runs in the National Parks and forest areas in the west. This region is known for its rainfall, delivering impressive waterfalls and swimming areas. These include places like Babinda Boulders, Josephine Falls, and Millaa Millaa Falls.
Millaa Millaa Falls just happens to be one of the most photographed waterfalls in Australia and runs along a 20 kilometres circuit with two other waterfalls. These include Ellinjaa Falls and Zille Falls. All three waterfalls can be visited within 1.5 hours, but you’ll definitely need more time for swimming.
Babinda Boulders is a giant swimming waterhole and very popular for locals and tourists to escape the summer heat. Furthermore, Josephine falls is roughly 20 mins away and comes with a natural 1-metre waterfall slide.
Where to stay in Cairns
Cairns has lots of options when it comes to where to stay. There are hostels for the budget-minded backpacker, cheap motels, Airbnb, Hotels, and Luxury resorts. Your location will be vital, and somewhere central to public transport is a must, if you don’t have your own car. I have a few options below to help you choose:
Backpackers Hostels: Freedom Hostel Cairns Central | The Jack Backpackers | Mad Monkey Backpackers | Cairns Central YHA
Mid-Range Motels or Hotels: Oasis Inn Apartments | Cairns City Motel | Accommodation on Sheridan | Tropical Queenslander | Palm Royale Cairns | Coral Reef Apartments | Cairns Sheridan Hotel
Luxury Hotels: Crystalbrook Bailey | Hilton Cairns | Shangri-La the Marina in Cairns | Pullman Reef Hotel Casino | Pullman Cairns International
A Recommended 7-day Cairns Travel Itinerary
We have a suggested 7-day Cairns itinerary below to help plan your vacation. This will give you some of the best things to do in Cairns while also giving you some relaxing time and rest in between. Consequently, you can adjust according to your budget, available days, and your interests.
Day 1 – Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef
There is not much difference between the inner and outer reef, and you can see plenty of underwater creatures and coral gardens in both. However, if your budget is a factor, then choosing to visit places like Green Island might be more cost-efficient while enjoying the rest of the facilities at the resort.
Spend your day lazing on the beach, paddle boarding or kayaking, or maybe try scuba diving. Once you’re done, you can enjoy a snack at the café or a drink at the bar while waiting for the boat to leave and return you to Cairns.
Day 2 – Swimming in the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon & Reef Eye Ferris wheel
You won’t be venturing too far from Cairns city, and it will be a fairly relaxed day. The Cairns Esplanade Lagoon and the Reef Eye Ferris Wheel are beside each other. Therefore, you can stay for a little or as long as you like, enjoying the sun, the Cairns city views from high in the air, or floating in the lagoon.
Day 3 – Day trip to Kuranda Village and through the rainforest
Start your day with an early ride on the Kuranda Scenic Railway up the mountains and through the Barron Gorge National Park. This will take two hours, including a small 5-minute stop at the Barron Waterfall, along the way. Once at the Kuranda Village, you can wander the street and purchase locally made goods or visit one of the wildlife parks. On your return to Cairns, take a one-way journey on the Skyrail Rainforest Gondola and take a quiet, relaxed cableway ride above the trees.
Day 4 – Visit the Zoom & Wildlife Dome & the Cairns Aquarium
This is one day the kids will enjoy, and you can space the venues from Morning to afternoon. Each centre will take only 2 to 3 hours of your time. Therefore, there are plenty of opportunities to try some Cairns restaurants in between or stroll along the esplanade.
Day 5 – Day trip to Daintree National Park & Crocodile Cruise
The Saltwater Crocodile cruise is one of the most sought-after tours in Cairns. See these furious and dangerous reptiles on a controlled and safe tour, and in their natural habitat. For more effortless organisation, it’s recommended to purchase a specific day trip option on tour from Cairns. Still, there is an option to self-drive through the Daintree Rainforest and visit one of the many operators running boat cruises.
Day 6 – Chasing waterfalls in the Atherton Tablelands
This would be the best day to hire a car and chase waterfalls in the Atherton Tablelands. You can choose to visit both or either section, along the coast or further inland. Along the coast, you’ll find Babinda Boulders and Josephine Falls. These are 20 mins away from each other and easily be visited on the same day.
On the other hand, you have the Waterfall Circuit with Millaa Millaa Falls, Ellinjaa Falls, and Zillie Falls. All three can be visited within 1.5 hours, but you will need more time for swimming. So don’t forget to bring a packed lunch and plenty of water. However, there are smaller towns and stores you can get supplies from on the way.
Day 7 – Souvenir Shopping and Departure
It’s your last day, and you’re getting ready to leave, and I’m sure you’ll be sad to leave the beautiful city of Cairns. However, before you leave, stop at the Cairns City stores or Central Shopping centre to pick up your souvenirs. These vary from small trinkets to magnets, Australian animal toys, or various pieces of clothing.
Cairns was built on tourist activities, and the city welcomes visitors from far and wide. English is the official language spoken, but you will find it’s a multicultural and diverse society. The official currency is the Australian Dollar (AUD), but credit cards can be used at 99% of the locations mentioned today.
Ultimately, most tours and activities can be booked online through many apps, brands, and online booking agents. Australia is not known for tipping at service areas, nor is it expected, but you will find 5% of Australians participating.
With the Tropical climate and year-round adventure for young and old, there is no wonder why Cairns is the most prominent tourist hub in North Queensland. With drawcards like the white sandy shores or coral garden in the Great Barrier Reef, you’ll be set for a holiday for a lifetime.
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