Cairs, Australia - Full Travel Guide [the best things to do]

Nestled on the northeastern coast of Australia, Cairns is known as a captivating gateway to the wonders of the Tropical North Queensland region.

Renowned for its stunning natural beauty, this vibrant city is a captivating fusion of lush rainforests, crystalline waters, and the breathtaking Great Barrier Reef.

Cairns beckons adventure seekers and nature enthusiasts alike with its unparalleled landscapes, where the ancient Daintree Rainforest converges with the azure waters of the Coral Sea. As a thriving hub for eco-tourism, Cairns offers a unique blend of outdoor adventures, cultural experiences, and a laid-back atmosphere that immerses visitors in the mesmerizing charm of Australia’s natural wonders.

As a first time visitor, it can be time consuming to research the best activities, hotels and where to eat. Luckily for you, we lived in the city of Cairns for almost 2 years and we are ready to share our advice.

Therefore, this travel guide will cover the following to faciliate your journey:

Table Of Contents

Where is Cairns, Australia?

Cairns is a city situated on the northeastern coast of Australia and epitomizes the country’s natural grandeur and biodiversity. It is part of the state Queensland and is regarded as one of the best places to visit in Australia.

The city is flanked by the Coral Sea to the east and the lush Atherton Tableland to the west, offering a unique blend of coastal allure and tropical hinterlands. Its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s most iconic natural wonders, further solidifies Cairns as a prime destination for all types of travellers.

Here you can find Cairns on the map of Australia:

How big is Cairns, Australia?

Cairns covers an area of approximately 1,688 square kilometers (652 square miles). This expansive footprint places it within the larger context of Queensland, the second-largest state in Australia.

Cairns population is around 160,000 residents and unsuprisingly has experienced steady growth over the years. Cairns climate makes it a great palce to live in Australia and appealing as a tourist destination. Compared to cities in the US it is relatively small, however, it has everything one might need such as shopping centers (Cairns central), bars, restaurants and other attractions.

The city’s port is crucial for the export of agricultural products (e.g. sugar cane), mining resources, and, importantly, tourism-related goods and services.

Cairns Sugar Cane Export Plantation

(A sugar cane plantation at Walsh’s pyramid)

The city’s infrastructure includes a well-connected road network, Cairns International Airport, and a seaport. The waterfront precinct and the Cairns Esplanade, a popular recreational area, contribute to the city’s appeal for residents and visitors alike.

Is Cairns, Australia Safe To Visit?

Australia is a very safe country and Cairns is no exception. In fact, we did not have one single situation where we felt uncomfortable in Australia and would rate it as one of the safest destinations on earth. Cairns has relatively low crime rates compared to many other cities worldwide. It is known for being safe for tourists, and violent crime is very uncommon.

The only negative incidents that have been increasing over the last few years are car thefts, especially in the northern beaches area. Locking your rental car is essential and will deter most thiefs, let alone, they usually target old vehicles that are easy to steal.

Furthermore, like any destination, it’s essential not to trust everyone blindly and take basic safety precautions, such as safeguarding personal belongings. Saying that though, I even forgot my camera bag on the beach at a popular tourist spot and it was still there the next day.

Another factor that contributes to the city’s safety is the effort that local authorities and businesses put in to ensure that tourists have a positive and secure experience. Cairns relies on tourism, and as such, there is a strong emphasis on providing a safe and welcoming environment for visitors.

The only thing that might be unsafe, is swimming in inshore waters, lakes and rivers. DO NOT swim in Cairns before you read the next question.

Can you swim in Cairns, Australia?

Cairns is famous for incredible wildlife and its biodiversity including many species of birds, lizards, spiders and marine life. Unfortunately (some say fortunately), it is also home to the saltwater crocodile.

Saltwater Crocodile in Cairns

(A saltwater crocodile relaxing in one of Cairns rivers)

Saltwater crocodiles or also known as ”Salties” in Australia, are the largest of all living crocodile species. Adult males can reach lengths of over 6 meters (20 feet) and weigh more than 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds). Fun fact: the largest crocodile in captivity can be found on a tropical island just off Cairns.

They are highly territorial, have a robust, streamlined body and a powerful tail, which they use for swimming. Their skin is rough and scaly, often ranging in color from gray or brown to olive-green. They are extremly good swimmers and have one of the strongest bite forces in the animal kingdom. They can even shoot their whole bodylength out of the water.

Can saltwater crocodiles jump

More importantly, they are oppurtunistic hunters and their prey ranges from large cattle & pigs to even humans! If given the opportunity, they will literally eat anything that moves. There have been various tragic stories in Cairns of humans and dogs getting eaten by crocodiles as they walked to close to the waters edge. Hence, it is important that you do not give them the opportunity to attack you.

Luckily, it is easier to stay out of trouble than you might think (the locals call it ”being crocwise”).

Here are a few simple but effective steps on how to be crocwise:

  • DO NOT swim in coastal or inshore-island rivers, lakes and inshore beaches unless otherwise stated (yes! you heard it right, no swimming on the beaches in Cairns). The tropical paradise beaches are deceiving but not far from shore you are very likely to encounter a salt water croc waiting for a tourist to enter the water.
  • If you want to swim at the beach, make sure to swim inside the nets patrolled by lifeguards (only available during the dry season) – they are tested for crocs and venomous jellyfish everyday
  • Obey crocodile warning signs and stay away at least 7m from the waters edge including at rivers – saltwater crocodiles can launch theirselves with their whole bodylength out of the water
  • Always assume that a crocodile could be in a body of water even if there are no signs saying so
  • Ask your local tour operator if it is safe to swim
  • Crocs have incredible eyesight and listening-capabilities – make sure to move away quietly and quickly if you find yourself to close to the waters edge
  • Saltwater crocodiles are stalkers and they will study your behavior – if camping in Cairns, ensure to move your camping spot every 1-2 days and don’t go brushing your teeth at the same spot close to the waters edge twice

Other possible risks of swimming in the inshore waters of Cairns are jellyfish stings and shark encounters (bull sharks).

So where can you ACTUALLY swim in Cairns?

Swimming in Cairns coastal waters can be dangerous but not too far from shore lies the incredible Great Barrier Reef and its amazing islands. Saltwater crocodiles do not venture out to sea and the reef is 40 minutes away by boat.

There have been sightings of juvenile saltwater crocodiles out on the Great Barrier Reef Islands near Cairns but all reports clarified that these incidents were due too strong offshore currents that dragged them out to sea. The crocodiles were later relocated as they were to weak to swim back on their own.

As a general rule of thumb it is considered 100% safe to swim at Green island, Vlasoff Cay, Fitzroy island (although possibilty of crocs) and all snorkeling and diving outer great barrier reef charters. We owned a boat for a very long time in Cairns and can confirm that swimming at these islands is very popular and stressfree + they have some of the most incredible scenery on earth.

Vlasoff Cay Great Barrier reef

(Vlasoff Cay on the Great Barrier Reef at sunset – Important to read the Cairns tides)

Last but not least, it is safe to swim at the Cairns Esplanade lagoon and in the Atherton Tablelands. The waterfalls and lakes there are too high of an elevation gain for saltwater crocodiles and they are too far inland providing no natural food sources for them.

What Is Cairns Australia Known For?

With so many croc-infested bodies of water to stay away from, the number one thing Cairns is known for…you may have guessed it, is… swimming at the various waterfalls and snorkeling/diving the Great Barrier Reef.

I know… this may sound contradicting but the landscapes around Cairns are truly mesmerizing and a visit wouldn’t be complete without trying the various water-based outdoor activities it has to offer.

(Emerald Creek in the Atherton Tablelands)

The great barrier reef tours that visit the outer reef are world famous and shouldn’t be missing on any Cairns itinerary. Moreover, cooling off at Mila Mila Falls or Davies Creek at the Atherton tablelands should be on everyones bucketlist. The weather in the Atherton Tablelands is very different to Cairns as it is much cooler.

When to visit Cairns, Australia?

Cairns is located in North Queensland, Australia, which generally experiences a warm and tropical climate throughout the year.

The weather in Cairns is characterized by two seasons:

  • Dry Season (May to October): This is the peak tourist season in Cairns. The weather is generally dry and cooler during these months. June to August is particularly popular because the temperatures are more moderate, and there is less rainfall. This is an excellent time for outdoor activities like exploring the Great Barrier Reef, snorkeling, and hiking. However, make sure to book your tours and hotels in Cairns in advance to avoid disappointment. Cairns weather in July and August can be quite windy, hence, it is advisable to bring sea sickness tablets to your water based activities.

  • Wet Season (November to April): This period brings higher temperatures and increased rainfall. It’s the off-peak season, so accommodation and tour prices may be lower. However, the wet season is when the Cairns weather radar usually registrates more cyclones and heavy rainfall, which can impact some outdoor activities. If you don’t mind occasional rain, evening thunderstorm and want to experience lush, green landscapes, this could still be a viable time to visit. We worked in Cairns throughout the wet season and can recommend the months of September and October to save money on hotels and still have dry weather.

(Thunderstorms and short intense rain – a daily sight in the wet season)

  • Avoiding Stinger Season: Box jellyfish and Irukandji jellyfish are present in the waters around Cairns, and they are most prevalent during the warmer months (November to May). If you plan to swim in the ocean, especially around the Great Barrier Reef, be cautious and check for jellyfish warnings. Stinger nets and vinegar stations are commonly provided at popular beaches during this period. It’s mandatory to wear a stinger suit or wetsuit.

The best things to do in Cairns

Every first time visitor is asking the same question: what to do in Cairns?

Luckily, enough Cairns attractions are endless. When you are visiting, it is always worth to google “Cairns upcoming events” to not missout on any shows. For the purpose of this blog, we will stick with the ones that are available throughout the year.

In our 2 years of living in Cairns, we found these activities to be the best:

  • Great Barrier Reef Tours:
    • Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s most famous natural wonders. Take a reef tour to explore vibrant coral formations and marine life through activities like snorkeling, scuba diving, or taking a glass-bottom boat tour. Companies offer a variety of tours, ranging from day trips to extended liveaboard experiences.
Cairns Great Barrier Reef Liveaboard
  • Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation:
    • Explore the ancient Daintree Rainforest, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the oldest rainforests on the planet. Take guided tours to discover unique flora and fauna, go on a river cruise to spot crocodiles, and visit Cape Tribulation, where the rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef. Cape Tribulation weather and Daintree weather are the most stable in June and July. Daintree Rainforest animals include the infamous Saltwater Crocodile, the Cassowary bird and various other insects and reptiles.
Cape Tribulation and Daintree rainforest
  • Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway:
    • Experience breathtaking views of the rainforest with a scenic railway journey from Cairns to Kuranda. On the return trip, take the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway for a bird’s-eye view of the lush landscape. Kuranda, known as the “Village in the Rainforest,” offers markets, wildlife attractions, and cultural experiences.
  • Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park:
    • Learn about the rich indigenous culture of the Tjapukai people through interactive experiences, performances, and demonstrations. Gain insights into traditional dance, music, and storytelling, and try hands-on activities like boomerang throwing and didgeridoo playing.
  • Esplanade Boardwalk and visting the Northern Beaches:
    • Enjoy the scenic Esplanade Boardwalk along the waterfront, perfect for a leisurely stroll or bike ride. The Cairns Esplanade Lagoon is a popular spot for swimming and relaxing, offering a safe alternative to ocean swimming.
    • A short drive from Cairns cbd are the beautiful “Northern Beaches”. Go on a culinary journey in Palm Cove by testing the various restaurant open till late or walk along the instagrammable Palm Cove Beach.
Palm Cove Beach
  • Fitzroy Island and Green Island:
    • Take a day trip to Fitzroy Island, located just off the coast of Cairns. Enjoy snorkeling, hiking, or relaxing on the pristine beaches. The island also features the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, where you can learn about turtle conservation efforts. It’s home to the world famous Nudey Beach which is perfect for swimming.
    • If you look closely enough, you can spot Green Island in the distance. It is famous for its amazing marine life, 5 star resort and water-based activities like parasailing or snorkeling.
Fitzroy island snorkeling Nudey Beach
  • Atherton Tablelands:
    • Explore the Atherton Tablelands, known for its diverse landscapes, waterfalls, and charming villages. Visit attractions like the Curtain Fig Tree, Lake Eacham, and Millaa Millaa Falls. The region is also famous for its local produce, so indulge in a food and wine tour. Visit the cute little town of Kuranda in the morning and watch Barron Falls running at full flow.
    • Various extreme sports like rafting, canyon tours and kayaking can be experienced in the Atherton tablelands
    • Most of Cairns hiking is taking place here
Milla Milla Falls Atherton tablelands
  • Hot Air Ballooning:
    • Experience the beauty of Cairns and its surroundings from above by taking a hot air balloon ride at sunrise. Enjoy panoramic views of the Atherton Tablelands and the Great Barrier Reef in the distance.

Where to stay and eat in Cairns

Cairns boasts a vibrant culinary scene and a variety of accommodations to suit every traveler’s taste. In this guide, we’ll explore the best places to stay and savor exquisite cuisine in Cairns.

Where to Stay in Cairns:

1. Luxury Retreats:

Shangri-La Hotel, The Marina Cairns:
  • Located on the waterfront, this 5-star hotel offers unparalleled views of the marina and is within walking distance of the city center. Indulge in luxury amenities, spa services, and fine dining at The Backyard Restaurant.
Piermonde Apartments:
  • Ideal for those seeking spacious, self-contained apartments, Piermonde is centrally located and offers modern, stylish accommodation. With a range of room configurations, it’s perfect for both couples and families.

2. Boutique Charm:

Riley, a Crystalbrook Collection Resort:
  • A contemporary gem in the heart of Cairns, Riley Resort combines modern design with sustainable practices. Enjoy rooftop dining at Rocco, unwind by the pool, and experience personalized service at its best.
The Abbott Boutique Hotel:
  • For a unique boutique experience, The Abbott offers stylish rooms with a touch of historic charm. Situated in the heart of Cairns, it provides easy access to the Esplanade and local attractions.

3. Budget-Friendly Options:

Cairns Plaza Hotel:
  • A comfortable and affordable choice, Cairns Plaza Hotel is located just minutes from the Esplanade. Enjoy well-appointed rooms, a pool, and friendly service without breaking the bank.
Gilligan’s Backpackers Hotel and Resort:
  • Perfect for budget-conscious travelers, Gilligan’s offers a vibrant atmosphere with dormitory-style rooms and a lively on-site bar. It’s centrally located, making it easy to explore Cairns on foot.

Where to Dine in Cairns:

1. Seafood Extravaganza:

Ochre Restaurant:
  • Renowned for its focus on native Australian ingredients, Ochre Restaurant is a culinary haven. Indulge in a seafood feast with dishes like the Barramundi Fillet or the Salt and Pepper Squid, all while enjoying the waterfront view.
Fisherman’s Wharf Tavern:
  • For a more casual seafood experience, the Fisherman’s Wharf Tavern offers a relaxed atmosphere and an extensive menu featuring freshly caught delights. Don’t miss the seafood platter for a true taste of the ocean.

2. International Flavors:

Tamarind Restaurant:
  • Located at the Reef Hotel Casino, Tamarind showcases a fusion of Asian-inspired cuisine. From mouth-watering Thai curries to delicate sushi, the menu is a culinary journey through diverse flavors.
C’est Bon Restaurant Francais:
  • Indulge in the art of French cuisine at C’est Bon. This charming restaurant offers classic French dishes in a cozy setting, providing an intimate dining experience in the heart of Cairns.

3. Local Gems:

Paddock & Brew Company:
  • For a taste of local craft beers and mouthwatering steaks, Paddock & Brew is the place to be. The laid-back atmosphere and hearty meals make it a favorite among both locals and visitors.
Salt House:
  • Enjoy the perfect blend of elegant dining and casual vibes at Salt House. With a stunning waterfront location, this restaurant offers a diverse menu featuring fresh, locally sourced ingredients.

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