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Photograph: ShutterstockHot air ballooning, Cairns

The 8 best things to do in Cairns

Trying to find the best things to do in Cairns? Swim among the fish in the Great Barrier Reef or hike up a mountain.

Written by
Fiona Harper

Happily wedged between two UNESCO World Heritage icons (the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics of Queensland rainforest), this Australian city is no shrinking violet when it comes to showing visitors a good time, and the best things to do in Cairns prove just that. A sunny tropical city with a laidback vibe, Cairns is all about outdoor adventures, whether on land or sea. What’s more, the beautiful regions of Port Douglas, Palm Cove and the Atherton Tablelands are all easy day-trip hotspots.

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Find out more about how Time Out selects the very best things to do all over the world.

Best things to do in Cairns

Great Barrier Reef
Photograph: Shutterstock

1. Great Barrier Reef

What is it? The world’s largest coral reef, comprising more than 2,900 reefs and 900 islands.

Why go? This one is a no-brainer. Whether you’re a hardcore scuba diver, novice snorkeller or want to see the Great Barrier Reef without getting your hair wet, Cairns’ many tour operators have you covered. Take a boat trip to Green Island for island-based reef exploration or join a cruise for diving or glass-bottom boat tours.

Daintree Rainforest

2. Daintree Rainforest

What is it? The oldest rainforest in the world, or so is thought. 

Why go? Regardless of its heritage, the Daintree Rainforest is an impressive sight to behold. A trip to Cairns wouldn't be complete without exploring this verdant paradise. Join one of the tours to see movie-cool waterfalls, clear blue lakes, sunlight shimmering through the trees, tropical vegetation and exotic wildlife.

Hot air ballooning

3. Hot air ballooning

What is it? The chance to drift over one of the most beautiful coastal areas on the planet.

Why go? The mandatory bleary-eyed start to the day is worth every pre-dawn moment once you alight in your hot air balloon above the high country town of Mareeba. Not only will you witness the sun’s first rays rising above the Great Barrier Reef, you’ll likely drift over locals having their first morning coffee, wallabies bounding through forest and dairy cattle traipsing towards milking sheds.

Atherton Tablelands

4. Atherton Tablelands

What is it? A highland region of Far North Queensland, just a short drive from Cairns.

Why go? Enjoy a road trip through the cooler high country that reaches almost 1,000m altitude. Known as the food bowl of north Queensland, the rolling green hills of the tablelands are home to dairy farmers (try Misty Mountains, Gallo and Mungalli for delicious yoghurts, cheeses and chocolates). You’ll find coffee, tea, mango and banana plantations, macadamia nut, citrus and olive groves, strawberry fields and corn farms. Pick up treats from roadside stalls or at country villages of Malanda or Yungaburra.


Crystal Cascades

5. Crystal Cascades

What is it? Surrounded by rainforest-clad mountains, there is no shortage of waterholes and waterfalls around Cairns. Crystal Cascades is within ten minutes’ drive of downtown and is a cracker.

Why go? Multiple layered waterholes surrounded by granite boulders are linked by waterfalls. Fairy Creek Falls and Stoney Creek Falls are nearby. Further afield, visit Babinda Boulders, Behana Gorge and Josephine Falls.

Mountain biking

6. Mountain biking

What is it? More than 700km of dedicated mountain biking trails, all carefully maintained through Cairns’ six mountain bike hubs.

Why go? Mountain biking – often through rainforests and by the coast – is hugely popular in Cairns, and trails cater to riders of all skill levels. Smithfield MTB Park in Cairns’ northern suburbs has hosted World Cups and the UCI World Championships. Other parks are located at Davies Creek, Atherton, Mission Beach, Kuranda and Port Douglas.

Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures

7. Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures

What is it? The chance to see a huge, deadly saltwater crocodile.

Why go? North Queensland bats above its weight when it comes to croc-spotting opportunities. These dudes are serious apex predators and should be avoided in the wild (observe the safety signs around waters which crocs inhabit) but can be safely at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. Here, you can also get up close to cassowaries and koalas.

Big things

8. Big things

What is it? Australia has a long tradition of producing ‘big things’, which have developed a bit of a kitsch cult following.

Why go? Far North Queensland’s numerous, bizarre sculptures of supersized animals and objects are Insta-worthy, if nothing else. Some of the big-ticket items to capture a selfie with near Cairns include the Big Crocodile at Normanton, the Big Peanut at Tolga, the Big Cassowary at Mission Beach, the Curtain Fig Tree at Atherton and the Big Barramundi at Tarzali.

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