Sitting pretty in Tropical North Queensland, Cairns has undergone an extraordinary transformation in recent decades.
What was once the last stop on an all-points east coast tour of Australia for visiting backpackers, is now a must-visit destination in its own right for a broad cross section of travellers — thanks in part to the city’s unique location on the edge of two of the world’s most iconic natural landscapes — the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree rainforest.
It may be hot, but Cairns is one of the most chilled-out urban centres in the country and a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude imbues the lifestyle. However, with a raft of world-class attractions, eateries and shopping options on offer, the once-sleepy outpost is all grown up and impressively cosmopolitan.
Enjoy this Cairns travel guide.
Watch our video of ten amazing things to do in Cairns:
A vibrant regional culture and an eclectic live music scene mean there’s never a dull moment in Cairns.
While it’s a fair distance from the heart of town (20 minutes north by car), the award-winning Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park is well worth making the effort to visit. It combines ancient culture with modern technology, and shares the Indigenous creation story through traditional dance and hi-tech holograms.
Also in the city’s north, the Tanks Arts Centre could well be the most unusual live music venue in Australia. Encompassing three giant repurposed crude oil tanks, it attracts high-profile international acts keen to play its intimate, acoustically blessed spaces.
For lovers of visual art in all its guises, Cairns Art Gallery on Abbott Street in the CBD exhibits the work of both local and international creatives.
Cairns for history lovers
Cairns might not spring to mind as a historical holiday destination, but there are plenty of intriguing local stories to uncover.
While the Indigenous Irukandji were the traditional owners of the region for tens of thousands of years, Cairns was established on the back of the 1800s gold rush and tin mining boom — depicted in wonderful detail at the Herberton Historic Village. It’s located (unsurprisingly) in the town of Herberton — 90 minutes’ drive south-west of the city. Make a day of it by stopping at various points of interest in the glorious Atherton Tablelands along the way.
An early 20th century and inter-war building boom left the city with a wealth of stunning period architecture. Highlights to check out include the former Cairns City Council Chambers — constructed in the late 1920s — and the epic Cairns Post building, which dates back to 1908. The former Cairns Post Office and the Old Telegraph Office are real stunners, as is the Bolands Centre — a heritage listed former department store. Diagonally opposite Bolands is the tiny Adelaide Steamship Company Building, which was built in 1910 in the Arts and Crafts style.
Cairns played an important role as a training and supply station for the Allied forces during WWII. Get more of that back story at the excellent Cairns Museum.
Great places to eat in Cairns
With an abundance of fresh ocean and Atherton Tablelands’ bounty to draw on, the dining scene in Cairns is world-class.
Start your gastronomical exploration of the city by heading to the international food court in the famous Night Markets. However, if you’re up for something a little more sophisticated, there are plenty of options.
Villa Romana is the place to see and be seen — and eat great Italian food! If you’re a celebrity spotter, keep your eyes peeled (if you can take your eyes off the water views, that is!).
Ochre is a true Cairns institution. It brings North Queensland’s natural larder of native ingredients to the table in an explosion of contemporary tastes and textures. While some of the names might be unfamiliar, the joy is in the discovery!
Right next door, Boatshed offers outdoor seating overlooking the inlet and a broad menu of seafood, steaks (including kangaroo), pastas and share plates. Start with one of the pretty fancy cocktails on offer.
Your body is in Cairns but your tastebuds are in Bali when you dine at Bayleaf Balinese Restaurant. This locals’ favourite — with its casual, Asian-inspired ambience — offers all the exotic flavours of authentic Balinese cuisine.
With a swag of awards under its very elegant belt, Tamarind takes the intricate flavours of India and Sri Lanka and translates them into a unique blend of contemporary Australian and southern Asian cuisine. The restaurant’s intimate feel is the perfect complement to the procession of bold flavours you’ll experience from their a-la-carte or speciality seven-course tasting menu.
There’s a definite coffee renaissance happening in Cairns, and several good cafes can be found clustered along Grafton Street. Check out Caffiend, Annee’s Caphê Sua Da, and Blackbird Laneway in the Oceana Walk arcade. Around the corner on Spence Street, Bang & Grind offers good value breakfasts, two blends of coffee (smooth and strong), and sidewalk seating.
Where to shop in Cairns
There’s no shortage of opportunities to splash some cash in Cairns.
At one end of the scale, Rusty’s Markets is a sweaty riot of scents, sounds and colour. Here you can get everything from fresh produce, proper French pastries and authentic Asian dishes, to cheap tropically-inspired fashion and jewellery. The markets operate from Friday to Sunday.
Exit the market onto Grafton Street, where the ambience is decidedly funkier. A thoroughly vintage vibe pervades the length of Oceana Walk.
For air-conditioned, mid-range retail, sprawling Cairns Central houses a host of brand-name chain stores. Deluxe and luxury brands inhabit the former Cairns Post Office building on the corner of Abbott and Spence Streets.
Ways to relax in Cairns
For things to do in and around Cairns that will leave you feeling relaxed and revitalised, head for the rainforest and reef.
There are plenty of great tours that will introduce you to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Queensland Wet Tropics, which is one of the oldest stretches of rainforest on the planet. One relaxed package option is to ride the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway up the Gillies Range to the ‘village in the rainforest’ — Kuranda — where you can browse in the markets or visit a number of small wildlife parks. Travel back to Cairns on board the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, which offers sweeping views of the mountain range and coast.
There are myriad options for getting up close and personal with the Great Barrier Reef, including an outer reef trip from Cairns by high speed catamaran with Great Adventures. Those looking to enjoy some ‘island time’ may like to take the Fitzroy Flyer launch from Cairns to gorgeous Fitzroy Island. Snorkel straight off the pristine, palm-fringed coral beaches.
If you have a car, consider cruising north along the Captain Cook Highway to the resort enclave of Port Douglas. The 60-minute drive has to one of the most picturesque in the world, and ‘Port’, as the locals call it, offers plenty for day visitors to see and do. Relax on stunning Four Mile Beach and treat yourself to an upscale lunch.
Alternatively, you may choose to venture no further than the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon — a man-made beach overlooking the shimmering Coral Sea. Tropical overkill? In Cairns, there’s no such thing!
Do you have any tips to add to our Cairns travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Always be crocodile and stinger-wise when swimming in Tropical North Queensland. Stinger season runs from November through to May (although box jellyfish may be present at other times of the year). Netted swimming enclosures at patrolled beaches are the safest option. Obey all signs and beach closures.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Julietta Henderson is a Melbourne-based travel writer and author. Originally planning to visit London for six months, she ended up staying for ten years and now divides her time between her home in Australia and several months of the year in the UK, Italy and France. Julietta has travelled extensively through Europe, North America, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia and Russia, and believes the keys to a great travel experience are an open heart, an open mind and an open-ended ticket. Her first novel — The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman — is now available in bookstores.