Sitting pretty in Tropical North Queensland, Cairns has traditionally been the last stop on an all-points east coast tour of Australia.
In recent years, the city’s unique location on the edge of two of the world’s most iconic natural landmarks — the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree rainforest — has seen it evolve into a destination in its own right.
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 and dining and shopping options on offer, the once-sleepy outpost is all grown up — and surprisingly cosmopolitan.
Enjoy this Cairns travel guide.
Need to know
Base yourself: City, Esplanade, Palm Cove
Average hotel price per room/per night: AUD $150
Best breakfasts: Palm Cove, Esplanade
Great coffee: Grafton Street
Top spots for a beverage: The Pier, Esplanade
Must-dos: Cairns city tour, Daintree rainforest tour, Kuranda visit by train/Skyrail
Best times to visit Cairns
To beat the north’s heat and humidity, winter is the perfect time to visit Cairns and Port Douglas. From June to August, the days are dry and temperatures hover around the mid 20s.
The wet season slowly builds up throughout September, October and November. From December to February, temperatures push into the 30s and umbrellas bear the brunt of the bulk of the region’s annual rainfall. However, storms come and go quickly, with bright sunshine in between. This is the best time of the year for diving and snorkelling.
Stinger season runs from November through to May (although Box Jellyfish may be present at other times of the year). The swimming enclosures at popular beaches are your best bet. Obey all signs and beach closures. It’s for your protection!
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Top cultural experiences in Cairns
A vibrant regional culture and an eclectic live music scene mean there’s never a dull moment in Cairns.
The award-winning Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park combines ancient culture with modern technology. The Indigenous creation story is told through traditional dance and hi-tech holograms.
The Cairns Regional Gallery has a revolving calendar of contemporary and historical exhibitions, featuring work from local and international artists.
The Tanks Arts Centre could 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.
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 built on the back of the 1800s Gold Rush and tin mining boom — depicted in wonderful detail at the Herberton Historic Village.
The city played an important role as a training and supply station for the Allied forces during WWII. Get more of the back story at the excellent Cairns Museum.
Great places to eat in Cairns
With an abundance of fresh Atherton Tablelands’ bounty to draw on, Cairns’ dining scene is world-class and a paddock to plate philosophy reigns supreme.
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!).
Overlooking the inlet, Boatshed has a fabulously laid back atmosphere — but a wonderfully grown-up menu. There’s succulent seafood, huge steaks (including kangaroo) and some pretty fancy cocktails on offer to fill in the gaps in your appetite.
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.
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!
There’s a definite coffee renaissance happening in Cairns. While Melbourne has its laneways, Cairns has — well, one at least! Follow the graffiti-lined alley off Grafton Street to Caffiend. The coffee here is just as impressive as at its Melbourne counterpart.
If you’re after some time out from the main tourist strip, try Paradiso Cafe Cairns in the Centre of Contemporary Arts (behind the brand new Cairns Aquarium). They do great coffee, and tasty bagels to eat in or take away.
Where to shop in Cairns
There are lots of unique retail experiences to be had in Cairns.
Rusty’s Markets is a sweaty riot of scents, sounds and colour. You can get everything from fresh produce, proper French pastries and authentic Asian dishes, to cheap tropically-inspired fashion and jewellery.
In the city centre, designer label duty free stores cater to well-heeled visitors, while Cairns Central offers an air-conditioned respite and a host of brand-name chain stores.
Over in Grafton Street the ambience is decidedly funkier, where a thoroughly vintage vibe pervades the length of Oceana Walk.
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 day tours that will introduce you to the Queensland Wet Tropics, which is one of the oldest stretches of rainforest on the planet. One option is to take the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway or Skyrail cableway up to the mountain ‘village in the rainforest’ — Kuranda — where you can wander the markets or visit the wildlife parks. Tours through the world-famous Daintree National Park are also popular.
If you have a car, you might like to cruise north to the resort town of Port Douglas. The coastal drive between Cairns and ‘Port’ (as the locals call it) has been voted one of the most picturesque in the world.
There are myriad options for getting up close and personal with the Great Barrier Reef, including the daily cruise with Quicksilver out to their permanent mooring at Agincourt Reef. Most outer reef cruises depart from Port Douglas, and transfers from Cairns hotel are generally available.
Back on dry land (sort of), the latest addition to the vibrant Cairns Esplanade precinct is the Lagoon — a man-made beach overlooking the ocean. 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 send us a message.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Julietta Henderson is a Melbourne-based travel and feature writer. 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.