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Cairns Travel Guide

Last Updated: July 6, 2023

People having fun in the sun on the beach on an island near Cairns, Australia

Cairns is Australia’s gateway to northern Queensland. Whether you are backpacking around the region, looking to dive, want to visit the forests, or are heading deeper inland, Cairns is a worthwhile stop on everyone’s itinerary.

From here you can visit the Great Barrier Reef , the Daintree rainforest, the Atherton Tablelands, Cape Tribulation, and much more.

Cairns is a pretty typical tropical city and life here focuses on taking the time to stop and smell the roses. With so much to see, the city deserves a longer stay than most people give it.

While you don’t need a lot of time to visit Cairns, it does make for a good base of operations for day trips to the interior or further north. I suggest staying for around four days. This gives you enough time to explore the city as well as do some tours and excursions from the city.

Be sure to spend at least a few nights traveling up north if you can. There are fewer crowds, tons of beaches, more jungle, and it’s just really an under-appreciated – and visited – part of the country.

This travel guide to Cairns can help you plan your trip, save money, and make the most of your time in this incredible area of Australia !

Table of Contents

  • Things to See and Do
  • Typical Costs
  • Suggested Budget
  • Money-Saving Tips
  • Where to Stay
  • How to Get Around
  • How to Stay Safe
  • Best Places to Book Your Trip
  • Related Blogs on Cairns

Top 5 Things to See and Do in Cairns

A quiet boardwalk along the water in the city of Cairns, Australia

1. See the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the best places to dive in the world. It’s the largest living organism on Earth, spanning some 344,000 square kilometers (133,000 square miles) (you can actually see the reef from space). Naturally, the reef is brimming with wildlife, including giant clams, manta rays, sharks, turtles, clown fish, and more! Cairns is the most popular jumping-off point for dive trips to the reef. I was blown away by the abundant wildlife and coral. It did not disappoint! Dive trips start around 230 AUD.

2. Explore the Daintree Rainforest

While Australia is known for its arid Outback, the continent is also home to rainforests. Daintree stretches over 1,200 square kilometers (460 square miles) and is part of the largest tropical rainforest in Australia. It’s also the oldest rainforest on the planet, dating back over 120 million years. There are all kinds of day and multi-day trips available here. Most people visit on their way north to Cape Tribulation. Two-day guided trips cost around 350 AUD per person.

3. Visit Cape Tribulation

Cross the Daintree and continue up into Cape Tribulation, Cooktown, and Cape York. Few tourists make it up this way. There isn’t anything to do here except relax, enjoy nature, and swim. Skip doing a day trip and spend at least one night here instead. The stunning landscapes are worth your time and it’s just 140 kilometers (87 miles) north of Cairns.

4. Try some extreme sports

If hiking, diving, and swimming are too mundane for you, there’s always bungee jumping or sky diving. AJ Hackett, the man who created modern-day bungee jumping, has a a canyon swing here too. A 50-meter (164-foot) bungee jump costs 139 AUD while a tandem skydive from 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) over the Great Barrier Reef is around 310 AUD.

5. See the Atherton Tablelands

The Atherton Tablelands are a mix of rainforest, wetlands, and savanna. Home to wallabies and tree kangaroos, day tours here are long, (you’ll leave early and get back late), but you’ll see a ton of stunning waterfalls, including the famous Millaa Millaa Falls (which is crazy beautiful!). If you go, use Uncle Brian’s tours . Their tour packs a lot in and the drivers are funny and engaging. Day tours cost 129 AUD.

Other Things to See and Do in Cairns

1. visit the cairns wildlife dome.

This wildlife exhibit is located in a 20-meter-tall glass dome on top of the Reef Hotel Casino. The dome is host to a wide range of native animals, from lorikeets and rosellas to frogmouths and kookaburras. They also have an indoor rope course with rope ladders and bridges that let you explore the space. You can also zipline over a crocodile pond. Admission is 26 AUD.

2. Hang out by the lagoon

Spend a few hours relaxing by Cairns’ Lagoon (read: really big pool) when the weather is nice. You can’t go swimming in the water in the city because of jellyfish so the town built a giant pool. Many hostels have pools too but if you want to chill at a bigger place, the lagoon is pretty amazing — and you’ll find more locals around. It’s a good place to soak up the sun with a book. Admission is free.

3. Go white water rafting

There are two main rafting rivers that are all popular among adrenaline junkies in Cairns. In a tropical region that gets plenty of rain, the rivers always overflow, and rafting is a popular activity here. Trips include lunch and start at around 130 AUD and go up to 250 AUD depending on what river you want. There are also tubing trips down the rivers too if you want something more laid back.

4. Participate in an Aboriginal culture walk

There are many Aboriginals in the area (they’ve inhabited the region for over 5,000 years) and they have done a great job of setting up an ecotourism area to highlight their culture to visitors. You can walk with them and learn about their culture, history, plant life, herbal medicine, and even go traditional Aboriginal spearfishing. Tours last 3 hours and cost 140 AUD.

5. Try wake boarding

When you get tired of sightseeing, head to the Cairns Wake Park to try wakeboarding. Various jumps and challenges are set up to keep you entertained for a few hours. It’s 39 AUD for a one-hour pass and 54 AUD for a two-hour pass. There’s also a section where kids can play in the water on trampolines and inflatable slides (15 AUD).

6. Meander through the Botanical Gardens

Just 5 minutes from the airport, this is a lovely stop to make on your way out of Cairns. There are several paths to walk along and the garden is rich in trees, ferns, plants, and a lake. There are 50 different kinds of birds here too. Admission is free and they also offer free 60-90-minute tours on weekdays.

7. Relax at Palm Cove

This suburb of the city is around 27 kilometers (16 miles) north of Cairns and is home to a lovely stretch of beach. Come here to relax, swim, and escape the city. There’s a nice path along the water where you can stroll and lots of upscale places to eat. It makes for a good place to spend half a day when you want to relax and take in the feel of the city.

For more information on other cities in Australia, check out these guides:

  • Alice Springs Travel Guide
  • Brisbane Travel Guide
  • Broome Travel Guide
  • Fraser Island Travel Guide
  • Gold Coast Travel Guide
  • Melbourne Travel Guide
  • Perth Travel Guide
  • Sydney Travel Guide
  • Whitsunday Islands Travel Guide

Cairns Travel Costs

A quiet boardwalk along the ocean in Cairns, Australia

Hostel prices – Dorms are plentiful in Cairns, costing 25-35 AUD per night. Private rooms start at 50 AUD but average closer to 75-110 AUD. Free Wi-Fi is standard and most hostels also include self-catering facilities. Only some include free breakfast so be sure to check before you book.

If you have a tent, you can camp outside the city for under 10 AUD per night for a basic plot without electricity.

Budget hotel prices – Budget two-star hotels start around 100 AUD, though most budget options are closer to 150 AUD. Standard amenities include air-conditioning and free Wi-Fi, and even some include breakfast.

On Airbnb, private rooms start at 50 AUD per night but average closer to 150 AUD. For an entire home/apartment, expect to pay at least 150 AUD (however, prices can be double or even triple if not booked early).

Food – Popular food here is similar to elsewhere in the country. Chicken and lamb are two main staples, with things like burgers, steak, and prawns following close behind. BBQ is super common, and in restaurants, you can usually find all kinds of pasta and seafood dishes as well. Meat pies, fish and chips, seafood, chicken parmigiana (chicken schnitzel topped with tomato sauce, ham, and melted cheese), and of course the infamous vegemite on toast are other common staples.

Cheap meals like sandwiches can be found for under 15 AUD. Most casual restaurant meals cost between 20-30 AUD for a main dish. Fast food (think McDonald’s) costs around 15 AUD for a combo meal.

If you want to splash out, an upscale meal with a drink will cost at least 60 AUD. For something like Indian or Chinese food, expect to pay 20-25 AUD for a meal.

Beer costs around 7-8 AUD while a latte/cappuccino is 5 AUD. Bottled water is around 3 AUD.

If you cook your own food, plan to spend between 70-90 AUD per week for basic staples like pasta, rice, seasonal produce, and some meat.

Backpacking Cairns Suggested Budgets

On a backpacker budget, you can visit Cairns for 70 AUD per day. This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel dorm, cooking all your meals, limiting your drinking, taking the bus to get around, and sticking to mostly free activities like hiking and enjoying the pool. If you plan on drinking, add 10-20 AUD to your daily budget.

On a mid-range budget of 200 AUD per day or more, you’ll be able to stay in an Airbnb, eat out at cheaper restaurants for most meals, enjoy a few drinks at the bar, take the occasional taxi to get around, and do a couple paid activities like visiting the Great Barrier Reef or going bungee jumping.

On a “luxury” budget of 400 AUD or more per day, you can stay in a hotel, eat out anywhere you want, rent a car to get around, drink more, and do as many activities as you want. This is just the ground floor for luxury though. The sky is the limit!

You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages — some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in AUD.

Cairns Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips

The best way to save money in Carins is to avoid taking lots of expensive tours and trips. If you do that, you’ll save a ton. But that’s part of the draw of visiting so here are some other ways to save in Cairns:

  • Buy a package deal – There is a lot to see and do in the area — at the expense of your budget. Consider booking tours and excursions together with one company as that can often get you a slight discount. Many hostels also have deals so ask them too!
  • Eat cheap – Eating out can be very expensive, however, there are a lot of sandwich shops around that can keep your costs down. Avoid the sit-down restaurants, and instead, grab a sandwich or pack a lunch for a picnic.
  • Stay with a local – If you plan ahead, you can usually find a Couchsurfing host to host you during your visit. This way, you not only have a free place to stay, but you’ll have a local host that can share their insider tips and advice.
  • Drink goon (box wine) – Goon is infamous on the Australian backpacker hostel trail. This cheap box of wine is the best way to drink, get a buzz, and save a lot of money at the same time.
  • Cook your own meals – Eating out is not cheap so the best way to reduce your costs is to cook as many meals as possible. It’s not glamorous, but it’s cheap!
  • Work for your room – Many hostels offer travelers the chance to work for their accommodation. In exchange for a few hours a day of cleaning, you get a free bed. Commitments vary but most hostels ask you to stay for at least a week.
  • Save money on rideshares – Uber is cheaper than taxis and is the best way to get around a city if you don’t want to wait for a bus or pay for a taxi.
  • Bring a water bottle – The tap water in Cairns is safe to drink so bring a reusable water bottle to save money and lower your plastic use. Lifestraw makes durable water bottles with built-in filters to ensure your water is always safe and clean.

Where to Stay in Cairns

Cairns has a plenty of hostels to help you visit on a budget. Here are my favorite places to stay:

  • Gilligan’s Backpacker Hotel & Resort Cairns
  • Mad Monkey Backpackers
  • Bounce Cairns

How to Get Around Cairns

A vivid, pink sunset along the water in Cairns, Australia

Public transportation – Cairns has reliable public bus system run by Translink that can take you just about anywhere you need to go. A single zone fare starts at 2.40 AUD and goes up from there. A daily single-zone pass starts at 4.80 AUD.

To save money, get a Go Card. It’s an electronic pre-paid ticket that saves you around 30% on each ticket. You’ll need to load it with 20 AUD but you’ll easily use that if you’re here for a few days.

Bike rental – Cairns has an excellent network of cycling paths, with some of the most popular routes being the Esplanade, Centenary Lakes, and the Botanic Gardens. Some of the hostels rent out bicycles, or you can rent from Cairns Scooter & Bicycle Hire. Rentals start from 25 AUD per day.

Taxis – Taxis are expensive so I would avoid them. Prices start at 2.90 AUD and go up by 2.30 AUD per kilometer. Skip them if you can!

Ridesharing – Ridesharing apps are available here and are a bit cheaper than taxis.

When to Go to Cairns

Cairns’ location in North Queensland makes for hot, humid summers and dry, mild winters. The average daily high in the winter is 26°C (88°F) and 31°C (79°F) in the summer, making Queensland a great place to visit year-round.

Summer (December-February) is the wettest time of year, and average temperatures are between 75-89°F (25-31°C). This is also the busiest time of the year since Australian summer is when most people visit the country.

It’s still nice and warm in autumn (March-May), and the rain lets up in April, making this a nice time to visit as well.

If your primary goal is to visit the Great Barrier Reef, spring (September-November) is the best time to visit. The reef really comes to life in November during the annual coral spawning.

To beat the crowds, aim for the shoulder season (April-May or September-October). There will be fewer people and lower prices.

How to Stay Safe in Cairns

Cairns is an incredibly safe place to backpack and travel. Violent attacks are rare and people are friendly and helpful

Most incidents in Cairns tend to occur because visitors are not used to the region’s unique climate and wilderness. Be sure you have plenty of sunscreen and stay as hydrated as possible. Carry mosquito spray as there is a risk of Dengue Fever.

If you’re swimming in the ocean between November to May, only swim where there is a beach stinger net otherwise you risk getting stung by jellyfish. Always check the weather before you go out hiking as well and make sure to bring water and sunscreen. If you’re venturing out of the city, be mindful of wildlife, especially snakes and spiders. If you’re bitten, seek immediate care.

Solo female travelers are generally safe here, however, the standard precautions apply (never leave your drink unattended at the bar, never walk home alone at night intoxicated, etc.). Consult other solo female travel blogs for specific advice.

If you’re worried about travel scams, you can read about common travel scams to avoid here . There aren’t many here though.

If you experience an emergency, dial 000 for assistance.

The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:

Cairns Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources

These are my favorite companies to use when I travel. They consistently have the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the companies I use the most and are always the starting point in my search for travel deals.

  • Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
  • Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
  • – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
  • Get Your Guide – Get Your Guide is a huge online marketplace for tours and excursions. They have tons of tour options available in cities all around the world, including everything from cooking classes, walking tours, street art lessons, and more!
  • Rome2Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. Just enter your departure and arrival destinations and it will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost. It’s one of the best transportation websites out there!
  • SafetyWing – Safety Wing offers convenient and affordable plans tailored to digital nomads and long-term travelers. They have cheap monthly plans, great customer service, and an easy-to-use claims process that makes it perfect for those on the road.
  • LifeStraw – My go-to company for reusable water bottles with built-in filters so you can ensure your drinking water is always clean and safe.
  • Unbound Merino – They make lightweight, durable, easy-to-clean travel clothing.
  • Top Travel Credit Cards – Points are the best way to cut down travel expenses. Here’s my favorite point earning credit cards so you can get free travel!

Cairns Travel Guide: Related Articles

Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on Australia travel and continue planning your trip:

The Best Walking Tours in Melbourne

The Best Walking Tours in Melbourne

The Best Walking Tours in Sydney

The Best Walking Tours in Sydney

Where to Stay in Melbourne: The Best Neighborhoods for Your Visit

Where to Stay in Melbourne: The Best Neighborhoods for Your Visit

The 6 Best Hostels in Melbourne

The 6 Best Hostels in Melbourne

The Best Tour Companies in Australia

The Best Tour Companies in Australia

Where to Stay in Sydney: The Best Neighborhoods for Your Visit

Where to Stay in Sydney: The Best Neighborhoods for Your Visit

Photo credits: 1 – Tourism Australia , 5 – AJ Hackett

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  • Where To Stay
  • Transportation
  • Booking Resources
  • Related Blogs

cairns travel guide

  • 1 Understand
  • 2.1 By plane
  • 2.2 Shuttle bus and taxi
  • 2.3 By train
  • 3 Get around
  • 4.2 Natural attractions
  • 5.1 Diving and snorkelling
  • 5.2 For some serious airtime
  • 5.3 White water rafting
  • 5.4 Coach tours
  • 9.2 Mid-range
  • 9.3 Splurge
  • 10 Stay safe
  • 11.1 Kuranda
  • 11.2 Further out

Cairns is touted as the "gateway to the Great Barrier Reef " and other destinations such as Kuranda and the Daintree Rainforest in Far North Queensland . Although the city has little to offer to travellers besides tour agencies, a handful of restaurants, cafes, and backpacker bars, and a long walk along the esplanade looking out at the swampy shoreline. Its 150,000 residents are regularly outnumbered by both domestic and international visitors.

Understand edit

cairns travel guide

The Cairns area was historically inhabited by the Indigenous Walubarra Yidinji people. Mapped by James Cook and named Trinity Bay in 1770, it was officially founded in 1876 as an export port for gold and renamed after the then-Governor of Queensland. The city's name is pronounced "Canz" by locals; use of the accepted pronunciation of the governor's surname, the Scottish town, and piles of stones is obsolete.

The main industry for the city is tourism, with a focus on the European, Japanese and increasingly Chinese markets. There is a plethora of clubs and coffee shops, all overflowing with international tourists. Cairns is also supported by agricultural businesses which include sugar cane, bananas, coffee, tea and the world's first tropical fruit wine region.

Peak season in Cairns is during the more comfortable winter months of June–August, especially compared to the hotter and stickier summer months. A particularly busy time occurs in the first two weeks of July during the school holidays.

There is no swimming beach to speak of in central Cairns, although there are many choices just north and south of the city. A large outdoor, lagoon-style pool is in the centre of the Cairns City area, which is very popular throughout the year with tourists and locals alike. For a beachside resort holiday, there are several resorts a short drive north of Cairns.

  • -16.92129 145.77867 1 Cairns Tourism Office , 51 The Esplanade , ☏ +61 7 4051-3588 , toll-free: 1800 093 300 , fax : +61 7 4051-7509 . M-F 8:30AM–6PM , weekends & public holidays 10AM-6PM . Official Cairns and tropical Northern Queensland tourism office at the Esplanade. ( updated Feb 2015 )

Get in edit

By plane edit.

cairns travel guide

The international airlines serving Cairns are:

  • Air New Zealand . Seasonal flights from Auckland  
  • Air Niugini . Flights from Moro and Port Moresby .  
  • Hainan Airlines . Flights from Shenzhen .  
  • Jetstar . Flights from Denpasar , Osaka Kansai International Airport , and Tokyo Narita International Airport ; codeshares with their parent carrier Qantas and Japan Airlines.  
  • Qantas . Flights from Port Moresby  
  • Singapore Airlines . Flights from Singapore  

The domestic airlines serving Cairns are:

  • Airnorth . Flights from Darwin and Gove  
  • Qantas . Flights from most airports in Australia, e.g. from Ayers Rock/Uluru , Brisbane , Hamilton Island , Horn Island , Mackay , Melbourne , Rockhampton , Sydney , Townsville , Weipa . Their low-cost Jetstar subsidiary flies from Adelaide , Brisbane , Darwin , Gold Coast , Melbourne , Perth , and Sydney  
  • Regional Express Airlines . Flights from Bamaga , Burketown , Doomadgee , Karumba , Mornington Island , Mount Isa , Normanton , Townsville  
  • Skytrans . Flights from Aurukun , Cooktown , Horn Island , Kowanyama , Lockhart River , Pormpuraaw , Weipa  
  • Virgin Australia . Flights from Brisbane , Melbourne , Sydney  

Cairns airport has a paid Wi-Fi service.

Shuttle bus and taxi edit

Shuttle bus transfers are available from Cairns Airport, prices range between $15 and $17 (one passenger one way) and $25.00 to $35.00 (one passenger return) to Cairns city. The Cairns Airport shuttle buses typically depart the airport hourly. Cairns Taxis depart from Cairns Airport and the trip will range between $25 and $35 to Cairns City (possibly a small wait). If you don't book a shuttle transfer before arriving in Cairns, there is only one company you can travel with. Google the different shuttle bus companies to get the cheaper price you have to book prior to arriving in Cairns. The shuttle buses offering transfers from Cairns Airport are:

  • Airport Connections
  • Coral Sea Coaches

*Caution: Buses in Cairns do not take credit card. You should bring own your cash.

By train edit

cairns travel guide

-16.9257 145.7712 2 Cairns Station is right in the city centre, easily within walking distance of the waterfront and most hotels.

Queensland Rail 's Spirit of Queensland services connect Cairns to Brisbane (via Townsville and Rockhampton ), taking 25 hours for the full journey. A trip between Townsville and Cairns takes nearly 7 hours by train (compared to only 4 hours by car). The train is primarily designed for tourists to take in the scenery at a leisurely pace, with a "railbed" class that features seats that can recline into a bed for the night. If you are pressed for time, driving yourself will often be quicker.

The train departs from Brisbane M Tu W F and Sa at 3:45PM, and returns from Cairns M W Th F and Su at 9AM.

The Kuranda Scenic Railway , also operated by Queensland Rail, runs from Cairns to Kuranda , stopping over the majestic Barron Gorge to allow passengers to leave the train and enjoy the beautiful view over the water. Trains depart Cairns at 8:30AM and 9:30AM daily arriving at Kuranda at 10:15AM and 11:15AM.

The Savannahlander travels from Cairns to Kuranda but then continues on to the outback town of Forsayth. It leaves Cairns at 6:30AM every Wednesday with a compulsory overnight stop at Almaden (with transfers available to Chillagoe ), before arriving at Forsayth Station at 5:45PM on Thursday. The Savannahlander does not run between December and March.

By car edit

The 1,700 km Bruce Highway running south along the coast connects Cairns to the state capital of Brisbane . It takes 22 hr to drive without stopping, and you should allow at least 2–3 days of solid driving or longer for a more relaxed pace of drive up the coast. There are regular towns along the coast which make good stopping-off and sightseeing points.

Get around edit


The centre of Cairns is small enough to be covered on foot, but a car is needed to see the surrounding attractions if you are not taking a tour. Expect morning and evening congestion in the city centre, as day trippers flock in and out of the town. Numerous car rental agencies are available from the airport or in the city centre. During peak season, make sure to book the car in advance.

Hertz , Queensland car hire and other rental options are located at Abbott Street & Shields. SIXT Cairns city location is at Sheridan and Alpine.

Sunbus operates the public bus network and offer twenty routes through the city. The terminal of all routes is at the corner of Lake and Shield Street in the centre. You can buy a bus ticket starting from $2.30 for a single adult in one zone.

There are also a number of car rental companies available from Cairns Airport.

Cairns serves as the gateway to the region and is rather short of cultural sights. Besides some historic buildings from the colonial era, the Esplanade and the bars/pubs are the main attraction of Cairns.

  • -16.9213 145.7772 1 Cairns Regional Gallery , 40 Abbott St ( Cnr Abbott & Shields Streets ), ☏ +61 7 4046 4800 , [email protected] . M-F 9AM-5PM, Sa 10AM-5PM, Su 10AM-2PM . Located in a heritage building in the city centre, the Cairns Regional Gallery is the region's premier destination for exhibitions featuring historical and contemporary art by leading regional, national and international artists. $5 .  
  • -16.92196 145.77536 2 Cairns Museum , Cairns School of Arts Building, corner Lake and Shields Streets , ☏ +61 7 4051 5582 , [email protected] . M-Sa 10AM-4PM . The Cairns Museum showcases the Cairns Historical Society’s collection of objects, photographs and archival records. This collection holds the memories of the people, places, events and changing environment of Cairns and Far North Queensland. Adult $10, child (under 14) $5, family (2 parents or grandparents + 2 kids) $25, pensioner/senior/concession $8 .  

Events edit

  • Catch an amateur rugby game in town if you can, the locals play a mean game, and it's a great way to meet local folks.
  • International cricket is sometimes played in Cairns at -16.93581 145.74902 5 Cazaly's Stadium . Time your visit right and you could catch a great game for just a couple of dollars.
  • Cairns is home to one of Australia's best basketball teams, the Cairns Taipans, as well as Australian basketball's most famous mascot, Joe Blake the Snake.

Natural attractions edit

  • Cairns' attractions are an excellent entry point to see, dive, and snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef and to visit the Daintree Rainforest which is at least a day trip. Copperlode Dam and Atherton Tablelands are other options.
  • Cairns is the hotspot for wildlife diversity in Australia and is an ideal place to see a huge variety of birds, mammals, and reptiles. Places such as Mount Lewis, Lamb Range, or Mount Hypipamee are ideal locations to see anything from a Cassowary to Tree Kangaroos.
  • -16.9232 145.7792 6 Cairns Wildlife Dome , 35-41 Wharf Street , ☏ +61 7 4031 7250 , [email protected] . A spectacular all-weather wildlife exhibit enclosed by a 20-m-high glass dome on top of the iconic Reef Hotel Casino, visitors walk through a replicated rainforest environment whilst birds such as parrots, cockatoos and lorikeets fly freely around you. See other animals such as koalas, frogmouths, kookaburras, rainforest wallabies, crocodiles, turtles and pythons. Complimentary guided tours and animal presentations take place throughout the day.  

cairns travel guide

Cairns is an adventure sports enthusiast's paradise: every second shop is a tourist information centre with signs blaring "dive dive" or "tandem skydiving". Its location close to the ocean, the mountains and the rainforest gives travellers lots of choices of activities.

Standby rates are ubiquitous: many of the more expensive activities, including scuba diving and skydiving, are up to $150 cheaper if you are prepared to go on standby for a cancellation.

cairns travel guide

  • Swim in the artificial "lagoon" (a public swimming pool with some sand on one side) on the promenade near the pier. The lagoon is unfenced and free to use. A shallow depth (max depth 1.5 m) makes it ideal for families with children. The lagoon is a good place to cool off, especially during "stinger season" between October and May (cf. Dangerous creatures in Australia ) when swimming at local beaches should be avoided except inside the stinger net enclosures, which are no bigger than the lagoon itself. Note that there are also no beaches in central Cairns itself - one can catch a bus to the northern beaches, and there are swimming net enclosures at Holloways, Yorkey's Knob, Trinity, Kewarra, Palm Cove and Ellis Beaches but the sand there is rather rough.
  • Sun-bake or people watch on the grassy part of the promenade near the lagoon. On a sunny day, even in the middle of Cairns's tropical "winter", there will sometimes be more sun-bakers than there is visible grass.
  • Have a barbecue on the promenade. Cairns has free barbecues scattered generously among the picnic tables on the grass.
  • Go walking - Cairns is surrounded by rainforest-clad mountains, and there are nearly 200 walking tracks in this World Heritage Area. Keen walkers should keep an eye out for Tropical Walking Tracks , found at local bookshops and adventure shops. It lists all of the tracks around Cairns as well as those between Townsville and Cooktown and has maps of them and 'how-to-get-there' directions as well.

Diving and snorkelling edit

A number of Cairns operators run day and liveaboard scuba diving trips from both Cairns and Port Douglas, and almost all include complimentary day transfers for their passengers between the two. For seeing the Great Barrier Reef , the smaller dive boats provide the most intimate experience, both for diving and for snorkelling and are excellent for the confident or experienced. The larger operations have more amenities - better food, larger and faster boats, more activities, and often easier access to the water and are great for beginners, but sometimes provide a poorer underwater experience, as the underwater areas that the larger boats visit are heavily used.

  • -16.92478 145.77929 1 Mike Ball Dive Expeditions , 3 Abbott Street , ☏ +61-7-4053-0500 , [email protected] . Dive sites suited to serious divers. Allows solo diving and rebreather diving if you provide appropriate equipment. Cabins with private bathrooms are available. 3-night trip from $1,480, 4-night trip from $1,678 and 7-night trip from $2,938, rental equipment and courses extra .  
  • New Horizon Sail and Dive , PO Box 5957 , ☏ +61 4 3175 1575 , fax : +61 4 3175 1575 , [email protected] . New Horizon Sail and Dive operates two classic sailing boats, Santa Maria and Coral Sea Dreaming, to the outer Great Barrier Reef. They allow you to experience the reef in a smaller more intimate affair with a maximum of 10 passengers on each trip. The trip is from $380 per person for a two-day liveaboard and from $540 for a three-day liveaboard, all equipment included. .  
  • -16.9214 145.78074 2 Passions of Paradise , ☏ +61 7 4041-1600 , [email protected] . A 25-m modern, fast-sailing catamaran travelling daily to Michaelmas Cay, where the company holds a permit allowing passengers access to the beach. This is one of the most important bird nesting sanctuaries on the Great Barrier Reef with over 20,000 sea birds. The cay has white sand, warm shallow water and an abundance of marine life making it perfect for snorkelling, scuba diving, glass bottom boat tours or just relaxing on the beach. The second destination is the Outer Barrier Reef and a mooring at Breaking Patches. There you will find the hard coral gardens that the Outer Reef is famous for. The day includes a hot and cold buffet lunch, all snorkelling equipment and sailing on one of the fastest catamarans travelling to the Great Barrier Reef.  
  • -16.92806 145.77131 3 Pro Dive Cairns , 116 Spence Street , ☏ +61 7 4031-5255 , fax : +61 7 4051-9955 , [email protected] . Specialises in 11-dive/3-day 2-night liveaboard trips to the Outer Reef, departing every day except Tuesdays. Their dive sites are suitable for inexperienced divers: most trips will include one or more groups of students doing their checkout dives. The liveaboard trip is $580 for a twin share or double cabin (including all equipment). Pro Dive Cairns also offer several PADI courses which include the liveaboard trip: the basic Open Water course (2 days of classroom and pool work plus the trip), Open Water referral checkout dives, Advanced Open Water and Rescue Diver. The trip is $580 per person, twin share or double and equipment is included. An additional fee applies of $35 per person, including a $15 Government Environmental Management Charge as well as a Port Departure tax and administration costs. The trip is $560 per person, twin share or double, reef tax and equipment included. Open Water course $725, Open Water referral $630 .  
  • -16.92084 145.77775 4 Tusa Dive Australia , cnr Shield Street and the Esplanade , ☏ +61 7 4047 9100 , fax : +61 7 4047 9110 , [email protected] . Good small operator. Two-day dive trips to the Outer Reef for $160 ($190 with equipment hire) .  
  • -16.92334 145.76509 5 Spirit of Freedom , ☏ +61 7 4047 9150 . A 37-m liveaboard boat, covering iconic and remote dive sites. A 3-day trip departs Mondays for Cod Hole and the Ribbon Reefs, a 4-day trip departs Thursdays for the Coral Sea and Osprey Reef, or you can stay on for the full 7 days. A stunning low-level flight to Lizzard Island gets you from Cairns to meet on the Thursday trip, and back from the Monday one. Excellent diving sites for the more advanced diver - you must have your open water before joining the boat.  

For some serious airtime edit

If you are sick of the sea, head up in the air for skydiving , hang gliding or hot air ballooning. The Cairns region has some of the best weather for ballooning in the world and so trips go year-round and are rarely cancelled. It's also one of the cheapest places to go flying, anywhere. The trips go inland to the Atherton Tablelands and take off at first light at Mareeba, finishing around 10AM and can connect directly to a Great Barrier Reef tour or drop you in Kuranda. Hang gliders fly off Rex Point Lookout, halfway between Cairns and Port Douglas on the Captain Cook Highway. On weekends, it's common to see multiple gliders soaring through the sky above the scenic lookout, and the winter season provides consistent flight conditions.

  • -16.64643 145.56563 6 Airplay Hang Gliding , ☏ +61 412 000797 , [email protected] . Airplay offers tandem hang gliding flights of durations up to 1 hr and a free outbound shuttle service. Lessons and full instruction are also available to those wishing to learn to fly.  
  • -16.92182 145.77777 7 Ballooning with Hot Air , ☏ +61 7 4039 9900 . Includes a hot breakfast, champagne & transfers. $200 .  
  • Champagne Balloon Flights , ☏ +61 7 4039 9955 . Offers a slightly cheaper trip that doesn't include breakfast.  
  • -16.92184 145.77998 8 Skydive Cairns , ☏ +61 7 4031-5466 , toll-free: 1300 800 840 , [email protected] . Tandem, single jumps, and AFF courses. One of the most beautiful planes flies up to 13,000 ft (4,000 m) overlooking the reef.  
  • -16.92135 145.77557 9 Tandem Cairns , 96 Lake St, Cairns ( Entrance on Aplin Street ), ☏ +61 7 4015 2466 , [email protected] . Offers tandem skydives. $244 for a 10,000 ft (3,000 m) dive, $295 for a 14,000 ft (4,300 m) dive .  

White water rafting edit

Rafting in North Queensland has the advantage of departures all year round, tropical water temperatures and ease of access to complement breathtaking scenery and rapids. The region's white water rafting adventures are suitable for all levels of fitness and enthusiasm. Ride through the planet's oldest continuously growing tropical rainforests on rivers that still run totally wild.

  • -16.9386 145.75313 10 RnR White Water Rafting , PO Box 2945 , ☏ +61 7 4031 3460 , [email protected] . Operating since 1984. The Tully River is Australia's best and most famous 1-day white water rafting experience, with up to 5 hr of rafting over more than 45 grade 4 rapids through World Heritage Rainforest. The Barron River option is a great half-day tour, with up to 2 hr of rafting on grade 3 rapids. For something longer, the North Johnstone 4-day expedition is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Helicopter in, 4 days of grade 5 rapids and camping 3 nights under the stars in riverside rainforest clearings.  

Coach tours edit

Many coach tours depart Cairns daily, with a couple of hundred to choose from. There are rainforest tours to Mossman Gorge , the Daintree River , Cape Tribulation , and the Cairns Highlands ( Atherton Tablelands ), specialised 4WD tours, city sights tours, tours to wildlife parks, outback tours.

  • -16.94256 145.75583 11 Tropic Wings Coach Tours , PO 1230 Cairns , ☏ +61 7 4041 9400 , fax : +61 7 4041 9499 , [email protected] . One of the largest and longest established coach touring companies in Cairns, operating since 1981. Operate full- and half-day tours to Kuranda including Kuranda Scenic Railway, Skyrail, Rainforestation Nature Park and Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Cape Tribulation and the Daintree, Port Douglas, Atherton Tablelands and the 'Outback'. Extended tours are available to Cape Tribulation and the Daintree.  
  • -16.94243 145.75575 12 Jungle Tours , PO Box 2945 , ☏ +61 7 4041 9440 , fax : +61 7 4041 9499 , [email protected] . Day and extended tours to the World Heritage areas of Cape Tribulation and the Daintree - where the oldest rainforest in the world meets the Great Barrier Reef. Small groups travel with their informative guides on air-conditioned buses. Tours can include Port Douglas, The Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary, cruising on the Daintree River searching for crocodiles and wildlife, swimming in the Mossman Gorge and exploring Cape Tribulation Beach. On extended tours, various levels of accommodation are offered, from backpacker dorms to deluxe resorts, with plenty of options to party and play. Activities vary from reef trips with Rum Runner to horseriding, jungle surfing, and sea kayaking.  
  • -16.93531 145.75664 13 Northern Experience Eco Tour , Stratford , ☏ +61 7 4058 0268 . Visits the waterfalls, Lake Barrine Cater lake, the Curtain Fig tree, Famous Milla Milla falls, 2-course hot lunch and cheese/yogurt tasting at the Mungalli organic bio-dynamic dairy, the rainforest of the Southern Cairns Highlands, plus the historic Spanish castle ruins and gardens of Paronella Park and Mena Creek falls, near Innisfail, and the Babinda boulders for a swim in clear mountain spring waters. Back to Cairns via Bruce Highway, sugar cane fields and Walsh's Pyramid. Many photo opportunities. Small groups, max 20 passengers.  

Shops selling pearls are fairly widespread in Cairns, with a huge price range. You can find real A-grade pearls from the Torres Strait - not cheap, but in the end more than fair in comparison to the European or US prices for the same quality level.

  • -16.92038 145.77786 1 Cairns Esplanade Markets , The Esplanade @ The Lagoon ( Go to the Lagoon on the Esplanade ), ☏ +61 7 4044 3715 . Saturday 8-4PM . Esplanade Markets have homemade products, rare stones, clothes, all types of art, massage, local music, local rainforest timbers/carvings/wooden chopping boards and you will be buying from the maker/artist of the products. Heaps of budget-priced stuff, but some very refined high art/design/ideas that could easily become a feature piece of a house/garden. Great place to find a special gift. And best of all it has a 'locals feel' about it. Make sure to take a hat and sunscreen as it's an outdoor market. Have fun and meet some locals. from $0.50 .  
  • -16.920352 145.776504 2 Night Markets ( Cairns Night Markets ), 71-75 The Esplanade , ☏ +61 7 4051-7666 . Every night of the week till late . The markets are a collection of stalls catering mainly to tourists: you can buy lots of clothes, games, souvenirs, and Australiana.  

As with much of Cairns, you can divide the city into the Esplanade and the places within a block of it, and the rest of the city. The Esplanade is littered with bar and grill places supplying red meat and beer all in the one place, and with seafood restaurants. It's relatively difficult to find anything open before 11AM since they expect the clientele to be sleeping in. The rest of the city has small cafes and milkbars catering to locals. The number of Japanese tourists here makes Japanese food a fairly reliable option, although prices can be steep.

A number of the more expensive restaurants on the Esplanade, particularly towards the north end, offer discounts of 20-30% for early birds: usually, you will need to order by 6:30PM and pay and leave no later than 7:30PM to get a discounted meal.

  • -16.9191 145.7764 1 La Pizza Trattoria , 93 The Esplanade , ☏ +61 7 4031 2646 . M–Th 6AM–10:30PM, F–Su 6AM–11PM . La Pizza Trattoria has good pizza. It lures most patrons in by letting them wander past the pizza chef kneading the dough as they smell the baking pizzas. Medium-sized pizzas: $18–21 .  
  • -16.9187 145.7761 2 Villa Romana Trattoria , Aplin Street (cnr The Esplanade) , ☏ +61 7 4051 9000 , fax : +61 7 4031 5557 . Italian meals with some good seafood options and overworked wait staff. 25% discount if you order before 6:30PM. Meals are $25-40 .  
  • -16.9225 145.7774 3 Orient Express Sushi Train ( Sushi Express ), Shop 28 Orchid Plaza, 79 Abbott Street , ☏ +61 7 4041 4388 , fax : +61 7 4052 1277 . A sushi train made up to look like the Kuranda Railway, this place is popular but not wildly busy. The tempura seems to get more attention than the sushi or sashimi. Plates from $2.50–4.50 .  
  • -16.9227 145.7768 4 Perrotta's At The Gallery , 38 Abbott Street , ☏ +61 7 4031-5899 , [email protected] . If you want to escape from several evenings touring the bar and grill places, Perotta's is just off the Esplanade and does more sophisticated Western food. Try the French toast with roast pear for breakfast. Breakfast, lunch and dinner approximately $25 . ( updated Dec 2018 )

cairns travel guide

Cairns has pubs and bars to cater to travellers, students, and locals.

  • -16.9203 145.7771 1 Rattle 'N Hum , 65-67 The Esplanade , ☏ +61 7 4031-3011 . The Rattle 'n Hum is a bar and grill in the midst of one of the busiest parts of The Esplanade. It's quite large and getting a seat is seldom a problem: sit out back once they light torches in the evenings. Competition for the pool table is not formidable so you should be able to get several games in. They do a number of main meals, including wood-fired pizza for around $20. The staff are highly variable in quality, ordering a cocktail can be risky, but they're certainly able to pull a beer.  
  • -16.9217 145.7759 2 The Woolshed ( The Woolshed Chargrill & Saloon Bar ), 24 Shields Street , ☏ +61 7 4031-6304 , fax : +61 7 4041-2283 . If you are looking for a place to find all the travellers, go to the Woolshed in downtown Cairns.  

Cairns has seemingly endless places to stay, but during high season (June - September) most hotels are well booked.

Budget edit

There are over 20 hostels, with bunks in the $16–30 range. Many of the hostels are not particularly clean or well-maintained.

  • -16.9177 145.7698 1 Asylum Cairns , 149 Grafton St , ☏ +61 7 4031 1474 , toll-free: 1800 065-464 , fax : +61 7 4031 8499 , [email protected] . Check-in: 9AM , check-out: 10AM . Bed in a small dorm (no bunk beds). Prices on the website may be out of date. Free transfers to and from the airport, bus or train station if staying 2 nights or more. Free internet. Not particularly clean or well-maintained. Very friendly and helpful staff. Not in the city centre, but within easy walking distance. ( updated Feb 2015 )
  • -16.9098 145.7604 2 Bohemia Resort , 231 McLeod St , ☏ +61 7 4041-7290 , fax : +61 7 4041-7292 , [email protected] . Close to the centre of Cairns and with 4 dorm rooms, singles, twins and doubles, as well as ensuite and family rooms. Clean and well maintained. 25 m saltwater pool, kitchen, bar and shuttle bus service. From $23 per person, per night .  
  • -16.9249 145.77355 3 Cairns Central YHA Backpackers Hostel , 20-26 McLeod St , ☏ +61 7 4051-0772 , fax : +61 7 4031-3158 , [email protected] . Bunk beds in shared rooms $23-25 per night, double and twin rooms from $54 per night .  
  • -16.9246 145.7673 4 Cairns City Backpackers , 274 Draper St , ☏ +61 7 40516160 , [email protected] . Small, quiet and friendly and located in a quiet backstreet and a 5 min walk to Cairns Central Shopping Centre. Full laundry and kitchen facilities and internet at $3 per hr.  
  • -16.9143 145.7651 5 Castaways Backpackers , 207 Sheridan St ( near city centre ), ☏ +61 7 40511238 , toll-free: 1800 351115 , [email protected] . Check-in: 10AM , check-out: 9:30AM . Small family-run hostel with a focus on cleanliness and friendly service. Free Wi-Fi and evening meal at the Woolshed, free tea and coffee. Shared dorm accommodation from $19, single, double, twin and en suite rooms available .  
  • -16.9253 145.7698 6 Dreamtime Hostel ( Dreamtime Travellers Rest ), Cnr Bunda & Terminus Street Parramatta Park , ☏ +61 7 40316753 , toll-free: 1800 058 440 , [email protected] . Check-in: 10AM , check-out: 9:30AM . Small hostel across Cairns Central with its mall and lagoon-like backyard. Air condition available. Shared dorm accommodation from $22, single and twin rooms available .  
  • -16.9108 145.76705 7 Floriana Guesthouse , 183 The Esplanade , ☏ +61 7 4051-7886 , fax : +61 7 4051-3056 , [email protected] . Front rooms look out to the Coral Sea, Floriana is an older style Art Deco 1930s guesthouse. It is a 15-min walk to town and offers rooms with shared facilities and self-contained flats.  
  • -16.92395 145.7754 8 Gilligans Backpacker Hotel and Resort , 57-89 Grafton St , toll-free: 1800 556 995 , [email protected] . Private hotel rooms also available. Free meal every night, clean, safe, fun hostel with loads of activities and massive swimming pool. Shared dorm rooms starting from $18 a night .  
  • -16.91815 145.7686 9 Mad Monkey Backpackers Village , 141 Sheridan St , ☏ +61 7 4231 9612 . Free shuttle bus ride into the heart of Cairns. Has female-only dorms.  
  • -16.9358 145.7519 10 Motel Nomad ( Serpent Hostel ), 341 Lake St , ☏ +61 7 4040 7777 , toll-free: 1800 666 237 , [email protected] . Check-in: 2PM , check-out: 10AM . Free shuttle bus. Very clean hostel with a huge swimming pool and a volleyball court. Shared dorm accommodation from $14 a night . ( updated Nov 2015 )
  • -16.9225 145.7742 11 Bounce Cairns , 117 Grafton Street , ☏ +61 7 4047 7200 , toll-free: 1800 000 541 , [email protected] . All guests receive free daily breakfast, free unlimited internet 24/7, free hidden swimming hole trip, sailing trip and more activities. Located in the centre of town.  
  • -16.9203 145.7729 12 Mumma’s Hostel Cairns , 140 Grafton St , ☏ +61 7 4041-5255 , [email protected] . Check-in: 10AM , check-out: 10AM . Free Wi-Fi internet. clean safe and friendly. In the city centre with a pool and great outdoor area. $15 .  
  • -16.9192 145.7728 13 ibis Styles Cairns , 15 Florence Street ( Corner of Florence and Lake St ), ☏ +61 7 4051 5733 . Check-in: 2PM , check-out: 10AM .  

Mid-range edit

Mid-range Cairns hotels, resorts, and inns are listed here alphabetically.

  • -16.911 145.7672 14 181 The Esplanade , 181 The Esplanade ( next to Cairns Base Hospital and a 15 min walk from town ), ☏ +61 7 4052 6888 . Check-in: 2PM , check-out: 10AM .  
  • -16.7831 145.6981 15 Amaroo At Trinity , 92-94 Moore St, Trinity Beach ( Between Cairns and Palm Cove, 15-min drive from Cairns CBD ), ☏ +61 7 4055 6066 . Modern studio or suite in Cairns northern beach area. Close to restaurants, hotels, shops. Elevated beachfront position, views of the Coral Sea and the mountains in the rear. Queen and twin bed options, lift access to all floors, and laundry facilities on each level. $130-216 .  
  • -16.9172 145.774 16 Doubletree by Hilton Cairns , 21-123 The Esplanade & Florence St , ☏ +61 7 4050 6070 , fax : +61 7 4031 3770 . Located a few minutes walk from the centre, the hotel has both a normal swimming pool and a lake by the atrium with huge Barramundi! Most of the rooms have views of the sea. Double rooms approximately $150 per night .  
  • -16.9024 145.7539 17 The Lakes Cairns Resort and Spa , 2 Greenslopes St , ☏ +61 7 4053-9400 . 4.5-star resort apartments in 11 acres (4.5 hectares) of lush landscaped gardens, lakes and beach lagoon pools.  
  • -16.7871 145.695 18 Marlin Cove Holiday Resort , 2 Keem St. Trinity Beach ( 15 min from Cairns City ), ☏ +61 7 4057-8299 . 4-star self-contained accommodation in Trinity Beach. Suitable for families.  
  • -16.9194 145.7741 19 Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort , 122 Lake St ( One block from the centre of Cairns ), ☏ +61 7 4080-1888 , fax : +61 7 4080-1889 , [email protected] . Resort-style king rooms and twin rooms (with two doubles) approximately $150/night .  
  • -16.9079 145.7601 20 Quality Hotel Sheridan Plaza , 295 Sheridan St ( 5 min from the Cairns airport and city centre ), ☏ +61 7 4031-6500 , fax : +61 7 4031-6226 . 4-star boutique-style hotel.  
  • -16.9166 145.7673 21 Queens Court Accommodation Cairns , 167-171 Sheridan St ( In the centre of Cairns ), ☏ +61 7 4051-7722 , [email protected] . 81 standard rooms and suites including some self-contained suites. Showering amenities for guests on late departures, guest laundry, swimming pool, BBQ area, evening dining, free overnight luggage storage, and secure onsite parking. ADSL broadband in all rooms, wifi and internet kiosk. A tour desk, and a transit lounge. Breakfast and free airport transfer pick-up are available. All rooms have room safes. Budget rooms from $69/night, motel-style twin rooms from $103/night, sc suite from $140, family suite $229 .  
  • -16.7473 145.6702 22 Reef Retreat Resort , 10-14 Harpa St, Palm Cove ( 22 km from Cairns ), fax : +61 7 4059-1745 . Between a coconut palm-fringed beach and lush, tropical rainforest.  
  • -16.91422 145.76995 23 Rydges Esplanade Resort Cairns , 209 - 217 Abbott St , ☏ +61 7 4044 9000 , [email protected] . ( updated Feb 2015 )
  • -16.8083 145.7245 24 Villa Marine Holiday Resort , 8 Rutherford Street, Yorkeys Knob Beach, Cairns , ☏ +61 7 4055 7158 , [email protected] . Villa Marine Holiday Resort has a luxury Rainforest Apartment that has amazing views over the adjoining rainforest. Or stay in their romantic Honeymoon apartment. Family and Budget apartments are available as well. Small, quiet and peaceful, they have all types of lodging to suit your needs. $99–150/night .  

Splurge edit

  • -16.9223 145.7803 25 Cairns Harbour Lights , 1 Marlin Pde, Cairns , ☏ +61 7 4057 0800 . Serviced 1- to 2-bedroom apartments with Cairns water and Trinity Park views.  
  • -16.9264 145.7743 26 Clarendon on Spence , 79 Spence St , ☏ +61 7 4041 2226 , fax : +61 7 4041 4132 . 2-3 bedroom apartments with balconies, fully-equipped kitchens, en suite with corner spa. Near Esplanade, Reef Fleet Terminal, and restaurant strip.  
  • -16.9231 145.7803 27 Hilton Cairns , 34 The Esplanade , ☏ +61 7 4050-2000 , fax : +61 7 4050-2001 , [email protected] .  
  • -16.9266 145.7744 28 Cairns City Apartments , 79 Spence St , ☏ +61 7 4041 2226 . 2-3 bedroom apartments with balconies located near restaurant district, shopping mall, and Reef Fleet Terminal. Guest access to spa and outdoor swimming pool. Sister-property of Clarendon on Spence.  
  • -16.92239 145.78036 29 The Sebel Cairns ( Formerly Cairns International Hotel ), 1 Marlin Parade , ☏ +61 7 4057 0800 , fax : +61 7 4057 0899 , [email protected] . Spacious rooms and suites all with balconies, overlooking the harbour and the city. From $200/room .  
  • -16.9205 145.7804 30 Shangri-La Hotel , Pierpoint Rd , ☏ +61 7 4031-1411 , fax : +61 7 4031-3226 , [email protected] .  
  • -16.9235 145.7794 31 Pullman Reef Hotel , 35-41 Wharf St , ☏ +61 7 4030-8888 , fax : +61 7 4030-8777 . Among the best hotels in the city, located in the same building as the Reef Casino and with views over Trinity Bay. From $220 .  

Stay safe edit

cairns travel guide

Cairns is in general a safe city with all the annoyances (e.g. pickpockets and touts) that a city full of tourists experiences. The most notable threats are nature and the weather. Cairns is hit by tropical cyclones during the wet season (December until March) that cause damage to the infrastructure and stops public activities. Cairns has also been rated as the second most dangerous city after Darwin with a rating of 54.72.

Go next edit

Kuranda edit.

cairns travel guide

This small town nestled in the rainforest-covered mountains just north of Cairns draws thousands of tourists each week and is perhaps the most popular day trip from the city. Kuranda (elevation 330 m) is 25 km from Cairns via the Kennedy Highway, which snakes its way over the Macalister Range. However, most visitors reach the town by taking the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway or Kuranda Railroad, both of which offer transfers to Cairns and package deals with Kuranda attractions. Skyrail travels above the rainforest with stations along the route to explore the rainforest environment and view the Barron River Falls. The Kuranda Railway makes a scenic trip through Barron Gorge National Park. The town itself offers plenty of shopping and is home to several wildlife parks.

Further out edit

  • Mareeba, the edge of the outback, where the sun shines 300 days a year, and they produce the majority of Australia's coffee crop. Tours from Cairns are available.
  • Mossman Gorge, 70 minutes north of Cairns is a good place to cool off. Avoid arriving at the same time as the tour coaches, and take great care swimming as the currents are very strong.
  • The Daintree Rainforest which is officially the world's oldest rainforest is located an hour and a half north. Here you can see Australia's largest variety of flora and fauna as well as ride one of the top tourist attractions - Jungle Surfing.
  • Green Island and Fitzroy Island , both resort islands that welcome day trips, are within 45 minutes of Cairns by ferry.
  • The Savannahlander is a four-day train journey that departs from Cairns to the outback town of Forsayth . It's a unique way to see the Chillagoe caves and Undara lava tubes.
  • Cooktown is around 3 hours north along the coast from Cairns, and has history, national parks and beaches to explore.
  • Mission Beach a lovely tropical beach is about an hour and a half drive south. It is the gateway to Dunk and Bedarra Islands. Mission Beach is one of the few places you might see the very rare and endangered Cassowary bird.
  • Port Douglas a seaside resort town and another gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest is an hour north along one of the nicest drives in Australia.
  • Lake Tinaroo is on the Atherton Tablelands about an hour southwest of Cairns. Lake Tinaroo is great for swimming, water sports, bush walking, fishing and camping.
  • Mt Isa is just perched on the NT border
  • Townsville is the regional capital of North Queensland, and has plenty to offer

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Cairns Is Great For

Rich indigenous history and cultural landmarks.

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Travelers' pro tips for experiencing Cairns

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In the words of those who've been there before ...

What is the best way to get there.

Cairns is serviced by Cairns International Airport.

Cairns’ Railway Station is the city’s main station and the terminus of the North Coast line from Brisbane.

Greyhound Australia offers services to and from Cairns to other major cities in Queensland. Buses typically arrive in the Greyhound Coach Terminal.

Do I need a visa?

If you’re visiting Cairns from overseas, see if you need a visa using this website.

When is the best time to visit?

April or September: Cairns’ tropical climate means that it maintains warm temperatures even during the winter months when the cities of Melbourne and Sydney get super chilly. For the ultimate combination of off-peak accommodation prices, dry weather, and fewer crowds, visit between April and September. However, between November and May, Cairn’s experiences what’s known as stinger season, when jellyfish are common off the city’s shores.

For more information on Cairns weather and when to go, check out some tips here.

Sunbus provides the bus service in Cairns; routes typically begin at Cairns City Mall and cover the suburbs, beaches, and city. For timetables and route information, see this link.

It can be difficult to hail a cab from the street in Cairns, so it's best to download a rideshare app if you’re planning to explore by taxi. Apps available in Cairns include Uber, Ola, and Shebah.

Are there local customs I should know?

  • Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort
  • Shangri-La The Marina, Cairns
  • Oaks Cairns Hotel
  • Pullman Reef Hotel Casino
  • Hilton Cairns
  • Waterbar & Grill Steakhouse
  • Dundee's Restaurant on the Waterfront
  • Prawn Star Cairns
  • Great Barrier Reef
  • Cairns Esplanade Lagoon
  • Josephine Falls
  • Cairns Aquarium
  • Cairns Botanic Gardens
  • Great Barrier Reef Snorkeling and Diving Cruise from Cairns
  • Cape Tribulation, Mossman Gorge, and Daintree Rainforest Day Trip from Cairns or Port Douglas
  • Passions of Paradise Great Barrier Reef Snorkel and Dive Cruise from Cairns by Luxury Catamaran
  • Ocean Freedom Great Barrier Reef Personal Luxury Snorkel & Dive Cruise, Cairns
  • Ocean Free Green Island & Great Barrier Reef Snorkel Cruise, Cairns 25 guests
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Home » Oceania » Australia » Cairns

Backpacking Cairns Travel Guide (2023)

Cairns is one of the most popular places in Australia for both backpacker and natives alike. Few other Australian destinations can compete with the sheer amount of adventure that Cairns offers!

Sandwiched between the idyllic Atherton Tablelands, rugged Daintree, and otherworldly Great Barrier Reef, there’s something to do in every direction.

Go waterfall hunting in Atherton; hunt for the exotic cassowary in the Daintree; go skydiving over the Great Barrier Reef! All of this and much more is possible if you go backpacking in Cairns.

As an Australian city, Cairns isn’t a cheap destination. If you go out every night, spend money on tours without checking prices/shopping around, and eat out every day, you’ll run through your budget faster than you can say kangaroo.

If you’re going to be backpacking around Cairns, you’re going to have to be a smart broke backpacker, equipped with the right sort of tools…

But never fear: Cairns can be affordable! We have written this budget travel guide for Cairns, so that you can save a buck or two.

In addition to itineraries, nightlife suggestions, transportation advice, and more, everything you need to know about traveling in Cairns is covered in this guide; read on, and you’ll be more than prepared to go backpacking in Cairns affordably.

cairns travel guide

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How Much does Backpacking Cairns Cost?

Where to stay in cairns, top things to do in cairns, backpacking cairns 4 day itinerary, backpacking cairns travel tips and city guide.

If there’s one thing that Queensland, Australia has going for it, it’s that it is affordable! No more $10 beers and ridiculously overpriced hostel beds. Cairns can be very cheap, perhaps the cheapest place you can visit while backpacking Australia !

palm cove backpacking cairns

The average daily budget for Cairns will be about $45-$60 per day. This will get you a dorm bed, grocery money, a bit of wine, and extra spending money for activities. With the right spending habits, the cost of travel in Cairns can be even less, though you’ll have to be a dedicated Broke Backpacker to do this.

Accommodation is notably inexpensive in Cairns; even apartments and AirBnBs will be affordable for shoestring backpackers. Food prices are manageable, so long as you cook at home much more frequently than eat at restaurants. The cheapest accommodation options are (and will always be) Cairns hostels . They’re affordable but still offer quite a lot of bang for your buck.

Since there are so many travelers in Cairns, there are many, many backpacker bars that offer special deals. As such, Cairns will be one of the cheapest places to party in Australia!

The greatest expenses in Cairns will be the organized activities e.g. the Great Barrier Reef and skydiving. Pick and choose which activities you must do. To save money, shop around and find the best deal. Some companies, specifically those that go to the Reef, offer discounted rates at the last second to fill up surplus seats.

Below is a breakdown of the average costs of travel in Cairns.

Cairns Daily Budget Breakdown

Hostel Dormitory:  $15-$20

Basic room for two:  $100

AirBnB/temp apartment:  $80

Average cost of public transport:  $3

City-Airport transfer:  $15-$30

Sandwich:  $7-$9

Beer at a bar:  $5-$8

Coffee:  $3-$4

Bottle of wine from the market:  $2-$8

Dinner for two:  $35-$45

Cairns Budget Backpacking Tips

beach near cairns

There are plenty of ways to save cash while traveling! With the proper spending habits, Cairns can be cheap; just follow the tips in this travel guide!

Below is a list of tips for backpacking in Cairns on a budget. Follow these words of advice and you’ll find that your dollar goes much further.

  • Always pre-fade before going out : Buying full-priced drinks at the bar is a great way to waste your money. Instead, buy booze at the store and drink with your friends at the hostel/their house/the park/anywhere besides the actual bar. Drink lots of store-bought wine; it’s freakin’ cheaper than water sometimes!
  • Cook at home as often as possible : One of the most proven ways to save money; buying your own groceries and cooking at home will save you heaps of cash.
  • Eat/drink during happy hour : Many bars and cafes offer drink and meal specials during the quieter hours of the day (4pm-6pm). Some of these deals can be quite affordable; even the locals use them!
  • Get a job : Whether or not you have a working holiday visa there are plenty of opportunities to find backpack jobs in Cairns. Many hostels will give you a free bed in exchange for a few hours of labor.
  • Do free shit : There are a ton of attractions in Cairns that don’t charge you any sort of entrance fee! None of these are dull or boring either. Check out any of these free things to do in Cairns while visiting.

Why You Should Travel to Cairns with a Water Bottle

Plastic washes up on even the most pristine beaches… so do your part and keep the Big Blue beautiful

You aren’t going to save the world overnight, but you might as well be part of the solution and not the problem. When you travel to some of the world’s most remote places, you come to realise the full extent of the plastic problem. And I hope you become more inspired to continue being a responsible traveller .

Plus, now you won’t be buying overpriced bottles of water from the supermarkets either! Travel with a filtered water bottle instead and never waste a cent nor a turtle’s life again.

Grayl Geopress Water Purifier Bottle

Drink water from ANYWHERE. The Grayl Geopress is the worlds leading filtered water bottle protecting your tum from all manner of waterborne nasties.

Single-use plastic bottles are a MASSIVE threat to marine life. Be a part of the solution and travel with a filter water bottle. Save money and the environment!

We’ve tested the Geopress  rigorously  from the icy heights of Pakistan to the tropical jungles of Cuba, and can confirm: it’s the last water bottle you’ll ever buy!

Travellers Oasis Best Hostel in Cairns

Traveller’s Oasis

Traveller’s Oasis brings together good vibes and comfort, including poolside barbecues, TVs in private rooms, and towels on every bed!

  • Free Parking
  • Swimming Pool

This town is practically run by backpackers looking to stay near the Great Barrier Reef and there are heaps of hostels in Cairns! In the alleys, on top of the bars, between the cafes, everywhere you look there is a backpacker lodge.

The hostels in Cairns can be dirt cheap but they can also be very mangy, practically third world at times. Be aware of how much you are willing to pay for and what you’re getting yourself into. Depending on where you’re staying in Cairns , the prices of accommodations can vary slightly too

Many hostels offer discounts to long-term inhabitants. These deals usually cater backpackers with a working holiday visa. Staying at a hostel for a long period of time could be an awesome experience as everyone really gets to know each other, and the camaraderie is really fantastic.

Other working holidayers opt to stay in an apartment. Since Cairns is so much cheaper than most Australian cities, many backpackers can actually afford their own room or even a flat with their paycheck.

Check the local classifieds, like Gumtree , or check your hostel’s bulletin board – many backpackers start in a hostel and end up moving into their own place.

To save the most money, you can, of course, reach out to potential hosts via couchsurfing. Australians are an extremely hospitable bunch and love to host unsuspecting visitors. Be sure to follow all the usual courtesies and rules of staying with a stranger though.

travel cairns landscape

Overall Best Hostel in Cairns – Traveller’s Oasis

Travellers Oasis Best Hostel in Cairns

This hostel was voted the best hostel in Australia in 2018 by Hostelwrold! This backpacker hostel in Cairns seemingly has it all: a swimming pool, spotless facilities, a great kitchen, and excellent staff.

There’s really not much to say about this place except that it’s amazing and we wouldn’t want it any other way. Did we mention you can park your car or camper here for free as well?!

Best Hostel for Solo Travellers in Cairns – Globetrotters International

Globetrotters International Best Hostel for Solo Traveller

Globetrotters is the best hostel in Cairns for backpackers to meet other backpackers, thanks to the hostel’s friendly setting and well-organized social events.

The lodge hosts two communal BBQs each week, which is a godsend for solo backpackers looking to meet other travelers. Nothing creates lasting friendships like fire and sizzling meats. The rest of the hostel is well kept, and there’s little here that should irk travelers.

Globetrotters International is one of our favourites in Cairns but they’re not taking guests right now. We’re not sure if they’re closed for good but we hope they’ll come back soon.

Best Party Hostel in Cairns – Calypso Inn

Calypso Inn Best Party Hostel in Cairns

The Calypso is the best party hostel in Cairns for one reason: the Zanzibar. This onsite shitshow pumps out tunes and goodtimes like clockwork, and consistently puts backpackers into their early graves, in a good way of course.

The parties here can be wild and for those looking for a party will find the Calypso Inn is irresistible. There’s a swimming pool and pool table as well that make for great hangover kick it spots.

Calypso Inn is one of our favourites in Cairns but they’re not taking guests right now. We’re not sure if they’re closed for good but we hope they’ll come back soon.

1. Dive at the Great Barrier Reef

great barrier reef

One of the greatest sights in the entire world; the Great Barrier Reef is must-do while backpacking in Cairns! You can take an outer Great Barrier Reef day tour with qualified PADI professionals to give you an introduction to scuba diving and snorkelling. More experienced divers are also welcomed and allowed to go further and deeper into the reef. A fully licensed bar and buffet-style lunch awaits both experienced and inexperienced divers onboard too!

2. Chase waterfalls in the Atherton Tablelands

Queensland’s own Arcadia! Go looking for paradisiacal waterfalls and then chill at local winery afterwards.

3. Go skydiving

Cairns has some of the cheapest skydiving rates in Australia! For the curious, this is no better time to try out this thrilling activity. Plus, you’ll get unbeatable views of the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest with one of Australia’s most well-known skydive centres.

4. Have a wild night at the bars in Cairns

The nightlife in Cairns can get pretty crazy sometimes. Join the thirsty travelers and set aside a night for debauchery!

5. Visit the Daintree Rainforest

The oldest rainforest in the world deserves your attention. Go for a walk in the woods and look out for local wildlife.

cassowary daintree rainforest

6. Roadtrip to Cape Tribulation

After you’ve seen the Daintree, keep heading north to see some of the best beaches in Australia!

7. Go bungee jumping in the jungle

Bungee jumping is another relatively affordable activity in Cairns that is very popular with backpackers. The drops are some of the most impressive in Australia as well.

8. Catch the Kuranda Express

Ride the train for a relaxing afternoon and a chance to stare at impressive landscapes and engineering.

9. Chill at the Esplanade and grill

If you’re feeling crook from the night out before, just lounge by the artificial lagoon by the esplanade. There are plenty of grills around for a communal BBQ as well.

10. Explore Fitzroy Island

Fitzroy is a gem of an island not to far away from Cairns. Catch the ferry and wandering around here!

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Looking for a little inspiration? Well here’s a sample itinerary for spending 4 days in Cairns! Give it a look and use it for yourself if you like.

backpacking cairns map

Day 1 in Cairns: The Town

Day 1 in Cairns is a pretty easy day – just go for a walk about and relax wherever you see fit. If you’re feeling hungry, check out one of the many respectable restaurants around town. Thirsty maybe? There are plenty of watering holes to wet your whistle.

There are only a couple of attractions worthy of visiting in Cairns proper. The Esplanade Markets are nice both day and night. North you’ll find the City Botanic Gardens and Mt Whitfield , which are both lovely. Even farther north are Cairn’s only proper beaches at Palm Cove , Clifton , Holloways , Trinity , and Kewara .

One of my favorite things to do in Cairns is walk to the artificial Lagoon and kick back. Lots of people hang out here and the energy is awesome. Get a BBQ going and shoot the shit with whoever you meet.

This is also a good day to go on a tour that is not already mentioned in the following itineraries. Some activities might include skydiving, bungee jumping, a tour to Fitzroy Island , and the Kuranda Express .

Cairns Australia Winter Trip

Day 2 in Cairns: The Tablelands

Fun fact: Herbal Essence shot several commercials at the Atherton Tablelands. Why you might ask? Because it’s a paradise on Earth! With dozens of waterfalls, lush forests, and picturesque mountains, the Atherton Tablelands is one of the best places to visit in Cairns’ region.

Many tour companies offer organized day trips to the Atherton Tablelands, though the best way to experience this region is with a private car. There is a lot to see and do, and you’ll really appreciate the freedom of exploration that comes with your own vehicle!

The waterfalls are Atherton Tablelands’ biggest draw. These are among the most beautiful natural attractions in not only Cairns but all of Queensland.

Some of the most picturesque falls are Millanda , Zillie , Nandroya , Tchupala , and Millstream , among many, many others. Of great fame is Millaa Millaa Falls , which where herbal essence shot those commercials.

One of the best things to do in Atherton Tablelands is to go shopping for local produce and craft products. The Atherton Tablelands is a rich agricultural area and there are lots of little businesses around offering farm-to-table goods.

Wineries, chocolateries, and dairy farms are among a few of the places you can visit. Be sure to check out the famous Curtain Fig Tree while you’re driving around as well.

atherton tablelands backpacking cairns

Day 3 in Cairns: The Daintree

The Daintree is the oldest known forest on the planet. This jungle is a really rad looking place and totally worth a day trip if not for the forest itself than for the amazing beaches and mountains that it hides.

Like the Atherton Tablelands, you can book an organized tour to see the Daintree but again I highly recommend owning your own vehicle. If you’re self-driving, note that some of the roads in the Daintree are unsealed and that you’ll need a 4×4 for these. Washouts and road closures are also very common in the Daintree.

On the drive to The Daintree from Cairns, you’ll pass by Port Douglas and Mossman Gorge . Port Douglas is a resort village (with a beach!) that is a great alternative to Cairns if you find the latter to be too hectic. I stayed in Port Douglas at Dougie’s Backpackers and really enjoyed my stay.

Mossman Gorge is an ecotourism destination that is popular for its swimming holes and canopies walks.

To get to The Daintree proper, you’ll have to cross the Daintree River via a ferry. Outside of flooding season, this river isn’t too large or swift and the trip is short.

Upon crossing the river, head straight to the Daintree Discovery Center . Around the center there are some great walks that offer glimpses of the jungle. Many of these walks give you the opportunity to see the elusive cassowary in its natural habitat. Honestly, these fuckers hang by the road more than the woods – I saw four of them while driving my car.

While exploring The Daintree, try and make it to Cape Tribulation . This cape has one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Queensland, and it is a personal favorite of mine. The Cape is also the end of the road for most passenger vehicles.

daintree rainforest queensland

Day 4 in Cairns: The Great Barrier Reef

For many, the Great Barrier Reef is the reason to visit Cairns in the first place. As one of the largest, grandest, and most impressive ecological habitats in the world, the Great Barrier Reef alone is worth the trip to Cairns. A sensitive environment as well, the Great Barrier Reef could disappear within our lifetime, thanks to climate change…

In order to visit the Great Barrier Reef, you will definitely have to go through a local tourism agency. Between Townsville , Cairns, Port Douglas, and every town in between, there are dozens of operators who offer tours to the reef.

Some offer specialized tours but most use similar itineraries. Tours range between 1 and 4 days in length, though more time could possibly be arranged.

BACKPACKER TIP : Book a tour at the last second! Many companies will sell open seats at the last second for a fraction of the price. Tours to the Great Barrier Reef are already very expensive, so getting discount could save you heaps of money.

Day tours are the most popular way to see the Great Barrier Reef. Itineraries usually begin early in the morning and involve a transfer to the local docks whereupon you sail between 2 to 4 hours depending which city you depart from – generally the further north you depart from the less time you’re sailing.

Upon arriving at the reef you will be offered snorkeling equipment or dive gear depending on what you booked as well as beverages and a small lunch.

Note that each company has different rights to where they can visit at the Reef. You may end up sharing a site with another tour but the reef is so big that you’ll barely notice the increased traffic.

The Great Barrier Reef is something to behold. A kaleidoscope of colors and menagerie of marine life, the Reef is one of the majestic places on Earth. One visit to this place and you’ll see why so many people are fighting to save it.

great barrier reef backpacking cairns

Off the Beaten Path in Cairns

Being Australia and all, the Outback is never too far away! With a rental car or van, those backpacking in Cairns could easily head out into the desert on what could be an epic roadtrip.

There’s even a long-distance train called the Savannahlander  that goes all the way to Forsayth , deep in the Outback from Cairns. This 4-day train runs once per week and is one of the great experiences in Australia.

Heading west along Highway 1 , the first town you’ll hit is Mareeba . Along this short 1-hour drive, you’ll see lots of scenery like Barron Gorge and Barron Falls . Those riding the Kuranda Express train will have the chance to see Stoney Falls up close as well as travel through some pretty intricate man-made passageways.

Mareeba is still a very green place – it produces much of Australia’s local coffee – but things soon dry up as you continue on your road trip.

From Mareeba, you can either continue on the 1, which swings south and eventually heads west again, or you can take a detour on the 27 or 81 . The 81 will take you to the frontier-like Cooktown on the coast and then further to the northernmost tip of Queensland.

The 27 and Highway 1 will both take you into the red-as-the-devil’s-dick Outback and will eventually converge at Normanton , which is over 700 km away. Expect all the usual Outback attractions on either of these routes: kangaroos, one-pub towns, eccentric locals, and just general fuck-all.

The 1, or the Savannah Way , will take you all the way to the Northern Territory, specifically Borroloola . From here, you can head many directions and see some of Australia’s best sites like Kakadu and the Katherine Gorge. Even further is Broome or Uluru, but both of these are still days away.

Best Walks around Cairns

Since you’ll be walking around Cairns quite a bit, I doubt that you’ll want to stay in the city for another hike. Best to get out of the city a bit and go for a bushwalk. Some of these bushwalks are among the best things to do in Cairns for free as well!

daintree rainforest backpacking cairns

The best walks (outside but still) near Cairns:

Barron Falls (16 km round trip) – Easy access to a really epic waterfall.

Crystal Falls (2 km round trip) – Very easy hike to a popular local swimming hole.

Behana Gorge (6 km return) – A less-trafficked and more hidden version of Crystal Falls.

Fitzroy Island – A gorgeous resort island that has no roads so all you can do is walk! Requires short half-hour ferry from Cairns.

Mount Bartle Frere (6-8 hour climb) – Hike to the tops of Queensland’s highest peak! Requires an early start as the weather becomes foul in the afternoon.

Below are my best Cairns travel tips, including how to travel around Cairns, a guide to the food and drink culture, and the best time of year to visit Cairns.

Best Time of Year to Visit Cairns

Being a part of Northern Australia, Cairns is subject to typical tropical climate. There are only two distinct seasons in Cairns: a cooler, drier winter season and a wetter, hotter summer season. The locals like to refer to these seasons as the Big Dry and the Big Wet , respectively.

The summer season (December-April) in Cairns may not be an ideal time to visit. Temperatures soar to above 100 Fahrenheit regularly, which can feel even hotter with high humidity. Rain comes in torrential downpours and sometimes washes out dirt roads, thus making travel in and around the Daintree very difficult.

Most dangerous, this is also jelly season – the diabolical Box Jellyfish usually migrate towards the beaches during this time, effectively terminating any chance of swimming in the ocean.

The summer season has its benefits though. There are fewer tourists around, which means prices will be lower during this time. The rainforest, though inaccessible at times, will be very lush and beautiful in a very wild kind of way.

The dry winter season (May-November) is generally considered the best season to visit Cairns. Temperatures are pleasant, weather is reliable, and the beaches are generally free of stingers. Prices will consequently be higher during this time so be sure to keep that in mind.

Note: the Great Barrier Reef can be visited year-round. The summer months can be touch-and-go because of cyclones but these weather patterns are predictable. If your tour is postponed then just grab a beer and wait for the storm to pass. Box jellyfish do not hang out around the reef.

baron river backpacking cairns

Get in and out of Cairns

Cairns is well connected to several major Australian cities and destinations. Those who wish to travel to Cairns have many options by land and air.

Cairns has an International Airport that offers flights to and from many Asian destinations, including but not limited to Tokyo, Singapore, Bali, and Auckland. Several domestic airlines offer flights between Cairns and every other major Australian city.

Queensland has an extensive public transportation system and there are several bus companies offering commuter rides. The grand majority of mainliner buses are very large and comfortable, and may offer services like dining and/or WiFi.

kuranada express train cairns

Bus Queensland is the largest company, but I personally like Greyhound Australia – the buses are frequent, modern, and there are usually special deals. You can buy special passes with Greyhound, like a Hop-on Hop-off Pass or a “Whimit Pass,” which can be convenient if you’re visiting a lot of places in Australia or Queensland.

The roads are very well maintained in Australia and are appropriate for any type of car. Regardless to whether you’re driving a semi-truck or a tuna can, your trip is going to be a smooth one.

The Bruce Highway is the major artery on the East Coast of Australia. Be careful of speed cameras while driving in Australia as they’re numerous and the tickets are expensive.

If you’re backpacking in Australia (and not just Cairns), consider hiring/buying a campervan! This method of travel in Australia is one of the most popular around, and for good reason – campervans can go most places, offer shelter, and are just plain rad.

Read the having a Campervan section of our backpacking Australia guide for more Aussie specific details.

When you’re ready to travel to Cairns, forgo buying tickets at the station and book them online instead! You can now book transport in advance for most of Asia using 12Go and doing so can really save you some stress (and maybe money, too).

bus icon

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How to get around Cairns

Cairns has a modern and efficient intercity public transport service, called Sunbus , which connects the city with the outer suburbs. Tickets are available either as single trips, or daily or weekly passes that range between $2-$55 depending on what zones you’re traveling in. Services usually end around 10pm at night depending on the route.

Really though the best way to get around Cairns is to just walk. The “CBD,” if it can be called that, is very small and you can easily traverse the entire boardwalk in an hour or two. There are safe bike lanes as well. Buses really only pay off when you want to make day trips outside of the city.

If you’re trying to get to the outskirts of the city and there is no public bus, then you’ll have to rely upon on your own form of transportation. If you’re going to a fairly popular place, many local tour companies offer private shuttles. At the end of the day, having your own car, be it rented or owned, is always the best option.

Consider hitchhiking around Cairns too, which is totally acceptable in Australia and a great way to save cash!

airbnb logo in front of colourful houses

Why stay in a naff hotel when you can stay in a cosy, stylish local house instead? And for half the money too!

Stay somewhere EPIC and save your hard-earned dollars — from houses to barns to castles and caves, there is an Airbnb for every occasion!

Safety in Cairns

cairns travel guide

Aside from the rare petty robbery here and there, very little goes awry in this city. Cairns one of the safest cities in the safest countries in the world. Those backpacking in Cairns should worry very little about their personal belongings or being accosted by a fellow homosapien.

Backpackers do rob each other from time to time in hostels. Most of the time it’s because everyone is just wasted and doesn’t know any better. Sometimes there’s a real shithead backpacker who thinks they can do whatever they want; don’t be this person. Lock your shit up in a locker to be on the safe side.

Outside of the hostel, be somewhat wary of walking at night. Just be sure to practice all the usual safety measures of traveling.

What you should really worried about is the local wildlife. Australia is famous for its killer critters and many of them reside in Queensland.

Be very mindful while swimming in the waters around Queensland. Several venomous animals reside in the shallows including stonefish , box jellyfish , and the blue-ring octopus . Many of these are considered the most poisonous marine animals in the world and should be treated with great severity. A sting from any of these will be excruciatingly painful and perhaps fatal.

Also be mindful of crocodiles , which like to hang out in shallow rivers and estuaries. These beasts have been known to eat humans and legends have sprung up around their appetites. Also be wary of several species of snakes, in particular, the death adder and taipan .

Travel Insurance for Cairns

Traveling without insurance would be risky so do consider getting good backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure.

I have been using World Nomads for some time now and made a few claims over the years. They’re easy to use, professional and relatively affordable. They may also let you buy or extend a policy once you’ve started your trip and are already abroad which is super handy.

If there’s one insurance company I trust, it’s World Nomads.

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Cairns Accommodation Travel Hacks

Let’s face it, sometimes we all need to stay in a hostel. Hostels are great for meeting fellow travelers and just having space where you can do your thing at your own pace. Paying for a bed day in and day out though can add up, so stay at a hostel for a night or two and consider your other options for backpacking Cairns on a budget:

Couchsurf!: If you manage to land a Couchsurfing spot in Cairns, you will have successfully eliminated your biggest cost: accommodation. I’ll be honest with you. Couchsurfing is more popular than ever before.

Tap into your backpacker network: If you have done any sort of backpacking before, odds are you know someone who knows someone from Cairns. Australians love to go backpacking! Before you begin your Cairns backpacking trip, I suggest you put your feelers out there and ask your network of friends if they know of someone whom you can crash with for a night or two.

diving with a grouper backpacking cairns

Where to Eat in Cairns

As one of the most popular destinations in Queensland, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants in Cairns that offer both the usual fare as well as something different. You’ll find the usual Aussie suspects here – steaks, parmies, chips, pies, etc – as well as fresh seafood, excellent produce, and a great selection of Asian foods. Cairns doesn’t disappoint foodies.

Below is a list of the best cafes and restaurants in Cairns. Note that many dinner joints in Cairns are not open for breakfast – unless otherwise indicated – and they usually offer “early bird” specials.

Early bird implies that if you get to the restaurant before the rush, which is usually around 7pm, you’ll get a discount. Inquire with a restaurant to see if they offer this.

fresh prawns

Best Restaurants in Cairns:

Caffiend – Popular breakfast and brunch joint with some of the best coffee in Cairns.

Fusion Art Bar & Tapas – New cafe with an industrial design and relaxed vibes.

Bayleaf Balinese Restaurant – A very authentic Indonesian restaurant attached to a hotel.

C’est Bon – Fine French dining. Set three-course meals.

Salt House – Excellent views and food but more expensive.

Ochre – Real Australian, as in indigenous Aboriginal, food. One of a kind and an amazing experience.

Ganbaranba – The best ramen in Cairns!

Where to Drink in Cairns

Most of the nightlife in Cairns is centered around the main drag of Abbot Street and the Esplanade. Establishments range in style from classy to dive but, regardless, everyone is hopping at night. The backpacker bars in Cairns get particularly roudier than the rest as well!

Below is a list of some of the best backpacker bars in Cairns. To drink in Cairns on the cheap, keep an eye out for the special happy hour and backpacker deals. Sometimes you’ll see specials like “buy one get one free” or “pizza and beer combo.” Take advantage of these.

Mad Monkey Backpackers Best Hostels in Cairns

Best Bars in Cairns

The Woolshed – Bar catered specifically to backpackers. Lots of organized parties that last a very long time. Bit of a marathon this one is. Has a hostel on-site.

The Conservatory – One of the first small-scale craft bars in Cairns. Trendsetter.

Salt House – A very chique bar located right on the ocean. Great place to relax. Come here during drink specials or be ready to pay a lot.

The Jack – Another backpacker bar/hostel. More music oriented with several live performances every week.

The Pier Bar – Similar to the Salt House. More calm and relaxed than other backpacker bars.

Gilligan’s – One the largest and most notorious bars in the city. Popular among locals and travelers alike.

Three Wolves – One of the newest craft bars in Cairns. Very small and with a very large spirit selection.

Books to Read While Traveling in Cairns

Unfortunately, there aren’t too many books that deal specifically with Cairns, the city. For those who go backpacking in Cairns though, I suggest reading one of the many awesome books about Australia as a whole.

Here are some of my favorite travel reads and books set in Australia, which you should consider picking up before you begin your backpacking adventure…

  • Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence – Aboriginal siblings stolen from their families run away from their captors and begin a journey almost a thousand miles long back home. A leading account of the Stolen Generation.
  • In a Sunburned Country – A quick-witted and very informative piece of travel writing from Bill Bryson. Written over the course of several trips to the Land Down Under.
  • Tree of Man – A man and his wife try to make something out of nothing, as they cultivate a little patch of land in the bush.
  • My Brilliant Career – The first of one of Australia’s greatest epics. Tells the tale of a young woman yearning for life and adventure in the Outback. Written by Miles Franklin when she was 16 and, at the time, considered “culturally inappropriate” by the state.
  • Lonely Planet Australia –  It’s sometimes worth traveling with a guidebook. Despite Lonely Planet’s history of selling out and writing about places they haven’t been to, they’ve done a good job with Australia.

Make Money Online while Backpacking Cairns

Traveling in Cairns or Australia long-term? Keen to make some cash when you are not exploring the city? It’s no secret that you can get a holiday visa to work in Australia, which is a great way to make money and support your travels, but if you are looking for a way to make money  online  then consider teaching English!

Teaching English online  is a great way to earn a consistent income—from anywhere in the world with a good internet connection. Depending on your qualifications (or your motivation to obtain qualifications like a TEFL certificate) you can teach English remotely from your laptop, save some cash for your next adventure, and make a positive impact on the world by improving another person’s language skills!

It’s a win-win! Check out this detailed article for everything you need to know to start  teaching English online .

backpacking cairns hot air balloons

In addition to giving you the qualifications to teach English online,  TEFL courses  open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read my in-depth report on  teaching English abroad .

Broke Backpacker readers get a 35% discount on TEFL courses with  MyTEFL  (simply enter the code BACKPKR), to find out more, please read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.

Whether you are keen to teach English online or looking to take your teaching game a step further by finding a job teaching English in a foreign country, getting your TEFL certificate is absolutely a step in the right direction.

Be a Responsible Backpacker in Cairns

Reduce your plastic footprint:  Perhaps the best thing you can do for our planet is to make sure you do NOT add to the plastic problem all over the world. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, the plastic ends up in landfill or in the ocean. Instead, pack a  tough travel water bottle .

Go and watch A Plastic Ocean on Netflix – it’ll change how you view the plastic problem in the world; you need to understand what we are up against. If you think it doesn’t matter, get off my fucking site.

Don’t pick up single use plastic bags, you’re a backpacker – take your daypack if you need to go to the shop or run errands.

Bear in mind, that many animal products in countries you travel through will not be ethically farmed and won’t be of the highest quality. I’m a carnivore but when I’m on the road, I only eat chicken. Mass-farming of cows etc leads to the rainforest being cut down – which is obviously a huge problem.

Need more guidance? – Check out our post on  how to be a responsible backpacker.

Coral Reef Australia Coral Great Barrier Reef Heart

And for transparency’s sake, please know that some of the links in our content are affiliate links . That means that if you book your accommodation, buy your gear, or sort your insurance through our link, we earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you). That said, we only link to the gear we trust and never recommend services we don’t believe are up to scratch. Again, thank you!

Ralph Cope

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