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Bordered by eucalypt forests, rainforest and the Great Dividing Range mountains, Cairns sprung up out of coastal mudflats in 1876. Today, the city attracts a distinctly young crowd looking for a good time in its bars and clubs.

During the 2000s, it experienced an upsurge in development, leaving it with a casino and a slew of popular eating and drinking places, as well as more shops. Yet, it still has a rather lackadaisical pace that speaks of the tropics. And, it appeals to young families, who like to stroll along the city’s esplanade or swim in its beachfront lagoon.

But, for us, Cairns really comes into its own as a gateway city for exploring the Great Barrier Reef and inland Queensland. It’s a well-located starting point for numerous liveaboard cruises, day cruises, and tours of the Daintree Rainforest and the wilder Cape York Peninsula.

Although you can visit the Great Barrier Reef in a day from Cairns, it does mean you’ll generally only reach the inner reef. Some of the best-preserved corals and best marine life lie on the outer reef.

Cairns is a compact city, with an airport only a short drive out of town, making the whole place very accessible. It’s awash with good places to eat, with fresh seafood (especially prawns and squid) a particular talking point. Restaurants serve an eclectic mix of Australian and international cuisine.

You have a wealth of oceanfront or marina-view restaurants to choose from — or you could buy a picnic from the local suppliers’ food market that sets up stalls near the lagoon at weekends.

Families will also find a skate park and a grassy area, ideal for lounging with an ice cream (vendors sell tropical-fruit-inspired concoctions along the esplanade).

Around Cairns

Cape TribulationFrom Cairns, you can drive a short distance to pick up the scenic railway to Kuranda, a village hidden in the folds of mountains carpeted in rainforest. You make your way there via a rackety (but entirely safe) wooden train, which offers views over Barron Gorge and numerous waterfalls. You can take a cable-car ride to return to sea level, stopping en route to wander among orchids, strangler figs and other botanic exotica.

Port Douglas, a quieter settlement that offers even better dining opportunities than Cairns, lies an hour’s drive north. Closer still (around a 25-minute drive north) is Palm Cove, a sleepy town almost village-like in feel and fringed by coconut palms.

The Atherton Tablelands, a fertile highland plateau region, is a 30- to 90-minute drive inland from Cairns. Often neglected by visitors to the region, it’s a placid area of farmland, long-abandoned mining towns, hidden-from-view waterfalls and freshwater pools.

Best time to visit Cairns

Cairns experiences its most pleasant weather between May and November. Visit between June and August and you might just catch the rare sight of humpback and minke whales calving on the Great Barrier Reef.

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who's been there
Audley specialist Haley

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Suggested itineraries featuring Cairns

Our itineraries will give you suggestions for what is possible when you travel in Cairns, and they showcase routes we know work particularly well. Treat them as inspiration, because your trip will be created uniquely by one of our specialists.

Map of Cairns

Places & hotels on the map

    Places near Cairns

    Our expert guides to exploring Cairns

    Written by our specialists from their own experiences of visiting Cairns, these guides will help you make the most of your time there. We share both our practical recommendations and the best ways to appreciate Cairns at its best.

    • Family vacations in Australia
      Clown Anenome Fish, Great Barrier Reef

      Family vacations in Australia

      Family vacations in Australia

      Country specialist Jeanne explains why vacations in Australia are ideal for families. She shares her pick of where to go, from Sydney to national parks such as Kakadu, as well as suggestions for exploring Queensland’s rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef.

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    • The Top End: 3 essential experiences in Australia’s Northern Territory
      Kakadu National Park, Australia

      The Top End: 3 essential experiences in Australia’s Northern Territory

      The Top End: 3 essential experiences in Australia’s Northern Territory

      Explore gorges and canyons that reveal hidden Aboriginal rock art, take a lesson on mustering cattle, journey along a dusty four-wheel-drive track and escape to a coastal retreat on a tailor-made vacation with us in the Kimberley.

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    Accommodation choices for Cairns

    We've selected a range of accommodation options for when you visit Cairns. Our choices usually come recommended for their character, facilities and service or location. Our specialists always aim to suggest properties that match your preferences.

    Ideas for experiencing Cairns

    Our specialists seek out authentic ways to get to know the places that could feature in your trip. These activities reflect some of the experiences they've most enjoyed while visiting Cairns, and which use the best local guides.

    • Cape Tribulation
      Cape Tribulation

      Cape Tribulation

      Cape Tribulation

      Visit Stingray Bay and Cowie Beach, with its shallow bay, spectacular mountain backdrop and the unusual "Lone Soldier" mangrove. A chance then to walk on the world renowned Cape Tribulation rainforest beach and coastline and the fringing coral reef from Kulki Lookout.

      View details
    • True North cruises
      Kings Cascades, True North Cruise

      True North cruises

      True North cruises

      North Star Cruises is one of the most unique adventure-cruise operators in the world and the winner of numerous awards for excellence. The company offers activity based itineraries designed specifically for the discerning adventurer.

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    • Coral Expeditions Cruise
      Coral Expeditions, Great Barrier Reef

      Coral Expeditions Cruise

      Coral Expeditions Cruise

      A Coral Expeditions Cruise is perhaps the best way to experience and discover the many National Park designated islands off the tropical north coast of Queensland and the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef.

      View details