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).
From 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.
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
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.