Cairns may be primarily known as Australia’s gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, the most extensive coral reef in the world. And while that’s certainly quite the attraction, there are so many more things to do in Cairns than just the reef.
Located in eastern Queensland, Cairns has a tropical climate and rainforest that provides plenty of exciting things to do and see. Within an hour of the city, you’ll find everything from ATV riding to whitewater rafting to remote and rural traditional villages.
Here are some of the most exciting things to do in Cairns to experience the city’s rich history, beautiful tropical rainforest, and, of course, see the world’s largest coral reef—one of the planet’s most incredible natural wonders.
See Where James Cook Crashed Ashore
It’s easy to figure out where the name “Cooktown” comes from—it’s where The Endeavor, captained by James Cook, first landed in Australia. Captain James Cook was the first European to arrive on Australia’s eastern coast and claim the land for the English crown.
In Cooktown’s James Cook Museum, you’ll learn about the history and impact of his voyage to Australia, both from a European perspective and in terms of the local populations who already lived in the area.
Once you’ve left the museum, take some time to walk through the small coastal town and admire the gorgeous sea views. If you have time, walk or drive up Grassy Hill, where Captain Cook is said to have stood while searching for a way for ships to pass safely across the barrier reef.
Float Above the World’s Largest Reef
Floating in crystal-blue water above the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most magical things to do in Cairns, and because there are so many places to access the reef, you have plenty of options for how to see it.
If you’re an advanced snorkeler or even a beginner diver, consider taking a day-long snorkeling trip on a boat made specifically for navigating the shallow reefs. They also tend to move faster than pontoon boats and other tourist vehicles, allowing you to access further away reefs with fewer people. While snorkeling, be on the lookout for everything from small sharks and dolphins to sea turtles and fish. If you plan to scuba dive, be sure to plan it with the tour operator in advance.
Catch a Ride on a Jungle Railway
Navigating the lush, tropical rainforest near Cairns can be a bit of a challenge, especially with the overwhelming heat. Fortunately, you can catch a ride on the Kuranda Scenic Railway instead. The round-trip journey will take you through the jungle, passing gorges, ravines, and massive waterfalls like Barron Falls.
The trip to the village of Kuranda takes about two hours, and you can take the train both ways or opt to take the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway back down; the latter allows you to get a birds-eye view of the rainforest.
While you’re in Kuranda, visit the Emu Ridge Museum and Gallery, explore the Heritage Market, or spend some time in Rainforestation Nature Park.
Go Whitewater Rafting on the Barron River
If seeing Barron Falls from a train doesn’t sound exciting enough for you, you can get up close on a whitewater rafting trip down the Barron River. Feel your adrenaline rushing as you bounce around the surging rapids surrounded by lush mountains.
Your guide will help you navigate the river, telling you when to paddle over rapids with names like “Rooster Tail” and the intimidating “Hell’s Gate.” You’ll take it easy between the rapids, leaving plenty of time to admire the scenery of the surrounding national park and look for jungle wildlife as you gently float down the river.
Fly Over the Coast on a Helicopter
One of the most exhilarating things to do in Cairns is taking a soaring helicopter ride over the coastline. From the moment you lift off the launchpad, you’ll see stunning views of Australia’s northeastern coast. You’ll effortlessly soar over mangrove forest and rainforests, and get an eagle-eye view of the coastline and small islands just offshore.
While the entire ride is breathtaking, it’s truly amazing to see the Great Barrier Reef from the air. By seeing more of it at once, you’ll get a new understanding of just how large it is and why it’s so essential to the country’s ecology.
Taste and Learn to Cook Local Delicacies
You don’t have to head into the jungle to have an adventure—you can have a culinary adventure right in the heart of Cairns. The city has quite the food scene, and one of the best things to do is walk through a neighborhood and try some of the region’s more popular—and exotic—dishes.
As you might expect, the seafood in this seaside city is fantastic. Be sure to try Moreton Bay bug, a type of lobster that’s prepared and served in many different ways.
Learn to Kitesurf in Palm Cove
Palm Cove is one of Australia’s most popular beachside towns, and it’s the perfect place to visit in Cairns for a seaside escape. Large paperbark trees sway on the town’s streets, and boutiques and waterfront restaurants add to the town’s elegant and inviting atmosphere.
You’ll love Palm Cove even if you hate the idea of taking it easy on vacation. The region’s gentle breezes are ideal for beginner kiteboarders, and taking a kiteboarding class is one of the most memorable things to do in Cairns. In Palm Cove, you can take anything from a one-hour intro lesson to an all-day one-on-one class with a kitesurfing pro. If you fall in, don’t worry—the water here is calm and shallow.
Dive into Aboriginal Culture at Tjapukai Cultural Park
Tjapukai Cultural Park may not be the kind of destination that gets your blood pumping, but visiting the large park is one of the most educational and fascinating things to do if you love history and culture.
The Aboriginal Djabugay people have lived in this area for millennia. At Tjapukai Cultural Park, you can learn more about the traditional lifestyle, beliefs, and practices of Australia’s first people. There’s plenty to do here to fill at least one day, so you’ll have to be selective of what you want to see. You may want to start with a high-tech stage show explaining the Djabugay origin story, or sit in on a talk and demonstration of Aboriginal art from around the country.
If you prefer a more active adventure, head straight to lessons on throwing boomerangs and traditional spears. Musically inclined? Learn to play the didgeridoo. Other options include participating in a Corroboree celebration and learning about native plant identification and hunting practices. There are very few places in Australia where you can experience such an in-depth look at Aboriginal culture.
Paddleboard Around Fitzroy Island
Fitzroy Island National Park encompasses more than 800 acres around Fitzroy Island, and since the Great Barrier Reef surrounds the island, it’s a wonderful place to get out on the water. The reef here is relatively healthy and colorful, which means it attracts a wide variety of marine life.
You can jump in the water right from the beach, or take a paddleboard out over the reef. The water is clear and shallow, so you’ll see wildlife and coral just below the surface as you paddle across the calm water. The island has its own mini reef, which means you don’t have to paddle very far or fast to find amazing underwater views.
Explore Queensland on an ATV
If you don’t mind getting a little muddy and dirty, driving an ATV through the jungle is a thrilling experience. There’s so much open space and so many diverse landscapes in the surrounding area that you can get a good feel for the region during a three-hour journey.
Since you’ll get to drive your own ATV, you can control the level of adventure. If you’re a first-timer, feel free to take it easy and cruise slowly along the jungle roads. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to bounce across muddy patches, stream crossings, and fun downhill trail sections.
Ride Horses Through a Marshy Billabong
Horseback riding through the jungle and countryside is one of the most peaceful things to do in Cairns, and not just for the opportunity to trek with these beautiful, gentle stock horses. It’s also a wonderful way to relax and feel connected to the environment, as horses can move fairly quietly along the trails, and their hoof sounds don’t scare away wildlife the way people’s sounds and voices might.
As you ride through the billabong (that’s a wet, marshy area, for non-Australians) keep an eye out for native birds and amphibians. You may even see a saltwater crocodile leisurely soaking up the sun on the shore.
The horses are comfortable in hot environments and are used to carrying guests on their backs, so this adventure is great for first-timers or travelers with limited horseback riding experience. The horses are slow and gentle, so it’s more of a relaxing ride than a high-adrenaline gallop.
Spot a Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo
Spot some of the country’s fascinating birdlife in the Cairns Botanical Gardens, home to more than 40 species of bird. In fact, the botanical garden’s unofficial saying is, “Come for the flowers, stay for the birds.” Across the 38-hectare (94-acre) property, you can spot colorful rainbow lorikeets and yellow orioles, or harder-to-find birds like the small dusky honeyeater, which requires a keen eye to spot as it blends in with the branches.
The garden hosts a free birdwatching walk every Tuesday morning, but don’t worry if it doesn’t fit your schedule. Many of the park’s birds live near the fresh and saltwater lake areas, and you can download a map and audio guide to listen to as you stroll the grounds on your own.
Before you go, be sure to brush up on the most common birds you may see at the park to make it easy to identify them, though park volunteers and staff are always happy to help. Fortunately, some of the most commonly seen are also the most beautiful, like the white-and-yellow sulphur-crested cockatoo.
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