What are the best things to see and do in Cairns?

Jennifer Kester

As the gateway to tropical North Queensland, there is so much to see and do in Cairns. Here’s what our Forbes Travel Guide editors recommend.
 
1. Visit the Great Barrier Reef. A trip to Cairns without seeing the Great Barrier Reef would be the equivalent of heading to Paris and missing the Eiffel Tower. Whether you’re a seasoned diver or a first-time snorkeler, you can acquaint yourself with the unique coral and marine life of the reef on one of the numerous boat trips that depart from Cairns each day.
 
2. Relax at Cairns Esplanade. Whether you feel like cooling off in the water or taking a relaxing stroll, Cairns Esplanade is the place to be. The Esplanade Lagoon, in particular, is a favorite of locals and tourists alike and offers a safe, saltwater swimming area year round.
 
3. Enjoy the scenic view. The immense beauty of Cairns and the spectacular reefs and rainforests are best taken in from the sky. A scenic helicopter flight is a great way to see the reef and many local companies provide tours.
 
4. Hop on board the Kuranda Scenic Railway. This rail journey is one of the most popular ways to travel to the rainforest village of Kuranda, about 15 miles from Cairns. Travel through century-old tunnels as you learn about the history of Cairns and enjoy the picturesque surroundings of World-Heritage listed Barron Gorge National Park.
 
5. Discover Aboriginal art. Learn about Australia’s indigenous culture by visiting Canopy Artspace, a gallery and studio that showcases the work of the best established and emerging indigenous artists in Queensland. You might even find a piece of fine art to take home as a souvenir.

  • On November 9, 2012
    answered the question:

    What’s the best way to experience the Great Barrier Reef without going in the water?

    The Great Barrier Reef is undoubtedly the highlight of any visit to Cairns, but not every voyager wants to dive straight into the crystal-clear waters. Luckily, there are a number of options for experiencing the reef that don’t require a snorkel mask. Whether it’s by helicopter, seaplane or a small airplane, a scenic flight is a great way to experience the majesty of the reef, and there are even options to land on a floating pontoon and then cruise back to Cairns by catamaran. The pontoons themselves also offer a variety of ways to experience the reef without diving, including presentations by marine biologists and glass-bottom boat tours.
  • On November 9, 2012
    answered the question:

    What is the best thing to bring home from Cairns?

    Handcrafted jewelry featuring local Australian gems such as opals and freshwater pearls is the best thing to bring home from Cairns. While opals are mostly mined in the southern states of Australia, you’ll find an abundance of stores selling rings, necklaces, bracelets and brooches in Cairns, many of which offer tax-back options for international tourists. If you want a really unique piece, visit the Cairns Esplanade markets on Saturday or the Port Douglas markets on Sunday to check out the creations of local artists and designers. These markets are also a great place to pick up unique artworks, fashion and accessories.
  • On November 9, 2012
    answered the question:

    What are the best Cairns food experiences?

    Eating crocodile is just one of the more unique food experiences you’ll find in Cairns. The area offers some interesting native foods, as well as a plethora of fresh seafood, exotic fruits and vegetables, delicious nuts and coffee and lots more. Here are our Forbes Travel Guide editors’ picks for the best food experiences in Cairns—crocodile bites included.
     
    1. Ochre Restaurant. Many international visitors find the idea of eating native Australian animals a little strange at first but are pleasantly surprised once they try it. Ochre Restaurant is renowned for its Australian game and native bush foods like salt and pepper crocodile with prawns and chargrilled kangaroo sirloin.
     
    2. Food Trail Tours. Food Trail Tours takes small groups from Cairns to the nearby Atherton Tablelands, where much of the region’s produce is grown. There is no shortage of food inspiration on this tour, which takes in a family farm, winery, cheese factory, coffee plantation and macadamia farm.
     
    3. Flames of the Forest. This unique rainforest dining experience, just 50 minutes from Cairns, takes the Australian love of eating al fresco to another level. Flames of the Forest features a fresh, tropical menu accompanied by premium Australian wines and a stunning rainforest backdrop.
     
    4. Farmers’ markets. Any weekend visit to Cairns has to include a stop at Rusty’s Market, which is held in the city center every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There you’ll find plenty of fresh and exotic local produce, including indigenous food from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stallholders. With over 180 stalls, there is an abundance of products including fruit, vegetables, local seafood, cheese, nuts and organic items.
     
    5. Visit a tropical fruit winery. Why stick to grapes when you can make wine with mangoes, lychees, passionfruit or pineapples? The region boasts a number of tropical fruit wineries, all within driving distance of Cairns. Head to the award-winning Shannonvale Tropical Fruit Winery in Mossman, Murdering Point Winery in Silkwood East or de Brueys Boutique Wines in Mareeba to sample some of these unique wines.
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  • On November 9, 2012
    answered the question:

    Where is the best nightlife in Cairns?

    Cairns is often considered a top backpacker destination but luckily there’s much more to the city’s nightlife than hostel bars and jammed nightclubs. Whether you’re looking for culture, cocktails with a backdrop or simply a cheap drink, you’ll find it in Cairns. Tanks Arts Centre in the Cairns Botanic Gardens precinct features a regularly changing program of live theatre, music and cultural performances. Meanwhile, the waterfront Pier Shopping Centre overlooking Trinity Bay boasts cosmopolitan bars such as Bá8 and Bellavista, where you can enjoy the views over a delicious cocktail. Otherwise, there’s the popular Cairns Courthouse Hotel for $4 Coronas, live music and big screens to watch all the local sporting action.
  • On November 9, 2012
    answered the question:

    What is the best way to see Cairns in one day?

    If you only have one day in Cairns, there’s no question the best way to spend it is to explore one of the world’s most spectacular sites – the Great Barrier Reef. Whether you’re a seasoned diver or first-time snorkeler, the easiest way to see the reef is to take one of the numerous day trips that depart daily from Cairns. Most of them visit two or three different sites over the course of the day and include equipment, lunch and experienced instructors. Once you’re back in Cairns after your day on the reef, recover with a cocktail and dinner at one of the many popular waterfront restaurants on the Esplanade.
  • On November 9, 2012
    Forbes Travel Guide Inspector answered the question: Forbes Travel Guide Inspector

    What are the best places to eat in Cairns?

    With so much natural beauty to enjoy in Cairns, it makes sense to visit restaurants and eateries where you can dine while enjoying spectacular views as well as the fresh local produce. Here are the best places to eat in Cairns from our Forbes Travel Guide editors. 
     
    1. Salt House Restaurant and Bar, Cairns. From its waterfront location at Marina Point, Salt House offers panoramic views of the marina and seafront. Known for its modern Australian menu, outdoor cocktail bar and live music, it’s a relaxed holiday dining venue for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
     
    2. Hanuman Cairns. One of a popular three-restaurant chain, this location in the Hilton overlooks Trinity Inlet. The Southeast Asian-inspired menu includes dishes such as sweet tamarind pork, Thai crispy whole fish and beef massaman curry. The restaurant features unique furnishings collected by head chef Jimmy Shu on his travels throughout Asia.
     
    3. Ochre Restaurant, Cairns. If you’re keen to try some local delicacies while you’re in Australia, this is the place to do it. Ochre specializes in Australian game and native bush foods such as salt and pepper crocodile with prawns, chargrilled kangaroo sirloin and wallaby topside. The Australian theme continues in sides and accompaniments including macadamia dressing, and there’s even a wattleseed pavlova for dessert.
     
    4. Bayleaf Balinese Restaurant. With the Indonesian island of Bali just a few hours’ flight from Cairns, it’s no surprise that one of the city’s favorite eateries is this Balinese restaurant. The restaurant’s chefs are trained at a top cooking school in Bali and bring their expertise to traditional dishes like satays, curries and nasi goreng (fried rice).
     
    5. Bushfire Flame Grill. Churrasco has exploded all over the world but Bushfire Flame Grill, located on the Esplanade, is putting a local spin on it. The restaurant sources the best Australian beef from cattle stations in Queensland and the Northern Territory, and its bar features an extensive range of local beers, wines and Australian-inspired cocktails.
  • On November 9, 2012
    Forbes Travel Guide Inspector answered the question: Forbes Travel Guide Inspector

    What are the best places to stay in Cairns?

    Cairns offers a variety of places to stay while you explore the Great Barrier Reef (read: they’re not all aimed at backpackers). Check out this list of where to stay from our Forbes Travel Guide editors.
     
    1. Shangri-La Hotel, The Marina, Cairns. The Shangri-La Hotel in Cairns lives up to the brand’s global reputation. As the name suggests, it’s located directly on the Marlin marina, making it a great base for water activities. The hotel features contemporary rooms with private balconies, an on-site swimming pool, shopping arcade and fitness center.

    2. Pullman Reef Hotel Casino, Cairns. Located right on Trinity Inlet in the center of Cairns, all rooms at the Pullman Reef Hotel Casino feature private balconies with city or water views. The hotel’s many facilities include a casino, rooftop swimming pool, nightclub and numerous bars and restaurants.
     
    3. Thala Beach Lodge, Port Douglas. Port Douglas is a popular vacation spot and this 145-acre, eco-certified property is located on a secluded headland and features private cabins overlooking the Great Barrier Reef, rainforest or beaches.
  • On November 9, 2012
    answered the question:

    Where is the best shopping in Cairns?

    When you’re not viewing the abundance of gorgeous scenery in Cairns, you might want to pick up some goods or simply take a little shopping break. Here’s where to go.
     
    1. The Pier at the Marina. Boasting a range of local and international designers, this is a great spot to find some stylish new swimwear or pick up an outfit for your next night out. Shop the boutiques and then enjoy a well-earned glass of Australian wine at one of the waterfront restaurants.
     
    2. DFO Cairns. Bargain hunters will love the factory outlets of DFO Cairns, located just a few minutes from the center of Cairns. You can score big discounts on more than 100 Australian and international brands.
     
    3. Jonsson's Farm Market. North Queensland is renowned for its fresh produce. Head to this market to support the local farmers and get a taste for the area’s delicacies. Look out for Daintree tea, Gallo Dairyland gourmet cheese, Mungalli Creek Dairy yogurt and rich Skybury roasted coffee.
     
    4. Rusty’s Market. With more than 180 stalls, this is the place to come for local produce, organic meat, fresh seafood, exotic fruits, locally produced cheese and charcuterie, plus a selection of handicrafts. It’s on every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
  • On November 9, 2012
    answered the question:

    What are the best things to do with kids in Cairns?

    Kids will love Cairns because there is so much for them to do, and you’ll love Cairns because all of these activities are guaranteed to keep the dreaded phrase “I’m booooored” at bay. Here are our Forbes Travel Guide editors’ top picks for things to do with kids in Cairns.
     
    1. Go white water rafting on the Barron River. It’s only 20 minutes from the center of Cairns and is a guaranteed fun day for the entire family. Never tried white water rafting before? The spectacular Barron River is perfect for first-timers (note that all participants must be at least 13 years old).
     
    2. Get up close and personal with native Australian wildlife at Cairns Tropical Zoo. And when we say up close and personal, we really mean up close and personal. Your kids can cuddle a koala, hold a lizard, meet a wombat and even pole-feed a crocodile as part of the new “Zootastic 5 Wildlife Encounter” at the zoo. Make sure you book the day before.
     
    3. Zip through the Cairns Wildlife Dome. Give your kids permission to fly with parrots, cockatoos and lorikeets as they zip along on the new “Cairns ZOOm” zip-line at the Cairns Wildlife Dome. There is also a scenic walk available if you’d prefer to keep your feet on the ground.
     
    4. Get lost in the bush. Take in the unique North Queensland landscape, including rainforest, mangroves, sugarcane fields and native bushland on a guided horse-riding tour with Blazing Saddles. They also offer quad bike tours for those ages 12 and older.
     
    5. Walk on the sea floor. Take a memorable stroll through the Great Barrier Reef with Seawalker at Green Island (less than an hour from Cairns). Just pop on a special helmet and the team will guide you through the rest of the process –you won’t even get your hair wet and it’s safe for non-swimmers.
  • On November 9, 2012
    answered the question:

    What are the best things to see and do in Cairns?

    As the gateway to tropical North Queensland, there is so much to see and do in Cairns. Here’s what our Forbes Travel Guide editors recommend.
     
    1. Visit the Great Barrier Reef. A trip to Cairns without seeing the Great Barrier Reef would be the equivalent of heading to Paris and missing the Eiffel Tower. Whether you’re a seasoned diver or a first-time snorkeler, you can acquaint yourself with the unique coral and marine life of the reef on one of the numerous boat trips that depart from Cairns each day.
     
    2. Relax at Cairns Esplanade. Whether you feel like cooling off in the water or taking a relaxing stroll, Cairns Esplanade is the place to be. The Esplanade Lagoon, in particular, is a favorite of locals and tourists alike and offers a safe, saltwater swimming area year round.
     
    3. Enjoy the scenic view. The immense beauty of Cairns and the spectacular reefs and rainforests are best taken in from the sky. A scenic helicopter flight is a great way to see the reef and many local companies provide tours.
     
    4. Hop on board the Kuranda Scenic Railway. This rail journey is one of the most popular ways to travel to the rainforest village of Kuranda, about 15 miles from Cairns. Travel through century-old tunnels as you learn about the history of Cairns and enjoy the picturesque surroundings of World-Heritage listed Barron Gorge National Park.
     
    5. Discover Aboriginal art. Learn about Australia’s indigenous culture by visiting Canopy Artspace, a gallery and studio that showcases the work of the best established and emerging indigenous artists in Queensland. You might even find a piece of fine art to take home as a souvenir.
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