1. The Great Barrier Reef
For me, this is the first and foremost reason to go to Cairns. With some of the best snorkelling and scuba diving sites here in the world, it seems absurd to go to Cairns and not see the reef. There are numerous tours available to suit all kinds of needs – from families to couples to singles, to adventure tours to relaxing tours to overnight tours, on sailboats or catamarans or larger ships, there’s plenty of options available for everyone. Even if you don’t like the water, there are plenty of glass bottom boat tours available for you to be able to see the reef without ever even getting wet. The reef is a must-see! Please don’t miss out on this experience.
2. Daintree Rainforest
About a two hour drive north of Cairns, the Daintree Rainforest is another must-see. It’s the oldest surviving rainforest in the world, and the only place in the world where two world heritage sites sit right beside each other (The Daintree Rainforest and The Great Barrier Reef). The beauty and tranquility of Daintree is definitely worth the long trip, but I would say that Coopers Creek is probably the biggest must-see if you only have a day (or a few hours) to spend in Daintree. The blue pools of water that sit inside this pristine rainforest look like something out of a magazine, and they’re the perfect cool temperature to soothe you on a hot day. The best part is that most of these places are still fairly private, and if you get lucky, you might even have the whole place to yourself.
3. Fitzroy Island
My boyfriend and I decided to take the ferry ($75/each round-trip) to Fitzroy Island one day while in Cairns, and we were quite pleased with the experience. Fitzroy Island is unique because the island is fairly private (no one lives there) and you’re able to snorkel the reef right off the beach! For the day we were there, we spent time snorkelling, lounging around on Nudey Beach, and taking a walk through the rainforest. There is also an island shop that allows you to rent snorkel gear, kayaks and take a glass bottom boat tour if you wish. As well, there is a restaurant, bar and even a diving school on the island. Since Fitzroy Island is a beautiful National Park located within the sheltered waters of the Great Barrier Reef, it’s worth the look even if you don’t plan to do any activities.
4. Drive from Cairns to Port Douglas via the Captain Cook Hwy
This isn’t a tour exactly, but it’s something I think must be seen. It’s an hours drive from Cairns to Port Douglas and the entire highway is set alongside the coast of the ocean. I would argue that this drive is second only to The Great Ocean Road in Australia. The coastal views of the beaches and ocean, as well as the mountains and the rainforest are simply stunning. Stop at a few of the many lookouts along the way for great photos of the beautiful Queensland landscape. This drive will not disappoint.
5. The Esplanade Boardwalk
Cairns Esplanade is one of the nicest spots in the city. Go for a walk along the boardwalk, have a drink in one of the many bars and restaurants, or do a little shopping in the boutiques. One of my favourite things we did there was to have dinner in one of the restaurants along the boardwalk one night. Our table was right on the water, and we got to watch the sun go down and the stars come out while having a delicious meal. It can be a little pricey, but the experience is worth the money spent on a night out.
6. The Esplanade Lagoon
Located right on the Esplanade Boardwalk, the Lagoon is one of the first things you’ll notice when you walk through the city. It’s essentially an outdoor saltwater pool for the public, except that it’s designed to look more like a natural beach. It’s open all year round with lifeguards patrolling from 6am – 9pm daily, and since Cairns has no public beaches within walking distance of the city, this is the spot to go if you’re looking to lay out in the sun or cool down in the water.
7. The Tablelands
This came recommended to me multiple times by several different locals while I was in Cairns. The Atherton Tablelands is located just over an hours drive south-west of Cairns, and boasts attractions such as wildlife sanctuaries, waterfalls, tropical fruit farms, rain forests, and many historical villages. I’ve been told you can spend days here and still find interesting things to see and do, so it may be worth it to stay overnight and make this a multi-day destination.
8. White Water Rafting
A friend of mine did this in Cairns with her family while she was there, and very much enjoyed it. There are a few different tours that can take you out – each with varying “adventure” levels (from the extreme to the leisurely). They will take you out on Queensland’s Tully, Barron, and North Johnstone Rivers on either half or full day adventures. The price of these tours is around $200/person for a full day.
9. Helicopter Tours
One of the coolest ways to see the reef is from above. Some reef tours I looked into for scuba diving/snorkelling included a short helicopter flight in them, but these ones were more expensive. If you choose to do a separate helicopter tour they range in price from anywhere between $160-$600+ per person, depending on the length of the flight. Helicopter tours are also available for views over Cairns, as well as the rainforest.
10. Cairns Botanic Gardens
I’ve been told a few times that these gardens are certainly worth wandering around. They have one of the best exhibitions in Australia for tropical plants, and hundreds of butterflies and over 170 species of birds have been recorded there. The Gardens are open from 7.30am to 5.30pm every day, and the best part is entry is free!