Choose from 37 Fun Things to Do in Cairns The Tropical North
Trendy shops, sidewalk restaurants and bustling pubs are all within walking distance of the well-traveled Esplanade. And nearby public BBQs and outdoor exercise stations are the prime spots for striking up conversations with locals, who love the Esplanade Boardwalk almost as much as visitors.
- Temperatures can reach upwards of 86°F (30°C) in summer, so pack sunscreen and a hat, as well as a swimsuit and towel.
- Follow the rules to avoid damaging the coral or disturbing The Great Barrier Reef, a protected conservation area.
- Facilities at the Green Island Resort include showers, changing rooms, lockers, a bar and restaurant, and free WiFi.
- The Green Island Resort has wheelchair access, but not all activities are fully accessible to those with limited mobility.
Encompassing roughly 3,000 individual reefs and dotted with almost 900 islands and coral cays (small sandy isles), Australia's Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s most unforgettable natural treasures. Snorkelers and certified divers often place the reef at the top of their bucket lists due to the unparalleled array of marine life in its underwater world, ranging from thousands of different varieties of fish, birds, and clams to hundreds of types of birds, seaweed, and turtles. And with experts expecting much of this diversity to dwindle in the next decade, there’s never been a better reason to plan a visit to this natural wonder.
Popular Great Barrier Reef Activities
Snorkeling and scuba diving are the most popular activities; the water is at its clearest from April to October and most snorkeling tours include the use of equipment. Savvy visitors make their trip into an educational opportunity by getting their PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certificate. Keep in mind that strenuous in-water activities are not recommended for those with medical conditions affecting the heart or lungs.
Don’t want to get wet? The sheer enormity of this UNESCO World Heritage Site makes it worth experiencing out of the water as well. Some barrier reef cruises feature afternoon tea or take place on a glass bottom boat rather than a catamaran, suitable for those who would like a more relaxed reef experience. And if you’re short on time, scenic helicopter flights offer the full-picture perspective on the immensity of this remarkable ecosystem, which makes up the world’s largest coral reef.
Staying in Airlie Beach, the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, can allow you to see the area without having to pay the steep price of luxury island resorts.
Great Barrier Reef AttractionsSeeing the huge Great Barrier Reef could take weeks, but there are a few landmarks and highlights that are must-sees. Saxon, Hastings, and Norman reefs in the outer Great Barrier Reef are top scuba diving and snorkeling spots, while Hamilton Island, Green Island, and Fitzroy Island are some of the most popular day trip destinations for reef tours. And visits to nearby Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park and the Daintree Rainforest, both located on the mainland outside Cairns, are easy to add onto your Great Barrier Reef exploration. A trip on the Kuranda Scenic Railway or Skyrail Rainforest Cableway can provide a unique view and be combined with a reef cruise.
How to Get There
Scuba diving excursions, snorkeling trips, and reef cruises all depart from Cairns, Cape Tribulation, Port Douglas, or Townsville. The reef runs 1,426 miles (2,300 km) from Bundaberg to the country’s northernmost tip, coming closest to the continent right around Queensland.
One of Australia’s busiest cruise ports, Cairns may be best known for its close access to the Daintree tropical rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. Once the site of mangrove swamps and sand ridges, the city today is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Australia, offering a plethora of water and adventure activities.
How to Get to Cairns
The brand new cruise terminal at Trinity Wharf is located in the heart of the city, so you won’t have far to go to reach the center of Cairns. Larger cruise ships may have to anchor in the harbor, in which case tenders will carry you from the ship to the port.
One Day in Cairns
If you’re like many visitors with just a day to spend in Cairns, chances are you’ll choose to forgo the city itself and instead book an excursion to the Great Barrier Reef. Over 1,600 miles long and composed of nearly 3,000 individual reefs, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system. Swimming, snorkeling, diving or riding on a glass bottom boat are all possibilities to explore the incredible biodiversity of what has been called one of the seven great natural wonders of the world.
For those who choose not to visit the Reef, taking the Skyline Rainforest Cableway to the town of Kuranda is another great way to spend a day. In Kuranda, you’ll find a variety of arts and craft shops, as well as the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary. After taking a cable car to Kuranda, you can return to Cairns by bus.
Back in the city, head to the Cairns Esplanade to stroll along the Harbour Walk, explore the handicrafts market and enjoy live entertainment and public art displays. Art aficionados may also want to pay a visit to the Cairns Regional Art Gallery, featuring fine art from a variety of Australian artists, including Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.
Another option for those who want to see more of the tropical rainforest would be to take a day-long guided tour to the Daintree Rainforest, about two hours north of Cairns.
The official language is English and the local currency is the Australian dollar. ATMs are widely available and are the best way to obtain local currency. Most shops and restaurants will also accept credit cards.
Interested travelers can follow free 30-minute tours that include up-close looks at the caterpillar breeding nursery. Here, you can see newly born butterflies before they’re released into the aviary and learn about the stages of development that lead to the birth of these fanciful creatures.
The sanctuary’s laboratory is another popular stop that showcases efforts to keep the aviary well stocked. While just two percent of eggs survive in the wild, more than 80 percent mature here thanks to lab experts. Catch a peek at the hard-working scientists who keep this facility thriving.
The relaxed coastal town of Cooktown is a popular excursion from Port Douglas.
Captain Cook beached his ship the Endeavour here, hence the name. These days daytrippers come here to visit the intriguing James Cook Historical Museum, to pay their respects to his statue overlooking Bicentennial Park, and order up a seafood platter at a local restaurant.
Cooktown has some impressive buildings for an outback coastal town, thanks to the 1870s to 1890s gold rush at the nearby Palmer goldfields. The town’s impressive botanic gardens date from this period.
Cooktown is one of the most northerly settlements on Australia’s far north coast, before the wilds of Cape York Peninsula take over. Port Douglas is 267 km (166 miles) south of Cooktown.
A tour to Cooktown from Port Douglas can combine the scenic coastal route, traveling through the Daintree to Cape Tribulation along the Bloomfield Track, and the inland Mulligan Highway for iconic outback landscapes.
- Temperatures can reach upwards of 86°F (30°C) in summer, so pack sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses, as well as insect repellent and comfortable shoes.
- Facilities at the Daintree Rainforest Discovery Centre include restrooms, a shop and cafe, audio guides, and free WiFi.
- The Daintree Rainforest Discovery Centre offers wheelchair-accessible boardwalks, aerial walkways, and lookout towers, but not all park activities are accessible to those with limited mobility.
- Temperatures can reach over 30°C (86°F) in summer months, so be sure to pack water and sunscreen, as well as insect repellent and comfortable shoes.
- Visitor Information Centers in Atherton, Yunaburra, and Malanda all offer maps, restrooms, charging stations, and free Wi-Fi.
- Some natural attractions including the Babinda Boulders, the Curtain Fig Tree, and Josephine Falls are wheelchair accessible.