12 Unique things to do in and around Cairns

by Paul Joseph  |  Published April 4, 2019

A city of fewer than 170,000 people in the north of Queensland, Cairns may be geographically small, but when it comes to attractions, it is larger than life. While most visitors use Cairns as a base for exploring the iconic Great Barrier Reef, the city itself certainly isn’t short of appeal, boasting mild winters, gorgeous beaches, stunning scenery and great nightlife.

A view of Downtown Cairns from across Trinity Inlet (Photo: David Stanley via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

There are a huge amount of things to see and do in and around Cairns, most of which revolve around the incredible natural landscape that characterises the city and wider region. If you’re planning a trip to Cairns and would like to start putting an itinerary together, you can take inspiration from our selection of 12 of its most unique places of interest.

Explore the mesmerising Great Barrier Reef

No visit to Cairns is truly complete without an excursion to the jaw-droppingly beautiful Great Barrier Reef, which is just a short boat ride away from the city. Visible from outer space, this vast ecosystem contains thousands of reefs and hundreds of islands and is home to an incredible number of species of colourful fish, molluscs and starfish, plus turtles, dolphins and sharks. There are several Great Barrier Reef tours from Cairns on offer, many of which boast strong eco-friendly credentials.

Agincourt Reef, part of the Great Barrier Reef, near Cairns (Photo: Robert Linsdell via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Feed a Saltwater Crocodile at Hartleys Crocodile Adventures

Located about 40km north of Cairns, Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures offers visitors the chance to get up close and personal with a wide range of animals, but without doubt the most popular attraction here are the saltwater crocodiles. Not only can you observe the raw power of these historic apex predators from afar, but you can also join a behind-the-scenes tour and take on the role of a handler, feeding the awesome crocs and helping with their daily routine – a truly unique experience that you’re certain to never forget.

LOCATION Captain Cook Highway, Wangetti HOURS Mon-Sun 8.30am-5pm

A croc waits for a feed with mouth gaping open at Hartleys Crocodile Adventures (Photo: Travis via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Skim along the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

The magnificent 260-metre waterfall on the Barron River known as Barron Falls is one of Cairns most iconic landmarks. Perched where the river descends from the Atherton Tablelands to the Cairns coastal plain, visitors can experience the site in unique style by boarding the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, which sees you traverse the sky above the canopy with sensational views all around. You can also stop at two mid-stations along the way and walk along the rainforest floor.

LOCATION 6 Skyrail Drive, Smithfield HOURS Mon-Sun 9am-5.15pm

Watch the MSF Sugar Great Pyramid Race

Of all the unique experiences that can be had in Cairns, taking part in the Great Pyramid Race would be hard to beat. This 12km race to the small town of Gordonvale on the southern side of Cairns can take place in temperatures as high as 30 degrees, meaning that only those with a very high level of fitness should consider participating. As for the route, it starts at Alley Park, progresses to the top of Walsh’s pyramid before heading back to town to cross the finishing line. For those who prefer to watch from afar, the family-friendly event also features pop-up stalls, live entertainment and music, cultural and craft events, kid’ activities, rides and amusements, workshops, and more.

LOCATION Gordonvale DATES 17 August 2019

A runner rejoices after crossing the finishing line at the MSF Sugar Great Pyramid Race (Photo: Country Fair Association)

Take a memorable train ride on the Kuranda Scenic Railway

Situated 26 kilometres north of Cairns and surrounded by verdant rainforest, the village of Kuranda is another popular excursion for visitors to the city. And without doubt the most thrilling way to travel between the two is aboard the Kuranda Scenic Railway, a charming steam train that offers stunning views along the route. For a change of scenery, you can even take a gondola for the return journey.

The famous Kuranda Scenic Railway winds its way on a journey from Cairns to Kuranda (Photo: Robert Linsdell via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Learn about native culture at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park

Educational and entertaining in equal measure, this acclaimed cultural park is run and operated by the original custodians of the land, and tells the story of their rich cultural heritage dating back 40,000 years using a mix of actors and hi-tech holograms. You can also witness traditional tribal dance, ride a canoe, take part in a fireside corroboree, or simply roam about the grounds at your leisure.

A scenic view of Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park (Photo: Michael Zimmer via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tuck into one dollar oysters at Ellis Beach Bar and Grill

Due to their high price, oysters are normally an occasional indulgent treat, but at Ellis Beach Bar and Grill you can tuck into as many as you like. The reason? Every Sunday afternoon this popular, casual eatery on Ellis Beach serves up oysters for just one dollar each, accompanied by a variety of delectable toppings such as lemongrass, chilli infused vodka, Mexican salsa, and Thai Phrik Nam Pla. The slippery delicacies can be enjoyed against the backdrop of live music from 1pm. Kids are welcome here, too – although good luck trying to get yours to eat an oyster.

LOCATION LOT 13 Captain Cook Highway, Ellis Beach HOURS Mon-Sun 7am-6pm

Marvel at beautiful plant life at Cairns Botanical Gardens

Thanks to its tropical climate, Queensland is blessed with a number of exceptional Botanical Gardens, and one of the best can be found in Cairns. Home to one of Australia’s finest exhibitions of tropical plants, the plant life here is eye-catchingly different to what you might see in cooler parts of the country. There are also several native animals and birdlife to spot here, plus walking trails and guided tours.

LOCATION 78-96 Collins Avenue, Edge Hill HOURS Fri-Sat 5am-6pm Sun 5am-3pm

A butterfly perched on a leaf at Cairns Botanical Gardens (Photo: Graham Winterflood via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Swim among waterfalls at Crystal Cascades

A mere 20-minute inland drive to the west of Cairns, Crystal Cascades is yet another natural wonder within easy reach for visitors to the city. On arrival, you’ll be greeted by a series of beautiful waterfalls and idyllic (and, crucially, crocodile-free) swimming holes. You can take a dip in the cool, fresh water as it flows over rocks and boulders, or simply kick back and admire the picture-postcard scenery from dry land.

The freshwater swimming hole known as the Crystal Cascades (Photo: djcupitt via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Take to the sky on a hot air balloon tour

If you like the idea of enjoying a bird’s-eye view of Cairns in a calm and tranquil setting, then a hot air balloon ride is just the ticket. There are several companies in and around the city offering hot air balloon tours, transporting you high above the Mareeba Valley Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands, a stunning location that enjoys over 300 sun-kissed days per year. Balloons can accommodate up to 20 people and there are several packages available, including champagne breakfasts.

Head to one of the region’s best beaches at Palm Cove

Drive north for half-an-hour (or longer if you take your foot off the gas so you can really soak up those ocean views) along the coast from Cairns and you’ll reach the charming seaside village of Palm Cove. Here, gorgeous palm trees hang tantalisingly overhead while the pristine beach is considered one of the best in the region. The village is also a magnet for water sports lovers, offering superb surfing, snorkelling, kayaking and scuba diving opportunities.

Spoleto Festival

The sandy shores on Cairns’ beachside suburb of Palm Cove (Photo: John via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Peruse Pacific Rim art at Cairns Regional Gallery

Housed within a restored and heritage-listed government building dating back to the 1930s is this excellent Cairns art gallery. Free to enter, the gallery contains a wide range of visual arts and crafts that explore Pacific Rim themes, all designed to encourage visitors to learn about the region’s rich heritage and culture. There’s also an on-site gift shop and cafe.

LOCATION 40 Abbott Street HOURS Mon-Fri 9am-5pm Sat 10am-5pm Sun 10am-2pm