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For many backpackers, Cairns is either the start or the end point for their Australian east coast road trip. With an amalgamation of tropical rain forests, golden beaches and of course the Great Barrier reef all within close reach, it’s easy to see why. Its location in the north of Queensland makes it a great all-year-round destination too. It’s where Australians head to catch some winter sun when it’s cold elsewhere because, you guys, it does get cold in Australia.
But with Cairns having such great weather no matter what, there’s plenty to keep you busy there. I last visited in July which is pretty much Australia’s winter but there I was wandering around in my shorts and t-shirt. Cairns is the perfect place to enjoy the outdoor lifestyle that Australia lives and breathes so I’ve put together a list of 11 awesome things to do while you’re there.
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1. Experience the Great Barrier Reef
There is no place in the world quite like the Great Barrier Reef, and for me, it really lived up to my expectations. It has been a bucket list dive spot for me for a number of years and one that I really will not forget seeing. If you haven’t already booked your tour, don’t worry as there are a number of places to book your tickets and a number of different boats and tours to choose from. As a backpacker on a budget, I opted to go for the cheapest reef tour run by Compass Cruises and had an amazing time. I was lucky enough to see whales, dolphins, scuba dive the reef and snorkel at another location. If you’re also on a budget I highly recommend this tour, but if you’re looking to splash out a bit then there are plenty of options.
2. Take a plunge in the Lagoon
This awesome public pool overlooking the ocean is a great way to cool off in the heat. It sits right along the Esplanade and there are heaps of places to lay out in the sun or shade and just relax. If you really want to have some quiet time, go for a sunrise swim and beat the crowds. One thing that I love about Australia is the free public BBQs you’ll find dotted all over the place, and that includes the Lagoon! Why not make a day of it and cook up something delicious to munch on while you watch the world go by?
3. Wander along the Esplanade
There’s no better way to clear your head than by walking by the ocean. Meander along the length of Cairns Esplanade and soak in the Cairns sunshine and keep your eyes peeled for some pelicans who call the beach their home. You’ll walk past some great seafood restaurants and bars, the jetties and all the way along the shoreline.
4. Try some Aussie beers at Hemingway’s Brewery
If there’s one thing you need to know about Australia is that it has an awesome craft beer scene. Hemingway’s Brewery is a fantastic place to visit for food and to try some Australian beers. If you want to try a selection, you might like to go for a tasting paddle which gives you a selection of mini beers to enjoy. Take a look at their website here to get inspired.
5. Catch a train to the village in the rainforest
Just a short drive from the city you’ll find yourself surrounded by rainforests and mountains and an incredible way to experience it all. Head over to Cairns train station and hop on the scenic railway and watch out the train window as you pass by a waterfall and through tunnels as the tracks wrap around the mountains. At the end of your train ride you’ll reach the village of Kuranda to explore and enjoy.
6. Get outdoors at the Barron Gorge National Park
This is one the sights you will capture if you take the Kuranda Scenic Railway, but you also have the chance to get closer, too. The Barron River is the heart of the park, forming waterfalls and dramatic landscapes to take in. Here you will find plenty of walking tracks as well as an elevated walkway through the trees, just so you can get that little bit closer to nature.
7. Hop out to a nearby island
If you can’t get enough of the ocean and pristine beaches, or you want to explore more of what’s around, why not spend a day on an island? Both Green Island and Fitzroy Island are both a short 45 minute ferry ride from Cairns and make for fantastic days out. They offer a true outdoor experience with plenty of hikes, swimming and snorkelling spots and more opportunities to experience the Great Barrier Reef. Take a look at the options here for getting to Green Island and Fitzroy Island.
8. Dine and shop at the famous Night Market
Every night in Cairns, the doors open to the long-standing (and Australia’s first ever) Night Market. Peruse the shops where you will find a selection of fashion, jewellery, crafts, tea and souvenirs to pick up a gift or two before fueling up in the food court on whatever that takes your fancy. While you’re there, you can even drop in for a massage to or beauty treatment, just to finish the day off in style.
9. Relax in the Botanic Gardens
These beautiful gardens in Cairns offer a patch of the forest without having to leave the city. Walk through the different displays to transport yourself to different places and keep an eye out for birds that make the gardens their home. If you want to learn more about the history of the gardens or the animals that live there, you might like to join in on one of their free walking tours. Take a look at the timetable and learn more about the gardens here.
10. Head out to nearby golden sands
While Cairn’s itself doesn’t have much of a beach, within about 30kms you can reach some truly stunning beaches. You’ll first come across Machans Beach before continuing up to Holloways, Trinity and Palm Cove. These beaches are great for surfing, kitesurfing and of course, relaxing all day long.
Looking to explore a little further from Cairns?
Cairns is a great base to visit some other nearby gems. Within a 2 hour drive, you can be in the heart of the rainforest, sliding down waterfalls or jumping out of a plane over the beach. Here are a few bonus spots that are favourites of mine:
Just an hours drive south of Cairns you’ll find the brilliant Josephine Falls in the Wooroonooran National Park. This waterfall is made up or tiers and has an awesome spot where you can safely swim in the pools and slide down the rocks.
Port Douglas, Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation
Although these are technically 3 separate locations, they are all easily reachable from Cairns in a day trip. As you drive north from Cairns, you’ll first come across Port Douglas, then the Daintree and finally Cape Tribulation. This road trip is perfect for exploring the rainforest and getting right in with nature.
If you’re looking for a true adrenaline-pumping experience, head to Mission Beach, south of Cairns, to skydive. This famous spot will see you free-falling out of the plane from 15,000 ft right over the golden sands of Mission Beach itself. Once you’ve touched the ground again, make sure you refuel from one of the delicious beachfront restaurants there!