Things to do in Cairns and surroundings, best tours and activities

Australia is your travel destination and you are going to visit northern Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef? your starting point is Cairns!

If you want to visit Queensland, but without doing a road trip, it is a good idea to base your holiday in Cairns, the capital of Northern Queensland, because in this area there are many interesting activities, tours and day-excursions that can be taken departing from town.

So what are the things to do and see in Cairns and the excursions to do around? we stayed in the Cairns area for 10 days, during our Queensland road trip, so let’s start with my suggestions!

cairns lagoon
Cairns Lagoon: the large public outdoor pool on the Esplanade

What to do and where to sleep in Cairns town

Cairns is a small tropical town where the most interesting things to do are situated in proximity of the east end of the nice waterfront, called the Esplanade. Here you can find the lagoon, the relaxing public outdoor pool with sandy beach and large green areas, the Reef Fleet Terminal, which is the main Cruise Terminal and the Night Markets. It’s the Cairns most touristic area, with a good number of hotels and restaurants.

Even the train station is just 20 minutes walk away from here, for example if you have to take the train to go to Kuranda, the village in the rainforest, for these reasons, staying near the lagoon is a good choice. We stayed in a 1-bedroom apartment, located within a Mantra resort, an excellent solution for 2/4 people, the falt had a separate bedroom with king size bed, bathroom, kitchen with sitting area and double sofa bed. The terrace has a nice view on the sea and the Esplanade, we enjoyed it very much.

Where to go to the beach in Cairns? is swimming possible?

No, swimming in the sea in Cairns is not possible, for two reasons: first, the town of Cairns has no beaches itself, you need to move north or south out of town area to go to the beach. The second reason is that the area is dangerous due to the presence of saltwater crocodiles, all year-round. The closest, most beautiful bathing areas north of Cairns are Oak Beach, Palm Cove and Port Douglas which is a nice small resort town with a good beach. Going south you will find the stunning Mission Beach (about two hours drive) and Etty Bay.

During the stinger season (November to May) swimming is safe where the stinger nets are situated, you can find them in Palm Cove, Port Douglas and Mission Beach

Day trips from Cairns

Great Barrier Reef cruises

Departing from the Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal you will find countless cruises and snorkeling trips to the Northern Great Barrier Reef. In my opinion, the best are the ones which take you both on the outern reef and on a cay, like the wonderful Michealmas Cay (picture above).

  • Snorkeling day trip cruise only on the outern reef :

Passions of Paradise: this sailing catamaran day trip takes you to two different reef locations. Departures are also from Port Douglas.

  • Snorkeling day trip cruise on the outern reef+Cay:

Sea Star Cruises: offers a cruise with a small and fast boat, that means you are the first to arrive on Michaelmas Cay and have more time to snorkel. During the afternoon instead of staying at the Cay, the boat sails for a few hours to Hastings reef for snorkeling. This is an excellent tour that allows you to enjoy two different experiences on the same day..

  • Snorkeling day trip cruise on a Cay :

This was the cruise we choosed, the Ocean Spirit Cruise sailing catamaran takes you to snorkel at the stunning Michaelmas Cay, which is inhabited only by a bird colony and has white sandy beach standing in the middle of the ocean. Book this tour on Viator and Get Your Guide.

Take a train, or a cableway, to Kuranda, the village in the rainforest

The trip to Kuranda is one of the most popular daytours from Cairns. The main attraction is the trip itself to reach the village, climbing the hills with the Cableway observing from above the ancient rainforest, or sitting on the restored train, the Kuranda Scenic Railway. But of course you can arrive at Kuranda with your own car or bus from Cairns too, if you are not interested in the trip itself, but only in visiting the Village.

How to book the Skyrail and Railway Tour.

What to do in Kuranda

When you arrive in the village in the forest you can visit the characteristic local Markets, but there are other attractions too, like the Koala Gardens and the Rainforestation nature Park.

The waterfall circuit south of Cairns

This excursion is not to be missed! If possible, it deserves even more days (in fact we stayed 3 nights in this area), but you can also do it as a day-trip because the waterfalls circuit is only an hour and a half drive away from Cairns city. It consists of the three waterfalls of Millaa Millaa, Ellinjaa and Zillie which are stunning, surrounded by nature and within easy reach by foot. At Milla Millaa and Ellinjaa you can also take a bath (of course I did!).

  • Don’t have your own car? no problem, you can purchase a tour departing from Cairns, it will take you to the Atherton Tablelands and to the waterfalls, it is truly worth the money.

A swim in lake Eacham.

lake eacham
Lake Eacham Atherton Tablelands

During the hot Queensland’s summer, a way to cool off in the middle of nature can also be bathing in lakes like the ones of the Craters Lake National Park, on the Atherton Tablelands. Therefore, I suggest you the green waters of Lake Eacham, which is safe to swim and located just an hour and a half drive from Cairns. Facilities at the lake are a car parking, a picnic area with toilets and showers and a platform that allows you to get easily into the water. Bring your own picnic and spend a wonderful day.

The Yungaburra fresh local products market, every fourth Saturday of the month

The Yungaburra Markets are a local food and handicrafts market that attracts visitors since more than 40 years, every fourth Saturday morning of the month (in December the third). We were there during our Queensland trip on this very date, the third Saturday of December. The village is small and pretty, and it is a good base to visit the Atherton Tablelands. Another good reason to visit Yungaburra is that here you can spot one of the rarest animals in the world, the platypus, who lives in the small creek a few steps from the central square of the village. We were lucky enough to observe it for more then half an hour.

Short trips form Cairns with stay of one or more nights

Daintree River, the ancient Tropical Forest and Cape Tribulation

If you are going to visit Cairns you can not miss a trip to the Daintree Rainforest, it is one of the most ancient on our planet. Driving from the city, you can reach Daintree village in 1 and a half hours, Cape Tribulation instead is almost 3 hours drive form Cairns. Given those distances, to me it is better to sleep one or more nights outside of Cairns.

As said before, this is the territory of one of the oldest rainforests in the world, and while in Daintree there is a tiny village with a fish restaurant, an Art Gallery and a market, the Cape Tribulation area instead is wild, with isolated beaches where swimming is forbidden, due to of the presence of the dangerous saltwater crocodiles, like at Thornton Beach and Cape Tribulation Beach.

PLEASE NOTE! To reach Cape Tribulation you need to embark your car on the ferry that crosses the Daintree River, the passage takes a few minutes and the cost is 47 AUD roundtrip for a private car. You can purchase your tickets on place, or find here more infos and prices.

What to do in Daintree and Cape Tribulation?

  • boat trips along the Daintree river to spot the local fauna, especially the notorious crocodile saltwater;
  • rainforest walks, guided or by yourself, like the easy Dubuji boardwalk
  • Great Barrier Reef boat excursions
  • Don’t have your own car to reach Cape Tribulation? take part of a bus tour, departing from Cairns or Port Douglas, this tour will take you to Cape Tribulation, Daintree and Mossmann Gorge within a daytrip.

Where to sleep at Daintree and Cape Tribulation

There is quite a good choice in this area between basic hostels and more comfortable lodges; many ot these accomodations are eco-friendly and regardless of the comfort level, they allow you to sleep in the middle of the extraordinary setting which is a tropical forest.

PLEASE NOTE! in this area often your mobile phone will be not covered by either GMS or internet network. Stay out from the world, for a few days, surrounded by nature.. not bad!

WHERE TO SLEEP IN DAINTREE: we stayed 3 nights at the Daintree Riverview Lodge, a small motel providing a few rooms, a common terrace and a open air kitchen with panoramic view on the river. It also has a parking area for camping and campers. Rooms are very basic but have air conditioning and the atmosphere here is magic. There is no wifi throughout the whole motel.

spiaggia Queensland
Thornton beach Queensland

WHERE TO SLEEP IN CAPE TRIBULATION: I suggest you the PK’s Jungle Village, a basic hostel with direct access to the beach, small pool, restaurant and minimarket. We stopped here for lunch during our tour and liked it. Also at Thornton beach there are a few nice bungalows, but they are not directly set on the beach, to reach the beach you have to cross the road, but the place is stunning. On Thornton beach you can fond a small café which prepares a very good coffee.

Chillagoe Mungana Caves National Park

Quella di Chillagoe è un’area di interesse sia storico che naturalistico a circa 3 ore di auto da Cairns, abitata sin da più di 37mila anni fa dalle popolazioni aborigene, e convertita poi in zona di estrazione mineraria dagli Europei che si insediarono qui fin dagli inizi del ‘900.

Chillagoe area has both historical and natural interest and lies about 3 hours drive from Cairns, it was inhabited since more than 37 thousand years ago by aboriginal people, and then converted into a mining area by the Europeans who settled here since the early ‘900.

What to visit in Chillagoe:

  • the caves, which bear traces of Aboriginal rock art, some can be visited DIY, others only with the guide of a ranger (for a fee);
  • the foundry abandoned site

For more infos, watch this video or visit the Queensland’s Parks Official Site.

We stayed in the Cairns area a total of 10 days, during our Queensland road trip, returning for a longer period would be great for me to do more excursions on the reef, visit the islands, and even do inland one-day excursions.

Northern Queensland is definitely the place for you if you love the tropical environment!

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