What are the must do activities in Cairns, Australia for an amazing vacation? Here are five amazing, and sometimes FREE, activities in Cairns I enjoyed in five, leisurely days without a car. Try one on each day when you visit Cairns, solo or not. If you have more time in Australia, consider visiting Noosa and Brisbane to round out your trip.
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Late September is the end of winter in Australia and a perfect time to avoid higher costs and larger tourist groups, while enjoying some amazing weather as I mention in my Australia travel guide. Cairns weather in September is no exception. It’s “warm” for sure – (low 80’s F /high 20’s C), but the time of year lends to perfect days to explore the ocean and land in and surrounding Cairns. That said, I would think Cairns would be a great place to visit any time of the year – summer’s in Cairn can be in the 90’s F / 30’s C and winter temperatures are high 70’s F / mid 20’s C.
Cairns, Australia is a great family, couple or solo destination and can be done without renting a car. Budget bonus! The Cairns Airport and many hotels offer airport shuttle service, or you can take an Uber. Cairns itself is very walkable. Additionally, the TRANSLink bus is easy to use and inexpensive. I love to promote public transportation because it is budget-friendly, not to mention environmentally-friendly.
5 Top Activities to Do In Cairns
1 – Dive or Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef
Due to climate change, the coral reefs are dying. The largest coral reef system in the world, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is not only critical to marine biodiversity health but is also a big tourist industry for Australia. Recognizing the importance of the reef system like Belize, Australia is finally pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into protecting it.
As a diver, diving the GBR was one of my favorite activities in Cairns, Australia. For best GBR diving, look to ribbon reef tours first – a few leave from Cairns but you can catch more from Port Douglas, just north of Cairns. If not, dive/snorkel the Outer Reef if you are under time constraints.
Note: to protect the health of the reef when diving or snorkeling, ensure to wear reef-safe sunscreen (options provided in my Travel Resources) or clothing to protect yourself from the sun, and do NOT touch any marine life or coral reef.
All dive boats leave the Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal, easily walkable from most Cairns hotel locations. There are many Cairns dive boat operators to choose from so do your research on what works best for you.
I chose the TUSA 6 boat through the AquaPro Dive Shop due to being able to do three dives, having a smaller boat capacity, and the guarantee of diving the Outer Reef. AquaPro was helpful via email in planning my one-day dive excursion.
The TUSA 6 crew were extremely professional, prompt, and friendly start to finish; the equipment was great (they include a dive computer with the BCD in case you don’t have one); and the lunch was amazing. I was also paired with a great dive partner, Virginia, with whom I was able to leisurely dive unguided. I didn’t get to see any sharks or sea turtles, but the fish biodiversity was still enjoyable. In short, no complaints from me.
2 – Day Trip to Palm Cove
Palm Cove is considered a coastal suburb of Cairns. Much smaller than Cairns, it’s a sleepier tourist beach destination just 17 miles (27 km) North of Cairns. You can rent a car, but why bother when the bus can get you there quickly and cheaply? The Cairns TRANSLink bus takes only 40 minutes each way and, with a day-pass, you can use it for remaining Cairns day’s activities.
What to Do in Palm Cove?
The bus drops you off in the center of the beach strip right across from the beach. If you want to take a swim at the public beach, there is a designated swimming area of the beach that is flagged and patrolled, and has water nets for safe swimming during the jelly fish season. There are free sting kits along the beach should you get stung. Palm Cove also offers water sporting activities like paddle boarding and kayaking.
If you wish to explore, take a stroll along the beach north to the pier at which the end offers more coastal views. Loop back on the Williams Esplanade across the beach to shop the clothing and art shops, all accessible within a leisurely 30-minute stroll. Sit on an outside patio for a cocktail lunch listening to the ocean and tourist watching.
Want to take it slower? Grab a reasonably-priced 30 or 60-minute massage at Refresh Massage in the Palm Cove Shopping Village. Walk-in’s welcome. Then pour yourself into the bus back to Cairns in time to get ready for outdoor nightlife.
3 – Karunda Rainforest Skyrail & Village
Need a break from the water? Go a little inland with a half or full-day Kuranda Scenic Rail & Skyrail trip to Karunda Village. This is a great way to not only see the local rainforest and habitat, but let’s face it, it’s a really just a scenic method of transportation towards shopping. Yes, Karunda Village can be a bit of a tourist trap, but this Cairns day excursion is a “must” and great if you have those Australia gifts to buy for your family and friends.
You have options to take the train or skyrail to/from Cairns or either both ways, but you do have to know when you want to depart both locations when you book your trip. The cost includes Skyrail Shuttle pick up and drop off to your hotel.
I recommend planning this day-trip in advance and leaving at the first available morning departure to Kuranda Village so you can have more of the Karunda Village to yourself before other tourists crowd in. When you need a shopping break, grab lunch on the Barron Falls Hotel outdoor patio.
We chose to ride the skyrail to and from Karunda Village and took advantage of the two stops on the way up. The views are lovely! You can hear the birds of the rainforest and catch cool breezes in the gondola for an overall peaceful and relaxing ride.
4 – Cairns Botanical Gardens
Just a 5-10 minute bus ride from Cairns, depending on how far south in town you are staying, you should take at least a half day to visit the Cairns Botanical Gardens. Entrance is FREE. Stroll on your own or take a guided tour of the Flecker Gardens and Watkins Munro Martin Conservatory. Shaded paths provide opportunities to see local birds.
Visit the Tanks Art Centre featuring local art in revamped WWII oil tanks – a very unique setting. Inside Flecker Gardens is the Botanic Gardens Restaurant Café if you need to recharge.
We were fortunate enough to be in Cairns on the last Sunday of September to enjoy the Market Day Series hosting tents of local artists, food trucks and music. This is a Cairns “must” if you can catch it.
5 – Cairns Esplanade and Lagoon
Looking for more free things to do? Walk along the waterfront Cairns esplanade. It offers beautiful views of the ocean. If you’re into fitness, you can power-walk or jog and use the work-out equipment provided along the waterfront path, or take part in the free work-out classes offered.
When downtown, hang out with the locals taking a dip in the public Cairns Lagoon, also FREE. Let the sun dry you off before you wander the downtown, historic district to view Cairns landmark buildings’ architecture and take in the local shops or dine outside. If you want fresh produce check out Rusty’s Farmers Market. Shop for souvenirs or grab a bite at the Night Market.
More Activities in Cairns, Australia
If you have more time in Cairns and you’re into gaming, don’t worry. Gambling is legal in Australia. The casino in Cairns is the Pullman Reef Hotel Casino. Also walking distance within town and FREE is the Cairns Art Gallery. Open daily, the gallery resides in a restored 1936 government offering Australian art, café and gift shop.
If you have more time in Cairns and looking to explore the region, why not check out the following? They are on my list to do next time.
- Daintree National Park – encompassing a 60-mile region, the Daintree National Park is part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland and is an hour’s drive north of Cairns. Founded 1981, it became a World Heritage Site in 1988.
- Crystal Cascades – less than 10 miles (14 km) from Cairns, these beautiful cascade waterfalls are part of Freshwater Creek offering hiking, swimming holes and picnicking areas. Again, FREE.
- Wine or Distillery Tasting – Rent a car for a day trip visiting these local wineries or distillery, all within an hour from Cairns:
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