Visiting Cairns – A City Guide
The jewel in the crown of Australia’s Tropical North, Cairns is the only region in the world where you can find two UNESCO World Heritage sites side by side. A city like no other, Cairns is the gateway to the spectacular Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest.
Cairns: city layout
Cairns is a small coastal city, with its downtown and central city areas built around the ocean and river inlet. Wharf Street and the Esplanade provide a scenic thoroughfare along the waterfront, linking the city with North Cairns. The relaxed coastal townships of Holloways Beach, Yorkeys Knob and Trinity Beach follow the corridor along Captain Cook Highway up towards the Daintree Rainforest.
Inland from Cairns is the township of Atherton and the fertile Tablelands region, where local fruit, cheese and nuts are grown.
Top attractions in Cairns
An organic superstructure visible from outer space, the Great Barrier Reef and surrounding tropical waters are home to a huge array of aquatic life. Hundreds of species of marine mammals, fish and seabirds call the reef home, and many rare species migrate here, including six types of marine turtle.
Diving and snorkelling are the best ways to experience the amazing biodiversity of this fragile eco-region. Cruises and day trips out to nearby Green Island, where you can visit the crocodile park at Marineland Melanesia, and Fitzroy Island, popular for hiking and kayaking, are easily organised in central Cairns.
The Daintree is the largest tropical rainforest in Australia and one of the oldest on Earth. Taking a walk through this ancient place, home to many unique plants and animals, is an experience to be remembered.
The concierge recommends…
● Visiting the Cairns Night Markets for a shopping experience unique to tropical Queensland. You can browse around 70 stalls for local crafts, food, clothing and souvenirs.
● Exploring the Northern Beaches. Just a 15-minute drive north of the city, Trinity Beach has white sand, palm trees, a swimming beach and watersports like windsurfing and paddle-boarding on offer.
● Taking a boat out to Fitzroy Island or Green Island, where you can head ashore, snorkel with turtles or kayak around the reef.
● Taking a sunset cruise around Cairns Harbour. Soak up the scenery as you enjoy a glass of wine on deck in the warm evening breeze.
Hotels in Cairns
Many of the best Cairns hotels are located downtown along the waterfront, where there are plenty of bars and restaurants. If you’re heading out to the Great Barrier Reef on a cruise or day trip, the harbour precinct is a great option.
Cairns Esplanade hotels place you at the centre of the action, where the atmosphere is casual but humming with activity. A pleasant 2.5 kilometres of colourful foreshore runs from the northern end of the Esplanade down to the Pier shopping centre. The boulevard features plenty of parks and open spaces to relax and soak up the sun, along with public parks and sports facilities for people of all ages to enjoy. On Saturdays from 8am–4pm, you’ll find the Esplanade Market and, in the evening, live music beside the Lagoon.
Eating Out in Cairns
From contemporary and classic dining to native and exotic foods, Cairns has something for everyone. Of course, locally sourced fresh seafood and tropical fruit are always in season and there are speciality wines and cheeses from the region to be savoured.
What better way to eat out in Cairns than overlooking the waterfront? On the Esplanade, the Boatshed has plenty of options, including shared mains and a wide selection of entrees – from soft-shell crab to duck shanks. At the southern end of the Esplanade the Pier shopping complex overlooks the Marina, where you’ll find plenty of restaurants and bars. Tha Fish is a popular option for seafood lovers, and the Pier Bar is always humming.
The chef recommends...
● Australian antipasto: Dishes such as damper crumb with Kakadu plum and smoked crocodile with green ant salsa verde give you a taste of the indigenous and the exotic. Ochre Restaurant offers a unique fine-dining experience with classic and contemporary dishes incorporating wild produce found only in Australia.
● Chargrilled Moreton Bay bugs: Something of an Australian delicacy, you’ll find these crustaceans at seafood restaurants like the Boatshed, served with garlic, lemon and olive oil.
● Macadamia nuts: Grown on the lush Atherton Tablelands, these local food heroes are highly prized and for good reason. Delicious raw, they’re often paired with sweets. For pure indulgence, try to find macadamia nut ice cream.
Shopping in Cairns
Cairns’ relaxed vibe and tropical climate are ideal for open-air market shopping. Whether it’s food, fashion, speciality stores or local arts and crafts, a casual stroll around the various outdoor markets is a popular activity day or night.
With more than 70 stalls to browse through, the Cairns Night Markets on the Esplanade are a great place to find souvenirs, locally grown coffee, Aussie clobber (clothing) and a whole lot more. The night market retail stores are open daily from 5pm–11pm, and food stalls are open from mid-morning.
Rusty’s Markets is another hugely popular weekend market. Specialising in fresh produce and freshly baked goods, this market is a lively and culturally diverse hub for Cairns traders from around Asia, Europe, and Pacific Islands and is well worth a look.
Overlooking the marina, the Pier is a complex for speciality retail shopping as well as nightlife, bustling with restaurants, bars and events.
Best market buys in Cairns
● Find that uniquely Australian gift at the Cairns Night Markets. Silver Gem has a stunning selection of Queensland boulder opals and other Australian precious stones.
● Rehydrate and get a sweet boost the natural way, with sugarcane juice or freshly made coconut water, at Rusty’s Markets.
● Learn about our luminous universe at the Pier from Night Sky Secrets, a retailer with a particular passion for astronomy. Check out their range of gadgets and toys for all ages and find out about tours and events.
Culture & Nightlife in Cairns
A small but thriving city, Cairns comes alive at night. Enjoying the city’s entertainment and culture is as easy as stepping out onto the Esplanade boardwalk. Head to the bars downtown or step back into the Dreamtime for a cultural experience you’ll never forget.
At Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Centre you can experience Indigenous Australian food, history, art and music in a fun and inclusive programme. At night, amidst the sounds of the didgeridoo, the Indigenous Bama people of the Cairns region will take you on a journey into the dreamtime through ritual, storytelling and a fire ceremony.
The Esplanade has plenty of evening entertainment on offer. Take a wander through the Cairns Night Markets, or head down to Salt House or the Pier Bar to mingle with the locals and listen to some live music.
Music and art in Cairns
● The Esplanade: There’s live music by the Lagoon most Saturday evenings, so you can swim or relax beside the water with surround sound.
● Cairns Regional Gallery: See works by local artists at this exhibition space on Abbott Street. The gallery’s open daily until 5pm.
● KickArts Contemporary Arts: Also on Abbott Street, this collective space showcases the work of emerging and contemporary visual artists from the tropical north.
Leisure in Cairns
Best known for the incredible Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is a world-renowned location for scuba diving and snorkelling. A gateway city to another UNESCO world heritage site, the Daintree Rainforest, this is a tropical paradise with an abundance of exotic wildlife and some exciting ways to get out and enjoy the scenery.
Take a boat cruise out to the Great Barrier Reef for world-class diving and snorkelling. For those who prefer to stay dry, you can view the ocean through a glass-bottomed boat with Reef Magic Cruises.
About two hours north of Cairns is the amazing Daintree. Experience the rainforest at your own pace, or get up early and take a fully inclusive package tour from Cairns. For adrenaline junkies, racing through the canopy on a zip line with Jungle Surfing Canopy Tours is a must.
The Kuranda Scenic Railway winds through rainforest up to the village of Kuranda. Enjoy lunch here, then glide back across the treetops on a series of gondola rides via the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.
Top leisure activities in Cairns
● Check out the new conservatory at the Cairns Botanic Gardens, which houses some weird and wonderful plants. From behind the gardens, you can follow the Red Arrow walk to the summit of Mt Whitfield Conservation Park, which overlooks city and sea.
● At the Esplanade you’ll find exercise areas and barbecues for public use. Muddy’s Playground is a great waterpark for small children, and the Lagoon, another safe swimming spot, is popular with visitors of all ages.
● Get active with climbing ropes and a zip line at Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome. You can also have a close encounter with wildlife, including a large saltwater crocodile.