Cairns & the Great Barrier Reef: Planning Your Trip

••• Ignacio Palacios / Getty Images

The city of Cairns in Far North Queensland is one of the world's most incredible destinations for adventure travelers and nature lovers. With the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest on its doorstep, this tropical paradise is surrounded by gorgeous waterfalls, beaches, islands, and mountains.

On top of all these outdoorsy activities, Cairns is home to award-winning restaurants, quirky museums and oceanfront resorts. If the Great Barrier Reef is on your bucket list, this guide will help you decide when to visit, what to see and do, what to eat and where to stay during your trip.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: The best time to visit Cairns is between June and October. This is the period when the dry season overlaps with the absence of marine stingers, though prices and crowd levels are higher. However, if you take a chance on visiting during the wet season, you'll be able to see the Daintree Rainforest at its most beautiful.
  • Language: Australia has no official language, but English is spoken almost everywhere. Some Cairns residents also speak another language, like Korean, Mandarin, or Japanese. The traditional owners of the Cairns region speak Djabugay and Yidiny.
  • Currency: The Australian dollar is the national currency.
  • Getting Around: Cairns has a network of bus routes that cover the city and are especially useful for visiting the northern beaches. You can buy tickets onboard with cash.
  • Travel Tip: The climate in Cairns is very different from southern Australian cities like Sydney and Melbourne. Make sure to research the weather before you go and pack comfortable clothes for the humid conditions.

Things to Do

Discovering the natural wonders of Far North Queensland is a priority for most visitors to Cairns, but there's plenty more to see and do. From soaking up the sun on the city's gorgeous beaches to checking out museums and eating incredible food, this little gem punches well above its weight.

  • Snorkel or dive on the Great Barrier Reef. There are dozens of ways to experience the world's largest coral reef, depending on the time you have available, your interests and your budget. A day trip to Green Island is a great option for beginners, while honeymooners and luxury travelers may opt for a stay on one of the region's tropical islands.
  • Explore the Daintree Rainforest. Cairns is world-famous as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, but did you know it boasts a second UNESCO World Heritage natural site? This ancient rainforest is divided into two sections, Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation. Start your adventure at the Daintree Discovery Centre.
  • Get to know the Atherton Tablelands, the food bowl of Far North Queensland. The town of Kuranda is a great place to begin, thanks to the scenic railway and cablecar that connect it with Cairns. If you have your own transport, you can get off the beaten track at Millstream Falls, the Undara Lava Tubes, the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves, or the Misty Mountains wilderness trails.

Explore more attractions with our full-length articles on the top things to do in Cairns, best beaches, the best day trips and the best museums.

What to Eat and Drink

With its tropical weather and long agricultural history, Cairns is home to an impressive and often surprising dining scene. Global influences from Bali to France mix with a local coffee obsession to produce dozens of cafes and restaurants well worth a visit.

As a popular backpacker destination, Cairns has long been known for laid-back pubs and hostel bars, which are often crowded with young people partying into the early hours of the morning. In recent years, a crop of sophisticated cocktail bars and excellent gastropubs has also developed, meaning this city has something to offer every kind of traveler.

Check out our complete guides to which foods to try, the best restaurants and the best bars for all the details.

People hanging out in the water at the Esplanade
TripSavvy / Alisha McDarris

Where to Stay

Cairns is a sprawling city nestled in between a mountain range and the coast, with accommodation options ranging from five-star resorts to affordable Airbnbs. With a population of just over 160,000, Cairns has just two main options for visitors to choose between when deciding where to stay.

If you're looking for a beach vacation, you'll likely end up in one of the upmarket enclaves north of Cairns, like Palm Cove or Port Douglas. As mentioned above, there are also some incredible accommodation options on the islands that are dotted throughout the Great Barrier Reef.

On the other hand, if you'd rather be close to all the action, the city center has restaurants, museums, the lagoon and a pretty esplanade all within walking distance. Almost all reef tours and cruises leave from the Cairns Marina in the heart of town. Here, you'll find cozy bed-and-breakfasts, international hotel chains, and backpacker hostels spread across a couple of blocks.

Check out our recommendations for the best hotels in Cairns in this full-length guide.

Getting There

Unless you're planning on driving the 1,400 miles up the coast from Sydney, you'll arrive to Cairns via Cairns Airport (CNS). The airport is a 10-minute drive north of the city and offers connections to all Australian capital cities (except Hobart), as well as Bali, Singapore, Shenzhen, Osaka, Tokyo, Port Moresby, and Auckland. There are also long-haul bus companies that connect Cairns with cities further south.

A one-way taxi or ride-share trip from the airport to the city center will cost between AU$25 to $30. Some shuttle services are also available to nearby hotels. Renting a car can be an affordable and easy way to travel further around Queensland.

Culture and Customs

Cairns is located on the traditional lands of the Bama Aboriginal rainforest people. British colonization began around the 1860s, with Cairns developing rapidly as a tourist and agricultural hub from the mid-1900s. Today, the area is a safe and welcoming place to visit, with tourism making up just under 10 percent of the regional Queensland economy.

Tipping in Australia is completely voluntary. If you would like to tip for excellent service at a restaurant or hotel, feel free—about 10 percent is standard. Servers and other hospitality workers receive a relatively high minimum wage in Australia, so tipping is appreciated but not essential.

Money Saving Tips

Due to its geographic isolation, Cairns is one of the most expensive cities in Australia to visit. You will likely need to pay for at least one tour (to visit the Great Barrier Reef), on top of already pricey food and accommodation. However, there are a couple of easy ways to manage your budget while visiting Far North Queensland.

  • Eating out is a significant expense in Cairns. The Woolworths supermarket in the city center is conveniently located with snacks, sandwiches, drinks and even ready-to-eat meals for sale. There are also free BBQs and picnic areas along the Esplanade that anyone can use.
  • As the final stop for many road-trippers, Cairns is a great place to pick up cars or camper vans that need to be relocated back south at a discount price. Contact local rental agencies directly for up-to-date information.
  • Entry to both the Cairns Art Gallery and the Cairns Botanic Gardens is free. There are also often free activities happening at the Esplanade.
Article Sources
TripSavvy uses only high-quality, trusted sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. "Wet Tropics of Queensland."

  2. Cairns Regional Council. "Facts, Figures, & History."

  3. Cairns Regional Council. "First Peoples' Information." 

  4. Tourism and Events Queensland. "Regional Tourism Satellite Accounts 2017-18: Tropical North Queensland Key Facts." 

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