Cairns vs the Gold Coast: Which Is Best?

Great Barrier Reef with boat from the sky

Ippei Naoi/Getty Images 

From one end of Queensland to the other, when comparing the Gold Coast and Cairns you’re comparing great waves to flat tropical water, endless high rises to stacks of backpacker hostels and theme parks to the Great Barrier Reef.

Just which city will make for an ideal getaway for you will depend on what you want from your holiday.

01 of 03

The Beautiful Gold Coast

Gold Coast sunrise
Mike Mackinven/Getty Images

When thinking ‘Gold Coast holiday’ most people automatically picture themselves in a high-rise apartment overlooking Surfers Paradise.

But, the Gold Coast has so much more to offer. Staying in the heart of the Glitter Strip will be beneficial if you’re without wheels, but if you’ll have a car you can expand your options and stay anywhere from Coolangatta to the Hinterland.

Gold Coast Beaches

Starting at the city’s southern-most suburb, Coolangatta is a stunning section of the Coast and home to some of the region’s best surf beaches including Duranbah and Snapper Rocks which hosts a stop on the world surf league tour at the start of each year. If you’re into all things retro, consider staying during the Cooly Rocks On Festival, which takes place each June.

Traveling Back in Time

For some laid-back living, your choice of hipster cafes and restaurants and more spectacular beaches, take your pick of Palm Beach, Currumbin, Miami and Burleigh Heads.

A cruise along the Gold Coast Highway through these suburbs will give you an insight into the old Gold Coast. Many of the old beach shacks are still standing and the ‘high rise’ hotels are mostly around 3-5 stories and reflective of 1980s décor. It’s here you’ll find Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, Surf World Gold Coast (surf museum) and Laguna Park (kids playground).

Shopping and Exploring

Continue north and you’ll start to see the buildings grow taller and taller. Broadbeach, Surfers Paradise, and Main Beach are bursting with accommodation, restaurants, attractions, and shopping. Pacific Fair Shopping Centre in Broadbeach has recently undergone a multi-million dollar transformation as did its neighbor, the Star Gold Coast Casino.

From the Skypoint Observation Deck to indoor sky-diving, Surfers Paradise has much more to offer than just the beach and nightclubs. It’s been working hard to shake-off its party persona and become more family-oriented. But, both worlds are co-existing at the moment so whatever you’re after, you’ll find it not far from Cavill Ave.

The city’s famous beaches finish at The Spit in Main Beach, with the Broadwater hugging Southport, Biggera Waters, and further north. There are still plenty of resorts, hotels and holiday houses to be found as well as outlet shopping and the amazing Broadwater Parklands.

Theme Parks – Get Your Adrenaline Fix!

When it comes to theme parks, the Gold Coast is Australia’s hub. You can choose from the thrills and spills of heart-stopping rides and waterpark at Dreamworld (in Coomera). Or grab a pass that allows you access to Warner Bros. Movie World, Sea World, Wet’n’Wild and Paradise Country. They’re open all year round and thanks to the Gold Coast’s great climate there is rarely a day when these attractions can’t be enjoyed.

The Hinterland

Away from the surf, sand and city, just a 30-minute drive west, you can swap the high rises and beaches for rainforest, waterfalls and quiet. Mount Tamborine is also home to a little village of quaint shops and cafes as well as brewery and lookouts that take in the entire Gold Coast.

If peace, tranquillity and absolute stunning natural wonders make you happy, be sure to check out Springbrook National Park. Again, it’s just a short drive from the heart of the Gold Coast, but is an entirely different world with a wide choice of lookouts, walking tracks, waterfalls and gorgeous retreats.

Continue to 2 of 3 below.
02 of 03

The Amazing City of Cairns

View of the beach with high rises and mountain sin the background a blue sky with clouds

TripSavvy / Alisha McDarris

Much like the Gold Coast, Cairns is sandwiched between gorgeous beaches and World Heritage listed national park. It is also, of course, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef

You’d be crazy to come here and not explore the world’s largest coral reef system. Whether you want to keep your feet dry and hop aboard a boat, or don the snorkel and get up close and personal with the marine life – there is a myriad of tours you can choose from.

There are also a bunch of islands just off the coast that you can check out for the day, or a stay. They include Fitzroy Island, Green Island and Hinchinbrook Island.

Far North Queensland Rainforest

From the sea to the trees, hold on to your hat (and your stomach) as you explore pristine rainforest from the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. The six-person gondola cabins take around 1.5 hours to travel 7.5kms across the dense Kuranda State Forest. You can choose from gondolas that feature a glass floor, or the Canopy Glider which is completely open air (not for the faint-hearted). It’s best to set aside at least half a day to make the most of the experience and spend time at the station stop-offs.

Just north of Cairns and Kuranda, you’ll find the world-renowned Daintree Rainforest which makes for a sensational day trip or overnight stay with plenty of tour and accommodation options. You’ll discover a huge array of wildlife from butterflies to crocodiles.

Australian History

Whether you’re a local, inter-state traveler or overseas tourist, put a visit to Tjapukai on your list for an incredible insight into Australia’s Indigenous culture. Performances run day and night, plus you get hands-on experiences with boomerang throwing, a bush food walk and can learn about the history of the Indigenous rainforest people, the Bama, through a corroboree.

Shopping and Exploring 

All holidays need some downtime, otherwise, you’ll return home feeling like you need another break.

For a quiet day around the city, be sure to check the Saturday Esplanade market where you can pick up a perfect memento of your trip, or gift for someone back home. There is also the monthly Holloways Beach Market and Rusty’s Markets which runs from Friday to Sunday each week and is a great way to stock up on amazing local produce if you’re staying in a holiday house or self-contained apartment.

Other worthwhile attractions include the Cairns Esplanade, Botanic Gardens, Trinity Inlet and you’ll never go hungry with a city full of amazing restaurants, cafes, and bars.

Continue to 3 of 3 below.
03 of 03

Which City to Choose

Gold Coast
Airphoto Australia/Getty Images

When it comes to seeing Australia at its best, it’s hard to go past Cairns. It still holds on to our country’s rich history, through both Indigenous culture and natural wonder, and serves as an access point to some of the country’s most incredible and world-renowned natural wonders.

It may not lay claim to Australia’s theme park capital, like the Gold Coast, but it’s unlikely the kids will be bored when in Cairns, they have so much to explore and learn at the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef!

If a little less history and a little more glitz and glam is your style, then consider adding the Gold Coast and its world-class beaches to your itinerary.

Of course in the best of both worlds, you’d be able to visit both locations! If you opt for a double-header, just be sure to allocate enough travel time between the two (it’s around a three-hour flight between Cairns and the Gold Coast) and plan to spend at least 4-5 days in each city, to get the most out of your destinations!