Since the '80s, Cairns has become a popular base for tourists visiting the Great Barrier Reef and the rest of Far North Queensland. The most striking thing you'll notice when you fly into this small city (and you will likely need to fly, as it is a 26-hour drive north of Sydney), is the lush, green rainforest and the sparkling Coral Sea—but there's plenty of incredible food to eat in Cairns, too.
Unsurprisingly, it's a great spot to feast on fresh seafood, locally-raised beef, and tropical fruit. Thanks to northern Australia's proximity to Asia, you'll also find excellent Japanese, Malaysian, and Indian cuisine, as well as local delicacies like emu, kangaroo, and crocodile. Read on for our guide to the must-try foods during your visit to Cairns.
First things first: You'll never catch an Australian putting a shrimp on the barbie. Down Under, they're called prawns, and you can get them grilled, fresh, or battered at every self-respecting seafood restaurant in Cairns.
King prawns, Banana prawns, and Tiger prawns are all great choices—but be sure to keep an eye out for the elusive and distinctively sweet Endeavour, which comes in red and blue varieties and can only be caught in the warm waters of northern Australia. Endeavours are well-matched with strong flavors, like those found in laksas, paellas, and spicy dipping sauces.
Far North Queensland's tropical climate means you'll find an abundance of foods here that aren't grown in the rest of the country. From bananas and mangos to avocados, passionfruit, papaya, dragonfruit, and rambutan, you'll never be short of fresh fruit in Cairns.
Many of these sweet treats are available in supermarkets or direct from the farm all year round, but mango season only lasts from October to May. You can pack a piece of fruit for a big day of exploring the region's natural wonders, or consume them in a cocktail by the beach or pool.
If you've spent time in other Australian cities before visiting Cairns, you'll know that many of the country's top restaurants are inspired by Asian cuisines. Over the past 50 years, the Japanese Australian community in Queensland has grown to more than 30,000 people, and with Tokyo only an eight-hour flight away from Cairns, tourism between the two countries is also increasing.
This cultural exchange (and the great seafood from the Coral Sea) has resulted in some amazing Japanese restaurants popping up in Cairns, from top-notch sushi to hearty, budget-friendly ramen that's perfect for a hungry traveler.
Queensland produces almost half of Australia's beef. Many of the premium, grass-fed cuts in Cairns steakhouses come from the nearby Atherton Tablelands region, where the volcanic soils and pleasant climate make for ideal agricultural conditions.
Wagyu and Black Angus steaks dominate local menus, and are best served medium rare with sides like roast veggies or Mediterranean salad. If you're craving even more protein, try the "surf and turf," also known locally as "reef and beef."
With twice as many 'roos on the continent as people, eating the national animal makes sense for many Australians. Kangaroo meat is similar to beef, but is typically leaner and milder in taste.
Kangaroos are also praised for their low environmental impact, as they use much less water than sheep or cattle farming and produce minimal methane. Once seen as a last resort, kangaroo is now served at many fine dining restaurants and is regularly stocked on supermarket shelves.
Aussies are perhaps even more obsessed with laksa than ramen, and this noodle soup is a great way to enjoy Cairns' delicious seafood. With dozens of variations made across Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, there are two main types of laksa: one with a spicy coconut curry broth, and one with a sour asam broth. The curry version is more common in Cairns, and is often accompanied by prawns, chicken, or fish.
Also known as Asian sea bass, barramundi is one of Australia's favorite types of white fish to eat. It is known for its light flavor and versatility, and shows up in dishes like pasta, ceviche, fish tacos, and chowder. Barramundi also has the highest Omega-3 content of any white fish, making it a tasty and healthy option.
Some barramundi served in Australia is imported from Southeast Asia, so keep an eye out for fish labeled "Australian" for the freshest taste.
While some cities chase the perfect pizza, Cairns is all about fresh, handmade pasta. Pasta was brought to Far North Queensland in the late 1800s by Italian immigrants, many of whom found jobs in the sugarcane industry around Cairns.
These early immigrants were largely from Sicily and other parts of Southern Italy, and they readily incorporated local seafood and vegetables into traditional recipes. When choosing your pasta in Cairns, we recommend a tomato-based sauce with shellfish for the most emblematic dish.
Korean cuisine is a little less established in Australia than Japanese or Italian, but this colorful rice dish is a real crowd pleaser. Literally translated as "mixed rice," bibimbap is usually topped with refreshing vegetables that are ideal for Cairns' sweltering weather.
Head to the center of town, between Shield Street and Spence Street, for a smorgasbord of the city's best Asian food.
In Cairns, you'll find French classics like soufflé and confit duck at fine dining restaurants, especially those at luxury hotels and resorts. Confit is a traditional preservation method that involves cooking and keeping duck (or another meat) in its rendered fat. This slow process helps to create the melt-in-your-mouth textures and rich flavors that are at the heart of French cuisine.