In tropical northern Queensland, Cairns is better known for its natural wonders than its cultural institutions. This city on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest is a popular base for scuba divers and adventurous travelers keen to make the most of Australia's great outdoors.
However, there are still some interesting local museums to check out during your visit. If you're feeling creative or just need an indoor activity during the wet season, the unique attractions on this list will provide plenty to see and do for visitors of all ages.
This relatively new art gallery (which opened in 1995) is Cairns' premier cultural center. The exhibitions often explore the city's place in the tropics and the creativity of the region's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Cairns Art Gallery hosts traveling exhibitions from Australia and overseas as well. It's open seven days a week inside a pretty 1930s-era government building.
Housed inside the former School of Arts in the heart of the city, the heritage-listed Cairns Museum is hard to miss. At the museum, visitors can explore four permanent exhibitions covering the history and culture of the city, which was founded in 1876 on the lands of the Yirrganydji people. The museum is closed Sundays.
Hou Wang Chinese Temple & Museum
Southwest of Cairns, the Hou Wang Taoist Temple was originally built in 1903 to serve a burgeoning Chinese population. The last remaining timber and iron Chinese temple in the country, much of it was fabricated in China and transported to Australia. It was donated to the National Trust of Australia after it fell out of use in the 1920s.
Today, the temple has been carefully preserved and now holds educational displays about Chinese culture in Far North Queensland.
The Australian Armour and Artillery Museum is the largest museum of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. This privately owned collection covers the period from the 1800s until the present day, with an emphasis on World War II.
After exploring the exhibits, you can buy a ticket for an armored vehicle ride (daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.). Or, purchase access to the specialized shooting gallery, which features a selection of bolt action rifles, including a WW2 British 303 and German Mauser. The museum is open daily and is located in Smithfield, just north of Cairns.
Specializing in rainforest art from the Cairns region and desert paintings from Central Australia, this art gallery has a huge collection of pieces available for purchase. Doongal Aboriginal Art is known for its complex symbolism, whose displayed works often reference the history, laws, and natural environment of the artists' culture.
Established in 1993, the gallery has represented well-known artists from across Australia, including Margaret Scobie, Minnie Pwerle, Gloria Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre, and Michael Nelson Tjakamarra. Open daily.
UnderArt is an eclectic commercial gallery, with abstract and contemporary works by Cairns-based artists alongside jewelry and sculptures. The accessible prices and hyper-local focus make UnderArt a great place to shop for souvenirs and gifts. The stylish tapas bar next door is run by the same owner and is also worth a visit.
While not technically a museum, the Cairns Aquarium is a must for anyone interested in the unusual aquatic life of the Wet Tropics and the Great Barrier Reef. With a focus on conservation and education, the aquarium is home to 16,000 animals from 10 different ecosystems and 71 habitats across Tropical North Queensland.
Alongside some beautiful tropical fish, you can see crocodiles, baby sharks, deadly jellyfish, and even the rare freshwater sawfish. Hands-on experiences such as the fish and stingray feeding are also available when you book in advance.
In the tiny town of Mourilyan, around an hour's drive south of Cairns, the Australian Sugar Heritage Centre is made up of the Australian Sugar Industry Museum and the Cassowary Coast Region Art Gallery.
The centre covers the significance of the sugar industry in tropical Queensland from the late 1800s until today. Here, you can learn about the practice of bringing in indentured laborers from the South Pacific islands to work the sugarcane fields, as well as the later arrival of Italian migrant workers. The Heritage Centre is open daily but closes at 1.30 p.m. on weekends.
Located a 30-minute drive south of Cairns, Mulgrave Settlers Museum is home to a significant collection of documents and artifacts relating to the history of the area, once known as Mulgrave Shire.
This museum is likely to be of interest to those with family or historical connections here. You'll find exhibits on the traditional owners of the land, followed by the arrival of white settlers and Chinese gold miners who populated the Mulgrave Shire from the late 1800s onwards.
An hour's drive west of Cairns in the Atherton Tablelands region, the picturesque town of Mareeba is the gateway to the Queensland outback. The little museum covers the town's history, accompanied by charming exhibits of rural memorabilia and a top-notch coffee shop. The Mareeba Heritage Museum is open seven days a week and entry is free.