The Getaway
Explore Cairns and More for the Trip of a Lifetime

Be prepared for Far North Queensland to enthrall you. A laidback city like Cairns used to be swampy and overlooked but has transformed since the Great Barrier Reef began popping up on countless bucket lists. You'll find accommodation to suit every budget and similarly varied dining options. There's so much to do, whether you're fresh off a cruise ship and have a day or are planning a leisurely stay. Have a look at some of our curated highlights.

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01 Explore the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef is the centerpiece of any North Queensland itinerary. It's the biggest coral reef system in the world, and you can immerse yourself in its sights and sounds with a catamaran trip to the Low Isles. Whet your appetite at Reef Teach. The crash course in marine life will give you a deeper appreciation of the underwater creatures you'll encounter.

A green sea turtle underwater on a coral reef. Brett Monroe Garner / Getty Images

02 Visit Kuranda

You can spend a fantastic day in Kuranda north of Cairns, and half the fun will be getting to and from the village. The Kuranda Scenic Railway journey into the mountains is breathtaking, and you can descend via the eco-conscious Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Kuranda riverboat cruises and gondolas are popular, and you can expect to see turtles in the shallows and an abundance of tree species. Kuranda also offers visitors views of Barron Falls, a market, and a taste of ancient Aboriginal life at Rainforestation.

Kuranda Scenic Railway Rounding a bend on top of a bridge in the tropical north of Queensland Australia chameleonseye / Getty Images

03 Charter a helicopter

Spread your wings on a 45-minute chopper tour—it's a luxury experience you might want to save up for. You'll get a unique perspective of the colorful Great Barrier Reef, Daintree's tree tops, and Barron Falls, and you might even spot some crocs upon take-off. If you're in the mood to splurge, you can opt to land somewhere like Vlasoff Cay in the Coral Sea for a memorable, ultra-private picnic on white sands. Nautilus Aviation is a safe bet.

aerial view of whitsunday beach from the helicopter franckreporter / Getty Images

04 Savor the food scene

Australia's foodie scene is world-renowned, and Cairns doesn't disappoint. There's all the seafood goodness you would expect from a coastal town at rustic spots like Prawn Star and more refined places like Ochre. The latter heroes indigenous ingredients in spectacular fashion. There are also local favs like the ramen and iced tea at Ganbaranba or the kangaroo and crocodile satay at Dundee's if you're feeling adventurous.

05 Chase the cascades

There's no shortage of waterfalls in tropical Far North Queensland. Close to Cairns, you have two standouts to fit into your schedule. There's Crystal Cascades, beloved by locals for its swimming holes. Here, you can stick to frolicking in the water or do a steep three-hour walking trail before submerging yourself in the natural pools. There's also Josephine Falls in Wooroonooran National Park, an hour south of the city.

Section of the river at the Josephine Falls near Cairns in the northeast of Australia Flurin Seglias / Getty Images

06 Soak up the culture

Visit the Tanks Art Centre for contemporary art exhibitions or concerts, or spend some time at one of the many galleries and museums highlighting the rich customs and traditions of Australia's original people. You'll come away with a greater sense of the land, its impact on humans, and vice versa. St. Monica's Cathedral, with its large, themed, stained-glass windows, is worth checking out.

07 Take in the local attractions

It's easy to dismiss a city's botanical gardens or aquariums, but these attractions concentrate the local flora and fauna in one destination and give visitors a good insight into a city's natural bounty. Here, the botanical gardens showcase the plants used by Aboriginal people and a Gondwana Heritage Garden. The multi-million dollar aquarium is a microcosm of the Great Barrier Reef and features billabong ecology too. There's also a 5D submarine simulator.

08 Seek family-friendly thrills

If you love animals and want to get your heart racing, there's a good chance you'll enjoy Cairns ZOOM and Wildlife Dome. There's something for all ages, and you may find that one trip is not enough. You can hang out with koalas and snakes, do a free fall from a tower, zipline over a massive croc, watch animal feedings or climb ropes.

09 Head for Daintree National Park

Set off early or book a stay in this special place two hours north of Cairns. The road trip is excellent, and the rainforest itself holds many secrets. Daintree Rainforest is World-heritage listed—it's the oldest tropical rainforest on earth, and you can observe animals with lengthy histories, such as cassowaries. Go jungle surfing or learn more about Mossman Gorge and the Kuku Yalanji with Ngadiku Dreamtime Walks. You can also do a self-guided walk over the Rex Creek suspension bridge. Be sure to explore Cape Tribulation north of the Daintree River.

Daintree National Park, Queensland, Australia AustralianCamera / Getty Images

10 Kick back at the lagoons

Cairns Lagoon at sunrise

Cairns Esplanade is a highlight. The lagoon is safe for swimming, unlike others that may be home to saltwater crocs, and the huge saltwater pool has eagle-eyed lifeguards to watch over kids. Free fitness sessions are common, and there's loads for the young and young at heart to do on and around the boardwalk. The beach at Palm Cove is fab, too.

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