Beyond the Great Barrier Reef: 6 things to do in Cairns

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Cairns is most famous as a jumping off point for trips to the Great Barrier Reef, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. It’s one of the World’s Great Wonders, a global treasure, and sadly unlikely to last much longer.

But not everybody loves swimming and diving, or even wildlife viewing from above the waves. The good news is Cairns has plenty to do that doesn’t involve the Great Barrier Reef. A lot of it’s even inexpensive compared to similar attractions elsewhere in Australia, since they know they’re not the most popular game in town.

Cairns is full of activities and experiences to be had, no matter how long you stay or how wet you get. Start your journey by arranging your flight using flight search to save more on getting there so you can spoil yourself on what you find in Cairns. If you’re staying a while, package your flights with our car and hotel deals to get the best possible rates for your Cairns trip.

Plan your trip

So whether you’re looking to dive, or just want to stay inland and dry, here are our favorite Cairns attractions for all types of travelers.

1. Cafe in style on Grafton & Spence Streets

photo credit: @lavaunalu
photo credit: @lavaunalu

Coffee culture is alive and well in Cairns, especially along Grafton and Spence. You can choose from simple coffee shops to get your morning motor running, or sit down for a full breakfast of practically any kind. Al fresco dining makes for a pleasant start in the balmy climate, and for fun, people-watching if you just want to sip while passing through.

2. Tour Kuranda

Kuranda Scenic Railway

Kuranda is a quirky arts village in the highland rain forest, picturesque in the extreme and flooded with parrots and butterflies in jewel tones. Check out crafts and artworks in a variety of styles, made by locals-in-residence, browse galleries and take in the vibe of the place. Experts say to get there via the Kuranda Scenic Railway and return via the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, for a pair of 90-plus-minute views of lush jungle, sheer mountains and cascading waterfalls.

3. Trek the Daintree Rainforest

photo credit: @waxedwookiee
photo credit: @waxedwookiee

The Daintree Rainforest is the largest tropical rainforest in Australia and the world’s oldest primary growth (a ripe old 135 million), and close enough to make a day trip of the experience. You can trek kilometers of trails, cruise the river, or just drive to Cape Tribulation to enjoy the meeting of green rainforest and blue ocean, along a border of bright white sand. Wildlife spotting opportunities range from birds and bugs of all descriptions, to tree kangaroos and cassowaries to crocodiles. If you crave more than just an out-and-back excursion, a variety of eco lodges offer a place to rest between expeditions.

4. Drive to Mossman Gorge and the Atherton Tableland

photo credit: @reubennutt
photo credit: @reubennutt

These twin natural adventures do not disappoint. The Atherton Tableland rests 1000 meters above sea level and hosts quaint little towns between lush, waterfall-spotted jungle roads. Mossman Gorge takes the low road, with even more waterfalls and access to gorgeous beaches. Don’t try to do both in one day, but either is a good day trip on its own. Don’t miss the Mossman Gorge Center, an ecological and cultural tourism experience focusing on the Kuku Yalanji. The most fun you’ll have at Atherton is probably the Tarzali Lakes platypus park, which is exactly what it sounds like.

5. Get extreme

photo credit: @fredriklindeborg
photo credit: @fredriklindeborg

Scuba isn’t the only way in Cairns to get unforgettable perspectives while upping your adrenaline load. Hang-gliding and skydiving with views of the Great Barrier Reef are on the menu from a variety of vendors. The nearby Tully River offers what’s considered by many to be the most exciting whitewater rafting action on the continent. AJ Hackett’s offers bunjee jumping, while “tamer” options like quadding and horseback riding are easy to find. Get wild all day, then spend the evening in a local pub telling the divers where they can find the real action.

6. Stroll and shop the Esplanade

photo credit: @andyparksy
photo credit: @andyparksy

The Cairns Saturday Esplanade is nothing new to experienced travelers: it’s a promenade of market stalls offering jewelry, clothing, lotions, notions, souvenirs and food to all who care to come. Set in this borderland between jungle and water, and bustling with tourists from one hundred countries and all lifestyles, it is unique in its own way. You can stroll it for the vibe, or go shopping with gusto, or anything in between. Like the name suggests, it runs Saturdays. Check out Palm Cove for Friday shopping or Tanks Market for between the weekend sprees.

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Beyond the Great Barrier Reef: 6 things to do in Cairns was last modified: June 27th, 2019 by Jason Brick
Author: Jason Brick (5 posts)

Freelance writer, work-from home dad, ninja warrior and occasional gourmet cook. Writing is what I do, and my family is why I do it.