Cairns Travel Guide 2024
Updated: Nov 28
Cairns is a popular place to stay for backpackers, families, and divers alike. It is the launch point for the Great Barrier Reef, and there are a ton of gorgeous sites to see in the area.
Cairns is more of a home base for visiting North Queensland. A lot of the activities are outside of the small town, but the town still has cute restaurants, bars, and cafes for when you need a day off. We visited for a week which was helpful when booking because we had more options and could change our plans based on the weather.
Unlike in the cities or along most of the East Coast, Cairns feels very untamed. It is where you will see the largest spiders of your life. There are tons of bugs in general. When visiting certain areas you will be warned about crocodiles, jellyfish, and other wildlife. At the time I thought this was scary, but now I think it was fun and exciting. Mother Nature is in charge of North Queensland, not humans.
My guide to visiting Cairns::
When To Visit Cairns
Australian autumn and winter (May-September) is the best time to visit Cairns. This is true for all of North Queensland. At this time of year it is still sunny and warm. Most of the activities you’ll do in Cairns are outdoors, so the weather can really make a difference.
During Australian summer (December-March), this whole region is unbearably warm and humid. Summer is the wet season in North Queensland, so it will also rain most days.
November to May is also jellyfish season in Cairns, and September to April is when crocodiles are the most dangerous. While tours are aware of the dangerous wildlife, the jellyfish and crocodiles will still impact what you can and can’t do while traveling North Queensland.
What to Pack for Cairns
Birkenstocks - You’ll want open-toed shoes for activities like Great Barrier Reef and Palm Cove. However, on the boat or in other contexts you’ll want something a bit sturdier than normal flip flops. Birkenstocks are a must-have in Australia in general. Everyone on the East Coast wears them and for good reason.
Dramamine - Absolute must-have for the Great Barrier Reef. The boat ride out to the Reef is incredibly rocky and most people get sick. Dramamine may make you drowsy. If you’re planning on scuba diving and need to listen to the presentation, opt for a non-drowsy brand.
Electrolytes - It’s quite warm in Cairns and you’ll be spending most of your day outside.
Sunscreen with SPF 50+ - Because of the hole in the ozone layer, the UV in Australia is the highest in the world. I don’t burn easily, but I got a burn or two during the summer.
Bug spray - You’ll especially need bug spray when visiting the rainforests or botanical gardens. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying sunscreen before bug spray, because chemicals like DEET can make your sunscreen up to 30% less effective. You should also apply sunscreen more often than bug spray.
Backpack - Unlike Melbourne or other areas of Australia, it is not tote bag season in Cairns. You’ll want a backpack so you can be more mobile during your outdoor adventures.
Things To Do
Great Barrier Reef
Obviously, you have to go to the Great Barrier Reef while in Cairns.
While we initially went because it was one of those must-do's, the Great Barrier Reef was one of my highlights in Australia. It was a magical day with colorful fish, beautiful reef, and lots of sunshine. I even saw two turtles and Emma saw a shark. We made friends with other people on our boat, tanned on the roof between snorkeling sessions, and just had a great day.
The boat ride out to the reef is going to be rough. Definitely take some sort of anti-nausea medication before the boat starts moving and don't look at the back deck. However, once you get out there, it's smooth sailing. Also, drink as much water as possible. You'll be swimming a lot and the sun is pretty intense.
There are heaps of Great Barrier Reef Tours, but I recommend this one. Be sure to book your tour. Most people like to scuba dive, but if you have asthma or any other breathing conditions, you will only be allowed to snorkel. I was perfectly fine with this and still had a really lovely time. It's also a bit less stressful when you just snorkel, and you can really enjoy the reef.
The Botanical Gardens are a quick bus ride from Cairns Central, which is a nice alternative to the other, longer voyages you’ll make during your trip. The Botanical Gardens are stunning. The collection they have is really impressive and you could walk around in them for hours.
The Daintree Rainforest is the oldest rainforest in the world, with plants and trees dating back 180 million years. It’s really beautiful and impressive. On our trip out, we saw crocodiles, Cape Tribulation, and Mossman Gorge.
Palm Cove was a really lovely day trip from Cairns, and I would even recommend spending a night out there. It's a really peaceful town with cute restaurants, cafes, and bars. You can take a nice, long walk along the beach to the rocky areas.
While most of Cairns is hardcore traveling, Palm Cove has a real vacation vibe. You can lay under the palm trees during sunset and have an aperol spritz by the beach. It was a very calming day, which fit in nicely with our more action-packed adventures.
It's one of the only beaches in the area where you can actually swim in the ocean during that time of year. Make sure to stay in the nets because of crocodiles.
Kuranda is a rainforest town outside of Cairns. There are three ways to get there: the railway, the bus, and the Skyrail. We opted for the Skyrail and the bus, but nearly missed our return bus because we didn't have any cash. You can also book through a tour if you prefer not to deal with transportation logistics.
The Skyrail reminded me of the chalets you take in Switzerland to get up to the alps. There are stops along the way, and you can do rainforest walks as you work your way up the mountain. I recommend taking your time because this is one of the prettiest parts of the Kuranda day trip. Walk around and enjoy the views.
Once we got to Kuranda, we had a long lunch in a rainforest cafe and just walked around the town. There are also Koala Gardens and a butterfly sanctuary that you can visit while in town.
If you plan on taking the bus back, make sure you look up the schedule and bring cash!
Tips for Backpackers
Cairns is a very popular backpacker spot because Working Holiday Visa holders can do hospitality work in lieu of their 88 days of farm work. For such a small town, there are a ton of hostels and backpacker spots.
Gilligan's is the most popular hostel in Cairns and it also the town's biggest club. I would only stay here if you're really looking to party, but it seems loud and dirty. Also, in Cairns, so many day trips will require you to wake up early. You'll want your sleep
If you are looking to do your hospitality work in Cairns, it's better to look around winter. At the end of summer, most backpackers have made their way up the East Coast and are looking for work. It's really hard to find a job at that time.
Bring cash if you plan on taking public transportation. We got on a bus with no cash and had to beg the bus driver to let us on. Don't do that. Unlike in any other place in Australia, the public transportation does not take credit card or pay-by-tap.
Cairns is an expensive trip. Unless you have a car, you'll probably be booking long guided tours. These are not my favorite, but it's the only way to see a lot of the sites. If you find a group, I'd recommend renting a car.
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