Cairns is Australia’s gateway to northern Queensland. Whether you are backpacking around the region, looking to dive, want to visit the forests, or are heading deeper inland, Cairns is a worthwhile stop on everyone’s list.
From here you can visit the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree rainforest, the Atherton Tablelands, Cape Tribulation, and much more.
Cairns is a pretty typical tropical city, and life here focuses on taking the time to stop and smell the roses. With so much to see, the city deserves a longer stay than most people give it.
I would stay for around four days in the city (unless you plan to do a lot of day tours, then obviously, you’ll need more time), which will give you enough time to explore the area, plus spend some time lounging by the awesome city pool, and then head off into the other parts of the region to explore deeper.
You don’t need a lot of time to visit Cairns but it does make for a good base of operations for day (or overnight) trips to the interior or further north. (And spend at least a few nights traveling up there. There are fewer crowds. It’s really an under-appreciated part of the country.)
This travel guide to Cairns can help you plan your trip so you get the most out of your visit by helping you plan what to see, where to stay, get a sense of costs, and learn how to save while there.
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Cairns
1. See the Great Barrier Reef
2. Explore the Daintree Rainforest
3. Visit Cape Tribulation
4. Do extreme sports
5. See the Atherton Tablelands
Other Things to See and Do in Cairns
1. Visit the Cairns Wildlife Dome
This wildlife exhibit is located in a 20m-tall glass dome on top of the Reef Hotel Casino. The dome is host to a wide range of native animals, from lorikeets and rosellas to frogmouths and kookaburras. They also have an indoor rope course with rope ladders and bridges that let you explore the space. You can also zipline over a crocodile pond. Admission 25 AUD ($19 USD).
2. Hang out by the lagoon
Spend a few hours relaxing by Cairns’ Lagoon (read: really big pool) when the weather is nice. You can’t go swimming in the water off the city because of jellyfish so the town built a giant pool! Most hostels have pools too but if you want to chill at a bigger place, the lagoon is pretty amazing — and you’ll find more locals around. It’s a good place to soak up the sun with a book. Admission is free.
3. Go white water rafting
There are two main rafting rivers that are all popular among adrenaline junkies in Cairns. In a tropical region that gets plenty of rain, the rivers are always overflowing, and rafting is a popular activity here. Trips include lunch and start at around 130 AUD ($98 USD). There are also tubing trips down the rivers too.
4. Participate in an Aboriginal culture walk
There are many Aboriginals in the area, and they have done a great job of setting up an eco-tourism area. You can walk with them and learn about their culture, history, plant life, traditional herbal medicine, and even go traditional Aboriginal spearfishing. Tours range from 200-300 AUD ($150-225 USD) for a full-day excursion.
5. Try wake boarding
When you get tired of sightseeing, head to the Cairns Wake Park to try wakeboarding. Various jumps and challenges are set up to keep you entertained for a few hours. I declined to do it but my friends looked like they were having a great time. It’s 40 AUD ($30 USD) for a one-hour pass. There’s also a section where kids can play in the water on trampolines and inflatable slides.
6. Meander through the Botanical Gardens
Just 5 minutes from the airport, this is a lovely stop to make on your way out of Cairns. There are several paths to walk along and the garden is rich in trees, ferns, plants, and a lake.
7. Relax at Palm Cove
This suburb of the city is around 27km north of Cairns and is home to a lovely stretch of beach. Come here to relax, swim, and escape the city. There’s a nice path along the water where you can stroll and lots of upscale places to eat. It makes for a good place to spend half a day when you want to relax and take in the feel of the city.
For more information on specific cities in Australia, check out these guides:
Cairns Travel Costs
Hostel prices – Dorm rooms are quite cheap in Cairns, ranging from 16-30 AUD ($12-22 USD) per night. Private rooms start at 50 AUD ($38 USD) and go as high as 100 AUD ($75 SD). Free Wi-Fi is standard and most hostels also include free breakfast.
If you have a tent, you can camp outside the city for under 10 AUD ($7.50 USD) per night for a basic plot without electricity.
Budget hotel prices – Budget hotels start around 100 AUD ($75 USD). Most offer air-conditioning and free Wi-Fi and some include breakfast.
On Airbnb, privates start at 50 AUD ($38 USD) but average closer to 100 AUD ($75 USD). For an entire home/apartment, expect to pay at least 150 AUD ($113 USD).
Average cost of food – Popular food here is similar to elsewhere in the country. Chicken and lamb are two main staples, with things like burgers, steak, and prawns following close behind. BBQ is super common, and in restaurants, you can usually find all kinds of pasta and seafood dishes as well.
Cheap meals like sandwiches can be found for under 14 AUD ($10 USD). Most restaurant meals will cost between 25-40 AUD ($19-30 USD). Fast food like McDonald’s costs around 12 AUD ($9 USD) for a combo meal. For a three-course meal with a drink at a restaurant, expect to pay at least 50 AUD ($38 USD). For something like Indian or Chinese food, expect to pay 20-25 AUD ($15-19 USD) for a meal.
Beer costs around 5 AUD ($3.75). Bottled water is around 2.75 AUD ($2 USD).
If you cook your own food, plan to spend between 60-80 AUD ($45-60 USD) per week for basic groceries like pasta, vegetables, chicken, and other basic foodstuffs.
Backpacking Cairns Suggested Budgets
How much does it cost to visit Cairns? On a backpacker budget, you can do it for 75-90 AUD per day. This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel dorm or camping, cooking almost all of your meals, limiting your drinking, taking the bus, and doing one or two paid tours but mostly sticking to mostly free activities. If you Couchsurf and cut down your drinking even more, you could lower this by about 30 AUD per day.
On a mid-range budget of about 215 AUD per day or more, you’ll be able to stay in a budget hotel or Airbnb, eat out at cheaper restaurants, afford a few nights out, and more tours. You’ll be able to do everything you want within reason.
On a “luxury” budget of 420 AUD or more, you can stay in an upscale hotel, eat anywhere you want, rent a car to get around, and do as many activities as you want like bungee jumping or diving the Great Barrier Reef, and enjoy as many nights out as you want.
What really drives up the cost of visiting Cairns is not accommodation, food, or drinks. It’s the activities. Diving, bungee jumps, day tours — they are not cheap here and the more you do, the more your daily average will go up. Limit those and you can easily visit Cairns on a budget.
Here’s a chart with some suggested budgets to help you plan. Prices are in AUD:
Cairns Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
The best way to save money in Carins is to avoid taking lots of expensive tours and trips. If you do that, you’ll save a lot. However, there are other ways to lower your costs in this city too. Here are some ways to save in Cairns:
- Buy a package deal – There is a lot to see and do in the area that can really be a drag on your budget. Try booking tours together with one company can get you a slight discount. Many hostels also have deals so ask them too!
- Eat cheap – Eating out can be very expensive, however, there are a lot of sandwich shops around that can keep your costs down. Avoid the sit-down restaurants, and instead, grab a sandwich or pack a lunch for a picnic.
- Couchsurf – Accommodation in Australia can be quite pricey. If you plan ahead, you can usually find a Couchsurfing host. This way, you not only have a place to stay, but you’ll have a local host that can tell you the best places to go and things to see.
- Drink goon (box wine) – Goon is infamous on the Australian backpacker hostel trail. This cheap box of wine is the best way to drink, get a buzz, and save a lot of money at the same time.
- Cook your own meals – Again, eating out is not cheap. The best way to reduce your costs is to cook as many meals as possible.
- Work for your room – Many hostels offer travelers the chance to work for their accommodation. In exchange for a few hours a day of cleaning, you get a free bed. Commitments vary but most hostels ask you to stay for at least a week.
- Save money on rideshares – Uber is way cheaper than taxis and is the best way to get around a city if you don’t want to wait for a bus or pay for a taxi.
- Bring a water bottle – The tap water in Australia is drinkable so bring a reusable water bottle to save money and lower your plastic use. Lifestraw makes durable water bottles with built-in filters to ensure your water is always safe and clean.
Where To Stay in Cairns
Looking for a great place to stay? Here are some of my favorite spots in Cairns:
How to Get Around Cairns
Bus – Cairns has a good public bus system run by Translink that will take you just about anywhere you need to go. A single ticket fare for one zone is 4.90 AUD ($3.70 USD), and the prices increase per number of zones you travel.
To save money, get a Go Card. It’s an electronic pre-paid ticket that will save you at least 1.50 AUD ($1.15 USD) per ride. You need to put 20 AUD ($15 USD) on it but if you are visiting for a few days you’ll get your money’s worth. You can also get a day pass with unlimited travel for 10 AUD ($7.60 USD).
Bicycle – Cairns has an excellent network of cycling paths and circuits, with some of the most popular routes being the Esplanade, Centenary Lakes, and the Botanic Gardens. Some of the hostels rent out bicycles, or you can rent from Cairns Scooter & Bicycle Hire. Rentals start from 15 AUD ($11.25 USD) per day.
Taxis – Taxis are expensive and I would avoid them. Many of the hostels outside the city center offer free shuttle service in town at regular intervals. Uber is available here as well and is a little cheaper than the regular taxis so use it instead. If you do need a taxi, they start at 3 AUD ($2.25 USD) and go up by 2.25 AUD ($.170 USD) per kilometer.
When to Go to Cairns
Cairns’ location in North Queensland makes for hot, humid summers and dry, mild winters. The average maximum temperature is 84.2°F (29°C), making Queensland a great place to visit year-round.
Summer (from December to February) is the wettest time of year, and average temperatures are between 75-89°F (25-31°C). It’s still nice and warm in the autumn months (March to May), and the rain lets up in April. This is also the busiest time of the year since Australian summer is when most people visit the country.
Winter (June to August) is peak season in Cairns. The temperatures are slightly cooler (averaging 63-78°F/17-26°C), and there is low rainfall. If you’re trying to escape the cold northern hemisphere, this is the time to come. But if your primary goal is to visit the Great Barrier Reef, spring (September to November) is the best time to visit. The reef really comes to life in November during the annual coral spawning.
How to Stay Safe in Cairns
Cairns is an incredibly safe place to backpack and travel — even if you’re traveling solo or a solo female traveler. Violent attacks are rare. People are nice and helpful and you’re unlikely to get into trouble.
Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, change it. Make copies of your personal document and forward your itinerary along to someone so they’ll know where you are.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it when you’re in Cairns. Follow that rule and you’ll be fine.
Most incidents in Cairns tend to occur because visitors are not used to the region’s unique climate and wilderness. Be sure you have plenty of sunscreen and stay as hydrated as possible. Carry mosquito spray as there is a risk of Dengue Fever. If you’re swimming in the ocean between November to May, only swim where there is a beach stinger net otherwise you risk getting stung by jellyfish.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Cairns Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
Below are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Cairns. They are included here because they consistently turn up the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are always my starting point when I need to book a flight, hotel, tour, train, or meeting people!
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments. The big cities have tons of listings!
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Australia, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- Rome2Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. Just enter your departure and arrival destinations and it will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost. One of the best transportation website out there!
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Cairns Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Cairns Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
In A Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is one of the most prolific and recognized names in travel writing. This book chronicles a journey through Australia and takes you from east to west, through tiny little mining towns, forgotten coastal cities, and off-the-beaten-path forests. Bryson includes lots of trivia in his tale as he travels around in awe — and sometimes in fear (thanks to box jellyfish, riptides, crocs, spiders, and snakes) — of this enormous country. This is the book that inspired me to go to Australia.
A Long Way From Home, by Peter Carey
Irene Bob loves to drive fast, and her husband is the best car salesman in southeastern Australia. Together they decide to enter the 1954 Redex Trial – an endurance drive that circumnavigates the entire country. Willie Bachhuber, a failed schoolteacher, joins them. If they win their lives will be forever changed — but first, they’re led out of the comfortable Australia they know so well and into an unexpected adventure full of twists and turns. Peter Carey is a two-time Booker Prize winner, and one of Australia’s most well-known writers.
Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback, by Robyn Davidson
This is Robyn Davidson’s memoir of her incredible journey 1,700 miles through the Australian desert to the sea, accompanied only by four camels and a dog. Davidson fends off sweltering heat, poisonous snakes, and dangerous men — all while wrangling her temperamental camels. It’s definitely one of those transformative stories that allows you to get super invested in the author as well as the severe Australian desert landscape.
The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin
You can’t come to Australia without learning a little bit about the country’s Indigenous Australians. This is part travelogue and part autobiography, and one of Chatwin’s most famous books. Here, Chatwin searches the Australian Outback for the source of the Aboriginal “dreaming tracks,” the invisible pathways from which the Aboriginals’ ancestors sang the world into existence. The Songlines was an instant best-seller when it was published, and nowadays it’s a classic.
Cairns Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on Australia travel and continue planning your trip: