Getting to Australia is on a lot of travel bucket lists. When you make it there, one of the must-do activities is seeing the Great Barrier Reef. The best place for having this incredible experience is Cairns in Tropical North Queensland.
Cairns is very different from Australia’s southern cities of Sydney and Melbourne. Check out this guide for everything you need to know before you plan your trip. We explain the best way to see the Great Barrier Reef, day trips from Cairns, where to stay, and the best time to go.
Getting to Cairns
If you travel to Cairns from outside of Australia, there are limited options for flying straight to Cairns from overseas. Direct flights to Cairns are from Singapore, Japan, and Auckland in New Zealand.
Most travelers will get to Cairns from within Australia. There are frequent direct flights from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide. If you have a trip to Uluru on your itinerary when you visit Australia, there are also direct flights between there and Cairns.
Internal flights around Australia can be expensive. It is worth having flights to Cairns booked in advance to get the cheapest fares.
If you have the time, you could also drive to Cairns. It is a great way to see more of Australia but remember, Australia is big! The drive from Sydney to Cairns is over 1600 miles. Even if you go from Brisbane, which is in the same state as Cairns, you are still looking at a drive of 1100 miles.
Weather in Cairns
Cairns has two distinct seasons. December to April is the wet or monsoon season. Expect high humidity, temperatures in the 90s, and periods of heavy rain. There is also no breeze. If you are not used to the conditions, they are uncomfortable.
May to September is a far more pleasant time of year. There is virtually no rain, and the humidity is lower thanks to seasonal trade winds. The average daytime temperature is a balmy 80 degrees.
Best Time to Visit Cairns
Given the contrast between the wet and dry seasons, you might think May to October is the best time to visit Cairns. As a rule, this is the case. Not only is the weather beautiful, but you also do not have to worry about marine stingers that are around in the wet season.
However, if your only option is to visit Cairns in the wet season, don’t worry. It is the best time to see the many waterfalls in the area. The lack of wind also makes going to the Great Barrier Reef a much calmer experience. The visibility on the outer reef is also excellent at this time of year.
Do You Need a Car in Cairns?
One of the great things about Cairns is that you can access many of the best attractions by day tours that pick you up from your accommodation.
Most of the Great Barrier Reef cruises leave from the Cairns Marina, close to the main accommodation precinct in Cairns.
However, hiring a car will let you see more of the region and do things in your own time. If you are staying in Cairns for a week or more, it is worth having a car for at least some of the time. There is a lot to do in nearby towns like Port Douglas and Mission Beach.
Many car rental agencies are based at Cairns Airport, making pick-up and drop-off very convenient.
How Long Do You Need in Cairns?
Cairns is best known as an access point to explore the incredible Great Barrier Reef and the ancient and beautiful Daintree Rainforest. If seeing these are your priority, allow 3 or 4 days to see them, maybe sneak in a trip to the rainforest village of Kuranda with its markets and wildlife and relax by the Lagoon Pool in the center of Cairns.
For a more complete experience, allow a week or more. You will have the time to try white water rafting in Tully, go crocodile spotting on the Daintree River, or spend a day at relaxed Mission Beach and spot a cassowary. You can also see less well-known spots like the swimming holes at Mossman Gorge and Behana Gorge.
Who Will Enjoy Cairns?
Cairns has something for everyone. The diversity of attractions will appeal to all sorts of travelers.
There is a big backpacker scene in Cairns. Solo travelers will have a fun and safe time too. Couples or honeymooners looking for an unforgettable romantic getaway can escape to tropical islands and rainforest hideaways. Traveling families have several child-friendly resorts to choose from. The rainforest cable cars, steam train rides, wildlife parks, and rock pools will keep kids entertained for days.
Is Cairns a Safe Place to Visit?
You should feel safe moving around attractions, restaurants, and cafes in Cairns. Greater risks to visitors come from the environment. From November to May, you should wear a stinger suit in the ocean for protection against jellyfish. These are provided by tour operators when you go to the Great Barrier Reef.
Visitors should also pay attention to crocodile warning signs. Crocodiles are present in rivers and parts of the coast in North Queensland, so check where you want to swim is safe. Also, take care at swimming holes. Water levels can change quickly after rain.
Best Things to Do in Cairns
Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven wonders of the natural world and the biggest coral reef on Earth. Cairns is one of the best places in Australia to experience it.
No matter your swimming ability or confidence in the water, you can find a way to immerse yourself in this amazing underwater world from Cairns.
One of the most popular ways to see the Great Barrier Reef is from an Island. Cruises to Fitzroy Island, Green Island or the Frankland Islands are popular day trips from Cairns. If you are worried about spending all day on a boat, these cruises only take 60 minutes to take you to the reef.
Because island trips let you snorkel over coral from the beach, they are ideal for less confident swimmers. The islands also have other activities like glass bottom boat tours, kayak hire, and guided snorkeling tours. On Frankland Island, you can even see the marine life from a semi-submersible.
You will still have a great reef experience from the islands. You also have a better chance of spotting a sea turtle from one of the islands than on the outer reef. There is also no shortage of colorful reef fish like the adorable orange and white striped clown fish that live in the fingers of an anemone.
Outer Reef Day Trips
The ultimate Great Barrier Reef experience is to spend the day snorkeling or diving on the outer reef. The cruise to the reef can take a couple of hours, so take a seasick tablet to be safe. There are a lot of operators, and each has several patches of reef to choose from depending on the conditions.
On the outer reef, you can see the corals and diversity of marine life the Great Barrier Reef is known for. Even though you are further from shore, you are not necessarily snorkeling in deep water. Coral bommies rise within feet of the surface, so visibility is excellent. Further from the coast, visibility is also less affected by river runoff which can be an issue around the islands in the wet season.
Most boats also cater to scuba divers. If you have never dived before, you can try an introductory dive to see what it is like to breathe underwater. Experienced divers will usually get 2 or 3 dives per trip. It is a great way to come eye to eye with reef sharks, rays, turtles, nudibranchs, and schools of colorful reef fish.
Several operators have a pontoon on the outer reef. These floating resorts get you onto the outer reef but have many benefits of an island cruise. The pontoons will also have glass bottom boats, semi-submersibles, and even water parks for the children. Pontoons are a great family option for exploring the Great Barrier Reef.
Daintree – Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation
Not only can you see the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns, but you can also immerse yourself in the beauty of an ancient rainforest. The world heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest starts just north of Cairns. There are a few ways you can experience it.
The easiest way to experience the Daintree is in Mossman Gorge, 75 minutes north of Cairns. Whether you drive yourself or go on a day tour from Cairns, Mossman Gorge gives you a great look at the forest on several short walks.
You can book a tour with an indigenous guide who reveals how the local Kuku Yalanji people have used the forest as a supermarket, pharmacy, and school for thousands of years. You can swim in the rock pools at Mossman Gorge. Another tour takes you snorkeling down the Mossman River through the rainforest, an incredible experience.
The heart of the Daintree Rainforest is at Cape Tribulation, 3 hours north of Cairns. From the rainforest discovery center, there are a dozen walks where you can see everything from the most delicate lichens to giant mahogany and conifers. You can walk along beaches where the rainforest meets the sand. You might even spot a cassowary, a black, red, and blue-colored relative of the emu.
There are tours to the Daintree from Cairns – it is a big day. Spending a night or two there is ideal. It is a remote location, so expect basic accommodation, you might also want to take some food. Having the extra time is the best way to appreciate the diversity and beauty of the rainforest.
Kuranda Rainforest Village
The rainforest Village of Kuranda is much closer to Cairns and easier to get to than Cape Tribulation. Getting to Kuranda is part of the fun. A cable car and a heritage steam train take you from Cairns into the rainforest to Kuranda.
A popular option is to take the cable car one way and train the other. The train leaves from the center of Cairns, and there are shuttle services between the train and cable car. Both give you great views of the forest and the impressive Baron Falls. The train stops at the falls so you can get a closer look.
You can also drive yourself to Kuranda. It is a 35-minute winding drive from Cairns. The cable car and train options are much more fun, and you can get to all the attractions in Kuranda on foot. So, what will you see there?
Kuranda is home to the Kuranda Koala Gardens, the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, and Bird World. Wildlife lovers are in for a great time. You can also take a riverboat tour on the Baron River and maybe see a crocodile. Shoppers can look around two markets full of local art, craft and produce. There are also a dozen galleries that showcase indigenous and local artists. The Rainforestation Nature Park also has a range of wildlife and cultural tours.
Kuranda is a must-do activity in Cairns. Feeding the birds at Bird World, letting butterflies land on you at the Butterfly Sanctuary, and the views from the cable car are a highlight.
When you are in Cairns, it is hard to miss the mountainous rainforest that forms a backdrop to the city. Kuranda is just a teaser of the attractions hidden by the forest-covered hills. To discover more, go on a guided tour of the Atherton Tablelands or a self-guided drive around the Waterfall Circuit.
The Atherton Tablelands has over a dozen beautiful waterfalls – Millaa Millaa, Zillie, and Malanda are amongst the best. You can also see the extraordinary 500-year-old Curtain Fig Tree nearby.
Swim in the crystal clear water of an extinct volcanic crater at Lake Eacham and go platypus spotting at the Yungaburra. You can explore the remarkable Paronella Park, a medieval-looking castle surrounded by lush gardens or get a bird’s eye view of the rainforest from the Mamu Tropical Skywalk.
Tours of the Atherton Tablelands will take you to most of these attractions. If you have a car, you can get to more waterfalls and stop at roadside stalls to try locally-grown peanuts and fruits.
If You Have Time
If you have transport or more than a few days to look around Cairns, here are a few more things worth checking out.
Relax at Cairns’ Northern Beaches
You will be disappointed if you want to relax on a beautiful beach in Cairns. The CBD looks out on an expansive tidal mud flat dotted with a few mangroves. But there are lovely beaches just north of Cairns.
Make your way to Trinity Beach or Palm Cove. Both are less than 30 minutes from the Cairns CBD and have white sand fringed with palm trees. They are stunning spots with plenty of cafes and eating options.
Unwind at Port Douglas
If you want that tropical North Australian vibe on a smaller scale than Cairns, try Port Douglas, 65 minutes north of Cairns. It has a super relaxed vibe, and the local beach, 4 Mile Beach, is stunning. You can get to the reef from Port Douglas, and you are also closer to the Daintree Rainforest. There are accommodation options, and the restaurants and cafes are fantastic. It is a great option if you want Cairns-Lite.
Mellow Out at Mission Beach
Just under 2 hours south of Cairns, Mission Beach is where you go if Port Douglas is still too busy for you. Even if you visit Mission Beach for the day, the drive down is spectacular, passing by the idyllic Babinda Boulders Falls and swimming hole and Queensland’s tallest peak Mount Bartle Frere. You can stop at Etty Bay and see if you spot a cassowary walking along the beach.
Mission Beach has palm-fringed beaches, rainforest walks where you could spot another cassowary, and beautiful views over tropical islands. But it is not all hammock time here. You can also go skydiving – see the reef from above before landing on the sand. Nearby, Tully offers some of the best white water rafting in Australia.
Cairns Accommodation Options
Just as anyone will have a great time in Cairns, there is also a style of accommodation to suit all travelers. Options range from modern hotels to apartments, backpacker hostels, and caravan parks with cabins.
When you book, if you stay in Cairns, most tours will pick up from your accommodation. This is not the case if you stay in Northern Beaches just out of Cairns.
Here Are a Few Suggestions for Different Travelers:
For Backpackers – Travellers Oasis Backpackers or Mad Monkey Central
For Couples – any of the Crystalbrook Hotels but especially the Bailey for a bit of luxe, Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort, and the Reef House.
For Families – Cairns Coconut Resort – you will only see your kids when they want food or the Crystalbrook Riley for a hotel.
Natalie and Steve manage Curious Campers, a popular Australian travel website featuring experiences, wildlife encounters and road trips for people wanting information and inspiration while travelling Australia. You can connect with Curious Campers on their Facebook group Experience Australia.