Cairns, considered the gateway to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, is a city in tropical Far North Queensland. Its tropical climate and proximity to the reef makes it a very popular tourist destination with visitors from all over the world, almost all year round. Cairns is a must visit for anyone headed to Australia. But there is so much more to Cairns than just the Barrier Reef. Cairns is quite the tourist hotspot for obvious reasons, and there are so many wonderful things to see and do all around the area.
Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is considered the longest and largest coral reef system in the world, with an area spanning around 135,000 square miles. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven wonders of the natural world. It is larger than the Great Wall of China and the only living thing on earth that is actually visible from space. So definitely make sure you give yourself enough time to experience the reef.
There are many ways to see the barrier reef, and Cairns has many outfitters for any budget. You can buy tickets online or even at the large ferry terminal located along the waterfront in Cairns. From half-day trips to full-day excursions, you are sure to find something that suits your needs. If you don’t want to get into the water, you can even hop on a helicopter ride and see the reef from up above.
Kuranda Scenic Railway And Cable Car Ride
Being a city in the tropics, Cairns has a beautiful rainforest and is surrounded by lush greenery. The best way to experience the rainforest and its vistas is by visiting the town of Kuranda. Kuranda is a mountain village near Cairns. It is located in the lush tropical rainforest and is best known for the Kuranda Scenic Railway. The railway is an engineering marvel that winds along forested hillside tracks. The tracks hug the famous Barron Gorge, home to the imposing Barron Falls, and the train stops for several minutes to allow travelers to get out and admire the jaw-dropping scenery and take lots of photos.
You can also get to Kuranda via the scenic cable car ride that takes you high above the rainforest canopy. Most people use the train for one part of the journey and the cable car for the other. You can buy a combination ticket at the Kuranda railway station in Cairns. But pay attention to the train and cable car timings. For the best seats in the house, take the first train going up to Kuranda. You are more likely to get a window seat and can take lots of photos along the way.
Kuranda is a rainforest village known for its markets, wildlife attractions, and lush surrounding landscape. So, make sure to give yourself enough time to explore all that the town has to offer.
Kuranda Butterfly Garden
The Australian Butterfly Sanctuary is a beautiful sanctuary and exhibit situated in the center of Kuranda. The sanctuary is actually listed in the Guinness World Records as Australia’s largest butterfly flight aviary and exhibit. There are many different kinds of butterflies housed here. There are typically naturalist talks at various times in the day, so be sure to check those out.
There is also a small research center at the back of the sanctuary where you can watch caterpillars in their cocoons just before they hatch. There are feeding stations all around the aviary so you can get firsthand knowledge about the lives of these beautiful creatures. Give yourself enough time to wander around and read about all the exhibits located throughout the aviary.
Bird Sanctuary In Kuranda
One of the most unique wildlife attractions of tropical North Queensland is the Birdworld sanctuary in Kuranda. It is an enclosed aviary with hundreds of tropical and indigenous birds. Naturally landscaped with waterfalls, ponds, and exotic and native plants, Birdworld replicates the natural habitats of almost 60 species that roam this unique rainforest immersion exhibit. You can walk through the aviary at your own pace, and you will find birds flying all around you. There are brilliant Amazonian macaws, the endangered cassowary, rainbow lorikeets, cockatoos, and many more. There are public bird feeding sessions throughout the day during which a caretaker comes to feed the birds and answer visitors’ questions.
Be watchful of purse straps, jewelry, and sunglasses; some of the birds may ride on your shoulder and start to chew on these things. In fact, the guards at the center entrance will ask you to put away glasses, caps, and earrings that could potentially harm the birds. Don't be surprised to find a feathered friend taking a ride on your shoulder. Birdworld is located near the all-weather Kuranda Heritage Markets (more on these below).
Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
The Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in Cairns tells the stories of indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through music and dance. There are daytime shows as well as nighttime shows, which include dinner. Expect to find local delicacies like crocodile and rue meat burgers made by the cultural park’s local indigenous chefs.
The cultural program at Tjapukai is definitely worth visiting. Dance and storytelling is a rich part of the Djabugay culture and heritage. Performers share stories of how their ancestors hunted animals, how they harvested honey, and how everything is really connected. The fact that they pray before hunting is really quite moving.
The cultural park also has a beautiful exhibit of aboriginal dreamtime art; arrive early so you can walk around and admire this stunning artwork.
Eating In Cairns
Cairns has its fair share of amazing restaurants to choose from. Because of the multicultural nature of visitors to Cairns, there are a variety of cuisines to choose from. Some restaurants are within resorts and hotels, while others are along the waterfront. Depending on whether you have a car or prefer to walk around town, you can choose any of the following restaurants.
The Prawn Star is probably one of the coolest restaurants/bars around Cairns. It is owned by a local Cairns family. As the story goes, the owner bought an old fishing trawler and sailed it from Brisbane to Cairns. He converted it to a bar serving up fresh prawns and crab cakes. Soon the restaurant grew in popularity, and today, there are four Prawn Star boats anchored in the Cairns marina, where they serve up locally caught fish and other international dishes.
Foxy’s Bar And Grill
Foxy’s Bar and Grill is located on nearby Fitzroy Island, which can be reached via a 45-minute ferry from the Cairns marina. Literally nestled in the lush green rainforest that covers the majority of this island, this bar serves up standard hearty Aussie pub fare.
Muddy’s Cafe is located in the heart of the Cairns waterfront. Near the city’s largest public playground and waterpark, Muddy’s Cafe is the ultimate spot for a cup of coffee and a hearty breakfast after any early morning activity along the waterfront. Expect to see many locals here for a relaxed meal and some great fresh juice that’s served all day.
Cairns Night Market Area
The Cairns night market area also has many grocery stores and fast food restaurants that cater to almost every cuisine. There is plenty of fresh and delicious local produce, so you can wander throughout the various stalls and try all the tasty fruit, seafood, deli foods, honey, and so much more.
Shopping In Cairns
Cairns Esplanade Markets
Visiting the markets in and around Cairns is a great way to get a sense of the local culture. Given the touristy nature of the city, Cairns has become a hub for local artists from around Northern Queensland who produce indigenous works, handcrafts, clothing, paintings, and so much more. The Cairns city council operates regular markets across the city, giving local businesses an opportunity to showcase their wares. One such market is the Esplanade Market along the waterfront. It showcases local, quality products from contemporary jewelry to leather work, pottery, clothes, and natural skincare products, most of which are made in Queensland.
Kuranda Historic Markets
No visit to Kuranda is complete without taking in the famous Kuranda Heritage Markets in the main part of Kuranda, the city you can reach via the scenic railway or cable car. These markets were established 20 years ago and are open all year round. There are local and traditional market stalls selling everything from souvenirs to arts and crafts to prepared food. You can find many local indigenous artists selling Aboriginal items as well. You can walk from the scenic train station to the markets on a good day. Or take a shuttle, which can be found right by the train station. Because the Kuranda Heritage Markets are so big, you’ll want to give yourself enough time to wander around.
As you can see, there are so many things to see and do in Cairns. It is a destination that is attractive year-round, but try to avoid going during peak summer travel season. It gets very crowded and prices for excursions, including days out on the water, tend to increase with demand.