There aren’t many backpacking locations in the world quite like Cairns, a laidback coastal city located between the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. The real-life backdrop for many-a-skincare commercial, Cairns and its pristine tropical surrounds are a nature lover’s paradise. Live the dream without breaking the budget, with this list of cheap and free things to do in Cairns.
But wait… Before you head to this rainforest-meet-reef location, you’ll probably want to book somewhere to stay! NRMA Cairns Holiday Park is the perfect base for your next Tropical North Queensland adventure, conveniently located right in the centre of town and not far from some of the world’s most breathtaking natural attractions. Doing the self-drive/camper van thing? Choose between the park’s spacious powered, unpowered and ensuite caravan sites. If you’re backpacking the good ol’ fashioned way – that is, with everything on your back, including a swag – the park has a number of comfortable camping and lodging options available for a very affordable price.
Right, now that’s sorted, it’s time to:
We’re dubbing North Queensland the “tropical waterfall capital of Australia”. Why? There are enough picture-perfect waterfalls for you to discover in Cairns and surrounds that they warrant a blog post all to themselves! Want to spend the whole day exploring these natural wonders? Try the Waterfall Circuit, which will lead you to some of the most photogenic falls in the world, including the route’s pièce de resistance – the Millaa Millaa Falls. Fringed by tall gums and tree ferns, this heritage-listed 18m plunge waterfall is often frequented by electric blue butterflies. Short on time? Visit the Crystal Cascades (just 30 minutes from Cairns), a series of freshwater pools that trickle through the forest and eventually culminate in a beautiful cascade; or take a dip in the aquamarine waters of Josephine Falls (one hour south). Do heed warning signs as flash flooding can occur in the area.
Splash into idyllic waterholes
Just like waterfalls, North Queensland is in surplus of swimming holes that boast crystal clear waters and spectacular rainforest backdrops. The Babinda Boulders is a must-add to your sightseeing hitlist, featuring large, granite boulder-lined pools filled with refreshingly cool mountain water. We also suggest making the 2.5-hour-drive to Cardwell Spa Pools, which appear to be a bright, baby blue through to a milky-blue colour, depending on the time of the day.
Swim with the fishes
Warm water, colourful coral gardens and the chance to encounter all sorts of marine animals big and small – a trip to Tropical Queensland wouldn’t be complete without a dip in the sea. With the Great Barrier Reef right on its doorstep, Cairns provides the ideal port for snorkelling and diving tour boats. Take your pick of operators who set sail for the Reef from Cairns Marina every day. Most companies, like Passions of Paradise, offer snorkel and/or dive tours that allow you to spend plenty of time out on the water. A full day snorkelling tour will set you back approximately $200, but we guarantee it’s worth the dollars.
Explore the Daintree Rainforest
Spanning a whopping 95 kilometres, the Daintree Rainforest is the oldest tropical forest in the world, home to the largest range of rare and/or threatened plant and animal species on earth. Explore the Daintree on a tour or try one of these self-drive itineraries or walks. Whatever path you choose, do make sure to swing past Mossman Gorge, where you can slide off smooth granite boulders into emerald green, rainforest-surrounded pools.
Go spelunking in the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park
Once a massive coral reef, the Chillagoe cave system is a collection of limestone towers, rocky outcrops and underground caves and caverns just waiting to be explored. While ranger-guided tours of the Donna, Trezkinn and Royal Arch caves are available, there are also three caves in the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park that you can explore for free and without a guide. Grab a torch and spend the day spelunking the Archways, Pompeii and Bauhinia caves, where you’ll discover an underground world of cave corals and creatures of the dark.
Hike through the rainforest
Strap on those walking shoes, folks! You’re in prime bushwalking country and it’s time for a-walking. The options are endless, but we suggest starting with the Arrow Walking Trails, just minutes from Cairns’ CBD. For views over Cairns, embark on the 1.5km Red Arrow Circuit, which climbs uphill then weaves through rainforest and a thicket of bamboo. For an inland experience try the Douglas Track, which offers a moderate hike through sun-dappled forest then on to Glacier Rock.
Of all the insects on this planet, the butterfly would have to be one of, if not, the prettiest. The Australian Butterfly Sanctuary is a wonderland full of these pretty things, more than 2000 in fact. The butterfly aviary is the largest of its kind in Australia, offering visitors the chance to get up-close-and-personal with a number of butterfly species, including the local electric blue Ulysses, the majestic green and yellow Cairns Birdwing and the Monarch butterflies. Flutter through the aviary on a $20 guided tour.
Discover Cairns’ inner city tropical paradise
One of the top free things to do in Cairns is to meander through the Cairns Botanic Gardens. Located right in town, the Gardens are made up of several smaller gardens that feature a diverse range of tropical flora including palms, orchids, ferns and insect-eating pitcher plants. A leisurely stroll through the park will transport you to the Daintree, the steamy jungles of South East Asia or the South American wildness, any day of the year.
Do as the locals do and head to the market
When it comes to embracing the heart and culture of a town, nothing beats a trip to the markets. Markets are hives of activity, and boy do Cairns’ markets buzz. Each night the Cairns Night Markets come to life with tantalising street food, intriguing artisan wares and a vibrant, relaxed atmosphere. Come to browse the markets’ many stalls, stay for the top-notch people-watching. Another must-visit is Rusty’s Markets, your go-to for the juiciest of tropical fruits, colourful veg and whatever you’re craving. Cash and an empty stomach required.
Cheers the beers
If you get thirsty between your forest and ocean adventures, there are plenty of spots to wet the whistle in Cairns. Stroll along the Cairns Wharf and you’ll come across one of our favourites, Hemingway’s Brewery, a great place to enjoy a pint of North Queensland craft beer. Planning a night out? Abbott Street and the Esplanade are where you’ll find most of the bars, pubs and clubs, many of which have some great Happy Hour and backpacker specials. For something different head to laneway bar Three Wolves, which features 50 types of whiskey on its menu.
Cool off at the Esplanade Lagoon
Feeling a bit… sticky? Cool down at the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon – a huge seaside pool filled with saltwater from the Trinity Inlet. Hanging out at the Lagoon is certainly one of the best free things to do in Cairns. A great place to chill, it provides a safe haven for swimmers all year’ round. Need a wellness boost? Come along to one of the Lagoon’s free yoga or aqua aerobics classes, or go for a gentle stroll along its boardwalk.
Catch your own dinner (and cook it, too)
Queensland provides ample locations to catch your own dinner. While the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is off bounds, you can cast a line at most beaches, estuaries, rivers and creeks in the region. Find the locals at the Cairns Marina near Salthouse Restaurant, the southern end of Machans Beach (where the Barron River meets the sea) and the old bridge that stretches across the Barron River in Stratford. Once you’ve caught your Red Emperor or Nannygai, cook it up on one of the beachfront barbecues found along the Cairns Esplanade.
Indulge in a seafood feast
Can’t be bothered catching and cooking your own meal? Not to worry, Cairns is home to a plethora of restaurants that serve up the very best of fresh, local seafood. For juicy prawns jump on board the Prawn Star, a prawn trawler-turned-floating restaurant docked at the end of Marlin Marina. For a true sea-to-plate experience, take a trip out to The Beach Shack at Kewarra Beach Resort. This private beachfront bar serves up expertly cooked seafood caught just around the corner, under the cover of the stars and surrounding coconut palms.
Cruise around the Atherton Tablelands
For a change of pace, spend the day cruising around the Atherton Tablelands. Home to the aforementioned Waterfall Circuit, the Tablelands is a rich agricultural landscape dotted with quaint towns. Take your time to explore the region, where you’ll find small shops chock-a-block with farm-to-table goods and artisan products, as well as charming boutique cafes and tea houses.
Soak in the laidback atmosphere of Palm Cove
Oozing a vibe akin to Bali, only with a distinct Australian air, the picturesque seaside village of Palm Cove is perfect for lounging and lazing. Relax under one of Palm Cove’s beach-hugging palm trees while you watch waves lap at your feet, then spend the rest of the day checking out the Cove’s groovy shops, cafes, bars and pubs – shoes very much optional.
We’re not going to lie – after putting together this list, we’re just about ready to hit the tarmac. Will we see you on the road?