20 (almost) free things to do in Cairns
She may be nestled between two of the nation’s biggest drawcards – the Great Barrier reef and the Daintree Rainforest – but that doesn’t mean you need to be rolling in dough to make the most of Australia’s adventure capital.
From snoozing between two World Heritage sites to discovering natural pyramids and crystal caves, here are 20 cheap and free things to do in Cairns for under $25.
1. Trek between Queensland’s highest peaks
Follow in the footsteps of pioneering gold prospectors walking the low saddle between Queensland’s two highest peaks, Bartle Frere and Bellenden Ker.
Obviously you’re going to need more than a day if you want to do the full return trek, but many a day-tripper are happy to get to the half-way point – roughly about 4.5km in is where you’ll find a large creek lined with king ferns – before turning back.
Cost: Fuel to get you there plus snacks for the journey.
2. Become a bonafide reef expert
Every night from Tuesday to Sunday the team of marine biologists aim to stuff you silly with interesting facts and insights to help you better understand the wonders of this World Heritage beauty.
Better still, you’ll feel as boss as David Attenborough being able to relay the different species of marine animals and coral you spot on your next underwater adventure.
Cost: Catch the two-hour evening show for just $23/adult.
3. Swim in a volcanic crater
Pack the inflatable toys because you’ll want to spend a full day soaking up the freshwater glory that is Lake Eacham.
A giant crater which blew up when magma and groundwater came into contact around 10,000 years ago, this maar (as it’s technically called) is a welcome refuge from the tropical heat and makes for a scenic drive through the Cairns Highlands.
Cost: Fuel plus change leftover for a cuppa and scones at the Teahouse Cafe over at Eacham’s twin crater, Lake Barrine.
4. Hop aboard the Prawn Star
There’s only one place to go if you want the best seafood in town, and that’s the Prawn Star.
Docked at the Cairns Marlin Marina, the super cute boat slash seafood joint is famed for its quirky, no-fuss set-up and straight-off-the-trawler delights.
While regulars tend to opt for take-out, if you can manage to nab a spot on one of the limited seats onboard, then kudos to you! If not, the esplanade strip has plenty of picnic spots to choose from.
Cost: While it’s tempting to blow your budget on a jumbo platter, you can score a dozen oysters for $24 or kilo’ of cooked prawns for $25. #bargain
5. Visit the largest butterfly sanctuary in the southern hemisphere
Home to over 2000 tropical butterflies and moths, you’ll be squealing with delight each time you spot an electric blue Ulysses or majestic green and yellow Cairns Birdwing.
Don’t skip on the guided aviary tour because 1) it’s FREE and 2) you’ll get to learn the butterfly’s life cycle and behaviour before checking out the breeding laboratory, which houses up to 4000 caterpillars.
Most importantly make sure you wear bright colours – they recommend red, white or hot pink – to attract your new fluttering friends!
Cost: Entry will set you back $19.50/adult.
6. Snooze between two World Heritage-listed wonders
When you’re not lapping up the tropical seclusion, take advantage of your central base and explore the national park walking trails or villages nearby.
Cost: A measly $6.15 per person per night or $24.60 per family per night.
7. Day at the (Military) Museum
Military buffs, prepare to have you khaki socks knocked off.
The Australian Armour and Artillery Museum is the largest museum of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, dedicated to preserving and restoring armoured vehicles and artillery dating all the way back to the 1800’s.
Tanks, tank destroyers, mortars, howitzers, World War I and II armoured vehicles… you name it, it’s likely you’ll find it here, so take your time strolling through history and getting up close with these relics of the past.
Cost: Adult entry just makes the cut at $25.
8. Waterfall porn
One of the best things about Cairns is the seemingly endless natural beauty that surrounds it.
Naturally, the waterfall game is on-point and ranges from easy-access 15 minutes from the CBD to hinterland road trips where you’ll find the widest single-drop waterfall in Australia.
So pack your bathers and don’t forget the tripod on your mission to snap the hell outta the top 10 waterfalls to chase in Tropical North Queensland.
Cost: A little fuel in the tank and some picnic goodies and you’re set!
9. Hike like an Egyptian
No need to head to the desert when we’ve got our very own tropical pyramid right here.
Hiking Walsh’s Pyramid in Wooroonooran National Park is basically a rite of passage ’round these parts, so lace up those boots and get set to huff and puff along the steep 6km-return summit track.
Although you won’t find any long-lost pharaohs or blinged-out tombs here, the challenging cardio burn is worth it for
that Insta shot the spectacular 360-degree views of the ranges and farming landscape.
Cost: Zilch, though to ward off hangry-ness make sure you’ve got enough snacks on standby.
10. Explore crystal caves
Set aside what you think this experience will be like because we can guarantee it’s unlike anything you’d expect (hint: it’s even better).
Built in the main street of Atherton (yes, in the main street) the Crystal Caves are a man-made museum created by crystal hunter René Boissevain to house his growing collection of more than 600 individual pieces.
Don a headlight and discover crystals, gemstones and fossils created millions of years ago – including the largest Amethyst geode in the world – as you weave your way through 250m2 of tunnels and grottos hiding behind the gift shop.
But the best part? Unlike most museums, René encourages you to touch and feel his collection of natural art, with the belief that such Earthly treasures should be experienced in a fun, exploratory way.
Cost: While you’ll be seriously tempted by the beauties in the gift shop, if you can reign in your retail desires you can keep costs down to entry, forking out only $22.50 for adults and $10 for children (five years and under get in free!).
11. Esplanade entertainment
The Cairns Esplanade really is the jack of all trades: on one hand, you’ve got fine dining and boutique shopping; the other, 2.5km of bargain entertainment.
Start your day with a free fitness class (check the council website for details) followed by a dip in the man-made saltwater lagoon. If it’s a Saturday morning, the Esplanade Markets will be in full-swing tempting you with handmade local souvenirs.
The rest of your day can be as ‘laxed or active as you’d like: hire a bike and cruise north to the beach volleyball courts, skate plaza and bouldering park; or laze and graze under the giant palms and banyan trees of the main foreshore by the lagoon, picnicking and swimming until you’ve become a walking prune.
Cost: All esplanade facilities are free to use so you can save your dollar bills for ice-cream and goodies at the markets. If you decide to hire a set of two wheels, Cairns Scooter and Bike Hire have got standard cruisers for just $11/day.
12. Sip ‘n’ sample
Arvo beers in Queensland? Standard.
But whetting your whistle with hand-crafted local brews at just five bucks a frothy? Just your typical Friday Power Hour at Hemingway Brewery in Port Douglas.
The microbrewery on the Reef Marina boardwalk is a solid choice no matter what time or day you choose to visit.
But if you want to keep costs at a minimum, grab a tasting paddle to sample five of their home-grown brews or head over on a Wednesday night for $1 Wicked Wings and happy hour from 4-6pm.
Cost: With tasting paddles at $15, you’ve got change left over for a round of onion rings with Japanese mayo. #hellyes
13. I’m on a (river)boat
Cruise the calm waters of the Barron River on a 45-minute tour with Kuranda Riverboats.
Your skipper will guide you through the ancient rainforest on a relaxing but informative adventure as he shares his knowledge of the area and points out the different animals and reptiles who live here.
But don’t make him do all the work – keep your eyes peeled for fishes, turtles, water dragons and snakes, and if you’re lucky, a freshwater croc sunbathing or cassowary on the river bank!
Cost: Hop aboard for just $18 per adult or $9 per child.
14. Get to steppin’
No gym membership? No worries!
Running through the rainforest-clad slopes of the Whitfield Range, each track varies in length and difficulty as you pass through gullies and open woodland, climb up steep stairs and steps created by roots of trees, and hike to the summit of Mount Lumley Hill for views stretching over the hinterland and out to Green Island.
15. Flecker Botanic Gardens
Budding botanists and green thumbs won’t want to miss a stroll through the only Wet Tropics botanic gardens in Australia.
As you might have guessed, tropical diversity is the reigning theme here, with exotic species of palms, gingers, orchids, bamboos, vines, aroids and fruit trees like purple mangosteen and soursop covering a whopping 38 hectares.
You’ll also get to see some of the rarest plants in the world, including the giant (and slightly smelly) flower known as the Amorphophallus Titanum, which weighs up to 70kg with a single leaf almost seven meters across!
While you’re here don’t forget to wander over to Centenary Lakes, where you’ll find Amazon pond lilies, a rainforest boardwalk, and the occasional dozing croc.
Cost: With free entry, you can use your cash for a delish brekkie or lunch at the Botanic Gardens Cafe and Restaurant.
16. Beach, please
Reef and rainforest might be the tagline up here, but let’s not forget the middle point where these two marvels meet.
Stretching north for 26-golden-kilometres is a coastline dotted by villages with palm tree-lined sandy treats.
Starting from the CBD take your pick from local hubs like Yorkeys Knob and Trinity Beach, heading north to the popular strips of Palm Cove and Port Douglas right through to the secluded pockets of Cape Tribulation.
Pack the frisbee, lather on that SPF 50+, and claim your spot with a beach umbrella.
*Stinger season is from November to May each year, so during those times swim only in the stinger nets.
Cost: Free! But you’ll want to keep some cash handy for fish ‘n’ chips.
17. Day trip to Kuranda
If you thought Cairns was laid-back, wait till you get amongst the free-spirited mountain retreat of Kuranda.
A delightful mishmash of quirky and colourful, it’s become a destination in its own right thanks to its eccentric flair and World Heritage-listed surroundings.
Take your time perusin’ the town’s centre – where you’ll find two daily markets, a candy kitchen, fudge bar and tea room – before taking a squiz at the spectacular Barron Falls as it plunges into the gorge below.
Cost: Fuel plus eats and treats while you’re there. If you don’t have your own set of wheels the Kuranda Shuttle Bus can take you to and from Cairns on a round-trip fare of just $13.70/adult.
18. I like to moo-ve it moo-ve it
Chocolate, cheese, and baby farm animals… sounds like the perfect day to me!
Drop in to taste-test the farm’s boutique cheeses and stock up on handmade chocolates, before awwww-ing at the cute alpacas, piggies, goats and calves at the animal nursery.
Cost: Free cheese samples are available but if you want a bigger mouthful you can grab the small cheese platter for $25.
19. Birds’ the word
Ornithologists need no introduction to Birdworld Kuranda, home to the largest single collection of free-flying birds in Australia.
Designed to mimic their natural environment, the aviary is stunning oasis of waterfalls, ponds, exotic and native plants, and lush rainforest, where visitors are free to wander and observe up to 60 species of birds from all corners of the planet, including Amazonian macaws and Australia’s own cheeky lorikeets and suave black swans.
Cost: $18 for adult entry.
20. Fill up on local produce
Take your taste buds on a journey through North Queensland at Rusty’s Markets in the CBD.
What was once a humble collection of half-a-dozen farmers has grown into one of the most well-known markets in the sunshine state, with over 180 stalls dishing out fresh, home-grown and exotic produce over three days.
Seasonal musts include bright pink dragonfruit, juicy lychees, hairy rambutans (don’t worry, they’re only hairy on the outside), and of course, a refreshing dose of sugar cane juice.
Cost: Entry is free Friday to Sunday so go to town on as much goodness as you can pack into your greengrocer bag.