A complete backpackers guide to Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands
Listen up all travellers who prefer to discover a destination with only boots and a backpack – if paradise had another name it would be Tropical North Queensland.
In fact, Cairns is the kind of destination that inspires intrepid dreams, with its bright blue water, vibrant green rainforests and relaxed atmosphere, which begs for bikinis and boardshorts to be worn from beach, to bar to bed.
You’ll find this double whammy of World Heritage-listed wonders 1600km north of capital Brisbane – so far north that its hot and humid summer is equally matched with a hot and humid winter.
If you’re looking for the ultimate backpacker’s guide to paradise, here’s something we prepared earlier:
Your Cairns Orientation
Consider Cairns a springboard-city to serious adventure.
Bounce one way and you’ll land in the Great Barrier Reef. Bounce the other way and you’ll land in the Wet Tropics Rainforest, with all of its #instafamous waterfalls and epic road trips (like this one to the top of Australia).
But don’t dismiss the tropical capital as just a gateway city. It’s bucket-list worthy in its own right, especially since it marks, for most visitors, the northernmost point of their trip Down Under.
Where to stay:
In fact, Tropical North Queensland attracts just shy of one million international visitors each year and has over 30 hostels to cater for the backpackers who save the best till last on their east coast odyssey.
In choosing where to stay, weigh up your budget against your need for a good night’s sleep at these hostels in downtown Cairns:
Gilligans is as famous as its TV show namesake. Although, ironically, no-one old enough to remember the fictitious island from TV would stay here on holidays.
More than just a place to stay, Gilligans is a place to go. In fact, the hostel is worthy of its own postcode, because it fits into its two-street frontage more things-to-do than some suburbs – with a restaurant, three bars and Rusty’s Fruit Market, all under one roof.
Within its four storeys, you’ll find a mix of traditional backpacker dormitory-style accommodation and hotel rooms – catering to both lovers and haters of nightlife alike.
Access to the main attraction, the Great Barrier Reef, is mere footsteps away and the onsite travel agency will ensure you get the best rates.
If you’re running low on funds, Gilligans also offers a cook-up each night for $5, which leaves more funds for you to throw down on your bar of choice: the large beer hall, deck bar or mezzanine bar, once you have a belly full of food.
Find out why Lonely Planet described Northern Greenhouse as “a cut above the other backpackers” in Cairns with a stay at this Sheridan Street hostel, which more closely resembles apartment-living than dorm-room sharing.
You’ll find this plantation-inspired hostel, stumbling distance from Gilligans (which is good news if your new best friends have chosen to stay there), The Esplanade and Marina to experience the reef.
Among its quaint, two-storey digs, you’ll find a mixture of dorm rooms, self-contained studios and even family-friendly apartments, most of which include a balcony or terrace to soak up the best of the tropics.
Backpackers take note, the breakfast here is free and on Sundays, so you’ll be treated to a real Aussie BBQ served on a sunny outdoor terrace, the envy of other hostels in town.
Global Backpackers Cairns
You’ve got to love a hostel that offers beds for less than most breakfasts will set you back.
Up north it doesn’t come much cheaper than Global Backpackers Cairns, which will have you hitting the pillow for just $15/night.
You’ll find this stalwart of the Cairns backpacking scene on Shields St, a short walk from the triple threat of cinemas, cafes and clubs in Cairns CBD.
Being part of the Global Backpackers network means this property shares perks with its five other hostels in Queensland, which is something to keep in mind if you plan on combining this trip with Airlie Beach and Port Douglas.
The Global tour desk can assist with great rates for SCUBA diving courses, white water rafting, skydiving and liveaboard boats if you’ve come to Cairns without a plan to attack.
Where to eat
If you were to describe Cairns cuisine in a few words, ‘cheap and cheerful’ could be fitting adjectives to describe some of their signature meals. If you’ve had enough of your dorm room companions for a night and want to step off hallowed hostel turf, we recommend these cheap eats:
The Grand Hotel Cairns
This grand dame of McLeod Street has been feeding locals since 1926, in which time they’ve perfected the age-old-Australian-art of the parmigiana. Aside from the historic building you’ll dine within, what makes The Grant Hotel stand out, is the crocodile memorabilia lining the walls. It’s enough to fuel an entire Instagram album – the piece de resistance – a photo with your head inside the mouth of the giant wooden crocodile, which also doubles as the bar top.
Ganbaranba Noodle Colosseum
Blink and you could miss Ganbaranba Noodle Colosseum, which despite its name, resembles nothing of the Colosseum. Instead, it’s one of those hole-in-the-wall places you would otherwise walk straight past and think nothing of it. Go behind the sheer Japanese curtain on Spence Street, and you’ll find the best ramen and gyoza in Cairns.
Accompany the experience with their signature ‘iced tea’ and be prepared for endless top-ups of their homemade drop, which won’t have you drinking store bought stuff again. One word of warning – the Noodle Colosseum is cash only, so come armed with $20 in your pocket.
Rusty’s Market Cairns
What started as a couple of market stalls in 1975, has transformed into a three-day foodie event each week, as Rusty’s Market comes to life with over 180 stalls packed with fruit, vegetables, flowers and artisan foods. Don’t dismiss the market as just a place to stock up groceries, it’s also a great place to bag a bargain bite.
You’ll find fresh bread, dairy, and seafood, a host of international food and beverage stalls to sate even the most bizarre cravings. The best part – if you’re staying at Gilligans, the market is literally just downstairs, so you can do snack runs at regular intervals.
Looking for cheaper than cheap?
All backpacker hostels listed in this blog post are walking distance from supermarkets Coles and Woolworths in Cairns to pick up supplies to DYI like a #twominutenoodleboss.
Where to drink
We’re pleased to advise that the words “I’m thirsty” won’t be uttered in this tropical town. If you’re looking for coffee that goes beyond free international roast sachets, we’ve done the legwork over here with the ultimate coffee guide to Cairns.
With hot beverages out of the way, start planning your cold ones, and chase down happy hour at these favourite watering holes:
Down Under Bar
It seems all good backpacking bars are affectionately known by three little letters – D.U.B. And we can confirm, the Down Under Bar on Grafton Street is no exception. It’s got all the hallmarks for a great evening, including 10 pool tables to show your skills. The pub grub is as tasty as it is well priced – with bar bites starting at $3. When it’s not filled with backpackers, you’ll find it’s the bar-of-choice for bucks and hens parties, which gives you an idea of the fun that’s installed Down Under.
When it’s not filled with backpackers, you’ll find it’s the bar-of-choice for bucks and hens parties, which gives you an idea of the fun that’s installed Down Under.
You know a bar is good when it can draw a crowd every day of the week. Up here, that bar is The Woolshed, which actively encourages people to let their hair down and dance on tables.
Each evening takes a different theme including Tropical Tuesday, Wet T-shirt Wednesday, Ladies Night on Thursdays, and an infamous Sunday Session which invariably ends up with dancing on tables. Upstairs a mezzanine level means you can get a bird’s-eye view of the dance floor and an outdoor areas offer a break from all the noise within.
Heritage Bar Pub Club
Is it a bar? Is it a club? Is it a restaurant? Is it all three? We’ll let you be the judge when you visit The Heritage on the corner of Lake and Spence Street. Rocking some of the best acoustics this side north of the Boondall Brisbane Entertainment Centre – The Heritage has a 600-speaker ceiling above the dance floor.
We challenge you to find another heritage-listed building packing as much hardware as this one. Of course, if it proves too noisy, you can always escape with a quiet(er) drink on one of the balconies overlooking the twinkling lights of the CBD.
What to do
The only complaint you’ll find yourself muttering in Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands is “so many World Heritage-listed sites, so little time”. Prioritise like a pro and make sure you get to see these three podium-finish-worthy sites in Tropical North Queensland:
See the reef
If you’re in a pickle about how to see the reef when there are so many ways, and you have so little budget, here’s something we prepared earlier to assist your decision making.
If you’re dictated by price, talk to your hostel about arranging the hottest deal-of-the-day to experience the reef for less.
For serious fun lovers who have the budget to support it, join Sunlover out of Cairns Marina to explore their pontoon wonderland. This Cairns based company has just invested $4 million into their pontoon, to create the only theme-park-worthy waterslides on the reef. From their pontoon on Moore Reef, you can experience four hours of frolicking in the middle of the World Heritage-listed icon.
With a mixture of snorkelling, glass-bottom boats, coral viewing tours, an underwater observatory and seafood buffet lunch, your only expenses today will be the ticket price for a day on the water.
See the rainforest
For greens that rival the vibrancy of the Great Barrier Reef’s blues – discover a rainforest with UNESCO protection.
The good news for backpackers and budget travellers, the Wet Tropics World Heritage-listed rainforest is far more accessible and affordable to find yourself immersed within than the reef. A few steps in, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by rainforest so primitive, it outdates the Amazon, by just a cool 10 million years.
While the Wet Tropics’ most famous resident might be the 70 million-year-old cassowary, it’s certainly not the oldest. This forest is home to the velvet worm who can more than double its age.
With the rainforest starting from as far south as Townsville and finishing as far north as Cooktown – there is literally 450km worth of ways to skin this Wet Tropics forest.
For the most accessible and affordable way in and out of this lush rainforest, we’d recommend discovering the Southern Atherton. Read this guide to find out why.
Go waterfall chasing
Wearing just your bikinis and your sneakers (seriously, that’s #proper waterfall chasing attire up here), set off for a day of waterfall chasing.
With Queensland’s tallest mountain, Mount Bartle Frere, on Cairns’ doorstep, it’s no surprise the waterfall game is on-point in Tropical North Queensland.
The only question left unanswered is which waterfall are you going to chase when you’ll find crackers like Crystal Creek Falls as close as 15 minutes from the city. To help with the decision-making, be sure to check out these 5 waterfalls to chase on the Atherton Tablelands and these top 10 waterfalls to chase in Tropical North Queensland.
If you can’t decide, make a day trip out of Babinda Boulders, Josephine Falls and the Waterfall Circuit for a taste of granite boulder waterslides, emerald green water, and the chance to go to the other side of waterfalls like a character in a video game.
If you’re looking for more ideas of things to see and do from your Cairns base, don’t forget to check out these day trips from Cairns.
Budget got you down?
Staying in the capital of adventure doesn’t need to the break the bank. In fact, we’ve written up 20 things to do for (almost free) over here if you find that your funds have dwindled to an all-time low.
Tips to make your stay more enjoyable
On your trip to the reef, don’t be alarmed if someone comes up to you brandishing a lycra onesie, asking you to wear it. It’s not for fun, it’s a lifesaving measure when the box jellyfish and Irukandji take to the waters between November and May each year. Even though the risk of marine stingers is low, stinger suits are recommended and available for hire on tour boats.
Stay Croc Wise
The red and yellow signs around town, creeks and boardwalk areas are timely reminders that crocodiles also holiday in Cairns. It’s easy to get complacent when the weather is hot and humid – but we guarantee these prehistoric reptiles are faster in the water than you are. We ask that you follow all signs and avoid creeks, estuaries or the banks of rivers to avoid a death-roll dance with this dangerous animal.
If you didn’t grow up in Australia, you’ll be excused for not knowing the saying slip, slop, slap – the sun safety marketing campaign which burned into our memories, like the Australian sun does to people who don’t wear sunscreen. Stay sun safe down under with SPF 50+, a hat and sunglasses when outdoors.
Looking for a job in Cairns?
If you’ve got permission to work in Australia under your Working Holiday Visa, Cairns offers the motherload of employment opportunities.
We put the abundance down to the destination’s need for hospitality staff to supply the visitor demand and also its proximity to CBD-farms for fruit picking. Most foreigners take up the fruit picking options near Cairns, to complete their ‘remote placement’ which is a compulsory condition for extending a second-year visa.
Tropical North Queensland is a popular choice because it offers the option of being ‘remote’ without being so far away that your mail comes on a plane or a place where phone reception feels as foreign as you are.
Bananas are in abundance up here, so there’s no shortage of picking work. A heads up – banana picking is heavy work, with the average weighing 50kg a bundle. If you’re a fragile frame, picking lychees in Mareeba might be more suitable.
To stay closer to the bright lights and city sights, Cairns is always in need of hospitality workers looking after the bar and coffee needs in this pumping town. Better still, if you’re a chef, you’ll have no trouble finding chef work, which is in short supply in these northern parts.
The best way to go about locking down a job is talking to your hostel and pounding the pavement with a stack of resumes in hand. Online portals like Seek and Jobaroo, are also fantastic resources to let your fingers do the walking before you’ve even arrived.
For all Visa information, consult the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection and reading this post.