Green Island, Things to do in Cairns for first timers

9 things to do in Cairns for first-timers

No matter where you come from, how old you are, or how long you’ve dreamed about it, experiencing Cairns for the first time can be a huge deal. After all, it’s a town surrounded by UNESCO World Heritage Sites that’s been drawing visitors for decades.

What should you do on your first date with this sometimes-high-octane, always natural but mostly laid-back in a jet-lagged-kind-of-way place? We’ve canvassed the offering and come up with nine must-dos for first-timers.

1. Take a chopper ride to plot your holiday

Heli flight over Great Barrier Reef | 11 things to do in Cairns

Photo by @jarradseng

Not sure how to squeeze in the hundreds of tours and locations on offer? Then, put the whole region in perspective and start your first day with a 45-minute epic heli flight and skim above the Great Barrier Reef, the northern beaches, Barron Falls, and the World Heritage-listed rainforest – aka the big guns of the region.

2. Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkelling Great Barrier Reef | Port Douglas holidays planning guide

Barack Obama told the G20 – and the whole planet –  that he wants his children and their children to “see the glory of the reef”. So if it’s good enough for the former President of the U.S.A, then Australia’s greatest gift to the world, the Great Barrier Reef, is the first full-day activity for all first-time visits.

And therein lies the problem. Picking just one part/one trip/one experience on the reef is downright tough. Lucky for you, we have this handy guide.

To get the best out of your reef experience, spend two hours of fun and education with Gareth Phillips and the Marine Biology gang at Reef Teach. For an absolute bargain at $23, you’ll learn about the crazy creatures you will see, all before leaving land.

3. Do a one-day Kuranda rainforest tour

KSR | 10 Dinge, die Du nur in Queensland sehen kannst

T.S. Eliot wrote that “the journey. Not the destination matters.” That almost applies to Kuranda – the village in the rainforest is definitely worthy of a stop –  but it’s how you get there that is simply astonishing.

Journeying to Kuranda (25 km north-west of Cairns) is a combination of a cuter-than-a-kids-book steam train ride up the ridge and a silent gondola ride back down. Or vice versa.

Both are engineering feats built just over a hundred years apart. The Kuranda Scenic Railway with its 15 tunnels, 93 curves and dozens of difficult bridges opened in 1891 and was built using hand tools, dynamite and a pioneering spirit (and the lure of earning 90 cents a day).

Today, the spectacular 115-minute journey navigates dense rainforest, waterfalls and 320-metre steep ravines.

In 1995, Skyrail Rainforest Cableway became a blueprint for eco-construction when it opened. Heavy-lifting, Russian Kamov helicopters ferried-in towers, but to minimise the impact on the World Heritage-listed rainforest, construction workers had to walk into the site – sometimes up to one hour each.

This intense respect for the ecology seeps into every visit and guests are encouraged to stop at the two stations and immerse themselves in the lush rainforest experience.

So what can you do between these two journeys?  The village of Kuranda is famous for the Kuranda Markets (worthy of some odd local souvenirs like a kangaroo backscratchers), and the Rainforestation Nature Park where you can take in Indigenous dancing and Dreamtime walks.

4. Eat fresh seafood

Fresh seafood is synonymous with Cairns, from the casual (and wonderfully unique) Prawn Star that gently sways on the waters of Marlin Marina to the up-market and up-tempo dining of Salt House, there’s a place to enjoy the ocean’s bounty for you.

If seafood isn’t to your taste, don’t fret, dining is Cairns has matured out-of-sight in recent years, be sure to check out this guide on ten of the best dining options in Cairns. 

5. Wake up to a high

Hot air ballooning Cairns, Things to do in Cairns for first timers

The rolling greens of the Atherton Tablelands are the definition of serene in the early hours of the morning and there’s no better way to explore the tropics than at a leisurely pace from the sky. Taking off with Hot Air Balloon Cairns, you’ll have the best seats in the region as the morning sun appears from over the hills.

More than guaranteeing the best views of Tropical North Queensland, you’ll have the whole day ahead to pack more into your first-time visit.

6. Just take it easy

Looking for a low-cost, relaxing day between all those tours? Easy. First-timers should mosey on to the Cairns Lagoon, grab a coffee or an ice-cream (try the fruity sticks from Gelocchio on the Esplanade) and let time slip by.

Enjoy some northern exposure by catching a bus or driving to Palm Cove, a cuter-than-cute seaside village 20 minutes north of Cairns. Park at the jetty end of Williams Esplanade and string up a hammock between two palm trees. After that, stroll along the beach to Alamanda Palm Cove Resort for a massage on a rooftop villa. There are plenty of cafes to pair up with a tropical sunset.

7. Meet a local

If you want to bump your way into a local’s heart, there’s no place better the Rusty’s Markets. Market stall owners typically love a chat but the Cairns locals turn it up a notch, happy to chat all things produce, where to go and what to see.

When you’ve had enough fruity talk, stroll across Grafton Street to Oceanic Walk and pull up a stool at Blackbird Espresso for a chat with the baristas who have an encyclopaedic understanding of brewing beans.

8. Go to a secret swimming spot

Like Fight Club, the first rule of local secrets, is you don’t talk about local secrets. But, we think Crystal Cascades and Josephine Falls deserve an exception to this rule, even for first-timers.

Crystal Cascades is an idyllic spot to go freshwater swimming in the rainforest and better still it’s only 25 minutes’ drive from Cairns.

Josephine Falls – Joso to the locals – with its rocky granite boulders is perfect to escape the heat, but the 1.2km walk to the swimming hole is often overlooked – it’s World Heritage Listed Rainforest for a very good reason. On the way back home, Babinda Bakery is worth a quick visit for their delicious pies and cream buns.

9. Plan for a night (or two) out

Hemingway's Brewery | Best Cairns bars

A day exploring the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef or hiking through lush, rich rainforest deserves an afternoon tipple to share stories over.

If a beer is your go to, Hemingway’s Brewery should be your first port of call for a locally brewed drop.

On a very different note, tucked down a red brick laneway in Cairns centre sits clandestine bar Three Wolves. Concocted by a trio of gents passionate about sophisticated drinks, the bar is proudly overflowing with options in the way of specialty whiskey, spirits, cocktails, wines and beers.

If you’re looking for something like you’ve never seen before, Tjapukai‘s night fire, where 40,000 years of Indigenous culture and storytelling happens, is the night-time experience for you.

Looking for more bar options, be sure to check out this post.

Did we miss anything? Locals, what do you suggest for first-timers to do in Cairns?