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9 of the best things to do in Cairns for first-timers

There’s no denying that as a state, we’re pretty easy on the eye. If you had natural assets like ours, you’d flaunt them too, especially when they’re in such plentiful supply. Particularly around the hub of Cairns in Tropical North Queensland, where a cluster of our world-famed natural wonders reside.

Whether you’re new to the city, or it’s just been a while, let us show you how to best experience Queensland’s stunning north, with our guide to the nine best things to do in Cairns.

1. Take a tour by chopper

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

Photo by @jarradseng

Take to the skies for the best view of the district. One of the best things to do in Cairns is to take a helicopter tour; the 45-minute journey with Nautilus Aviation will show you the city’s most beautiful offerings, from the rainbow colours of the Great Barrier Reef to Barron Falls and the canopy of the Daintree Rainforest.

If you’re impatient, or simply time-short, this tour is for you.

2. Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef

Best things to do in Cairns

Our most famous resident is the Great Barrier Reef; a non-negotiable part of visiting the state’s north.

This is the world’s largest coral reef system after all, a collection of just under 3000 individual reefs and 900 islands across near 350,000 square kilometres. The only problem with its size is that it can be hard to know where to begin; but that’s where we step in.

Before slipping into the Coral Sea, it’s best to educate yourself on what you’ll greet with a short seminar at Reef Teach.

3. Do a one-day Kuranda rainforest tour

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

Journeying north-west of Cairns through the rainforest you’ll come to find Kuranda, famed for the Rainforestation Nature Park. Joining the Dreamtime Walk in the Pamagirri Aboriginal Experience you’ll be able to test our your spear, boomerang and didgeridoo skills.

But even better than the village itself is your transport there; both considerable engineering feats. Make your way up the ridge via the famed steam train on the Kuranda Scenic Railway; built in 1891, it navigates 15 tunnels, 93 curves and difficult bridges across dense rainforest, waterfalls and steep ravines in just under two hours.

On the way down, jump aboard the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway; a blueprint for eco-construction due to its focus on minimising the impact on the World Heritage-listed rainforest.

4. Feast on local delicacies

Considering its proximity to the coastline, it’s no surprise that Cairns is awash with some of the best seafood in the state. It would be a shame to miss out the fresh fish synonymous with the region, which is why dining on seafood while in Cairns is a must-do.

There’s a bevy of different venues to nibble on local fisherman’s bounty. Drop into Prawn Star, housed on an old trawler in the Marlin Marina for a more casual fare, or Salt House for more refined dining. But seafood isn’t the only thing on the menu these days; Cairns is foodie-friendly, we swear. And these ten dining options prove it.

5. See the Tablelands by sky

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

Cairns isn’t just coastline and reefs. Fringing the city is the rolling green of the neighbouring Atherton Tablelands, which sits within a fertile plateau in the Great Dividing Range.

Abundant in native flora and fauna (the World Heritage Wet Tropics waterfall circuit included), the region is best viewed by air, and Hot Air Balloon Cairns will give you the best seat in the house to watch the sunrise above the hills. The added benefit of a dawn-time excursion? It’s the coolest time to explore a district notoriously steamy in temperature.

6. Cool off with a dip

Cairns Lagoon

Photo by @_misskara

With weather that’s hot and humid year-round, a swim is always on the cards here. Due to a lingering jellyfish and crocodile population, we suggest you take our lead and swim only in designated waterholes.

Places like Cairns Lagoon, the promenade-front pool which remains a favourite for young and old locals to the region. A little further afield is Palm Cove; this pristine beach will tempt you with crystal clear waters and white sands. But its angelic looks can be deceiving; stick to swimming enclosures during stinger season, and heed warnings about visiting crocs.

7. Splash about in the waterfalls

We’re not short of a waterfall or two here, with some of the state’s most awe-inspiring offerings calling Cairns home.

Drive 20 minutes from the city central and you’ll come to find secluded swimming hole Crystal Cascades. A favourite for locals, the freshwater oasis is fringed by large boulders and dense rainforest. After a dip, you can also trek to nearby Fairy Falls.

An hour’s south from the city you’ll find Josephine Falls. Meander your way through World Heritage-listed rainforest to find the swimming hole, where you can splash about in its pools and sunbathe on its sandy stretch to your heart’s content.

8. Get to know the locals

Immerse yourself in traditional Aboriginal culture with a visit to Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. For the past 26 years, this space has been a celebration of the 40,000 years-worth of rich customs unique to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Educating through performance and storytelling, there are two shows to choose from: Tjapukai By Day and Tjapukai By Night. Expect to partake in interactive experiences like dance performances, boomerang and spear throwing, and men’s and women’s business.

9. Bar-hop your way around town

Once you tire of outdoor adventuring, rest awhile with a cocktail in hand, in one of the city’s many bars. Cairns is no longer just a gateway to the World Heritage sites beyond, but a popular holiday destination in its own right.

The drinking holes here continue to flourish; Hemingway’s Brewery is one of the district’s most famous places to pour a pint. Those after a slightly more sophisticated tipple can make their way to Three Wolves, the creation of three gents passionate about specialty spirits.