Are you wanting to undertake a trip to Cairns and wish to know how to experience the best of the area? Well, here’s my ultimate 5 – 7 day Cairns Itinerary to help inspire and plan your Tropical North Queensland holiday.
If your ideal holiday is a combination of relaxation, adventure, and connecting with nature then Cairns should be on your bucket list. With the opportunity to witness two World Heritage-listed areas in warm temperatures Cairns is a popular destination for travellers year-round.
Within this guide, you will find a suggested itinerary on how to spend 5 days in Cairns. It includes places to stop, what to see in Cairns, activities you won’t want to miss and practical information.
This itinerary is just one of the many possibilities of how to explore Cairns. It focuses on top sights and will give you an indication of what is available so you can create your perfect itinerary based on your timeframe, interests and the pace you like to travel.
At the end of the article, you can find some additional suggestions on what to do and see in the area if you have more time. Take a look!
Continue reading for our best tips and the perfect itinerary for things to do in Cairns.
This post may contain affiliate links. Please read the disclaimer for more information.
Featured Image: Cairns Lagoon © Tourism & Events Queensland
Table of Contents
Cairns Itinerary 5 Days
Below are suggestions of things to do in Cairns over 5 days, however, they can be adapted to create your perfect itinerary for any duration from 3 to 7 days in Cairns. With the additional activities listed at the bottom, the guide is adjustable based on your interests and time.
If you are taking a tour it is always a good idea to check their availability before setting your itinerary. For example, you may need to swap days around based on their availability.
Tip: We found a great balance between relaxation and adventure having one main activity each day and then spending any additional time relaxing at our resort. When the days were particularly hot this allowed us to recharge for the next day.
Day 1: Exploring Cairns
Today your Cairns trip begins! On your first day in Cairns, I recommend covering some of the sights and landmarks in the city while you wait for check-in time at your accommodation.
Continue reading for places to see in Cairns and what your first day could look like.
Experience the wonder of the ocean and the ecosystems of Northern Queensland at Cairns Aquarium. With over 70 animal habitats you can spend an easy couple of hours walking around the centre learning about the animals and their habitats from across the region.
For the older kids, the Cairns Aquarium is a fun learning opportunity that will inspire their curiosity. They will discover how the ecosystems in the region are connected and how important this is for the animals who have adapted to these conditions. From the rainforest to the reef see a variety of animals that live above and under the water.
The aquarium is well set out that you will pass by each exhibit. The knowledgeable wildlife educators can be found at various spots around the aquarium for daily habitat talks and animal feedings. One of the presentations is at the Coral Sea Amphitheatre which is a spectacular 10-metre deep reef tank.
Tip: The daily presentations are earlier in the day starting from 10.00 am. If you don’t want to miss these educational talks you will need to arrive early and check the guide map for times.
Practical Information: General Admission is open 7 days from 10 am – 3 pm (last admission at 2 pm)
Cairns Esplanade Lagoon
The Cairns Esplanade Lagoon is one of the most popular landmarks in Cairns and a brilliant free place to cool off during the warmer months. The 4800 sqm saltwater pool is located on the Cairns foreshore overlooking Trinity Inlet. The popular swimming hole is open all year and patrolled by lifeguards.
The edges of the lagoon are perfect for kids to splash in the shallow water or for a change of activity build sandcastles on the sandy beach area.
With free BBQ facilities nearby the Cairns Lagoon is a location where you could easily spend the better part of a day and one of the best free things to do in Cairns.
The Cairns Esplanade has three playgrounds that are fun for kids. One of the most popular is Muddy’s playground which is a combined splash and traditional playground. The playground has a variety of play equipment including a flying fox, rope bridge, slides, mouse wheel, see-saw, water play areas and much more!
While you are in the location take a stroll along the 2.5-kilometre stretch of foreshore that connects recreational facilities, dining outlets and grassy parklands. Pick up a souvenir or some local produce at the Esplanade Markets held each Saturday between 8.00 am and 4.00 pm.
With over 180 stalls Rusty’s Market is a Cairns icon and a long-running farmers market located in the CBD area. Over three days visitors and locals can purchase fresh local produce, flowers, bread, seafood, beverages, treats, clothing, jewellery, crafts and lots more! Stock the fridge for your stay in Cairns, or grab a souvenir to take home.
Practical Information: Rusty’s Market opening hours – Friday and Saturday 5 am – 6 pm and Sunday 5 am to 3 pm
Day 2: Day Trip to the Great Barrier Reef
One of the most popular attractions for anyone visiting Cairns is going to the Great Barrier Reef. With Cairns being one of the main starting points many tours depart daily offering visitors the opportunity to witness the kaleidoscopic colours under the water
Some Cairns day tours offer both half or full-day experiences. There are also many family-friendly reef experiences catering to all ages.
Option 1: Outer Reef Visit
A two-hour catamaran ride will take you to a permanent ponton stationed at the outer reef where you can spend the day in a natural lagoon. Sunlover Reef Cruises is one of the most popular companies that travel to Moore Reef which is known for its diverse range of coral species.
With a range of activities included this tour is an inclusive experience for all ages and abilities as it provides many opportunities to enjoy the colourful coral, clear water and vibrant fish.
There are semi-submersible and glass-bottom boat tours along with an underwater observatory for those who want to explore the reef without getting wet. Swimmers of all levels can snorkel in the lagoon that covers 7000 square metres.
Learn more about the marine species you have encountered under the water at the touch tank on board. For the kids and adrenaline seekers, Sunlover’s pontoon has a 30-metre spiralling waterslide that drops into the ocean.
Tour Suggestions: Find out more information and prices here
Option 2: Frankland Islands Reef Cruise
For an island experience, there are several options close to Cairns where you have the diversity of exploring the reef from the sand. Green Island is a popular choice as is Fitzroy Island (which I describe in further detail below).
We opted for a Frankland Islands Reef Cruise which travels to Normanby Island. It was a fabulous tour to explore the reef with children.
The tour sets sail at Deeral approximately 45 minutes south of Cairns. Enjoy a short 30-minute cruise down the Mulgrave River where if you are lucky, you may spot a crocodile on the riverbank. Once you reach the mouth of the river it is only a further 10 kilometres to your destination.
Upon reaching Normanby Island the day is full of fun activities catering to kids and adults. Choose from snorkelling straight off the sandy beach or take advantage of the kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. Take a guided drift snorkelling tour where you can experience the fringing reef and join a guided walk around the island learning about its ecosystem above and under the water.
This tour was a highlight of our Cairns trip and I have included some of the pros below.
- Meals included
- Knowledgeable and friendly staff
- A diverse range of activities
- Beautiful location
- Only operator to visit the island (meaning no crowds)
- Shorter boat ride to your destination
Tour options: Find out more information and prices here.
Option 3: Fitzroy Island
Set sail on a 45-minute boat ride from Cairns to Fitzroy Island with several services travelling daily to and from the island. Upon reaching your destination explore the numerous walking tracks where you can witness Fitzroy Islands’ lush rainforest that covers 97% of the island.
From the vantage points of the Lighthouse and the Summit Lookout marvel at the contrasting colours of the National Park to the sparkling blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef. Fitzroy Island is a popular place to explore the fringing reef. Visitors can snorkel, swim and dive off the beaches to witness the coral garden and local marine life.
For a different perspective or to enjoy the sheltered waters from above, there are many tours and activities you can join including a glass-bottom boat, kayak and stand-up paddleboard tour (fees apply for these activities and tours).
If seeing a turtle is on your bucket list on your trip the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre on Fitzroy Island is dedicated to the rehabilitation and release of sick and injured turtles.
Tip: Fitzroy Island is not your typical sandy beach, so make sure you take reef shoes for walking near the water.
Tour Suggestions: Find out more information and prices here for a full or half-day Trip
Day 3: Visit the village of Kuranda
One of the highlights in the Cairns area and undoubtedly one of the most popular Cairns day trips is a trip to the village Kuranda. There are many places in North Queensland where the journey is equally as impressive as the destination and this is one of them.
Located 1000 feet above Cairns, nestled amongst World Heritage rainforest Kuranda is one of those locations where the journey is profoundly memorable. The Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway are the unique forms of transportation to reach the colourful village.
While you are there enjoy the natural attractions such as rainforest walks. For wildlife experiences visit Kuranda Koala Gardens, Birworld Kuranda and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary which is the largest butterfly aviary and exhibit in Australia.
Day 4: Day trip to Port Douglas
An hour’s drive north is the beautiful town of Port Douglas. The laid-back coastal vibes and proximity to two World Heritage-listed areas make Port Douglas a premier tourist location. With palm tree-fringed sands, trendy dining outlets, nature walks, and access to many incredible tours there are many things to do in Port Douglas.
For a day trip to Port Douglas enjoy the simple things such as enjoying the sand under your feet as you stroll along Seven Mile Beach. Next up is a walk to Flagstaff Hill lookout. You can take the easy option and drive up to the lookout point, but the 1.3-kilometre trail is well-worth exploring on foot.
Many viewpoints around the track overlook the Coral Sea, including a viewing platform that offers 180-degree views. Once you reach Flagstaff Hill you will be greeted with Insta-famous views overlooking Four Mile Beach and the rainforest mountains.
Tip: Wear appropriate walking shoes on the Flagstaff Hill lookout track.
If you happen to be in Port Douglas on a Sunday visit the local Port Douglas Markets in Market Park. Famous for hand-crafted goods, fresh produce and good vibes.
Practical Information: Port Douglas Markets – Sunday 8.30 am – 1:30 pm
If you decide to grab a take-away lunch or merely want a place to relax in the shade make a beeline to Rex Smear Park. With views over the Coral Sea, nearby islands and Daintree mountain ranges, it is a perfect spot to watch the boats, relax with a picnic and enjoy the tropical weather.
Day 5: Exploring Cairns and departing
By day five you may be travelling home. If you have a full day take advantage of one of the options below. Alternatively, if you are short on time, but are not ready for your holiday to end spend some time at Cairns Botanic Gardens.
If you want to see tropical plants then take a trip to Cairns Botanic Gardens. The gardens are spread over 38 hectares and are known to have one of the best displays of tropical plants in Australia. During the week there are guided tours of the gardens or choose to wander at your own pace.
There are many garden areas and some of the popular collections include a conservatory and a Chinese-style friendship garden. There is a natural playground for the kids where the natural lakeside environment is integrated with play elements creating a fun and interactive space.
The Rainforest Boardwalk gives visitors a chance to imagine the area before settlement. This rare ecosystem is one of only a few locations now left and is home to the endangered Layered Tassel Fern.
Practical Information: Admission is free. Open every day from 7.30 am to 5.30 pm.
Cairns Itinerary 7 Days Plus
If you have more time in Cairns take a look at adding one or more of the below activities which can be added to your 7 – 10 day Cairns Itinerary.
Take a day trip to the idyllic Palm Cove located only 25 minutes north of Cairns. The palm-fringed beach runs parallel with Williams Esplanade – one of the most picturesque streets in the coastal town. Palm Cove has enough to entertain visitors who want to keep active while also offering some low-key activities for those wanting some relaxation time.
Read More: If you would like to know more about Palm Cove, I share a guide at the bottom of this article.
The Daintree Rainforest is the oldest living rainforest in the world, estimated to be over 135 million years old. Spanning over 17,000 hectares there is a lot of ground to cover if you are wanting to explore this area in Far North Queensland.
The Daintree Discovery Centre is a multi-faceted venue where you can learn and explore an unspoiled lowland pocket in the rainforest. Further north at Cape Tribulation is where two World Heritage-listed sites meet – the rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. Both options can be seen on a self-guided drive, or opt for a full-day tour that includes the Daintree River, Cape Tribulation and Mossman Gorge.
Tour Suggestions: Find more information and prices on popular Daintree tours here
The Tablelands region is made up of several towns over a vast area located in the tropics. Travelling time is dependent on the attractions you are wanting to visit. This region is a nature lovers’ paradise that is brimming with activities.
You can easily spend several days to a week in this area alone. The activities and sights include magnificent waterfalls, geological wonders, hiking trails, scenic drives and much more. It is also the place to visit for gourmet delights and fresh produce.
Some of the top things to do in the Atherton Tablelands are:
- A trip to Kuranda (mentioned above)
- Waterfall circuit
- Crystal Caves
- Crater Lakes National Park
- Curtain Fig Tree
- Paronella Park
Pro Tip for self-drive day trips from Cairns: If you want to incorporate a few activities and sights into one day trip from Cairns you can opt for this circuit. Cairns to Paronella Park, onwards to Josephine Falls, stopping off at Babinda Boulders for a swim before returning to Cairns. These were easily achieved in one day. We purchased these tickets to Paronella Park
Fresh Water Swimming Holes
Swimming is an activity that can be enjoyed year-round in Tropical North Queensland. If you are searching for somewhere to cool off you have come to the right place as this region has many safe freshwater swimming holes. Lake Eacham in the Crater Lakes National Park draws visitors from far and wide with its stunning shades of blue.
The Babinda Boulders swimming hole is surrounded by picturesque rainforest. While closer to Cairns is Crystal Cascades where the series of water holes are popular not only with visitors but the locals.
Hartleys Crocodile Adventures
Existing for over 200 million years, Crocodiles have roamed the North Queensland region. One way to see them up close is at Hartleys Crocodile Adventures, 40 minutes from Cairns. Entertaining as well as educational you can wander around the wildlife discovery trail learning not only about these fascinating reptiles but other animals from Australia and abroad. Stop at the demonstrations throughout the park including cassowary and crocodile feedings.
Practical Information: Open daily (except Christmas Day) from 8.30 am – 5.00 pm
Mossman Gorge is your gateway to the Daintree Rainforest and would typically be a great day trip from Port Douglas, but if you have the time it is worth the drive. There are a couple of ways to experience Mossman Gorge and they all involve a voyage through the unspoiled rainforest.
A shuttle bus escorts visitors from the Mossman Gorge Centre to the heart of the Gorge where you can take a self-guided walk through the lush rainforest listening to the bird calls and the flow of the river. For a deeper understanding take a Dreamtime Walk where you discover the culture and traditions of the Kuku Yalanji Traditional Custodians and the relationship between the rainforest and Indigenous people.
Practical Information: You can’t drive to the Gorge itself. The shuttle bus which departs every 15 minutes is the only way to access the area. Fees do apply.
Where to Stay in Cairns
When visiting Cairns there is a huge range of accommodation to choose from. Here are some suggestions of the best hotels, resorts and holiday parks for all budgets.
- Crystalbrook Riley – a five-star luxury hotel located on the waterfront Esplanade
- Shangri-La The Marina – highly-rated Hotel with views over the Cairns Marlin Marina
- Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort – close to the City Centre featuring a lagoon pool with a sandy beach.
- Ingenia Holidays Cairns Coconut – an award-winning holiday park highly popular with families
- Southern Cross Atrium Apartments – centrally located non-serviced holiday apartments
Where to Eat in Cairns
Are you searching for places to dine in Cairns? We recommend the below from our personal experience.
Dundee’s Restaurant at Cairns Aquarium
Contemporary dining while sitting nearby the largest fish tank within an Australian restaurant. Dundee’s Café and Restaurant is located at the Cairns Aquarium and is a unique dining experience where you can watch tropical fish swim around a 70,000-litre marine aquarium. The menu has an array of options and they also offer a kids menu that caters to all appetites.
Pro Tip: Dundee’s Restaurant is only open for dinner Wednesday – Saturday. Book ahead of time and don’t miss out. We has an amazing experience here and the food was impeccable.
For some of the freshest seafood in Cairns, Prawn Star is the place to visit. Located close to the Cairns Lagoon the Prawn Star is a quirky boat that sits in the marina. Find a seat onboard or grab a takeaway seafood platter to take back to your accommodation or eat in the nearby parklands.
Dundee’s Waterfront Dining
Another Dundee’s Restaurant is located in the waterfront dining precinct overlooking Trinity Inlet. Offering an extensive menu, including a children’s menu Dundee’s is a popular place to dine out for good food, a picturesque outlook and a tropical ambience.
We hope you found this guide to Cairns helpful! As you can see there is a lot to do and see in the area. If you need some further assistance with planning trips in Queensland may also be interested in reading our North Queensland Road Trip Itinerary or the Road Trip Guide from Brisbane to Townsville.
How many days in Cairns?
If you want to see some of the main attractions, 3 full days in Cairns would be the minimum to tick off a couple of bucket list items. I would recommend staying for 4 or 5 nights to make the trip count. Save this article or make a list of activities and sights you may have missed the first time around as I’m sure you will want to return.
Best time of year to visit Cairns?
The best time to visit Cairns is anytime! In saying this they do have a wet season which starts at the end of November and runs during the summer months. Stinger season is from October to May, so if you are going out on the reef you will need to wear a stinger suit, which most companies provide or you can hire.
What are the top sights and attractions in Cairns?
As you have read from the above information there are many amazing activities and sights in and around Cairns. Depending on what you enjoy your top preferences may be different to mine. Our top three suggestions for things to do on your first trip to Cairns would be: Visiting the Great Barrier Reef, a day trip to Kuranda and exploring the city of Cairns.
I hope you enjoyed the above guide on what to do in Cairns! If you need further assistance with planning your Queensland holiday, check out our other articles as well. Below are some of our travel guides that may help.
- Top Planning Tips for a Kuranda Day Trip
- Top Things to do in Port Douglas
- The Ultimate List of Things to do in Palm Cove
- North Queensland Road Trip Itinerary
Do you have any unanswered questions on Cairns? Let me know in the comments below!
Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links, which may reward us with a small commission (at no extra cost to you) if you purchase through them.Thanks for supporting the blog in this way as it allows me to continue sharing helpful content with you.
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