Cairns is touted as the "gateway to the Great Barrier Reef" and other destinations such as Kuranda and the Daintree rainforest in Far North Queensland, Australia, although the city itself has little to offer to travelers besides tour agencies, a handful of restaurants, cafes, and backpacker bars, and a long walk along the espalade looking out at the swampy shoreline. Its 150,000 residents are regularly outnumbered by domestic and international visitors.



The Cairns area has historically been inhabited by the indigenous Walubarra Yidinji people. Mapped by James Cook and named Trinity Bay in 1770, it was officially founded in 1876 as an export port for gold and renamed after the then-Governor of Queensland. Commonly mispronounced as cans, the actual pronunciation of Cairns is somewhat closer to kare-nz, with a non-silent "r".

The main industry for the city is tourism, with focus on the European, Japanese and increasingly Chinese markets. There are a plethora of clubs and coffee shops, all overflowing with international tourists. Cairns is also supported by agricultural businesses which include sugar cane, bananas, coffee, tea and the world's first tropical fruit wine region.

Peak season in Cairns is during the more comfortable winter months of June–August, especially compared to the hotter and stickier summer months. A particularly busy time occurs in the first two weeks of July during school holidays.

There is no swimming beach to speak of in central Cairns, although there are many choices just north and south of the city. A large outdoor, lagoon-style pool is in the centre of the Cairns City area, which is very popular throughout the year with tourists and locals alike. For a beach side resort holiday, there are several resorts a short drive north of Cairns.

Get in

By plane

Part of Cairns International Airport

Cairns International Airport (IATA: CNS) is the primary international gateway into the region and is also served by many domestic flights. Cairns Airport has two terminals: a domestic terminal and an international terminal, both within walking distance from each other.

The international airlines serving Cairns are:

The domestic airlines serving Cairns are:

Cairns airport has a paid Wi-Fi service.

Shuttle Bus and Taxi

Shuttle bus transfers are available from the Cairns Airport, prices range between $15.00 to $17.00 (one passenger one way) and $25.00 to $35.00 (one passenger return) to Cairns city. The Cairns Airport shuttle buses typically depart the airport hourly. Cairns taxi' depart from the Cairns Airport and the trip will range between $25.00 to $35.00 to Cairns City (possibly a small wait). If you don't book a shuttle transfer before arriving in Cairns there is only one company you can travel with. Google the different shuttle bus companies as to get the cheaper price you have to book prior to arriving in Cairns. The shuttle buses offering transfers from Cairns Airport are:-

By train

Cairns Station

Cairns Station is right in the city centre, easily within walking distance of the waterfront and most hotels.

The Queensland Railways Spirit of Queensland services connect Cairns to Brisbane (via Townsville and Rockhampton), taking 25 hr for the full journey. A trip between Townsville and Cairns takes nearly 7 hours by train (compared to only 4 hours by car).

The train departs from Brisbane Mon, Tues, Wed, Fri and Sat at 3:45PM, and returns from Cairns Mon, Wed, Thu, Fri and Sun at 9:00AM

The Kuranda Scenic Railway, also operated by Queensland Rail, runs from Cairns to Kuranda, stopping over the majestic Barron Gorge to allow passengers to leave the train and enjoy the beautiful view over the water. Trains depart Cairns at 8:30AM and 9:30AM daily arriving at Kuranda at 10:15AM and 11:15AM.

The Savannahlander travels from Cairns to Kuranda but then continues on to the outback town of Forsayth. It leaves Cairns at 6:30AM every Wednesday with a compulsory overnight stop at Almaden (with transfers available to Chillagoe), before arriving at Forsayth Station at 5:45PM on Thursday. The Savannahlander does not run between December and March.

By car

The 1,700 km Bruce Highway running south along the coast connects Cairns to the state capital of Brisbane. It takes 22 hr to drive without stopping, and you should allow at least 2–3 days of solid driving, or longer for a more relaxed pace of drive up the coast. There are regular towns along the coast which make good stopping off and sightseeing points.

Get around

The centre of Cairns is small enough to be covered on foot, but a car is needed to see the surrounding attractions if you are not taking a tour. Expect morning and evening congestion in the city centre, as day trippers flock in and out of the town. Numerous car rental agencies are available from the airport or in the city centre. During peak season, make sure to book the car in advance.

Sunbus operates the public bus network and offer eight routes through the city. The terminal of all routes is at the corner of Lake and Shield Street in the centre. You can buy a bus ticket starting from $2.30 for a single adult in one zone.

There are also a number of car rental companies available from Cairns airport.


Cairns serves as the gateway to the region and is rather short of cultural sights. Besides some historic buildings from the colonial era, the Esplanade and the bars/pubs are the main attraction of Cairns.


Natural attractions


Swimmers using the lagoon on a winter's day

Cairns is an adventure sports enthusiast's paradise: every second shop is a tourist information centre with signs blaring "dive dive" or "tandem skydiving". Its location close to the ocean, the mountains and the rainforest gives travellers lots of choices of activities.

Standby rates are ubiquitous: many of the more expensive activities, including scuba diving and skydiving, are up to $150 cheaper if you are prepared to go on standby for a cancellation.

Cairns beach warning

Diving and snorkelling

A number of Cairns operators run day and liveaboard scuba diving trips from both Cairns and Port Douglas, and almost all include complimentary day-transfers for their passengers between the two. For seeing the Great Barrier Reef, the smaller dive boats provide the most intimate experience, both for diving and for snorkelling and are excellent for the confident or experienced. The larger operations have more amenities - better food, larger and faster boats, more activities, and often easier access to the water and are great for beginners, but sometimes provide a poorer underwater experience, as the underwater areas that the larger boats visit are heavily used.

For some serious airtime

If you are sick of the sea, head up in the air for skydiving, hang gliding or hot air ballooning. The Cairns region has some of the best weather for ballooning in the world and so trips go year round and are rarely cancelled. It's also one of the cheapest places to go flying, anywhere. The trips go inland to the Atherton Tablelands and take off at first light at Mareeba, finishing around 10AM and can connect directly to a Great Barrier Reef tour or drop you in Kuranda. Hang gliders fly off Rex Point Lookout, halfway between Cairns and Port Douglas on the Captain Cook Highway. On weekends, it's common to see multiple gliders soaring the sky above the scenic lookout, and the winter season provides consistent flight conditions.

White water rafting

Rafting in North Queensland has the advantage of departures all year round, tropical water temperatures and ease of access to compliment breath-taking scenery and rapids. The region's white water rafting adventures are suitable for all levels of fitness and enthusiasm. Ride through the planet's oldest continuously growing tropical rainforests on rivers that still run totally wild.

Coach tours

Many coach tours depart Cairns daily, with a couple of hundred to choose from. There are rainforest tours to Mossman Gorge, the Daintree River, Cape Tribulation, and the Cairns Highlands (Atherton Tablelands), specialised 4WD tours, city sights tours, tours to wildlife parks, outback tours.


Shops selling pearls are fairly widespread in Cairns, with a huge price range. You can find real A-grade pearls from the Torres Strait - not cheap, but at the end more than fair in comparison to the European or US prices for the same quality level.


As with much of Cairns, you can divide the city into the Esplanade and the places within a block of it, and the rest of the city. The Esplanade is littered with bar and grill places supplying red meat and beer all in the one place, and with seafood restaurants. It's relatively difficult to find anything open before 11AM, since they expect the clientele to be sleeping in. The rest of the city has small cafes and milkbars catering to locals. The number of Japanese tourists here makes Japanese food a fairly reliable option, although prices can be steep.

A number of the more expensive restaurants on the Esplanade, particularly towards the north end, offer discounts of 20-30% for early birds: usually you will need to order by 6:30PM and pay and leave no later than 7:30PM to get a discounted meal.


Oz beer run

Cairns has pubs and bars to cater to travellers, students, and locals.


Cairns has seemingly endless places to stay, but during high season (June - September) most hotels are well booked.


There are over 20 hostels, with bunks in the $16–30 range. Many of the hostels are not particularly clean or well-maintained.


Mid-range Cairns hotels, resorts, and inns are listed here alphabetically.


Stay safe

Cairns Base Hospital

Cairns is in general a safe city with all the annoyances (e.g. pickpockets and touts) that a city full of tourists experiences. The most notable threats are nature and the weather. Cairns is hit by tropical cyclones during the rain season (December until March) that causes damage to the infrastructure and stops public activities.

Go next



This small town nestled in the rainforest-covered mountains just north of Cairns draws thousands of tourists each week and is perhaps the most popular daytrip from the city. Kuranda (elevation 330 m) is 25 km from Cairns via the Kennedy Highway, which snakes its way over the Macalister Range. However, most visitors reach the town by taking the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway or Kuranda Railroad, both of which offer transfers to Cairns and package deals with Kuranda attractions. Skyrail travels above the rainforest with stations along the route to explore the rainforest environment and view the Barron River Falls. The Kuranda Railway makes a scenic trip through Barron Gorge National Park. The town itself offers plenty of shopping and is home to several wildlife parks.

Further out

Routes through Cairns

Normanton Kuranda  E  S  Innisfail Townsville

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