Cairns is a great city and a fun place to base yourself on a visit to Far North Queensland. But once of the best reasons to spend some time in Cairns is for the tours and the day trips you can do from here.
You’re right on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef, obviously, and there’s also the rainforest and all the different areas within it to explore. But I think Cairns is also an awesome spot for some soft adventure activities – rafting and canyoning and that kind of thing.
I want to share some of my tips for the best tours in Cairns that you can take during the day. In the evenings, there are cool bars and restaurants to relax, but if you don’t want to spend your daytime by the pool, you might need to look around the city for some of these activities.
If you’ve never been to the Great Barrier Reef, that’s a must-do and there are a few different options, depending on how much time you want to spend underwater and how deep you want to get into things (figuratively).
And the rainforest is another highlight of the region that I recommend you don’t miss. Luckily there are quite a few locations you can choose from and some excellent tours in Cairns that range from relaxation to active.
Speaking of active, Cairns is one of the best spots in Australia to do some of those exciting activities like skydiving and bungee jumping, so I’ve got some tips on tours from Cairns that will take you out to those kind of adventures.
And there are a few other fun things that highlight some of the wonderful tropical nature of the region, as well as the local culture.
Great Barrier Reef from Cairns
There are lots of options for Great Barrier Reef tours in Cairns but remember, they are not made equal! Not only do they go to different parts of the reef (the inner or outer, or specific islands, for instance), some have more of a focus on getting underwater, on the cultural elements of the reef, on the environmental aspects of this natural wonder.
Also, to be honest, some will give you more personal attention to make sure you have a fantastic day trip, while others are more concerned about getting as many paying passengers on board their ship.
Here are a few Cairns Great Barrier Reef tours that I would recommend, which all have a slightly different perspective.
- If you’re looking for just a general day out on the Great Barrier Reef, then this tour to an outer reef pontoon could be the answer. It’s very family-friendly and comfortable for all ages. It’s a good introduction to the reef and suitable for non-swimmer.
- Another option to visit the outer reef is this premium tour where the focus is on the snorkelling and the diving. You’ll go to two exclusive locations and guided snorkelling tours are included, while diving is an optional extra. (GYG)
- If you want to minimise the time on the boat, I would recommend this excellent tour to the Frankland Islands. It’s some of the best coral close to land, you’ll have lunch on the island, and you’ll also learn about the reef environment.
- And a unique offering in Cairns is a tour with Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel where you’ll get to see the reef but also get a better understanding of the region’s history and culture with the Indigenous rangers.
Other water activities from Cairns
Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef is not the only water-based tour you can do from Cairns – which is lucky, because it can get hot and humid up here!
There are some other fun options here to consider:
- Head out on a jet boat ride from the centre of Cairns for an exhilarating trip full of thrills (and hopefully not spills). The guide will also tell you a bit about the area. It doesn’t take long, so this is a good activity to do when you don’t want to be away the whole day.
- Just off the coast of Cairns is Fitzroy Island, an awesome spot which you can explore however you want – hiking, swimming, snorkelling – or just relax. This Fitzroy Island tour gets you over there and includes lunch and a couple of activities but also leaves you time to do your own thing.
- I’m going to have a few more rainforest suggestions in a moment, but I just wanted to mention this river tubing tour down the river. Safe, easy, and comfortable – it’s a wonderful way to see all the nature while being in the cool water!
- And another fun river activity is this standup paddleboarding tour. My favourite thing (other than the dogs that often come along) is that it’s quite early in the morning – because it’s a wonderful way to start the day!
Adventure in Cairns
As I mentioned earlier, Cairns has really developed a reputation as one of the main adventure centres in Australia and there is heaps to do here if you want to get active (with different difficulty levels).
One of the great things is that many of the activities make the most of the stunning natural environment, so you may be in the rivers, over the rainforest, amongst the mountains. There’s a good reason adventure activities have formed here – because Cairns has the right setting!
Even if you don’t consider yourself to be adventurous, you might surprise yourself – these adventure tours from Cairns are really fun, even if you don’t normally like adrenaline, and many of them are family-friendly.
- One of my favourite adventure activities in Cairns is this canyoning tour – and I say that as someone who had never done it before I came here. Canyoning is a mixture of jumping off cliffs, sliding down waterfalls, abseiling from ledges, and other exploring as you make your way down the river.
- For one of the scariest adventures, there’s this skydiving experience where you’ll get incredible views of the region around Cairns and out to the Great Barrier Reef. You’ll freefall for about 60 seconds which is… terrifying!
- The region around Cairns has some of the best rivers for rafting and I definitely recommend you take the opportunity to do one of these white water rafting tours. The rapids are just the right difficulty so it’s fun but suitable for every skill level.
- If you’re looking for an option where you won’t get quite as wet, you can go quad biking through the rainforest. Bumping along the dirt trails and through creek crossings is a lot of fun.
- For a very easy and comfortable bit of ‘adventure’ then head to Cairns Zoom, located at the top of the casino in the city centre. Here, you can walk around the outside of the zoom – there are no barriers but you’ll be connected with a rope. There are amazing views of the city!
- And for a longer rope, with a bit more elasticity, then there’s this tour from Cairns that will take you out to both a bungee jump and the giant swing in the rainforest for a fun adventure combo!
Just 25 kilometres away from Cairns is Kuranda, a small village in the rainforest that is an easy day trip option for people who maybe don’t want to drive all the way up to the Daintree.
For this reason, it’s become a bit of a tourist hub and there are lots of activities to do around here. The main ones are the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway over the top of the rainforest, and the Kuranda Scenic Railway, one of the most unique rail journeys in Australia.
If your priority is to explore the details of the rainforest, consider one of the longer tours to the Daintree that I mention in the next section. But if you’re looking for an easy excursion from the city, one of these options could be perfect:
- If you have your own car, you might be interested in this self-drive Kuranda experience because you’ll save a bit of money by not using the transfer. Once you arrive, you’ll take the cableway over the top of the rainforest, get to explore the village, then come back in gold class on the scenic railway.
- With a transfer from Cairns, this day-trip experience includes all the highlights like the rainforest cableway, scenic railway and spare time in the village. You’ll be able to explore at your own leisure without a guide.
- If you want to do more than just wander the village, this guided tour has the cableway and railway but also some time in a World War II Army Duck amphibious vehicle, which will take you through the river and rainforest.
- And there is this full-day tour of Kuranda that really packs in a lot, including the scenic railway, army duck ride, and aboriginal dance show. In some ways, I think it has too much and it can be a bit rushed, but it’s a good option if you’re the kind of person who likes to pack a lot in!
Rainforest from Cairns
Without a doubt, the wet tropics is one of the highlights of Far North Queensland – there’s a reason the region gets promoted as ‘the rainforest meets the reef’. And I recommend you find enough time to see this natural wonder properly.
You can obviously drive yourself to places like Mossman Gorge, but going on a guided tour from Cairns will offer a much deeper insight into the rainforest, and possibly take you to areas you might not be able to reach on your own.
There are patches of rainforest all up the coast but some of the best is in the Daintree, and that’s where I would suggest you visit on one of the following tours.
- To see as much as possible, this great day trip will take you to the three main stops in the Daintree: Mossman Gorge, a river cruise, and Cape Tribulation. It’s a general tour and a good way to get an overview of the area.
- Although it goes to very similar places as the previous option, you might prefer this 4WD tour of the Daintree because it guarantees a small group and a bit more of a personal experience.
- To see even more of the region, you can do this combination of 2 day tours that will take you north of Cairns one day and south the other, exploring the Daintree Rainforest and the Atherton Tablelands. I think it’s really good value!
- And to learn more about the Indigenous heritage of the rainforest and look at the landscape from a different perspective, there’s this fascinating Aboriginal culture day in the Daintree.
A few other ideas
And, finally, just a few other ideas that show you the diversity of the tours in Cairns and some of the other interesting things you can do.
Many people think that Cairns can be a bit dull – the kind of place where you just laze by the pool, or use as a stopping point on the way to Port Douglas or Mission Beach. I’m here to tell you they’re wrong!
There’s so much you can do here once you start to look around, and all of these tours have shown you that, I hope.
- It’s hard to describe what Paronella Park is before you go – but imagine a large landscaped estate with a waterfall built by a Spaniard many years ago. You’ll need to drive yourself, but you can buy a ticket here for a tour of the park that also includes entry to nearby Mamu Skywalk to look across the rainforest canopy.
- There are some amazing producers in the region making all sorts of interesting food. You can try some of the local produce on this Atherton Tablelands food and wine tour.
- In the hills around Cairns are some delightful waterfalls and rock pools, and this day tour will take you to some of the best, as well as look for wildlife and some lesser-visited rainforest pockets.
- And, finally, if you want to see it all at once, there’s this scenic flight that will give you a birds-eye view of the reef and the beautiful rainforest region up here in Queensland!
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN CAIRNS
There are lots of places to stay in Cairns and the nicer ones tend to be closer to the water, but you’ll get great value further out.