Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the idea of living – Miriam Beard
Cairns, Queensland, Australia
Undoubtedly, Cairns is most commonly known for the Great Barrier Reef. It is one of many points along the North East coast of Australia that this world heritage listed area can be reached from. But there’s also a lot more to Cairns than this main attraction; the rainforest to the north, the waterfalls to the south and plenty of free things to enjoy within the town centre too. We called Cairns ‘home’ for 3 months and we’re keen to show you our favourite, most cost-effective days out. Read on to uncover our top 7 free things to do in Cairns.
The Best Free Things To Do In Cairns
Cairns is a tourist city common with many travellers, from backpackers to families, couples and groups. It goes without saying that there is an abundance of things to do. Plenty of shops sell Australian souvenirs, there’s a wide variety of food and drink places on offer and an impressive waterfront that creates a strong community vibe. You can stay in hostels, motels, apartments or skyrise hotels. Life here is heavily focused around the reef, with many tourist information centres and companies selling tours and boat trips. But what can you do in Cairns for little or no money at all?
From Tjapukai Village to the Kuranda Railway, many activities and days out in Cairns can easily set you back a fair amount of dollars. If however, you are short on cash or in Cairns for a while, don’t miss these top 7 free things to do in Cairns.
1. Cairns Lagoon
Let’s start with Cairns itself. The most well-known spot to be able to enjoy a great free day out is definitely Cairns Lagoon. This outdoor swimming pool suitable for all ages and abilities sits back from the ocean with public bathrooms, BBQs and showers. The lagoon is an ideal place to head after work on a hot summer day, at lunchtime to enjoy a cool drink or bite to eat, or on Sundays when live bands create a relaxing and uplifting vibe with their performances. There’s soft sand to bury your toes in, shade canopies to avoid the sun whilst still having your feet in the water and small fountains for children to safely play in.
Traveller Tip: Grab fresh smoothies from Snoogies Health Bar to enjoy at the lagoon or shop in nearby Rusty’s Market for BBQ grub to cook up on one of the many free public BBQs.
2. Cairns Esplanade
The lagoon makes up part of Cairns Esplanade, a long stretch along the oceanfront with amble other things to enjoy. We recommend walking the boardwalk from the lagoon to the north, along the coast. Marvel at aboriginal art, read all about the history of Cairns and observe the mangroves with its many birds and fish. Photograph pelicans or see if you can spot small crabs popping in and out of the mud. The boardwalk is dotted with benches for picnics and a variety of seats looking out to the ocean. It’s a great place to walk at leisure and learn more about Cairns or to run, jog, cycle or skate at any time of day.
Traveller Tip: One of our favourite days in Cairns was a sunny day with a packed lunch where we walked the boardwalk north to south, reading about its diverse culture, various industries and aboriginal clans. When the sun got too intense, we finished up perfectly timed at the lagoon to cool off in the shallow water.
3. Cairns Botanical Gardens
Another great day out in Cairns for free is the botanical gardens. Located to the north of the city, the gardens have multiple walking tracks and are a great place to learn about the many plants and trees that thrive in the area. Visit the bamboo forest or enjoy the mangrove walk. If you prefer slightly more rigorous exercise, hike one of the multiple tracks that take you high above the city. The red route is the shortest, taking approximately 45 minutes to complete and affording you views of the airport and Cairns from above.
Traveller Tip: Stop in the Botanical Gardens cafe for a refreshing juice made with natural ingredients and freshly prepared on site. Park yourself in an outdoor seat and soak up the green, full of life trees surrounding you.
We save money on drinking water by travelling with a Water-to-Go bottle.
4. Cairns Library
It might not sound cool, but trust us, try the library! This impressive building is one of the best you will see in Cairns. It is also home to local fruit bats who sleep in the surrounding trees during the daytime. Don’t miss a visit just before the sun goes down when the bats take their nightly flight over to the mountains from this Cairns spot. Hundreds of bat silhouettes fill the night sky to go searching for food, before returning to the trees in town by day. The library, of course, is also a great place to find insightful Australian reads, perfect for a relaxed day at the lagoon or for enjoying in the Botanical Gardens.
Traveller Tip: We love reading about the country we’re in through history books and biographies. Don’t miss the section in Cairns Library on aboriginal history and culture. We were mesmerised by tales of hunting and sleeping under the stars, naming ceremonies and clans, medicinal plants and traditional diet. We were also saddened to learn of the haunting and surprisingly modern history of Australia, stories of whites and blacks colliding all over the continent, and then the pioneers of reconciliation doing their best to right the very obvious wrongs. Trust us, you don’t want to miss learning a little of the real Australia and its struggles whilst here.
5. Cairns Northern Beaches
For almost free, you can catch a bus to one of the many northern beaches of Cairns. For just $7, a return ticket will take you as far as Palm Cove, our favourite Northern beach. Palm Cove has many boutique shops, quaint hotels on the seafront and is a picturesque setting. Walk between the tree-lined paths, swim in the designated swimming enclosure to avoid marine stingers and crocodiles, and pack a picnic to enjoy sitting back from the water on the many grassy areas under the shade of the trees.
Traveller Tip: When you’ve enjoyed Palm Cove, walk the boardwalk south to the next beach along. This boardwalk sits atop mangroves filled with mud crabs and if you’re lucky you’ll spot kangaroos too. Buses depart regularly from most northern beaches – check local timetables for details.
You may also like these Top 7 Beach Camping Spots in Australia.
6. Atherton Tablelands
South and inland of Cairns, the Atherton Tablelands region is home to award-winning produce and some very impressive waterfalls. Visit during or after the wet season to benefit from their truly impressive nature. Choose from Josephine Falls, Lake Eachem, Babinda Boulders, Millaa Millaa Falls and more. Many tour operators will provide a great day out at the falls for reasonable prices. These days out are a great option for those looking to meet other travellers
Traveller Tip: If you want to enjoy the falls as cheaply as possible and are confident driving in Australia, hire a car from around $40 a day and spend as much time as you like in each of these natural swimming locations.
You may also like our Daintree Rainforest Road Trip Tips.
7. Cairns to Port Douglas Coastal Drive
Lastly, we highly recommend the coastal drive between Cairns and Port Douglas. Rated as the third most scenic drive in Australia, this highway hugs the coastline with multiple beautiful lookout points. So take this drive at leisure, with ample time to stop and admire the views. Port Douglas offers boutique shops, lush hotels and a slightly more sophisticated vibe to that found in Cairns. Once in Port Douglas, drive up to one of the many lookout points for photos and a picnic lunch. Be sure to wander the shops in town and sit back and enjoy an iced tea or coffee. Port Douglas is about relaxing, unwinding and just being still. Multiple boat trips also depart Port Douglas if you want to see the reefs from here instead of, or as well as, from Cairns.
Traveller Tip: We highly recommend a drive up to 4 Mile Beach Lookout where you will find glorious beach views, perfect for snapping great photos.
Are you using Cairns as the start or end of a road trip? Check out our Epic East Coast of Australia Road Trip for tips on where to camp, what to do and how much to budget for.
Accommodation in Cairns
Accommodation wise in Cairns, you are spoilt for choice. If you are staying in Cairns for a significant amount of time, consider renting an apartment with Cairns Sharehouse, a great option if you are studying, on a working-holiday or planning to stay longer but need a few weeks to get yourself sorted. The Sharehouse has multiple locations of which our personal choice was Martyn Street. Martyn Street is approximately a 25-minute walk from the Esplanade, a 15-minute walk to the supermarket and has a shared pool for those humid summer days.
We would also recommend Queens Court Motel, a great value for money option for shorter trips. The staff were wonderfully helpful with our luggage storage when we arrived and departed this motel and there is a shared BBQ area outside by the pool, complete with ample cooking utensils for the money-conscious traveller.
Cairns Esplanade is also dotted with higher end hotels if you are looking to splash a little more cash, or there is an endless variety of hostels in Cairns if you seek the more laid back, backpacker lifestyle.
Food in Cairns
Food in Cairns is quite typical of tourist towns and we struggled to find real eating out gems. Fast food options are everywhere, as are more upmarket burger places and there are ample takeaways with great Thai or Chinese food. If you are searching for a restaurant with a view, take a walk along the seafront and take your pick. Many restaurants offer discount vouchers and themed nights, all happily competing for your business.
Eating Vegan in Cairns? Discover our Top 5 Vegan Restaurants now.
What Activities Are Worth Spending Your Money On In Cairns?
Whilst in Cairns, there are certainly some activities that are worth spending your money on. We imagine that for pretty much everyone, one of those activities will be a trip to the Great Barrier Reef to either swim, snorkel or dive. Be sure to choose a reputable company that respects the reef and vows to protect it for future generations.
To begin to get to know Australia better, use your time in Cairns to spend a day or a night at Tjapukai Cultural Park, learning about aboriginal culture and taking part in rituals and events.
Getting To Know Cairns
Cairns is located in North Queensland. A tropical region with varying landscapes and delicious local produce. We recommend at least 5 days here. Spend time enjoying nearby impressive examples of Mother Nature such as the reef, the rainforest and the waterfalls. Then take a couple of days to get to know the city and its cultural spirit, a diverse melting pot and a busy tourist town. Walk the esplanade, cool off at the lagoon and watch the bats fly over the city as the sun sets. Eat in delicious local cafes and restaurants or try the popular tourist hotspots. Cairns is a buzzing city alive with music, people and culture. Natural beauty surrounds you from the mountains high in the west down to the ocean floor to the east. Let the legends of this place take you on a journey of old meets new.
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