Cairns itinerary | The ultimate guide to 3 days in Cairns

Tropical rainforests nestled next to one of the famous stretches of coral in the world, Cairns is a must-stop on any Australian itinerary. From spotting saltwater crocodiles in the incredible Daintree rainforest, to swimming with white-tip sharks on the Great Barrier Reef, or just chilling back with a cold brew at the Woolshed, or on the renowned Esplanade, Cairns offers so much to do that it feels impossible to cram it all into just three days. But, we’ve done just that. We’ve created a tried-and-tested journey for you through this North Queensland gem, with a few bonus activities thrown in for good measure. Ready to get cracking? Let’s dive into our ultimate 3 days in Cairns itinerary.

What does the perfect 3 days in Cairns itinerary look like?

  • Day 1 | Coastal Drive, Daintree Rainforest, Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation
  • Day 2 | Snorkelling or scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef
  • Day 3 | Skyrail, Australia Butterfly Sanctuary and Kuranda Scenic Railway

Why go to Cairns

So if you’ve found this article, it’s because you’re already set on spending a few days in Cairns, but just in case you need a little more inspiration as to why you need spend at least 3 days in Cairns, we’ve come up with a few reasons why you need to go!

  • It is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, which means you’ll find some of the best snorkelling and scuba diving in the world. More than just the place featured in many a David Attenborough documentary, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the natural wonders of the world, and one of those places you must see before you die.
  • It’s got a chilled, relaxed beachside vibe that suits most. Whether you’re chilling on the beach, forest-hopping or out on the water, any stress you’ll have will melt away when exploring Cairns.
  • More keen on a party? Cairns has got that in spades too. A backpacker haven, you can find a cheap night of beers and dancing with abandon at places like the Woolshed and Gilligans.
  • If you’re not a water baby, you can still marvel at the Daintree Forest, which is oldest rainforest in the world. The natural wonder of the region means there is so much to see, and phenomenal hikes if you like the great outdoors.
  • Sun, sun, sun. Cairns has a really temperate, sunny climate which means that for most of the year you can escape the wintry blues.

Is 3 days in Cairns enough?

You could quite easily spend a week in Cairns and the surrounding regions and you wouldn’t even touch on all the amazing experiences that you are able to do in and around Cairns. However, if you’re looking to tick off some of the big Australia bucket list items, then you can definitely do loads in a 3 day Cairns itinerary. But, we’ve also been super helpful and included a few extra options for Cairns, along with some bonus day trips, just in case you are able to spend a few more days and want to extend this to a longer Cairns itinerary.

Read next: Heading to Sydney? Check out all the best photo spots in the city!

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Day 1

So it’s your first day in Cairns but we actually want to suggest you venture out of Cairns itself, and go a little bit north to visit the oldest rainforest in the world.

Coastal Drive / Bloomfield Track

We’d actually suggest that for the first day in Cairns, you take a full day to explore a little further north of Cairns. The idea is to follow the coastal road known as the Bloomfield Track from Cairns towards Cooktown which will give you an experience available nowhere else in the world. You’ll be able to see two World Heritage sites – the Wet Tropics (including Daintree Forest) and the Great Barrier Reef – come together. It’s where the rainforest meets the reef. Now it would be quite a journey to travel all the way to Cooktown (4-5 hours) so we’d suggest you only get as far as Cape Tribulation, before turning around. The stops along the way? Well, read on…

Mossman Gorge

It should take you about 1.5 – 2 hours (77km) to reach the Mossman Gorge. The Gorge is essentially the gateway to the Daintree National Park and is a 56,000 hectare area which really showcases the spectacular beauty of the park. Take a walk along the elevated boardwalks through the canopy of trees, meander along the river, watch butterflies flitting around you and see pristine clear waters spilling from ancient rock formations.

Cairns itinerary - Mossman Gorge

The park also allows you the chance to do a ‘Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk’, where the local Kuku Yalanji people share their ancient culture and point out medicinal plants and the unique flora of the area, as well as conduct a traditional ‘smoking’ ceremony to ward off bad spirits. This does cost about 80 AUD (55 USD /41.50 GBP) per person though. If you have a bit of time to spare, you can also attempt the suspension bridge at Rex Creek or do the 2.5 km Rainforest loop through the forest – it’s well worth the time!

Daintree River Cruise

Wandering down the waterways of Daintree is definitely one of the best ways to see it, and to hopefully spot a croc or two! The rainforest is over 250 million years old, so you’ll be cruising through a piece of natural history where more than 200 species of plants call their home. Actually about 30 of these only grow in the Daintree (and nowhere else), so you definitely need to take the opportunity to cruise on down.

Cairns itinerary - Daintree Forest Outlook

There are many river cruise operators, from those offering eco boats to more luxury cruises, so we’d probably recommend you just book one of the better ones as part of a day tour – try this one with Get your Guide. The cruise itself takes about an hour and showcases the wildlife and birdlife nestled around this World Heritage river.

You’ll see frogs, birds, reptiles, marsupials and nearly 60% of Australia’s butterfly population all in one concentrated area, as well as one of the most densely packed mangroves in the world. One of the main attractions is ‘crocodile-spotting’ – the Daintree River is well known for being home to Crocodylus Porsus, essentially saltwater crocs languishing in its waters.

Cairns itinerary - Saltwater Crocodile

Cape Tribulation

Your last stop for the day is Cape Tribulation, the world-renowned rainforest beach. It really is where the rainforest meets the reef, as you have the rainforest to your back, sand crunching between your toes and the reef before you.

Beach of Cape Tribulation

Named by James Cook after his ship scraped a reef (and all his troubles began), Cape Tribulation of course has lots of activities – cruises, reef tours, jungle walking, you name it! Probably the best thing to do is just to take a walk on the beach, check out the Kulki viewpoint or do the Dubuji walk, an 1.8 km boardwalk through the forest and mangroves.

Bonus: On your way back from Cape Tribulation to Cairns, do a quick stop at the Daintree Ice Cream Company. This humble ice cream shop only uses fruit from their own organic orchard, and it’s well worth the detour! If you don’t have your own car – or even if you don’t want to spend long driving, we’d definitely recommend that you look at this option with Get Your Guide.

Day 2

Day trip to the Great Barrier Reef

Did you know that the Great Barrier Reef (GBR for short) covers an area bigger than the United Kingdom, The Netherlands and Switzerland, and is the largest World Heritage Area on the planet? We probably don’t need to sell you on the chance to go and explore it. After all, you’re probably in Cairns with a visit to the GBR in mind!

But what makes the GBR so special? First up, it’s the world’s largest reef system, boasting over 2,900 individual reefs, 900 islands and stretching for over 2, 600 kilometres. And, while it can’t actually be seen from outer space (don’t believe everything you read on the internet!), it’s absolutely massive and teeming with sea life: thirty different types of whales and dolphins, over 200 species of birds and more than 1, 500 types of fish.

That said, you’ll need to think carefully about how you want to check out this incredible expanse of marine life. Are you able to snorkel? Are you a certified diver? Or are you just looking to check out diving to see if it’s for you? Are you on a serious budget or able to splash out some cash for this once-in-a-lifetime trip? Day trip or overnight liveaboard? Regardless of the choice, we’d highly recommend the operator we used for our scuba day: Diver’s Den.

They offer value packages for their Sea Quest vessel and luxury experiences on Reef Quest, which we were lucky enough to do. If you’ve got enough time to spare, we wish we’d been able to get out on OceanQuest, their liveaboard ship. Here you’d not only be able to venture out onto the reef for the day, but you’ll be able to see the sun peek out over the ocean, as you watch sunrise on one of the globe’s most spectacular spots.

Generally the day trips include everything from your gear, to your instructors (for certified dives there is usually a small 15 AUD / 10.25 USD / 7.75 GBP fee for a personal guide), an absolutely lipsmackingly delicious lunch and an incredibly high-end experience.

Each operator buys ‘licenses’ for different reefs and Diver’s Den has the permits for some of the most beautiful reefs: Norman, Saxon and Hastings. You can choose between snorkelling, a ‘learn to scuba’ introductory course and scuba diving if you have your Open Water certification. With all options, you are given a full briefing by qualified instructors, kept safe and sound and will be able to see some of the most impressive underwater areas. On our dives we were absolutely surrounded by angelfish, bannerfish, fiery orange-hued Nemo’s (anemone fish), and prehistoric-looking cuttlefish.

We swam with turtles, we came nose to nose with (very harmless) white tip sharks and our guide, Paolo, even came across Australia’s second most poisonous animal, the very innocent-looking Geographer cone snail. Suffice to say, he quickly led us away…

Check out all the Great Barrier Reef cruise options with Diver’s Den here.

Relax on the Cairns Esplanade

Whether you’re snorkelling with sharks or diving with dotty blue-spotted rays, you’ll probably be a little tired after a day out on the water. Our suggestion? Kick back on the Cairns Esplanade. The Esplanade is pretty famous – you’ve probably seen photos of the lagoon in many a north Queensland tourist brochure. The lagoon on the Cairns Esplanade is a magnet for locals and travellers alike; if you come to Cairns and don’t wade out into it’s Colgate-coloured water then you really haven’t even been to Cairns!

There are plenty of restaurants and also the Night Market by the Esplanade but the real charm is a short walk along the boardwalk and spending time in the lagoon itself. Either just float around the lagoon or there are often free aqua aerobics classes taking place. Just join in the line-up and stretch those aching muscles. You could also head over to the large ferris wheel, the Reef Eye, located just next to the Esplanade, to get sweeping views of the Cairns city itself. At time of writing the cost was 10 AUD (7 USD / 5 GBP) for adults and 8 AUD (5.50 USD / 4 GBP) for children.

Drinks at the Woolshed

There are two ‘institutions’ or drinking holes in Cairns that you should visit: Gilligans and The Woolshed. The former is a bit of a backpacker haunt – yes the beer is cheap and cold but the place can get a little hectic. But the latter, The Woolshed, offers you a lively, social atmosphere that is great for young and old alike. You’ll find alfresco dining which later turns into the #1 nightclub in the city. Not keen on a party? Leave around 10pm.

Day 3

Head out on the Skyrail

Want a birds-eye view of Queensland? Just a 15 minute drive out of Cairns is the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, a 7.5km scenic cableway offering jaw-dropping views of the Barron Gorge National Park. If you park at the Smithfield station, buy a one-way ticket to take you up in their purpose-built gondolas, giving you an incredible vista of the forest, which is 60 million years older than the Amazon!

You can buy a package for all activities on day 3 with Get Your Guide, which is super convenient – check it out here.

Photo courtesy of Kyle Taylor / Flickr

At Red Peak you’ll be able to do a rainforest boardwalk loop, check out the amazing plant-life and learn about fauna and flora where the roots date back to before T-Rex and his dinosaur buddies roamed the earth. They also offer free guided tours if you’re willing to wait for the next one to start. You can do the boardwalk loop at Barron Falls, taking in the beauty of the Barron Gorge and waterfalls, or make your way to the various viewing platforms like ‘The Edge’ lookout. The skyrail ends after about a 90 minute journey at Kuranda, which is the perfect place to then hop onto the Kuranda Scenic Railway!

Explore Kuranda and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary

So you’ve disembarked at Kuranda, a small village tucked away in the rainforest. And, contrary to what you might think, there is a lot to do. You can cuddle some koalas at Birdworld and the Koala Gardens, try your hand at some mini golf, make traditional candy, shop at the various markets or, if you ask us, head to the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary. The sanctuary is the largest butterfly aviary in the entire Southern hemisphere, and is home to over 1500 butterflies!

Australian Butterly World in Kuranda

Kuranda Scenic Railway

This railway has been around for about 120 years, and stands as a National Landmark in Australia, for good reason. The 100-year old carriages evoke an old-world charm as you chug along the railway and you can even buy a gold ticket which includes morning or afternoon tea. The scenic railway is a great way to do the return journey, as you’ll rise up to 328 metres, passing incredible waterfalls and that gorgeous Barron Gorge you saw earlier. But, before you head off on your return train journey, make sure to snap a picture of the station: it is one of the most photographed railway stations in the world.

Photo courtesy of Neil Thompson / Flickr

Where to stay in Cairns

There are loads of great accommodation options in and around Cairns to suit every budget, and we were pleasantly surprised by how affordable some of these options were (after spending so long in Asia, the cost of things in Australia was a little bit of a shock), so here are some hotels and hostels that we’d recommend.

Budget: We stayed at Freedom Hostel and we can’t recommend it enough! We stayed in a private room and this hostel felt like a hotel. Amazingly appointed rooms, high-end bathrooms and facilities, heaps of free activities including a delicious free breakfast every morning!

Mid-range: Definitely the best option for a mid-range hotel is Riley, part of the Crystalbrook Collection. This eco-friendly hotel has amazing restaurants (including Cairns’ highest rooftop bar), a massive swimming lagoon, their own man-made beach and – of course – amazing rooms.

Luxury: One of the top-rated luxury hotels is the Pullman Reef Hotel. Overlooking the Cairns or Trinity Inlet, it has gorgeous suites, a rooftop swimming pool, an award-winning restaurant and even a boutique casino, if gambling is up your alley.

What is the best time of year to visit Cairns?

With Cairns being up in the tropics or the Tropical North Queensland, you are guaranteed warm weather whenever you visit. However, the absolute best time to visit Cairns is between May and September. These ‘winter’ months are generally dry, less humid, warm and not as busy as the peak summer period. We were in Cairns in November and had absolutely wonderful weather! Between December and April, known in Cairns as the Green Season, you’re likely to encounter some thunderstorms, and the weather is definitely more hot and humid than in the ‘winter or dry’ months.

Additional Activities to add to your Cairns itinerary

If our itinerary didn’t quite meet the mark and you are looking for some great additional Cairns tours or activties to include, we’d also recommend that you check out some of the below.

Great Barrier Reef Liveaboard

We mentioned it earlier, but its definitely something we wish we could have done in Cairns – spending the night out on the Great Barrier Reef. You can book a liveaboard on Ocean Quest here.

Cairns Aquarium

We’ve waxed lyrical about both the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics Rainforest, and we aren’t stopping now! The Cairns Aquarium is a wonderful place to see these both in a more relaxed, indoor environment.

The aquarium has over 70 exhibits showcasing everything from endangered Grey Reef Sharks and Humphead Maori Wrasse to the unique Boyd’s Forest Dragon. There are also different talks and feeding sessions, perfect to keep kids entertained if you have some. Costs are 42 AUD (29 USD / 22 GBP) for adults and 28 AUD (19.25 USD / 14.50 GBP) for children.

Green Island

On the inner edge of the Great Barrier is the beautiful, tropical island of Green Island. Think pristine white beaches, crystal clear water and – of course – a bit of tropical rainforest. A trip to Green Island is usually less about fish-spotting and diving, and more about sunbathing, relaxing and, if you’re up to it, a bit of snorkelling.

The best way to see it is via a half day tour on a catamaran – check that out here.

Fitzroy Island

Similar to Green Island but even closer to the mainland is Fitzroy Island. It differs to Green Island in that it is more mountainous, so is more geared towards hikes and exploring than just chilling on the sandy shores. If you’re up to it, there is an amazing walk which takes about 2.5 hours to the summit lookout point; where you get 360 degree spectacular views of the mainland as well as the outer reefs.

You will also see some historical monuments from World War II, similar to Magnetic Island near Townsville. If you’re an avid kayaker, hire one and explore the hidden coves around the island, including Little Fitzroy Island, a small isle located north of the main island. Lastly, you could head over to Nudey Beach. Don’t be deterred by the name – it’s not a nudist beach but actually one of the most photographed beaches in Australia, and yet one of the quietest, most wonderful places to relax.

What are great day trips from Cairns?

Port Douglas

So Port Douglas is an epicentre for northern Queensland in its own right; some might even say it’s in competition with Cairns! From this charming town you can go out onto the Great Barrier Reef, you can check out the Daintree Forest and you can really do most of the activities we’ve suggested in this guide. So, what more is there to do in Port Douglas, you might ask? Our two top picks would be visiting 4 Mile Beach and, if you’re around on a weekend, the Sunday market.

Four Mile Beach (or 4 Mile Beach) is a four mile (get it?!) stretch of sand with absolutely postcard perfect views. You won’t see a single building on it – it’s a preserved stretch of beach where you can literally lay down your towel and just listen to the breeze whistling through the palm trees.

Then, if you time it right, make sure to head to the Sunday Market. Located in Market Park, it’s a fantastic, picturesque spot – you can shop for jewellery, candles, homewares and delicious homemade produce with the mountains in the background and the Coral Sea before you. The market is open every Sunday from 8.00am – 1.30pm.

Mission Beach

We absolutely loved this massive stretch of beach when we did our road trip from Cairns to Brisbane. Approximately 90 minutes from Cairns itself, Mission Beach is a huge expanse of shoreline, which seems to go on forever. Actually its about 14 kilometres long if you count the four villages along it. There’s also heaps more to do in the sleepy seaside area. Do the Bicton Hill walking circuit to see incredible views, mountain bike around Djiru National Park or catch the ferry to ‘Dunk’ Island, for quiet palm-fringed beaches and even better walking trails.

Tully Gorge

Known as the best white-water rafting river in Australia, it’s worth a trip out to Tully River. It’s about two hours south of Cairns, located against the amazing backdrop of the Tully Gorge National Park and rainforest. Here you’ll battle Grade 3 and 4 rapids that will have your heart racing!

Want to try out white-water rafting on the Tully River? Check out this package on Get Your Guide.

Paronella Park

First up – disclaimer: We didn’t go to Paronella Park ourselves. It was a stop that came highly recommended by quite a few other travellers but we ran out of time, plus we weren’t entirely convinced to spend 47 AUD (32 USD / 24.50 GBP) per person on a ticket for the attraction, since we had so many other experiences (like the Whitsundays or Fraser Island) that we were saving for.

That said, the Park has rave reviews from tourists and our friends alike. You can get your tickets here.

Essentially a man called Joseph Paronella had a dream: to build a towering castle in Australia. He took 5 hectares of land and not only constructed his castle, but also a picnic area, tennis courts and a tunnel. Surrounded by incredible waterfalls and a man-made rainforest, the park is an amazing place to saunter around. There’s also a skywalk nearby – the Mamu Tropical Skywalk – and you can buy a combo ticket to visit both attractions at a reduced price. When we last checked it was 66 AUD (45 USD / 34 GBP).

Atherton Tablelands

Venture about one hour west of Cairns and you’ll find yourself in another fertile paradise – yes, the area around Cairns is just so amazingly lush and beautiful! The Atherton Tablelands was shaped by volcanic activity in the area and has everything you need: gushing waterfalls, rainforest, mountains and local markets and festivities to boot. You can go cheese-tasting at Mungalli Creek Dairy, kayak around Lake Barrine, go walking in the Misty Mountains or visit one of the burgeoning coffee plantations.

Exploring the local waterfalls

If you’ve read our blog, you’ll know we are total waterfall chasers! It’s one of the redeeming qualities of our trip to Bali – all the waterfalls we could visit. So it was awesome to find out that in close quarters with Cairns (about 90 minutes by car or bus) was the beautiful Atherton Tablelands waterfall circuit! You’ll start off at the Millaa Millaa Falls, one of the most snapped falls in Australia, where the gorgeous waterfalls cascade to a lovely waterfall pool where you can splash about to your heart’s content. Just 8km on from Millaa Millaa are the Zillie Falls, where you can check it out from the viewing platform or take a walk on Theresa Creek Bridge which also features the beautiful surrounding rainforest. Last up is a further 3km drive to the Ellinjaa Falls which is pretty nifty since the waterfall cascades over a few lava columns.

Ellinjaa Falls near Cairns

There are actually a few more in the area – check out this handy website for a full rundown.

So, that wraps up our 3 days Cairns itinerary, but let us know in the comments below or get in touch with us here, if you have any questions. We’d also love to hear from you if you have more up to date information on the best things to do in Cairns, Australia.

What camera equipment and other gear do we use?

We’re living proof that you don’t need the most expensive gear to travel the world and take good photos. Here are some of our must have items that make it into the packing list for all our travels.

Disclosure: The Travel Scribes were very fortunate to be hosted by Diver’s Den for our day out on the Great Barrier Reef. However, all views are our own, and we are not paid to include Diver’s Den as part of our itinerary, but rather have included it due to the incredible quality of the experience.

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The ultimate itinerary for Cairns, Australia

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