As the gateway to Tropical North Queensland, Cairns has long reigned as one of the country’s most popular holiday destinations. And as you jet in over the sparkling Coral Sea, it’s not hard to see why. Framed by rainforest-clad mountains to the west, and the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef to the east, this is a destination that is nothing short of breathtaking. Cairns itself is a buzzing metropolis offering fabulous dining and plenty to see and do. Forget everything you think you know about Cairns, because there are surprises around every corner.
Here’s how to spend 48 hours in Cairns.
8am: Get caffeinated at Caffiend
It may be hot but it’s never too hot for coffee, and Cairns has a thriving café scene – much of it focused along Grafton Street in the CBD. Caffiend is a celebrated all-rounder and offers beautifully presented breakfasts and a bustling vibe. For something a little different, cross the road to Annee’s Caphê Sua Da, which specialises in Vietnamese iced coffee, cold brewed to utter perfection. The Nutella Banana Bagel makes a decadent breaky option.
10am: Take a step back in time around town
While Cairns has a modern feel, it’s peppered with unexpected windows on the past. From Grafton Street, head up Spence Street towards the waterfront, passing the elegant heritage-listed Bolands Centre (which dates back to 1912). Look diagonally across the intersection to see the intriguing Adelaide Steamship Company Building, constructed in the Arts and Crafts style of the early 1900s. Turn left onto Abbott Street, passing the old Cairns Post Office (now an outlet for luxury goods) and the soaring classical columns of The Cairns Post building. Pass the gorgeous old Court House (currently under renovation to become a gallery space) and Cairns Art Gallery, and continue up Abbott to take in the Inter-War Classical-style old Cairns City Council Chambers. It’s now home to the city library.
History buffs may also want to check out the excellent Cairns Museum on Lake Street. This beautifully curated facility covers local Indigenous history, European settlement on the back of the gold rush, the role of Cairns in wartime Australia, and the city’s rise as a tourist mecca.
12noon: Splash down at the Esplanade Lagoon
Depending on the time of year, you’ll have no doubt worked up a sweat on your walk, so head around to the waterfront and cool off in the fabulous Cairns Esplanade Lagoon. This shimmering piece of tropical paradise offers year-round stinger-safe saltwater swimming beneath swaying palms and gleaming metal flying fish (a sculptural work by contemporary Indigenous artist Brian Robinson, titled Woven Fish). Grab a casual bite to eat from onsite Aqua café, and let your cares drift away on the cooling breezes that roll in off the Coral Sea.
2pm: Find Nemo at Cairns Aquarium
You may not have time to head out to the Great Barrier Reef on this trip, but it comes to you at the awesome Cairns Aquarium. This state-of-the-art facility will appeal to all ages and takes guests on a journey through a progression of North Queensland ecosystems. Start by exploring the forest floor of the Wet Tropics rainforest (check out the giant cockroaches!), before moving on to the region’s rivers and streams, mangrove swamps, ocean shallows, Great Barrier Reef, and deep ribbon reefs. Along the way you’ll meet a wide variety of animals and marine life that call each habitat home. Take time out to sit in front of the 10-metre-high deep reef habitat tank and watch the marine ballet performed by groupers, cownose rays, mantas and reef sharks.
5pm: Be shaken or stirred at Three Wolves
As you explore a new city, it’s always worth taking a peek down back alleys and laneways to see what secrets they harbour. In Cairns you’ll come up trumps in Wolf Lane off Abbott Street. Three Wolves is a speak-easy style whisky, wine, craft beer and cocktail bar with interesting textures, intimate nooks, a sensational drinks list, and a bar menu of tasty tapas dishes. Business is conducted under the watchful eyes of the three dandy wolves on the wall.
7pm: Enjoy a fusion of taste sensations at Tamarind
Cairns’ dining scene is extensive and makes the most of the region’s bountiful supply of fresh produce and seafood. Push the boat out on a special occasion at award-winning Tamarind, which offers an intricate fusion of Modern Australian and South Asian culinary styles. Order from the a la carte menu or put yourself in the chef’s hands and indulge in the six-course tasting menu with matching wines.
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8am: Blend avo and art for breakfast
Time for a taste of tropical culture, starting with breakfast on the terrace at Perrotta’s At the Gallery – a breezy café space attached to the Cairns Art Gallery. Once you’re done with your smashed avo or buttermilk pancakes, make your way between the soaring ionic columns and into the cool embrace of the gallery itself. The building dates back to the 1930s and retains much of its inside period detail. Explore a variety of exhibition spaces, which host local and touring exhibitions.
12noon: Lose yourself in the beauty of the Botanic Gardens
It’s possible to get a taste of the exquisite beauty of the Wet Tropics rainforest that coats the mountain peaks west of Cairns just by jumping in an Uber and visiting the city’s Botanic Gardens – located four kilometres north of the CBD. The gardens have several parts, but the Flecker Gardens will be of interest to most visitors. Meander along paved pathways, shaded by the foliage of exotic palms, leafy gingers, giant bird’s-nest ferns and magnificent staghorns. You can almost hear the gardens growing around you! Leave time to visit the Watkins Munro Martin Conservatory where butterflies flit between vividly coloured orchid blooms.
2pm: Soak up the seaside chic of Palm Cove
From the Botanic Gardens, it’s well worth splashing out on another Uber for the 20-minute drive further north to famous Palm Cove – undoubtedly one of the loveliest beachside locales in Queensland. Wander along the palm-fringed waterfront and out onto the Palm Cove Jetty for views back towards the shoreline, then pull up a pew in one of the precinct’s many beach bars and cafes. The 110 bus back to Cairns takes just on an hour and will set you back around $10 for a single ticket.
5pm: See what’s brewing at Hemingway’s
Round off your day with a cold craft brew and a casual dinner at cavernous Hemingway’s Brewery, which occupies one of the historic beamed sheds at the Cairns Wharf (circa 1915). Try the crisp and clean 7th Heaven Tropical Ale or the malty Endeavour IPA. The menu features an uncomplicated selection of crowd-pleasing pub-style favs.
Need a place to stay?
For the ultimate relaxing stay, look no further than The Benson Hotel. Offering stunning boutique rooms in the centre of Cairns, accommodation types include spacious suites, king and double rooms, alongside an exceptional pool, restaurant and bar facilities on site.
Comfort Inn Cairns City offers affordable accommodation on the edge of the CBD, just a short walk from the Esplanade, Cairns Aquarium, and cafes and restaurants. Beat the heat with a dip in the refreshing tropical-style pool. Guests also enjoy free parking onsite and complimentary Wi-Fi.
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has previously had the opportunity to travel the world as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten.