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The Best Things to Do in Cairns CBD – 12+ Cheap or Free Ideas

The Best Things to Do in Cairns CBD – 12+ Cheap or Free Ideas

Looking for things to do in Cairns CBD? I stayed in Cairns for three weeks in search of the best things to do in Cairns city, whether you’re staying in the city long-term or just for one day.

With the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef lying within easy reach, it’s easy to overlook the attractions in Cairns CBD.

However, there is a large variety of cheap and free things to do in Cairns CBD if you have a spare day or evening to spend in the city, from hiking and cycling to visiting markets, swimming in Cairns lagoon or taking the bus to the beaches of Palm Cove.

This article will be about things to do in Cairns City. If you’re looking for a larger itinerary with suggestions for day trips to places such as Fitzroy Island or Karunda, head over to my detailed Cairns travel itinerary for itineraries for between 2 days and one week.

Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links. If you decide to click through and make a qualifying purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you – thanks for your support.


Best time to visit Cairns city: June to October

Best way to get around: Walking or bus

Best tours in the CBD:

1. Cairns city bicycle tour

2. Cairns Botanic Gardens night walk

3. Half-day Cairns tour: The biggest bang for your buck… it visits St Monica’s Cathedral, Surprise Creek Falls, Palm Cove and the Cairns Botanic Gardens.

Is Cairns city worth visiting?

View of Cairns at night from the marina, with lights reflecting on the water.

Most people come to Cairns to visit destinations outside the city, such as the Great Barrier Reef or the Daintree Rainforest.

To be honest, Cairns City isn’t the most exciting destination I have visited in Australia. It pales in comparison to other cities on the east coast of Australia such as Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

However, if you’re going to be using Cairns as a base for visiting the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest and the surrounding waterfalls, I hugely recommend that you explore the CBD in your spare time.

I stayed in Cairns for over three weeks to look after two puppies and a cat through TrustedHousesitters. I have fond memories of wandering along the esplanade, where there is a lagoon, barbecues, marina, bars and a couple of regular markets.

Is Cairns a walkable city?

Cairns is indeed a walkable city. It is easy to find your way around the city using Google Maps, and better yet, it’s mostly flat. There are pavements around the CBD, although they often disappear in the suburbs.

Reaching the outer suburbs of Cairns requires a bus journey. For example, I stayed in Manunda near the DFO Mall, which is a 40-minute walk from the centre of Cairns. It was easier to take a bus from DFO mall into the CBD, which only took 10 minutes

One of the main considerations when walking around Cairns is safety. I wouldn’t recommend walking alone at night in suburbs such as Manunda or Manoora. The city centre is mostly safe to walk around, although I experienced some minor street harassment.

Free Things to Do in Cairns CBD

Let’s start with some free things to do in Cairns CBD.  If you’re on a budget or saving up for your Great Barrier Reef tour, these are some great activities to get stuck into without paying a penny.

1. Swim in Cairns Lagoon

People swimming in Cairns Lagoon on the Cairns esplanade.

At the centre of the Cairns esplanade, there is a 4,800-square-metre saltwater swimming pool. This is the life and soul of Cairns city, as there are no beaches in Cairns and swimming in beach suburbs like Palm Cove is restricted to netted areas due to the presence of stingers (jellyfish) and crocodiles.

If you’re missing a proper swimming beach, the lagoon has a sandy ‘beach’ on one side where you can lie down to read a book or sunbathe.

Don’t worry if you’re visiting Cairns in the rainy season. The lagoon is open year-round, making it one of the best things to do in Cairns in the rain, especially since Cairns is still so humid during the rainy season. Look out for the iconic fish sculptures over the lagoon.

2. Explore the Cairns Botanic Gardens

Palm trees over a blue sky at Cairns Botanic Gardens.

The Cairns Botanic Gardens are one of the best things to do in Cairns for free. Entry to the gardens and the walking tours don’t cost a dime.

You have the chance to see birds such as rainbow lorikeet, cockatoos, fruit-doves and Australian brushturkeys.

The visitor centre is open from 8.30 am to 4 pm on weekdays and from 9.30 am to 2pm on weekends or public holidays. However, many of the gardens are open 24 hours per day.

Take note that the botanic gardens are a little outside of the main part of Cairns city.

To get there, you can take the 110, 111, 113, 120 or 130 bus from the city centre. There are bus stops outside of the Cairns City Library or you can walk to the Cairns Central Terminus.

There are also multiple paid tours you can take around the Cairns Botanic Gardens, including an insect photography tour or a guided night walk.

3. Stroll along Cairns Esplanade

At the Cairns Esplanade, there is a 2.8-mile Harbour Walk to the Cairns marina, where there is a great view back over the city, the Trinity Outlet and the Coral Sea. The view is especially good at sunset.

Boats parked at the Cairns Marina, with hills in the background.

Cairns Marina

Not that you’ll need it, but the Cairns Esplanade trail is mapped out on AllTrails.

Walking along the esplanade, you can spot napping pelicans as well as other bird varieties. Check out the bird directory and telescopes along the promenade if you’re a keen birdwatcher.

Pelicans sleeping on the rocks next to Cairns esplanade.

The esplanade is also lined with local artwork and sculptures.

4. Hike in the Mount Whitfield Conservation Park

Did you know that you can hike directly from Cairns city? The Mount Whitfield Conservation Park is a nature reserve in the city, made up mostly of rainforest.

It has several easy bush hikes. Most of them lead to lookouts, and if you’re lucky, you can spot wildlife such as wallabies, spiders and the Australian brushturkey.

There are four marked routes in the Mount Whitfield Conservation Park: the Red Arrow Circuit, Blue Arrow Circuit, Green Arrow Circuit and the Yellow Arrow Circuit.

You can check out information about the trails on the Mount Whitfield Conservation Park website and their detailed routes on AllTrails. Try these for starters…

1. Blue Arrow Circuit

The longest route is the Blue Arrow Circuit (5.5 miles), marked by blue arrows.

The trail is a 5.5-mile circular route with quite a significant elevation gain (1,289 feet) and excellent views of Lumley Hill, a river valley and the Cairns coastline.

Check out the Blue Arrow Circuit route on AllTrails.

2. Yellow-Red Arrow Circuit

The Yellow-Red Arrow Circuit is a shorter out-and-back trail, marked by yellow and red arrows.

It begins by following the Yellow Arrow Track, which can be done on its own as an out-and-back trail, and then follows the red arrows to an additional lookout.

It retraces the same path back to your departure point.

You can also do this circuit in reverse, starting with the red track at the Tank Art Centre.

The trail has views of the airport and coast.

Check out the Yellow-Red Arrow Circuit on AllTrails.

5. Visit Rusty’s Markets

Fresh vegetables on stands at Rusty's Market, one of the best things to do on a Cairns itinerary.

Granted, if you buy something from Rusty’s Markets, it won’t count as one of the best things to do in Cairns city for free. However, ‘window shopping’ is free.

Rusty’s Markets is one of my favourite places in Cairns. I made the mistake of visiting the markets at the end of my three-week trip, so I sadly couldn’t justify buying a whole box of mangoes for under 5 AUD.

Rusty’s Market has been operating since 1975. Open on Fridays and weekends only, the sheltered marketplace has over 180 stalls with local produce (yes, that includes tropical fruits like mangoes), flowers and other knick-knacks.

There are also coffee and juice stands.

6. Visit some of Cairns’ heritage-listed sites

There are several heritage-listed buildings in Cairns that you can see for free.

  1. St Monica’s Cathedral: A Catholic church best known for having the largest themed stained-glass windows in the world.
  2. Cairns City Library: The former town hall is now a council library.
  3. Cairns Museum: The museum was originally the city’s School of Arts built in 1907.

For a full list of heritage sites in Cairns, check out the official Cairns Heritage City Walk brochure.

Alternatively, if you want to see some of the sites with a knowledgeable tour guide, check out this half-day Cairns tour which visits St Monica’s Cathedral, Surprise Creek Falls, Palm Cove and the Cairns Botanic Gardens.

7. Visit the Cairns Art Gallery

Entry is free to the Cairns Art Gallery, another heritage-listed building. The art gallery displays contemporary and historical art from Far North Queensland.

It also has a family-owned café and an Italian restaurant named Perrotta’s, which has been running since 1997.

Wondering where to stay in Cairns?

These are my recommendations…

Travellers Oasis (£££)

I stayed here!

Cheap Things to Do in Cairns CBD

That’s the free things covered. So, what if you have some change to spare?

These cheap things to do in Cairns city won’t blow your budget.

1. Take the bus to Palm Cove

Palm trees towering over golden sand on Palm Cove in Queensland.
Aerial view of two people near palm trees on Palm Cove near Cairns.

Technically speaking, this idea takes you out of the main part of Cairns city. Palm Cove is a Cairns suburb with sandy beaches.

You can reach Palm Cove using the bus stops in the centre of Cairns. The 110 bus leaves from Cairns Central Terminus or bus stops near the Cairns City Library.

The bus journey takes around 50 minutes one-way and costs under $12 for an adult return ticket.

Palm Cove has a long sandy beach with palm trees and a string of hotels and spas. You can rent a bicycle from Biked Cairns to cycle along the seafront.

There are nets on the beach for swimming, but after hearing that some stingers (jellyfish) can slip through the nets, I decided not to swim there. Sometimes the beach is closed when crocodiles are spotted in the area, so I preferred to sunbathe rather than swim.

If you decide to stay overnight in Palm Cove, one of the best-known hotels is Alamanda Palm Cove.

2. Go café-hopping in Cairns CBD

The older I get, the more I want to spend a whole day café-hopping.

Now, don’t get me wrong, café-hopping in Cairns cannot be compared to café-hopping in Melbourne. However, it is an easy, cheap way to spend a day in the CBD.

If you know where to look, Cairns has a handful of good-quality cafés. After talking to a few people who have lived in Cairns and looking through Google Reviews, I narrowed down my café-hopping list to just a handful:

  • Mi Piace Espresso Bar: For coffee snobs.
  • Caffiend: A crowd-pleaser with good food.
  • Annee’s Caphê Sua Da: Vietnamese iced coffee to die for.
  • Bang & Grind Spence Street: For good coffee in an old building.
  • Muddy’s Café: Dog-friendly!
  • Guyala Café: For coffee with gluten-free food.

Grafton Street is a popular street for shopping and café-hopping. It’s two kilometres long.

3. Rent a bicycle and cycle along the seafront

Renting a bicycle is one of the best cheap things to do in Cairns.

Head to Pump ‘n’ Pedals (next-door to Mi Piace Espresso Bar, just saying) to rent a bicycle or electric bicycle.

There are several good places for cycling in Cairns:

4. Have a barbecue on Cairns Esplanade

There are 12 sheltered barbecue points stationed along Cairns Esplanade, many named after local bird species.

They are completely free to use, so all you need to do is bring food and drinks.

They are open between 6:00 am and 9:00 pm every day. However, some of the barbecue stations are available for hire for events, so if you visit on New Year’s Day or another holiday, you may find that they’re already booked out.

The facilities vary at each station, but they typically have electric barbecue plates, a shelter and tables with benches. Some of the stations have water and/or power.

You can check out the full facilities at each station or reserve one on the Cairns regional council website.

5. Visit the Tanks Art Centre

If you’re staying in Cairns for a long time, you might want to check out the list of upcoming concerts and events at the Tanks Art Centre on the edge of the Cairns Botanic Gardens.

Cairns Festival is a popular annual event (from 23rd August – 1st September 2024). It also runs workshops.

Things to Do in Cairns at Night

1. Take a night walk in the Cairns Botanic Gardens

Taking a night walk in the Cairns Botanic Gardens is by far one of the best things to do in Cairns at night. At night, you have a far better chance of spotting nocturnal animals such as striped possums and green tree frogs.

You can book a night walk in the Cairns Botanic Garden on GetYourGuide for $68 AUD

Powered by GetYourGuide

2. Watch the sun set from Cairns Marina

View of Cairns at night from the marina, with lights reflecting on the water.

I think that Cairns Marina is one of the best sunset spots in Cairns by far. I can’t count the number of times I strolled down to Cairns Marina to see the city lit up at night.

I also stayed near the marina for the New Year’s Eve fireworks, and it’s by far the best view of the city. There are a number of benches and rocks that you can sit on just before you reach the marina.

3. Visit Cairns Night Markets

I wouldn’t be able to list the best things to do in Cairns city without mentioning the Cairns Night Markets. Located next to Cairns Esplanade, the venue has over 70 stalls selling food and drinks, massages and Australia-themed knickknacks.

If you want to take home a souvenir, this is the place to find one. I even spotted crocodile skin.

4. Eat at the Prawn Star Restaurant

The Prawn Star restaurant in Cairns Marina, strung with fairy lights.

The Prawn Star restaurant is one of the most famous dining venues in Cairns and easily one of the best things to do in Cairns CBD. Located on a boat at Marlin Marina, it serves fresh, local seafood including tiger prawns, oysters and crayfish.

5. Party at Salt House

Salt House is just around the corner from Prawn Star, next to Cairns Yacht Club. A modern restaurant by day and a bar-club by night, it’s a great spot to end the day. It has a generous outdoor space and views of the marina. I partied here for New Year’s Eve.

6. Visit Hemingway’s Brewery

At Cairns Wharf, Hemingway’s Brewery is in a heritage-listed building with views of the marina, once again. The venue offers brewery tours where you can see the tanks and then try one of Australia’s most famous beer brands.

With your CBD plans sorted, don’t forget about exploring the area around Cairns. My Cairns travel itinerary covers exactly which attractions are and aren’t worth your time, from the best diving and snorkelling tours to where you can learn about North Queensland’s aboriginal history.

Suggested reading:


What is Cairns best known for?

Cairns is best known for being an entry point to the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, the largest rainforest in Australia. However, it also has stunning markets, shops and hiking trails.

What food is Cairns known for?

Cairns is best known for its fresh, local seafood such as prawns, oysters and crayfish. Its markets are also teeming with fresh fruit and juices like mango, pineapple and banana