If you plan a trip to Tropical North Queensland for the first time, I’m sure you will want to know what to do in Cairns. Besides being the gateway to two of Australia’s most visited World Heritage Sites: the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, Cairns offers a variety of things to do and fun day trips, including a road trip to the Atherton Tablelands.
Despite being a touristy place, Cairns has maintained its friendly environment of a liveable city while offering many activities to suit all kinds of travellers and travel styles. It’s one of the best places to travel alone in Australia, and I recommend visiting Cairns to all women who want to travel solo around Australia. Below are my picks for the best free and cheap things to do in Cairns.
All Fun and Free Things to Do in Cairns
Cairns has beautifully developed into one of Australia’s most attractive destinations of Australia, with a population of nearly 170 thousand and a growth forecast to 220 thousand in the following years. Although travellers often think of Cairns as a place for a break from a snorkelling tour to the great barrier reef, you will be surprised by the multitude of things you can do in Cairns; and many are free.
1. Chill out at The Swimming Lagoon
The Swimming Lagoon on the Cairns Esplanade is where you can enjoy the relaxation of the Cairns city beach straight out of your hotel door. The best beaches in Cairns are out of town, located in north Cairns, and you will need a car to visit them.
The 4800 sq meters swimming lagoon is filled with filtered salt water and has three main areas. On one side, the shallow water and sandy edges create a safe playground for kids. The water reaches 2 mt depth for expert swimmers and offers a recreational area with timber decks, benches and excellent BBQ facilities under palm trees, where you can cook, enjoy a meal and chill out.
Opening hours: 6 am – 9 pm (Thursday to Tuesday + Public Holidays); 12 pm – 9 pm (Wednesday)
2. Taka a Cairns Free Fitness Class
Among the fun and free things to do in Cairns, the Active Living Free Fitness, such as yoga, aqua gym and fitness classes, all belong to the top free activities. Moreover, there are Beach Volley courts, a Bouldering Park and a Skate Park, all available for free to travellers and locals.
Hours: The fitness program can be found here.
Location: Cairns Esplanade and other locations.
3. Stroll along the Esplanade boardwalk
The Esplanade boardwalk in Cairns stretches along 2,5 km. It encompasses all of the above if you fancy walking, soaking up the laid-back atmosphere, and enjoying the sunset colours on the ocean. If you want to walk, you can start your walk along the Esplanade Boardwalk and follow the beach promenade till the end for about 5 km. When you have reached the promenade’s end, cross the road to the Botanic Gardens’ signage—the entire walk Gardens’robably take 1-1,5 hours.
Opening hours: Around the clock.
4. Soak in the vibe at The Cottage Industry Market on The Plaza
The Cottage Industry Market is fun on the Plaza, next to the Swimming Lagoon, on Saturdays from 8 am to 4 pm. It is a great place to browse through the many colourful stalls, learn about the artisan produce and purchase artworks from local artists. Furthermore, on weekends, at ni ht, there is free live music from local bands too.
Opening hours: 9 am – 4 pm (Saturday)
Location: Cairns Esplanade
5. Gon on a Cairns Botanic Gardens Walk
The Cairns Botanic Gardens are located 5km north of town, close to Cairns Airport. They offer an insight into all native plants and flowers in the Queensland tropical region and feature imported plants and flowers. Admission to the Botanic Gardens in Cairns is also free. They are open from 7.30 to 5.30 every day, and you can also join free guided activities.
Location: Collins Avenue, Edge Hill, Cairns.
Opening hours: Flecker Gardens, including Watkins Munro Martin Conservatory, from 7.30 am – 5.30 pm (daily; subject to weather conditions). All other garden areas are open around the clock. The Visitor Center is open from 8.30 am – 4 pm (weekdays); 9.30 am – 2 pm (weekends & public holidays, closed on Christmas Day).
6. Enjoy the view at Mt. Whitfield Lookout: The Red and Blue Walking Trails
You don’t need to travel far from the Cairns CBD to get into the rainforest. These are the walking trails that you can do in combination with the Botanic Gardens. Start the walk a the base, at Collins Avenue. The red arrow pa h is an easy walk, 1,5 km long, that takes you up to Mount Whitfield Lookout, right above Cairns International Airport, for a great view of the city; with a clear sky, you may see Green Island too. The blue arrow t ail is 4,5 km and a more demanding walk with 300 mt elevations, so make sure you start this walk before 2.00 pm, so you are sure to complete your walk before dark. Both walking trails take you through the rainforest, grassland and eucalypt forest.
Opening hours: Around the clock.
Location: The Red and Blue Arrow circuits start from trailheads on Collins Avenue, Edge Hill: one near the Botanic Gardens Visitor Centre and one to the east of the Tanks Art Centre.
7. Have a picnic at the Centenary Lakes
If you plan to visit the Botanic Gardens, just across the road, there is the entrance to a 500 mt Rainforest Boardwalk with two lakes, where you can see pelicans and many more native birds along the edges. A very relaxing place for a walk in the forest with picture-perfect scenery for photography lovers. And another great free thing to do in Cairns.
Opening hours: Around the clock.
Location: Greenslopes St, Edge Hill, next to the Botanic Gardens
8. Do The Jack Barnes Bicentennial Mangrove Boardwalk
The Jack Barnes mangrove boardwalk is located at Cairns Airport and features two boardwalks in mangrove forests. They’re not long They’rehould take 30 to 40 minutes to complete. The walking path just reopened in 2022 after a 3-year closure. Besides enhanced safety, the boardwalk also features new signage highlighting the bond between the Yirrganydji people and the area.
Opening hours: around the clock.
Location: Airport Ave, next to Cairns Airport.
9. Relax at the Northern Beaches: Palm Cove
Cairns’ Northern Beaches are some of the region’s most beautiful beaches, including Trinity Beach and Palm Cove. The obvious free thing to do in Palm Cove is to relax on the beach, soak up the sun and play in the water. Watch out for the box jellyfish if you’re visiting between November and March.
If you prefer something more active, enjoy an easy walk to the Palm Cove Jetty lookout point. And don’t forget to have a BBQ on the Esplanade before returning to the city.
Palm Cove opening hours: around the clock
Location: Williams Esplanade, Palm Cove; 30min from Cairns by car or 45min by bus (line 110).
What to do in Cairns’ surroundings for free
These places in the immediate surroundings of Carins are great if you want to spend a few hours in nature within a 10-30 minute drive.
10. Spend time at the swimming holes in Cairns: The Crystal Cascades.
If you’re looking for swimming holes near Cairns to escape the summer heat, head out to Crystal Cascades, Freshwater Creek (Goomboora Park) or Behana Gorge (if you’re looking for something a bit more challenging). The former is a hidden gem and a local favourite. There’s lots of shade thanks to the overhanging trees, and you can find picnic tables, electric BBQs, and even a toilet and changing room on site. You’ll reach the swimming hole after a 30-minute walk from the parking lot. And if you’re up for a secret spot within the secret spot, take the 1,5km hike to Fairy Falls.
Crystal Cascades opening hours: 5 am – 9 pm.
Location: Redlynch Intake Rd; 20 min drive by car (no public transport).
12. Explore the Goomboora Park
Goomboora Park is another excellent spot close to Cairns city centre for a relaxing and budget-proof day. Bring a book and sit on one of the large open spaces, follow the walking track or dive into the Freshwater Creek. A shelter for sh de, picnic tables, and free water is also available.
Opening hours: 6 am – 7.30 pm (daily).
Location: Shale St; 12min drive by car.
13. Hike to White Rock Viewpoint
White Rock is a moderate 5 km out-and-back hiking track outside Cairns. You’ll be able t You’lle views over the city and its suburbs, but you’ll also see Wyou’ll Pyramid, Walsh’s inlet and the Yarrabah mountains. The hike takes about 1.5 to 2 hours and can get quite steep at specific points. Bring enough water and insect protection (ticks and leeches) and follow the orange trials and coloured ribbons in the trees to stay on track.
Opening hours: around the clock.
Location: Lamb Range; 20min drive by car.
14. Take in a glorious view of Walsh’s Pyramid
This 922 meters high granite peak is situated in Wooroonooran National Park and thanks its name to its distinct pyramid-like look. The hike to the top should take about 5 to 6 hours (6 km; difficult). Leave early in the morning and bring plenty of water, sunscreen, sunglasses and head protection, as there’s no shade during the climb. Though you’ll be rewarded with a glorious 360° view, it’s free.
Openinit’surs: around the clock.
Location: Aloomba, Wooroonooran NP; 25min drive by car.
15. Chill out in Kuranda
The tranquil mountain village of Kuranda is overflowing with natural beauty and has plenty of things to do for free. Wander around the market, stroll to the nearby Barron River, or hike to the Glacier Rock Lookout to enjoy the spectacular views. I also recommend the 3 km Kuranda Village Circuit Walk, which takes you through the forest, along Jumrum Creek, and the river walk.
There’s also Birldworld, the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, or the Koala Gardens, but although cheap, they’re not free. All are $20 for a single ticket.
Kuranda Heritage Markets opening hours: 10 am – 3.30 pm (Wednesday to Sunday).
Location: 2/4 Rob Veivers Dr, Kuranda; 30 min by car or Cairns to Kuranda shuttle bus (30 min; $8 one way).
Free Things to Do in Cairns for Art Lovers
If you love art, Cairns is a paradise for stunning art galleries, museums, exhibitions and live art events. From classic arts to aboriginal arts, there is something for everyone. Here are our picks.
16. Cairns art Galleries
Cairns art galleries are perfect for art lovers to discover local and international artists. There’s a thriving art scene strongly focusing on young indigenous artists. Don’t miss the Cairns Art Gallery; venture into the smaller Jungara Aboriginal Art Gallery or NorthSite Contemporary Art Gallery.
Many galleries host events such as artist talks and film screenings. For a truly unique experience, join a workshop or course. And don’t forget to purchase something to take home if you can.
Cairns Art Gallery opening hours: 9 am-5 pm (Monday to Friday); 10 am-5 pm (Saturday); 10 am-2 pm (Sunday). Location: 40 Abbott St.
17. The NorthSite Contemporary Arts (former KickArts Contemporary Arts)
The NorthSite Contemporary Art Centre is about authentic Aboriginal art produced in Northern Australia. Besides the artworks on display, the centre has lovely museum gift shops.
Opening hours: 10 am – 5 pm (weekdays); 9 am – 1 pm (Saturday); closed on Sundays & Public Holidays.
Location: Bulmba-ja Arts Centre; 96 Abbott Street
18. Cairns Historical Museum (not free)
For an authentic museum experience, check out the Cairns Historical Society Museum on Corner Lake and Shields Street. This is a hidden gem that showcases Cairns’ history of Cairns’surrounding areas. This is, however, not free, but entry tickets are affordable.
Opening hours: 10 am – 4 pm (Monday to Saturday)
Price: $15 (adult).
Location: Cnr Lake and Shields St, 93/105 Lake St; two blocks from Cairns Esplanade and the Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal.
Cairns bustling Markets
Cairns is a city of markets. There are many besides the permanent ones like the Rusty’s Markets, the Night Markets, carnival, festival markets, and weekend markets. So check out the tourist information office for the updated calendar for all Cairns Markets during your visit.
19. Cairns Rusty’s Markets
If you love food, Rusty’s Markets is the place to be, a top-notch fruit and veggies market not to miss out on. Held on Grafton Street on Fridays-Saturdays-Sundays, this is a paradise for fruits and veggies lovers, offering the most genuine local products and organic produce—absolutely a must-do free thing in Cairns on weekends.
Opening hours: 5 am – 6 pm (Friday & Saturday); 5 am – 3 pm (Sunday)
Location: 57-89 Grafton Street.
20. Cairns Night markets
Cairns Night Markets is an open-air market with 131 individual shops and 20 food stalls. It’s perfect for buying local goods, handmade items, and souvenirs. On selected nights, they also offer live entertainment, such as local music bands or fire dancers.
Opening hours: 4.30 pm – 11.30 pm (daily)
Location: 54-60 Abbott St; by car (parking: $1,40/hour), bus (5’ from Lake Street bus stop) or train (15’ walk).
21. Campbell’s Look Campbell
Spending a night out in Cairns is safe and relaxing. I would suggest going on self-guided city tours, strolling the main streets, or chilling at one of the many terraces. If you want to check out a hidden secret among all Cairns attractions, the Campbell Lookout is one of the top things to do in Cairns at night. You will need a car and drive to Campbell’s Lookout at Lake Morris Road. It’s a local favourite spot. I learned about it from my Airbnb hosts, who took me there to show me Cairns’ panoramic view at night. This was one of the perks of staying in Cairns with a local.
Opening hours: from 8 am – 8 pm.
Location: Lake Morris Road. It’s a 25-minute It’sve from the city.
22. Party Night: Bars & Clubs: The Woolshed
If you are solo and want to take in the Cairns nightlife vibe, there are plenty of pubs and places to sit outside with live music. The Woolshed is Cairn’s original avenue and offers theme nights with free entry on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. The drinks are cheap too. Expect wild parties and table dancing until the early hours of the morning. Getting a free dinner here is possible when staying at certain hostels.
The Woolshed opening hours: 8 pm-3 am (Friday & Saturday); 9 pm to late (Wednesday, Thursday & Sunday). Location: 22-24 Hields St.
More Cheap Things to do around Cairns on a Budget
If you are an explorer and want to visit more of the natural beauty of Cairns and its surroundings, here are a few more things to do around Cairns on a budget:
23. The Rainforestation Nature Park
Located just outside Kuranda, the Rainforestation Nature Park is the best place to learn about the rainforest. The site offers many different experiences, such as boat tours, rainforest walks and even a volunteering program. Although many tickets are pricier, the Koala and Wildlife Park entry to Pamagirri Rainforest Walk won’t make you break the bank. The latter is an in-depth interactive indigenous experience of 45 minutes.
Opening hours: 9 am – 3.30 pm (daily).
Prices: $18.50 (Koala + Wildlife Park); $17 (Pamagirri Rainforest Walk).
Location: 1030 Kennedy Hwy, Kuranda; 30min drive by car.
24. Australian Armour and Artillery Museum
You can explore the museum’s military vehicles, guns, and memorabilia from Australia’s wartime history in the Australian Armour and Artillery Museum. If you decide to visit on a Sunday or a school holiday, volunteers often provide additional information about the history of Cairns’hicle or artefact. Besides the general admission, outdoor activities, such s tank driving, are affordable.
Opening hours: Monday – Sunday, 9:30 am – 4:30 pm
Prices: General admission ticket – $27.50 / Armoured vehicle joy ride – $20
Location: 2 Skyrail Dr; 15min drive by car.
How to plan your Cairns solo trip
The best flight connections to Cairns are from Brisbane. Domestic flights from Sydney or Melbourne and o her Austradon’tcities are well connected. Cairns airport is only a short drive downtown. And at the airport is where I recommend picking up your rental car if you plan to explore more f Cairns’ surroundings on self-drive.
Best way to get around Cairns
Most things can be done without a car. Thanksit’sthe efficient bus network in Cairns, buses take you everywhere and near the northern beaches too. If you plan a road trip to Cape Tribulation, the best way is to hire a car or join a guided day trip.
Check out this comparison site for hiring a car in Cairns.
Depending on the route, you may also need a 4WD to explore the Daintree Forest and travel along the coastal track up to Port Douglas and Cooktown. Or if you don’t like the idea of travelling alone, join day trips.
What if you don’t want to do things in Cairns alone
The images below show our choices for the best guided day trips around Cairns. Click to view them.
Best Places To Stay Solo in Cairns
I always stayed at the YHA Central in Cairns as it’s beautifully located on the main street o Cairns. But if you want to visit in a more relaxed environment or beachfront, here are my suggestions.
Budget Stay in Cairns, excellent for Solo Travellers
For top-quality budget accommodation in the heart of Cairns, stay here:
Cairns Central YHA
Mid-Price Boutique Stay in Cairns
For a boutique hotel stay (4s) in Cairns with a score of 8.7, check out:
The Abbott Boutique Hotel
Studio & Apartments In Cairns City
For studios and apartments in Cairns’ city centre, check out:
The Southern Cross Atrium Apartments
Villas & Apartments on the Northern Beaches
For a more relaxed, beachfront stay, check out:
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First published in 2016, last updated in March 2023
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