If you visit Tropical North Queensland for the first time, I’m sure you will be looking for a list of things to do in Cairns for free.
Besides being the gateway to two of Australia’s most visited World Heritage Sites: the Great Barrier Reef, and the Daintree Rainforest, Cairns is also the starting point for a road trip to the Atherton Tablelands.
Despite being a touristy place, Cairns has maintained its natural environment while offering a wealth of activities to suit travellers and travel styles.
It’s one of the best places to travel alone in Australia repeatedly on my solo adventures.
All Fun and Free Things to Do in Cairns
Cairns has beautifully developed into one of Australia’s most attractive destinations with a population of nearly 170 thousand and a growth forecast to 220 thousand in the next 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 variety of things to do and see in Cairns city, and many of them are free.
I first visited Cairns on my trip in 2004. Meanwhile, I have been there three times alone. Every time I have discovered a little bit more of this fascinating Northern Australian city. In this blog post, I show you how to plan your trip on a budget and what to do in Cairns for free.
1. The Swimming Lagoon
Probably the highlight among all Cair Swimming Lagoon on the Cairns Esplanade is where you can enjoy the relaxation of an on this blog post real city beach, straight out of your hotel door. The best Cairns beaches are out of town, in north Cairns and you will need a car to visit them. So the swimming lagoon in Cairns city beach.
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. On the other side, water reaches 2 mt depth for expert swimmers and offers a recreational area with timber decks, benches and great BBQ facilities under palm trees, where you can cook, enjoy a meal and chill out.
2. Cairns 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 to travellers and locals.
3. The Cottage Industry Market
The Cottage Industry Market is a funky market 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 night, there is free live music from local bands too.
4. A Stroll at the Esplanade boardwalk
The Esplanade boardwalk in Cairns stretches along 2,5 km and encompasses all of the above if you fancy walking and soaking up the laid-back atmosphere and enjoy the sunset colours on the ocean. If you enjoy walking, you can start your walk along the Esplanade Boardwalk, follow the beach promenade till the end for about 5 km. When you have reached the promenade’s end, cross the road and follow the Botanic Gardens’ signage. The entire walk will probably take 1-1,5 hour.
5. 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 you can see 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 a free guided walk at 10.00 am.
6. 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 two walking trails that you can do in combination with the Botanic Gardens. Start the walk a the base, at Collins Avenue. The red arrow path 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 trail is 4,5km and a more demanding walk with 300 mt elevations. Both walking trails take you through the rainforest, grassland and eucalypt forest.
7. Relax at the Centenary Lakes
If you plan to visit the Botanic Gardens, then 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.
8. Cairns Historical Museum
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 and its surrounding areas. The entry is free.
9. The KickArts Contemporary Arts
The KickArts Contemporary Art Centre is all about real authentic Aboriginal art produced in Northern Australia. Besides the artworks on display, the centre has lovely museum gift shops.
10. Cairns Rusty’s Markets
If you love, food the rusty’s Markets is the place to be, a top-notch fruit and veggies market not to miss out. Held on Grafton Street on Fridays-Saturdays-Sundays, this is a paradise for fruits and veggies lovers, offering the most genuine local products along with organic produce. Absolutely a must-do free stuff in Cairns on weekends. For more info visit: www.rustysmarkets.com.au
11. Campbell’s Lookout at Night
Spending a night out in Cairns is safe and relaxing. I would suggest going on self-guided tours of the city, strolling along the main streets, or chilling out at one of the many terraces. If you want to check out a hidden secret among all Cairns attractions, one of the top things to do in Cairns at night is the Campbell Lookout. But you need a car and drive to Campbell’s lookout. (on the Lake Morris Road).
It’s a 25-minute drive from town and a favourite spot for the locals. I learned about it from my Airbnb hosts, who took me there to show me Cairns’ panoramic view at night. It was one of the perks of staying in Cairns with a local.
How to plan your trip to Cairns Australia
You can do all these top things in Cairns without a car. Thanks to the efficient bus network in Cairns, buses take you everywhere and near the northern beaches. If you plan to go on a road trip to Cape Tribulation, yes, you will need to hire a car. 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.
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First published in 2016, last updated in April 2021
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