The Ultimate Backpacking Guide To Cairns

The Ultimate Backpacking Guide To Cairns

Our ultimate backpacking guide to Cairns will get you ready for your dream adventure.

Cairns has been and always will the best place to start your journey to the Great Barrier Reef and your more adventurous journey further north.

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You can learn a lot about the cultural diversity here and explore Australia’s aboriginal heritage as well.

Cairns is very backpaker friendly with lots of cheap eats entertainment and accommodation on offer.

This is a must see town and should be on everyone’s list to see.

Things to see and do in and around Cairns

The town offer around 40 hostels and free buses are normally on offer into the CBD so you can enjoy the night life and shopping.

The esplanade is just glorious and is a place you sure will be spending a lot of your time.  It off a swimming lagoon that over looks the ocean.   Be mindful the beach is not swimmers friendly.

Australia has one of the oldest cultures in the world and you can learn how they lived in harmony with the environment and you may even go on a hunt with the aborigines and sample your bounty!

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The Daintree Rainforest is spectacular and has been that of legend of the aborigines, learn their stories here, canirns has so much to offer.

If your interested in learning about the aborigines then a visit to Tjapukai (pronounce jab-book-eye) museum is a must.  It teaches visitors about Aboriginal culture, lifestyle and history. As well as seeing traditional dances and interpretations of the Dreamtime, the Aboriginal version of the Creation story.  A tip is you can combine this with a visit to Kuranda on the Scenic Railway and SkyRail.

If you want to see where Australia was settled then Cooktown is the place to visit.  Captain Cook settled on his first exploration of the northeast of Australia.  Cooktown is a great base to explore prehistoric art at  Laura on the Cape York Peninsula.

Visit Cape Tribulation

Stunning white sandy beaches and clear starry nights make Cape Trib a beautiful place to visit. It’s spectacular, and is the only point on Earth where two UNESCO World Heritage sites (the Great Barrier Reef and the Tropical Rainforests) meet.

You can either visit from Cairns in a day trip, or split a day trip in two and stay up there for a night or two. If you decide to take time out there, you can simply absorb the beauty and have a few drinks in the local bar or do a whole array of activities. Swinging from ropes into swimming holes, horseriding along the beach, sea kayaking, snorkeling a secluded part of the reef or jungle surfing on zip wires above the rain forest are only a few of the options. Just keep your eyes open for cassowaries, snakes and crocodiles!

Go to Fitzroy Island

Just a 45 minute boat trip from Cairns, this beautiful island is covered by rainforest and surrounded by coral reef. You can explore the island on walking tracks, rent paddle skis or take advantage of the great snorkeling spots. Alternatively the reef can be viewed from the comfort (and dryness) of a glass bottomed boat.

The highlight has to be the sea kayaking though. Allowing you to see the reef, marine life and admire the lush green island all at once, sea kayaking gives you the best of both worlds. And you’ll still have time to snorkel or hike in and around this paradise island after sea kayaking.

See the Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is an amazing underwater world of colourful corals and fish, terrific turtles, sharks and other sea life. Unfortunately experts believe that the coral is being bleached and causing grave risk to this World Heritage Site, so a visit to Nemo’s magical home is a must.

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You don’t have to be a qualified diver to visit the reef. You can snorkel, go on intro dives with an instructor, or earn your PADI qualification while visiting Cairns and the reef. It’s surprising how much you can see on snorkeling expeditions, so don’t feel obliged to scuba if it’s not your thing. That said, you get a whole different view of the reef from deeper down and can see different varieties of fish and coral on scuba dives.

Even if you’re not a water baby, there are lots of ways to visit the reef. You could go out on a glass bottomed boat or fly over the reef in a helicopter, which gives you a unique view of the reef and lets you see the scale of the world’s largest site made up entirely of living organisms.

See native animals

Australia is home to all sorts of fascinating animals, many unique to the island. Although you may be lucky enough to spot some of these animals in the wild, a lot can be shy or a bit dangerous to go in search of on your own!

Luckily, there are plenty of opportunities to see indigenous creatures in safe environments in and around Cairns.

You could visit the Cairns Tropical Zoo or the Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary near Port Douglas. There are also options to go on a crocodile spotting cruise or to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures which has more than just crocodiles to wow you with.

Best time to visit 

There are lots of activities to do all year round in the area, so don’t worry too much about timing your trip for a specific season.

Summers/Wet Season (November to April) are very humid and can be wet due to tropical rainfalls. Don’t worry if you do end up there in the wet season – it just means the waterfalls seen in the region and the rapids for white water rafting are much more impressive. Top tip: book a room with air con if you can afford it!

Winters (May to October) are cooler, dryer and less humid making that a popular time to visit too.

Tips to stretch your budget

  • Ask what drinks (and food) offers are on when you arrive at a bar
  • Lots of pubs and clubs in Cairns do cheap meal deals so try to find out where you can get vouchers but be aware its usually a very restricted menu on the cheap / free meal option
  • Find out if your hostel does any special meal deals for guests
  • Tuesdays are a good day to treat yourself as cinemas, pizza delivery companies and some others tend to offer special discounts on Tuesdays
  • Cook with other people from your hostel
  • Check out the smörgåsbord style ‘load your plate as high as you can’ options at the food court in the market. Take a zip lock bag or food box with you (or ask for a take out box after you’ve loaded your plate) so you can take half the food away with you for another meal
  • Join associations that get you discounted accommodation and other perks. VIP backpackers and BBH cards will get you discounted room rates with member hostels if you book direct (you won’t be able to claim the discount if you book through a third party such as hostelworld). These membership cards are also a phone card and usually give you free credit when you charge the phone card for the first time
  • Join the YHA or collect stamps to earn free membership if you stay at YHA hostels. Your YHA membership gets you discounts on YHA accommodation and with all sorts of other companies across Australia (such as Greyhound bus tickets!)
  • Investigate ‘relocations’ with vehicle hire companies. If they need a van returning to a specific destination, they’ll rent it really cheaply to someone to drive it back for them. This is a great cost saving option if you can find it, and make it work for you. You might find you have less time to stop and explore along the way though, if they only give you a few days to cover a lot of miles

Learn the slang

  • Bottle Shop – off license and the only place to buy alcohol – you can’t get it in supermarkets!
  • Budgie Smugglers – speedo style swimming trunks
  • The Bush – forests and wooded areas
  • Capsicum – bell peppers
  • CBD – Central Business District or town centre
  • Damper – a kind of bread baked in a bush oven by aboriginals
  • Intro Dive – short scuba diving session that doesn’t require you to complete a full Diving qualification first. A good way to sample scuba diving and see the Great Barrier Reef in a small group with an instructor
  • Lagoon – swimming pool
  • Mangroves – trees which grow in the muddy marshes bordering the sea. Their roots are an intertwining mess that are exposed at low tide. They create a natural habitat for all sorts of wildlife
  • PADI Open Water – PADI is a globally recognised accreditation in Scuba diving. Open Water is the course that can be completed in about a week to enable you to earn qualification to go scuba diving without an instructor present. You’re required to complete a medical, some theory tests and a series of practical skills tests in and underwater. There are numerous diving schools in Cairns that allow you to complete this course during your visit. You can start the course in the diving school’s swimming pool and complete it on the Barrier Reef and get diving with your ‘buddy’ straight after qualifying
  • Pie – the Aussies think they invented pie and love all kinds of pie – particularly meat and cheese variations. The stodgier the better – they’re fab for soaking up beer!
  • Stingers – jelly fish: stings from the Box jellyfish and the small Irukandji jellyfish can both be deadly. It’s dangerous to swim in the sea around Queensland during stinger season (November to May) without the protection of stinger nets or stinger suits
  • Stinger nets – a giant fishing net style barrier in the sea to create a safer area to swim in
  • Stinger suits – seriously un-sexy star trek style cat suits that should be worn as protection against stingers when swimming / snorkeling in the sea during stinger season
  • Thongs – flip flops
  • Tight-arse Tuesday – since lots of places offer discounts on Tuesdays, it’s a good day to treat yourself (or ideal for tight-arses and backpackers on a budget!)
  • Wattleseed – a native seed that has a nutty / cappuccino like taste when blended into ice cream
  • YHA – Youth Hostel Association

Animals to watch out for

  • Cassowary – Large flightless birds that charge through the rain forests. They have bright blue feathers and an odd looking keratin bump on top of their heads. Up to 7ft tall they can be very aggressive if they feel threatened. You’re advised not to feed them, approach them, photograph them, make eye contact or turn your back on them should you come across one in the wild.
  • Cane Toads – These poisonous toads were introduced to Australia to control sugar cane beetles, but the different variant of cane planted meant the toads were ineffective and have since plagued Queensland and beyond. These toads are not protected, and it is legal to kill them humanely. However taking a cricket bat (or similar object) to them or accidentally killing a native frog by mistake is illegal so its best not to get involved!
  • Crocodiles – Salt water and fresh water crocodiles live throughout the coasts and waters of Queensland although are rarely spotted. Both are dangerous though and you shouldn’t swim in rivers, lakes, lagoons or the sea where there are croc warning signs. You can go on a safari to try spotting crocs in various nature reserves if you’re keen to see them.
  • Sharks – You may see Reef Shark when out on the reef, but these timid creatures are generally not dangerous to humans. There are other types of sharks in the oceans, but they’re rarely seen in and around Queensland or the reef.
  • Snakes – Many varieties of snakes live in the Cairns region, some of which are venomous and dangerous to humans. If a snake feels the vibrations of you approaching it, it will tend to disappear out of your path before you reach it. To avoid confrontation with a snake, it is therefore best not to walk through piles of leaves of other vegetation / sand they might hide in, to wear fully enclosed shoes and not to walk gently so your footsteps send vibrations and alert the snake to move on.
  • Spiders – The tropical climate of Queensland is home to many spiders. If you see one, it is best to look but not touch or disturb it. There are venomous spiders in the region and if you’re bitten you should seek medical advice quickly.

Tours and trips

  • A J Hackett – Cairns’ most extreme bungee jump experts
  • Jump the Beach – Skydive over Mission Beach and land on the sand
  • Ocean Safari – Half day snorkeling trips in the more secluded sections of the Great Barrier Reef off Cape Tribulation. You speed off in a Rigid Inflatable Boat for your guided snorkeling experience.
  • Raging Thunder – Raging Thunder are experts in the Cairns area and can book everything from your diving school to your sky dive, your trip up to Cape Trib to your bus ticket down the coast and your accommodation.
  • Sky Dive Cairns – Views of the Great Barrier Reef and Tropical Rainforest as you exit the plane.


  • Backpacker Campervans – Hire a campervan with kit to travel along the coast.
  • Greyhound buses – Buy a pass allowing you to travel on their regular services along the coast.
  • Oz Experience – Hop on / Hop off bus travel in Australia, taking you off the beaten track and allowing you the opportunity to try lots of activities along the way.
  • Wicked Campers – Hire a campervan with kit to travel along the coast.

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