48 Hours in Cairns

Cairns is a city that feels more like a big town. Devoid of the traffic and high rise buildings plaguing other east-coast cities, Cairns exudes a relaxed vibe that keeps people coming back. While there’s no denying it’s best known as a hub to explore the World Heritage-listed double act of the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest – and yes, we’ll let you know the best ways to do so – there’s even more to Cairns than this.

Teeming with bars, restaurants, and cafes for all budgets, you’ll need a little guidance on the best haunts to visit in 48 hours. So, swap your briefcase for boardies and your heels for thongs (or flip flops – depending on where you’re from), because you’re in the tropics now and we like get down to business in comfort here.  

The Itinerary

DAY 1: MORNING

8.00am – Up and at 'em

Kick off your day with breakfast in the trendy suburb of Edge Hill. We love its village atmosphere and pick of quality cafes and restaurants. This morning we’re heading to NOA. If you’re having a little trouble deciding what to order – and we don’t blame you – go with a breakfast board where you’ll be able to taste a selection of the chef’s favourites.     

9.30am – At one with nature

Cairns is surrounded by lush rainforest and the Botanic Gardens is a gorgeous spot to take it all in. Only a five-minute walk away, it boasts an incredible display of tropical plants. Join a free tour with the Friends of the Botanic Gardens – you’ll get the most out of your exploring when you know what you’re looking at. The tours start at 10.00am and run from the Friends House; the brick cottage behind the Botanic Gardens Café. Or explore on your own. The Red Arrow is one of the popular walking trails. It’s a 1.5-hour round trip and the views over the city and out to Green Island from the lookout makes the hike rewarding.  

11.30am – The Cairns Esplanade

A visit to Cairns wouldn’t be complete without a stroll along the Esplanade. It’s a focal point for the city with the enormous saltwater swimming lagoon acting as the city’s beach, and the buzzy bars, cafes, and restaurants add to the atmosphere. Overlooking the Trinity Inlet, the source of the saltwater filling the lagoon, the Esplanade is also home to the Saturday markets, which sell everything from jewellery to pottery, clothes, skincare – you name it! The markets are held from 8.00am, and finish up at 4.00pm.

Day 1: AFTERNOON

12.15pm – Hold the salt, please

The Salt House is an institution and is the perfect spot to soak up the fabulous views overlooking Trinity Inlet, the coastal mountain range, and the Coral Sea. It’s hard to go past the $20 lunch deal; a main course plus a beer, glass of wine, or soft drink. 

Afternoon – Glide above the rainforest

Located high in the Atherton Tablelands, the journey to Kuranda, known as the ‘Village in the Rainforest’, is spectacular. Hop aboard a Skyrail Rainforest Cableway gondola at the Smithfield terminal, only 15 minutes from the city, and you’ll be gliding above the rainforest canopy before you know it. Once at Kuranda, wander through the picturesque, artsy town. The Heritage Markets are a major attraction, and there are several walks through the rainforest of varying distances.

For your return trip home, take the Kuranda Scenic Railway. As you make your way past thick rainforest and waterfalls tumbling into deep ravines, you’ll understand how lives were lost during its construction back in the late 1800s; an extraordinary engineering feat even by today’s standards.

7.00pm – Dinner at Palm Cove

For a taste of life in the northern beaches, head to Vivo in Palm Cove for dinner. Nab a seat on the verandah looking out past the palm-tree fringed beach to the Coral Sea. We can’t go past the spanner crab linguini but basically, anything you order will be a taste sensation. The semi-frozen granita margarita is the perfect consistency for the Tropical North Queensland climate.  

DAY 2: MORNING

8.00am – Breakfast at Caffiend

Tucked away in a graffitied alleyway, off Grafton Street, you’ll find a funky café called Caffiend. The owner claims his passion for the bean was sparked at the tender age of 9, and you’ll believe it after you taste the brew; it’s seriously good. The team here take their food just as seriously as their coffee. Order the indulgent French toast with caramelised banana – go on, you need the energy for all that snorkelling you’re about to embark on.

10.00am – Fast track it to Fitzroy

Fitzroy Island, a part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, is adorned with lush rainforest, open woodlands, and beaches. The Thunderbolt will have you on the island in 30 minutes. Once you’ve arrived you’ll have four hours to explore, swim, and snorkel off the beaches.

Nudey Beach on Fitzroy Island is one of those spots just screaming to be Instagrammed. And no, it’s not that kind of beach – family friendly here, we promise! You’ll see colourful coral and sea life within metres of the shore. If you’d prefer not to get your hair wet, there’s the glass-bottom boat tour, accompanied by informative commentary.

Highlight: Kids (and adults) will love to jump on the free ocean trampoline at Fitzroy Island!

Options for lunch are either taking your own, dining at Foxy’s Bar on the island, or ordering a hot or cold packed lunch as part of your transfer package. If you’re unable to ride the high-speed vessel out to the island for any reason, the Fitzroy Island Fast Cat ferries depart Cairns for Fitzroy Island three times a day at 8.00am, 11.00am, and 1.30pm, returning at 9.30am, 12.15pm, and 5.00pm.

Need more time to explore the island?

There are also full day tours to Fitzroy Island or you may prefer to take an extra day and stay overnight at stunning Fitzroy Island Resort. 

DAY 2: AFTERNOON

Afternoon – Fun-filled Fitzroy Island

You're still swimming, snorkelling, touring or just relaxing on the pristine beach at Fitzroy Island. 

6.30pm – It's time to dine

Option 1: Dinner at Ochre

Located on the waterfront at Harbour Lights, Ochre’s menu features native game, herbs, and fruits in dishes such as salt and pepper prawn and crocodile, kangaroo sirloin, and wattleseed pavlova. Trust us when we say you’re in for a deliciously unique TNQ dining experience with this longstanding, award-winning venue.     

Option 2: Sunset Harbour Cruise

Treat yourself to a special dinner on a luxury, air-conditioned sailing catamaran. Indulge in a three-course feast including fresh local seafood while you sail around the Cairns waterfront and calm waters of Trinity Inlet taking in stunning sunset and evening views. Check-in at 6.00pm - 6.15pm at Cairns Marlin Marina for an amazing 2 1/2 hours of waterside dining and entertainment. 

Other must-see Cairns attractions

Rusty’s Market, open from Friday through to Sunday, is a Cairns icon worth stopping by if you happen to be visiting over the weekend. Since humble beginnings in 1975, Rusty’s now holds more than 180 stalls, selling everything from local fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood, bread, flowers, chocolates, jewellery, coffee…the list goes on. Whatever you’re after, this is probably where you’ll find it.   

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