Cairns is a popular holiday destination, but not everyone wants to rent a car while there. Here is how to visit Cairns without a car and still see all the amazing attractions the area is known for.
Cairns is a city in Queensland, Australia, known for its natural beauty and warm climate. It’s a popular destination for travellers who enjoy beaches and rainforests.
Cairns is a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, where visitors can experience snorkelling and diving. The city has a vibrant waterfront, bustling markets, and a range of seafood restaurants.
Whether you’re snorkelling the reef, exploring the rainforest, relaxing in the sun, or immersing yourself in the local culture, Cairns offers something for everyone.
Before I visited Cairns, I had these seven tours on my wishlist. I did four of them, the other three I will do the next time I am in town.
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Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef
My guess is this is the reason you have come to Cairns, to experience the amazing GBR! There are dozens of different ways to experience the Reef but the most common one is a day trip from Cairns.
Since this is a bucket list experience, you want to make sure you can do everything you can to get the most out of your day. When researching my own trip I considered lots of options, read countless reviews and looked up many different tours to find one that ticked all my boxes.
I chose to do a tour out to the reef with Down Under Cruise & Dive. I had read lots of great reviews about their cruise, and I liked that it combined a snorkelling trip with something else I had on my bucket list – a helicopter ride over the reef.
That’s not the only option, you can also include scuba diving for those already experienced or an introductory dive for those who would like to give it a go. All dive and snorkel equipment is provided on board. At the second stop, there is also (for an extra fee paid on board) a submarine that will take you to view the reef without getting wet.
The cruise visits two different reef sites and includes a buffet lunch and some snacks. They cater for all sorts of dietary requirements – I got an individual vegan meal and snack provided, but I would have almost have been happy with the breads and salads available to everyone else and they were also vegan.
Take a look at all the cruise details here – to see the options, put in a date and click “Check Availability” and you will see the diving and helicopter options appear.
Ride the Rails to Kuranda
Kuranda is a cute little town nestled amidst the rainforest, it’s a haven for nature enthusiasts. Kuranda is known for its scenic beauty, with cascading waterfalls and panoramic views. The town is famous for its vibrant arts and crafts scene, offering unique handmade souvenirs.
A Kuranda day trip means you can explore the Kuranda Rainforest, take a scenic train ride, cuddle a koala, or visit the Butterfly Sanctuary. With its relaxed atmosphere and natural wonders, Kuranda is a delightful destination for those seeking tranquillity and natural beauty.
There are two ways to get to Kuranda, and both are worth experiencing – the Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Skyrail. In both directions, there are stops to view the impressive Barron Falls, walk in the rainforest and learn some of the history of the area.
This is a really popular day trip from Cairns and there are a number of options.
We took this tour with Global Travel Services because it combined the train on the way to the Kuranda and the Skyrail on the way down.
The time in Kuranda is free, so you can do whatever you choose. We wandered the shops and markets on the main street and then we visited the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary.
Another thing to do here in Kuranda is to visit the Kuranda Koala Gardens, where you will see all sorts of Australian wildlife, and have the opportunity to cuddle a koala.
While a tour may seem excessive since the Kuranda Scenic Railway leaves from right in the centre of Cairns, you will need to have transport back from the Skyrail, and this way you are picked up and dropped off right from your accommodation.
Enjoy an Indigenous Experience
Take a day out during your visit to Cairns to learn a little with one of the Indigenous tours available.
I highly recommend this fun tour from Down Under Tours. It started with an Aboriginal bus driver providing information as we were driving north to the Daintree area past Port Douglas.
We spent our morning fishing in the traditional way with Brandon, a local Kuku Yalanji man who grew up here on Cooya Beach. We had spears to help us catch fish and crabs, and searched for scallops and other shellfish as we walked across the mudflats at low tide.
Fishing is not complete without tasting the catch, which was cooked up by Brandon in his childhood home.
Lunch was at the Mossman Gorge visitor centre before our afternoon tour through the surrounding rainforest.
Again we were guided by a local Kuka Yalanji man, who started the walk with a traditional smoking ceremony, before teaching us about how some of the forest plants are used, and which plants we should avoid.
There is a second option for this tour that instead has an Indigenous art class in the morning if fishing does not sound like something you would like, but honestly, it was so relaxing and fun. Both tours had the same bus driver and met again for lunch and the afternoon.
Visit Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures
You can’t help but notice the “Beware of Crocodile” signs that you will come across all over this region – there is even one right on the beachfront in Cairns – so while here, learn about their impressive power and see how big they can really get at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures.
This half-day tour will take you to the crocodile farm and sanctuary where you can see some of their rescued crocodiles up close. The biggest one is 5 metres long and incredible to see.
We were able to see the daily reptile show, the crocodile attack show, the cassowaries being fed and take a cruise around the lagoon to see the crocodiles jump vertically for food.
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures is also home to many other Australian native animals, and while here, you can have your photo taken holding a koala or a snake.
Hartley’s is located about 40km north of Cairns, so the benefit of a tour means all the transport is included. The downside is that your time is limited, but unless you arrange your own transport, I could not find a full-day tour here.
If you do want to arrange a taxi or Uber, you can pick up your entry tickets here.
Admire the Decay of Paronella Park
I ran out of time for visiting Paronella Park, but it is certainly on my list next time I am in Cairns.
Paronella Park is a popular attraction around 100km south of Cairns. It has a castle and gardens built by José Paronella in the 1930s. Over the years the castle has been destroyed by fire and further damaged by a cyclone, leaving it in a delayed, but beautiful state.
Today visitors can see the ruins, beautiful waterfalls, and paths to walk on. It’s a popular spot for taking pictures because there are pretty bridges and lots of tropical plants. When you visit, you can learn about the history of the park and enjoy the combination of nature and buildings.
This full-day tour also includes stops at the Lake Barrine crater lake, shows you a magnificent 600-year-old curtain fig and provides the opportunity for a quick swim under the Millaa Millaa waterfalls.
Go 4WD’ing at Cape Tribulation
So many times I have heard how beautiful the Daintree and Cape Tribulation are. We briefly touched the southern Daintree with our visit to Mossman Gorge but this tour brings a whole new dimension to this UNESCO World Heritage Listed area.
This full-day tour includes a river cruise in the Daintree, multiple scenic viewpoints and a walk along the beach at Cape Tribulation. There’s a guided boardwalk stroll through the forest and the opportunity to cool off with a swim at Emmagen Creek.
You may even spot some crocodiles – but hopefully not in the swimming hole!
Spend a day on Fitzroy Island
Fitzroy Island is one of those perfect tropical islands from the tourism brochures. Think pristine white beaches and sparkling blue water. If you’ve made the effort to come to Cairns, a second day out on the water is no hardship.
This full-day tour includes the ferry transfers from Cairns to Fitzroy Island, and then a selection of activities while you are there – or you can simply relax on the beach.
Choose from snorkelling right off the beach, a glass-bottom boat tour, or hiking one of the five island trails. This could be a great option for those who want to see the reef but don’t want to snorkel.
I hope this has given you some great ideas for things to do in Cairns without a car.
TRAVEL PLANNING ESSENTIALS
Find flights – I always use Skyscanner as my starting point when searching for flights. One search will give many options including airlines I may not have thought of. This means I can find the best possible flights to suit my needs
Book accommodation – my go to is always Booking.com for the best places to stay. It’s not just hotels anymore, but hostels, apartments, B&Bs and more. I love that the bookings are usually cancellable, and that I can book now and pay later.
Hire a rental car – RentalCars.com is my go to here. It allows me to do just one search and it finds cars from many of the different supplies, so no checking multiple websites to compare.
Get travel insurance – you would have heard by now that saying “if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel”. If we’ve learnt anything from the last couple of years it should be how essential travel insurance is. I use CoverMore for my insurance.
Pick up an eSIM – I tried an eSIM on my last trip and it was fantastic. I set it up before I went so it was ready as soon as I landed, and I still had access to my home number for emergencies. Get your own eSIM at Airalo.
Book activities, tours & attractions – I use a few different websites for this. Viator and Get Your Guide tend to be the first places I look. In Asia, Klook often has more options, and in Australia it’s Experience Oz.
Manage your money – the best way to manage your different currencies is with an account from Wise. You can hold money in many different currencies, and use them with the ATM card or from your phone.
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