5 days in Cairns is a perfect amount of time to satisfy your thirst for adventure and sightseeing.
Cairns provides locals and tourist with so many options that it has something for everybody. Being on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef, it makes for the most ideal location to explore the world’s largest coral reef system.
Cairns is also close to the oldest continually surviving rainforest in the world, amazing waterfalls, stunning rare wildlife that eats out the palm of your hand and much more.
You may struggle and be overwhelmed with where to start because there is so much to do in and around Cairns.
However, with first-hand experience we will provide you with the best itinerary for 5 days in Cairns, making sure you don’t miss anything you can’t brag about to your friends and family. The best part is that you can rearrange the itinerary to suit your own needs as it is not day dependant.
As well as this, we provide cool bonus spots at the end of the blog. These bonus spots are ideal for you to check out if you find yourself with any extra time on your hands.
How to get to Cairns
Cairns is a popular destination for Australians and tourists and has many flights in and out of Cairns airport.
We always book our flights through Skyscanner and have found them to be the cheapest and easiest flight comparison site.
Once you are in Cairns you will need a means of transport. The most convenient and enjoyable way to explore would be to rent a car. This gives you the freedom to come and go as you please and not wait around for anyone else, saving on time, which is very important.
We have found that VroomVroomVroom was the best comparison site and renting a car from Thrifty was the cheapest. We had no problems with them and the customer service was great, none of the horror stories you hear of other companies trying to scam you.
It is also stress-free as their office is right outside the airport, with the car ready to be picked up upon arrival.
Where to stay in Cairns
If you are a fellow backpacker/backpacking couple or travelling as a family, there are an array of different options to choose from. Below is a list of some of the top spots in Cairns from low to a more open budget:
Freedom Cairns Central: 3-minute walk to the beach, talk about convenience! – This budget stay has air conditioned rooms and free Wi-Fi.
Mad Monkey Backpackers Waterfront: If hostels are your thing then look no where else. With a 2-minute walk to the beach it is surrounded by popular attractions such as the Centre of Contemporary Arts and the Cairns Regional Gallery. Enjoy the company and get to know fellow travellers with a buzzing atmosphere and shared barbecue facilities.
Cairns Queenslander Hotel & Apartments: Sometimes you just want to do your own thing with a little peace and quiet. With it’s own swimming pool, options of booking your own apartment, luxury rooms with balcony views, this is where you’d want to be.
Best time to visit Cairns
Cairns is located in Tropical North Queensland and therefore has good weather all year round.
It has 2 main seasons; a warm dry season from April – November and a wet season which can have tropical monsoons from November – March. The wet season can get horribly hot and humid.
We visited during December and on some days it was literally too hot. We would advise you to visit during the dry season if you can for more pleasant days.
5 Days in Cairns Itinerary
This 5 days in Cairns itinerary is what we did on our Cairns trip. We found this to be the most efficient plan and saves you time going back and forth from other places.
If you feel like you want to rearrange the days, it’s fine. The only thing we would highly suggest is booking your Fitzroy Island day trip the day before, as the ferry may be fully booked.
Now let’s dive into 5 days in Cairns.
Day 1 – Explore Cairns City
First things first, you have probably dropped your bags off at the accommodation and laid on your bed getting over the journey, now it’s time to eat and explore.
Head over to Muddy’s Café for some ‘Fish n Chips’.
Money-saving tip: They do a deal on Fridays where you can get Fish n Chips for $10 and they also have live music.
Muddy’s also has a playground where kids can have fun and cool off in the water fountains.
It’s a great place to eat and gather your bearings. It also has good indoor and outdoor seating, making it a nice space for plenty of people watching. Muddy’s is also located on Cairns esplanade.
Cairns esplanade is a 2.5 km walk along the waterfront.
You can see the huge pelicans resting and perching on the rocks. It is a hot spot for locals who like to chill listening to music whilst having a barbecue.
What also makes the esplanade walk pleasant is reading some history on the way. Dotted along the walk are some rest areas which have colourful displays. These displays are of wildlife and nature with factual information on them regarding the surrounding area.
A word of advice, do not get too enticed by the water on the esplanade as crocodiles may be swimming in there. This means no swimming, unfortunately. You’ll have to cool off in the really fun Cairns esplanade lagoon.
Cairns esplanade lagoon
At the end of the esplanade, is the Cairns Esplanade lagoon.
It is completely free and nicely situated by the waterfront. You can relax on the grass or the sand whilst you take a swim in the croc-free waters.
We were so hot we were desperate to cool off and this lagoon was a life-saver. We didn’t waste any time getting undressed and flinging ourselves into the water. It is such a good option to have considering you can’t swim anywhere else.
Lockers are also available to rent in case you don’t want to keep watching over your valuables. You can literally stay here all day and then head to the Cairns night market later on for some cheap food.
Cairns night markets
By the time you have enjoyed the esplanade and chilled out in the lagoon, the night markets have probably opened.
The main Cairns night market is open from 4.30 pm 7 days a week.
It has vendors selling those must-have travel hats, jewellery and clothes. We must have spent about an hour trying on all kinds of hats but in the end, settled for a $10 foot massage. We weren’t expecting to have this option in the market but the price was great and it would be rude not to.
Our feet felt amazing after and it was like we were walking on clouds.
Don’t get too exhausted browsing the bazaar, get a good night’s sleep as the next day will be an early start.
The Great Barrier Reef
Across the road from the esplanade are loads of different tour companies. Go to a few and get their best price and deals. Head over to Peter Pans and tell them what deals. you’ve been offered as they have a price match guarantee.
We’re pretty sure it’s considered illegal to come to Cairns and not see the Great Barrier Reef. You could argue that the best way to explore it is to do a dive, but a lot have a great experience snorkelling it, including us. If you’re afraid of swimming you can always go on a glass-bottom boat tour and see the Great Barrier reef that way.
If you’re not living in Australia, the chances are this will be the only time you will see the Great Barrier Reef, so make the most of it. Don’t worry about the sharks or the stingers and enjoy one of mother natures wonders whilst you can.
Day 2 – Atherton Tablelands waterfall circuit
This is a waterfall chasers dream.
The Atherton Tablelands waterfall circuit is very popular amongst tourists and locals. You can view some of the best waterfalls that Tropical North Queensland has to offer.
You will be spoilt for choice as each waterfall has its own uniqueness and attraction.
First stop will be the famous Millaa Millaa Waterfall which has been in Herbal Essence advertisements and a Peter Andre music video.
Nandroya Falls takes you onto an adventure through the tropical rainforest until you get to the 50m thunderous waterfall crashing down into the rocks below.
Finally, Josephine Falls is the most fun with naturally formed waterslides and plunge pools. It is a tiered cascade where you can slide from one to next. The waterslides are formed from the smoothing of granite rocks over the years.
The day will be filled with fun and excitement as you explore each waterfall. It is best to set off as early as possible to make sure you are not rushed through the day.
The drive back to Cairns from Atherton Tablelands is also beautiful and provides a jaw-dropping sunset.
For more details, you can read our Atherton Tablelands waterfall circuit blog. It also has additional waterfalls to visit if you have more time.
Once you get back to Cairns make sure to book your Fitzroy Island day trip for Day 3. We would recommend booking it as soon as you can to avoid any disappointment.
Day 3 – Fitzroy Island & Bats in Cairns at sunset
Fitzroy Island is just paradise. It has everything anyone could want in an Island.
From Cairns, it takes around 45 min – 1 hour.
Money-saving tip: Park at the pier in Cairns for the cheapest rates.
There are some great snorkelling spots where you can scan for the colourful fish and even sea turtles. There is also a sea turtle sanctuary where you can take a tour and find out the amazing job the sanctuary is doing on the Island to preserve these wonderful creatures.
The lighthouse is also a popular spot where you can hike to the top of the Island and enjoy the beautiful landscape.
If that wasn’t enough, visit Nudey Beach, which in 2017, was named Australia’s best beach. You will see why with its sea shelled beach and clear blue waters.
Fruit Bat Tree at Sunset
Once you head back to Cairns, it will be just in time to seek out the bats for sunset. Just head over to the ‘Fruit Bat Tree’, yes; it even has its place on Google Maps.
Hundreds of bats swarm the skies during and after sunset. It is one of those moments you could imagine yourself in a horror film just before something creepy is about to happen, but at the same time; it’s a lovely natural sight to behold.
Just don’t stand under the trees too much unless you want your head drenched in bat piss.
Day 4 – Crystal Cascades Swimming Hole & Port Douglas
The Crystal Cascades Swimming Hole is a local gem.
It seems to be equally populated with locals as well as tourists. You can have a lot of fun here swinging off trees into the natural cool water or sliding down a natural waterslide. It is such a good place to spend a few hours. Not to mention, it’s also free, happy days.
After you have done swinging off trees like a monkey it is time to head to Port Douglas.
The drive from Cairns to Port Douglas is breathtaking.
You wind along Captain Cook Highway which takes you on the coast, gifting you amazing views all the way through. The journey should take around 1 hour but leave yourself extra time.
You can stop off at points such as Palm Cove Beach, Rex Lookout and Thala Beach Nature Reserve where there are hundreds of coconut trees.
Once you reach Port Douglas check out the Four Mile Beach for a warm sunset and at night you can sip a beer whilst you watch some toad racing. Yes, you read that correctly, toad racing.
Make sure you get a decent amount of sleep as the next day is another epic and fun-filled day.
Day 5 – Mossman Gorge, Cape Tribulation & The Daintree Rainforest
The final day of your 5 days in Cairns is probably the most memorable day of them all.
From Port Douglas head straight to Mossman Gorge. It is a lovely place to take a dip and learn some history of the surrounding areas.
If you are visiting on a hot day like we were, it’s a Godsend dipping in the cold water after you are sweating your balls off.
Money-saving tip: If you take the shuttle service you get a 10% discount to use in the gift shop.
The Daintree Rainforest
No trip to Cairns would be complete without exploring the world’s oldest, continually surviving, tropical rainforest in the world.
Take a Daintree River cruise and spot some of those crocodiles that stop you from swimming in some areas, see what all the fuss is about. To be honest, we took a cruise with the Daintree River Cruise Centre and it was one of the highlights of our trip.
Seeing crocodiles, snakes and other life in their natural habitat, whilst getting some insightful local knowledge, was a phenomenal experience.
Another spot to check out is some of the most obscure yet delicious ice creams you will taste at the Daintree Ice Cream Company. All flavours are sourced from their fruit grown on-site, featuring the likes of yellow sapote and wattleseed.
There are many boardwalks to do within the Daintree Rainforest too such as Jindalba boardwalk. This is where we first saw the rare and endangered cassowary.
Keep your eyes out walking and driving to spot one of these captivating creatures.
Cape Tribulation is where the Daintree Rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef, in between 2 phenomena’s.
Ferry your car across the Daintree River and drive through more rainforest. Cape Tribulation even has a few beaches for you to enjoy.
Myall Beach is a quaint beach that hardly has anyone there so you are often alone. Some turtles apparently appear on this beach near some rocks; however, we did not see them for ourselves.
Cape Tribulation Beach is probably the most beautiful out of them all. Head up to the Cape Tribulation Lookout for a better perspective, you won’t be disappointed.
Enjoy the ride back which completes your 5 days in Cairns.
What else is there to do in Cairns?
If you happen to have more time or want to stay longer as we did, there are some bonus spots to fit in your itinerary.
Granite Gorge in Mareeba
The Granite Gorge in Mareeba is where you can feed the cute little Mareeba Rock Wallabies by hand.
They are in their natural habitats but are used to humans going through the place. Purchase a bag from the reception and they will run up to you on the sound of rustling food pellets.
There are even turtles to feed in the lake so save some food for them too.
It makes for a great day out exploring and hiking amongst the enormous granite boulders whilst enjoying nature.
Entry fee is $13 for an adult and discounted for children of certain ages. Check out their website for more details, as you can even camp overnight there.
Emerald Creek Falls
Emerald Creek Falls is 35 min away from Granite Gorge. It is a refreshing waterfall which you can enjoy after you explore Granite Gorge National Park.
The hike to the waterfall is a 1.9 km return which isn’t too strenuous to do. You can enjoy the gorgeous scenery throughout the hike with lush green bushes and the sound of streams.
Cairns helicopter ride
If your purse is bulky, you can view Cairns form the skies.
It will be quite expensive if you’re on a budget, but at the end of the esplanade is a company offering helicopter rides. Head towards the helipad to ask for prices and packages.
Another popular destination is the Kuranda village.
It is situated in the mountains near Cairns and is known for its scenic railway winding through the hills.
Let us know your experience of this in the comments we would be interested to know what it’s like as we didn’t get to experience this ourselves.
What we thought after 5 days in Cairns
After living in Sydney for a year we weren’t sure what to expect from Cairns. But when we arrived, we couldn’t believe how green it was. The landscape and nature are breath-taking and the lifestyle is very chilled.
However, to be honest, there isn’t actually that much to do in Cairns itself. 1 day is enough to see the major things in the centre of Cairns. In saying that, we strongly urge you to stay at least 5 days because there are so many amazing places we mentioned above that are really close to Cairns, making it the best place to stay.
TOP TIPS for 5 days in Cairns
- Plan your Fitzroy Island trip at least a day in advanced
- Pack snacks and meals in your bag, there are plenty of barbeque and picnic areas around
- Bring a change of footwear; you will be visiting waterfalls, beaches and doing some hikes
- If you can’t do it all, don’t miss Cape Tribulation and Fitzroy Island
- If you have a car, it’s cheaper to stay out of town in an Air Bnb
- Always check if you can swim or not, Crocodiles live in the waters here
- Pay the extra money for the Great Barrier Reef tours, the cheaper ones are not as good
- Eating out was quite expensive, as budget backpackers, we opted for picnics and bbq most days and nights
5 days is plenty of time and you won’t feel rushed to see most things.
The best month would be in June, July or August. This is when the weather is dry and not too hot and humid.
Cairns is not too expensive to visit but if you intend to do a lot of tours the price can quickly increase.
Yes, many areas are not suitable for swimming. However, there are many swimming spots in and around cairns that are crocodile free.
No, but there is a free lagoon located at the end of the esplanade that you can swim in.
More often than not, yes, it is safe. However, you are still in the ocean with wildlife and anything can happen.