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20 Free Things To Do In Cairns

Updated Wed 27 Mar 2024

There are lots of amazing, free things to do in Cairns that are perfect for budget travellers! A lively tropical town where the lush rainforest meets the spectacular Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is located on Australia’s brimming East Coast

Renowned as the getaway to one of the seven wonders of the natural world, Cairns is also home to an abundance of iconic places to explore and free things to do. Unlike cities that revolve around long queues and expensive experiences, Cairns is a hotspot for completely free sights. Here’s a round-up of our favourite free things to do in Cairns.

So hop aboard, the sun is shining and the good vibes are here to stay!

Two women with flowers in their hair and arms raised, palm trees in the distance

The 10 Best Free Things To Do In Cairns

1. Go on a hiking adventure

If there’s one thing Cairns does best, it’s greenery - and there’s no better way to immerse yourself in the lush, ancient rainforests than to walk them. From Crystal Cascades to Red Arrow and Earl Hill Summit Track, there are a plethora of renowned hiking trails to dig your heels into. Try some of these amazing hikes and bushwalking tracks in Cairns.

Women wearing a backpack and hat at the Alexandra Lookout, Cairns

2. Conquer Walsh’s Pyramid 

If you’ve got a spring in your step, you might want to level up with your hiking adventure and set your sights on the peak of Walsh’s Pyramid. It’s the tallest freestanding natural pyramid in the world, and the steep, upwards hike takes you 922m to the peak. It’s best known for its incredible panoramic views, scrubby bushland and humble eucalyptus forest!

Person sitting on the road with Walshs Pyramid in the distance

3. Chase waterfalls in the Atherton Tablelands

The towering mountain ranges and ancient rainforests of the Atherton Tablelands create an incredible environment for waterfall hopping!

You’ll need a car and a tank of fuel for this one, but if you can rustle that up you’re in for a jam-packed day of nature’s best. Begin with a local favourite, Millaa Millaa Falls. Located a scenic hour and 40 minutes from the Cairns CBD, Millaa Millaa is renowned for its impressive natural amphitheatre and 18.3 metres tall waterfall. Afterwards, pop on down to the beloved Josephine Falls for the waterslide of your dreams, Babinda Boulders sandy beach, or pitch a tent at the incredible infinity pool at Davies Creek Falls.

Person standing in front of the Millaa Millaa Falls, Cairns

4. Relax at the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon

You can’t swim offshore at Cairns CBD, but Cairns City Council has got you covered!

The Cairns Esplanade Lagoon is a vast, well-maintained outdoor swimming pool that caters to everyone’s swimming style. From the shallow ends for families to deep diving pools for those wanting a little more, it’s a great place to relax and unwind after a crazy day of exploring. Best of all, it’s free entry, boasts a number of public barbeques, often hosts groovy live music, and is fully patrolled by lifeguards! The stroll down the Esplanade boardwalk is also a great way to spend a balmy afternoon without spending a dime.

Two women strolling into the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon, Cairns

5. Sweat it out with free outdoor Active Living exercise classes 

If you’re looking to sweat it out before a dip in the Esplanade Lagoon, look no further than the myriad of free fitness classes hosted on the Esplanade. There are free classes every day of the week, including yoga, boxing, Aqua Zumba, beach volleyball, pilates and more! 

6. Wander the Botanic Gardens

Looking to cool down without making a splash? The Cairns Botanic Gardens are a sight for sore eyes, featuring luscious tropical foliage and a cool calm microclimate to boot. Renowned for having one of the country’s best tropical plant exhibitions, you could spend an entire day in the gardens without getting bored or paying a cent! In addition, there are trails to hike, a Rainforest Boardwalk, the Aboriginal Plant Garden and the Bamboo Collection to explore.

Person taking a photo of plants in the botanical gardens

7. Picnic along Palm Cove

A tiny beachside village where every holiday dream comes to life, Palm Cove is located a short 30-minute drive north of Cairns. With an esplanade lined by swaying palm trees, public barbeques right on the beach, and great fishing spots around every corner, Palm Cove is the ideal location to spread out the picnic rug, laze with a wine in hand and enjoy a Great Barrier Reef sunset!

Two women holding glasses of wine on a picnic rug at Palm Cove, Cairns

8. Drive to Kuranda for a day trip

A charming combination of quirky shops and picturesque mountain backdrops, the colourful village of Kuranda is a must-visit during your Cairns trip! Located just 25km or about a 40 minute drive northwest of Cairns, Kuranda Village is a popular tourist town renowned for its eclectic shops, tasty dining options, and of course the Kuranda Scenic Railway. For those on a budget, Kuranda is surrounded by the world’s oldest living tropical rainforest so there is an abundance of exciting hikes nearby and exploring fun to be had!

Two women pointing at the Kuranda Village Skyrail signpost, Cairns

9. Drop a fishing line at Cairns Marina

If you have a mate with a rod or are looking to make friends with the locals, head on down to the designated fishing jetty at the southern end of the Cairns Esplanade (near the Figtree playground). It’s kitted out with cleaning benches, rod holders and charts to measure your catch, as well as barbecues to cook your feed after the hard work is over. Happy fishing!

Cairns Marina Fishing Spot

10. Peruse the Night Markets

The Cairns Night Market is renowned nationwide for its lively spirit and atmosphere. With over 70 different stalls featuring international food and beverages, out-of-this-world souvenirs, and of course, ice-cold beer, it’s one of the best places in Cairns to mingle with travellers and locals alike. You can easily soak up the action without spending a cent - but who can resist a chilled beer on a hot night?

Woman browsing markets in Cairns

11. Browse Cairns Art Galleries 

Cairns offers a diverse exhibition of talented local and international artists. In the city centre, you have Cairns Regional Gallery and the Cairns Courthouse Gallery located right next to each other, while the Tanks Art Centre is situated within Cairns Botanic Gardens. Entry is free at all three locations with exhibitions ranging from historical to contemporary in a variety of mediums and expressions. If you're visiting from April to October, the Tanks Markets are hosted on the last Sunday of the month. Wander the promenade filled with local artisans and fresh produce vendors selling their goods. 

Cairns Courthouse Art Gallery Exhibition

12. Swim at Crystal Cascades

Located just a 30 minute drive from Cairns City Centre, Crystal Cascades is the closest freshwater swimming hole you can visit to relax and beat the warm tropical heat. Take a picnic and enjoy an afternoon of retreating to the rainforest. Nothing beats getting back to nature, listening to the sound of running water and watching dragonflies dance around each other. 

Crystal Cascades

13. Window shopping at Cairns Central, The Pier or DFO Outlet

One of the best ways to escape the heat is to head to the shopping centre, grab an ice cold drink and peruse the stores looking, but not buying. Cairns Central is the most popular, but if you're down at the South end of the Esplanade, Head to The Pier Shopping Centre where you'll find some boutique clothing stores and the fascinating Cairns Miniature Village display. DFO is just outside the city centre, but a great place to browse big brands at affordable prices! 

Cairns Central

14. Walk around the Cattana Wetlands

Located roughly 20km drive north from Cairns CBD, Cattana Wetlands is a hidden gem not known to many, but is a sanctuary for the abundant native flora and fauna that call this haven a home. What was once an old sugarcane farm and sand quarry, has now been transformed into an enjoyable nature conservation spanning over 80 hectares, with a series of boardwalks around lakes and lush feather palm forests. You can enjoy a self-guided tour, exploring the surrounds. It's a hotspot for birdwatching enthusiasts!

Cattana Wetlands

Photo: Down Under Tours: Waterfall, Wetlands & Skyrail Tour

15. Admire the stained-glass windows at St Monica's Cathedral

Famous for being the largest installation of stained-glass windows in the world, The 24 Creation Windows of St Monica's Cathedral are a collection designed to depict the story of creation, as told in the Book of Genesis. Entry is open to the public and free for everyone, allowing you to wander through the great hall in amazement of such fine art. You don't need to be religious to appreciate the beauty of these stained-glass masterpieces. 

Inside St Monica's Cathedral Cairns

Photo: Cairns City Sights & Surrounds Half Day Tour

16. Check out boutique stalls and local produce at Rusty's Markets

Rusty's Markets open every Friday and Saturday from 5:00am - 6:00pm, and Sunday's from 5:00am - 3:00pm. Every weekend the place is a hive of activity. Vendors, locals and tourists alike flock to Rusty's to roam through the stalls, grab a freshly ground coffee and stock up on some of the most delicious delicatessens and exotic produce from across the region. With over 180 stalls, you'll find a variety of boutique clothing and jewellery stalls, plus so much more.

Two women holding coconuts

17. Bury your nose in a book at Cairns City Library

What used to serve as the local town hall, Cairns City Council Library now plays host to a stack of books for you to thumb through at your leisure. You're welcome to also make the most of the free air-con, wifi, computers, and quiet study rooms, should you need a moment of peace. 

Cairns City Council Library

18. Stroll along the Esplanade and Marina Boardwalk 

The Cairns Esplanade, or "The Nard" as the locals like to call it, is a picturesque waterfront walkway that stretches 2.5km along the foreshore of Cairns City. Lined with palm trees, parklands and playgrounds, Get up before sunrise to beat the tropical heat and walk or run The Nard for a beautiful scene as the sun comes up over the mountains of East Trinity. 

Cairns Marina Esplanade and Boardwalk

19. Go mountain biking at Smithfield Mountain Bike Park 

For those with a sense of adventure and looking for a cheap adrenalin rush, the Smithfield MTB Park has a labyrinth of iconic trails to rip up, ranging from easy to advanced. Located just a 20 minute drive north of Cairns City, the Smithfield Mountain Bike Park is suitable for riders young and old. If you want to try it out, but don't have a mountain bike of your own, don't fret, because there are a number of bike-hire shops nearby. While you're in the area, why not check out the Bungy Skypark located up the road, hidden in a rainforest oasis.

Mountain Biking on Dirt Track

20. Explore the city on a self-guided heritage and art sculpture walk

In the heart of Cairns CBD you'll find an abundance of heritage-listed buildings and the Cairns City Council has created a free self-guided map that takes you to all these beautifully preserved time capsules. All are located within a few blocks along Abbott, Aplin, Lake and Spence Streets. Along the way don't forget to keep your eyes peeled for interesting art sculptures scattered around the city. Proudly displaying the works of Cairns locals and indigenous artists from the region. 

Cairns Courthouse Gallery

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