Boats on the water at te waterfront and wharf area with 5 days in Cairns
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A Fun 5 Days in Cairns Itinerary

This fun 5 days in Cairns itinerary includes the best things to do in Cairns with a selection of activities for relaxing and exploring the incredible natural landscape in far north Queensland on Australia’s east coast.

Cairns has UNESCO World Heritage-listed rainforests and coral reefs on its doorstep. With the stunning tropical island of the Great Barrier Reef, there’s a wealth of natural beauty both above and below the waters of the Coral Sea. So if you’re wondering what to do in Cairns for 5 days, you’ll be spoilt for choice.

If you’re thinking that 5 days in Cairns seems like a long time to spend in a small regional city so far from Brisbane, you’ll find that there are so many great things to do that you’ll easily fill your Cairns itinerary.

The Cairns Lagoon with windmill waterfeatures and aqua blue water
The Lagoon on the waterfront should be included in a Cairns Itinerary

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With 5 days in Cairns, you’ll see the main attractions in the city, snorkel or dive on the Great Barrier Reef, chill out on a tropical island, visit the ancient rainforests and waterfalls of the hinterland or travel further afield to the wilderness of the Daintree Rainforest. If you’re looking for adventure, relaxation and a beautiful natural environment, Cairns has it all.

After spending my holidays travelling solo in far north Queensland, I’ve compiled this 5 day Cairns itinerary. It includes the best things to see and do along with alternative suggestions to help you plan a Cairns holiday itinerary that’s fun, relaxing and perfect for you.

Most Popular Tours for a Cairns Itinerary

  • Fitzroy Island Day Trip – A stunning island in the Coral Sea, Fitzroy Island is easy to reach by ferry from Cairns and is the cheapest island to visit. This stunning island offers bushwalking and gorgeous beaches for snorkelling, swimming and relaxing.
  • Green Island Day Trip – A beautiful coral cay on the Great Barrier Reef, Green Island offers gorgeous beaches for swimming, snorkelling, relaxing and a luxury resort.
  • Scenic Reef Flight – A highlight of a Cairns itinerary, a scenic reef flight will give you a different perspective of the Great Barrier Reef. Flying in a small plane, you can see this spectacular natural coral reef from the air. The colours of the water, underwater coral and sandy cays are simply breathtaking.
  • Daintree Rainforest & Mossman Gorge Day Trip from Cairns – Visit the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Rainforests at Mossman Gorge and the ancient Daintree Rainforest and travel all the way to Cape Tribulation. See crocodiles in their natural environment on a Daintree River Cruise.
  • Kuranda Scenic Train & SkyRail – Travel over the rainforest canopy on the Cablecar to Kuranda Village. Spend the day exploring the rainforest trails, shopping for souvenirs and browsing at the markets, then return to Cairns on the historic scenic railway through dramatic Barron Gorge with deep forested valleys and flowing waterfalls.

TIP: You can stay overnight on a tropical island at the luxurious Green Island Resort or the Fitzroy Island Resort.

Map created with Wanderlog, a road trip planner app on iOS and Android

5 days in Cairns Itinerary

Day 1: Exploring Cairns City

On day 1 of this Cairns trip itinerary, you’ll have just arrived and will probably want to explore the city. It’s a great time to go for a walk and get your bearings as you settle in for a fun 5 days in Cairns. Below is a selection of activities to choose from:

Cairns Esplanade & Lagoon

Start your 5 days in Cairns strolling along the Cairns Esplanade on a waterfront pathway lined with Palm trees. Stop to swim at the Cairns Lagoon and watch the helicopter taking off from the helipad nearby. Just around the corner is the Marlin Wharf, where the ferries depart for the Great Barrier Reef and tropical Islands like Fitzroy and Green Island.

The Cairns Wharf area is a lovely place to relax. With a beautiful view over moored boats on the water and distant mountains, it’s the perfect place to stop for a meal or a coffee at one of the waterfront restaurants like the Salt House or Dundees. And if you feel like sampling a local craft beer, walk a bit further along the waterfront to Hemingway’s Brewery.

Cairns Botanical Garden

In the leafy suburb of Edge Hill, the Cairns Botanical Gardens has one of the best displays of tropical plants in Australia. take a walk under the lush forest canopy with butterflies flitting around the path in the Cairns Botanical Gardens. it’s a great place to relax amongst the tropical greenery and an enjoyable addition to a Cairns holiday itinerary.

Tropical Fish and coral at the Cairns Aquarium
Tropical Fish and coral

 Cairns Aquarium

At the Cairns Aquarium, you’ll discover a beautiful array of marine wildlife found on the Great Barrier Reef in far north Queensland. The underwater ecosystems of the reef support a variety of colourful fish, reef sharks and manta rays and they are all easy to see on display at the Cairns Aquarium.

Cairns Museum

Visit the Cairns Museum and learn about the history of Cairns. Discover what it’s like to live in the tropics and how the city of Cairns developed with sugarcane fields, tropical coral reefs and rainforests on the doorstep.  

Palm Cove & Cairns Beaches

Although Cairns has a waterfront location, if you’re looking to relax on a tropical beach you’ll need to head out of town. Palm Cove is one of the best-known beaches with golden sands lined with palm trees and it is located around half an hour from Cairns.  Other popular beaches are Ellis Beach, Trinity Beach, Kewarra and Machans Beach all located just outside the city.

Cairns Night Market

Head to the Cairns Night Market after 4:30 pm to shop for souvenirs and sample the local street food. The night market has around 70 stalls selling gifts, clothes, jewellery, homewares and more and can be found on Abbott Street.

 the perfect addition to a Cairns Itinerary
An aerial view of Green Island on a Reef Flight over the Great Barrier Reef, an exciting addition to a Cairns Itinerary

Cairns Reef Flight

Start your Cairns 5 day itinerary in style with a spectacular reef flight over the Great Barrier Reef.  I loved this experience and highly recommend including it on your Cairns itinerary. Flying over the Great Barrier Reef in a small plane on a scenic flight offers unbeatable aerial views and a different perspective of the reef.

The colours of the Coral Sea are gorgeous from above with bright aqua and deeper blue stretches of water and a clear view of the coral beneath the sea. It’s the perfect way to appreciate the huge size of the Great Barrier Reef and to see some of the small islands and cays that lie on the Reef.

A Reef flight is likely to be a highlight of your 5 day Cairns itinerary but I recommend booking ahead so you don’t miss out, especially during the peak season.

TIP: For an amazing Great Barrier Reef experience, take a Scenic Reef Flight and visit stunning Green Island all in one incredible day. I loved the fly and cruise package to Green Island and can highly recommend this as a superb day out in Cairns.

Day 2: Tropical Island Day Trip

Spend the second day of your 5 days in Cairns relaxing on a gorgeous tropical island. Choose between Green Island and Fitzroy Island for a day trip or spend the day snorkelling on the pristine coral reef at the Falkland Islands.

There are thousands of small islands on the Great Barrier Reef but the most accessible from Cairns are Green Island and Fitzroy Island. Ferries to the islands leave from the Cairns Wharf and, on a day trip, you’ll spend the day relaxing on the beach, swimming, snorkelling and exploring the walking trails.

One of the beautiful islands on the great Barrier Reef, Fitzroy Island
One of the most beautiful islands on the Great Barrier Reef, Fitzroy Island

Day 3: The Great Barrier Reef

Another highlight of this Cairns 5 day itinerary is exploring the Great Barrier Reef.  On a cruise to the outer reef, you’ll get a guided tour of the Reef near Cairns and visit the best places for snorkelling and diving. It’s the perfect way to see the amazing underwater world of colourful fish and coral, with reef sharks, manta rays, giant clams and much more waiting to be discovered.

TIP: If you prefer to see the reef without getting wet, you can take a reef tour in a glass-bottomed boat or spend the day on a pontoon on the outer reef.

Day 4: Ancient Rainforests

Day 4 of your 5 days in Cairns will take you inland to the spectacular World Heritage-listed rainforest areas in the Cairns hinterland but you’ll have to choose between visiting Kuranda village or the ancient Daintree Rainforest.

Alternatively, you can swap another day in the rainforest for one of the other days in this Cairns itinerary and do both.

catching the scenic train at Kuranda railway station near cairns
Catching the scenic train at Kuranda Railway Station near Cairns

Kuranda Cableway and Scenic Railway

Visiting Kuranda is extremely popular as a day trip from Cairns and I really enjoyed spending the day travelling over the rainforest canopy on the Cableway and returning on the historic Kuranda Railway.

A lot of the fun of visiting Kuranda is in the journey, stopping off along the way and strolling along the forested paths and enjoying the viewpoints, lush greenery and huge ancient trees. The dramatic scenery of Barron Gorge is breathtaking with stunning lookouts overlooking the deep forested valleys and waterfalls.

Kuranda is a pretty little rainforest village. It’s very popular with tourists and there are plenty of places to shop for souvenirs and a good selection of cafes, restaurants and pubs catering for day visitors.

The local markets are fun to browse and there’s a bird park and a Koala Garden that’s one of the few places where you can hold a koala in Australia. Spend a couple of hours on a wildlife cruise on the river or hike the forest trails around Kuranda Village.

My favourite part of the day trip was the journey back to Cairns on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. It’s a fun way to discover the history of the railway and marvel at the stunning scenery.

TIP: It’s a good idea to book your Kuranda Skyrail and Cableway tickets in advance as tickets sell out in peak periods.

swimming in the river at Mossman Gorge near Port Douglas
Mossman Gorge near Port Douglas Cairns

The Daintree Rainforest & Mossman Gorge

Further away from Cairns, the unique and ancient Daintree Rainforest is also an amazing place to visit and a great alternative to Kuranda on this 5 day Cairns itinerary. The Daintree Rainforest is a wilderness area and on a day trip from Cairns, you’ll visit the stunning Mossman Gorge, take a cruise on the crocodile-infested Daintree River and see saltwater crocodiles in their natural habitat.

In the afternoon you’ll drive through the rainforest to beautiful Cape Tribulation and enjoy some stunning viewpoints and, if you’re lucky, you might see an elusive cassowary amongst the trees.

I booked with Cairns Adventure Tours and can recommend this day trip to the Daintree Rainforest. We saw the highlights of the rainforest, including Mossman Gorge, Cape Tribulation and lots of crocodiles and other wildlife on the Daintree River Cruise part of this tour.

Visiting the Daintree Rainforest on a day trip from Cairns is worth doing but it is a very long day with a lot of driving.

Day 5: Port Douglas

Spend the last day of this Cairns itinerary, visiting Port Douglas, a pretty little seaside town just over an hour by road from Cairns. In Port Douglas you can explore the beaches, the wharf and viewpoints and enjoy wandering around the town, browsing the boutique shops, restaurants and cafes.

Port Douglas is well set up for tourists and a day trip is sure to please. The drive to Port Douglas has some stunning coastal scenery and lookout points. This pretty town is just 20 minutes away from the remarkable Mossman Gorge with swimming spots and rainforest walking trails.

The easiest way to get to Port Douglas is to drive, but if you don’t have a car there’s a Port Douglas shuttle bus that will drop you at the town centre.

From Port Douglas, you can also spend the day exploring more of the Great Barrier Reef on an outer reef trip or snorkel from the beach with endangered sea turtles in the Low Isles.

TIP: Snorkelling in the Low Isles was one of my favourite experiences in Queensland and I can recommend this day trip to the Low Isles. I saw turtles, a reef shark, lots of pretty coral and colourful fish and a giant clam just metres from the shore.

Swimming with Turtles in the Low Isles
Swimming with Turtles in the Low Isles near Cairns

Other Activities for a Cairns Itinerary

Some more activities that you can include on a Cairns itinerary are:

Cairns Itinerary Extension

If you have a few extra days you can easily extend this Cairns 5 day itinerary and include a visit to magical Magnetic Island near Townsville where you can see koalas and rock wallabies in their natural habitat. Stop off at Mission Beach on the way if you have the time.

Where to Stay in Cairns

Cairns has a variety of accommodation options for all budgets. Here are some suggestions.

Budget: I stayed at the Travellers Oasis and would stay again. This friendly hostel has a lovely garden and a pool. The location beside the train station is perfect for visiting Kuranda but it’s about a 20-minute walk from the ferry wharf. My private room was very cosy. It had an in-room safe with a shared bathroom.

Mid-Range: The Coral Tree Inn gets exceptional reviews. It’s located in the city centre about a 15-minute walk from the waterfront. It’s a friendly, quiet, clean hotel and a good mid-range choice in Cairns.

Luxury: The Hilton in Cairns is a 5-star hotel right in the centre of town. Located right on the waterfront, this hotel is convenient and close to attractions with a selection of dining options. You can’t beat the location of this popular luxury hotel near the ferry wharf and the Esplanade.

An aerial view of Michaelmas Cay on the Great Barrier Reef
Michaelmas Cay on the Great Barrier Reef

How to Get to Cairns

Flying is the quickest and easiest way to reach Cairns in far north Queensland. Cairns is a long way north of Brisbane, the state’s capital and overland travel by car, train or bus involves very long distances.

Flying to Cairns

Cairns has an International Airport with daily flights to the main locations around Australia and some popular overseas destinations.

Driving to Cairns

Located around 1,700 kilometres from Brisbane, Queensland’s capital city, and 2,400 kilometres from Sydney, Cairns is a very long way by car.  If you’re short of time, it’s better to fly to Cairns and hire a car at the airport.

Train to Cairns

The overland rail journey from Brisbane to Cairns takes around 24 hours and is a comfortable way to travel. The Spirit of Queensland connects Cairns to Brisbane by rail and there are 5 train services each week.

TIP: If you’re travelling by car, train or bus from Brisbane, consider stopping off en route and exploring other places in Queensland like the Whitsundays or Magnetic Island before starting this Cairns 5 day itinerary.

Bus to Cairns

The bus trip to Cairns from Brisbane takes approximately 29 hours and it’s the cheapest way to get there. Both Premier and Greyhound have regular coach services connecting Cairns with Brisbane and stopping at the main regional centres along the way.

Best time of year to visit Cairns

Cairns is especially popular during the winter months, from June to October when the warm sunny weather and the tropical climate bring dryer weather with average high temperatures of 26°C (79°F), and lows of 18°C (64°F).

In winter, the water temperature is a balmy 25°C (77°F). It’s ideal for swimming and snorkelling. Winter is the dry season so there’s less rain and the waters of the Coral Sea are free from stingers.

The shoulder seasons in April / May and September / October are also a good time to visit Cairns with cheaper flights and fewer tourists.

 The summer months in Cairns, from December to February, are typically wet and humid. It’s also the stinger season and dangerous Irukandji and Box jellyfish can be found in the Coral Sea. While it’s possible to swim and snorkel on the reef, Lycra stinger suits should be worn in the water to protect against deadly jellyfish stings.

walkers in Mossman Gorge in the Lower Daintree Rainforest
Hiking at Mossman Gorge in the Lower Daintree Rainforest is a great addition to a Cairns itinerary

Final Thoughts – 5 days in Cairns Itinerary

I loved visiting Cairns in far north Queensland and I’ve included the best activities and tours in this 5 day itinerary in Cairns. There are so many fun things to do that you could spend a couple of weeks exploring the area.

5 days in Cairns is enough time to enjoy the highlights, explore the city, snorkel or dive on the Great Barrier Reef, visit a tropical island and discover the unique world heritage rainforests. This Cairns Itinerary offers relaxation and adventure with many opportunities to enjoy stunning scenery and explore some of Australia’s most beautiful places.

Although Cairns is a long way from other popular destinations in Australia, it’s likely to be a highlight of a trip to Australia and the city has all the services you need for a comfortable holiday.

Visiting Cairns as a solo traveller was a lot of fun and I think you’ll enjoy this 5 day Cairns itinerary.

FAQ’s

Is 2 days enough for Cairns?

With 2 days in Cairns, you can see the Great Barrier Reef and visit the rainforest but you’ll just scratch the surface of this scenic regional city. To experience all that Cairns has to offer you’ll need to stay at least 4 or 5 days and it’s easy to fill a Cairns itinerary for a week with fun, adventurous and relaxing activities.

Is 5 days in Cairns enough?

5 days in Cairns is enough time to enjoy the highlights of this pretty regional city, snorkel or dive on the Great Barrier Reef, visit a tropical island, visit the world heritage rainforests and explore the city. But there’s so much to do around Cairns that you can easily spend a week or more.

Is it better to stay in Cairns or Port Douglas?

Cairns is a regional city while Port Douglas is a small coastal town on the edge of the rainforest. Both Cairns and Port Douglas offer easy access to the Great Barrier Reef but Port Douglas is better for a beach holiday and for nature lovers with beautiful beaches, great cafes, restaurants and shops.

Port Douglas is close to Mossman Gorge and the Daintree Rainforest but there’s no public transport in Port Douglas, only a shuttle bus and this makes it harder to get around if you don’t have a car. Cairns on the other hand has all the services and conveniences you need for a comfortable holiday.

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A Fun day catching the Ferry to Fitzroy Island

Swimming with Turtles in the Lovely Low Isles

Green Island or Fitzroy Island – Which is Better?

Visiting the Delightful Daintree Rainforest

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