6 Free Things to do in Cairns – Insider Tips from a Local

There’s no discounting – there’s TONNES of things to do in Cairns, the Adventure Capital of North Queensland. With loads of activities at your fingertips, plus some iconic places to explore (how about the Great Barrier Reef and that World Heritage Rainforest 😀 ) you’ll be pleased to know that ‘adventuring’ here doesn’t need to cost an arm and a leg. Here’s my list of the Top 6 FREE things to do in Cairns…..

1. The Cairns Esplanade (1-5 mins from CBD)

I hate to break it to you BUT there is NO BEACH in Cairns, at least not near the CBD anyway. Fortunately, we do have the Cairns Esplanade which makes up for this in bucketloads. It’s a fantastic recreational strip that follows our city’s shoreline and if you visit you’ll find yourself hanging out with families, backpackers, birdwatchers, fitness lovers and anyone else who love being outdoors.

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The Cairns Lagoon – the Number One place to head on the Cairns Esplanade

Cool Off at the Cairns Lagoon – the major drawcard on the Cairns Esplanade. Why? Because here you’ll find a sandy beach, some fountains, a shallow shady area for the youngsters to play and some some deep water to fully immerse yourself.

This is your Number One spot for FREE swimming, FREE BBQs and FREE WiFi, so you can guess that it’s a major backpacker haven.

WARNING: Get here early (before 11am) to snare a shady spot on the grass.

Walk – tour the ‘Narde’ via foot power and walk (or run if you’re really keen) the 2.5-km pedestrian path from north to south (or vice versa). Prime time is at sunrise or sunset to catch the ‘golden hour’ and admire those beautiful shades across the water and to the mountains beyond (plus it’s a lot cooler!!).

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Its a great walk along the Cairns Esplanade

For bird watchers, the muddy shores of the Cairns Esplanade are a bonanza for rare wading birds that fly in from Siberia during the summer months. Remember to check the tide tables for the best times to see these birds up close.

Playgrounds – these are scattered all along the Esplanade and provide lots of fun for all ages (adults included 😉 ). An added bonus are all the FREE BBQs that are located in and around the playgrounds.

At the southern end of the Esplanade is the FigTree Playground – a fort-like structure complete with bridges and tunnels all built in and around a massive fig tree. There’s also a great little coffee shop nearby that will keep parents happy, and perhaps even a bit more alert…..

Mid-way along the Esplanade (near the hospital) is Muddy’s which is a fantastic all ages (and all abilities) playground that incorporates plenty of water play. Food-wise you’ll find the Muddies café offers a variety of eats and drinks to that will keep most happy.

TIP: For cheaper (and often healthier) options check out the café that sits just across the road (near Caravella Backpackers).

At the far northern end of the Esplanade is the Pirate Ship. It’s a cool, shaded playground with plenty of seating for the adults plus some wide open spaces to kick a ball around or run the dog. Don’t be surprised to find a load of local families here, either throwing a birthday party, BBQing or just chilling on a picnic rug.

Explore on Wheels – Cruise the ‘Narde via scooter, rollerblades, skateboard or pedal power along the designated bike path.

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Exploring the Esplanade on wheels is lots of fun for everyone

Mid-way along is the Cairns Skate Park which is popular with the younger tribe before 11am, and fills up with older kids after noon (funny that 😉 ). It’s worth stopping to watch some of the gnarly moves being executed but if skateboarding isn’t your ‘thing’ then have a go at scaling the nearby bouldering wall or joining in on a beach volleyball game.

Work those Muscles – Exercise stations sit at various intervals along the Esplanade which are perfect for a quick workout and some muscle strengthening. If you need some extra inspo then join in with the FREE Fitness ‘Active Living’ classes held regularly along the Cairns Esplanade – they range from Aqua Aerobics, Zumba, HIT and meditation (to name a few) so there’s pretty much something for everyone.

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There’s plenty to do & see all along the Cairns Esplanade

Fishing – There’s a designated fishing jetty down at the southern end of the Esplanade near the Figtree playground. Here you’ll find cleaning benches, rod holders and charts to measure your catch, as well as barbies to cook up a feed if you get lucky.

It’s also possible to fish off the northern end of the Marlin Marina during daylight hours and the Old Wharf (south) but be wary of your lines when the local fishing trawlers and barges pull up alongside.

Click below if you’re interested in any other Fun ACTIVITIES (that cost) around the Cairns Esplanade.

2. Northern Beaches (15-30 minute drive from CBD)

If you really cannot be without the tropical goodness of a coconut-lined beach then you’ll have to head north and pick from the line-up that is the Cairns Northern Beaches.

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There’s plenty of beaches to choose from just north of Cairns City

The first four beaches you’ll come across – Machans, Holloways, Yorkeys and Kewarra – tend to attract the locals. Yorkeys Knob is a well known hotspot for the kite surfing fraternity during the winter months and Kewarra Beach has a little beach shack sitting right on the beach under the coconut palms. It’s part of the Kewarra Beach Resort and is popular with the weekend crowd for its cocktails, cold beers and woodfired pizzas.

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Palm Cove – on a busy day!!!

Trinity Beach and Palm Cove tend to be more popular for Tropical North Queensland (TNQ) visitors and both offer a range of accommodation plus some choice restaurants and coffee haunts along their esplanade. There’s also some watersport options at both these beaches which run regularly throughout the busy winter period.

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One of the best way to explore the beaches

For more info on SUPing at Palm Cove click >> HERE <<

For campers and caravanners, both Palm Cove and Ellis Beach (a little bit north of Palm Cove) are great locations to spend the night and you’ll find your ‘door’ pretty much opens right onto the beach.

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Ocean Views are the Best!

For more info about camping read this >> Beach Camping TNQ.

3. Freshwater Creeks (15 mins – 1 hr drive from CBD)

The creeks and waterfalls of TNQ are easily the best way to cool off around Cairns. You’ll find most of us locals chillin’ at a freshwater creek or waterfall during the summer months and there’s plenty of spots only a 15-minutes drive away from Cairns CBD.

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Waterfall fun is the best kinda fun

For more info check out this round-up >> Cairns favourite swimming holes

If you’re a keen bicyclist then follow the Cairns Esplanade Bike Path out to the Freshwater Railway Station (a 45-minute ride) and from there the Ryan Weare Swimming Hole is only 5-minutes down the road.

Click below if you’re interested in other Fun ACTIVITIES (that cost) involving waterfalls.

4. Cairns Botanic Gardens (15-mins from CBD)

It’s virtually impossible to arrive in the tropics and not notice the lushness and diversity of our plant life. For one of the best exhibitions of  tropical plants in Australia head straight to the Cairns Botanic Gardens for a FREE (and relaxing) day out.

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There’s all sorts of unusual plants on display at the Cairns Botanic Gardens

The Botanic Gardens is nestled up against the Mt Whitfield Range and has a brand new conservatory with carnivorous plants  and butterflies that hover past, which is guaranteed to keep your kids entertained. For some views of Cairns, the Northern Beaches and out to the Great Barrier Reef you can head up the nearby Red Arrow track.

For walking track info read > 4 Quick Climbs with a View.

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There’s lots of tracks to explore in & around the Botanic Gardens

For some mangrove and wetland action head straight across the road to Centenary Lakes. Here you can follow the boardwalks and tracks to spot a range of birdlife, turtles, fish and the odd eel in the water. There’s also a newly created Nature playground which supports unstructured outdoor play, some BBQ’s and a Chinese Garden – just don’t forget to pack the insect spray!

There’s no need to pack a picnic lunch for when you visit, you’ll find plenty of café’s to choose from: the waffles at the Botanic Café are legendary, there’s some healthy eats at the Tanks centre and only a short stroll away (5-mins) is Edge Hill, with its great line-up of popular eateries.

Check out the Cairns local art scene which features different artists on display at the nearby Tanks centre.

Click below if you’re interested in other Fun ACTIVITIES (that cost) at this spot.

5. Lake Morris (30-mins drive from CBD)

If you’ve got a set of wheels, then a drive to Cairns’ natural reservoir is a must. On the way up you’ll get some terrific views of Cairns, skirt through lush tropical rainforest and enjoy the panoramic landscape of the lake and mountains that supplies the township with the best drinking water.

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The view over Lake Morris

You’ll also find a huge deck to enjoy a picnic lunch, tea and coffee facilities and some FREE Barbecues to use if you feel like cooking something up. Just remember the gates close at 5pm.

Click below if you’re keen on other Fun ACTIVITIES (that cost) in this spot.

6. Rusty’s Market (Cairns CBD)

You’d be mad not to sample some of Far North’s tropical produce and Rusty’s Market is an easy, central location to peruse what’s locally grown (and made) around the region.

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Tropical produce of all descriptions are at Rusty’s

Operating every weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday), you’ll find fresh coconut milk and cane juice, Vietnamese coffee, legendary samosa’s plus a huge range of tropical fruit and produce available. Be warned though, its difficult to wander around the stalls without parting with a few of your $$$$.

Don’t despair if you can’t make it to Rusty’s, there’s always plenty of roadside stalls to check out if you’re exploring the region, or try visiting a weekend market in another popular destination -> Port Douglas, Yungaburra, Mission Beach.

SO, Hopefully my list of 6 FREE things to do in Cairns has got you keen for a visit soon!

My Number One TIP for all visitors is to check out some places to stay in Cairns and book your accommodation BEFORE arriving in town. Despite what you may think, Cairns is NOT a huge city and rooms can be at a premium during the busier months…

After all, why would you want to battle out the cold grey skies of the southern states (or overseas for that matter) when you can be enjoying the tropical lifestyle that us locals have to put up with everyday….. #hardlife #someonehastodoit 😀

Who’s visited Cairns? Anything else you’d like to add to my list of FREE things to do in Cairns?