27 free things to do in Cairns, Australia (updated for 2024)

Written From… the bedroom of my new apartment, Melbourne, then updated sitting on a balcony in London.

In January of 2018, we embarked on our first big adventure, boarding a Cathay Pacific flight with backpacks filled to the brim, teary eyes, and hearts full of love and a hunger to explore. After a too-brief stop in Hong Kong, we finally touched down in Cairns, Australia—our first destination. We were eager to discover what this tropical paradise had to offer, and on our backpackers budget, if we found free things to do, all the better.

Australia, the land of sun, sea, and relaxation—or so we thought. Planning our year-long adventure, we decided to start in Cairns in January and work our way down, eventually settling in Melbourne. It seemed like a sensible plan.

However, anyone familiar with Queensland’s seasons would know what greeted us: torrential downpours, flood warnings, unsafe seas, and humidity so intense I gave up on body lotion. Welcome to the wet season in tropical Queensland.

Our sunny Australian dream was literally dampened, but we were determined to make the most of our time in Cairns. Despite the rain, we discovered plenty of interesting and free activities in this charming city. We have the Cairns Council for that, you’ll see a lot of the links provided here are actually for events they put on for people year round, and free of charge. 

For some of the activities listed you will need a car, but there is still plenty to do that is accessible within the CBD or nearby and easily accessible by public transport. I have updated this list to make sure everything listed is still available in 2024. 

Cairns Botanical gardens

We found this gem before we bought our Van, so if you don’t have a car you shouldn’t have a problem getting here. Located just north of the city, the Botanical Gardens are easily accessible by public transport. The bus drops you right at the entrance, where you can explore a variety of attractions. Visit the Watkins Munro Martin Conservatory and count butterflies, walk the Rainforest Boardwalk to learn about plant evolution, discover how Aboriginals used native plants or join one of their free walking tours.

Hiking up Mt Whitfield

Challenge yourself with the walking trails at Mount Whitfield Conservation Park. A number of the trains actually start at the Botanical Gardens, so you should have no trouble getting there. The trails offer stunning views and a chance to connect with nature.

Mangroves boardwalk

Experience the lush, jungle-like atmosphere of the Mangrove Boardwalk, a hidden gem on the way to Cairns Airport. This enchanting walk immerses you in the heart of nature, offering a serene escape without having to leave the city. The boardwalk is surrounded by dense mangrove trees, where you can listen to the sounds of local wildlife, and take in the tranquil beauty of this unique ecosystem. It’s a perfect spot for a peaceful stroll and a great way to connect with nature right on the outskirts of Cairns.

The esplanade

The Esplanade is a 2.5km walking path that lines the waterfront right in the heart of Cairns. We spent many evenings walking down by The Esplanade watching it come to live as people came out to sit around and socialise. Take a leisurely stroll ending at the Lagoon, soaking in the surroundings. I would also recommend walking this path during the day as you can visit the children’s playground where information boards explain the history of Cairns, from its Aboriginal past to the present.

The lagoon

Cairns compensates for its lack of a beach with a fantastic lagoon. Featuring water fountains, a man-made beach area, a café, and clean showers, it’s the ideal place to cool off. Located at the end of the Esplanade, the Lagoon is a refreshing escape from the heat and humidity. Beware, you will still need sunscreen on a cloudy day in Australia. I learnt the hard way.

Live music by the Lagoon

At the weekend you can normally relax to the sounds of live music performed by different artists on the green by the Lagoon. It’s a perfect way to unwind and enjoy the local talent.

Free fitness classes by Cairns Council

The Cairns Council’s “Active Living Program” offers free fitness classes along the Esplanade six days a week, led by professional instructors. It’s an excellent way to stay active, enjoy the outdoors, and take advantage of expert guidance in a beautiful setting. They have classes ranging from Aqua Zumba and Volley ball to Yoga and Pilates. 

Cairns harbour

Just beyond the Lagoon you will find Cairns Harbour. I personally love harbours and docks, as they always seem so peaceful. It’s a little slice of quiet away from the activities happening by the lagoon. The harbour also has a number of restaurants to check out.  

Cairns Art Gallery

Visit the Cairns Art Gallery to immerse yourself in history and culture. The gallery features artwork from Aboriginal communities, telling stories of creation and tradition. Check their website to see what exceptions are on at the time as all of them are free. 

Night markets

Cairns city centre is home to their vibrant night markets that run 365 days a year. You can take a wonder around the many colourful stalls from 4:30PM-11PM and grab yourself a bite to eat.  

Cairns Mud Market

Visit the Cairns Mud Market, held by the Lagoon every Saturday and Sunday from 9 AM to 5 PM. This lively market offers a fantastic selection of local produce, handmade crafts, unique souvenirs, and artisanal goods. Stroll through the vibrant stalls, meet local vendors, and enjoy live entertainment that often includes musicians and street performers. The Mud Market is a perfect spot to experience the local culture, pick up one-of-a-kind items, and savor delicious food from various food trucks and stalls. It’s a must-visit destination for anyone looking to immerse themselves in the community spirit of Cairns.

Cairns Library

If you enjoy a quiet space to relax and read, or get some research done, the Cairns Library offers a peaceful retreat. They have free Wi-Fi and host free events and workshops for all ages that you can go and take part in.

Indigenous art gallery

I firmly believe that visiting a country means learning about its history and culture. In Australia, Aboriginal culture can sometimes be overlooked, especially in the larger cities – local councils are trying to change this. 

As a tourist, it’s easy to visit places like Sydney without gaining any insight into the rich Indigenous heritage. That’s why, when you’re in Cairns, it’s important to take the time to learn as there is an abundance of resources so easily available. In addition to the numerous information boards around the city, make sure to visit one of the many Indigenous Art Galleries. There, you can explore traditional Aboriginal stories and culture through captivating art.

Volleyball game

Australia is a country where outdoor living is highly encouraged, and for that reason you’ll find a number of outdoor gyms, skate parks and volleyball game courts, all along the water’s edge. When you’re done, you can make use of the communal BBQ areas around the lagoon and the harbour.

Munro Martin Parklands

Explore the beautifully landscaped Munro Martin Parklands, an ideal spot for a relaxing picnic amidst lush greenery. This vibrant space frequently hosts free community events, live performances, and cultural festivals, making it a lively hub for locals and visitors alike. Whether you’re enjoying a quiet afternoon or participating in one of the park’s many activities, Munro Martin Parklands offers a serene and engaging environment in the heart of Cairns.

Cairns Skate Park

For those into skateboarding or just wanting to watch some local talent, the Cairns Skate Park is a popular spot. It’s located on the Esplanade and is free to use.

Centenary Lakes

Adjacent to the Botanical Gardens, Centenary Lakes offers a tranquil haven perfect for bird watching and leisurely walks. This picturesque area features both freshwater and saltwater lakes, connected by scenic trails that wind through lush vegetation. As you explore, you’ll encounter a diverse array of bird species and other wildlife, making it a nature lover’s paradise. Whether you’re looking for a peaceful escape or a chance to immerse yourself in Cairns’ natural beauty, Centenary Lakes is a must-visit destination.

Rusty’s Markets

While not everything at Rusty’s Markets is free, browsing the vibrant stalls and soaking up the atmosphere certainly is. It’s a great place to experience the local food culture and sometimes enjoy free samples. This market is on every Friday – Sunday. 

Visit public art around the city

Cairns features various public art installations around the city, including sculptures and murals. Take a self-guided tour to explore these creative works.

Goomboora Park

Goomboora Park is an excellent destination for a family day out, featuring extensive walking and cycling tracks, a large playground for children, and a refreshing creek for swimming. With its wide range of amenities and beautiful natural surroundings, it provides a perfect setting for outdoor fun and relaxation for all ages.

Tanks Arts Centre

The Tanks Arts Centre, located in the Cairns Botanical Gardens precinct, hosts free art exhibitions and cultural events. The venue itself, repurposed WWII oil storage tanks, is also worth a visit.

Cairns Chinese Friendship Garden

Stroll through the Cairns Chinese Friendship Garden, a serene space dedicated to celebrating the sister city relationship with Zhanjiang, China. The garden features traditional Chinese architecture and landscaping.

Cairns Museum

One of the many things to do in Cairns, Cairns Museum - Written From Travel

While general admission isn’t free, the Cairns Museum occasionally offers free entry days. Keep an eye on their calendar for special events and exhibitions.

Lookouts and scenic views

Drive or hike to various lookouts around Cairns for stunning panoramic views. Popular spots include the Copperlode Dam lookout and the Red Arrow walk near the Botanical Gardens. You can see a more extensive list of looks out here

Discover Crystal Cascades

Escape to the serene beauty of Crystal Cascades, a hidden gem located just a short drive from Cairns. This secluded freshwater swimming hole is surrounded by lush rainforest, offering a tranquil retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. Follow the walking trails along Freshwater Creek, where you’ll encounter a series of picturesque waterfalls and rock pools perfect for a refreshing dip. The area is well-maintained with picnic spots and barbecue facilities, making it an ideal location for a relaxing day out in nature. Keep an eye out for the diverse wildlife, including tropical birds and butterflies, which add to the enchanting atmosphere of Crystal Cascades.

Explore Kuranda Village

Free tings to do in Cairns, Kuranda Railway Station - Written From Travel

Just a short drive or scenic train ride from Cairns, Kuranda Village is a must-visit destination nestled in the rainforest. Known as the “Village in the Rainforest,” Kuranda offers a unique blend of natural beauty and cultural experiences. Wander through the local markets where artisans sell handmade crafts, jewelry, and artwork. Enjoy the lush surroundings by taking a stroll along the Kuranda Rainforest Walk, or visit the Barron Falls Lookout for breathtaking views of the waterfall. The village is also home to the Kuranda Original Rainforest Market, which has been operating since 1978 and features a variety of stalls offering local produce and unique souvenirs. With so much to see and do, Kuranda Village provides a perfect day trip full of free and enriching activities.

Babinda Boulders

A visit to the Babinda Boulders is a must when in Cairns, Australia. This stunning natural attraction, located about an hour’s drive south of Cairns, is renowned for its crystal-clear waters, smooth granite boulders, and lush rainforest setting. The area is steeped in Aboriginal legend, adding a layer of cultural significance to its natural beauty. Enjoy a swim in the refreshing pools, explore the scenic walking trails, or relax in the shaded picnic areas. With its serene atmosphere and captivating landscapes, the Babinda Boulders offer a perfect escape into nature.

Cairns, with its unique charm and free attractions, proved to be a wonderful start to our adventure, despite the unexpected weather. We hope you enjoy these activities as much as we did!


Picture of Megan Jessica
Megan Jessica
Megan is the Co-founder of Written From Travel. Her love of travel stems from a childhood dream to experience life abroad, of discovering something new outside of her well known territory, London. Megan enjoys snapping pictures, drinking copious amounts of tea, keeping active, and having a good weekend Netflix binge.
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