Last Updated on April 16, 2021 by Travels with Kids
If you are looking to have the BEST Cairns holidays ever, then you have come to the right place! Here we have gathered together all the most important information for someone looking to plan their family holidays in Cairns. Read on for our best tips for when to go, how to get around, what to do…and so much more!
This post may contain affiliate links, from which we would earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you. More info in my disclaimer.
Where Is Cairns?
Cairns, Australia is located in tropical north Queensland, along Australia’s eastern coast. It is located on a coastal strip of Cape York Peninsula, between the Coral Sea and the Great Dividing Range. Though only the 5th biggest city in Queensland, it is one of the most well-known – probably due to its proximity to the famous Great Barrier Reef! Thanks to its location, Cairns experiences a tropical monsoon climate, with hot, humid summers and warm winters.
Did you know? Cairns was founded in 1876 by Sir William Wellington Cairns, for whom it was named! Check out more fun facts about Cairns for kids in this post.
Why Plan A Cairns Family Holiday?
Cairns is probably one of the best holiday destinations for families in Australia. As one of the most popular destinations in Australia, family holidays in Cairns have so many things going for them. Let’s start with the practical. The Cairns region (including Port Douglas to the north and Mission Beach to the south) caters extremely well to all types of travelers, especially families with children. From the incredible number of kid-friendly activities (here is a post where I go into detail about that!) and a wide range of family-friendly accommodation options, it’s easy to plan a great Cairns family holiday. (Cairns family accommodation is described more fully below and in this post!)
How Many Days Will You Need To Visit Cairns?
Honestly, a lifetime is not enough to explore and enjoy all the amazing natural wonders of Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef! But if you can’t spend your life on holiday, we recommend at least three to five days in Cairns to discover the main attractions. If you have more time, great! We ourselves spent 10 days on our last family holidays in Cairns and are intending to return soon for another ten days as there is so much to do and see!
Cairns Holidays: Getting There
Flying Into Cairns
Pre-COVID, there were direct international flights to Cairns from New Zealand, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. Those traveling from other destinations would first land at one of the Australian airport hubs, such as Melbourne, Brisbane, or Sydney. From there, you would catch a domestic flight into Cairns.
Driving Into Cairns
You can also drive to Cairns from Brisbane or Townsville if doing an entire tropical north Queensland exploration.
The distance from Brisbane to Cairns is quite big. At 1,678.5 km (1,042.9 mi), it’s a lengthy road trip. It may not be the longest road trip in Australia, but it’s still a long drive! The Brisbane to Cairns driving time would be around 18 hours if you decided to do the whole trip in one go.
Or, if you just want to explore Northern Queensland, we suggest starting at Townsville, the gateway to the North. Townsville itself has a laidback vibe and gorgeous views out to Magnetic Island.
Between Cairns and Townsville there are also a number of interesting stops you can make along the way, including Mission Beach, the Babinda Boulders, Paronella Park, and Wallaman Falls. You can also visit those spots as day trips from Cairns, which we describe in full here!
Taking The Train
What about taking the train from Brisbane to Cairns? If you love train travel, then you might consider taking the Spirit of Queensland train from Brisbane to Cairns to start your Cairns holidays. At the time of publishing, the price is $210 AUD per person. The full 1681 km trip takes 25 hours to complete.
Located as it is in the tropical North, Cairns has a beautiful, tropical climate. As with other tropical places, the weather in Cairns, Australia is variable. Cairns has two distinct seasons: a wet season and a dry season, but the winter temperatures are mild enough that you can swim nearly all year round.
Summer: Cairns Weather December To February
Summer in Cairns is hot and humid, with average temperatures from 23.6 – 31.4°C (74.5 – 88.5°F) and humidity around 60%. This is uncomfortably hot for most people!
Cairns summer is also wet season. Remember – Cairns’ climate is considered “tropical monsoon”! The wet season begins around December and lasts through March, with most of the region’s annual rainfall – over 2000mm (78.7 inches)! – occurring during these months. This can cause flooding of the Mulgrave and Barron Rivers which sometimes affects road and rail transportation – a problem for those planning Cairns holidays during this time.
Autumn In Cairns: Weather March to May
March tends to be the wettest month of the year in Cairns, but luckily the wet season is largely over by May. May can be a great time to visit Cairns. The landscape is lush and green, the waterfalls are rushing with water, and the temperatures are warm. However, expect frequent cloudy days! Also note that May is still stinger season in Cairns, despite the oncoming winter, so be prepared (more about stingers below!).
Winter: Cairns Weather June To August
Most people think the best time to visit Cairns is during the winter. Visiting Cairns between June and August lets you take advantage of cooler (but still pleasantly warm!) temperatures, less (or almost no) rain, and no marine stingers. You can expect Cairns weather in July to be between 22°C and 25°C, for instance.
The downside to planning Cairns holidays in winter is that it is – surprise, surprise – peak travel season. Expect crowds and higher prices!
Spring: Cairns Weather September To November
The shoulder seasons – including spring – are generally considered good times to visit Cairns, letting you take advantage of the best weather conditions while beating the crowds during peak season. October in Cairns is great – no stingers, perfect beach weather, with some rain falling mainly overnight so as not to spoil the sunny days.
In November, it starts to get hotter and more humid as summer approaches, but the heavy rains are still a ways off. Note: Stinger season in Cairns starts in November.
When To Go: What Is The Best Time To Visit Cairns?
If you are looking to get out on the reef, the best time to visit Cairns is between June and October. In addition to having no stingers, the temperatures are warm, but not uncomfortably so, and rain is less common. For snorkelers, this means calmer and clearer waters.
In our opinion, the shoulder season is the best time to visit Cairns for most families. This means April/May or September/October. During this time, you can usually avoid the worst weather and stinger season, and – bonus – there are fewer crowds and more Cairns holiday deals! We saved about $500 by traveling the last week of May instead of the first week of June.
Cairns weather is a gamble during shoulder season, though, which in our case didn’t pay off as we had cloudy weather and rain on a few days. So definitely think about how important good weather will be for the kinds of activities (like snorkeling) you plan to do when thinking about when to plan your Cairns family vacation.
Arguably the worst time to visit Cairns is the wet season: December through March. The weather is hot and humid, and tropical cyclones are a possibility. Some hotels close down for a break. There are also marine stingers, which definitely detract from swimming on the reef.
Where To Stay In Cairns: Best Cairns Family Hotels
For complete information on the best Cairns family accommodation, check out this post.
Briefly, there are four areas where you could base yourself during a Cairns family holiday: downtown Cairns (the most convenient); Cairns suburbs (where you’ll find all the luxury resorts); Trinity Beach (a tropical oasis best for relaxing); or Palm Cove (known for being a bit exclusive).
We stayed at the Rydges Esplanade Resort Cairns which was very conveniently located next to Muddy’s Playground, had family rooms with great views, and a beautiful swimming pool area which was a hit with the kids.
Our top choice had been the Mantra Esplanade Cairns because of its self-contained holiday apartments, but sadly it was sold out on our travel dates.
Other top Cairns family hotel choices in our view include the Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort and the Pullman Cairns International. The Cairns Colonial Club resort is a good option if you choose to stay outside the city center. If you decide to stay in Palm Cove, then the Pullman Palm Cove and Alamanda Palm Cove make great choices, too.
Don’t forget to check out our post on Cairns family accommodations, where we go into more detail about these and other hotel choices for your Cairns family vacation.
Cairns Holidays: How To Get Around Cairns
Cairns is a highly walkable city and this is the way most people get around the city itself. If you want to visit the suburbs or Northern Beaches, you’ll need some other form of transportation.
Taking The Bus
The Sunbus is a great way to get out of Cairns itself and into the surrounding areas. Buses depart frequently from Cairns city center and tickets are cheap and easy to acquire.
You can get a daily bus pass which is good all day, until the last service at night. The last buses leave Cairns for the suburbs at 11 PM or 12 midnight; for coming back into the city, the last buses depart around 10 PM or 11 PM.
Hiring A Car
Having a car in Cairns is always worth it. It is much easier to drive around yourself, especially if you are traveling with children! There is no need to hire a car from the airport; there are plenty of hire car places downtown.
We didn’t hire a car for the first 8 days of our stay in Cairns. While in the city, we visited Kuranda and took the train up to Kuranda, and the Skyrail back. The Skyrail shuttle dropped us back at our hotel. We then went to Fitzroy Island for 3 nights and didn’t have a hire car during that time.
The most beneficial time for having a car was for our stay around Port Douglas where the resorts are quite spread out. We found it useful to drive to the different attractions around Port Douglas, too, like Four Mile Beach, Mossman Gorge, and the Wildlife Habitat.
Where To Eat: Our Favourite Restaurants In Cairns
As an international travel destination, Cairns has an awesome range of restaurants from French to Greek, Italian, Mexican, and Japanese, as well as Asian Fusion. Some Cairns restaurants also feature unique Australian cuisine including kangaroo, barramundi, crocodile, or emu…! In short, there are a lot of different restaurants in Cairns – all of them offering different experiences.
Where Did We Eat in Cairns? Family-Friendly Restaurants In Cairns
For families, sometimes efficiency trumps fine dining as it’s most important to get the kids fed, and then off to bed. We were traveling with a 4-month-old so we wanted early nights.
In Cairns, we ate one night at Rusty’s Market which had an adjacent food hall with a range of Asian food.
Another evening we bought pre-made salads and cold meats and had a sunset picnic at the Cairns Lagoon. This was the perfect family-friendly feast as we swam, and then ate, then after digesting our food some more, swam again. For the kids, swimming in the sunset light was a real highlight of their time in Cairns!
If you’re wondering where to eat in Cairns Esplanade, this is what we would suggest. There are barbeques at the lagoon and plenty of families and backpackers enjoying the facilities. A sunset picnic on the Cairns Lagoon would be something we’d do again in a heartbeat – it had such a great vibe!
For more suggestions of where to eat in Cairns, I’d consider the following places.
Apex Milk Bar
When you travel with kids – especially if you have picky eaters – you know that the familiar is best. I’d been eyeing the Apex Milk Bar which is a Cairns institution that opened in 1960!
They claim to serve up the best burgers in the world (well definitely the best in Cairns!) and have 12 burgers on the menu. The burgers include beef, chicken, pork, fish, and vegetarian options. They proudly use as much local produce in their food as they can.
Also on the menu are fish and chips, hotdogs, and milkshakes!
Wondering where to eat crocodile in Cairns? Or where to eat kangaroo in Cairns? Ochre Restaurant is the place to do it!
As Australians, we don’t generally eat kangaroo or crocodile so I was super excited about the idea of dining out at the Ochre Restaurant. They serve up dishes like Chargrilled Kangaroo Sirloin, and Salt and Native Pepper-leaf Crocodile and Prawns, with ingredients like lemon myrtle and wattleseed. I’m told Ochre Restaurant is a spectacular Australian dining experience and the best place to go for authentic fare on your Cairns holidays!
By ‘authentic fare’ they actually mean Australian bush cuisine which is very far from what the typical Australian family eats. Hence our excitement to try one of these “exotic” dishes! Next time…
I’ve included Hemingway’s Brewery on our list because brewpubs are an awesome way for families to get out in the evening and everyone enjoys themselves. The first Hemingway’s is located in Port Douglas, but the Cairns branch sounds just gorgeous: the heritage-listed building features a 19-meter-long bar and an expansive deck.
With a menu that has plenty of kid-friendly favorites, plus a few for the more discerning foodie, I think this would be a great Cairns restaurant to while away a few sunset hours!
For a little taste of luxury, try Greenfields, the on-site café at The Riley. The Riley is one of Cairns’ newest boutique hotels. I t is part of the Crystalbrook Collection resort hotels, a collection of upscale accommodations known for their quiet luxury.
Greenfields offers a simple menu with a focus on health and sustainability: grass-fed meat, sustainably caught fish, and locally sourced fruit is the stars of each plate. Even the packaging is biodegradable! Enjoy a light, tasty meal at Greenfields and you’ll leave feeling refreshed – and satisfied that your meal had a positive impact on the planet!
Cairns Holidays: Best Things To Do In Cairns!
We have a whole post about the Best Things To Do In Cairns With Kids (including free and paid activities), so make sure to check that out for all the details. Some of our top picks include the Cairns Esplanade, Muddy’s Playground, the Cairns Botanic Gardens, and the Cairns Aquarium.
There is no actual swimming beach in Cairns city (though there are many choices north and south of the city). As a result, families flock to the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon – a large outdoor pool. You’ll find it busy regardless of the season with both tourists and locals.
At one end of the Cairns Esplanade, you’ll find Muddy’s Playground. It is a great place for kids of all ages to let off some energy and splash around in the water park.
In addition to the fascinating Cairns Botanic Gardens, there is also the Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome. With a challenging rope course to climb and the chance to see some Australian animals up close, this is a great option especially if you don’t plan to leave Cairns itself.
If your family loves aquatic life but you don’t think you’ll make it on a Great Barrier Reef tour this time, you can always visit the Cairns Aquarium. It is the only aquarium in the world dedicated to tropical North Queensland’s marine life. You won’t be disappointed!
Don’t forget to check out our post on Things To Do In Cairns With Kids for all the details on these activities and so much more!
Cairns Must Do: Day Trips & Islands Off Cairns
There are tonnes of great activities that make easy day trips from Cairns, like the Daintree Rainforest, Kuranda, and (of course), snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, just to name a few!
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the natural wonders of the world and a no-miss Cairns activity for families. The number of tours and options for visiting the inner and outer Barrier Reef is quite overwhelming. But don’t worry: we have broken it all down and made it much easier to understand (check it out for snorkeling tips and more)! Read our Amazing Great Barrier Reef Tours And Tips For Snorkeling In Cairns.
Move over Brazil – the Daintree Rainforest is tens of millions of years older than the Amazon Rainforest and just as cool. Read more fun facts about the Daintree Rainforest in our post.
Last but certainly not least, is a day in Kuranda. Take the Kuranda Scenic Railway in, walk around Kuranda’s markets and the Butterfly Sanctuary, and then take the Kuranda Skyrail out. This is a Cairns family activity the kids will not forget in a hurry! We talk in-depth about visiting Kuranda. Check it out!
There are many more day trips not to forget on your Cairns holidays. Head north from Cairns and you can visit the Northern Beaches (including Palm Cove Beach and Trinity Beach), Port Douglas (we give you all the details about Port Douglas), or head further into the rainforest on Cape Tribulation. Or, travel south and see the attractions on the Atherton Tablelands, Paronella Park, the Babinda Boulders, and more.
We cover all of these things to do on your Cairns family holiday and so much more in our Cairns day trip post 17 BEST Cairns Day Trips – Explore Tropical North Queensland. Read about how you can visit a number of islands off Cairns which are an excellent way to explore the Great Barrier Reef. We visited Fitzroy Island and Green Island on our trip, and there is also Dunk Island south of Cairns.
What To Pack For Cairns
You can expect hot weather year-round in Cairns, even during the winter months. Pack the clothing you’d wear in any hot, humid destination. We suggest sticking to the basics:
- Tank Tops
- Flip Flops
Dining out is pretty casual, so no need to pack extra “dress up” clothes. We do recommend bringing a light rain jacket if traveling during the wet (summer) season.
Sun protection is a must for your Cairns holidays! The sun in North Queensland is harsh and hot and sunny weather in Cairns is the norm year-round. It is easy to burn in Cairns, Australia!
You should pack:
- Sun hat: a wide-brimmed hat is recommended.
- Rashies (If you don’t know what rashies are, we are talking about a rash guard – the gold standard clothing choice for surfing and standard attire on Australian beaches! These synthetic swim shirts protect your skin from the harsh UV rays as well as cuts if you happen to scrape against a rock! Kids’ rashies provide neck-to-knee protection.)
- Sunscreen: A strong SPF 30 (or higher!) sunscreen or zinc to use every single day. If you haven’t brought your own, you can easily find some for purchase anywhere in Australia at supermarkets, pharmacies, and convenience stores. Remember: chemical-based sunscreens can have an enormous environmental impact. If you plan to swim near wildlife or coral, try using natural sunscreen instead. For a great Reef Safe Sunscreen check here.
Bug spray is a must on your Cairns holidays packing list! Given its tropical climate and high rainfall, the Cairns region provides an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes and biting midges. An astounding 220 species of mosquito can be found in Queensland!
Unfortunately, some of these species can be carriers of diseases such as Ross River Fever and Dengue. Though neither of these is especially prevalent in Cairns, it’s still important to protect yourself.
Pack or buy tropical-strength mosquito repellent for your Cairns family holiday. You will thank me!
While a regular bathing suit (or rashie/rash guard for protection against the hot sun) is fine in the hotel pool or Cairns Lagoon, if you go swimming on the Great Barrier Reef, you will want to bring some additional things:
- Breathable T-Shirts Or Tank Tops
- Snorkel Sets For Kids – We cover the best snorkeling sets for kids here, and also some handy tips for how to teach your kids to snorkel.
- Stinger Suit – You might not bring this with you, but if you are offered one on a tour of the Great Barrier Reef, you should take it!
How To Stay Safe On Your Cairns Holidays
Stinger Season Cairns: What Is It And Why Is It important?
“Stinger” is the colloquial term for jellyfish – an apt description if you ask us! Most stingers (also known as marine stingers) are easy to avoid but can cause discomfort if you are stung. However, some of the tropical species can be lethal so it’s important to know how to protect yourself.
The most dangerous stinger species in the Cairns area is the Chironex fleckeri, known as Box Jellyfish. Box Jellyfish are large and produce a highly toxic venom which can lead to a cardiovascular collapse in humans within 3 minutes. Their tentacles are translucent, making them difficult to spot in the water.
Luckily, they are widely dispersed, and so incidences of stings are rare. There have only been reports of 64 people killed in Australia since records began in 1883.
When Is Cairns Stinger Season?
Stingers love the tropical summer weather in Cairns and can be found in the coastal waters from November to May. Stingers are extremely rare from June to October. As the winter nears, the stingers will migrate north.
Swimmers should exercise caution in the water during the summer months, and beaches may be closed if the risk of stingers is great.
How To Protect Yourself During Stinger Season In Cairns
Stingers are predominantly a problem along the coast and don’t usually affect tours around the Great Barrier Reef. To ensure you enjoy your day at the beach or Great Barrier Reef tour, follow these tips:
- Always swim at a patrolled beach with stinger nets in place, and look out for the safety signs.
- Never enter the water if the beach is closed.
- Use a Lycra “stinger suit”. As well as protecting you from being stung by jellyfish, a stinger suit also offers great sun protection. Many Great Barrier Reef tours will offer a stinger suit, though sometimes extra fees apply.
Should You Be Worried About Snakes, Spiders & Other Creepy Crawlies In Cairns?
The short answer is no. While Australia – Cairns included – does have its fair share of deadly snakes and spiders, these should not be of concern while vacationing in Cairns.
While you are in the most touristed areas, especially Cairns city or in popular rainforest trails where there are a lot of people making noise, it is highly unlikely you will come across any scary snakes or spiders. You might see spiders if you stay in a jungle house in Cape Tribulation, though!
Special Tips For Your Family Holiday In Cairns
Traveling can be particularly taxing for kids when the weather is hot and humid. These are a few tips and ideas to keep your kids happy and healthy on your tropical Cairns family holiday.
Choose Cairns Family Accommodation With A Swimming Pool
Even more important than having air conditioning, a hotel with a pool is essential when traveling anywhere hot with kids! That was one of the things we liked best about the Rydges Esplanade, and our kids were in that pool every single day.
Water Is Your Friend
Your body loses more water on hot days, so it’s important to drink extra to keep up your fluids. This goes double for kids. Do you know what makes a good break on a hot day? Popping into an air-conditioned restaurant for a cold drink!
Don’t Forgo Naptime!
There is a reason siestas are popular in hot countries! The heat can be tough on anyone, but especially so for little ones. We like to keep at least some semblance of a routine while on holidays. Naptimes are definitely part of that. That’s why family suites with a kitchen are so great!
Head out for some activities in the early morning, then plan on resting or relaxing in your hotel. This can be either in the cool indoors or at the pool – during the hottest part of the day. Then, when you and your kids are rested, head back out in the late afternoon for more fun.
Extra Tips For International Travellers Planning Cairns Holidays
Tipping In Australia
Tipping is not obligatory, or even expected in Australia. Australian wait staff receives a solid minimum wage and many Australians never tip. On the other hand, if service has been above and beyond, then tips will never go astray.
By law any extra service charges need to be displayed on menus or on room rates in Australia, so you should never get any surprises when you go to pay a bill.
Do You Need A Visa To Visit Australia?
The short answer is – yes. That might surprise you, but citizens of ALL countries around the world need to apply for a visa to visit Australia (with the exception of New Zealand).
Where you can get a visa for Australia? You can usually apply for a tourist visa or working holiday visa at whatever Australian Embassy or Consulate is nearest you. To be clear: you do need to get your visa before you leave home.
Most visitors from Europe or North American can qualify for an eVisitor visa (which allows you unlimited re-entries into Australia within a 12-month period, and the ability to stay for up to 3 months at a time) or an Electronic Travel Authority, which is for short-term stays for business or tourism. This visa is electronically linked to your passport.
Cairns Holiday Reading To Get You In The Mood To Travel!
Feeling inspired to plan your next family holidays in Cairns now? Here are some of our favorite Cairns books to get you even more in the mood!
Down Under: Travels In A Sunburned Country
By: Bill Bryson
After reading the way Bryson describes it in his best-selling 2000 travelogue, Australia will never look the same again! Bryson humorously describes Australia as climatically aggressive yet teeming with life – a lot of it out to kill you!
A Town Like Alice
By: Nevil Shute
In this 1950 novel, a young Englishwoman moves to Australia after World War II and attempts to generate prosperity in a small outback community.
By: Bruce Chatwin
The author tells the story of when he traveled to Australia to research Aboriginal songs and their connections to nomadic travel.
Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback
By: Robyn Davidson
The real-life journey of the author’s epic trek across 17,000 mi of Australian desert, accompanied only by her dog and four camels.
Ready To Plan Your Family Holidays In Cairns?
We hope you enjoyed reading about how to plan Cairns holidays for you and your family and are feeling inspired! For more detailed tips and advice on where to stay, what to do, and where to go during your Cairns family holidays, don’t miss checking out the following links to our other Cairns posts:
- Where To Stay In Cairns With Kids: The 13 BEST Cairns Family Accommodations
- The 17 Top Cairns Day Trips
- Things To Do In Cairns With Kids
- Amazing Great Barrier Reef Tours And Tips For Snorkeling In Cairns
- Port Douglas
- Great Barrier Reef Facts For Kids
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