Last Updated on March 8, 2021 by worldoftravelswithkids
If you’re thinking of planning an Australian family holiday, Cairns is a “do not miss” destination. There are so many great things to do in Cairns with kids, you’ll have to stay a week to even come close to doing it all!
With its beautiful beaches, tropical climate, and luscious rainforest, Northern Queensland is a fantastic holiday destination for families. Cairns itself is one of the most northern cities in Queensland, along Australia’s eastern coast. In this post, I’ll tell you why I think you should base yourself in Cairns for a couple of days and limit the amount of travel you do in the region.
You may think of Cairns as merely the jumping-off point for the Great Barrier Reef or the popular Port Douglas, but make no mistake: there is a whole host of fun things to do in Cairns for kids.
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.
Free Cairns Family Activities
Many people might tell you that a family holiday in Cairns will not come cheaply. The good news is, there are actually plenty of fun kids’ activities that are totally, 100% FREE. Who doesn’t like free? Here is a list of some of the best free things to do in Cairns for families.
The Cairns Esplanade is an absolutely lovely place to spend the day with a great vibe and it doesn’t cost a cent. It is one of the most popular Cairns attractions for families, with large grassy areas, a place to barbecue, restaurants, and more. Even local families love taking their kids here!
If you come during the day, enjoy a picnic on the grass or grab some ice cream. For those with older kids, take part in some of the energetic activities on offer, like Zumba or Yoga classes.
One of the best things to do on the Cairns Esplanade is to cook a barbecue or take your dinner at sunset. Watch the sun go down to the west over the Cairns Harbor, creating silhouettes of the fishes in the lagoon. Enjoy the meal amongst the multicultural collection of backpackers and save some money as well!
One of the best FREE things you can do with your kids at Cairns is to take a dip in the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon. What an absolutely amazing swimming pool! The Cairns Lagoon is a huge, manmade swimming pool complete with beaches and grassy areas.
Why did they build a manmade pool at Cairns? Even though there are rivers and oceans nearby, it is not always safe to swim in these areas. In the rivers there are crocodiles, and in the ocean there are stingers. At certain times of the year, the oceans are visited by swarms of jellyfish, making swimming unsafe. With the Cairns Lagoon, you can swim all year round!
Caution: If your child is not a strong swimmer, make sure you are with them 100% of the time. The pool is very large and is not well defined as to what is deep and what is shallow. Our small child got himself into trouble a couple of times as he ventured into water that was too deep. Swimming in the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon requires constant supervision!
All in all, though, the Cairns Lagoon is a fantastic place to spend an afternoon with your children. We went back in the evening and the kids loved swimming there at night!
Not far from the Cairns Lagoon is Muddy’s Playground, another great Cairns attraction for families.
Muddy’s is an amazing Cairns playground and there is something for all ages. It has lots of cool playground features, like rope ladders, swings, and climbing frames. Some areas are more suitable for older kids, but, helpfully, there is a clearly marked area that is reserved for toddlers, too (2-3 years, or younger).
There are also a series of water features throughout Muddy’s Playground, so have your kids in their swimmers ready to splash about!
In the middle of Muddy’s Playground is Muddy’s Café. A perfect spot for families enjoying the playground to take a break from the fun and have a snack, and with a great ocean view. In fact, if you were any closer to the ocean, you’d be sitting in it!
Don’t be fooled by the name – they have more than just pastries and coffee (though the coffee is top-notch)! Muddy’s Café is naturally very family-friendly, with an excellent kid’s menu. It has a wide variety of choices for adults, too – fish & chips, burgers, salads, smoothies, ice cream, and more. There’s even a small boutique with clothes and swimsuits for kids!
Cairns CBD (Central Business District)
If you’re looking for things to do in Cairns city, try the CBD. The Cairns CBD could only be described as sleepy. We enjoyed our walks around the streets and located a Woolworths where we shopped for supplies for our trip to Fitzroy Island.
Rusty’s Market is held in the Cairns CBD from Friday to Sunday with over 100 stalls and a wide range of exotic fruits on display… and for tasting! If you are not from a tropical area, this is particularly fascinating, and markets always give you a good chance to talk to the locals!
Cairns Botanic Gardens
The Cairns Botanic Gardens is another thing to do in Cairns with kids and it is also totally free.
Throughout the gardens, you will find rare plants and trees. Some of them found nowhere else in the world. With a very overgrown and luscious feel, the kids will enjoy exploring while the parents follow along behind. What a place to discover about the rainforest and all the native and non-native species that grow in this area!
There are information boards throughout the Cairns Botanic Gardens explaining the different plants. If your kids are not too small you might also like to find out what guided tours are on when you are visiting.
Take a stroll and burn off some energy as you also get to experience a fantastic rainforest environment. The Cairns Botanic Gardens is an absolutely beautiful Cairns family activity, and a great way to spend a few hours.
Note: The Cairns Botanic Gardens are located in the hillside suburb of Edge Hill and are most easily accessed with a car. There is also a public bus that runs from Cairns’ center to the Botanic Gardens. It’s best to enquire at your accommodation for up to date details.
The Centenary Lakes Nature Playground
The Centenary Lakes Nature Play is a large natural playground to the south of the Cairns Botanic Garden.
It has some great kids’ play sections that encourage them to interact with the environment. Walk along a giant serpent’s stage or up a rocky mound, build your own little cubby or teepee, and dig for treasure in a treasure-hunting area. Plenty to get yourself dirty and interacting with nature!
This is a fantastic playground, brand new and I highly recommend taking your kids to let off a bit of steam here. It is not located that far from the Cairns airport. We went here with our hire car before dropping it back off at the airport. This playground was a great choice for burning off pre-flight energy!
Crystal Cascades Swimming Hole
If you have a hire car, you might like to head to the gloriously named Crystal Cascades, located in Redlynch, one of the outer Cairns suburbs. Popular with locals, the Crystal Cascades is a lovely freshwater swimming pool surrounded by rainforest. The Cascades refers to a series of small waterfalls that flow into large pools. There are also toilets, picnic tables, and a toilet block.
Visit The Northern Beaches Around Cairns
Cairns itself is built on a large mangrove swamp, so the total Esplanade area is sometimes just mudflats. Not very beach-y.
But all along the northern coast above Cairns is a series of 9 beaches collectively known as the Northern Beaches. One we enjoyed was Yorkeys Knob Beach, but Trinity Beach and Palm Cove Beach are also lovely choices due to their palm-fringed setting.
If you plan to go swimming, you will need to do your own research as to whether you are visiting during stinger season. Also, if the beach you choose is suitable for swimming during stinger season, or not.
Quick Facts: Stinger Season Cairns
What’s stinger season in Cairns? Stingers are a type of local jellyfish known as the Box Jellyfish. There are many species of Box Jellyfish, some of which are highly toxic while others are fairly harmless. Since their long (up to 3m!), transparent tentacles can be hard to spot in the water, it’s best to avoid swimming altogether during jellyfish season in Cairns.
Jellyfish love to swim in warm, tropical waters and so they are most likely to be found around Cairns in the summer, from November to May. It is very rare to see stingers from June to October as they will migrate north during winter.
If you find yourself on the Northern Beaches during stinger season in Cairns, there are some precautions you can take.
- Follow the rules! If a beach is closed due to stingers, do not go swimming.
- Stay within designated areas. Many beaches – including Yorkeys Knob, Trinity Beach, and Palm Cove – have stinger nets around swimming areas that will keep out the larger (and most dangerous) box jellyfish.
- If you plan on doing some snorkeling or diving in Cairns, use a stinger suit. This is a comfortable, flexible all-over body stocking. Stinger suits will provide 100% protection from stingers.
Paid Things To Do In Cairns With Kids
Wondering what to do in Cairns with kids? Here are some more ideas for your family holiday in Cairns.
Cairns Zoom And Wildlife Dome
Kids love animals. If you have plenty of time in Cairns, you can venture to places like Port Douglas where there are several world-class wildlife parks, and you can have extensive experiences with the animals.
If you don’t have as much time or don’t plan on leaving Cairns itself, there is always the Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome! Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome is a fantastic Cairns attraction for families. It may be expensive, but it is a very efficient way to see a lot of wildlife in Cairns! Your entry ticket is also good for 4 (consecutive) days. So, if you have the time, you can really make the most of this attraction.
The Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome features Australian animals like snakes, tropical birds, and crocodiles. You can walk around the park on your own, take in the lectures given by the park rangers, or have fun on some of the more energetic activities. There is a ropes course, zip line, dome climb, and more! Although it can be challenging for kids and adults alike, the ropes course is a huge highlight for many families.
What Is The Cairns 4 Park Pass
If you want to visit other Cairns attractions for families, you might want to upgrade to the Cairns 4 Park Pass! This pass includes the Cairns Zoom & Wildlife Dome, Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas, Rainforestation Nature Park, and Australian Butterfly Sanctuary (the last two are located in Kuranda).
If you or your kids are fascinated by aquatic life but aren’t likely to go snorkeling around the Great Barrier Reef, the Cairns Aquarium is a no-miss. You won’t be disappointed!
The Cairns Aquarium is the only aquarium in the world dedicated to the aquatic life of tropical North Queensland. You will come face to face with over 16,000 animals native to the Great Barrier Reef, Wet Tropics, Gulf Savannah, and Cape York regions.
The staff is a wealth of knowledge, and the aquarium features unique opportunities to get up close and personal with some of the most interesting, rare, or deadly marine creatures in the world! We read about this guided twilight tour of Cairns Aquarium and thought it would be amazing.
If you’re wondering what to do in Cairns with kids, you can’t go wrong with the Cairns Aquarium. Every visit is unforgettable!
Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
What’s another fun thing to do in Cairns with kids? Visit the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park!
There is no better way to learn about indigenous history and culture. The Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park has lots of fun, hands-on activities like spear throwing, didgeridoo demonstrations, and jewelry-making. You can even learn to throw a boomerang!
There is also a cultural show which is a fascinating way to tell a story. Take note, it is really suited towards families with young children. You can also enjoy a nighttime dinner and dance performance.
The staff at Tjapukai are wonderful. The facilities are nice and clean, there is also a café where you can have a pretty good lunch. There is even a gift shop for souvenirs!
More Things To Do In Cairns With Kids
If you’re still starved for ideas, there are plenty of other Cairns family activities. From Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure at Port Douglas to quad bikes, white-water rafting, and canyoning, there are truly so many family-friendly options to choose from. Take a look at some interesting activities below.
Fun Facts About Cairns For Kids
Here are 5 fun facts about Cairns to share with your kids while you’re planning your Cairns family holiday:
1. Cairns is pronounced “cans”. Cairns is not pronounced the way it looks, something which has confused people for decades! In fact, if you were to imitate many Australians’ drawl, particularly Queenslanders (sorry guys), the pronunciation is “Caaaaans” (that is, with a long, flat Australian A).
2. Cairns is actually the 4th most popular destination in Australia for international visitors. The top 3 tourist spots in Australia are Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.
3. What is Cairns named after? Contrary to what you might expect, it was not named after a pile of rocks. A “cairn” is a human-made pile or stack of stones. Actually, Cairns was originally a frontier town during the gold rush. Founded in 1876, it was named after the then-State Governor, Sir William Cairns.
4. Cairns is the only city in the world named Cairns. I found this fact about Cairns hard to believe!
5. Why is the beach at Cairns muddy? Evidence shows that the Cairns esplanade was once a sandy beach, similar to the other northern beaches. So what happened? Well, it seems that the sandy beach got covered in mud and sediment when the Grafton Channel was being dredged for shipping. While this is not so pleasant for tourists, the mud has actually been great for the mangrove ecosystem! How’s that for a fun fact about Cairns?
Cairns Day Trips
When planning your family holiday in Cairns, you might want to think about planning some day trips. We chose to use Cairns as a base for several day trips. You can avoid a lot of travel by basing yourself in Cairns as opposed to Port Douglas. If your kids hate being in a car for hours – choose to do your day trips from Cairns!
I have a whole post about Cairns’s day trips so check that out for more details about the below excursions and more. But here is a quick summary of some of the available day trips from Cairns that are kid-friendly.
Kuranda Skyrail And The Kuranda Scenic Railway
At the top of our ‘must-do’ day trips from Cairns is a full-day visit to Kuranda. You can either travel up by the Scenic Railway or take the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. The methods of travel during this day trip are really the highlight of the day, though the village of Kuranda is very pretty and has lots of fun markets to explore.
In Kuranda, we loved the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary. However, you can also visit the Kuranda Koala Gardens where you can hold koalas and see other animals, like snakes, lizards, kangaroos, and wombats.
Below are some really great Kuranda day trips!
Great Barrier Reef Tours
Visit the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef as a day trip from Cairns! There are two fantastic Great Barrier Reef Cairns day trips. One is to Green Island, and the other to Fitzroy Island. In our case, we chose to stay on Fitzroy Island for several nights and had a wonderful time soaking in the remote island feel.
We’ve explored the pros and cons of Fitzroy Island vs Green Island in more detail in our Day trips around Cairns post.
Looking for some unique Great Barrier Reef tours? Check out our recommendations below.
North Of Cairns
To the north of Cairns, there is internationally renowned Port Douglas, about 1 hour’s drive. In our case, we chose to base ourselves in Cairns for 4 nights, and then Port Douglas another 5 nights. This meant that we didn’t need to do Port Douglas as a day trip. If you were going to Port Douglas for a day trip, you wouldn’t want to miss the Mossman Gorge or a walk on Four Mile Beach. If you have small kids, the Bally Hooley Train is also a lot of fun and travels through the sugar cane fields.
The stunning Daintree Rainforest – the world’s oldest tropical rainforest (it dates back over 135 million years!) – runs all the way to the Coral Sea. There are over 1200 square kilometers of ancient forest, split into two sections: one part stretches north to Cape Tribulation, and another part stretches south. In the middle, there is a section of agricultural land.
The good news is one of the easiest places to experience the Daintree Rainforest is just a 15-minute drive from Port Douglas. We enjoyed a 2km walk in the fascinating ancient jungle and getting our feet wet in the waterhole. You can also visit the Daintree Discovery Centre, a world-class eco-tourism facility located in the heart of the Daintree Rainforest.
Known by Aussies as “Cape Trib” this is an exploration into the deep jungles of Australia. Here, you can deeply explore the Daintree Rainforest with a number of unique excursions and then marvel at how the jungle meets the white sands and turquoise waters of the Great Barrier Reef. It makes a long day trip from Cairns – or even Port Douglas. For this reason, we personally saved our Cape Trib exploration for the next time we visit Cairns with Kids.
South of Cairns
If you head south of Cairns, look out for the Babinda Boulders, a popular swimming hole (and also frequently featured on Instagram), and make a stop at the totally curious Paronella Park, a Spanish-style castle taken over by the jungle.
Locals, or those in the know, might spend a couple of days at laid back Mission Beach (we did when I was a child). Or, take a water taxi over to Dunk Island where you can hike on this amazing tropical island, which currently has no resort!
Also making a good day trip from Cairns is the Atherton Tablelands. Here you must at least visit Millaa Millaa falls, but also consider doing the entire circuit of falls which includes 2 other pretty falls. Also don’t miss a visit to the Curtain Fig Tree and we’d also recommend a visit to the Nerada Tea Plantation.
Looking for Cairns day trip guided tours? Here are some of our recommendations.
When Should You Visit Cairns With Kids
The best time to visit Cairns with kids is probably during the dry season, between June and October. This is when the temperatures are warm but not too hot. There is less rain, the waters are calm and clear, and there are no stingers! It’s an especially good time to visit Cairns if you’re planning to get out on the Reef.
The wet season (December-March), on the other hand, can be hot and humid, and there is a chance of tropical cyclones. It’s also prime stinger season!
We like traveling during the shoulder season (April/May or September/October). This is when there are smaller crowds and better deals (we saved about $500 by traveling during the last week of May instead of the first week of June!). But, the weather is a gamble – which in our case didn’t pay off. So plan wisely!
Where To Stay In Cairns With Kids
Rydges Esplanade Cairns Resort
For our family accommodation in Cairns, we chose the Rydges Esplanade Cairns resort. It was an excellent kid-friendly choice and would be amongst the best of the Cairns Resorts for families.
Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort
Our second choice for hotels in Cairns was the Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort. What I liked was that it was especially close to the Lagoon Pool and the CBD. When traveling with kids it is always best to limit walking distances!
Mantra Esplanade Cairns
If you’re looking for family resorts in Cairns, it would be remiss of me to not mention the Mantra Esplanade Cairns. This was actually our first pick for family accommodation in Cairns, but it was booked out for the dates we wanted to visit.
The Verdict – There Are So Many Things To Do In Cairns With Kids
If you’re planning a family holiday, Cairns is the place to go! You will read reviews that say that Cairns is not good for anything but flying in and out of the airport, but we definitely don’t agree. The area is stunning, the weather delightful, and there are seemingly endless things to do in Cairns for families.
You can easily spend a fun-filled, relaxing (and inexpensive!) couple of days there, or, plan a more comprehensive, action-packed itinerary over the course of a week or more.
With so many amazing free and not-so-free things to do in Cairns with kids, for us, Cairns and the surrounding area are one of the top Australian family holiday destinations. And if you still need more help planning what to do in Cairns with kids, we put together an overview of our 10 day Cairns Family Itinerary to help you on your way!
Like It > Pin It> Things To Do In Cairns With Kids