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8 relaxing things to do in Cairns during the rainy season

View of the Esplanade, location of many things to do in Cairns such as swimming, fitness, barbecues and skateboarding.

Cairns is more than just a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.

The city has many attractions of its own, as well as having some stunning national parks on its doorstep. But what about the weather? You might have heard about the serious flooding that occurred around Cairns in December 2023, which led to a state of emergency being declared.

Tropical North Queensland’s climate enjoys its driest season in winter, with August being the month with least rain. The rainy season runs from November to March. We decided to take a chance and visit Cairns in early March, which is a shoulder season.

If you’re not constrained to school holidays or other peak times, then shoulder seasons can be a great time to head away. Prices tend to be cheaper, there are fewer crowds and temperatures can be less extreme. The downside is that the weather can be unpredictable. The rainy season was certainly still in evidence during our stay, but we ended up viewing it as part of the attraction! Here are our top recommendations for things to do in Cairns – whatever the weather.

A view across the waterfront at Cairns showing the esplanade

1. Promenade along the Esplanade

We found that for the most part, the downpours were short and sharp, with sunny periods in between. This made everything glisten and shine – and provided some great rainbow photo shots. We were able to stroll around during the sunny periods and duck into shelter when the showers arrived.

Cairns’ waterfront is very walkable, with plenty of points of interest. The Esplanade runs around the main resort area and there are plenty of shops, markets and cafes to duck into if you do get caught out by an unexpected shower.

From the cruise liner terminal you can walk by Hemingway’s Brewery and view some of their fascinating old machinery from yesteryear. Then you come to a boardwalk with fine dining restaurants, a pontoon from which you can take boat trips and – as every street in Cairns seems to have – some lovely tropical gardens (see attraction no. 3) and public art pieces.

Waterfront gardens in Cairns, seen from above, with seats shaped like hats
Seats shaped like hats along the esplanade

For those sunnier periods in between downpours, the Esplanade also offers ‘green’ gyms, beach volleyball courts, barbecue areas, a skate park and playgrounds. Our hotel room overlooked the Esplanade and we used to love watching people strolling by and enjoying the many facilities on offer.

2. Swim in the lagoon

Cairns doesn’t really have any beaches in the central city area, so instead, there’s an amazing salt water public swimming pool called the Lagoon. It’s a fabulous facility, completely free, offering year-round safe swimming – no crocodiles or stingers to worry about! And of course, when you’re in a pool, the rain doesn’t matter. Life guards are on duty from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

We observed a number of free exercise classes going on, both within and alongside the pool, which is situated on the Esplanade. Lockers and changing facilities are available, and a there’s a café where you can replace all the calories you just worked off.

The Lagoon public swimming pool by the waterfront in Cairns

The Lagoon has a little sandy beach area and varying depths to suit all ages and abilities. Although it’s open every day, the Lagoon closes on Wednesday mornings for cleaning and maintenance.

3. Wander through stunning tropical gardens

We were very impressed by the lovely gardens all around Cairns, which were very lush and verdant. Not only did they look amazing, with all their colourful exotic plants and trees, but they were lovingly cared-for. Every day we saw gardeners tending to them. The gardens provide welcome shade in both sunny and rainy conditions.

Tropical gardens along the waterfront in Cairns

4. Do something cultural

If you do happen to experience lengthy rain showers, there are plenty of indoor things to do in Cairns. Housed in an elegant heritage building, Cairns Art Gallery showcases Australian and indigenous art, with a particular focus on Tropical North Queensland. The gallery also hosts regular touring exhibitions. There’s an onsite restaurant and a shop for your souvenirs.

The adjacent Court House Gallery displays more art works and offers spaces for the performing arts.

The Court House Gallery Cairns Australia
The Court House Gallery

I adore aboriginal art and there are various galleries where you can see it. Bundarra is one of those specialising in this area. Their light-filled, airy spaces show the works at their very best.

Housed in another wonderful heritage building is Cairns Central Library, which offers a quiet space in which to curl up with a good book on a wet day. Alternatively, if the rain stops for a while, you can follow the literary trail around the lush gardens. This display of public artworks was completed by local artists in 1999.

Something else Cairns library is known for, is that it’s a roosting place for bats. You can see them hanging upside down in the trees during the day! When dusk arrives, they take off and can be seen gliding around buildings. The bats of Cairns – also known as flying-foxes – are a feature of the city. They’re larger and noisier than bats you may have seen elsewhere. Not everyone likes them, but we found them fascinating.

Cairns Central Library
Cairns Central Library

5. Shop for clothes

London, New York, Paris and – Cairns? Well, maybe not, but we really enjoyed clothes shopping in the city! It’s a great place to find unusual and exotic resort wear. In The Pier shopping mall, there are small independent boutiques selling African and Asian ethnic designs – perfect if you want something a little different.

I was thrilled to find a branch of the Australian version of Tommy Bahama in Cairns. US readers will no doubt be familiar with this chain of stores that specialises in beautiful island-style resort wear and textiles for the home. I absolutely love Tommy Bahama – it’s very Coconut Lands!

We were also pleased to discover that there’s a branch of TKMaxx in Cairns. We used to love rifling through the rails of these designer outlet stores when we lived in London. The Cairns store is situated in the DFO Shopping Centre (Direct Factory Outlet), which is an easy 10-15 minute bus ride from the central bus terminal. We spent a fun morning going around all the outlets, stopping for lunch in one of the mall cafes, while the rain poured outside. And yes, we did find some bargains!

Vintage railway carriages on the Kuranda Scenic Railway, parked along the platform at Kuranda Railway Station

6. Enjoy a day out to Kuranda by vintage train or cableway

The Kuranda Railway was the main attraction that drew us to Cairns in the first place, so we were really looking forward to this day out. It did not disappoint.

I booked our trip in advance, which is a requirement if you intend to travel on the Skyrail cableway in either direction. But this is also a risk during the wet season, as both the railway and the cableway can be closed at short notice if weather conditions pose any risk to safety. We were extremely lucky, as extended closures took place just before, and just after, our visit!

This historic line runs from Cairns Central to Kuranda, a village deep in the rainforest of the Barron National Park. Passengers travel in vintage railway carriages. If you choose Gold Class, food platters and beverages are served at your seat. It’s a fabulous trip through spectacular scenery, with a couple of photo stops. For more detail about this trip, and the Skyrail that you can ride as an alternative in either direction, read my separate post A memorable day out on the Kuranda Scenic Railway.

Seafood restaurants along the waterfront in Cairns

7. Taste the local seafood

All restaurants in Cairns, we were assured, serve locally-caught seafood. I enjoyed it so much that I did not dine on meat once during the 6 days we were there!

The boardwalk near The Pier offered a number of fine dining seafood restaurants with wonderful views. They were particularly popular with cruise ship visitors, however, and were sometimes rather crowded. We therefore tried to look for places off the beaten track.

Seafood dishes typically include Moreton Bay bugs, Gulf prawns, calamari, oysters, squid, mussels or clams as well as the fish catch of the day. For a different experience, you can step aboard one of the trawlers belonging to Prawn Star. They offer delicious seafood platters to enjoy on board with a beverage – or to take away.

On our first night in Cairns, tired after travelling, we dined in our hotel’s own restaurant – Flynn’s Italian. It was excellent. We both chose the Saffron Tasmanian Salmon, which was very delicious.

Dinner served at Flynn's Italian
Saffron Tasmanian salmon at Flynn’s Italian

8. Become a ship spotter

The official cruise season is from late April through to September, although plenty of ships seemed to be calling in March also. If you visit during these months, you will spot many large liners coming and going – and you’ll certainly encounter the passengers in the shops, bars and restaurants. Since the terminal is right in the heart of the city, you can get pretty close to these amazing vessels. One of the largest we saw was the Queen Victoria, which was very impressive.

The Queen Victoria cruise liner docked at Cairns Australia
The utterly humongous Queen Victoria

We met a couple of the ship’s passengers on the way to Kuranda. First-time cruisers, they had joined the Queen Victoria at Southampton, UK, to spend 52 days on board during the ship’s 112-day round-the-world trip. Initially sceptical, they were total converts, saying that their voyage had been the trip of a lifetime.

It did sound amazing, but I’m still unsure whether cruising would be my thing. I guess I’d have to try it to find out! But I did enjoy the sight of the big liners gliding in and out of the harbour, especially when they were all lit up at night. I used an online ship tracker to find out where they had come from, and where they were heading to next.

Aside from the cruise ships, there were plenty of small boats offering trips out to the Great Barrier Reef, Fitzroy Island and Green Island.

The Seven Seas Mariner docked at Cairns Australia
The Seven Seas Mariner dwarfing Hemingway’s Brewery at the terminal

But what about the Great Barrier Reef?

Let’s face it, most people go to Cairns for one reason. Not us! It does seem crazy to go all that way and not see the Great Barrier Reef, but then they do say that you should always leave one thing undone for next time. We just didn’t fancy paying out a lot of money for a rain-soaked, grey day trip. But we did enjoy the tantalising glimpses of this wonder of the world from above, courtesy of Qantas. Definitely something to include in a dry season itinerary.

Tantalising glimpses of the Great Barrier Reef from the air
Tantalising glimpses…

Practical information

When to visit

When that rain came down, boy did it come down! I actually loved to listen to it and watch it from our 8th floor hotel room overlooking the Esplanade, or from the cosy covered confines of the Whiskey and Wine bar. But there are pros and cons to visiting in this season:

PROS

  • Fewer crowds – it’s a quieter time, except when cruise ships arrive. On the Skyrail, for example, we had a gondola all to ourselves.
  • If you want an adults-only holiday, there are fewer kids! There were none at all in our hotel, which contributed to a very peaceful and relaxed environment.
  • If you head into the national parks, waterfalls are at their spectacular best.
  • Heavy tropical rain is very calming and cooling when the average daily temperature is a balmy 30 degrees. Most of the time, there was also a gentle breeze blowing, which made for very pleasant conditions.
A view across Barron Gorge National Park from the Skyrail cableway near Cairns
Barron Gorge National Park seen from Skyrail

CONS

  • Visiting outside the high season can mean that not everything is operational. For example, our hotel’s pool-side bar was not open.
  • Flooding can cause short-notice disruption to booked activities and travel plans, although this can also occasionally happen outside the wet season, if a cyclone strikes.

Not only does the rain cause flooding, but the King Tides contribute to this also. One of these happened to turn up on the day we left. We were amazed to see a small lake appear at the back of our hotel, a block away from the waterfront, as a result of the tides! It reminded us of seeing floods in Venice after a Sirocco.

Nature and wildlife

Lacy fungi growing in the gardens of Cairns
Bridal veil mushrooms

One of the most wonderful surprises about Cairns was the lack of flies and mosquitoes. It was a very rare experience for me to enjoy a tropical holiday without the misery of being bitten, and very unexpected.

I asked a local about this and he said that there were simply too many creatures eating all the flies, for them to be a problem! Whether this was true or not, all I can say is, it was absolute heaven.

Of course this was not the case up in the rainforest, which was full of flies and many other creatures! So take your insect repellent if you head up into the mountains.

I mentioned earlier that large bats inhabit the city. These don’t tend to cause any problems, although warning notices tell people never to touch them, even if you find one that is injured or dead, as they can harbour pathogens dangerous to humans. Other than the bats, there are plenty of the usual colourful Australian birds – parakeets, cockatoos and kookaburras – to keep you entertained.

Bronze statures of large tortoises in Cairns Australia
Slow travellers are among the wildlife

Where to stay

Cairns offers a wide range of hotels, holiday rentals and motels. We love looking at the sea, so we opted for an ocean view room at Crystalbrook Flynn. The room wasn’t large, but it was stylish, well-equipped and had a small balcony. The view was probably the best I’ve ever enjoyed anywhere. How I loved looking out over the Esplanade and the Coral Sea, watching all the cruise ships and the world go by! The same owners have two other hotels in Cairns, but we were very happy to have chosen Flynn.

Note: if you book Flynn via our link, we will receive a small commission. There is no extra cost to you. Please see our disclosure page for information on how this site earns revenue to help keep it going.

One of the indoor pools at Crystalbrook Flynn, Cairns, Australia

Crystalbrook Flynn

A stylish luxury hotel facing the Esplanade, Flynn is perfectly located for Cairns attractions. It has 2 indoor pools, an excellent Italian restaurant and 2 very good bars. Its decor is urban pop-arty and quirky. Reviews suggest that this isn’t to everyone’s taste, but we loved it and would happily stay there again.

Jack & Newell apartments

Top rated on TripAdvisor, these apartments are housed in a heritage warehouse dating back to 1911 that used to house the Jack & Newell shipping company. Today, they have all mod cons and also a gym, pool and undercover parking. Self-catering could be a great option for groups or families, as Cairns has loads of food outlets and there’s a good central Woolworth’s supermarket.

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fINAL THOUGHTS

We really fell in love with Cairns. It’s the perfect place for a tropical holiday and has everything you could possibly want: cultural attractions, a close convenient airport, decent transport, gorgeous gardens, a lovely waterfront, excellent free facilities and good shopping.

What really struck us was how well cared-for all the public facilities were. The local council seemed to take a genuine pride in maintaining the city at its best. We were very impressed.

If you are interested in Australia, see also our posts on Sydney, Blue Mountains and Wine touring in Victoria.

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