Tourism is the lifeblood of Cairns (pronounced Caans). The city makes a good base for exploring the wild top half of Queensland, and tens of thousands Of international travelers use it as a jumping-off point for activities such as scuba diving and snorkeling trips to the Barrier Reef, as well as boating, fishing, parasailing, scenic flights, and rain-forest treks. It's a tough environment, with intense heat and fierce wildlife. Along with wallabies and grey kangaroos in the savannah and tree kangaroos in the rain forest, you'll find stealthy saltwater crocodiles, venomous snakes, and jellyfish so deadly they put the region’s stunning beaches off- limits to swimmers for nearly half the year. Yet despite this formidable setting, Cairns and tropical North Queensland are far from intimidating places. The people are warm and friendly, the sights spectacular, and—at the right time of year—the beachside lounging is world-class. Cosmopolitan Cairns, the unofficial capital of Far North Queensland, is Australia's 15th-largest city, with a burgeoning population pushing 135,000—more than 283,000 when you include the thriving hinterland). Once a sleepy tropical town sprawled around Trinity Bay and Inlet, the city has expanded hugely in recent decades, and now extends north to Holloway's Beach, west to the Atherton Tablelands, and south along the Great Green Way as far as Edmonton.
Cairns's Esplanade and the CBD streets leading off it come alive at night, with most restaurants serving until late, and wine or a cold beer is a staple with evening meals. Several rowdy pubs catering to backpackers and younger travelers line the central section of City Place; a few bars and hotel venues manage to be upscale while remaining true to the city's easygoing spirit. Unless noted, bars are open nightly and there's no cover charge.
Adjacent to Cairns Railway Station, Cairns Central houses 180-plus specialty stores, Myer and Target department stores, a food court, several coffee shops, and a six-screen cinema complex. Those who represent the property claim it's the largest shopping center in Far North Queensland, and that might just be the case. Stroller hire is available.
The Pier at the Marina
Overlooking Trinity Bay and Marlin Marina, this low-rise waterfront complex houses the outlets of top Australian and international designers as well as a newsagent, bookstore, Internet café, galleries, salons, fitness facilities, and a visitor information center. There's also an interactive wildlife discovery center, Zoo To You, with daily wildlife shows. Many of The Pier's bars and restaurants open onto waterfront verandas and the marina boardwalk.
Cairns's iconic "street" market, Rusty's attracts 180-plus stallholders, who peddle everything from fresh tropical produce to art and crafts, jewelry, clothing, natural health and skin-care products, and massages, as well as all sorts of food. The market is covered, offering a pleasant respite from the sun. It's open Friday 5 am–6 pm, Saturday 6–3, and Sunday 6–2.
Fronting Cairns Harbour, this boardwalk is the focal point of life in Cairns. Along the walk you'll encounter shady trees and public art, picnic and barbecue facilities, a large saltwater swimming lagoon, volleyball courts, an imaginative kids' playground, state-of-the-art skate plaza, and areas for fitness, markets, and live entertainment. A shallow, 4,800-square-meter (51,667-square-foot) saltwater lagoon swimming pool with a sandy shore, decking, and shelters, patrolled by lifeguards year-round, provides free, convenient relief from the often sticky air. Along the street opposite, you'll find shops, galleries, and eateries.
Cairns can trace its beginnings to the point where the Esplanade becomes Wharf Street. In 1876, this was a port for gold and tin mined inland. Chinese and Malaysian workers and other immigrants, lured by the gold trade, settled here, and Cairns grew into one of the most multicultural cities in Australia. As the gold rush receded and the sugarcane industry around the Atherton Tableland grew, Cairns turned its attention to fishing. It is still a thriving port.
Cairns Regional Gallery
Occupying the impressive former Public Office Building constructed in the 1930s, Cairns Regional Gallery houses a hodgepodge of local, national, international, and indigenous artworks, including a fine collection of Australian photography, in its wood-paneled rooms. The shop stocks high-quality Australian giftware, toys, jewellery, prints, books, and cards. Pre-book an hour-long guided tour; there are also kids' programs, classes, talks and workshops.