72 Hours In North Queensland/Cairns: The Best Itinerary

Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef in Tropical North Queensland, Australia. If it’s your first time visiting, here is the best way to spend 72 hours in Cairns.
72 Hours in Cairns. Photo: Jodi Nelson | Unsplash

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Located in Tropical North Queensland, Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and the perfect place to base yourself.  Cairns is a popular destination year-round, boasting sunny days and warm temperatures. 

Cairns Sunset. Photo: Thomas Chen | Unsplash

This 72 hours in Cairns itinerary covers the best things to see and do around Cairns. Throughout the itinerary, you will travel by hire car.

Day 1: Cairns to Daintree Rainforest Daytrip

Cape Tribulation. Photo: Manny Moreno | Unsplash

Travel time: Driving straight to Cape Tribulation takes around three hours. However, you will stop at a few places along the way. 

The Daintree Rainforest is the oldest in the world and is close to Cairns, making it a must-see place in Tropical North Queensland. 

What to do and see between Cairns and the Daintree Rainforest? 

Pick up your hire car in the morning and drive north out of Cairns. The idea of this first day is to follow the coastal road from Cairns towards Cooktown, which will see you stopping at amazing places along the way. 

Your first stop of the day is Mossman Gorge, which is located 77km north of Cairns. Mossman Gorge is the gateway to the Daintree National Park and is a 56,000-hectare area showcasing the park’s beauty. One of the best places to stop at Mossman Gorge is the river, where you can take a dip to escape the tropical heat. 

Afterwards, hop back in the car and drive 50km north to Daintree, where you will experience the wonder of the Daintree River. The Daintree Rainforest is over 250 million years old, and one of the best ways to see it is on a boat that takes you down the river. 

Plenty of tour operators offer river cruises, so find one you think you’ll like and go with it! Along the river, you’ll see frogs, birds, crocodiles and nearly 60% of Australia’s butterfly population. 

After experiencing the wonder of the Daintree River, it’s time for your last stop of the day, Cape Tribulation. Although the drive is just over an hour, it’s worth it.

Cape Tribulation is the only place in the world where two UNESCO World Heritage sites meet. Standing on the beach, you can look towards the Great Barrier Reef with the Daintree Rainforest behind you. However, while it may be tempting to go for a swim, don’t, as there are crocodiles in the water.

On your way back to Cairns in the evening, stop in Port Douglas for dinner.

Related: Here is the ultimate three week Australia itinerary.

Where to eat between Cairns and the Daintree Rainforest?

  • Guyala Cafe: Start your day at Guyala Cafe in Cairns before heading north. Known for having some of the best breakfast food in Cairns, this is a great place to fuel up for the day. 
  • Julaymba Restaurant at Daintree Ecolodge: Before you go on the river cruise, head to Julaymba Restaurant for lunch for some delicious food crafted from local ingredients.
  • Watergate Port Douglas: For modern Australian cuisine in an open-air setting, Watergate Port Douglas is the perfect place for dinner. 

Where to stay in Cairns? 

  • Crystalbrook Riley (high-end accommodation)
  • Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort (mid-range accommodation)
  • City Sheridan Motel (low-end accommodation) 

Day 2: Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Giorgia Doglioni | Unsplash

Travel time: Depending on where your tour boat takes you, it takes around 90-minutes to get to the Great Barrier Reef.

Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, so you can’t visit without taking a trip to the world’s largest coral reef system. 

What to do and see on the Great Barrier Reef? 

The Great Barrier Reef comprises 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching 2,300 kilometres. 

Since Cairns is so close to the Great Barrier Reef, plenty of tour companies offer day trips to the reef. The reef is absolutely massive and is teeming with marine life, including 30 different types of whales and dolphins and more than 1,500 types of fish. 

However, before you book your trip, you need to consider what you want to get from your day trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Are you a snorkeller? Do you know how to dive? Are you on a budget or willing to splash out some cash? Once you know what you want from your day trip, you can choose the best tour for you, as many cater to snorkelling or diving. 

Related: Is Australia expensive as a tourist? This article has everything you need to know!

Where to eat in Cairns?

While most Great Barrier Reef tours provide morning tea and lunch, you’ll want to grab dinner after returning to Cairns. 

  • The Pier Bar: Located near the ferry terminal, The Pier Bar is a great place to grab some dinner with great views overlooking the esplanade.
  • Prawn Star: If you love seafood, you must head to this popular spot. Enjoy dinner on a boat indulging in freshly caught seafood.
  • Iyara By Sakere: This restaurant boasts delicious Thai cuisine and stunning ocean views.

Day 3: Kuranda 

View on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Photo: Nico Smit | Unsplash

Travel time: 15-minutes 

On your third and final day in Cairns, you will head north out of the city to the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, which will take you to the mountain village of Kuranda. 

What to do and see in Kuranda? 

The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is a 7.5km cableway that takes you above the trees through the Barron Gorge National Park. 

If you park at the Smithfield Station, buy a one-way ticket to take you up to Kuranda, boasting stunning views of the rainforest, which is 60 million years older than the Amazon, along the way. 

You can hop off and on the cableway a couple of times before eventually arriving in Kuranda. However, one of the best views you’ll see along the way is of Barron Falls, a 250m waterfall. 

Once you arrive in Kuranda, you can wander the mountain village. However, one of the best things to do in Kuranda is to visit the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, which is home to over 1,500 butterflies!

To get back to your car, you can head back on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, or you can hop on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. The railway has been around for about 120 years. The 100-year-old train takes you through the rainforest, offering different views of the rainforest than the cableway. 

Where to eat in Kuranda? 

  • Kuranda Veranda Restaurant: If you want delicious food with a gorgeous view, head to Kuranda Veranda Restaurant on the Barron River. 
  • La Fonda Latina: For some of the best Latin American food in North Queensland, La Fonda Latina is a must.
  • Hayabusa of Kuranda: While this may be one of the most popular restaurants in Kuranda, this Japanese restaurant is actually a very peaceful place to grab lunch. 

Final Thoughts

Rainforest in Cairns. Photo: David Clode | Unsplash

While there isn’t much to do in the city of Cairns itself, it’s a great place to base yourself to explore the surrounding areas.

From the Daintree Rainforest to the Great Barrier Reef, this 72-hour Cairns itinerary includes the best things to see and do if you’ve only got three days to explore the Tropical North. 


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