One area that is a can’t-miss stop on a trip to Australia is Cairns. If you’re ready to pack up and visit this incredible destination, you may be wondering where’s the best place to stay in Cairns.
There are several unique areas, each with their own flair and offering of things to do. In addition, depending on your budget and favored accommodation style, Cairns offers many hotels, motels, AirBnBs, backpacking hostels, camping sites and even resorts, so you’ll be sure to find something to suit your needs.
Widely considered to be the gateway to Australia’s greatest natural wonder, the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns sits in tropical Far North Queensland on the east coast.
Truly a tropical wonder and offering hundreds of things to do, shops to peruse and exciting opportunities for fun, it’s no surprise that Cairns is one of Australia’s fastest growing cities.
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef in the world, measuring 2011 km in length and 72 km across at its widest point. It was Australia’s first World Heritage site and is also the largest World Heritage area on the planet.
With incredible geography and miles of beautiful rainforests, mountains and waterfalls, Cairns is perfect for backpacking and sightseeing.
Because Cairns is such a tourist hotspot, hotels can book up faster, especially during the warm summer months (which, because Australia is south of the equator, runs from the beginning of December to the end of March).
So be sure to book early once you finalize your travel plans to get the best deals and discounts. This guide will do a deep dive into nine great areas to stay in Cairns, and discuss what there is to do there and what to expect for accommodation.
Where to Stay in Cairns: 9 Best Areas
1. Esplanade, where to stay in Cairns for first time visitors
The Esplanade is a coastal area and 2.5 km promenade starting in North Cairns and heading south to city center. It is a focal point of the city and provides a starting destination for both tourists and locals alike to begin exploring Cairns.
Here, you’ll see people of all ages discovering Cairns’ natural beauty and wide range of activities. You may catch early morning joggers, rollerblades, skateboarders, bikers and awe-inspired visitors simply enjoying the incredible views.
For incredible cuisine, great accommodation and a friendly atmosphere, staying on Cairns’ Esplanade is the perfect option.
Formerly a wide mangrove swamp, the Esplanade (once known as the Troughton Esplanade after the Travel Superintendent of the Australian Steam Navigation Company, Captain Fred Troughton) was once sandy and uninhabitable.
After the Grafton Channel was dredged for shipping purposes, the resulting mud covered the sandy beach completely, which allowed the mangrove ecosystem to thrive and hundreds of mud species to grow.
Now, tourists love to walk along the Esplanade, as there is so much to see. The Esplanade’s lagoon is the central feature here. The lagoon encompasses 4,800 square feet of salt water swimming, filtered from the Trinity Inlet, free to the public and manned by lifeguards.
Kids will love splashing around in the warm, crystal-blue waters and playing under the towering fountains. In the distance, you’ll see the mountains lining the horizon. After a dip in the lagoon, you won’t have to walk far to discover several other family-friendly activities.
The lagoon is surrounded by a large park with picnic tables and free BBQs under shady Banyan trees.
Nearby Muddy’s playground, just a short walk north, is also popular with kids, with several water activities, swings, slides and gardens to explore. There is also a nearby skatepark for the older kids, as well as several beach volleyball courts.
History buffs will enjoy the cultural significance of the Cairns Esplanade. As you walk along the water, you’ll see monuments and memorials with interesting stories.
Some of these monuments include The Cairns Cenotaph and Memorial, the US Army Small Ships Memorial, the Merchant Navy Memorial, commemorated to honor Australia’s WWII commercial shipping crews, and a granite Olympic Torch Monument celebrating Australia’s 1956 relay run.
Make sure to stay on the Esplanade for an incredible sunset view over the Coral Sea while enjoying dinner and drinks at one of many hip dining spots along the water. The lagoon itself lights up at night with glowing neon colors under the Palm Trees, which is an incredible sight to see.
In terms of accommodation, the Esplanade has the widest range of options other than Cairns’ Central Business District Area.
Because this area has stunning waterfront views and is arguably the most popular area in Cairns, accommodation here can get a bit expensive and is booked up fast. But, for options that are spacious and family-friendly, the Esplanade is your best bet.
In a different vein, the Esplanade does have several bars and clubs for wilder party nights and adult-friendly fist-pumping.
2. Central Business District, where to stay in Cairns for nightlife
Hustling and bustling, Cairns Central Business District (or CBD) is the professional hub of Cairns, and is defined by great businesses and world-class shopping centers. This area will also cover accessing and touring the Great Barrier Reef.
Although there are several entry points along the entire coast of the Coral Sea to get out to the reef, most guided services for tourists depart to the reef from here. If exploring the reef seems a little daunting, CBD also had some great activities and sights on land to explore.
The majority of people who come to visit Cairns do so for the incredible force of nature that is the Great Barrier Reef. As the world’s largest coral reef system and World Heritage site, The Great Barrier Reef is composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands.
The Reef stretches over 2,300 kilometers and has been consistently named as a “place to visit before you die” year after year by renown travel organizations.
It is also has the distinguished honor of being one of the seven wonders of the natural world, and is the only living thing on Earth that is visible from space.
Made up of remarkable beauty and variety, the Great Barrier Reef has 400 types of coral and is home to 1,500 species of fish. The rare large green turtle can also be spotted here, making the reef itself a truly unique ecosystem that has evolved over centuries.
It is incredibly important to protect the fragile ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef, as it provides habitat and shelter for marine life and protects Australia’s coastlines.
Years of tourist apathy and damage has put the Great Barrier Reef in critical condition, subject to coral bleaching and habitat destruction, specifically when boating companies do not take proper caution when sailing out.
That’s why it’s crucial to use a sustainable travel service that trains and allows tourists to discover the reefs safely. There are several in Cairns to choose from, and you have the option to snorkel or scuba if you have your license.
You’ll take a boat ride out to several allocated reef locations and be immersed in a colorful, magical kingdom, undisturbed and awe-inspiring. Some popular tour companies are Great Barrier Reef Tours Cairns and Silverswift – Cairns Reef Dive Tours, and leave from Cairns CBD. Definitely book these tours in advance, as they can fill up fast.
If you’re still looking for more wildlife, the Cairns Aquarium is situated in Cairns CBD and is a breath-taking look into some of Australia’s favorite sea creatures.
For a little shopping and getting to know the area, there’s several markets in and around Cairns CBD. The Cairns Night Markets are open 7 days a week from 5pm till 11pm. You can peruse over 70 unique stalls and find everything from local treats to seafood to crocodile skins.
If you’d merely like to walk along the boardwalk and take in the crystal-clear beauty of the Coral Sea, Cairns CBD is the all-around perfect place to stay.
The nightlife scene here is pretty eclectic, ranging from rustic pubs and taverns to more exciting dance clubs. Like usual, the closer to the water you get, the higher the price usually becomes.
In terms of accommodation, Cairns CBD offers a lot, and is a very popular place for visiting students and young travelers. There are some major hotel and resort chains here, like the Hilton, as well as smaller boutique hotels, home-shares and motels.
3. Parramatta Park – Westcourt, two suburban areas with subtle charm
The side-by-side areas of Parramatta Park and Westcourt are two suburban neighborhoods in Cairns. Parrametta Park and Westcourt are directly west of Cairns CBD and take just a short drive to get to.
Defined by lush greenery, historical significance and urban excitement, these two areas are quickly growing in population for good reason, but are still small enough to keep their charm. There is a wide range of eateries, bars and cosmopolitan amenities popping up every year.
It is the perfect place for working professionals commuting to Cairns CBD, as well as young families and couples looking for a beautiful community to settle down in. For tourists, these two areas offer a lot to do and great options for accommodation.
Parramatta Park is situated in the Yidinji traditional Aboriginal country and was originally recognized as a suburb in the late 1800s. Now, Parrametta Park is a bustling mini-city in its own right.
The Cairns Central Shopping Center is located near here and is the largest shopping center in all of North Queensland. It makes up two stories and is built over the Cairns Railway Station.
For great shopping with specialty brands and major retailers, this a great place to stop by. There is also a cinema here if you’d like to catch a movie during your trip.
Speaking of the Cairns Railway Station, if you’d like to see a panoramic view of some of the most scenic sights in Cairns, book a trip in a vintage train.
This guide’s section on the area of Kuranda will explore the railway’s path, but you can start in this area and book tours from here as well.
The area of Westcourt is equally as exciting, but still quiet and lowkey for those looking for a slower pace on their vacation. Locals of Westcourt are known for their welcoming attitude.
DFO Cairns is another great shopping in this area for all your retail therapy needs. There are several great breakfast cafes and quaint eateries scattered around town, as well as travel agencies if you need assistance booking any activities.
While these two areas don’t offer as much in terms of activities, they are still great places to stay in Cairns if you’re looking for cheaper accommodation that is still within close proximity to Cairns City Center.
Both Parrametta Park and Westcourt offer luxury hotels as well as budget home-shares and motels. Nightlife here is a bit sparse as the areas are more suburban in nature.
4. Cairns North, where to stay in Cairns for couples
Just north of Cairns CBD and within close proximity to Edge Hill, Cairns North is a small coastal suburb with plenty of North Queensland charm and prime beachfront access.
If you’re looking for a calm, tropical retreat that is equal part subtle glamour and high-flying fun, Cairns North is a great place to stay in Cairns.
With only a little over 5,000 people you’ll feel like you’re in a small city, while also being within close proximity of the hustle and bustle of Cairns CBD. Cairns North also has great historical significance, with a number of heritage-listed sites and things to see and do.
For a great way to see Cairns North on wheels, check out Cairns Ninebot Tours to explore the area from a segway. The company takes visitors over natural areas of Cairns, as well through the most fun parts of the city itself.
The Cairns Esplanade Fun Ship Parkland and Coconut Grove parks are both situated here, and are perfect for kids to explore, play and pick up fallen coconuts.
Street art and structures dot this area as well, and you’ll also find great restaurants, charming cafes and international flavors within close distance.
To swim in an Olympic-sized pool, check out the Tobruk Memorial Pool, where you may catch new swimmers learning to splash or professionals getting in some laps.
For nightlife, the area has a good amount of smaller bars, but nothing as major as the clubs in CBD or along the Esplanade.
If you’re getting to Cairns from Cairns Airport, Cairns North is within close proximity, and is the perfect area to stay in Cairns on a layover. There are several options for accommodation in Cairns North, including a backpackers hostel, several boutique hotels and inns, and a larger resort.
5. Edge Hill, a vibrant suburb with recreation, nightlife and sights
Situated just west of Cairns North is the small, homey suburb of Edge Hill, part of the 42 hectare Cairns Botanic Gardens Precinct. Edge Hill earned its name for its location at the foot of Mount Whitfield, and grew in popularity for its beautiful, natural botanic gardens.
While the area is small, only home to a little under 4,000 people, the area has great historical significance for its military importance and two Queensland National Heritage sites.
For a bit of recreation, the Red Arrow Circuit lookout is a scenic trail walk that stretches from the bottom of Edge Hill up to the top of the Mt. Whitfield Conservation park behind the Cairns Botanical Gardens.
The hike can usually be finished within 40 minutes to an hour, and offers stunning views of Cairns’ lush natural environment, including tall bamboo shoots and eucalyptus plants. There is a large amount of steps along the path, so prepared to feel the leg burn.
Edge Hill is perhaps known, however, for the Cairns Botanical Gardens. This tropical paradise is home to many tropical plants native to Australia. As you walk along the scenery, you can also learn more about the flora, fauna and horticulture from the garden’s many guiding signs.
There are also freshwater and saltwater lakes, and an Aboriginal Plant Use Garden of cultural significance. This is the perfect place for kids to explore as well, with nature-based activities and games occurring every two weeks.
You may even catch a beautiful bird or two hopping around the trees and singing clearly throughout the day. The smaller Flecker Botanic Gardens is also a great place to see all of Cairns’ beautiful greenery.
For a little nightlife fun and live performance, check out the Tanks Arts Venue, one of Australia’s most unique performance spaces. In the past, the building used to house wartime oil tanks, leading to its unique name.
During the day, you can peruse free art exhibitions and photo galleries. But at night, the venue really comes alive. From live music, dance and theater performances and visual art installations, Tanks holds heart-pumping events weekly.
The venue is so popular that is now recognized as a Queensland State Heritage site. Be sure to check out their schedule of what’s on before visiting.
To keep the party going, The Edge Hill Memorial Bowls Club has 8 synthetic bowling greens, perfect for day and night bowling and complete with poker tables, a bar and a bistro for light snacks.
After a long day, check out one of Edge Hill’s many edgy and eclectic eateries and cafes for dinner.
In terms of accommodation and major bars or clubs, Edge Hill is pretty lowkey. Most of the hotels are smaller taverns and bed and breakfasts, but are very wallet-friendly.
And if you need to get into the city for a night out, Edge Hill is within close proximity to Cairns CBD via car or bus, which makes Edge Hills a good place where to stay in Cairns.
While the area isn’t a beachfront town, you can get to the beach by car or by walking in a fairly short amount of time.
6. Trinity Beach, best area to stay in Cairns for families
Favored amongst locals and tourists alike, Trinity Beach is quickly gaining a name for itself as one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Australia. The atmosphere here matches the laid-back surfer vibe of Hawaii but still offers subtle luxury in its accusation and activities.
A popular spot for water sports, Trinity Beach offers rentals for surfing, paddle-boarding and jet-skiing, as well as all the beach amenities you could ever need for a relaxed day by the water.
Add this to great recreation and sightseeing, it’s no surprise that Trinity Beach has truly boomed into the ultimate holiday destination, only rivaled by Palm Cove. If you’re traveling with kids, Trinity Beach should be your #1 destination and a great place to stay in Cairns for you.
Kids will love the soft, safe waters, expansive beach and shady trees to play under. In addition, many hotels and apartments offer spacious accommodation for large families to space out.
While many visitors stop by Trinity Beach, locals work hard to keep the area as authentic to the North Queensland experience as possible. You can see this in the pristine beach, welcoming attitude and incredible food all around the area.
For a bit of recreation aside from the water, check out the Trinity Beach Esplanade Walking Trails. You’ll be surrounded by nature, shady trees and friendly joggers passing by, but still experience uncrowded joy as you walk.
Trinity Beach is truly a beach town, with a wide range of grocery stores and cafes, boutiques and retailers for shopping, spas and salons for relaxing and fitness and sports centers for a game of tennis or squash.
You can find a wide range of swimwear at Coastwatchers Shopping Center. In terms of nightlife, Trinity Beach offers several local taverns with live entertainment, great conversation and karaoke.
For adventure, Trinity Beach is within close distance to Cairns Skydiving, which offers panoramic views of all of Cairns and heart-pumping action. You can also get to the Great Barrier Reef from here as well.
Dining in Trinity Beach is world-renown. If you’re looking to eat on the Esplanade, with stunning waterfront views, or on shady Trinity Beach Road, you’ll find several different options, including Italian, Mediterranean seafood and premium cocktail drinks and wines on the open air veranda.
Framed by stunning pink sunsets and balmy breezes, Trinity Beach has a little something for everyone. When you’re ready to book accommodation, you’ll see that Trinity Beach offers private holiday homes and apartments that are completely self-contained.
Trinity Hotel also stands high on the Trinity Beach cliff face. Whether this is the area you want to stay in Cairns or just want to visit on a day-trip, Trinity Beach is a can’t-miss.
7. Kuranda, an exciting town flowering in the sky
There may be no other town in Cairns as uniquely designed as Kuranda, described as a rainforest village hidden amongst the mountains of Cairns. Because of its high altitude, Kuranda is cooler and less humid than other areas of Cairns. Kuranda is located in the Shire of Mareeba, which has great Aboriginal heritage.
In the 1960s, Kuranda was known to attract those looking for an alternative lifestyle, filled with creativity, art, and music, contributing to the distinct artistic style Kuranda has today.
In the 20th century, Kuranda’s tourism sector truly boomed from Australians trying to beat the heat, and the area is now fondly known as “The Village in the Sky.”
To get here, take a ride on the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway, first constructed in the late 1800s. Starting in Cairns and ending in Kuranda, you’ll pass through 15 hand-cut tunnels and across 37 bridges, while also taking in vibrant greenery, trees and panoramic views of all of Cairns.
You can also take the Kuranda Skyrail Cableway, running over the rainforest canopy of Barron Gorge National Park, where you’ll see the majestic Barron Falls rushing over into the gorge.
Kuranda offers tons to do, and is a great place for kids and adults alike. This area offers a ton of places to check out Australia’s protected wildlife.
These include the vibrant Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Rainforestation Park (where you can catch a traditional dance and didgeridoo performance from native Pamagirri Aboriginals), and the Koala Sanctuary, where you can actually hold one of these cuddly creatures.
You can book all three of these experiences as a combo.
Kuranda is perhaps best known for its eclectic markets – the Kuranda Original Rainforest Markets, open Thursday to Monday, and the Heritage Markets, open Thursday to Sunday.
At these markets, you’ll find hand-crafted local goods and clothing, ceramics, gemstones and jewelry, as well as fresh produce local to the area and international flavors.
Kuranda also offers several great dining options, including the popular Fogs Restaurant and a crepe cafe. If you’d simply like to get out into nature and experience Kuranda’s scenic beauty from the ground, Kuranda has an extensive network of trails perfect for all types of walkers.
Be aware that Kuranda does not have anything in the way of nightlife, but is an immersive cultural experience you can’t miss.
In terms of accommodation, Kuranda offers several options and is a great place to stay in Cairns or simply visit. Kuranda offers eco cabins that provide sustainable amenities, smaller bed and breakfasts, luxury rainforest resorts, as well as hostels and camping sites for those looking for a more rugged experience.
8. Palm Cove, where to stay in Cairns for a great beach vacation
Tropical and private Palm Cove truly lives up to its name – lining this stunning area are decades-old melaleuca trees catching warm Coral Sea breezes all year round. This area is truly a tropical paradise and a premiere holiday destination.
The perfect mix of relaxation, romance and sophistication, Palm Cove is unsurprisingly a top pick for weddings and couples retreats, many of which spill out into Palm Cove’s beautiful esplanade.
Because of its gorgeous scenery, many resorts, fine-dining establishments and luxury hotels have sprouted here over the past decade. Palm Cove has also unofficially earned the reputation as the spa capital of Australia for its many massage and relaxation centers.
In short, if you want to experience the tropical vacation you’ve been dreaming off with all of the luxury, Palm Cove is your place.
Palm Cove itself is surrounded by a 500-foot esplanade perfect for all walks of life and recreational activities. Here, you can jog, bike or rollerblade and fish off the Palm Cove Jetty for Spanish mackerel, cod and flathead.
If you’re looking to explore, rent a kayak and head out to nearby Double Island, just 20 minutes out and truly a magical oasis of lush vegetation.
Ellis Beach is also close by and truly secluded, with a population of only 30 people but complete with coastal charm you won’t find anywhere else.
When you’re ready for a walk through the rainforest, head to Crystal Cascades, natural swimming pools shaded by the green canopy and large granite boulders. To get there, you’ll explore winding rivers and creeks, complimented by stunning crystal waterfalls and ponds to splash around in.
The dining in Palm Cove is perhaps like any other area in all of North Queensland, let alone Cairns. Several world-class restaurants are here, serving the freshest seafood and glittering drinks along a beautiful coastal esplanade.
If you’ve got a four-legged friend, you’ll love the dog-friendly nature of Palm Cove.
In terms of relaxation, Palm Cove offers several spa sites, many of which have waterfront views for the utmost peace, quiet and luxury. Many use native Australian ingredients as well, so you’ll leave feeling refreshed and renewed.
While being a destination getaway, Palm Cove retains much of its tiny, beachside town qualities. The town itself is about 30 minutes from Cairns’ city center, so it can be a great day trip away from the main city or a full vacation spot all itself.
In terms of nightlife, Palm Cove is far more relaxed than other areas on this list, offering a lowkey vibe versus high-powered clubbing action.
But, if simple luxury and calm surroundings is your desire, Palm Cove is unmatched.
The town is small (only home to about 2,000 residents) but there are many options in terms of accommodation, including smaller boutique hotels, individual apartment rentals and larger luxury resorts, like the beachside Alamanda Palm Cove hotel.
The Palm Cove Holiday park also offers space for caravan parking and camping.
9. Holloways Beach, a sleepy beach town with relaxed accommodation
Located just a ten-minute drive north of Cairns City Center, Holloways Beach is a quiet suburban town known for its stunning beach and relaxed, tropical atmosphere.
You may feel like you’re being transported to sunny Jamaica or vibrant Cancun as you explore this area – it’s perfect for fun activities but also calm rest and rejuvenation.
Rich with history, Holloways Beach is situated in the Djabugay (Tjapukai) traditional Aboriginal country, giving it a distinct identity unlike other areas of Cairns.
At many points during the year, the Holloways Beach Market sets up shop right along the water with over 100 stalls selling local delicacies, clothing and gifts, fresh fruit and vegetables and crafts. Richard’s Salt & Pepper Squid is one especially popular stall for some of the freshest seafood around.
For recreation, Holloways beach has incredible swimming under towering palm trees, which is best experienced at mid-tide, when the sand flats are exposed and shallow. During the warm months, a jellyfish stinger enclosure operates to keep these potentially lethal creatures at bay.
You can also fish here, and may see many enthusiasts at the creek mouths. Surfers may not find the best waves here, but the small wind waves are perfect for small children to splash around in. If you’d still like to give it a go, you can rent out wakeboards and surfboards nearby.
Close by is the Cairns Kart Hire, Laser Tag and Escape Rooms center, which provide exciting adventure for the whole family.
If you’d prefer guided tours to explore the Holloways Beach area, you can choose from biking, horseback riding and motorcycle tours, all within close proximity to the beach.
Holloways Beach has a little bit of everything in terms of accommodation and is a great place to stay in Cairns. There is a beautiful five-star resort right on the beach with all-inclusive dining and private beach access.
If you’d like to grill out in the classic North Queensland-style, there are free public BBQs near the beach. If you’d like to go out boating, there is a boat ramp into Richters Creek on the northern boundary of the suburb at Acacia Street.
In terms of nightlife, Holloways Beach is far more quiet than Cairns City Center, as the area is fairly suburban. Quiet “me time” is the name of the game here, and you’ll leave totally refreshed.
There are also individual rental units on the beach and home-share style accommodation, as well as few hotels scattered near the water. Along the beach, there are several quaint cafes and eateries as well as fancier restaurants with incredible seafood.
Cairns is wide, diverse and never boring. No matter which area you decide to stay in Cairns, you’re sure to get the quintessential North Queensland experience Australia is known for.
Whether you’re traveling as a couple, as part of a group, with your family or choosing to take a backpacking adventure solo, Cairns offers activities and accommodation for every traveler.
Make sure to plan your excursions in advance to ensure the best possible experience, do your own research and always travel safely. Come visit Cairns today!