A Far North Queensland holiday can seem like an expensive endeavour. Think Cairns, and you probably think Great Barrier Reef - and those tours aren't cheap for families. Add in all the endless other tours and sights and activities - there really is SO MUCH for families to do - the costs can add up quickly.
The good news is, there are actually a lot of free - or nearly free- things you can do as a family too. Things that are actually fun, and won't make you feel like you're missing out.
Live like a local and uncover the hidden gems.
We love this region. Ollie is pretty much a local, a North Queenslander born and raised, not far away in Mission Beach. And Cairns is a bit of a home away from home for us - although now that we are nomadic, technically we don't have a home. But you know what I mean.
Since we spend a fair bit of time around this region, we spread our touristy things out. And couldn't afford to - nor would we want to - do the tours and big attractions constantly.
So whether you want to things to do in Cairns on a budget, or just a few days that give your bank balance a rest to store up for a few of the bigger ticket attractions - especially if you are nomadic or slow travellers like us and don't want to be doing the touristy tourist stuff every.single.day - here are
17+ things you can do for free in and around Cairns as a family:
1. The Cairns Esplanade Lagoon
Probably our personal favourite. Cairns doesn't have a swimmable beach close to the city, so the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon is a free faux beach, complete with sand - but totally free from seaweed and stingers, which is a bonus! It's open every day, has a varying depth that will keep everyone happy from the littlest to the biggest, and is really centrally located. Surrounded by shady trees and grass, you could easily set up and spend a whole day here - or several days.
It's nice on a hot summers night too, if a little bath-like - I once went in, in my underwear when I was there without my bathers. (Hot tip: wear your bathers everywhere! You never know when you'll need them. 😉
2. Watch the buskers.
There is one guy who is out by the Lagoon pretty much every single day. I think he always has been there, and always will be, one of Cairns' permanent fixtures.
And then others come out at night. They may not be as trendy as those you find in, say, Melbourne, but they're fun to watch nonetheless and come with their own TNQ charm. Ella was transfixed by a trio of young brothers with ukeleles one night, and asked if we could do it too. We didn't, but hey, if you're looking to fund a tour to the reef... 😉
3. BBQs on the esplanade
Free BBQs are all around along the esplanade, and several right near the lagoon. So if you want to set up for the day, you can easily walk to Woolworths on Abbott St to grab supplies. (Don't forget paper towel to help clean the hotplate after. We always forget!)
4. Walk along the esplanade - (& spot fruit bats).
It's quite a scenic walk along the esplanade. Especially in the evening or early morning - and especially during the summer when the fruit bats are heading out or coming back in for the day.
One of my favourite memories is of arriving in Cairns at dawn on New Year's Day after an overnight flight. The partiers were heading home, and so were the bats, as we watched the sunrise over the mountains from the esplanade.
5. Muddy's playground
An easy walk along the esplanade from the Lagoon, Muddy's is a great playground for young kids. Set in shady gardens, and it has a water play area too. (Water is Life in hot tropical North Queensland, so this is pretty much priority number one whenever I go anywhere - will there be water?!)
Open every day from 9 - 7pm. (Which is good to be aware of - up early with a young'un we rocked up before 9am, and that wasn't a happy wait!) Some sections are closed until noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays for maintenance. There is a cafe next to it.
6. Fig tree playground
This is a bit of a hidden gem. We only discovered this on our most recent trip to Cairns, and we have even lived in the city at certain periods!
It's a wooden boardwalk style playground built around a huge fig tree, located at the very far end of the Esplanade, next to the wharf. There's a trendy looking cafe, Wharf One Cafe, beside it.
7. Crystal cascades swimming holes
This is about a 20 minute drive from the centre of Cairns, but well worth it. From the car park, you have to walk a little bit, but only 5 minutes or so to the first set of stairs leading down to one of many 'swimming pools' - natural pools in the river, ideal for swimming and with shallow bits, so perfect for any age.
Venture up further and you will find more swimming spots. Right to the top, and you'll find the waterfall - better for older kids and adults.
8. The Night markets
Obviously these aren't free if you buy stuff, but they are interesting to walk around even without buying. And kids always love going out to do stuff at night. And it's a right of passage to experience walking quickly past the rows of massage booths trying not to make eye contact, as you're offered your tenth massage of the night.
There are cheap food stalls here too - not exactly gourmet quality, but if you want a quick, cheap meal, it's ok.
But if you think your kids would be just wanting to buy stuff on every corner (or that you would!) you could visit Rusty's instead.
9. Exotic fruits at Rusty's Markets
It's not your local hipster farmer's market, but it's full of interesting stuff fresh from the farms. If the kids aren't exactly thrilled by the sound of a fruit and veg market, make it a treasure hunting trip to spot (and perhaps try) the most exotic fruits and vegetables.
Obviously not totally free if you buy stuff, but not expensive either and you're buying fruit and veg to eat. They also often have taste testing, especially if it's mango season. You may never have known there were so many varieties of Mango or that they can all taste so different!
10. Free Exercise classes on the Esplanade.
The time table is posted on sign boards near the lagoon, and listed here. It includes free classes like yoga, water aerobics, Zumba, HIIT and Boxfit. Some may not be suitable for kids, but the water aerobics definitely is. It happens in the Lagoon on Saturdays 9-10am, and is a lot of fun. Run with music and enthusiastic presenters, they sometimes invite kids up to demonstrate the moves too.
11. Free Rock climbing wall/bouldering park.
It's open every day and free for casual use. They also have classes as part of the free fitness classes mentioned above. Because bouldering is a form of low rock climbing, it's suitable for all ages. And again, totally free! If you go the classes on Monday nights they provide an instructor, chalk and shoes.
12. The Biggest Skate Park in Austalia
Any keen skateboarders in your tribe might like to visit the biggest skate park in Australia! It's on the esplanade too, and not far from Muddy's, so all ages can be catered for. Obviously it helps if you're travelling with your skateboard or scooter.
13. Cairns City Library
For less adventurous activities, or just a quiet afternoon in the aircon, the Library is always free. You can't sign up to borrow unless you have a Queensland address. But it's a nice central location to go and hang out in - the city Library is on Abbott St. They have Baby Rhyme Time and Storytime too for the young 'uns. The building is also heritage listed.
14. Art Galleries
There are several art galleries in Cairns, all free. The main one is on the corner of Abbott and Shields Streets, very central. These are probably best for older kids who like art. There are regular kids art classes, but these are generally not free.
15. Stoney Creek Falls & swimming hole
Get back out into nature and visit the Stoney Creek Falls, for swimming and hiking. All swimming holes have their own charm, and this one is no different. It isn't as big as Crystal Cascades but still boasts clear water and a waterfall which you can swim under. It is a short walk to the first swimming hole which shouldn't be a problem for youngsters.
16. Fishing at Palm Cove Jetty.
(or the Wharf near Fig Tree Playground.) This might involve hiring equipment unless you're travelling with it. But if you catch your dinner, might be worth the price. 😉
Palm Cove is about a 30min drive north of Cairns, but is well worth it to see the sandy beaches and Double Island just off the shore. (You can also hire kayaks at the jetty to paddle across to the island and reef. Not free of course.)
17. Cairns Botanic Gardens
Explore the weird and wonderful tropical plants and fruit trees, Aboriginal plant use garden, lakes, boardwalks - even a nature playground awaits you in the Cairns Botanic Gardens. The grounds are very well maintained and there are lawns that would be great for a picnic or if the kids just want to let out some energy running around.
Opening hours, parking and access details here.
18. Walking Track from the Gardens
You can venture a little further into the Mount Whitfield Conservation Park with walking trails starting from behind the botanic gardens. The first trail - the red track - is a very sturdy track with board walks and stairs leading up to a lookout across the North of Cairns. From here on the trail is turns into a single file, dirt bushwalking track but it is well maintained.
19. Mountain Biking - Smithfield Trail.
Like the skatepark, it helps to be travelling with your bikes. You can hire mountain bikes, and do mountain biking tours, but this isn't free.
The course is world renowned and with this some trails can be pretty hairy. However there are smaller sections which a more manageable for the novice riders amongst us.
So that's 17+ free family friendly activities in and around Cairns, from the adventurous to the chilled. And we probably could have kept going. (And have, obvi, since there's more than 17 now, in case you thought we just can't count.)
Our favourite picks are the Cairns Lagoon and swimming holes, as the heat in tropical North Queensland makes me want to live in the water! Especially in the wet/green season (summer months), but it's usually warm enough all year round. Further afield there are more - and even better - swimming holes.
There are also other periodic or seasonal free things, like markets and festivals. So be sure to search what's happening at the time you'll be visiting.
And then if you add in activities that cost money, there are pretty much ENDLESS things to do. You can check out options, tours, experiences and prices on Viator.
What are your top picks? And if you've got any questions about nomadic life & travel in Tropical North Queensland, we'd love to answer them!