Cairns with kids: best free things to do

Cairns is all fun and sun and perfect for a family holiday. Keep the kids entertained without breaking the budget with these free, family-friendly ideas.

 Lifesaver lookout on the artificial sand beach looking over the clear blue waters of Cairns Esplanade Lagoon.
  • Jetstar
  • October 2018
  • Updated June 2021

With its year-round warm weather, abundant tropical surrounds, and the Great Barrier Reef a boat ride away, Cairns has long been a favourite holiday destination for families. If you’re watching the budget, there are plenty of things to do that will keep the kids happy while not costing a cent. Here are a few of our top picks.

Esplanade activities

The scenic waterside stretch of Cairns Esplanade is a popular recreation area. Head for the saltwater Lagoon for a safe swim and a relaxed picnic under the palm trees. Watch locals perfecting their tricks at Skate Plaza, one of Australia’s biggest skate parks. Or have fun learning new skills at a free fitness class, with bouldering, beach volleyball, and aqua Zumba among the options. There are also public artworks along the waterfront – great for stimulating inquisitive young minds on an afternoon walk.

People swim, stand and relax in the clear blue waters of Cairns Esplanade Lagoon on a sunny day.
Take a dip in the blue waters of Cairns Esplanade Lagoon. Image credit: Martin Valigursky / Shutterstock.

Playground adventures

You’ll find free-to-use playgrounds dotted around Cairns. On the Esplanade, Muddy’s Playground has different areas to suit different age groups. Kids can splash around in the water park, clamber on rope bridges, hide in playhouses – you name it. South of the Esplanade, kids can live the treehouse dream at Fig Tree Playground, where slides and tunnels are built around a large fig tree. A short drive inland, Goomboora Park adventure playground is surrounded by leafy spaces and even has a waterhole.

Sign at the entrance to Muddy's Playground, Cairns, backed by large palm trees.
Muddy's Playground is one of many free playgrounds in Cairns.

Tropical waterfall swimming

It can get pretty steamy in the Tropical North. Fortunately there are many scenic spots where the family can cool off for free. A 90-minute drive from Cairns, the lush Atherton Tablelands is home to so many waterfalls there is a ‘waterfall circuit’, including Millaa Millaa, Zillie and Elinjaa. Take a dip near tumbling waters, soak in rock pools, picnic, and look out for wildlife like platypus, flying foxes and striking tropical butterflies. For relief from the heat closer to town, take the kids to Crystal Cascades – a series of falls and swimming holes along Freshwater Creek.

The white water of Millaa Millaa falls dropping straight down into a waterhole surrounded by tropical greenery, with several people looking on in swimsuits and towels.
Go swimming at beautiful Millaa Millaa falls in the Atherton Tablelands near Cairns.

Botanic Gardens discovery

With its tropical flora, grassy lawns, ornamental lakes and bridges, and abundant birdlife, Cairns Botanic Gardens is ideal for a few hours of exploration. As well as free entry, there are free guided tours, including a Tuesday-morning birdwatching tour. You and the kids can spot everything from rainbow lorikeets to brush-turkeys – be sure to pack the binoculars. There is also a fortnightly Little Taccas program, keeping under-fives entertained with garden discovery walks, storytelling and art and craft.

View across a large pond in Cairns Botanic Gardens, surrounded by leafy green tropical plants.
Discover plants and birdlife at Cairns Botanic Gardens.

Colourful Cairns markets

Expand your kids’ tropical fruit knowledge with a wander around the colourful stalls at Rusty’s Markets, running Friday to Sunday. Already know a dragonfruit from a mangosteen? There are knick-knacks, street food snacks, and the sights and sounds of a lively marketplace to take in too. The Night Markets is also good for browsing on a balmy Cairns evening. Further afield, don’t miss the markets at Kuranda – a mountain village surrounded by rainforests about 25km from Cairns.

Close up of a pile of rambutans showing their reddish-pink hairy skins.
Spot hairy rambutans and other tropical delights at Rusty’s Markets in Cairns.