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The gateway to Australian national treasures such as Great Barrier Reef and the primeval Daintree Rainforest, Cairns is often overlooked as a destination in itself. However, if you scratch beneath the surface, you might find yourself richly rewarded. After all, Cairns is the unofficial capital of Queensland’s wet tropics and home to colourful markets brimming with exotic fruit, quintessential Aussie pubs, and most importantly, the kind of unpretentious laid-back atmosphere that characterises tropical Australia. While the city has no beach to speak of, it has a lovely public swimming lagoon and just 15 minutes or so out of town you’ll discover the kind of palm-fringed sun-drenched shores you see printed on postcards. Inland are hills cloaked in verdant greenery and lush valleys threaded with croc-rich waterways. Beyond that lies the great outback. Of course, this you already know: up north there’s one of the oldest rainforests on earth, while to the east lies the largest coral formation on the planet. So you’ve booked your flights already? Good. Keep reading to learn more about this remarkable city and find out how to make the most of your Cairns car hire when visiting Far North Queensland. We share with you where to stay, our favourite places to grab a bite, as well as the attractions you simply cannot miss.
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How to Rent a Car in Cairns with DriveNow

For over 17 years DriveNow has been providing travellers with the ability to quickly and easily compare rates on cheap car hire in Cairns. We bring together the latest deals to save you time and money, and all at no additional cost to you.

Our hassle-free service allows you to compare prices from Australia’s most well-known and trusted car rental suppliers, including Avis, Hertz, Thrifty, Budget, Europcar, Enterprise, Keddy, Firefly and many others. It’s free and impartial, and there are no booking or cancellation fees. We don’t collect your credit card details either as you only pay upon collection of your Cairns hire car.

With the flexibility to book car hire in Cairns city, or pick up the keys to a car rental from Cairns Airport, it really couldn’t be any easier.

Driving tips for you and your rental car in Cairns

Hiring a car in Cairns is a fantastic way to explore the area and make the most out of your holiday. Whether you’re an Aussie resident or a first-time visitor, check out these tips to ensure you’re as prepared as you can be for taking to the Queensland roads.

  • Cairns is beautiful all year round, but most tourists tend to visit between July and December. For that reason, it’s especially smart to book your rental car in advance in order to get a good deal.
  • The weather in Cairns can get very hot during the summer months, so take care when leaving items in your car for any period of time. Your vehicle will be equipped with air conditioning to keep you cool as you drive, but be wary of leaving food or other perishable items inside once the car is stationary, as they may melt!
  • One of the great things about Cairns is the abundance of awesome Aussie wildlife for you to spot as you explore the surrounding area. However, these kangaroos, koalas, bandicoots, and pigs sometimes do stray onto the road, so take extra care when driving to avoid any collisions.

Where to Stay in Cairns

With the money you’ve saved on cheap car rental in Cairns with DriveNow, you can afford to spend big on the best hotels and resorts the city has to offer. Being the most common departure point for tours out to the reef, staying in the city makes sense. However, if you’re after something a bit more upmarket, consider Port Douglas, a charming town about one hour’s drive north of Cairns. Quite a few boats also depart from this captivating seaside hamlet to popular diving and snorkelling spots on the Great Barrier Reef.

Cars are the most common form of transport in and around Cairns so expect plenty of on and off-street parking. Be mindful of time restrictions however, to avoid a fine. If you plan to leave your rental car in Cairns for a whole day or for several nights, it pays to park in council-operated or private car parks which offer spaces at very reasonable rates, especially when compared to bigger cities such as Brisbane or Sydney.

Our Favourite Hotels and Resorts in and around Cairns

Cairns’ relaxed vibe and vibrant nightlife is due in part to the many backpackers that set up base in the city. There are only a handful of premium accommodation options in Cairns, which is why we’ve recommended a few upscale places in the nearby town of Port Douglas as well.

Shangri La The Marina Cairns

Shangri-La Hotel in Cairns

The view from a Shangri La Horizon Club Room

Location is a big part of the appeal of this Cairns landmark. Overlooking the luxury yachts and tourist catamarans of the busy Marlin Marina, this waterfront hotel offers modern accommodation, all the trimmings you’d expect in a five-star establishment as well as signature Shangri-La service. With its sparkling pool and sumptuous breakfasts served with views of glistening Trinity Inlet, who could resist staying here?  

Waters Edge Apartment Cairns

For space and flexibility, you can’t go past a self-catering apartment. Waters Edge Apartments is one of Cairns’ most contemporary residential-slash-holiday complexes with a prime position right on the Esplanade. If your plan is to base yourself in Cairns, this is the ideal option in our books. Apartments have gourmet kitchens for seafood cook-ups, spa tubs for indulgent soaks, and full laundry facilities for muddy outdoor gear. Best of all, they’re serviced daily - because let’s face it, who wants to make their bed on holiday? Splash out on the swim-out units if you have spare cash to flash - they’re amazing.

Coconut Grove Apartments

There are a plethora of self-catering options in Port Douglas but what makes the exclusive apartments of Coconut Grove stand out is their creator’s attention to detail. Crisp white bed linen, cool stone bench tops, free standing bath tubs, and large outdoor entertainment areas - this property embodies luxury living at its finest. What’s more, the boutiques and restaurants of lively Macrossan Street are just downstairs, while Four-Mile Beach is a short stroll away. The world’s rich and famous often come to Port Douglas to play so be sure to pack your trendiest resort wear because who knows who you might meet down by the pool?

QT Port Douglas

QT Port Douglas Resort

The most insta-worthy swimming pool in Queensland’s tropical north

This sprawling Port Douglas resort has all the hallmarks of the QT brand: colourful designer bedrooms with funky accents of Australiana, a fabulous day spa, plenty of chic lounge areas to knock back jewel-coloured cocktails, and a bustling market-style restaurant. Being smack dab in the tropics, there’s also a large freeform swimming pool with giant blow-up rubber ducks and a day bed in the middle where beautiful people hang out in the latest swimwear. Forgot your sun hat? Buy one from the boutique in the lobby, which stocks all the things you never knew you needed for the beach from quirky pool inflatables to waterproof radios. If you can be tempted to leave the premises, guests enjoy complimentary use of cute vintage bicycles throughout their stay.

Other Fantastic Destinations Farther Afield

If you’re after a ‘real’ beach, Cairn’s Northern Beaches are a fairly well-kept secret around half an hour’s from the city. Comprised of a handful of individual villages, this area boasts some 26 kilometres of sun-drenched sand fringed by lush shady trees. Local favourites include low-key Trinity Beach and Palm Cove, whose coastline is slowly starting to resemble classy Port Douglas further up the road. From around November to May is stinger season, so just be careful to swim only in stinger-resistant enclosures or stick to the pool.

If you don’t have much time but want a taste of the World Heritage Daintree Rainforest, look no further than Mossman Gorge. This stunning natural attraction is 1 hour and 15 minutes from Cairns or just 20 minutes from Port Douglas by road, and it provides a great introduction to the age-old ecosystem of Far North Queensland. As the gorge is located on the ancient grounds of the Kuku Yalanji, you’ll also have the opportunity to gain some insight into indigenous culture and history.

If you have a day or more to spare, go into the Daintree Rainforest proper where you can drive all the way to Cape Tribulation, where rainforest meets the ocean. As this wilderness area is around 3 hours’ drive from Cairns or 1.5 hours from Port Douglas, seclusion is almost guaranteed. To add to the adventurous nature of this outing, there’s a vehicle ferry - the only way to get across the Daintree River.

Of course, the other reason you’re here is to see the Great Barrier Reef. There are a variety of ways to experience this undersea wonder. Cairns marina is the main launching point for tours to the reef on all manner of marine vessels. Port Douglas also offers boat tours albeit with less departure options. If you’re not keen on water, you can see the reef from the air. Whichever way you choose to take it in, you’re guaranteed a head full of memories and a camera full of spectacular photos.

Mossman River

Take a dip in the idyllic Mossman River

Top Things To Do in and around Cairns

As we’ve mentioned before, Cairns is a compact city. If you’re staying downtown, you can simply walk to the shops of Cairns Central or the fresh produce stalls of Rusty’s Market to pick up food, souvenirs, or supplies. With its pretty boardwalk and free swimming lagoon, the Esplanade offers the perfect setting for a post dinner stroll or dip, and at sunset, the tented stalls of the Cairns Night Market come alive with jewellery, handicrafts, and specialty clothing for sale. If you’re not sure what you want to do, the many tour operators in this area will provide plenty of inspiration, with a multitude of activities on offer, ranging from sailing and snorkelling to bungy jumping and skydiving.

Outside of the city, a DriveNow rental car offers the most convenient way to explore Cairns’ enchanting terrestrial surrounds. At Mossman Gorge, learn about native flora, fauna and their traditional uses on a Dreamtime Walk tour, led by a local indigenous guide. To cool off, jump into the refreshing and blissfully crocodile-free Mossman River. Commonly spotted on its densely forested banks are Australian brush turkeys and if you look closely at tree trunks, you might even see a Boyd’s forest dragon.

If you’ve decided to venture further into the Daintree Rainforest, don’t worry, you don’t need a 4WD hire unless you want to tackle the Bloomfield Track. All main roads are sealed and the only thing you need to worry about is avoiding the cassowaries! Second only to the ostrich in body weight, these distinctive flightless birds are native to north-eastern Australia but as they are very shy, chances are you won’t see them on your own.

To learn more about cassowaries and the other inhabitants of this region, head straight to the Daintree Discovery Centre around 10km north of the vehicle ferry. This is one of the best places to observe cassowaries in the wild. The highly-awarded centre also has a canopy tower with a range of viewing platforms and aerial walkway with sweeping vistas over the surrounding rainforest. As the day warms up, don’t miss the Daintree Icecream Company at Diwan, which makes delectable frozen treats on site using tropical fruit or native plants such as black sapote, mango, and wattleseed.

The other creature most visitors come here to see is the saltwater crocodile. Capable of growing to at least 6 metres, these enormous prehistoric-looking reptiles thrive in the Daintree Rainforest’s brackish rivers, lagoons and estuaries. We recommend taking a wildlife cruise from the jetty at Daintree Village. These river safaris are led by knowledgeable guides who will point out local “salties” as well as other reptiles, marsupials, birds, and butterflies regularly seen around the river.

Far North Queensland salt water crocodile

Portrait of a ‘saltie

The Great Barrier Reef is justly renowned for its relatively safe, calm waters seething with a diversity of marine life. Non-swimmers are well catered for, with a variety of activity options, ranging from voyages aboard a glass bottom boat, on a luxury catamaran or perhaps even in a semi-submersible submarine. There are also underwater observatories on the reef, where you can watch the activities beneath the surface without getting wet - great for families with younger kids! Some reefs also have a child-friendly swimming enclosure often visited by smaller reef fish.

Snorkellers and scuba divers will rejoice - the Great Barrier Reef offers a veritable smorgasbord of sites from enchanting coral gardens to fascinating caves inhabited by a dazzling diversity of species from tiny clownfish and green turtles to giant clams and gigantic Maori wrasse. Liveaboards offer passengers the ability to spend more than one day exploring the region, with the opportunity to visit more far-flung reaches of the Great Barrier Reef.

Great Barrier Reef in Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef from above

Our Favourite Restaurants in Cairns and Surrounds

Far North Queensland has a disproportionate number of good restaurants and cafes relative to its small population. This you would probably have to give credit in equal parts to the region’s multicultural residents, its fertile agricultural lands, and bountiful waters. And the best thing is all are just a short trip away with a Cairns Car Hire.

Here are some of our top picks for food in and around Cairns:


A popular “special occasion” restaurant, this softly-lit contemporary fusion restaurant in The Reef casino complex pairs premium Queensland meats, ocean-fresh seafood and local sustainably farmed barramundi with punchy Asian condiments such as wasabi, ponzu and pickles. Tamarind is the place to sample homegrown heroes such as finger lime caviar, wild koah leaf, macadamia praline and native bee honey, perhaps as part of a multi-course tasting menu with expertly matched wines.

Prawn Star

The online reviews are spot on for this novel restaurant and fresh seafood store, located aboard a simple fishing trawler moored at Cairns’ Marlin Marina. Order the seafood platter - depending on what comprised the ‘Catch of the Day’, the multi-tiered platter could be piled high with juicy oysters, bugs, prawns, mud crabs or all of the above. Wash your meal down with ice-cold XXXX beer (what else?) and throw the shells to hungry fish waiting expectantly in the water around this funky little boat with a cheeky name. If the Prawn Star gets too busy, you can always buy something to take home and barbecue.

C’est Bon

Proudly adorned with a tricolour awning, this French restaurant is the real deal - the menu features classic Gallic fare yet the majority of ingredients and much of the wine list are true-blue Aussie. Start off with Black Angus beef tartar or succulent sautéed scallops, followed with duck leg confit or twice cooked pork belly. Be sure to leave room for dessert - C’est Bon’s sweets list will transport you straight to Paris, with all the national favourites from profiteroles and tarte tatin to crepes and crème brûlée.  


Cairns is well attuned to the needs of Japanese tourists so it’s no surprise one of our top picks specialises in authentic ramen, firm wheat noodles served in steaming broth. In the case of Ganbaranba, diners have the option of pork, chicken or seafood broth, topped with half a boiled egg, chopped scallions, sliced roast pork and a dash of fragrant garlic oil. Given the climate, there’s also a choice of cold noodles. If you still have room left in your stomach, try the mouth-watering pork and vegetable gyoza (homemade dumplings) - we guarantee the queues for a table at this tiny affordable restaurant are worth it.

Salsa Bar & Grill

This Port Douglas institution can count amongst its legion of satisfied customers former US President Bill Clinton and Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Nestled within a stately Queenslander overlooking Anzac Park, Salsa is all about casual glamour. Think flowery maxi dresses with jewelled flats for women, and collared shirts with tailored shorts for men. Oversized cocktails here come garnished with a generous slice of tropical fruit while the food is lip-smacking Euro-Asian fusion, with plenty of local Australian accents. Salsa is the kind of place, which attracts devotees, so be sure to book ahead, especially if you’re planning to drive up from Cairns.

Iron Bar

This rustic pub on Macrossan Street is a must even if just for an icy cold beer, because at 8pm every night, out come the cane toads - an introduced pest species in these parts. “Jockies” are chosen at random, and have to name their toads and give them a smooch before the races begin. It’s tacky, corny and just so much fun. The Iron Bar also has a dinner menu if you want to have a meal the racing action begins - with good honest pub grub including burgers, pasta, and steak.

Events in Cairns and Port Douglas

The events of Far North Queensland reflect its people’s passion for food, music, sport, and most importantly, fun. These are some of the biggest events held during the year:  

Cairns Children’s Festival

This annual event is always a big hit with families. Held in the Cairns Botanic Gardens and Tanks Arts Centre, the Cairns Children’s Festival offers hands-on workshops, dancing, art and entertainment aimed at children aged 4 to 12. Get lost in a maze, split your sides laughing at comedians, have your face painted and maybe even let your kids join in the festivities.  

Port Douglas Carnivale

With a tagline like “Party in Paradise”, you just know you have to be part of all the action. This multi-day celebration of all things Port Douglas kicks off with a street parade, followed by events such as sand sculpture and photography exhibitions, an al fresco long lunch under the palms, live music and theatre performances. In conjunction with Carnivale, many restaurants and tour operators offer great discounts or bonus add-ons so what are you waiting for? Book your Port Douglas getaway now!


Held at the Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal, ECOFiesta is all about the environment, with stalls showcasing innovative products for sustainable living. There are also plenty of local food vendors as well as games, live performers, musicians, and a program just for the little ones. This is a truly forward-thinking event that will have you pondering about your impact on the planet.

Cairns Festival

The name of this fabulous yearly party is self-explanatory. Expect a grand parade, fireworks, a giant bonfire night in Yorkeys Knob to commemorate Cairns’ sugar cane history and a sprawling market with buskers, art installations, movies, and activities where locals and visitors of all ages can come together to celebrate life in the Australian tropics.

So get the most out of your Cairns holiday by booking a quality rental car on DriveNow. We offer the best deals on cheap car rental in Cairns from the most respected car hire companies in Australia.