So you have started to plan your itinerary for your trip to Australia, but you have to make choices. Visiting Cairns or Brisbane is a common dilemma.
The two most famous Queensland cities don’t have much in common, so it can be hard to compare them and make a choice. But my experience should help you make the decision to visit Cairns or Brisbane. I’ve been living in Brisbane for many years and organised three trips to Cairns.
Is it worth visiting Cairns or Brisbane?
I’ve written full articles about it:
Long story short, I’m not a fan of these two cities, but I love the region around them. In my opinion, both places are worth visiting only if you have the time and the budget to go outside the city. I can find a few reasons why some travellers should visit Brisbane rather than Cairns. However, I’d recommend Cairns rather than Brisbane for nature lovers.
But if you won’t have at least two full days there, you may want to consider staying longer in one of the other destinations on your list.
Responsible travel tip: Staying longer at a destination can help reduce your number of flights and your carbon footprint.
Do you want to visit a relaxed, sub-tropical city?
If you like the idea of visiting a city, having many restaurants and bars with different vibes to choose from, blending in with locals, seeing high-rise buildings with a touch of tropical and relaxed lifestyle and going shopping, then go to Brisbane. You won’t find many cities that have outdoor pools with a beach and natural cliffs to climb in front of their CBD. Brisbane’s climate is amazing almost all year round (it does get hot and sticky in summer), so the city has many outdoor attractions.
Cairns is a small city next to the ocean that is mostly developed for tourism. It’s nice up there, but I wouldn’t say Cairns is a city to experience.
Do you want to go surfing or swim at the beach?
Then, Brisbane wins the tie again. With the Gold Coast (and Surfers Paradise) in the south and the Sunshine Coast (and the stunning Noosa) in the north, you’ll find many reputed surf spots and even more stunning beaches.
Unfortunately, the beaches in the Cairns region aren’t that great for swimming. From November to May, there are very dangerous jellyfish up there. And saltwater crocodiles can lure all year round. A few beaches have enclosures so you can swim safely, but most of the time you’ll be hot wanting to have a swim facing a sign telling you not to.
Cairns or Brisbane: why I’d recommend visiting Cairns – especially for nature lovers
If you’re hesitating about visiting Cairns or Brisbane, it’s likely that you already explored other cities in Australia. Although Brisbane’s reputed relaxed lifestyle is nice to see, in my opinion, it’s not a new experience that will blow your mind. However, a few experiences in Cairns are quite unique with a wow factor.
If you like nature but are not an adventurer, then Cairns is a better choice than Brisbane
Both Brisbane and Cairns regions are fantastic for nature lovers with many scuba diving opportunities and stunning rainforests.
The big difference is that Cairns is made for tourists and nature is at its doorstep.
So if you like when things are simple to organise and don’t enjoy too much being off the beaten path, you’ll have a better time in Cairns.
You can explore more places in a limited time in Cairns than in Brisbane.
All the best places to be in nature in the Brisbane region are at least one hour away from the city. Except on Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island) where there are a lot of different nature-based activities to do in one location, you’ll have to travel a bit between the different places in the Brisbane region. It’s nothing too hard, but it’s not ideal if your time is limited.
In Cairns, you’ll find one-of-a-kind attractions just outside the city, such as Skyrail*, Rainforestation* and Kuranda Railway* for example. Plus, they’re next to each other so it’s very easy to maximise your itinerary or join a tour* that will take you to many places at once.
The rainforest near Cairns is special
You’ll find the rainforest at Brisbane’s doorstep (Springbrook National Park, Lamington National Park…). Although I love hiking there, I found that visiting the rainforest near Cairns was more memorable.
You can go for a day trip to explore the Daintree forest, a world-heritage-listed national park. The information centre and the tours available up there are fantastic to learn about this special environment.
If you’re lucky, you may even spot a cassowary. We went all the way to Cape Tribulation hoping to find one but got unlucky. But we saw one in Mission Beach (2 hours south of Cairns).
Snorkelling is easier in Cairns than in Brisbane
I love scuba diving from both Cairns or Brisbane. Cairns is reputed for the Great Barrier Reef. But there are also many amazing scuba diving spots accessible as a day trip from Brisbane, to see the beautiful grey nurse sharks in winter, the manta rays in summer, and often a few turtles on the way, for example.
But for snorkelling, Cairns is a lot better than Brisbane. There are more opportunities to go snorkelling, and it’s their speciality. Many tourists go on their first snorkelling trip ever from Cairns. They accommodate trips for any level and bring people to shallow sites for a stunning experience. Trips go out daily.
Responsible travel tip: When choosing a tour to the Great Barrier Reef, go with a “high standard tourism operators“. These operators are recognised by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for maintaining a consistently high standard in the region with many ecological and social commitments. They have been independently certified by a certification program recognised by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC).
Snorkelling near Brisbane is a lot harder to organise. The most famous spot is Moreton Island with its Tangalooma Wrecks. But it isn’t as good as the Great Barrier Reef. Flinders Reef can be good too, but tours are hard to find. You’ll find other opportunities for snorkelling further south near the Gold Coast (Cook Island), but you’ll have to drive there and it’s nowhere as good as the Great Barrier Reef.
You’ll find many more tours in Cairns to fit your envies and travel style.
Although there are tours leaving from Brisbane* to explore the beautiful nearby region, you won’t have as many choices as in Cairns.
In Cairns, it’s easy to find a tour that goes to all the places you want to see. You’ll often be able to choose between a more luxurious comfortable tour or a cheaper one for backpackers. Tour durations vary a lot too so that you can easily pick one that suits your travel plans.