The Great Barrier Reef is a natural attraction off the coast of Queensland. The two closest towns to visit the reef include Cairns and Port Douglas, incredible seaside towns that are very different.

Scuba Dive Great Barrier Reef

So, you want to see and explore the Great Barrier Reef but you are unsure if Cairns or Port Douglas is better?

Cairns is a vibrant city for travellers who want city vibes with more to do. Port Douglas is suited for those who want to relax and enjoy a tropical beach style holiday. Both cities will have access to the Great Barrier Reef via a tour with Cairns having more options available.

When it comes to choosing between the two cities, there are a few factors you should consider.

Access to the reef

Luckily for you, both Cairns and Port Douglas have easy access to explore the Great Barrier Reef, so you won’t have any trouble there.

Both towns offer different reef experience tours for you to book. Cairns has a tour of action packed tours with countless amounts of catamarans heading out to individual reefs to snorkel or dive. From Cairns, you will typically visit reefs like Breaking Patches, Hasting Reef, and Moore Reef.

Port Douglas does offer more laid back tour experiences with not as many tours that head out to the reef. For those of you looking to see larger coral and fish species without the time it takes to experience them from Cairns, then Port Douglas is the best option!

Great Barrier Reef

How you want to spend your time outside of the reef

Of course, you’re not going to spend your whole adventure submerged in the reef. It’s important to consider how you want to enjoy your downtime when you’re not out seeing the colourful coral and sea species that cruise beneath the sea.

As we said, Cairns is a buzzing city destination, where travellers flock from all over the world to get out to the reef and have a little party in between. If that is not entirely your vibe, you can do some shopping and eat some delicious food along the Esplanade.

Port Douglas is known for being renowned for how uber chilled it is. Here there is a tranquil vibe and plenty of lush vegetation to enjoy when you can’t be setting sail to the reef! That is not to say Port Douglas doesn’t like a party, but they are fewer and harder to find than in crazy Cairns!

The choice is yours, would you rather have more things to do and go out partying or would you prefer a tropical holiday style trip?


Naturally, this means accommodation varies greatly between the two towns. Cairns offers countless options to suit all budgets whilst Port Douglas has more luxury accommodation.

But this doesn’t mean you can’t find awesome Port Douglas hostel accommodation! But here the resorts and stunning homestays are just a little more plentiful.

In Carins, good accommodation options include Oaks Cairns Hotel, The Sebel Cairns Harbour Lights, or Global Backpackers Cairns for something more affordable.

If you plan to stay in Port Douglas, some places to spend your time there include By The Sea Port Douglas, Dougies Backpackers Resort, and Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort. If you do want to go luxury, we recommend the Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort! But if you are on a tight budget, Dougies Backpackers Resort could be more suitable.

In general, Cairns has a lot more tour options for the Great Barrier Reef compared to Port Douglas. But Port Douglas is more of a laid-back paradise vibe while Cairns is a mix of everything with shopping, beaches, and a city vibe. So, it is totally up to you what you want to pick between the two cities, either way, you will have the chance to visit the Great Barrier Reef.

Related article: 6 Best Things To Do in Cairns

Explore Our Cairns Tours

Cameron Ward
Cameron Ward
Managing Director at Sightseeing Tours Australia

Cameron Ward began with a passion for travel and turned it into a thriving tourism business. He co-founded Sightseeing Tours Australia after starting out as a tour guide in Melbourne. Cameron delights in helping visitors get the most from their trip to Australia. Whether he's leading tours or writing about his favourite places, Cameron loves sharing his local insight with fellow travellers.

Previous article: