The first European explorer to land at what is now Cairns was Captain James Cook (although some claim that Dutch explorers actually reached the area first about a hundred and seventy years before Cook). Northern Queensland was a harsh climate that white explorers did not find easy to adapt to, unlike the Aboriginal tribes who had lived there for hundreds of years, having learned to work with the climate and environment.

It took another hundred years before there became an actual white settlement took hold in the area because of the inhospitable environment, the wet season, disease and dangerous animals like crocs. At this time, clashes between the Aboriginal tribes and the white settlers hit violent levels, with the white settlers basically taking over and demanding that the Aborigines adapt to their cultures and customs. The animosity between the two groups still exists today in Australia, although it is nowhere near as violent or angry.

Cairns was named after Queensland's first Irish-born governor, Sir William Wellington Cairns and the first street to be surveyed was the Esplanade. Northern Queensland played an important role in World War II, as the allied forces (including the U.S.) were stationed in the area and it served as a supple center for the Pacific fleet. After the war, tourist interest grew in the area, especially the Great Barrier Reef and a major international airport opened in 1984 to help with the demand, and this in turn made Cairns the city that it is today.