Filled with exotic fruits, tropical-tasting plates, and plenty of banter, Rusty’s Markets in Cairns is the cheapest way to taste the tropics.  It’s a real farmers market where local growers sell their produce and stallholders offer tastes of the unusual and unknown.

Be there early, and you might be able to follow some of North Queensland’s best chefs around as they collect highly prized ingredients for their restaurants.

Way back in 1975 when Rusty Rees started this food market in Cairns, he probably didn’t think it would still be there 45 years later. Now with over 180 stalls, it is a must-do for locals and visitors and the cheapest way to taste the tropics.  This is a place where you can stock up your pantry, update your wardrobe, and enjoy food from an international array of stalls.

Photo above: Kerry Heaney and Shelley Winkel enjoy a coconut shave treat at Rusty’s Markets, Cairns.

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Rusty’s Markets is the cheapest way to get a taste the tropics like this shaved coconut and fruit treat.

Take a local’s tips for Rusty’s Market

Cairns local Liz Inglis says you should get to the markets before 7am on a Friday and follow the chefs around. “I was chuffed one morning to discover I was shopping for Asian greens at the same stall as Nick Holloway from Nu Nu who was loading up a box of veg. My dinner plan was certain to be a success!

Liz’s favourite stall is Phillip’s Happy Tomatoes as he grows heirloom varieties of tomatoes, usually the Black Russian, as well as Italian zucchinis and low-acid eggplants. “I love the vegetarian arancini balls from Gyorgyi which come with three different sauces and a lavish serving of sauerkraut. I take a jar of sauerkraut home with me, and it rarely lasts the week. Next door is my favourite takeaway coffee stall, the Barista Sista. I always sip one on the way home.”

Joel Gordan, Crystalbrook Collection’s Area Manager, says he always starts his market trip with a stop-over at Annee’s Caphê Sua Da.

“Their Vietnamese iced coffee is second to none. The fresh green Asian vegetables from the tablelands are a staple for me, as well as the local avocados. We are lucky up here as avocados are always in season.”

Homegrown produce straight from the farm is what you’ll find at Rusty’s Market in Cairns.

Straight from the farm to market at Rusty’s Market in Cairns.

Love it like a local with a tour

Georgia Babatsikos runs Cairns Urban Walking Tours. Here Rusty’s Market Food Lover’s Tour gives visitors an insider’s scoop on the market’s best food with seven tastings.

She says Friday morning is definitely the time to find the freshest produce and best supply of everything at all food stalls. Some stallholders like, the vegan donuts stand, only attend on Fridays.

“My favourite stalls? Oh my, that is hard! It’s like saying who is your favourite child!” says Georgia. “All three coffee places at the market – Annees Caphe (Vietnamese iced coffee), Barista Sistas, and Billy’s) – are popular and excellent.

“I guess because I am so food-obsessed,  I appreciate the effort of world-class chefs cooking for me at such affordable prices. I would say chef Luca’s Italian arancini balls at Mamma Mia’s, chef Gyorgi’s Hungarian arancini balls, and Frenchie’s patisserie are all mind-blowing.

“The Hare Krishna spinach samosas and Cecil’s Sri Lankan goat or vegie samosas are amazing too. See, I couldn’t pick just one! Sugar cane juice and fresh coconut juice are great drinks to finish off with but start with a coffee!”

Of course, there are the fresh produce stallholders, who are of many nationalities, such as Italian, Hmong and Filipino. Many of these grown much of the food themselves. I always start my produce buying at Real Foods because it’s all local, organic or biodynamic, and picked within 72 hours of getting to markets. I work my way out from there.”

​Top traveller’s tips

When Australia’s top travel writers hit the town for their annual conference, Rusty’s Markets was one of the must-see destinations.

Here are some top tips from the Australian Society of Travel Writers members.

Amanda Kendle from Not a Ballerina  says she had been daydreaming about the pastry shop in Rusty’s Markets for days.

“I’d carefully noted it on my phone when it was highly recommended to me by the manager at Fitzroy Island. I finally got there mere hours before I was due to leave Cairns and although strictly speaking, I should have been eating lunch, I opted for an almond croissant because they looked amazing. It tasted even better!”

Carmen Jenner rates the French patisserie (I tried the chicken quiche) and the coffee stand opposite where she had one of the best coffees on her trip.

Amanda Kendle bought a packet of dried mango from a stall that faced the street (Sheridan St), and it was scrumptious.

Food writer Carla Grossetti says Rusty’s has ruined her in terms of farmers’ markets. She did her weekly shop there for years, and nothing else lives up to the promise.


Amanda Kendle’s dreams came true with this almond croissant.

​Top tips for Rusty’s Markets

  • Come with cash – a few stallholders take credit cards or EFTPOS but cash is preferred. There is an ATM at the entrance to the market
  • Bring your own bags! Yes, there are bags available but much better to bring your own
  • The same goes for a coffee cup!
  • Don’t worry about waste – food leftover on Sunday after the market closes is donated to OzHarvest for food rescue. Isn’t that nice!

Photo below: This little boy was so excited to recieve his healty treat of grated coconut and berries in the shell at Rusty’s Market.

Ed+bK’s top finds

I have visited Rusty’s Market many times over the years I have been travelling to Cairns and Tropical North Queensland. It never fails to inspire me with its fresh produce and unusual finds.

This time I spotted fresh tamarind pods and the Asian eggplants that are just perfect for my Thai Chicken Curry recipe.

I watch a little boy who was so excited with anticipation for his coconut treat. Made on the spot, it was a combination of grated coconut fresh from the shell with berries and a touch of honey. Shelley Winkel and I shared one because it looked so good.

Previously I have bought large bunches of exotic heliconia flowers at the market and somehow got them onto a plane to take home. This time I spied a smaller bunch but ran out of time to purchase.

My Thai friends found a stall selling their favourite food and praised the authentic flavour.

You never know what you will find at Rusty’s, but you can be sure it will be a fascinating wander.

​Asian eggplants perfect for my favourite Thai Green Chicken Curry at Rusty’s Market in Cairns.

Where is Rusty’s Markets

There are two entrances to Rusty’s Markets – one in Grafton Street and the other in Sheridan Street in the Cairns Central Business District between Shields and Spence Streets. Just ask a local for directions.

The market is undercover but not airconditioned. It opens at 5 am on Friday and Saturday and runs to 6pm. On Sunday it closes at 3pm.

Free parking for market visitors for two hours is available in the carpark above Rusty’s in Sheridan Street.


​My room at Riley, a new hotel by Crystalbrook in Cairns.

Where to stay in Cairns

Cairns has become an even more exciting destination with the opening of three new hotels from the Crystalbrook Collection.

The first to open is Riley where I stayed for the conference.  Each morning I woke to a beautiful water view (I slept with the curtains open) over the Cairns’ esplanade.

Riley’s décor was close to my heart with its beautiful, restful blues and grey cockatoo cushions on the king-sized bed.  The matching bathrobe is definitely something you should think about purchasing during your stay.

Good news for the earth! There are many good sustainability features incorporated into the hotel, from a hotel iPad compendium to paper hangers and water in paper cartons.

Disclaimer: Eat drink and be Kerry stayed at Riley while attending the Australian Society of Travel Writers Annual Conference.