There are two things that hit you as you arrive at Darwin’s bustling airport — the heat and the relaxed vibe.
The dress code is strictly boardies, Havianas and Akubra-style hats and straight away you can feel that southern stress melting away. Welcome to the Aussie city that’s closer to Bali than it is to any of Australia’s other key urban centres. As such, you’ll find things are done a little differently in this remote part of Oz.
Welcome to The Big Bus tour and travel guide’s YouTube channel. Only got a couple of days to get to know the city of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory…
Best times to visit Darwin
Darwin’s psyche is defined largely by its isolation and the weather. There are two main seasons — the Wet and the Dry. The Dry offers low humidity, and the months of May through September are characterised by warm days and balmy nights. This is considered peak season and grey nomads hightail it to the region in droves.
On the flipside, the Wet can be pretty spectacular with its monsoonal thunderstorms. December to March are the wettest months and while it’s hot and humid, you’re likely to pick up a great deal on your hotel. Whatever time of the year you choose to visit, Darwin will undoubtedly charm the long pants right off you.
Darwin is a compact city and easy to navigate on foot. Many of the city’s cultural offerings are located in and around the city centre.
At some point you’ll certainly find yourself on Mitchell Street, party central for the city’s large population of backpackers and seasonal workers. Bars, restaurants and hostels line the street, and the revelry continues well into the night — every night. It’s probably not the ideal location if you’re looking for a quiet spot to stay.
At one end of the cultural scale, it’s here at Crocosaurus Cove that you’ll get your first close encounter with the Top End’s most feared local — the saltwater crocodile — which often graces the front cover of the NT News. Crocosaurus Cove offers a variety of ways to engage with the resident ‘salties’, including the behind-the-scenes Big Croc Feed Experience, and the Cage of Death — which literally submerges you with 1,000 kilograms of hungry croc at feeding time.
You can dig deeper into the Top End’s rich Aboriginal cultural heritage on a guided day tour from Darwin to West Arnhem Land. It’s a four-hour drive via the township of Jabiru in Kakadu to the Indigenous township of Gunbalanya and the fascinating Injalak Arts and Crafts centre. Here you’ll learn more about the role art plays in traditional Aboriginal life, then join a guided walk to a number of sacred rock art sites with one of the co-op’s artists. Paintings date from as recently as the mid 20th century, back an estimated 20,000 years.
Darwin for history lovers
Step back in time on a self-guided stroll to some of Darwin’s must-see heritage sights.
Start on Smith Street at the preserved ruins of the Palmerston Town Hall. Darwin was established in 1869 and was originally known as Palmerston. The Palmerston Town Hall was built in 1883, but almost 100 years later on December 25, 1974 it couldn’t withstand the might of Cyclone Tracy. The cyclone claimed 71 lives and flattened most of the city.
To get a handle on what Darwin was like before and immediately after the cyclone, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory has a comprehensive and moving Cyclone Tracy display. Included is a mock-up of the Burnett-style house which characterised pre-war Darwin. Most of these houses did not survive the cyclone. Corrugated iron (the villain of the piece) and a steel telegraph pole bent double by the force of the cyclone provide a chilling setting.
Back to our self-guided tour. Head past the Christ Church Cathedral, which also bears the scars of Tracy. Only the historic porch, built in 1944, remained after the storm. Turn right onto the Esplanade towards Government House, which dates back to 1870. It’s the oldest surviving building in the Territory. Outside, there’s a plaque commemorating the victims of the bombing of Darwin by Japanese forces on February 19, 1942. Two hundred and thirty-five service personnel and civilians died in the WWII attack.
Those wanting to learn more about the bombing should head for the excellent Darwin Military Museum. Political and popular views of the time, anecdotes, artefacts, photographs and film are expertly woven together to tell this not-so-well-known story. The museum is built on the ruins of military fortifications at East Point — an eight-minute drive around Fanny Bay from the city centre.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service Darwin Tourist Facility also shares the story of the bombing of Darwin, along with the history of the Royal Flying Doctor Service — which launched in the Territory in 1939. There are hologram characters to meet and you can climb on board a former RFDS Pilatus PC-12 aircraft. The deadly bombing in 1942 saw nine ships in the harbour (and two outside) destroyed. The virtual reality presentation on the Japanese attack is absolutely gripping. You’ll find the facility out on Stokes Hill Wharf (behind the Waterfront precinct).
From Government House, turn down onto Kitchener Drive to the entrance of the World War II Oil Storage Tunnels. Construction began on the tunnel network after the initial bombing of Darwin, with the aim of protecting oil supplies from further attack.
Great places to eat in Darwin
The Northern Territory capital’s culinary scene may come as the biggest surprise of your visit, and no Darwin travel guide would be complete without some recommendations for top places to eat.
Housed in the former loading dock of a Woolworths supermarket, Little Miss Korea is an absolute must-try. This innovative eatery offers Korean BBQ or an a la carte menu in a sleek industrial setting. Try the tempura prawns and superb slow roasted beef cheek, and grab a copy of proprietor Chung Jae Lee’s cookbook on the way out.
Down on the fabulous Darwin Waterfront (more on that in a moment) Wharf One Food and Wine is the spot to push the boat out on a special occasion — but hey, who needs an excuse? With its wood grill and emphasis on seasonal local produce, this stylish eatery does modern Oz with all the trimmings. The gin-cured salmon and the wood-fired king prawns are highlights.
Still on the Waterfront, the Oyster Bar pairs the best Aussie oysters with a superb outlook, while The Precinct offers pub grub and a great selection of craft beers.
Enjoy the very best of Top End produce in an exceptional setting at Pee Wee’s at the Point — located in the picturesque East Point Nature Reserve with sweeping views across Fannie Bay. The sunset vistas from here are spectacular. Pee Wee’s offers al fresco dining overlooking the bay and impeccable service. Choose from a menu of Modern Oz with a focus on locally-sourced produce, including local wild caught saltwater Barramundi, banana prawns, buffalo cheese, crocodile and the list goes on.
Café culture is alive and well in Darwin. The RabbitHole on The Mall is a breakfast bolt-hole that’s not to be missed. Also try Four Birds, which has a courtyard possie just off The Mall.
Where to shop in Darwin
Street food is undoubtedly the main attraction at Darwin’s Mindil Beach Sunset Market, which operates Thursdays and Sundays during the Dry.
But there’s also a healthy showing of local arts and crafts on offer, and the relaxed vibe and local characters make a visit to the market a must during your visit. Grab a tub of tucker and head to the beach to watch the incredible sunset.
Commercial pearling in the waters of the Top End dates back to 1884, but by the mid 20th century wild stocks were all but depleted. These days all pearls are farmed. Paspaley dominates the industry and there are some interesting historical interpretive boards on display in their opulent city showroom.
For those who can’t make it out to Injalak (you can shop online), there are plenty of options around town for purchasing a piece of Indigenous art. The not-for-profit Aboriginal Bush Traders works to support Indigenous artists to commercialise their art and cultural wares in a sustainable way. Run by the Ironbark Aboriginal Corporation, the shop sells a wide range of Aboriginal arts and crafts and all proceeds are invested in a range of Indigenous community programs. There’s an excellent café on site, which not only serves great coffee but also a menu of bushfood-inspired treats. The centre is housed in historic Lyon’s Cottage on the Esplanade — two-minute walk from the centre of town.
Ways to relax in Darwin
There are plenty of things to do in Darwin that will leave you feeling relaxed and revitalised.
Firstly, head for the aforementioned Darwin Waterfront precinct, the city’s premier recreational facility. The Wave Lagoon is understandably popular with families, while the lawns around the saltwater Recreation Lagoon are the perfect spot for a sunny snooze.
Darwin Harbour Cruises provides a range of cruise options on the tranquil waters of Darwin Harbour on board the tri-level catamaran Charles Darwin. Enjoy a sunset buffet dinner cruise, with commentary on historic points of interest — including the Emery Point lighthouse located at Larrakeyah Barracks. The current lighthouse (which replaced an even earlier version) was installed in 1915 and remains active to this very day.
The George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens offers access to 42 hectares of verdant vegetation, crisscrossed by well-maintained paths, bridges and water features. One of the best ways to explore is by Segway. Climb on board with Segway Tours NT for a one-hour guided tour, then make your way to local institution Eva’s Café for high tea on the lawn by the fountain (pre-booking is essential).
Darwin also offers convenient access to some of the Top End’s most stunning natural landscapes. At 90 minutes’ drive from the city, a day tour to swim beneath the waterfalls in Litchfield National Park is a popular option. World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park is around three hours’ drive from Darwin. Kakadu can be done as a day tour, but requires a two or three day stay to really do it justice.
With city pick-up and drop-off included, a wetland boat cruise on the magnificent Corroboree Billabong makes an easy day trip. Located 90 minutes’ drive east of Darwin, Corroboree is home to hundreds of species of bird life, alongside saltwater and freshwater crocodiles.
The charming DoubleTree By Hilton Hotel Esplanade Darwin makes the perfect base from which to explore everything Darwin has to offer. DoubleTree’s signature complimentary cookie on arrival is a simple but sweet treat that will set the tone for the rest of your stay. The hotel’s 197 guest rooms and suites have recently undergone a refurbishment and are finished in neutral tones. Our suite featured stylish furnishings, great views and the irresistible Sweet Dreams by DoubleTree bed. The Nespresso coffee machine is a nice touch, and you can enjoy a morning brew before venturing out to explore.
DoubleTree by Hilton Esplanade Darwin is centrally located on the picturesque Esplanade. Everything that the city centre has to offer is within walking distance. Highlights include the Mitchell Street restaurant and bar precinct, Crocosaurus Cove, various heritage landmarks including Government House, and the Waterfront precinct with its popular wave pool. For another opportunity to cool off, head back to the hotel’s resort style in-ground pool — the largest in the CBD.
End your day at DoubleTree by Hilton Esplanade Darwin’s Aqua Restaurant and choose from a menu of local specialities. There are regular dining specials offered.
Adina Apartment Hotel Darwin Waterfront
Located just a 10-minute stroll from the heart of the city centre, the Adina Apartment Hotel Darwin Waterfront offers contemporary accommodation in one of the city’s most relaxed locations. The studio and one bedroom apartments offer extra space and kitchen facilities.
Access the superb recreational amenities of the Darwin Waterfront precinct, along with a dynamic dining and café scene. It’s all on your doorstep.
Oaks Elan Darwin
With its prime position on the edge of the CBD, Oaks Elan Darwin offers stylish hotel and apartment-style accommodation. The two bedroom/two bathroom apartments are stunning. The clean lines and sophisticated styling make this an ideal place to stay for the discerning traveller.
There’s an outdoor lap pool and gym. The hotel’s on-site eatery Seoul Food serves modern Korean fare.
The writer travelled as a guest of DoubleTree By Hilton Hotel Esplanade Darwin, Adina Apartment Hotel Darwin Waterfront and Oaks Elan Darwin.
Do you have any tips to add to our Darwin travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Remember to be ‘croc-wise’ wherever you choose to swim in the Top End. Obey all safety signs and directions.
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.