Alice Springs will forever occupy a special place in the hearts of all who visit.
The city may look low key at first glance, but be warned — it’s addictive — and you’re likely to hear tales from ‘locals’ time and time again of how they arrived here on holiday and never left. Immortalised in Nevil Shute’s novel A Town Like Alice and the cult Aussie film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the unofficial capital and spiritual heart of the Red Centre will delight, challenge and amaze as you chart your way around an endearingly rough and cheerfully ready piece of Oz.
Note: For those expecting to find Uluru on Alice’s doorstep, it’s actually a 4.5-hour drive to the rock. But don’t despair; there’s no end of stunning natural landscapes to experience within closer proximity, including Simpsons Gap, Emily and Jessie Gaps, Ellery Creek Big Hole and Rainbow Valley to name just a few.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Alice Springs.
Watch our video of the top things to do in Alice Springs:
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Situated at the northern end of town, Anzac Hill is a great place to get your bearings on arrival in Alice and a particularly popular spot at sunset. From this vantage point you’ll enjoy sweeping views across the compact city centre towards the age-old East MacDonnell Ranges. There’s a monument on the hilltop dedicated to all those who have served in the defence of their country.
It’s not hard to be humbled by the sheer ancientness of the Red Centre, and those interested in learning about the natural history of the region should drop by the excellent Museum of Central Australia in the Araluen Cultural Precinct. It’s packed with bones, butterflies and even bits of meteorites. Give yourself two or three hours to do the collection justice.
The region’s European history began at the rustic Alice Springs Telegraph Station, which is located four kilometres north of town. While the area had been charted by explorers some ten years earlier, it was the completion of the overland telegraph line from Adelaide to the Top End in 1872 that saw the establishment of the station and a permanent settlement (then known as Stuart). Today the site has a collection of original buildings to explore, an interpretive exhibition, and a great little café.
There are myriad opportunities to connect with the heritage and culture of the Eastern and Central Arrernte first people during your stay in Alice Springs. Albert Namatjira is a name many Australians will be familiar with. The artist lived and worked in Central Australia in the first half of the 20th century, and is cited as the father of the modern Indigenous art movement. Several of Namatjira’s beautiful realist watercolours are on display at the Albert Namatjira Gallery in the Araluen Cultural Precinct.
To see fabulous examples of Central and Western Desert dot painting, but also engaging town camp scenes and figurative works, visit the Aboriginal-owned, not-for-profit Tangentyere Artists Centre. It represents around 400 Indigenous artists and is open to the public on Saturdays. Work purchased from the centre directly benefits the artist, their extended family, and the wider community.
Fibre art is another important form of Indigenous cultural expression. Tjanpi Desert Weavers is a not-for-profit social enterprise that represents hundreds of Aboriginal grass weavers from 26 remote communities. Their work is available for purchase at Tjanpi’s gallery in Wilkinson Street.
An understanding of the ‘tyranny of distance’ is something every visitor to Alice Springs will come to possess, particularly following a visit to the Royal Flying Doctor Service Tourist Facility. The iconic Aussie institution began in 1928 with just one doctor and one pilot from the fledgling Queensland and Northern Territory Air Service (QANTAS) and went on to conquer the vast outback, in terms of providing emergency medical assistance. See the original Alice Springs radio room (which opened in 1939), along with a range of other memorabilia. Entry proceeds aid the continuing work of the service.
Alice Springs may feel like it’s a million miles from anywhere, but you’ll still find the usual array of Aussie retailers around town. For a more organic shopping experience, time your visit to coincide with the fabulous Todd Mall Markets. From crocheted cushion covers to Himalayan head scarves, you name it, you can probably find it here. Check the market’s website for a list of upcoming dates.
While a holiday in Alice Springs can be action-packed, there are plenty of opportunities for quiet time as well. You have to experience the gentle stillness of the Red Centre just before dawn at least once during your stay. Outback Ballooning provides a ringside seat as the rising sun slowly ignites the rich red hues of the surrounding landscape. If you’ve never taken a hot air balloon flight, this is without doubt the place to do it.
It may look like a harsh and unforgiving environment, but the desert is actually teeming with life. Learn about the plants and animals that call it home at the Alice Springs Desert Park, which offers an array of family-friendly activities, guided walks and animal presentations. Highlights include the free flying bird show and the wonderful Nocturnal House, where you’ll catch a glimpse of native critters who generally prefer to remain unseen.
Thousands of camels were brought to the outback in the 19th century for transport, and they played a key role in the exploration and opening up of Australia’s vast interior. Pyndan Camel Tracks is located just outside Alice Springs and offers relaxing one-hour afternoon and sunset safaris on board these hardy ‘ships of the desert’.
One of the great joys of spending time away from Australia’s light polluting large cities is the much more vivid night sky. Pick out the planets and key constellations with the help of the expert team at Earth Sanctuary. Their observatory is situated on a sand dune 15 minutes’ drive south of town, and an astronomy tour operates most nights of the week.
The upscale Crowne Plaza Alice Springs Lasseters offers contemporary accommodation and oodles of amenities right at the foot of the majestic MacDonnell Ranges. There are four restaurants at the hotel, along with several bars, a heated outdoor pool and pool-side cafe, nightclub and casino. The newly refurbished split level premium suites have two bedrooms and are perfect for families.
Located adjacent to Lasseters, Doubletree by Hilton is another of Alice Springs’ premier accommodation options. The King Junior Suites are 60 square metres in size, and feature a separate living room and king bedroom with panoramic views of the MacDonnell Ranges. The hotel has a central swimming pool and onsite dining facilities.
Adam travelled as a guest of Northern Territory Convention Bureau.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Alice Springs? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
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.