Darwin is a destination that can be anything you want it to be: adventurer's playground; foodie's delight; history buff's haven; nature lover's paradise. Local writer Nannette Holliday checks in with a list of the ten top experiences to tick off.
While Darwin is one of Australia’s eight capital cities, don’t expect it to be anything like Sydney or Melbourne.
The population of the Northern Territory capital is around 120,000 — about the same as the number of crocodiles that reportedly live in the surrounding harbour. This city is unique. It’s more like an outback country town with coastal aspects, and juxtaposes untouched natural wonders, thousands of years of Indigenous culture, and warm weather all year round (which is especially enjoyable during the cold winter months in the southern states). There’s a fantastic array of activities on offer, but if not appropriately planned, it’s easy to miss some of the true gems.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Darwin on a first visit.
Watch our video of the top things to do in Darwin:
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…
1. See a crocodile
Crocodiles are a significant part of life in Australia’s Top End and seeing them up-close is a must-do during your visit to Darwin. For those with limited time, you can encounter saltwater and freshwater crocodiles of all sizes at Crocosaurus Cove, located right in the heart of the CBD. Hold small crocodiles, feed young ones, and best of all (if you’re game) — take part in the Cage of Death experience. Being lowered into a mammoth saltwater crocodile’s watery home in a Perspex cylinder and watching as he sizes you up for his next meal is the closest you’ll get to these incredible animals and live to tell the tale!
However, there’s nothing like seeing a crocodile in the wild. While plenty of day tours are available, one of the best is with Wallaroo Tours. You’ll meet Pat — a real live Croc Dundee, who was born and bred on the Adelaide River. He explains all about these magnificent animals as they are lured alongside his small 20-seater boat with bait.
2. Learn about Darwin’s wartime history
Few visitors to the city are aware that Darwin was bombed by the Japanese during World War II, not once, but 64 times from February 1942 to late November 1943. To learn more, visit the Royal Flying Doctor Service Tourist Facility at Stokes Hill Wharf. It shares the history of the RFDS, but also offers a comprehensive virtual reality experience of the bombing of Darwin by Japanese forces on 19 February 1942, along with life-size hologram accounts from various military personal of the time.
Nearby on Kitchener Drive (behind the Waterfront Precinct), you can walk through the WWII Oil Storage Tunnels. They were built to replace the naval bunker oil tanks at Stokes Hill that were destroyed in the first air raids.
Along the walking path that wraps around the Cenotaph in Bicentennial Park, you’ll find plaques commemorating every military unit that has served in the Northern Territory. Further down the path there’s a memorial to the USS Peary, which was sunk on that fateful day in 1942. The monument is aligned with where the destroyer still lies at the bottom of Darwin Harbour.
The Darwin Military Museum at East Point Reserve offers a broader aspect of the region’s WWII heritage. There are films and various pieces of military equipment on display.
There’s much more to Darwin than just its military history, and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) at Bullocky Point is the best place to discover it all. Entry is free. Listen and learn from those who survived the effects of Cyclone Tracy in 1974, see Sweetheart — the infamous crocodile that devoured the outboard motors of the local fishermen — and view a vast collection of Aboriginal artefacts. Relax afterwards in the onsite café overlooking Fannie Bay.
Built on the site of the old Post Office and opened in 1994, the Northern Territory’s Parliament House is often referred to as ‘the wedding cake’, and when viewed from the harbour it’s clear why. The architecture is actually representational of the tropical setting and Darwin’s older historical buildings. There are free self-guided tour booklets in the foyer; however, if you have the time, I highly recommend doing the free guided tour every Wednesday from 10.30am (from February to November). Arrive early as places are limited.
The building also houses the ‘Northern Territory Collection’ in the Northern Territory Library. One wall is dedicated to those who lost their lives when the old Post Office was destroyed by the bombing in 1942, and many other historical documents and photographs are on display around the walls of the Main Hall.
The Chinese have played a huge role in Darwin’s history. While they came to build the railway, they stayed for the gold rush in Pine Creek and remained afterwards. Today, their Lion Dance opens the Northern Territory Parliament every February. The Chinese Temple in Woods Street was built in 1887 and rebuilt in 1977 after Cyclone Tracy. The temple is used for daily worship and is free to visit. The Chung Wah Society’s NT Chinese Museum next door offers insights into local life and culture.
Featured in the recent Australian movie Top End Wedding, the islands are located 80 kilometres north of Darwin (a 2.5-hour ferry ride from Cullen Bay). An Indigenous guide will introduce you to the local community, who share songs, dances and art-making techniques with visitors. Shop for vibrant paintings, screen-printed artworks and wood carvings. You’ll even get a chance to create your own masterpiece to take home. Lunch and a museum visit are included.
With Darwin’s multicultural population and close proximity to Asia, markets are a key part of the city’s cosmopolitan lifestyle. The famous Mindil Beach Sunset Markets operate every Thursday and Sunday from 4pm during the dry season (the end of April to the end of October). There are over 300 stalls and plenty of international cuisines on offer. Making up your mind what to feast on while watching the big red orb sink into the azure Timor Sea can be difficult!
In contrast, the Parap Village Markets — held every Saturday from 8am to 2pm — are a ‘locals’ market’. There are great fruit and veggie stalls, art and crafts sellers, and the surrounding shops and cafes to enjoy. Mix with local shoppers over a coffee and a famous ‘Mary’s laksa’ breakfast or progressive brunch.
6. Splash down at the Waterfront
Darwin is renowned for its casual, relaxed lifestyle and while the sandy beaches, sea and waterways look inviting, they are home to crocodiles and stingers. Apart from your hotel swimming pool, the Waterfront Precinct is the only safe place to enjoy the water. It’s a mecca for tourists and locals alike, with something for everyone in every age group. Body surf at the Wave Lagoon (highest wave is 1.7 metres), laze by the Recreation Lagoon pool and beach, test your skills on the watercourse or partake in a free game of basketball or beach volleyball on the professional courts. Sit on the lawns under the shady trees and soak up the views, enjoy an ice cream or meal at the many surrounding cafes and restaurants, or shop for the perfect souvenir.
7. Dine at sunset
You’re never short of choices for places to eat and drink in Darwin, and everything tastes better when it’s accompanied by one of the city’s famous sunsets. You have to eat at Stokes Hill Wharf at least once during your stay. It has fabulous seafood (and crocodile at Crustaceans!), along with stunning harbour and sunset views.
The perfect way to finish any tropical Darwin day is with a sunset cruise. It provides a completely different perspective of the city. Fully licensed Darwin Harbour Cruises offers a 2.5-hour cruise only option, or cruise and buffet dinner on a large tri-decked boat. The two-level fully licensed catamaran Spirit of Darwin offers a 2.5-hour cruise with canapes or a buffet dinner. Cape Adieu is a smaller two-level ketch, but you can still walk around the decks easily. They offer a cruise only option, or a cruise, seafood and steak dinner package from April to October. Drinks can be purchased, or you can bring your own and pay corkage.
For something a bit different, Sea Darwin runs a 90-minute cruise in a small seated, canopied run-around. It pulls ashore on Cullen Bay to pick up fish and chips, which you enjoy with the sunset as you head back to the wharf.
8. Catch an outdoor flick
Another popular dry-season Darwin pursuit is watching a cinema classic, foreign film or latest release under the clear starry sky at the Deckchair Cinema. Operated by the Darwin Film Society, the cinema overlooks Darwin Harbour between the Waterfront and Esplanade. It opens every evening from 6pm. A light dinner and drinks are available.
9. Get the adrenalin pumping
If all this sounds a bit too easy going, don’t worry, there’s plenty for adrenaline junkies to do in Darwin as well. Top End Tandems offers solo and tandem skydives from Darwin airport, which land on a local beach. Alternatively, Skydive Territory operates from Batchelor Airfield near Litchfield National Park.
You can turbo charge your time in the city on a one-hour ride with Darwin Airboat Tours around Darwin Harbour. Zip across mudflats and through coastal mangroves, spotting crocodiles, huge barramundi and myriad birdlife. There are daily departures from Stokes Hill Wharf. Times vary according to the tides.
You should spend at least one day (or more if you have the time) exploring further afield in the Top End’s fabulous natural backyard. Number one on everyone’s list is Litchfield National Park because you can swim in the cool, crocodile-free swimming holes beneath plunging waterfalls. While it’s only a 90-minute trip from Darwin, by driving yourself you can miss many of the region’s highlights. Wallaroo Tours offers a year-round day tour, which includes a private crocodile cruise on the Adelaide River, a visit to the magnetic and cathedral termite mounds, swimming at Wangi and Florence Falls, a buffet lunch, and prawns and bubbles at sunset overlooking Fannie Bay.
Also 90-minutes’ drive from Darwin, a Corroboree Billabong Wetland Cruise offers a very similar experience to the Yellow Water Cruise at Cooinda in Kakadu National Park, but is much closer to the city. Part of the Mary River National Park, a 2.5-hour cruise through this sublime eco-system is a nature-lover’s delight. See crocodiles aplenty, stunning scenery, and prolific birdlife — from tiny jacanas on the lotus lilies, to jabirus, brolgas, ibis, sea eagles and more. Lunch on the billabong is included.
Nannette Holliday was obviously born to travel — Holliday is her real name. A former TV and radio presenter, Nannette’s globetrotting has earned her the nickname ‘International Woman of Mystery’ amongst friends, while also providing a rich library of experiences to draw on creatively. Many are woven into her first novel: The Sting of Fate, and Nannette is currently working on the sequel. When she’s not drafting chapters for herself, Nannette writes for a variety of magazines, and even ghostwrites books for other people. It all helps keep her in the manner she has become accustomed to — indulging in world travel, fine food and great wine!