Our Northern Territory Travel Guide is designed as a starting point for planning your visit to the Australian outback. We cover the basics you need to plan a trip to Darwin, Uluru and all the other main towns of this magical part of the world.
Learn about the worlds oldest culture while visiting Australia’s ancient red centre. Experience the waterfalls of Kakadu and Litchfield and uncover some of the classic desert bushwalks in Katherine and the McDonnell Ranges. Be sure to add a short stay in Darwin to learn about the Territory’s history and to meet the local crocodiles!
At 1600km from top to bottom, if the Northern Territory were its own country, it would be the 20th largest in the world!
Why visit Northern Territory
At almost 1.5 million square kilometres you will be pleased to know that the main sites in the Northern Territory, aka the NT, Australia’s third-biggest state, are centred around four regions.
There are many reasons to visit, among them:
- The awe-inspiring UNESCO sites at Uluru, Kuta Tjuta and Kakadu
- A culture dating back more than 40,000 years
- 24 National Parks and over 70 conservation areas
- Offbeat cultural/sporting events like the Beer Can Regatta in Darwin and the Camel Cup in Alice Springs
- Cruise or kayak Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge
The Regions of the Northern Territory (NT)
Unless you have a month or more to explore, you will likely only visit one or two of these regions on any trip. The state has so much to offer it’s a good idea to get a lay of the land, see where the visitor hotspots are.
The NT is divided into seven regions, we have listed the main sites in each place just in case you are not exactly sure where everything is.
Darwin & Surrounds
Darwin is the capital of the Northern Territory, with a harbour bigger than Sydney Harbour, a tropical vibe and a lot more culture than you may expect. This is a young city with some great food and plenty of friendly locals.
Things you might want to try in and around Darwin:
- Enter the Cage of Death and swim with the crocodiles
- Learn more about the culture of the people of the Tiwi Islands
- Visit the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory and experience the Cyclone Tracy simulation.
- Fish for Barramundi and maybe win a million dollars!
- Swim in the waterfalls at Litchfield National Park
Local tip: Hit up Parap Village Markets for a special much loved Darwin breakfast – a big bowl of laksa
The second UNESCO World Heritage Park in the Northern Territory we think Kakadu is best experienced with a guide or at the very least taking some short local guided talks while you are there.
Key sites in Kakadu are
- Gunlom Plunge Pool – this seasonal swimming hole in Kakadu is beautiful but check for crocodile warnings before you jump in
- Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls – the two most significant and beautiful falls in the territory
- Ubirr (rock art) – considered to be some of the most stunning rock art ever seen – take the Guluyambi Cruise
- Ngurrungurrudjba (Yellow Water) – wetlands with abundant birdlife
- Bowali Visitor Centre – make this your first stop to learn about the history and culture of the area
Local tip: Access to some key sites is seasonal – several waterfalls cannot be visited in the wet season – so check this to avoid disappointment.
One of the least visited regions in Australia Arnhem Land is the traditional country of the Yolngu people. This is the best way to learn about traditional First Nation culture.
Unless you are experienced with off-road driving, you will probably be best taking an organised tour to Arnhem Land rather than planning an independent trip.
- Injalak Rock Art Tour – learn the stories of the Kunwinjku people through this incredible art.
- Groote Eylandt Lodge – the place to go if you want to get away with it all!
- Wurrwurrwuy Macassan Beach – interpretive Walk
- Garig Gunak Barlu National Park (Cobourg Peninsula)
Local tip: You can’t access Arnhem Land via road in the wet season although there are daily flights from Darwin.
Unless you are visiting on tour, you will need to apply for a permit from the Northern Land Council at least ten working days in advance.
Katherine & Surrounds
The third-largest town in the Northern Territory, it is possible to visit Katherine on a day trip from Darwin, but an overnight stay is a better idea. The journey takes a little over 3 hours, and there is enough to do here to keep you busy for a full day or two, just scratching the surface.
On our visit, we got stuck in town for an extra day due to flooded roads, which turned out to be lucky really because we would have missed out on so much had we left on time. There are some beautiful swimming holes and several excellent short tours covering everything from WW2 history to lessons in how to be a stockman!
Some of the most popular things to include:
- Visit the hot springs at Mataranka
- Sail the gorges of Nitmiluk National Park
- Grab a drink at the Daly Waters Pub
- Complete the Jatbula Trail a five-day, 58km walk
- Visit Cutta Cutta Caves
Local tip: Visit Elsey National Park – it was the setting of the classic Australian novel We of the Never Never by Jeannie Gunn.
Tennant Creek & Barkly Region
Sitting ten hours along the highway between Darwin and Alice Springs, Tennant Creek is a popular stopover. Along with perhaps a cold drink and a tank of petrol, the biggest drawcard to the area is Karlu Karlu, previously known as the Devil’s Marbles. These rock formations are found about 100km south of Tennant Creek in an area that is home to the Alyawarre people. Karlu Karlu is a registered sacred site.
- Karlu Karlu – aka the Devil’s Marbles are an impressive site worth driving for.
- Tennant Creek Telegraph Station – Australia’s first telegraphic link to Britain through the colonial telegraph system.
- Kunjarra (the Pebbles) – a sacred site of the Warumungu Aboriginal
- Nyinkka Nyunyu Culture Centre – the Warumungu people own and operate this centre – book a tour or just pop in for a look.
Local tip: Please respect the traditional owners and do not climb the boulders or use drones within the parks.
Just under 250,000 people live in the Northern Territory.
Related: Check out our guide on where to stay in Yulara
These days many travellers bypass Alice Springs and fly directly to Uluru, which is kind of a shame. There is plenty to see and do here if you have time for a few extra days in the area. We think it makes sense to fly into Alice, explore for a couple of days and then rent a car to drive to Uluru via Kings Canyon to Yulara. The drive takes about 6.5hrs and best done over two or three days to allow time to walk in Kings Canyon.
Other key sites in the Alice include:
- Tjoritja / West MacDonnell National Park – visit Standley Chasm pronounced KAS-um, not ‘chas-um’
- The Larapinta Trail – 223km walk along the spine of the West MacDonnell Ranges
- Royal Flying Doctor Service – learn how this incredible service supports its outback residents
- Alice Springs Desert Park – join one of the twice-daily emu or dingo talks
Local tip: You can get surprisingly good coffee in Alice Springs – we suggest Page 27 in Todd Street Mall
The Arrernte people are the traditional custodians of Mparntwe (pronounced m’barn-twa) – the land where the town of Alice Springs lies.
Uluru & Surrounds
You head to Uluru for one reason – to see the UNESCO listed magic of Uluru and Kata Tjuta and this is the only reason you need! Our biggest tip is to stay at least two full days and plan your activities in advance, so you don’t miss out on that perfect sunrise walk or sunset dinner.
Most of the activities here revolve around the three main sites:
- Kata Tjuta
- Kings Canyon & Watarrka National Park
Join as many of the free cultural activities at Yulara as you can. We did everything; the morning garden walk around our hotel, the introduction to Aboriginal Art and really enjoyed the great talk about local food. We recently spent four days at Desert Gardens in Yulara and have posted an Uluru holiday planning guide here.
Local tip: Regardless of which hotel you book, you can swim in any of the pools at Yulara.
Related: Check out our guide to the walks at Uluru, we highly recommend the base walk.
Advice To Help You Plan Your Visit
When Is The Best Time To Visit The Northern Territory?
The Northern Territory has two climate zones. The Top End, taking in Darwin and down to Katherine, is tropical. Below this, the climate is semi-arid.
The Top End
There are just two seasons in the north, the wet and the dry. The thing most people find uncomfortable about travelling here is the humidity in the wet season, which can be as high as 85%. Heavy rain is not uncommon and January is the wettest month of the year. I visited in March as the wet was coming to an end and it was fantastic, still crazy humid but so green with lots of action in the waterfalls and plenty of life in the place. Some parts of Kakadu were flooded, and we could not visit, but it didn’t cause any real issues.
Most events are held in the dry season, which adds to its popularity with visitors. Humidity drops down to 20-30%, rain all but disappears and the temperature drops slightly. Most people prefer to visit in the dry so prices can be higher.
The Red Centre
There are four seasons in the centre with winter nights getting quite cold, something that catches some travellers by surprise. Summer brings very little rain and some uncomfortably high midday temperatures, this can reduce the time you have to walk each day, and early starts are the best idea.
Northern Territory School & Public Holidays
The winter school holidays are very busy at Uluru, so be sure to book early for these dates.
Public Holidays in Northern Territory – 2020-2021
School Holidays in Northern Territory – 2020-2021
Northern Territory Event Calendar
Below are some of the most impressive events on the top end calendar. This information may be subject to change according to current quarantine laws, so it’s a good idea to double-check specifics before you make any plans. Updates will be added as details are released.
July – Darwin Fringe Festival
July/August – Garma Festival – Arnhem Land
August – Henley on Todd Regatta – Alice Springs
August – Great Northern Darwin Cup Carnival
August – Desert Harmony Festival – Tennant Creek
September – Katherine Bird Festival
September – Parrtjima: a festival of light – Alice Springs
October – Kakadu Bird Week
How to get to the NT
The Northern Territory has three airports, but international flights only land in Darwin.
- Darwin- Direct flights from Bali (2.5hrs), Singapore (5hrs) and Manila (5hrs), Dili (80mins)
Key Domestic airports
- Ayres Rock (Yulara) – direct flights from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Darwin and Cairns
- Alice Springs – direct flights from Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Ayres Rock
- Darwin – all Australian capitals and Broome, Cairns and Townsville
There are trains from Adelaide and Alice Springs; these are luxury services and chosen more for the experiences they offer than a way to get from A to B.
You can take a long-distance bus from Broome to Darwin or between Adelaide and Alice Springs as well as from Alice Springs and Darwin. These trips are tests of endurance and only suited to the hardiest travellers.
Getting around the Territory
There are a few ways to travel between the Top End and the Red Centre, but if you are short of time, a flight will be your best choice.
- Darwin to Katherine – 3hrs 10 minutes
- Darwin to Kakadu – 3 hours
- Darwin to Tennant Creek – 10 hours
- Alice Springs to Darwin – 15 hours
- Darwin to Yulara – 19 hours
Got a question?
Have a question? Need some specific advice? Pop over to our Australia Your Way Facebook Group and ask a local.