The Best Things to do in Darwin

This is a city that deserves more love from visitors, there are so many things to do in Darwin and surrounds you can easily plan a great holiday Australia’s Top End town. Read on for our thoughts on the things you should not miss.

What we did with four days in the top end

With its view over the Timor Sea Darwin is Australia’s only tropical city. It is closer to Asia than it is to Sydney and there is a distinct smell of lemongrass and coriander in the air. There are also some fabulous south-east Asian eats just waiting for you to enjoy after a day exploring the cities many delights.

People from over 50 different ethnic backgrounds live and work in Darwin.

First a little history

The Larrakia (saltwater) people occupied Darwin before the arrival of white settlers. They traded with South East Asia as early as 1700s and the area was visited by the Dutch in the 17th Century.

The first colonials took 69 years to make it from the southern states up north when the HMAS Beagle visited on an exploration trip in 1839. They named the place Darwin after Charles Darwin, after the English Naturalist who had been aboard previous voyages on the Beagle.

In 1869 the South Australian government established a permanent settlement here and named it Palmerston and so began the cities colonial life. The name was changed to Darwin in 1911.

In the 1870s large numbers of Chinese prospectors, mainly from southern China, arrived to work the goldfields and many settled permanently in Darwin. The late 1880s saw arrivals from Japan, Timor and the Philippines to work in the pearling industry and the city started to develop.

On Christmas Eve 1974 Darwin was hit by a devastating cyclone, Cyclone Tracy, as a result, most of the buildings are quite new; there are almost no buildings more than 40 years old. This newness and the diversity of the population and the food make Darwin a pretty unique city to visit.

Cyclone Tracy was not the first devastating storm to hit Darwin, in 1897, the settlement was completely destroyed by a cyclone.

Our top 10 things to do in Darwin

We are not huge fans of “must see” lists because we all have such different interests but they can be a good starting point so here are ours.

1. Visit one of the Markets

Darwin has several very popular markets, all offer great food, plenty of shopping fun and quite often entertainment to keep you there for a while.

Three we went along to and really enjoyed were:

  • Mindil Beach Sunset Markets – over 300 stalls and a sunset! What more could you want? These markets run Thur-Sun from 4pm to 9pm – dry season only.
  • Parap Saturday Market – Best known for the delicious Asian food on offer – this is the place to head for your breakfast laksa or to stock up on fresh goodies. Saturdays from 8am-2pm year-round.
  • Nightcliff Markets – less food and more focus on fashion and gifts Sunday, from 8am-2pm.
Mindil Beach Markets Darwin Northern Territory
Schedule a sunset at Mindil Beach Markets Credit: Kevin Phan

2. Explore the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory

The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is free and open seven days a week. There are five main galleries that include exhibits of indigenous art, the history of Darwin, a maritime collection and the environment.

Perhaps the best-known feature is a giant 18-foot crocodile known as “Sweetheart” a not so friendly little fellow who was responsible for sinking many boats.

Sweetheart Croc - Things to do in Darwin
Meet Sweetheart at the museum Credit: Tourism NT/ Shaana McNaught

The Cyclone Tracy exhibit describes the effects of this enormous natural disaster that left 48,000 people homeless on Christmas Eve 1974. There are sound recordings of the wind that are absolutely chilling.

If you hit a scorching day, this is a great spot to spend the middle few hours when the heat is at its worst. The museum is located near Parap so if you are here on a Saturday start the day with a morning laksa at the market. The museum is closed on Mondays.

Local tip: We walked back from the museum to town along Fannie Bay, it’s only about 4kms and so scenic you won’t notice the time fly.

3. Meet the locals at Crocosaurus Cove

Brave the Cage of Death, participate in feeding time or just hold a baby croc at Crocosaurus Cove there is something for everyone.

Crocosaurus Coves Cage of Death Credit Shaana McNaught
Crocosaurus Coves Cage of Death Credit: Shaana McNaught

The Cage of Death is not for the faint-hearted however you are safe and sound in your own see-through cage. Face to face with a huge saltwater crocodile are you game?

4. Wander the Darwin Waterfront Precinct

Cool Down at the Waterfront Precinct – away from the crocs. There are a few options down here. For a bit of fun, you could head to the wave pool near the convention centre.

Australia -  Darwin Convention Center on the Wharf Precinct - Waterfront - with the wave pool named The Lagoon
The wave pool has reasonably priced family tickets.

There is also a protected public swimming area and beach right at the waterfront that offers a decent amount of shade and plenty of cafes nearby.

It’s a nice place to head for an afternoon drink and there are also several dining options here too.

5. Stroll the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens

The garden has an impressive collection of tropical plants and the cafe is a nice space for a morning coffee. There are 3 walking trails and an app you can download to give you some background on the plant and their uses.

Darwin Botanic Garden Tourism NT Nick Pincott 800
Darwin Botanic Garden – Credit: Tourism NT/Nick Pincott

If you want to photograph some lilypads or Australian native flowers up close this is your chance. There is a cafe on-site and also a children’s playground.

6. Catch a film at the Deckchair cinema

When the weather is nice and warm there is nothing better than watching a movie outdoors.

In the southern states, we only get a few months of this joy but up here the Deckchair Cinema with its 250 deckchairs (and some regular chairs if that’s more your thing) runs right through the dry season.

Tropical night at the Deckchair Cinema Credit Tourism NT Friederike Franze 800
Tropical night at the Deckchair Cinema Credit: Tourism NT/Friederike Franze

The cinema is open seven nights a week in the dry season and screens a board range of genres. Arrive early and enjoy a few drinks and a Darwin sunset before the main event.

7. Learn about Darwin’s Military History

Did you know Darwin was subject to a bombing by Japanese in 1942? Well, the Defence of Darwin’s explores the city’s involvement in World War II and is a must for history lovers.

There are a couple of attractions that showcase Darwin’s military history including the Darwin Military Museum, the Defence of Darwin and the Bombing of Darwin Harbour exhibit at the RFDS complex. You can pre-purchase tickets to save time.

Tip: There is an iPhone app that covers 16 World War II heritage sites in the Northern Territory for any history lovers who might want more.

If you are a real WW2 History buff you might want to consider this 2 hour history walk.

8. Check out the Darwin Street Art

Since it’s beginning in 2017 the annual Darwin Street Art Festival has seen 57 large scale murals appear across the city.

Leichhardt’s grasshopper - a collaboration between famed local photographer, Paul Arnold, and artist, Jesse Belle
Leichhardt’s grasshopper – a collaboration between famed local photographer, Paul Arnold, and artist, Jesse Belle
Credit: Jessie Belle

Don’t miss Andrew Bourke and Jessie Belle’s portrait of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu and Kaff-eine’s portrait of Tiwi Islander Shaniquá. You will find all the current works on the official site along with maps of where to find them.

9. Take a swim at Berry Springs Nature Reserve

If you have a car consider the 40-minute drive to Berry Springs Nature Reserve. The natural springs are surrounded by plant and birdlife and a really relaxing spot, particularly mid-week.

There are showers and picnic facilities and a lovely cafe. The springs are not suitable for swimming in the wet season and are sometimes closed when conditions are not considered safe so check before you head off.

Entry is free and the park is open from April to September between 8am-7pm.

10. Darwin City Day Tour

The Hop on Hop off bus service offers 12 stops over what it calls two routes, essentially it’s one route with an extra stop offered at East Point in the afternoon.

130902-56 Tourism NTBig Bus Darwin 800
Darwin’s Big Bus Tour Credit: Tourism NT/Big Bus Darwin

The stops are:

  • Tourist Information Centre 
  • Crocosaurus Cove
  • Doctor’s Gully, Aquascene Fish Feeding 
  • Cullen Bay Jetty 
  • Cullen Bay Apartments 
  • Casino, Mindil Markets, Botanical Gardens
  • Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory 
  • Military Museum – Defence of Darwin Experience 
  • Parap, Parap Markets 
  • Stokes Hill Wharf
  • Waterfront Precinct 
  • Fort Hill Wharf 

I would really only recommend this if you are wanting a quick overview of the city or are staying at Cullen Bay or on a cruise ship stopover as it does offer stops in these places which is quite handy.

Alternatively, you might find you get more from this half-day full escorted coach tour that includes an overview and a visit to a couple of the top sites a better choice.

A sunset cruise is a lovely way to end the day in the Top End

A few local tips

We reached out to the Darwin-based members of our community for a few insider tips on what to see in Darwin and they came back with these.

  • Head to East Point Reserve at dusk to see the local wallabies
  • Make a visit to Fannie Bay at the end of the day for a less crowded sunset view
  • Have dinner at the Darwin Ski Club right on the water – affordable meals and amazing views.
  • The local’s sense of humour is on show at Frying Nemo, winner of the best fish and chips in Australia for three of the last five years.
  • For a meal to remember head to Little Miss Korea for dinner cooked by celebrity chef Chung Jae Lee.
  • Shop at Starwin Collective in Mitchell Street- their “Made with Kindness Economy” You can also book cultural and craft experiences.

Darwin Day Tours – Explore More

You can easily cover these 10 things to do in Darwin in a couple of days. So if you have more time than that add at least one day tour from Darwin to the surrounding areas.

Take an Alligator River Cruise
If you are not going to Kakadu make sure you go on a crocodile cruise. They are amazing to see in the wild, and there is also some beautiful birdlife and flowers to view, particularly in the wet season. We think this one is a good choice.

Cruise to Crab Craw Island
If you fancy a day of relaxing, eating seafood and exploring an island then this cruise to Crab Claw Island 2 hours from Darwin is a fun day out.

Mary River Wetlands
See the birdlife of the Mary River Wetlands Corroboree Billabong wildlife nature cruise.

We have written a detailed guide to how to choose the best full-day tours from Darwin if you are looking for trips to Litchfield, Katherine or the Tiwi Islands

Frequently asked questions about visiting Darwin

When is the best time to visit Darwin

If you do not want to arrive with the main tourist crowds avoid travelling here in June and July when Australian schools have their winter holidays and every guidebook reader arrives to enjoy the “perfect” weather.

May to September is peak season in Darwin and the Top End so book ahead for accommodation and special tours.

What is the weather like?

While Darwin has two seasons, the temperature sits at about 32°C (86°F) all year round, it is the humidity across the seasons that changes things. From November the wet season begins to take shape and the humidity increases dramatically. The official cyclone season runs from 1 November to 30 April.

I visited in mid-February and it was really pretty uncomfortable most days. The Wet Season rains begin to fall heavily from December and this lasts until March.

October to May is jellyfish or stinger season but stingers can be found all year round so take care when swimming in the ocean.

Weather-wise the ideal time to visit is May to September but there are benefits to visiting in the wet. If you don’t mind the humidity visiting in the wet season has real advantages. The wildflowers and plant life look amazing, the waterfalls are overflowing and the crowds are thin. Just make sure your hotel or hostel has air-conditioning!

How to get to Darwin

Fly – There are direct flights from Singapore and Saigon and all Australian Capital Cities. Darwin airport is located about 13km from the city. The Darwin Airport Shuttle bus service that costs $10 one way or $18 return. Private transfers are also available.

Train – The famous Ghan, a service named after the cameleers who travelled the route between Darwin and Adelaide, a distance of 2,979 kilometres (1,852 miles) takes two days. You can join the train at Alice Springs as well.

Bus – Only an option for the true budget traveller, bus routes operate from Darwin to Alice Springs (22hrs) and Broome (28hrs).

Drive – If you want to drive in the Territory, please make sure you are well prepared. Driving distances between towns can be enormous, and you need to carry water and tell someone of your plans. Check our guide to driving in Australia for an idea. Driving between Darwin and Katherine or Kakadu is relatively easy.

Getting around Darwin

We found it easy to get around Darwin by bus. If you are renting a car to explore more of the territory you could save some money and start your car rental the day you leave Darwin. You can travel for $7 a day or $3 for 3 hours.

Tip: Using Google Maps is the simplest way to find the next bus from where you are.

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Feature image Credit: Tourism Australia / Allan Dixon

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