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 in Australia’s Top End town. Read on for our thoughts on the things you should not miss.
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 city’s 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 the 1700s and the Dutch visited the area 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 Australia government established a permanent settlement here and named it Palmerston and so began the city’s colonial life. They changed the name 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 developed.
On Christmas Eve a devastating cyclone, Cyclone Tracy hit 1974 Darwin, as a result, most of the buildings are quite new; there are almost no buildings over 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 cyclone.
Our top 10 things 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.
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.
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 brilliant spot to spend the middle few hours when the heat is at its worst. The museum is 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, take part in feeding time or just hold a baby croc at Crocosaurus Cove. There is something for everyone here.
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.
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 its uses.
If you want to photograph some lily pads 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.
The cinema is open seven nights a week in the dry season and screens a broad 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 the 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, consider this 2-hour history walk.
8. Check out the Darwin Street Art
Since its beginning in 2017, the annual Darwin Street Art Festival has seen 57 large scale murals appear across the city.
If you have a car, consider the 40-minute drive to Berry Springs Nature Reserve. The natural springs are surrounded by plant and bird life and a really relaxing spot, particularly mid-week.
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
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.
The stops are:
- Tourist Information Centre
- Crocosaurus Cove
- Doctor’s Gully, Aquascene Fish Feeding
- Cullen Bay Jetty
- Cullen Bay Apartments
- Casino, Mindil Markets, Botanical Garden
- 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 want a quick overview of the city or are staying at Cullen Bay or on a cruise ship stopover as it offers stops in these places which are 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
- Visit 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 bird life 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 bird life 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 takes 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 we can find stingers 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 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.
Feature Image Credit: Tourism Australia / Allan Dixon
First published March 2020, fully updated May 2021