Darwin, Northern Territory – The Ultimate Guide

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Darwin is not only the gateway to your journey into the wild rugged Top End of Australia, it’s an adventure all on its own.

The Northern Territory capital might be small in size, more closely resembling a town for those from the southern states, but it really is a city with its own distinct rustic yet casual laid back atmosphere crafted out of its tropical extremes and geographic isolation from the rest of Australia.

Initially forged as a remote outpost Darwin has proven its resilience more than once.

In fact, the city has been nearly entirely rebuilt four times. Three times due to cyclones, the most recent being Cyclone Tracey in 1974, while the large sections of the city were entirely destroyed by Japanese air raids during World War Two.

It’s this history that has crafted the city into its own unique destination offering tourists and travellers plenty to see and do before heading off to explore the rest of what the Top End has to offer, in particular, the local wildlife and national parks (most notably Kakadu).

The Best Things To Do In Darwin

You’ll find no shortage of things to do in and around Darwin. So make sure you give yourself a few days to explore the city and discover all that it has to offer before or after you head off to explore Kakadu National Park.

Stokes Hill Wharf

Stokes Hill Wharf, Darwin

The historic Stokes Hill Wharf, down by the Waterfront Precinct (which we’ll get to shortly), is a great little introduction to Darwin.

Not only home to numerous eateries and restaurants overlooking the water for a casual start to your time in Darwin (Darwin is a casual kind of place so you’ll need to get used to it), it’s also home to the Bombing of Darwin and Royal Flying Doctor Service Darwin Tourist Facility.

While it sounds like these are two separate attractions, they are basically one and the same. Just different sections/exhibitions in the one building.

They are both worth the visit to give yourself a brief introduction into both the World War Two bombings of Darwin, which is a significant part of the cities history, as well a the Royal Flying Doctor Service which has played its own important role around Australia for the last 80(ish) years.

Fun Fact: The wharf that you see today is actually the third iteration of the Stokes Hill Wharf, and was built back in 1956. It was also the primary wharf servicing Darwin until the Darwin Port was completed in 2000.

Stokes Hill Wharf is also where you’ll find a number of cruise operators for those who would like to explore Darwin from its major waterway.

Sunset cruises are quite popular in Darwin, but if that’s a bit too tame, airboats are a very unique way to see more of the sites around the area. I’ll get to those later in this post.

Waterfront Precinct

Waterfront Precinct, Darwin

Moving on to the Waterfront Precinct, which is conveniently located right next to Stokes Hill Wharf.

Whilst not strictly a tourist attraction, just a short walk from Darwin’s CBD it’s a good safe place for you to relax on the beach without having to worry about crocodiles and stingers (jellyfish)… Yes, both of those are very real concerns at any of the other beaches and waterways around Darwin.

Being in the tropics, Darwin is one of those places that is either hot and wet or hot and dry, so knowing where you can cool down is important.

The Waterfront Precinct is home to a public park, basketball court, beach volleyball, recreational lagoon as well as wave pool (which does have an entry fee). It’s a nice place to relax where you’ll often find tourists and locals alike chilling out in the sun making the most of Darwin’s fantastic weather.

Beyond getting into the water and relaxing, you’ll also find a good variety of bars and restaurants around the precinct.

The Waterfront Precinct is a very popular destination around both lunch and dinner and can be as relaxed or as upbeat as you like. Sticking with the very casual vibe of Darwin.

If you’d like to get to know a little more about the World War Two history of Darwin, the Waterfront Precinct is also home to the World War Two Oil Tunnels, which are ok.

The tunnels are advertised as a big attraction, although it’s not something I would suggest that you go out of your way to see. It’s informative if you are in the area and want to get out of the sun, but there are plenty more attractions around the city to make an effort it see.

The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory

If you’d like to get a very good overview of Darwin and the Northern Territory, then your best bet is the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.

Located just north of the city (near the Mindil Beach Markets which we’ll get to later), the museum covers a very broad history of Darwin including the local Aboriginal culture, the early settlement of the region and the devastating effects of Cyclone Tracey including some interactive exhibits.

You can easily spend a couple of hours in MAGNT, and best of all the museum has free entry unless it’s hosting a special exhibit.

It’s a fantastic place to learn a lot more about Darwin, and also makes a great escape from either the heat during the dry season or the rain during the wet season for a couple of hours.

Crocosaurus Cove

Crocosaurus Cove, Darwin

No trip to Darwin would be complete without a crocodile experience.

To be fair there are a number of croc experiences in and around Darwin to choose from, but Crocosaurus Cove has the advantage and convenience of being located right in the center of the city. Right in the heart of Mitchell Street’s tourist/backpacker/pub area.

Crocosaurus Cove’s claim to fame is the “Cage of Death” experience that will get you right up close and in the water with these 5-meter+ salties (that’s the local slang for saltwater crocodiles) while they jump for a feed.

Trust me, the bone-crunching crack when they slam the jaws shut will send a shiver down your spine, whether you are in the water with them or not.

Fun Fact: Did you know that the saltwater crocodile is the largest living reptile. It’s also the most aggressive of all crocodile species.

Beyond the big crocs, Crocosaurus Cove also has a large collection of freshies (freshwater crocodiles, the smaller of the two species in Australia) with a couple of interactive experiences. As well as an overview of crocodile/alligator/caiman species found globally in the World of Crocs exhibit.

It’s also home to a number of other local Australian animals, particularly snakes and other reptiles, that are probably best discovered with some perspex between you and them.

Pro Tip: While the park opens a little bit earlier, the shows start from about 11am. So plan your visit accordingly to make the most of the experience.

You’ll only need a couple of hours to visit Crocosaurus Cove, unless you are doing one of the in the water experiences.

Mindil Markets

Mindil Markets, Darwin

Good food, exceptional view… What else could you want?

Mindil Beach Sunset Markets (or just Mindil Markets) is a temporary market held every Thursday and Sunday during the dry season along Mindil Beach. Right next to the Mindil Beach Casino (formally known as Skycity).

Setup in the late afternoon, the markets are chock full of food vendors and other market type stalls, as well as a couple of live performances.

Mindil Markets are extremely popular with tourists and locals alike, as you’ll quickly discover once you get there and witness the crowds flock to them. But with good reason.

Do yourself a favour, head out to the markets grab a couple of souvenirs and a feed from one (or several) of the food truck style vendors. The food is always good! Then sit down on the beach and take in the sunset over the water.

Trust me, the hardest decision you’ll have to make is what to pick to eat as the vendors cover flavours from all over the world and the food is cheap.

It really is just a fantastic way to spend the evening in Darwin.

Pro Tip: If markets really are your thing, also keep an eye out for the Parap Village Markets and Nightcliff Markets.

Berry Springs Waterhole/Nature Park

To this point, I’ve directed to things within the heart of Darwin, but you are definitely going to want to rent a car and get beyond the city, starting with Berry Springs Waterhole/Nature Park.

When it comes to the Northern Territory, just down the road could be anything from 30mins to a couple of hours… It’s just that sort of place.

So with that in mind, you’ll find Berry Springs just down the road from Darwin (40mins give or take down the Stuart Hwy).

It’s a popular spot to escape the heat during the peak of the dry season with public picnic and barbecue areas in the shaded parkland.

However, the key attraction is Berry Creek’s crystal clear pools that you can swim in (so bring your swimwear).

The water is so clear that you can see everything so you don’t need to worry about crocodiles… Well, most of the time.

It’s also a great place to get out and stretch your legs with a walk around the Monsoon Rainforest and Woodlands trail. This is a short loop track that will take you through two very different Top End habitats.

If you keep an eye out you definitely spot some local wildlife as well as some relics from the regions World War Two history.

Charles Darwin National Park

Charles Darwin National Park

Just outside of the city you’ll find Charles Darwin National Park.

It’s actually are a really good spot to make the most of the Northern Territory’s fantastic weather and get outside to fit some exercise in while you are in Darwin.

The park features a number of really interesting walking trails, even some mountain biking trails throughout both the bushland and wetlands area.

But the two stars of the show are the stunning views out over Darwin’s CBD and the World War 2 history scattered around the park.

Most people will stop in at Charles Darwin National Park briefly for the lookout. Which is understandable, it’s one of very few places with a view of the entire city.

The lookout itself is easy enough to find, located in the barbeque/picnic area next to the car park. No hiking is required.

What you may not realise is the amount of World War 2 history there is to discover when you get there.

On the road into the park, you’ll see a number of ammunition storage bunkers left over from the conflict.

One of the bunkers is even open to the public with a number of items on display. It’s also a good spot to discover a little more about the history of the area and is completely free to access.

If you are willing to go a bit further and explore around the park you’ll find many more remnants of the areas military history along the parks trails.

Darwin Aviation Heritage Centre

Darwin Aviation Museum

It might not be immediately obvious, but aviation has had a big role in building Darwin into the city it is today.

I mean when you land into Darwin Airport it will be obvious, particularly all of the Australian and United States airforce aircraft, but until then you just need to believe me.

One of the attractions that really pays tribute to aviation’s role in the development of the city is the Darwin Aviation Museum, formerly known as the Australian Aviation Heritage Centre.

What makes the Darwin Aviation Museum particularly special is that is home to one of just two Boeing B-52’s on public display outside of America, and on permanent loan from United States Airforce.

Fun Fact: The B-52 is so large that they had to park it at the site of the museum and construct the building around it!

In addition, they hold an impressive collection of both military and civilian aircraft including a replica Spitfire, Dassault Mirage, F-86 Sabre, P3-C Orion, AH-1 Cobra and an F-111C.

The Darwin Aviation Museum is also home to plenty of other artifacts from the aviation industry in Darwin including relics and wreckage from World War Two, specifically, a Japanese Zero shot down over Darwin in 1942.

If you have any remote interest in aviation, it’s well worth the price of admission.

Adelaide River Jumping Crocs

Adelaide River Jumping Crocs

Seeing crocodiles in an enclosure is one thing… Seeing them in the wild is something else entirely.

The Adelaide River (50mins outside of Darwin along the Arnhem Hwy) is home to several jumping croc cruises, that will take you out onto the river and let you experience the crocs in their natural habitat.

From sunning themselves on the banks of the river to hiding just below the surface and launching almost their entire bodies out of the water to catch their prey. It really is an experience best witnessed in person.

My pick of the operators is The Original Adelaide River Queen Jumping Crocodile Cruises. It’s a bit more of a rustic which I’ve found is a more genuine experience. Yet it is still top-notch in my opinion and a very informative tour. I do highly recommend it.

Otherwise, there is Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruises as an alternative nearby option.

An Adelaide River cruise with the jumping crocs is worthwhile doing as a half-day road trip out of Darwin. Make sure you stop into the famous Humpty Doo Hotel along the way for lunch.

Otherwise, if you can time it right it’s also a good place to stop as you head out to Kakadu.

Whatever you do, just aim to do one of the earlier tours in the morning to see the crocs at their most active. After they have been fed with the earlier tour they tend not to be as active in the afternoon.

Defence of Darwin Experience

Defence of Darwin Experience

You may have worked out by this point that World War Two is a fairly significant part of Darwin’s history.

Not quite so Fun Fact: During World War Two the Japanese bombed Darwin several times over a two year period. In fact, Darwin was attacked by the same Japanese fleet that famously inflicted so much damage on Pearl Harbour.

You can get to know a whole lot more about this moment in history at The Defence of Darwin Experience and the Darwin Military Museum (all in the same complex).

Nestled within the relics of massive cannons build to protect Darwin from naval assault, the museum gives a really good insight into what life was like in Darwin during the war and the Australian and American military association that was forged during that time. Something you can still see active to this day around Darwin (the city as a whole is a great place to see military aircraft in action).

The Defence of Darwin Experience is also home to many artifacts, interactive exhibitions and displays from during the time.

You’ll definitely learn a very different and probably lesser-known perspective of what life was like during World War Two. Particularly in the South Pacific.

Also, while you are in the area, take the opportunity to explore the rest of East Point. There are plenty more artefacts to explore outside of the museum, as well as a couple of scenic walking trails to discover.

Crocodylus Park

Crocodylus Park, Darwin

Look, I know I’ve already recommended a lot of crocodile related activities to you… But Crocodylus Park is a little bit different.

Crocodylus Park is on a completely different scale from everything else I’ve mentioned so far.

Home to 12,000 crocodiles (not all of which are on display), it started out as a crocodile research and conservation centre and has continued to grow from there. It’s now a fully-fledged zoo, in fact, it’s the only zoo in Darwin.

So while the crocodiles are definitely the main reason to visit Crocodylus Park, it’s also home to a variety of animals from both Australia and around the world with fresh new exhibits being constructed for new animals each year.

Even if you’ve already visited some of the other crocodile experiences around Darwin, I would still include Crocodylus Park on your list of things to do to add the variety of experiences.

Airboat Tour

To this point, I’ve given you a lot of suggestions for things you can see and do, but this one is something you will feel!

Airboat tours are somewhat of a unique experience to Darwin, at least in Australia.

You’ll have a choice of tours operators, but you will want to take the trip across Darwin Harbour and through the scenic mangroves and mudflats, inaccessible by any other mode of transport.

It’s a great way to get up close and personal with some of the local flora and fauna and see parts of Darwin that you wouldn’t be able to explore otherwise.

This fast, loud and adrenalin-filled adventure is the ultimate experience that Darwin has to offer. You have several airboat tour operators to choose from, but your best bet will be Matt Wright’s Darwin Airboat Tours.

Pro Tip: Don’t make any plans directly after your tour because you will get wet and will want to get changed. But it’s well worth it!

Bonus: Litchfield National Park

Litchfield National Park

Litchfield National Park is your ultimate day trip out of Darwin.

You will find any number of group tours that will offer to take you to Litchfield, but my suggestion to you is to rent a car and do it at your own pace.

Obviously, the tour guides on the bus tours provide a lot of information, so it’s probably best if you do a little research before you go. However, the trade-off of doing a little bit of your own research is being able to enjoy all the walks and spots to swim and relax, in your own time is the best way to take it all in.

For all the major lookouts and waterfalls a regular rental car will be able to get you there just fine, but you will need a proper 4WD for some of more the adventurous trails including The Lost City and Blyth Homestead.

I can not recommend this enough… Pack your swimwear, a comfortable pair of walking shoes. Also bring plenty of water and some snacks, possibly some lunch, and make a day of it.

To be fair you could spend a lot more time than just a day in Litchfield. But if you’ve never been before, a day is a good amount of time to get a good overview of the key attractions and get familiar with the park. Then you can decide if you would like to go back and take on some of the more serious 4WD trails and hikes.

Pro Tip: Once you get past the very small town of Batchelor, there’s no shops, service stations or much of anything else, so just make sure you’re all stocked up and fuelled up before you leave Palmerston (just to be on the safe side) to head down the Stuart Highway.

Litchfield National Park

Your first stop within Litchfield National Park will be the magnetic termite mounds. If you leave Darwin early enough you can beat the tourist busses there and get the whole site to yourself. Don’t skip this!

From there you’ll definitely want to visit at the very least Buley Rockholes, Florence Falls, Wangi Falls and the Bamboo Creek Tin Mine to get a good feel of what Litchfield is all about.

Buley Rockholes is a cascade waterfall with a number of swimming holes spread out over a series of small waterfalls. In my personal opinion, this is the best place within Litchfield to cool off and relax.

That said, Buley Rockholes is very popular and can get quite get busy. I would suggest you either make it your first stop after the magnetic termite mounds or your last stop before heading back to Darwin, once the tourist busses have moved on to other sections of the park.

Florence Falls is simply stunning. The easily accessible viewpoint from the top is great, but the walk down to the swimming hole at the base of the waterfall is even better. Once you get there you can swim underneath the waterfall. Again it’s another popular spot, but it’s much harder to get your own space to relax if that’s important to you.

Wangi Falls is another good stop to visit, and home to one of the very few cafes in the park. So if you don’t plan on bringing lunch with you, make sure you plan to stop in at Wangi for a bite to eat.

Just keep in mind, everyone else probably had the same idea so it’s usually quite busy around lunchtime. Both with people swimming under the waterfall and getting some food.

The walk around the top of Wangi Falls is a really great way to escape most of the crowds and a different perspective of the area. I would suggest doing the walk and then making your way to one of the other waterfalls to swim to get away from the crowds.

Speaking of perspectives the abandoned Bamboo Creek Tin Mine showcases a very different aspect to Litchfield. At the very least you’ll get an appreciation of how hard the early pioneers to the region had to work to make a living.

There will be plenty more for you to see and do in Litchfield National Park but all of that will warrant its own special blog post at some point.

Litchfield National Park

Best Accommodation Options In Darwin

You aren’t going to be short of accommodation options when it comes to picking somewhere to stay in Darwin.

Catering to a diverse tourist market, from backpackers through to luxury resorts, the city is well set up to accommodate all sorts of different travel budgets. And best of all, given the size of Darwin, all of these options are within a stone’s throw of each other so that you can make the most of your time there.

If you are looking for something on the cheaper side of things, especially backpacker style accommodation, then you’ll have a few options on Mitchell Street. I’ve found that MOM Darwin is the best of these options and located right in the heart of the city. MOM Darwin offers everything 6-bed dormitories through to individual self-enclosed rooms with their own bathrooms.

Personally, I prefer to stay in something a little more middle of the range. I’ve found that all of these are great options:

For something a little more premium, if you are really looking to splash out while you are in Darwin, then you will find the top tier brand name hotel options along The Esplanade and within the Waterfront Precinct.

If the views and extra luxuries are important, then try these:

The Best Time Of Year To Visit Darwin

Darwin’s dry season, which just happens to fall during the worst of the cold winter for Australia’s southern states, is the perfect time to visit the Northern Territory capital.

Between May and October is the best time to head to Darwin and enjoy the warmth and take in everything the city and the surrounding region has to offer, especially the national parks like Kakadu.

During the wet season, you can still visit Darwin but the monsoonal rains make it impossible to access some of the most popular tourist attractions outside of the city.

How Get To The City From Darwin Airport

Darwin International Airport is only about a 15-20 minute drive from the center of the city.

Getting between the city and the airport is really straightforward if you have a car, and while Darwin really isn’t that big of a city, I would still strongly suggest that you do rent a car during your time there. But I’ll get into that shortly.

In the instance that you don’t need to or feel confident renting a car, for whatever reason, you do have a few other options.

There is a 24-hour shuttle bus service that operates between the airport and the main accommodation options around the city which will set you back around $30 for a return ticket. You just might need to wait a little while for it.

Alternatively, taxi’s are always an option with a couple of taxi companies servicing Darwin. As a rough estimate, it’ll cost you about $25-$35 for a one-way trip between the airport and the city.

Ridesharing services like Uber also operate but are not as prevalent as in other Australian cities. You also won’t find a dedicated Uber pick up area at the airport, you just need to book one and wait in the regular pick up and drop off area.

How To Get Around Darwin

Within the heart of Darwin, getting around is pretty easy. Being a small city, if you feel so inclined you can walk to most of the key attractions within the CBD and Waterfront Precinct.

There are plenty of footpaths and getting around is really straightforward. Just watch out for the local indigenous beggers. It’s not all local indigenous who beg, just a select few and if ignored they will generally leave you alone.

If if you find that it’s too hot to walk, or raining (if you happened to visit during the wet season) and haven’t organised a rental car, then you might want to opt for a taxi/Uber. But in reality walking around will be your best bet.

How To Travel Beyond Darwin

Once you start looking at the attractions on the outskirts of the city, particularly the national parks and other natural wonders of the region, having your own transport is going to make your life so much easier. Especially if you’re the type of person who prefers to travel at their own pace.

Driving around Darwin is really straightforward, and traffic is almost non-existent given the size and diversity of the population. In fact, driving through the city of Darwin is more like driving around a country town, if that’s a concern to you.

That said, Darwin is well set up for tourists with a number of tour operators offering day trips out to most of the key attractions. I just can’t offer a recommendation on any as I haven’t used any of them.

However, if that is your preferred way of travelling, you can discover more about tour operators when you arrive in Darwin. You will easily spot the shop fronts for all the major tours while walking along Mitchell Street or throughout Smith Street Mall.

There is also a public bus service that operates around Darwin which you can find out more about here.

Where To Find Food In Darwin/What To Do In The Evenings

Darwin has no shortage of nightlife… In fact, it’s quite a lively place in the evenings, particularly Mitchell Street.

The touristy nature of Darwin coupled with the relaxed casual vibe of the locals means every night is a good night to be out in the city no matter if you are just looking for dinner or to kick on further into the evening.

If you happen to be in Darwin on a Thursday or Sunday night during the dry season, then I would definitely recommend that you head to Mindil Markets for both the sunset and a good feed, but I’ve already covered that.

Also, as I’ve mentioned early the restaurants and pubs along Mitchell Street are always buzzing. There is a good mix of takeaway, pub and casual dining options along the road. All you need to do is take a stroll along the street until you’ll find something that sparks your interest.

That said, if you aren’t sure, The Tap on Mitchell is a great relaxed option for either a meal or just a couple of afternoon beverages. While Monsoons tends to pick up a bit later in the evening to kick on, well into the night.

If you are after something a little more fancy, then I would suggest you head to either Stokes Hill Wharf or Waterfront Precinct where you’ll find some really nice, but often pricey restaurants. My pick would be Hot Tamale.

Feel free to share this post with your friends and if you’d like some more general travel tips, I’ve got you covered over here. 

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By Rhys Vandersyde

Traveller, Photographer, Content Creator - I've spent the last 20 years actively seeking out new destinations and new adventures. Find out more about me here: vandersyde.com.au
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