Region guideto Darwin & Surrounds
With a fascinating history blending European, Asian and Aboriginal influences, visiting Darwin is truly a must on any Australian holiday.
Are you keen to explore a modern cosmopolitan city, complete with shopping, bars and dining experiences? What about checking out the region’s diverse wildlife and adventure activities in nearby national parks like Litchfield and Kakadu? How about satisfying your tastebuds by sampling the best cuisine the Territory has to offer? Then Darwin is for you.
Darwin has a storied history and remains the best place to sample the laid-back Aussie lifestyle. Visitors to Darwin are pleasantly surprised by the friendly locals, picturesque scenery and cosmopolitan atmosphere of one of Australia’s most exciting tourist destinations.
Just a quick glance at a map of Darwin reveals that Australia’s northern-most capital city has plenty to offer – both in the city itself and outside of it.
A few fast facts
- Travelling by air to Darwin from interstate and overseas is a breeze. The modern, well-equipped airport is just a few hours’ flight from every major airport in Australia, as well as international hubs like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
- The weather is warm to hot all year round, with an average temperature of 30°C
- The annual Darwin Lions Beer Can Regatta is the biggest – and only – beer can regatta in the world. Participants build boats, yachts and other seafaring vessels out of beer cans in the hope they’ll float. It’s all for a good cause, with the money raised going to a number of local and national charities
- Darwin was named by Lt. John Lort Stokes in honour of his former shipmate Charles Darwin, the famous British evolutionist. Charles Darwin never actually visited the area
- Darwin has had a bit of a turbulent history - the city was bombed extensively during WWII and was razed to the ground by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day 1974. But it hasn’t affected the city’s spirit. You’ll always be met with a smile in Darwin!
Here are five must-sees, along with some top tours and DIY trips with plenty of info about things to do in Darwin.
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
The first stop on your Darwin adventure should be the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. Darwin’s principal art gallery showcases some of the best Aboriginal art Darwin and indeed Australia has to offer, including sculpture, paintings, hunting gear and musical instruments. See the creative process first hand, and learn about what makes Aboriginal art unique.
Get the low-down on Darwin’s maritime history as an important seaport before finding out about Australia’s closest neighbours at the Southeast Asia exhibition. Learn the story of Cyclone Tracy, one of Australia’s most devastating natural disasters, before getting a selfie with Sweetheart – a 5m saltwater crocodile, the museum’s most popular resident. Don’t worry, she won’t eat you... she’s stuffed!
Defence of Darwin Experience
Also known as the Darwin Military Museum or Darwin war museum, this is the city’s must-see military experience, telling the tale of its wartime importance. Many overseas visitors and indeed locals are not aware of the role the city played in the Second World War.
Darwin was bombed extensively by Japanese fighter jets in 1942, which resulted in the displacement of more than half the city’s residents. See how the city helped the Allied Forces fight back and win the war.
Mindil Beach & Mindil Beach Sunset Markets
The Mindil Beach Sunset Markets are a must do for locals and tourists alike. Held on Thursdays and Sundays between May and October at Mindil Beach, they’re the perfect place for visitors to sample the cuisine and check out the local arts and crafts.
Check out the many stalls while being entertained by local buskers and magicians – all with the background of a famous Darwin sunset. Wind down after a long day by grabbing some Indonesian Barbecue at Sari Rasa Sate; or try a kangaroo, buffalo or crocodile burger at the Road Kill Cafe, if you’re game!
Far from just Mindil, there are a variety of Darwin markets to check out, including Nightcliff, Parap and Rapid Creek Markets. You can pick up a crocodile tooth necklace to show everyone you’ve been to the Territory!
Wave Lagoon & Darwin Waterfront
Anyone who has been to Australia’s Top End knows it can get hot, so the Wave Lagoon in Darwin, on the city’s waterfront, will swiftly become a priority during your visit!
The man-made wave lagoon allows you to catch some waves while ensuring that you’re safe from crocodiles and stingers. Then sit back at one of the Darwin Waterfront cafes or bars, while sampling a local beer or a fresh juice.
George Brown Botanic Gardens
Just north of the CBD sits Darwin’s George Brown Botanic Gardens, a century-old showcase of local flora and fauna. The gardens provide visitors with insight into the delicately balanced local eco-system.
If your feet are feeling heavy, don’t fear! Simply sign up for a Segway tour to glide effortlessly through the botanic gardens of Darwin, or relax with some delicious refreshments from Eva’s Botanic Gardens Café.
Outback Floatplane Adventures
How do you land a floatplane in Australia’s secluded north without a runway? Outback Floatplane Adventures will answer that one for you, although you can probably guess.
See how this important aspect of local transport has been interwoven with Darwin’s history. Strap yourself in as your skilled and experienced pilot lands on a lagoon!
Where else could you experience a helicopter ride, a floatplane flight, a trip on an airboat and a cruise all in the one day?
Ethical Adventures NT
Darwin is situated on the doorstep of a precious and untouched wilderness. Ethical Adventures NT emphasise that guests are not simply tourists, but partners in “fun, adventure and discovery”. Learn about the natural environment on a flexible tour schedule to Litchfield National Park, spot wildlife at Fogg Dam or enjoy a swim at Berry Springs. Better yet, tours include homemade food and drinks. Ethical Adventures NT is ranked second for Outdoor Activities on TripAdvisor.
Wetland Cruises – Corroboree Billabong
While Darwin has plenty for the active, there’s also a lot on offer for those who want to rest their weary legs and take in some of the region’s most beautiful natural scenery, such as Corroboree Billabong Wetland Cruises.
That said, being part of the Mary River Wetlands, which is home to more saltwater crocs than anywhere else on the planet – and you will be close enough to touch them (seriously though, don’t!) – Corroboree Billabong is also a great tour for the adventurous, and has won the TripAdvisor certificate of excellence for the past three years in a row.
Feel like getting out on a slightly larger schooner? Then jump on Sail Darwin’s luxurious 50-foot catamaran and take to the open ocean.
Kick back with the Champagne Sunset Sail or learn about traditional Indigenous customs by visiting the Tiwi Islands Aboriginal communities. There’s no better way to experience Darwin’s waterways than from the comfort of a sailboat where you can fish right off the deck.
Do it yourself
If you’d prefer to hire a car and set out on a self-guided tour, Darwin and its surrounds have heaps of amazing trails, nature parks, camping grounds and natural wonders. Here’s a couple of our favourite options.
Litchfield National Park & Berry Springs Nature Park
Travelling should of course be about action and adventure, but it should also include a decent smattering of relaxation. The Berry Springs Nature Park is a former military base which has been refurbished, and is one of the most beautiful parks for cooling off and relaxing. Even better, it isn’t too far from Darwin.
The park is usually open from May to November, though dates are subject to variation. Pack plenty of water in the car, and take off for the one-hour trip from Darwin to Berry Springs. If you’re feeling in the picnic mood, pick yourself up some lunch from Tommo’s Pies before you leave Darwin – they offer excellent takeaway Aussie fare. If you forget your picnic basket, fear not – there’s an excellent kiosk at Berry Springs.
Berry Springs has fresh waterholes perfect for swimming and a range of bushwalking tracks, along with a picnic area suitable for the whole family. Be sure to double check signage to make sure the waterholes are open for swimming – the area has been known to attract rogue crocodiles after heavy rainfall during the wet season, although they’re swiftly removed by local rangers. However, always remember to Be Crocwise when you are near Top End waterways.
If you’re tempted to continue overnight, the Berry Springs Caravan Park is always a popular option, before getting up to continue on to Litchfield the following morning.
Litchfield National Park has some of the world’s most stunning wetlands, waterfalls, wildlife and rock formations. And with the distance from Darwin to Litchfield National Park around 120km, it’s an easy day trip if you’re short on time.
You can cool down in the Buley Rockhole natural waterhole, splash about at the base of the Florence Falls, or take a refreshing time-out at Wangi Falls. All the while you’ll be surrounded by the pristine natural beauty that is Litchfield.
If fauna-spotting is more for you, be sure to check out the famous magnetic termite mounds, which are 2m tall marvels of natural engineering. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for native wildlife of all shapes and sizes, from flying foxes and dingoes, to frill-necked lizards.
Grab a guided tour with one of the many great tour operators in the Northern Territory who offer informative and reasonably priced day tours from Darwin in air-conditioned comfort.
Kakadu & Katherine
The distance from Darwin to Katherine is around 320km. You can drive there directly from Darwin, or even better, take the Nature’s Way Drive, where you can spend a few days exploring Kakadu on your way to Katherine. The drive is a sealed loop suitable for a two-wheeler, although we recommend a four-wheeler for the more adventurous traveller. That way you can take the dirt roads to famous hot spots like Twin Falls and Jim Jim Falls.
Follow the Stuart Highway – one of the longest roads in the world, extending all the way to Adelaide – before turning left onto the Arnhem Highway, which will take you across the scenic Marrakai Plains.
If you have time along the way, you can get your blood pumping by joining a Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise along the Adelaide River. Watch as these giant crocodiles jump out of the water to catch their lunch. The hour long tours are offered daily.
Kakadu National Park is UNESCO World Heritage listed, and is also the largest national park in Australia. At almost 20,000 square kilometres, it’s almost half the size of Switzerland! The park is known all over the world for its natural beauty and array of native animals, including the short-eared rock wallaby and the black wallaroo.
While in the park itself, the world is your oyster. There are loads of must-see locations dotted along the Nature’s Way Drive. Experience an unforgettable sunset at Ubirr. Learn about Aboriginal culture through ancient rock art at Nourlangie. Soar above the escarpment to witness the thundering waterfalls of Twin and Jim Jim Falls. Then relax in style after a day of exploring at the iconic Mercure Crocodile Hotel or Cooinda Lodge.
When you’re ready to move on – and if that takes days, it takes days! – continue south from Kakadu to Katherine. The Nitmiluk National Park, home of the stunning Nitmiluk Gorge, is a must-see.
Take in a boat cruise and marvel at the majestic walls of the gorge, and be sure to keep your eyes peeled for ancient Aboriginal art.
If you’ve got the time, the Jatbula Trail is an unforgettable five or six-day trek, which will take you from Nitmiluk Gorge to Leliyn/Edith Falls, showing off the full beauty of the area. The best time is during the cooler months of June to September, and bookings are essential.
Of course, if you don’t feel like driving, there are plenty of guided tours from Darwin, and some operators also do Darwin to Katherine day tours – although be prepared for a long day!
Need to know
Best time to visit: When talking about seasons, Darwin locals won’t mention summer and winter – instead it’s 'wet’ and 'dry’. If you prefer to travel in the tourist low season and love the thought of watching magnificent storms roll across the ocean every afternoon, then a visit during the wet season from November to April is for you. If you are one for clear blue skies, balmy nights and warm days, then visit during the dry season between May and October. The dry season also brings heaps of great NT events to experience!
How to get here: Darwin International Airport (DRW) has frequent connections to Australian domestic locations and international cities such as Denpasar, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. There’s a 24-hour shuttle service from the airport to the city and back, along with taxi options. If you are in no rush, the Ghan railway connects Darwin in the north with Adelaide in South Australia. There are also some great self-drive routes, which are perfect for a road trip and will give you the opportunity to take in the iconic NT landscapes!
Getting around: No matter what you’ve got in store while you’re in town, getting around Darwin is simple. The city is small enough to walk to most places, while the flat geography means cycling is also popular – but don’t forget to wear a helmet! Many hostels and hotels offer bike rentals. If you want to check out Darwin without getting tired legs, then the Hop On Hop Off Darwin Explorer is perfect for hunting out the city’s numerous attractions.
Passes and permits: If you’re heading out of Darwin on an adventure, you’ll be glad to know that most national parks in the Top End are free. But you’ll need to pay an entry fee for Kakadu – the pricing structure is seasonal and 100% of revenue is invested back into the park. Camping fees generally apply in all the parks. If you’re travelling through Aboriginal land, get yourself an entry permit – talk with the Northern Land Council or the Tiwi Land Council.
Plan ahead: Darwin itself is generally warm to hot, so summer gear and sun protection are a must. You might need a light jumper in the evenings. If you’re heading out of town to explore, always plan ahead. Bring sun protection, fly/insect protection and plenty of water; stock up on fuel; consult a map; check for adverse conditions like fires and floods with Secure NT; rent a satellite phone or UHF radio; talk with locals about your itinerary; make sure someone knows where you’re going and when you’re expected to return; and invest in some comfy walking shoes.
Safety: You should always be aware of crocodiles in Top End waterways. Please only swim in designated areas and always Be Crocwise.
Where to go next: So you’ve seen everything Darwin has to offer? Make sure you explore the surrounding areas like Litchfield National Park, Katherine and Kakadu. And any journey to the Northern Territory isn’t complete without a trip to Alice Springs, where you can explore Uluru and Kings Canyon. There are daily flights from Darwin to Alice Springs Airport, or you can take the scenic route with the famous Ghan railway experience.