Thick hedges of bougainvillea and frangipani, arching rain trees, and swaying palms add a tropical languor to this park-filled city that juts out on a peninsula in the Arafura Sea. Built on the traditional lands of the Larrakia aboriginal people, it’s a young city, whose mock-colonial buildings were erected after the place was flattened by Cyclone Tracy in the 1970s. Although it has a few intrinsic points of interest, Darwin remains, chiefly, a gateway for exploring Australia’s Northern Territory. It’s also the terminus for The Ghan – Great Southern Rail journey across the Outback.
An airy, walkable city, Darwin is mostly all low-rises, with some not-so-low-key additions, such as Parliament House. A cross between Singapore’s Raffles and the Parthenon, the building is nicknamed ‘the wedding cake’ by locals.
Cullen Bay Marina and the waterfront are the real heart of Darwin — people gather here in the evenings to enjoy coastal-view bars, tropical drinks and high-end dining. You’ll also find two man-made lagoons here, which are popular with families and provide safe alternatives to swimming in the open ocean (not recommended in Darwin).
It does, though, host ‘sunset markets’ between April and October. These take place on Thursday and Sunday evenings on palm-bordered Mindil Beach, a short bus ride from central Darwin. Local families come in droves, armed with picnic rugs and chairs, and set up camp on the beach for the evening. Food trucks sell dishes from all over Asia, while the market stalls peddle a medley of arts and crafts, tie-dyed clothes and a smattering of fauxhemian bric-a-brac.
Darwin is awash with galleries selling indigenous art, but to get an overview of the best pieces and practitioners, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) is a good starting point. It has particularly pioneered research into rock art sites in some extremely remote locations, including the aboriginal-controlled Arnhem Land (see below).
Darwin’s best museum is arguably the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS), a tribute to the RFDS which also brings their story into the present day. Then there’s Darwin Military Museum, an interactive and, at times, hard-hitting account of the Japanese bombings the city suffered during World War II.
Its gardens display military vehicles and artillery, and it documents other conflicts involving Australia. But, the star exhibit is the short film and archive footage from the 1942–1943 attacks. Similarly, at the RFDS museum, there’s a hologram cinema which gives brings the raids to life using virtual reality.
And, right near the waterfront area, you’ll find preserved underground oil tunnels — a leftover of World War II which were kept secret for 50 years, only coming to light in the 1990s.
Litchfield National Park, a two-hour drive away, is a mosaic of monsoon forest, waterfalls, rock formations and natural pools. Its most intriguing feature is, perhaps, its eerie, tombstone-like termite mounds. Meanwhile Berry Springs Nature Park, a 40-minute drive away, has easily accessed waterfalls and swimming holes.
The wetlands and plateaux of Kakadu National Park, meanwhile, are a three-hour drive from Darwin along a sealed road. Though Kakadu trumps Litchfield in terms of scenery and wildlife, it’s less accessible and you’ll need a guide if you wish to visit some of its waterfalls and swim in their plunge basins.
And, Arnhem Land, a hinterland of unspoiled coastline, rainforest and escarpments, requires a permit to visit. It offers some of the most sacred, complex and elusive rock art sites in Australia.
Best time to visit Darwin
May to September sees Darwin (and the Top End) experience pleasantly tropical weather. Outside this period, it’s the rainy season, which cuts off access to many sites and tours.
Suggested itineraries featuring Darwin
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Map of Darwin
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Accommodation choices for Darwin
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Ideas for experiencing Darwin
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