15 Things To Do In Darwin
DARWIN is a destination that punches above its weight when it comes to entertaining travellers. The Top End capital’s population hovers around 132,000 people – that’s 18,000 less than regional Cairns, across on Australia’s east coast – but there’s a long list of activities and attractions on offer to holidaymakers spending time in the sassy settlement crowning the Northern Territory.
From early morning until well after darkness descends, there’s never a dull moment in an address that boasts the larrikin charm of a frontier town mixed with an amiable atmosphere nurtured by chilled locals looking to live the good life under the tropical sun.
But what to do in Darwin? And, more importantly, when to do it? AAT Kings has put together a list of 15 unusual things to do in the Top End, and broken it down by the best time of the day to sightsee in this most tempting of destinations.
WHAT TO DO IN DARWIN – MORNING
Rising early ensures you’ll be making the most of your day in Darwin. With an average annual maximum temperature from 24 - 32C and spectacular afternoon thunderstorms during the wet season, mornings can be pleasant and dry, perfect for exploring outdoors.
1. Darwin Lagoon
Start the day with a serene – and safe -- saltwater soak at the Darwin Waterfront’s recreational lagoon, a protected corner of Darwin Harbour where nets and filters prevent dangerous aquatic creatures from sharing space with the swimmers. While the city’s waterfront precinct is popular during the day and into the evening – there are hotels, cafes, restaurants, and bars – the space is peaceful at dawn when shadows fall across the lawns to keep the area cool and quiet before the daytime heat descends.
2. Parap Village Markets
A Saturday-morning staple for Darwin locals is a stop at the Parap Village Market, with this suburban spot promising the chance to sample “the finest tropical flavours” while enjoying that “true Territory atmosphere”. These markets run between 8am and 2pm all year round – with food trucks and street stalls offering a marvellous menu of multicultural eating and drinking.
3. Darwin Botanic Gardens
Exercise is best done early, before the sun rises far from the horizon to warm another tropical day in this balmy corner of the country, making morning the best time to wander through the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens just to the north of the city centre. This lush 42ha patch of green is celebrated for its collection of northern Australian fauna, as well as gardens dedicated to showcasing species from other parts of the planet, and there’s a self-guided walk that shares stories about the manicured grounds.
Image credit: Tourism NT
WHAT TO DO IN DARWIN – NOON
Regardless of the season – and remember, there’s only two, with the year divided evenly between the wet and the dry – the list of the best things to do in Darwin gets even longer during business hours. There are plenty of indoor activities to experience in Darwin and keep visitors cool in any season.
4. Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory offer much more than just agreeable air-conditioned temperatures on a warm Top End day, with the modern Bullocky Point building home to engaging exhibitions that tell the story of life in Australia’s remote north. The moving Cyclone Tracy display details the devastating weather event now considered a “defining moment in Darwin’s history”, while Unruly Days: Territory life 1911-1921 spotlights the decade of development after the Commonwealth took control of what was previously a neglected outpost.
Image credit: Betty Kuntiwa PUMANI and Marina PUMANI BROWN - Antara 2020 - MAGNT -Charlie Bliss
5. WWII Oil Storage Tunnels
It can heat up in Darwin when the sun ascends, making midday the ideal time to disappear underground to discover another chapter of the Top End’s wartime history at the WW2 Oil Storage Tunnels a stone’s throw from the waterfront. The Civilian Construction Corps built these artificial caverns after the Japanese first bombed Darwin in February 1942, working around the clock with picks and shovels to create a space that would keep the city’s valuable fuel supplies safe from attack, with the tunnels now converted to an unexpected underground museum documenting the war in this part of the Pacific.
6. Berry Springs
With saltwater swimming banned across the Top End – thanks to the prehistoric predators that lurk below the surface of the sea – the locals retreat to nearby nature reserves to swim in freshwater streams, rock pools, and the ponds below waterfalls when the weather is at its most steamy. Berry Springs is a local favourite, with this watering hole 50km from the city centre not only boasting peaceful aquamarine pools surrounded by green monsoonal forests but shaded areas to picnic. Remember to always check and obey signs before venturing into the water to keep you and your family safe.
7. Crocosaurus Cove
The world’s largest display of Australian reptiles – including the notorious Crocodylus Porosus, or saltwater crocodile – can be found in the heart of downtown Darwin at Crocosaurus Cove. Visitors can watch a monster saltie devour its lunch at the Big Croc Feed Show, feed a jumping juvenile from the Fishing for Crocs platform, or hold a snake at a Meet the Reptiles session. There’s also the chance for those keen on getting up close with one of the menacing animals to climb into the Cage of Death – Australia’s only crocodile dive – and safely descend into the water beside one of the apex preditor.
WHAT TO DO IN DARWIN – NIGHT
The Top End is famous for its tropical sunsets, with late afternoon the ideal time to order an icy rehydrating beverage and figuratively put the feet up while watching the colour drain from another vivid day as night ascends from the east. But darkness doesn’t mean Darwin winds down, with this northern city coming alive after hours and offering everything from fine dining to marine wildlife watching.
8. Mindil Beach Sunset Markets
If there was only time to indulge in one Darwin activity, it would be a visit to the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets, with this dry-season delight best done at a relaxed rate and on an empty belly. Arrive late in the afternoon, and find a space on the sand to watch as the sky scrolls through the fiery shades of a Top End sunset, then embark on a do-it-yourself degustation by sampling the food and drink brought to this most multicultural of capital cities by those arriving across the decades from places right around the planet. There are more than 200 stalls – around 60 kiosks feeding the crowds that gather on Thursday and Saturday nights between April and October – with buskers providing the entertainment.
9. Stokes Hill Wharf
Do as the locals do on a balmy Darwin evening and head to Stokes Hill Wharf for a spot of alfresco dining under the stars that fill the Top End sky when sunset finally subsides into darkness. While there is a fine-dining option, it’s always delightful to take the laid-back approach during wet season. Order fresh seafood from the food court before watching towering thunderheads bubble in the distance and the lightning dance above the horizon as a storm dawdles across the distant reaches of Darwin Harbour.
10. Sunset cruising across Darwin Harbour
A flotilla of tourist vessels, boats of every shape and size from sleek yachts to coasting catamarans, depart Stokes Hill Wharf late in the afternoon to take locals and visitors on casual sunset cruises across Darwin Harbour. The boats drift across the carpet of sparkles put down by the setting sun, with the crew floating around the deck to serve drinks and the captain occasionally telling anecdotes about a significant location, but there’s not much more for passengers to do than sink into a comfy seat and stare at the sky.
11. Bare Sand Island turtles
Travellers with perfect timing will be lucky to descend upon Darwin on one of the few evenings when the Bare Sand Island turtles are hatching at one of the country’s most significant flatback nesting grounds. This outing involves a late-afternoon departure from Stokes Hill Wharf, and a dash across Darwin Harbour to Bynoe Harbour, arriving just in time to take in the sunset from the sand. Once darkness settles, wildlife guides lead walks along the beach letting guests “witness the eruption of hatchlings from their home under the warm sand” and scampering towards the sea to begin life in the deep blue.
12. Deckchair Cinema
There is no dusk activity more delightful than a night at Deckchair Cinema. Every evening between April and November a pretty plot of green in the Esplanade parkland beside Darwin Harbour fills with movie goers who settle into comfy chairs to watch an Aussie classic, new release, cult classic, foreign title, or a family-friendly film as the sunset gives way to a starry night’s sky.
WHAT TO DO IN DARWIN – ALL DAY
Some of the Top End’s most impressive attractions require a little more time to visit, as they are destinations hiding further from the centre of the city. While an early start is a prerequisite to reaching these locations, the landscapes or link to Territory history make it worthwhile to set the alarm to chime while the sun still sleeps.
13. Litchfield National Park
Kakadu National Park gets all the glory, but Litchfield National Park is a favourite with locals who routinely road trip the 100km of asphalt leading south from Darwin to cool down in the spring-fed ponds dotted around this protected plot. Florence and Wangi waterfalls are two popular spots to swim, with the deep freshwater pools surrounded by pandanus plants and tropical forests, while Blue Rockhole welcomes swimmers to float in a cascading collection of pretty ponds. Short walks also wind to viewing platforms positioned to take in vistas across the park, while the Tabletop Track is a more demanding multi-day tramp.
Image credit: Tourism NT
14. Adelaide River
While most travellers only see a snippet of Adelaide River while breaking the journey between Katherine Gorge/Nitmiluk and Darwin, this village beside the Stuart Highway that’s home to 250 residents is worthy of a little more attention. The hamlet’s pub is surrounded by shady trees making it the ideal place for a barramundi lunch, the old station is now a museum, and the town is home to one of Australia’s few World War Two cemeteries. The manicured grounds provide a final resting place to 434 servicemen and 63 civilians killed across the Top End, including the nine civilian post office workers that died during the first Japanese air raid to hit the city on February 19 in 1942.
15. Tiwi Islands
The Tiwi Islands – the side-by-side plots on the north side of the Beagle Gulf nicknamed the “Islands of Smiles” – are one of Australia’s hidden tourism gems. Bathurst and Melville islands have not yet found a place on the tourist trail and promise spectacular coastal scenery, friendly locals ready to share their stories, a thriving First Nations arts community, and a passion for Aussie Rules football. The islands, which sit a short ferry ride from Darwin, also boast a heaped helping of modern history with the destinations playing a significant role in the World War Two defence of Australia.
DARWIN WITH AAT KINGS
Touring Australia’s tropical Top End is a must-do moment for anyone keen on experiencing a unique side of Australia.
AAT Kings offers a suite of hosted holidays focusing on this remote region, including magical day-long tours like Litchfield National Park Waterfalls and Tiwi Islands Aboriginal Cultural Tour curated to show guests two Territory destinations that should be on every thoughtful traveller’s to-do list.
Holidaymakers keen on dedicating more time to dawdling around Darwin should add a pre or post-tour stay to a longer itinerary like Top End Highlights. This six-day journey completes an anti-clockwise circuit from the capital that takes in Kakadu and Litchfield national parks as well as Katherine Gorge/Nitmiluk.