It might be bordered by some spectacular sights, but that’s no good reason to rush off before you’ve seen the real Darwin.
When coming in for a touchdown in the Northern Territory capital, a view of emerald-blue waterways lined with dusky orange sand bars and vast expanses of land is enough to get anyone bouncing in their window seat, keen as anything to get out to explore.
But stop right there. Please don’t make the rookie error of exiting this tropical city on Darwin tours without becoming acquainted with its one-of-a-kind, vibrant personality.
1. Darwin waterfront
Start off at the Darwin Waterfront Precinct. Located on the lands of the Larrakia – also known as the saltwater people – this spot has long been a hub of activity.
Today, it’s a place of relaxation and family fun with crocodile-safe swimming areas, playgrounds, restaurants, parklands and shopping areas.
Family days are best enjoyed at Darwin Waterfront.
2. Darwin Wave Lagoon
The Darwin Wave Lagoon is one of Darwin Waterfront Precinct’s main attractions, especially for kids.
A crocodile and jellyfish-free chlorine and saltwater pool, the lagoon operates on a 20-minute cycle that creates waves of varying sizes. It also includes a shallow area for little ones and sun loungers for big ones.
You don’t need to go too far to catch some waves.
3. Darwin Harbour Cruises
Set sail from Stokes Hill Wharf at Darwin Waterfront Precinct with Darwin Harbour Cruises.
Best planned during the golden hour, book a cruise with options that include seafood dinners, ‘gaze and graze’ platters or simply your own camera, as you drink in the view as the sun sinks behind the waterline.
This romantic experience lasts two to three hours and includes onboard commentary.
A romantic cruise with a beautiful sunset backdrop.
4. Darwin beaches
When the heat of the day presses down, an ocean beach is hard for anyone to resist. Stay safe from crocs and stingers at the seawall-protected beach at the Darwin Waterfront.
During the dry season (May to October) you can Mindil Beach, Casuarina Beach and Nightcliff Beach are patrolled on various days.
Darwin beaches boast spectacular sunset views.
5. Darwin Deckchair Cinema
Settle into the warm evening, cold beer in hand, as the film rolls. Run by the Darwin Film Society, the independent Deckchair Cinema is a local treat, showing alternative films in the open air on Darwin Harbour.
Each night from 6pm, a different local caterer dishes up dinner, with Indonesian, Sri Lankan and Nepalese food just some of those on rotation. Check out what films are showing here.
Darwin Deckchair Cinema provides open air entertainment.
6. Darwin Botanic Gardens
Get a taste of the tropics without leaving town, by taking a stroll in the rainforest gully of the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens.
As well as the gully – which has its own waterfall – families can start off at the Visitor and Event Centre to learn more about plants that are native to the Northern Territory, like tropical orchids and bromeliads, frangipanis, teapot baobab tree.
End an afternoon exploration with iced tea at Eva’s Café in the historic Wesleyan Church, or with a run around at the children’s playground.
Spend your weekend mornings at Darwin Botanic Gardens.
7. Darwin markets
Mindil Beach Sunset Market
Just across the way from the gardens, you’ll find the Mindil Beach Sunset Market. One of Darwin’s most famous markets, the nighttime market runs on Thursday evenings in the dry season, with vendors dishing out a dizzying array of food.
We’re talking locally shucked oysters, Indonesian satay sticks, tropical juices and ice cream, charcoal octopus, and spiced laksa. You can also pick up souvenirs, like opals and crocodile leather.
Drop by the Mindil Market to buy some great souvenir finds.
Parap Village Markets
If you’re visiting at any other time of year (or you just can’t get enough of), the Parap Village Markets are open every Saturday morning, 8am-2pm.
Take your pick of fresh, local fruits, vegetables and other produce, grab a bunch of sweet-smelling flowers from the tropics, peruse the specialist crafts, or just go straight for a smoothie to sip as you tap your feet to live music.
While in town for the morning, stop by Laundry Gallery, a new Aboriginal-owned multidisciplinary creative hub housed in a seventies-era laundromat. Monthly art exhibitions and workshops are run by local Aboriginal elders.
Laundry Gallery features a curated selection of artisan works. (Image: Laundry Gallery Pty Ltd)
8. Crocosaurus Cove
Forget swimming with sharks. Instead, prepare your best toothy grin (even if it’s simply out of sheer nerves), as you face down a saltwater croc in an underwater cage. Crocosaurus Cove is the only place in the country where you can swim with a crocodile.
If climbing into the ‘Cage of Death’ is less a thrilling adventure, and more akin to your worst nightmare – the type where you wake up sweating – no dramas.There is also the big croc feeding show, the chance to feed baby crocs yourself, and a reptile house that little ones will love.
Resident crocodile at Crocosaurus Cove.
9. Darwin museums
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
Spend a morning walking around the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT), home to the annual Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA).
As well as ongoing collections – like Transformation: a fascinating representation of the evolutionary timeline of the natural world, Cyclone Tracey: an exhibition on how the devastating hurricane tore through town in 1974, and a collection of traditional boats and canoes – there are seasonal exhibitions, workshops and tours suitable for all ages.
Gaze at MAGNT’s Cyclone Tracy display.
Darwin Military Museum
Another way to cool off on a hot day, while also learning more about Darwin and her past, is to spend an hour or two at the Darwin Military Museum.
A popular final stop on the Darwin History and Wartime Experience Tour (one of our favourite Darwin tours), the museum is home to the interactive Defence of Darwin Experience.
Commemorating the 1942 bombing of Darwin by the Japanese forces in WW2, the display includes first-hand accounts of the event by witnesses.
You can also explore the photographs, artefacts, weapons, propaganda and interviews from those deployed in the Boer War to today, as well as military vehicles and artillery pieces in the tropical gardens.
A World War II vehicle displayed at Darwin Military Museum.
RFDS Darwin Experience
Want to learn more about the bombing of Darwin? The Royal Flying Doctor Service Tourist Facility tells both this story, and the one of the founding of the service which took to the skies in the NT in 1939.‘Fly’ with an RFDS Pilot in virtual reality as a ‘patient’; watch a hologram of Reverend John Flynn, the Founder of the Flying Doctor Service, as he tells his story; and climb into a RFDS Pilatus PC 12 aircraft.
Kids can also learn while playing an interactive game and with digital painting.
Experience flying above Darwin’s jagged terrains. (Image: RFDS Darwin)
Darwin Aviation Museum
Fill some time walking around the museum and purpose-built hangar to take in the impressive collection of aviation artefacts at the Darwin Aviation Museum.
This includes a B-25 Mitchell and an enormous B-52G bomber, as well as the wreckage of a Japanese Zero fighter, shot down during WW2, a replica Spitfire MVIII, a F-111C interdictor and tactical strike aircraft and much more.
Other exhibits pay tribute to famous female aviators, as well as displaying the only known colour film of the bombing of Darwin during WW2.
A replica of Spitfire MK VIII. (Image: Darwin Aviation Museum)
10. Fannie Bay Gaol
Drop a much-appreciated gold coin donation to spend an hour exploring this fascinating slice of Darwin’s history: the Fannie Bay Gaol.
Run as a prison from 1883 till 1979, the oppressive makeup of the gaol speaks to its past as a jail for both men and women, execution site and Army and Air Force base.
11. WW2 Oil Tunnels
Built during WW2 to keep the precious oil safe hidden, these tunnels were in fact never used during the war years.For less than $10, family members can explore, and read up at the tunnel’s displays that speak to the city’s rich WW2 history.