Not only is the capital of the Northern Territory a gateway to the wonders of the Top End, but it’s a heady mix of history, heritage, cocktails and culture capped off each day by one of Australia’s best sunsets.
A trip to Darwin shouldn’t be simply a stopover en route to exploring the Top End: there are plenty of reasons to linger longer in this vibrant and multicultural city that’s home to rich Indigenous culture and some of the best Southeast Asian street food you’ll find on this continent.
It’s all about markets and sunsets and cooling off with a cocktail in the evening after a warm tropical day.
Visit the Mason Gallery in Darwin. (Credit: Tourism NT /Mason Gallery)
Start your time in Darwin by exploring its compact city centre on foot: dipping into art galleries such as Mason, showcasing art collected primarily from throughout the Northern Territory; eclectic cafes like Mad Snake Cafe in the interesting Air Raid Arcade; and tracing the bright murals that are daubed in the back streets during the annual Darwin Street Art Festival.
Street Art in Darwin. (Credit: Tourism NT /Elise Cook )
And when it’s time to cool off from the tropical warmth head to the leafy shade of the Botanic Gardens or the lively Darwin Waterfront precinct, where you’ll be served up a wave pool and recreational lagoon as well as a raft of buzzy drinking and dining options.
Swim in Darwin’s Wave Pool.
Here, you’ll also find the WWII Oil Storage Tunnels, a portal to a part of Darwin’s storied history spanning ancient to modern.
Learn more at the Museum And Art Gallery Of The Northern Territory (MAGNT).
In a scenic location overlooking Fannie Bay, this absorbing museum is home to internationally renowned artistic, cultural and scientific collections; its latest exhibition, Fresh: Connecting New & Old Art (until 27 June), brings together new and historical acquisitions from its Aboriginal, Australian and Southeast Asian art collections.
You can also explore permanent displays that tell the city’s stories. Hear the roar of the category 4 Cyclone Tracy, for example, that devastated Darwin on Christmas Day 1974 and learn about how it irrevocably changed the city and its residents. MAGNT also hosts the prestigious annual Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.
Make time for the hidden gem that is the Northern Territory Library, tucked within Parliament House, with thoughtful displays that tell tales from the Territory including those of Darwin’s Traditional Owners, the Larrakia.
And stay tuned for the Larrakia Cultural Centre, currently in the planning stages but set to open at the waterfront as a cultural hub for the Larrakia people to conserve and showcase their art, history, culture and language.
How to spend 72 hours in Darwin
This gem of a national park close to the centre of Darwin boasts Aboriginal and Second World War history, wetlands and mangroves and sweeping views back to the city.
After visiting MAGNT, explore the rest that the waterside suburb of Fannie Bay has to offer, including significant historic site Fannie Bay Gaol and the Fannie Bay Coolspot for coffee.
East Point Reserve
North of Fannie Bay is East Point Reserve, 200 hectares of green space encompassing mangroves, monsoon rainforest, Lake Alexander for swimming and paddling, and Darwin Military Museum.
Designed by architect Beni Burnett, this is one of the best examples of tropical architecture in Darwin; explore its elegant surrounds before taking afternoon tea in the garden (held monthly).
It’s a short ferry ride from the city to Wagait Beach, a much-loved weekender retreat for locals with its unspoilt sands, forest walks and taste of the Top End’s tropical coastal lifestyle at Cox Country Club.
Best places to stay in Darwin
Vibe Hotel offers comfortable digs right by the waterfront action.
Stay beachside at the swish Mindil Beach Casino Resort.
Relax at the Mindil Beach Casino Resort. (Credit: Tourism NT/Nick Pincott)
Sumptuous Mandalay Luxury Stay is a self-contained villa on Darwin’s Esplanade.
Where to eat in Darwin
Ask anyone where to eat in Darwin and Mindil Beach Sunset Market will be quick off the tongue: a melting pot (operating Thursdays and Sundays during the dry season) that’s home to throngs of food stalls representing the multiculturalism of the city and hosting one of the best sunsets to boot.
Check out the food stalls at the Mindil Beach Sunset Market in Darwin. (Credit:
Tourism Australia/ Nicholas Kavo)
But it’s not the only market in town: Parap Village Markets on a Saturday is a true local’s spot that sells Darwin’s best laksa (Mary’s Laksa); Malak Marketplace, also on Saturdays and operating in the dry season, is an organic farmers’ market; while Sunday’s Nightcliff Markets makes an excellent brunch spot with the likes of local legend Ken’s Crepes and pork banh mi from Ha Hong.
For a spot of fine dining try local institution Hanuman Darwin, dishing up owner Jimmy Shu’s unique fusion of Thai, Nonya and Tamil cuisine; and for elegant al fresco Italian with a twist, a visit to pop-up Cucina Sotto Le Stelle on the Nightcliff Foreshore is a must; on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights those in the know gather here at communal tables draped with checkered tablecloths for wood-fired pizzas.
It wouldn’t be a trip to Darwin without watching the sun set over Mindil Beach. Each evening, locals and visitors alike gather on the sand to see the show: the red orb of a sun setting the sky ablaze with a painter’s palette as it inches closer to the flat-as-a-tack horizon of the Arafura Sea.
Or get out on the water itself for a sunset cruise on Darwin Harbour, Champagne in hand, with a local operator like Sea Darwin or Darwin Harbour Cruises.
Take a cruise on Darwin Harbour. (Credit:
Tourism NT/ Darwin Harbour Cruises)
Best walks in Darwin
For shady relief from the tropical heat, take to the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens just north of the CBD near Mindil Beach; its 42 hectares are threaded with walking trails through different pockets including rainforest, desert rose displays and even a collection of African and Madagascan baobab trees.
Spend some time walking through the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens. (Credit: Tourism NT /Nick Pincott)
Stop for refreshment at Eva’s Botanical Gardens Cafe in a gorgeous old church building. From here, you can also join the kilometre-long Larrakia Coastal Walk from Mindil Beach to MAGNT.
Don’t miss: Darwin’s Waterfront
Darwin’s waterfront, if you’ll excuse the cliché, really does have something for everyone: from waterside fun to the fabulous outdoor deckchair cinema and from Second World War and royal flying doctor service history to lively drinking and dining at spots like hot tamale and chow.
Conscious Traveller tip:
Head to Bare Sand Island in time for sunset with ecotourism operator Sea Darwin for a Turtle Tracks tour. View seasonal turtle nesting with passionate guides trained in marine science and know that a portion of the ticket price is donated to AusTurtle for Sea Turtle Research.