Darwin’s always been a fascinating place to visit, historically more town than city, more shorts and socks than skinny jeans. But over past few years, fed by the magnetic energy of the tropical seasons, a multicultural heart (both indigenous and international) and wave after wave of energetic people moving there from “down South” the place has developed a Big City, dare we say hipster, cooler side, writes Steve Madgwick. 

The Top End’s capital is a natural stopover for your big ticket outback must-do’s, such as Kakadu and Nitmiluk (formerly Katherine) Gorge, but ever increasing pockets of laid-back urbanity mean the place is no longer just a pit stop on your Territory adventure. Here’s where and why Darwin is down with kool kids.

Sunsets, stars, tunes & whisky sours

Darwin’s nightlife has a raucous reputation. A wander along a certain couple of blocks in the famous Mitchell Street and you’ll probably agree that it is well deserved. But outside this lively backpacker magnet, the nightlife and entertainment options are quietly and calmly blossoming, in all directions.

The local’s pick: For a unencumbered beverage and an unobstructed outlook over a classic Top End sunset, many Darwinites will rightfully recommend Darwin Ski Club. Grab a table on the manicured lawns, choose your fave bottled beer and watch the boats bob up and down in Fannie Bay, the palm trees reminding you that, hey, you’re in the tropics now. The bistro food here is also on the rise.

Musical secret: Tuesdays nights at Nirvana (on Smith Street) are jam night with plenty of talented Darwin musicians picking up a sax’ or playing impromptu drum sets. Fantastic cocktails – try the whisky sour – and Thai/Malay/Indian food is consistently flavoursome too.

Cinematic stars: The open-air Deckchair Cinema (July to September) has very little chance of being interrupted by rain and screens an intelligent array of films seven nights a week (on the Darwin Waterfront). There’s a licensed bar to help you enjoy the show (no BYO) with double-session marathons for the buffs.

Cruising the harbour: The pick of the Darwin harbour cruises (of which there is a few) is the relaxed Champagne Sunset Dinner Cruise with Sail Darwin. Recline and quaff bubbles on a 50ft-ocean-going luxury catamaran ($95 for three hours).

Dare to be different? Try a Darwin-flavoured drag show at Throb (Smith Street). Don’t be put off by the kitschy name, this joint attracts open-minded Darwinites from all walks of life.

Dining out or taking away from the source

Darwin has long since shed its reputation as a steak and a stubby city, thanks mainly to strong multicultural (in particular Asian) influences. Hanuman (on Mitchell Street, away from Backpacker Central) successfully executes a wide range of Indian and South-East Asian dishes in an airy, high-ceilinged, street-fronted space. You might want to try the ‘Meen Moolie’, a creamy curry starring local barramundi.

Impress-a-guest options aplenty: Pee Wees on the Point for fine dining with a view; Char for “innovative local cuisine”; Il Lido (Waterfront) for fresh seafood and “modern Australian”. There are also plenty of family-friendly restaurants and cafes (and mainstreamish shopping opps) at Cullen Bay Marina.

Something different: Try The Laksa House (Stuart Highway) for some scrumptious West Timorese food in the vibrant and fun atmosphere of a converted carpark (you may have to share a table). Owner Amye Un’s lively personality is as much a highlight as the cuisine. Keep an eye out for the chicken shrines.

Pop-up Italian: Cucina Sotto Le Stelle, a quirky woodfired pizza and pasta pop-up venue, serves its wares on the grass of Nightcliff foreshore, attracting Darwin’s into-Italian-crowd on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Fresh off the boat: Feel like some fresh barra’? Head down to Darwin Fish Market at Fisherman’s Wharf where you can buy straight off the boat. Small in scale but big in fish.

The caffeine crusade

Nothing speaks inner-city cred like access to seriously grown-up coffee. Newbie Alley Cats Patisserie (Mitchell Street) pours a cultured cup of your choice and purveys yummy in-house puff pastries and a-maz-ing sour dough.

The Pearl (Vic Arcade) is a chic and consistent choice for breakfast or a piece of rich chocolate cake, with big city coffee options in a relaxed bo-ho vibe.

It’s getting easier and easier to get your ristretto et al fix – try also Four Birds, Coffee Nut, Java Spice and the Laneway Café in Parap.

Market city & on the hunt for indigenous art

Your market personality test? A tropical climate breeds outdoor shopping and Darwin is ridiculously well serviced in this respect. Short-time visitors end up at Mindil Markets (Thursdays and Sundays) for its food stalls (fantastic fresh oysters), tourist trinkets, live music and beachy keen sunsey views. Locals reckon Mindil can be a “a little touristy” though – it certainly pulls in the crowds on Sundays.

Where the locals go: Parap (Saturdays), Nightcliff (Sundays) and Rapid Creek (Sundays) markets give more of a taste of the real Darwin and a snapshot of local life. Try a breakfast laksa or sate your wildest mango fantasies (sticky mango rice at Rapid Creek is sublime) at either of the fresh-food-heavy facilities.

Where Indigenous art thou? There are a handful of galleries that offer quality art hailing from around the entire Northern Territory, which work with outlying communities and art centres in Arnhem Land, the Tiwi Islands and the Western Desert. In the Parap area, browse Outstation and Nomad galleries and try Tiwi Art if you don’t think that you’ll make it across to the islands. Don’t expect bargain basement prices, the art is seriously good and seriously sought after. Shop around!

Festival Territory

Darwin packs a lot of its festival action into the dry season and “build-up” (to the Wet Season). May to October is peak time, but there are plenty of quirky events all year-round (see TravelNT for more).

For Dry Season action, the Top End’s answer to the Melbourne Cup, the Darwin Cup (late July, early August), is fast becoming the race that stops (this part of) the nation.
Darwin Festival festivals offer art, dance, comedy and indigenous culture that might not otherwise find its way to the city – check out the line-up and book ahead. The Darwin Fringe is also growing in popularity as the demand for non-mainstream mushrooms with the great north migration.

From the Mediterranean: Greek Glenti celebrates one of Darwin’s dominant immigrant cultures, a plate-smashing celebration of Hellenic dancing, music and most importantly cuisine centred on Bicentennial Park. Oh, did, we mention the food?

If you really must… the touristy stuff

The cult of the croc is alive and well in Darwin, and there are two ways to have a safe encounter with the prehistoric beasts. For a bit of fun tourist tack, immerse yourself in the transparent ‘Cage of Death’ at Crocosauras Cove (diving in a clear cylindrical cage) or head out of the city centre to Crocodylus Park & Zoo to learn more about the giant reptiles and witness the drama of a feeding frenzy.

Kids in tow? There are not many large bodies of water where you can swim croc-free in the Top End, but you can catch an (artificial) wave at the Darwin Waterfront Wave Lagoon without the worry of box jellyfish or Darwin’s favourite topic of conversation snacking on you.