Planning on visiting Australia and want to know what at the best things to do in Darwin? Australia’s smallest capital, Darwin sits in the centre-north of the country, facing the Timor Sea to the north and thousands of miles of dusty outback to the south. Its neighbourhood is one of the most dramatic climates on this planet, with a distinct hot and dry season – it doesn’t rain at all for six months a year, and constantly floods for the next six.
Despite this, lots of funky animals live around Darwin – it’s this area that really pays homage to Australia’s reputation for having the most lethal creatures in the world.
Saltwater crocodiles, box jellyfish, taipan snakes and bull sharks all call this area of the Northern Territory home – and while you won’t be running into any of these creatures on the streets of urban Darwin, there are reminders of them lurking all over the territory.
So have I sold this small, sweltering, overdramatic city which is surrounded by potentially lethal animals to you yet? If not, let me tell you about the spectacular scenery that such a harsh wet and dry season creates. The national parks surrounding Darwin are out of this world: with waterfalls, plateaus, riverbeds and many more landscapes to explore.
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Or what about the fascinating Indigenous culture that calls the Top End home? As Aboriginal people originally travelled to Australia from Asia, Darwin was one of the first places that they reached and settled in.
And it was a long time ago; there is rock art around the area dating back 40,000 years. This has resulted in a great deal of cultural development and history that is just waiting to be explored in Darwin and the surrounding areas!
And then there’s Darwin city itself, of course. One thing you can count on is that you won’t be cold here – it has an average temperature of 30 degrees Celsius, with only a 6-degree difference between the averages of its coldest and warmest months.
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During the dry season, many backpackers in Australia temporarily live in Darwin to work – this twinned with the fact that Australian bar laws are more relaxed in the territory means that there’s really no livelier place to be during these months!
But there’s a hip side to Darwin too – which is seen in the markets, art galleries and cafes that are springing up all over the city. And if you’re travelling with children, it’s easy to stay out of the backpacker area and to just enjoy the best things to do in Darwin with kids.
Oh, and the city’s been home to some pretty interesting recent history, which can all be explored through the many Darwin attractions. From its involvement in World War Two to natural disasters that have shaken the area, history fans will love exploring Darwin – a city that proves that you don’t have to be large to make an impact.
Best things to do in Darwin
Charles Darwin National Park
Charles Darwin National Park is a great spot for enjoying the Northern Territory’s unique nature, Aboriginal heritage and World War Two history. There are mountain bike trails spanning the park, with lookouts over Darwin’s skyline.
Other popular locations within the park are the World War Two bunkers, which detail the war history of Darwin; in particular, describing the explosives that were used in the area.
Military Museum Darwin
Discussing mainly Australia’s involvement in WWII (with a particular emphasis on the Japanese bombing of Australia), but also touching on other wars that the country has been involved in, the military museum is well worth a visit – especially if you’re from Europe and were never educated about the Second World War in the Eastern Hemisphere!
The museum includes exhibits like a very immersive film depicting the bombings, original uniforms and weaponry, photographs from the era and lots of information about all wars that Australia has been involved in from the Boer War to the 21st century.
The museum is very emotive, but is definitely a necessary visit to understand more about Darwin’s history and how it became the place it is today.
Mindil Beach Markets
Hosted every Thursday and Sunday, Mindil Beach Markets are a great way to enjoy a sunset (the beach is west-facing which guarantees a spectacular display), to grab dinner at one of the many street food stalls and to catch some live entertainment.
The markets sell everything from world foods (due to its proximity to Asia, Darwin sells some delicious food from its neighbouring continent), to Aboriginal art, to top-end memorabilia.
There’s normally a musician playing the didgeridoo, and the markets spill out onto the sands, where you can relax and watch the sun go down. Just don’t be tempted to take a dip – saltwater crocodiles are often spotted in the sea here!
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is one of the best free things to do in Darwin. Depicting the natural and social history of Darwin – including many Aboriginal exhibits – the MAGNT gives visitors a great idea of what survival actually means in the Northern Territory.
One of the highlights of the museum is Sweetheart – the 5.1 metre long crocodile who was sadly killed due to human intervention. The exhibition featuring Sweetheart does express exactly how dangerous saltwater crocodiles are in the Northern Territory, with some unbelievable facts and figures, but reminds visitors to treat these creatures with respect – they were here long before we were, after all!
Another must-visit within the museum is the Cyclone Tracy exhibition. This natural phenomenon quite literally rocked Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974. It took 65 lives and destructed most of the city; changing its face forever.
The exhibition is very hands-on, with an aural experience where guests can actually hear how the cyclone ripped through the city. It was rated highly by Bill Bryson in his Australia travelogue In a Sunburned Country, and I must say I agree with him!
Hang Out on Mitchell Street
Darwin’s Mitchell Street is the road that gives the city its reputation for being somewhat rowdy – it’s where all the bars and clubs (and the party hostels!) are congregated. If you’re in the mood to party, you’ll definitely find somewhere to have a few drinks and dance until the early hours.
Pre-drinks are often held at Shenanigans (although beware that some of their themed nights can be a tad on the tacky side!); if you’re after a ‘til the sun comes up kind of place, check out Monsoons and for somewhere a little classier head to The Deck Bar.
Mitchell Street is worth a walk down even if you aren’t in the party mood, just to take in the touristy-ness of it all – it’s a shock to the system if you’ve arrived in Darwin after travelling through the outback!
It’s also the base of a lot of Darwin’s shops, and Mitchell Street and Darwin, in general, is home to a lot of different food styles, due to its proximity to Asia and its international population.
Take a dip in the lagoon
Due to the overwhelming presence of man-eating or lethally poisonous animals in the waters around Darwin, swimming is highly unadvisable. Luckily, the council have found a solution to this problem by creating an enclosed swimming space that no crocs or jellyfish can get into. If you’ve ever felt Darwin’s heat, you’ll know that this is an absolute blessing!
Near the lagoon is the wave pool – one of the best things to do in Darwin with kids. It costs a little extra to enter the wave pool area, but it’s good fun for people of all ages - and a great way to replicate being in the actual sea!
Sky City Casino
Sky City Casino is enjoyable, even if you’re not there to gamble; there’s a lovely pool area with views over palm trees and surrounding beachfront. It is great to cool off after a day’s sightseeing. Also attached to the casino/ hotel is a spa offering a range of treatments and separate outdoor baths.
You can stay at Sky City Casino to enjoy all of these features and more on your doorstep!
Where to stay in Darwin
The following hotels were hand-picked for you as they are conveniently located in the city centre, close to the beach, attractions and amenities.
The best things to do around Darwin
Kakadu National Park
Probably the most brilliant jewel in Darwin’s crown, Kakadu National Park is an absolute spectacle – and the main reason why many people journey to Darwin in the first place.
Perfect for those who love rugged, natural beauty, camping under the stars, four-wheel driving and hidden waterfalls, there’s enough to do in Kakadu to last a week. To see the highlights, however, you only need three days.
The best parts of the park are:
- Cahill’s Crossing, a place where you can safely watch saltwater crocodiles in their natural environment (from a lookout!) as they travel upstream every day.
- Gunlom Falls, natural infinity pools that look out over the spectacular landscape and make for a very refreshing dip.
- Jim Jim Falls, waterfalls only accessible by a four-wheel drive (with very high clearance!). The falls can only be driven to in the dry season but can be enjoyed by scenic flight in the wet.
Kakadu can be visited independently (it costs $40 per person for entrance, which goes towards maintenance of the park and supports the Indigenous communities of the area) or by many tour operators running from Darwin.
Litchfield National Park
Litchfield National Park can be done on a day trip from Darwin and is much more accessible than Kakadu; all of the park’s highlights can be reached by a 2WD vehicle. It is home to short walks, waterfalls, viewpoints and a very interesting collection of termite mounds!
Those with more time and a 4WD vehicle can explore tracks such as the one leading up to ‘The Lost City’.
Litchfield is free to visit and can be driven to independently. For those without a vehicle, many tour groups also visit the park.
A very easy day trip from Darwin, Berry Springs is a rural nature park – home to one of the Northern Territory’s favourite swimming holes. After the wet season, visitors can enjoy native flowers throughout the park, and the monsoon forest and woodlands walk can be hiked throughout the dry season – it’s a great place to spot some native birds.
It’s another place to learn about World War Two in Darwin, with history about the armed forces based in the area. There are picnic and barbecue facilities within the nature park, so it’s perfect for an entire day out.
One of Australia’s prime Aboriginal history destinations, the Tiwi Islands (consisting of Bathurst and Melville Islands) are a fantastic, albeit pricey, day trip from Darwin. They are located about 100 kilometres north of the city across the sea; the ferry takes around 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Tours of the islands include learning about their unique culture - they are generally famed for their smiley people, their love of AFL (Australian Football League) and their beautiful traditional artwork.
They also feature craft-making workshops hosted by Tiwi elders, dancing and smoking ceremony displays and the beautiful diverse landscapes which include tropical rainforest and white sand beaches.
Places a little further afield (can be visited on a multi-day trip from Darwin that also includes Katherine)
Part of the charm of the Northern Territory is its location on the edge of the outback. So, even if you’re not venturing further south to Alice Springs and Uluru - if you have the time on your holiday in Darwin these spots further south are well worth checking out.
These destinations are best visited on a multi-day trip from Darwin; they are all along the same road south of the city so can be enjoyed together.
Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park
Katherine is a city in its own right, but Nitmiluk National Park which is located 60 kilometres from the city is often visited as a side-trip from Darwin. Home to the famous Katherine Gorge, the park is abundant with hiking, swimming and kayaking opportunities.
The Jawoyn Aboriginal people have populated this area for thousands of years; the culture can be learnt about by exploring the various rock sites of the park and taking a tour to discover the Dreaming stories of the region.
Also within the park are the gorgeous Edith Falls, which are only accessible by hiking.
This city isn’t huge (although it certainly felt so when I arrived there from the rugged wilderness of the Kimberley region of Western Australia!) but there are still a few fun things to do in Katherine. It’s a city where ‘the outback meets the tropics’ and its interesting geographical location means that it has a unique history and culture to explore.
Things to do in Katherine City include:
- The School of the Air – here visitors can learn about how children in remote outback communities are educated.
- Aboriginal Art Galleries depicting the traditional styles of the area.
- Katherine Springs – heated springs located close to the town centre.
Often visited on a road trip towards the Red Centre, Mataranka still makes a good day trip from Katherine. It’s a tiny settlement that was the inspiration for the novel ‘We of the Never Never’ and it features beautiful fresh springs.
The springs are thermal (although you certainly won’t be needing to warm up – it’s even hotter here than in Darwin!) and the current pushes swimmers from one end to the other. So it’s really easy to kick back and relax, letting the tide drift you around!
Be sure to check out both Mataranka Springs and Bitter Springs, which is also located in the settlement – they’re slightly different and both worth a swim.
Daly Waters Pub
If you make it out to Mataranka, I’d recommend twinning it with a visit to the Daly Waters Pub. This outback watering hole is a popular spot for travellers young and old. It features outback décor, has a friendly country atmosphere and is adorned with memorabilia from the many travellers that have passed through over the years.
There’s live music every night, and various accommodation options available on site.
Where to go from Darwin
Like many a place in Australia, Darwin is pretty isolated. The only ways out are by air, into the sea or through the outback!
Flights from Darwin leave to all major destinations in Australia and various places in Asia. It is very cheap to fly from Darwin to Bali in Indonesia.
Alternatively, some people choose to drive south (towards Alice Springs and Uluru), west (towards Broome) or east (towards Cairns). Darwin is a popular stop on a road trip around Australia.
Unless you’re on a cruise or visiting the Tiwi Islands for a day, there’s no way out via the sea – unfortunately ferries do not run all the way to the next land masses, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.
Claire Martin is a British travel blogger and freelance writer. She writes about eco-travel and overland adventures on her blog Claire’s Footsteps; she has drove around the entirety of Australia and is currently planning an overland trip through Asia and Europe