Nestled in the far north of the Northern Territory (NT), Darwin is literally a tropical paradise: it’s the only Australian state capital with a tropical climate, making it a perfect getaway spot for travellers from cities like Sydney and Melbourne to escape from the chill and enjoy an average winter temperature of 30°C (that said, rains are frequently torrential during the monsoonal summer, so try to stick to the dry season if you can!)
Darwin has a distinct atmosphere of the tropics meeting the outback, and this former frontier outpost manages to combine an outdoorsy, overgrown small-town feel with a fascinating history, a thriving and multicultural present, and a bright future.
There’s plenty to do for nature lovers, gallery-hoppers, gourmands and sporty types alike in this gorgeous city, and it definitely deserves a spot on your Australian travel itinerary.
Lets explore the best things to do in Darwin:
1. Get up close and personal with crocodiles.
Crocodiles are quite an icon of the Northern Territory – when you hear about people (Prince Harry, for example!) wrestling crocodiles, NT is the first place that would come to mind for most Australians, as well as anyone who remembers Crocodile Dundee.
Because of the high prevalence of crocodiles in the waters around Darwin, there’s even beaches that aren’t safe to swim in, and checking those waters for a croc to wrestle might win you a Darwin Award (for silly ways to die; named after the famed anthropologist, not the Australian city!)
However, there are several places where you can enjoy getting up close and personal with these magnificent reptiles, minus the risk to life and limb.
Crocosaurus Cove offers the fearsome Cage of Death experience, where the only thing keeping you from becoming crocodile food is the cage you’re inside of as it is lowered into croc-infested waters; a video of the Cage posted to the Unilad Facebook page has been viewed over 30 million times since being posted in October 2016, to the excitement of the friendly staff at Croc Cove.
There’s also Crocodylus Park, which was founded by a crocodile biologist.
It’s a bit more on the family-friendly and a bit less on the terrifying side; however, it’s an excellent spot to get to know Darwin’s favourite massive reptile, with over a thousand crocs in the Park.
There’s also excellent informative resources on crocodiles and the many other inhabitants of the Park, from endangered iguanas to friendly, cuddly meerkats.
2. Visit the Tiwi Islands.
Tiwi Islands are a chain of nine islands 80km north of Darwin, of which the two largest are inhabited.
The vast majority of residents of these two islands are the Tiwi people, an indigenous Australian people who are believed to have lived there for at least 7,000 years; they are also the first Indigenous peoples to have made historically recorded contact with Europeans (Dutch explorers, in the early 18th Century).
It’s a fascinating place to visit to enjoy a vibrant indigenous history and culture, with a thriving local art scene that is an important part of both the culture and economy of the Tiwi Islands, and with fascinating myths and stories that play a major part in shaping their communities.
It’s also a wonderful spot for nature lovers and bird-watchers; the islands have been separate from mainland Australia since the last ice age, and there are many species that can be found here that are threatened or endangered.
It’s also the home of a sea turtle conservation program, and to 1% of the world’s population of great knots.
You’ll also find gorgeous varied lorikeets and northern rosellas here, and many other gorgeous and fascinating bird species.
Strictly speaking, there aren’t a lot of tourist attractions on the island as such, but that’s part of the charm of this off-the-beaten-track part of Australia: you’re visiting an amazing community with welcoming locals and plenty of natural beauty to enjoy.
There’s also cultural and wildlife tours available, run by the local population, so you can immerse yourself fully in the Tiwi Islands experience.
3. Chill out at the Wave Lagoon.
With reliably hot weather even in winter, the Wave Lagoon really is a perfect way to beat the heat; the views from the lagoon are gorgeous, and it’s such a beautiful spot to relax and rejuvenate as you enjoy the feeling of relaxing in a tropical resort, but without a resort price-tag.
As you might have guessed from the name, it’s a wave pool, with waves that go up to 1.7 metres at their highest, but gradually become lower depending on what part of the pool you’re swimming in: there’s even a wave-free area for the youngest visitors to enjoy.
The beaches in Darwin are generally of the croc-infested variety, so the Wave Lagoon is a great alternative, and it’s loved by visitors and locals alike.
It’s part of the Darwin Waterfront complex, so there’s plenty of shopping and eating close by.
4. Feast your eyes and mind at the Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
Art lover or a history buff? Art lover travelling with a history buff? Short on time and can’t make up your mind whether you want to visit a museum or an art gallery? At the Museum & Art Gallery (MAGNT), you can do both! The Northern Territory has a fascinating history, from its prehistoric indigenous history dating back approximately 60,000 years, to the early European settlement of Darwin as a frontier outpost, before becoming a vibrant colonial capital; learning the roots of the city and Territory will make your stay even more interesting as you can fully recognise the meanings of what you’re experiencing.
The displays in the museum and gallery are both fascinating; the gallery exhibits both contemporary and traditional art, with a focus on local artists (European and indigenous). There’s also a great café overlooking the waterfront that’s a perfect spot to unwind after a few hours on your feet checking out everything that MAGNT has to offer.
5. Cruise the Mary River wetlands.
During the “wet season”, the Mary River wetlands turn into an inland sea, full of crocodiles, and an astonishingly diverse range of fish and birds.
The wetlands are also well worth a visit during the dry season, with excellent views of the crocodiles and birds as the inland sea begins to dry out again.
You can cruise the Mary River year-round, and it’s an amazing way to get to know the local wildlife.
6. Stroll through the Darwin Botanic Gardens.
Just a short stroll from Darwin’s city centre, these lush, tropical botanic gardens showcase the local flora in all its beauty: there’s plenty of walking trails to enjoy and waterfalls to admire.
It’s hard to explain how pretty these gardens are without seeing them in person, but if you’re in Darwin, they’re absolutely unmissable!
7. Learn about Darwin’s World War II history.
Darwin was one of the few places on the Australian mainland to be directly attacked by the Japanese during WW2, with 300 bombs being dropped on the city in February 1942. You can learn about the history of Darwin’s experience in the war in various significant sites around the city, as well as the highly informative Defence of Darwin Experience, the adjacent Darwin Military Museum, the Aviation Heritage Centre, and the Cenotaph overlooking Darwin Harbour.
8. Cruise the Darwin Harbour.
The pristine waters of Darwin’s gorgeous foreshore make a perfect starting point for a relaxing cruise down the waterways of Darwin Harbour.
You can enjoy sunset views, tasting platters of local cuisine, and informative guidance on the natural and man-made attractions you’ll see during the cruise.
It’s a beautiful, popular way to get to know the marine charms of the city.
9. Learn about Aboriginal art and culture.
The Northern Territory has a fascinating indigenous history, and there’s plenty of ways to learn about it: in particular, galleries such as the Aboriginal Bush Traders, Outstation Gallery and Mbantua Fine Art Gallery are well worth a visit for art lovers, and you can enjoy excellent indigenous cultural tours at the Pudakul Aboriginal Culture tours, just under an hours’ drive from Darwin.
10. Visit the Chinese Temple and Museum Chung Wah.
Darwin is a cosmopolitan city, with a substantial Chinese population that at one point (the 1870s) even outnumbered its European population.
“Coolies” were contracted to work in the goldfields and build railways; by the end of the 19th century, the Chinese population of the Territory was approximately six thousand.
Currently, the Chinese population of Darwin sits at around 3,500 people, and Chinese Temple and Museum Chung Wah is one of the thriving focal points of the community.
The museum documents the history of the Chinese population of the Territory over more than a century, and the beautiful temple (originally built in 1887) is used daily as a place of worship.
It’s especially exciting to visit the temple during events, and during Chinese New Year you’ll also see lion dancers around the city as they bless more than 400 businesses and homes.
11. Check out the massive magnetic termite mounds.
You’ll find hundreds of huge termite-built structures here, measuring up to two metres high and complete with nursery chambers, tunnels, chimneys and more.
There’s also a formal boardwalk and platform so that you can enjoy the best views.
There’s termite mounds in every continent of the world, but only Australia has these “magnetic” mounds, named as such because they tend to align in a north-to-south direction.
12. Relax and unwind at the Douglas Hot Springs.
Making the most of your travel experience is great fun, but can also be a bit exhausting; the Douglas Hot Springs are a fantastic way to unwind and restore yourself so that you can get ready to see even more of Darwin and surrounds.
These pools form a lush oasis in dry woodlands, with pools of various temperatures (some of which are too hot to swim in, so be careful!) The area is also rich in flora and fauna; over 100 types of native birds can be spotted here, and you’ll find thousands of butterflies in the rock face of Butterfly Gorge.
13. Eat your way around the world.
Mindil Beach is gorgeous and well worth a visit in its own right, but the Sunset Markets (which run during the dry season) are an absolute must-see.
The markets are modeled after the night markets of Asia, and Darwin’s cosmopolitan flavor is at its best here, with foods from all over the world to savour.
Over 300 small businesses operate out of the markets, contributing significantly to the local economy, as well as providing a delight for visitors and locals alike.
14. Check out the sunsets and watersports at Darwin Ski Club.
With gorgeous views of the Darwin Harbour and a fantastic array of watersports, the Darwin Ski Club has been a Darwin icon for half a century.
If you’ve ever wanted to try wakeboarding or water-skiing, then this is the perfect place to give it a try: there’s also pools to cool down in and a bistro and social club.
It’s a perfect place to watch the sun set over the harbor while enjoying a lovely drink and dinner with your travel companions.
15. Enjoy the glitz and glamour of Darwin Casino.
Darwin Casino is one of the renowned Skycity chain of casinos; it was the second casino to ever open in Australia, and is the only casino in Darwin.
The interior is well-appointed, and as well as an excellent collection of tables and machines, you’ll also find world-class restaurants, elegant bars and even resort accommodation including the Skycity Infinity Pool.
Even if you’re not into gambling, it’s fun to wander around the resort and take in the beautiful setting and the plush atmosphere.