Things to Do in Darwin
In the far reaches of Australia’s Northern Territory, the rough and tumble outpost of Darwin is a hotbed of quintessential Australian adventure, and none more so than a cruise on the Adelaide River to see the legendary jumping crocodiles, which can grow upwards of 20 feet long. Salt-water crocodiles are some of the most fearsome and notorious wild animals in the Australian bush, and the Adelaide River literally teems with them—don’t plan to take a swim during a day on the water.
Experienced guides control the experience so you can see these incredible prehistoric reptiles from the comfort and safety of a boat. And while the crocs are certainly the highlight of a trip to the river, you can see plenty of other wildlife along the way, including wild buffalo and white-breasted sea eagles. The Adelaide River is also a hotspot for fishing trips to snag massive, hard-fighting barramundi fish.
Boasting dozens of aircrafts, engines and plane crash remnants, the Australian Aviation Heritage Centre is the best place in Darwin for anyone with their head in the clouds. The enormous museum prides itself on its coverage of the fateful bombing of Darwin in 1942 and many other air battles of World War II. Its North American B-25 Mitchell Bomber is especially notable, as it is one of the last in the world and only one of two on display outside of the United States. Other exhibits include an Auster biplane, a Japanese Zero fighter, shot from the sky in 1942, a Tiger Moth, the remains of a crash-landed RAAF Mirage jet, a Spitfire replica and even a few of the first attack helicopters
Protecting some of Darwin’s most cultural and historically significant wetlands, Charles Darwin National Park is the home of mangroves and wildlife visible by walking, cycling, or simply sitting at one of the park’s many overlooks. A complex system of bays, waterways, and small islands, 31 of the 50 or so species of mangrove of the Northern Territory can be found here. Historically the Larrakia people called this area home with evidence suggesting the Aboriginals had inhabited here for thousands of years. Now it’s a wonderful place to take in views of Darwin city, the harbor, and the surrounding landscape.
The park is also home to concrete bunkers and shelters from World War II, which tell the story of Australia’s soldiers and are open to visitors. There is an impressive display of war memorabilia here, where ammunition was once stored and military tests were run. The park’s many paths can be used for both walking and cycling to take it all in.
Cullen Bay is about 10 minutes outside of Darwin. Its drawcard is a big sleek marina packed with yachts. In an uncertain tropical climate like Darwin's, this marina offers yachting traffic the security of a man-made environment with a locked waterway and sea walls that close. This means it's accessible in the low Spring tides and a registered cyclone haven - hence its popularity.
For the landlubber, Cullen Bay is an equally sleek oasis of shops, restaurants, bars and day spas. It's a popular place for visitors to stay, as its serviced apartments are so close to all these amenities - and water views. It's also close to the ferry terminal, so you can take off on trips to Mandorah and Tiwi islands.
The Tiwi Islands sit about 50 miles off the north coast of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, and the chain is made up of 11 individual isles. The largest are Melville – the second largest island in Australia behind Tasmania – and Bathurst, the fifth largest of Australia’s islands.
It is believed that this string of islands has been inhabited for the past 7,000 years by the Tiwi people, which led to them being named an Aboriginal Reserve in 1912. Like at Arnhem Land, another Aboriginal Reserve, visiting these islands requires an invitation or an escort, as well as a permit. The islands are governed mostly by the Tiwi Aboriginal Land Trust and the Tiwi Land Council. The island communities are renowned for their art, particularly for their wood carvings of birds. Fabric creations are also common and made in a similar fashion to Indonesian batik prints.
The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory has a fine collection, but what is its most popular attraction by far? That's right - a preserved saltwater crocodile called 'Sweetheart.'
Sweetheart, a 50 year-old male, was menacing boats on the Finnis River, so he was captured by rangers. They intended to give him to a croc farm for breeding. Sadly, during the capture, the drugged crocodile drowned and could not be resuscitated. His body was given to the museum. If you can drag yourself away from Sweetheart, there's a fine natural history collection and plenty of indigenous art. You'll also get a good grounding in the Territory's history, including Cyclone Tracy (there's a room that simulates the cyclone) and visits by Indonesian sailors back in the day. The museum looks beyond the mainland to focus on Southeast Asian and Pacific culture.
Australia’s Top End is home to one-of-a-kind landscapes and ecosystems, and nowhere is it easier to witness this splendor than at the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens. The gardens were designed around a huge collection of flora native to the region, from the lush Arnhem Land to the Tiwi Islands, and visitors can feast their eyes on replicas of displays of various local habitats – monsoon forests, coastal fore-dunes, wetlands, mangroves and woodlands. More than 450 plant species can be found here, at one of the only botanical gardens in the world that successfully hosts natural displays of both marine and estuary plants.
Other plants of note include the stunning Desert Rose tree, bromeliads and orchids. There’s also a rainforest gully that contains many of the gardens’ palm and cycad species alongside ponds and a waterfall. In addition to showcasing the local ecosystems, the gardens also allow visitors to gain insight into the area’s Aboriginal culture.
Australia’s newest parliament house was built in Darwin in 1994, and has been the seat of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly since then. It was designed in a postmodern style and built to suit the tropical climate of Darwin. The entrance features a Northern Territory coat of arms placed at the top of its ceremonial doors.
The building overlooks Darwin Harbor, sitting on the site of the former Post Office and Telegraph Station which were bombed during a raid in 1942. There is a state library, portrait gallery, and a massive Main Hall indoors, and the Speakers Green outdoor. The areas function both as parliamentary and government receptions and public exhibitions. Unique tributes to the symbols of the Northern Territory, such as a desert rose in the reception foyer, are present throughout.
More Things to Do in Darwin
The Darwin Wharf Precinct, a scenic waterfront area full of options for dining and play, exists thanks to an initiative by the city of Darwin that turned 61 acres of industrial wasteland into a thriving center for the city.
The area includes the Stokes Hill Wharf, a historical site that was constructed in the early 1800s by Darwin’s first European settlers and bore much damage from the 1942 air raid upon the city during World War II. These days, the wharf is home to a much livelier atmosphere. Award-winning dining, entertainment, shopping and outdoor attractions have helped transform the wharf precinct into one of the most celebrated parts of Darwin. The wharf is connected to Darwin’s Central Business District by a dedicated walkway lined with parks, tropical landscaping and, of course, the waterfront itself.
Nestled between Fannie Bay beach and the Nightcliff Headland, East Point Reserve is a nature reserve and the largest park area in Darwin. In addition to the many outdoor activities available here, the area’s military history draws both visitors and locals alike. The active at heart can enjoy the many walking trails and cycling paths, or take a swim in the saltwater of Lake Alexander. For those who prefer to lounge, there are dozens of ideal picnic spots from which to catch the views and sunsets, including those at the most popular beach on Fannie Bay.
The area is home to lots of Australian wildlife — everything from wallabies and bandicoots to reptiles and birds. The Mangrove Walkway is the best bet for seeing the animals that call East Point home. The Reserve furthermore played a role in defending Australia in World War II, which can be explored in the Darwin Military Museum here.
Located in the heart of Darwin, Crocosaurus Cove is home to the largest display of Australian reptiles in the world, including species unique to the Top End and Kimberly regions of Australia. There's also a turtle sanctuary and a two-story freshwater aquarium.
If you've always wanted the thrill of getting reeeeeallly close up to these massive reptiles, here's your chance. At Crocosaurus Cove you can lure a hungry croc close to you with a chunk of buffalo meat on your fishing line, 'swim' with them (you'll be snorkeling in a glass cage, the crocs will be outside the cage) and meet and hold baby crocodiles. Don't forget to pay a visit to the infamous Burt, star of the iconic Australian movie Crocodile Dundee. If you need a rest from all that croc-fired adrenaline you can take some time out to pet a (relatively) innocuous snake or feed some fish.
This expansive park runs the length of Darwin’s waterfront, looking down onto the Darwin Harbor and Lameroo Beach. It stretches south from the Northern Territory Parliament House down to the Doctor’s Gully area. It is a large outdoor space popular for holding local festivals, including May Day and the Darwin Festival, as well as many weddings. It is a great place to simply take a stroll and enjoy the scenery in Darwin, with paths often shaded by tall tropical trees.
The park is also home to several war memorials, including the Cenotaph War Memorial, the Civilian Memorial, and the The USS Peary Memorial (which sunk in the Darwin Harbor.) Memorial plaques commemorate the stories of those who have served their country, both Australians who lost their lives in the Bombing of Darwin and Aboriginal men and women who helped defend the Northern Territory coastline.
Mindil Beach is absolutely Darwin’s most visited and best known beach. Home to the famous Mindil Sunset Markets, the beach offers a little bit of everything to the visiting traveler, including 500 meters of golden sand bordered by Bullocky and Myilly points to the north and south, respectively. The beach looks west out onto the waters of the Beagle Gulf, perfectly situated for visitors to sit back and watch the sun set over the waves. The markets showcase the best local creative talent and offer fresh produce while promoting sustainability, supporting locally grown talent and food and encouraging the use of public transportation to and from the beach.
The Mindil Beach Reserve, a large park dedicated to preserving some of the city’s original wilderness, sits near the ocean, and the SKYCITY Darwin, the city's casino, is nearby in juxtaposition.
It's amazing what a few scraps of bread flung to a mullet can start. That's what a resident of Doctors Gully did in the 1950s, and it didn't take long for the local fish to realize they were onto a good thing. The number of fish turning up for a free meal grew and grew, the word got around, and these days it's turned into Aquascene, a healthy tourist attraction.
Every day at high tide (the tides vary, naturally, so you'll have to check the local paper or contact Aquascene for exact feeding times) a deluge of fish flood into the shallow bay, napkins on, as it were. The original mullet population have been joined by a host of other species including catfish, milkfish and bream.
The Myilly Point Historic Precinct is a small group of houses built in the 1930s by the architect B.C.G. Burnett. They are the only remaining examples of this particular pre-war housing style. The houses are light and breezy in feel, with pale colors. They're raised for ventilation and represent a European aesthetic sunnily adapted to their tropical climate.
The houses were created for top-level civil servants. Burnett House is the pick of the bunch, and is an unusual type of house called a 'Type K.' It took some hits during WWII and Cyclone Tracy, but has since been restored and functions as a museum. It sits in a heavenly tropical garden. Take a stroll through the house, chat to the volunteers and (on a Sunday) take high tea, complete with scones, on the veranda.
Facing the sea, Lyon's Cottage was - at the time of its building - the first stone house built in Darwin for 30 years and is the only surviving example of colonial bungalow architecture in the city. It's made from locally quarried stone and now houses a museum.
It was built in 1925 from the same porcellanite stone used to construct many of Darwin's major public buildings, including Fanny Bay Gaol and Government House. The architecture of the house is similar to many that the British built in other colonies such as Singapore and Malaysia. It came through the bombing of Darwin without damage, although it was occupied by the US army. Ironically, Cyclone Tracy saved its life. It had been sold and scheduled for redevelopment, but after the cyclone it was repaired and became today's museum, featuring local and early European history.
Renowned for its spectacular scenery, monsoonal rainforests, spring-fed streams and waterfalls, Litchfield National Park is perhaps best known for its magnetic termite mounds, immense sculptural cairns built by termites and aligned perfectly from north to south. They make quite the landscape feature - like miniature alien skyscrapers.
But it's the waterfalls, cascading from a sandstone plateau called the Tabletop Range, which draw the crowds. Some of the most popular are Wangi Falls, a deliciously deep swimming spot fringed with rainforest; Florence Falls, surrounded by monsoonal forest; and Buley Rockhole, where you can lounge in rock pools as if in a cool jacuzzi. You can't swim in Tolmer Falls, but they're well worth a look.
It's worth devoting at least a few days to Litchfield. Come here to camp, take a few hikes up to get views of the valley, go on a ranger-guided walk to find out about the magnetic termite mounds.
Across fields in northern Australia stand these tall magnetic termite mounds standing up to two meters high. As a habitat created by termites, they’re strategically built to face away from the hot sun and keep temperatures cool. Inside are complex and fascinating architecture and networks of arches, tunnels, chimneys, and various chambers. Thousands of termites live in a single mound and are known to last anywhere from fifty to one hundred years — which can also be the lifespan of one termite queen. Looking at the mounds it’s hard to believe such a small insect could create such a large, elaborate dwelling for itself. There are several types of termite mounds, and in this case ‘magnetic’ refers to the way they are aligned (in conjunction with the earth’s magnetic field.) How the termites are able to consistently determine the north-south orientation to avoid the heat is unknown, and these structures remain a bit of a natural phenomenon.
Located in Nitmiluk National Park in the Top End of the Northern Territory, Edith Falls offer gorgeous views over the river, tiers of rock pools and waterfalls that cascade through the gully. All that, along with the area's wildlife, makes Edith Falls one of Australia's most picturesque -- not to mention underrated -- natural attractions.
The falls are full of water year-round, but the clear, dry season between May and September is the best time to visit. Even so, the area surrounding the falls is especially lush and green during the intense rains earlier in the year, so visitors are in for a treat no matter when they go. A visit to the falls typically involves swimming, and Sweetwater Pool, as well as both the upper and lower pools, are all particularly suited for the activity. Visitors to the falls during the wet season, however, may find that swimming is off-limits due to potentially dangerous conditions.
Arnhem Land, one of Australia’s wildest and most sacred areas, lies at the lush northern tip of the continent. It was declared an Aboriginal Reserve in 1931 and remains a place of strong tradition with a distinctive culture and famous artwork, while also staying largely untouched by European colonization.
The beautiful landscapes provided by the area’s diverse ecosystems include rugged coastlines, rivers, remote islands, a rainforest, woodlands and bluffs. Arnhem Land is home to both saltwater crocodiles and gentle dugongs, for which this area works as an important conversation habitat. Visitors drawn to Arnhem Land for its culture won’t be disappointed. Gunbalanya (also known as Oenpelli) is home to the Injalak Art and Craft Centre, where artists work and their wares are available for purchase. Tours often take travelers into the nearby bush to learn about the Aboriginal rock art, Dreamtime myths and bush tucker, the foods native to Australia.