Australia’s northernmost capital is a tropical, multicultural fiesta. Plenty of people land here and take off again straight away, heading to the Northern Territory’s incredible wilderness areas. But you can enjoy the city and still see many of the places for which the region is famous if you hire a rental car and plan your days.
Even if you’re heading off on the Ghan, joining a cruise to the Kimberley or going on an epic overland adventure into Western Australia, be sure to spend at least a couple of days here. It’s quite unlike anywhere else in Australia and there’s lots of explore. Here’s a few suggestions of where to start if you’ve never visited Darwin.
Most bodies of water in Darwin are out of bounds for swimming, thanks to the saltwater crocodiles that reside in this part of the world. See them up close and in safety at Crocosaurus Cove, right in the centre of Darwin.
If you want to watch them in the wild, drive about an hour down the Arnhem Highway to the Adelaide River and join one of the famous jumping croc cruises. Some of the biggest animals you’ll see out here are between five and seven metres long, and they know boats mean food. You might get splashed as a big croc land back in the water after having grabbed the meat off the feeding pole because, on the smaller boats, you’re only metres from these huge reptiles.
If you’ve got time either before or after the croc cruise, head to nearby Wetland View Top. Run by the local traditional Limilngan-Wulna custodians, this visitor centre sits at the top of Ludawei (Beatrice Hill). From its observation deck, you can see right over the Adelaide River floodplains, plus there are displays explaining seasonal changes and the Indigenous and European histories of the region.
You can also join Larrakia man Trent Lee of Saltwater Cultural Tours on a three-hour tour that demonstrates First Nations practices (you’ll throw a spear and make a fire), introduces the language, and explains the connection Indigenous people have to their country.
How much time have you got in the Top End? Even if it’s only a couple of days, you’ll still want to hit one of the famous national parks. About a 90 minutes’ drive in the rental car south of the city is Litchfield National Park. There’s so much to jam into a day here. Be sure to get a selfie with the huge two-metre-tall magnetic termite mounds then take the 90-minute Florence Creek walk through rainforest and woodland to Florence Falls and the incredible cascading pools of Buley Rockhole. Don’t forget your swimsuit because it’s safe to take a dip off at both.
Most people will tell you three days is the minimum needed to fully appreciate Kakadu National Park, but if you only have a day, get up before the sun because it’s a 2.5-hour drive from Darwin. Be sure to visit the rock art site at Burrungkuy (Nourlangie), where Aboriginal people have drawn their stories on the walls for thousands of years. Burrungkuy forms the backdrop for the 2.5km walk around Anbangbang Billabong, which hosts an incredible array of birdlife. Not far away is Yellow Water, where you can drop into the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre, stroll the boardwalk or take a tour with Yellow Water Cruises.
Mindil Beach Sunset Market is rightfully famous. Open Thursdays and Sundays, from April to October, it’s where you can grab dinner from one of the stalls then head down to the sand to watch the sun set. Not sure what to order? Everyone swears Darwin Laksa serves some of the best curry noodle soup you’ll find anywhere.
There are lots of other neighbourhood markets too, that, like Mindil, have locally made arts and crafts, as well as excellent food. On Saturday morning, start with a coffee or smoothie at Parap Market, about a 10-minute drive in the rental car from the centre of the city. Then wander around and decide what’s for brunch. You can’t go wrong with a barbecued pork bánh mì, but don’t forget to grab some tropical fruit for later. On Sunday mornings, try Nightcliff Markets.
Any night of the week, stroll along Stokes Hill Wharf. At the end, a series of food stalls serves burgers, fish and chips, Thai, and Indian food, and plenty more. Order up, then find a table on the wharf. Once the sun goes down, the lights under the wharf attract huge fish, who quite fancy a chip if you have one spare.
Whether you’re on your first or fifth visit to Darwin, hire a rental car to ensure you see all it has to offer.