Treasured by its fiercely proud multicultural society, Darwin is a city perched on the brink of endless outback and ocean adventures. The Northern Territory’s vibrant capital may be a long way from anywhere else, but it’s well worth the trip.
Whether they’ve been there or not, when most people think of Darwin – hot days, balmy evenings with striking sunsets, Akubra-sporting locals, Top End adventures and air-conditioned pubs probably come to mind. And of course, crocs. You can’t swim in the ocean in these parts – they’re full of saltwater crocodiles. You can swim in some of the nearby gorges and in the city’s wave pool however, and there are plenty of ways to keep cool.
Darwin is also a nature-lover’s city. It’s home to a diverse range of native animals including bandicoots, possums, lizards, snakes, spiders, frogs and countless species of birds. In fact, it’s a Twitcher’s paradise. Take a wander through the parks, nature reserves, wildlife centres and nearby National Parks (such as beautiful Litchfield National Park) and you’re bound to run into more than few of them. And it’s also a hotspot for barramundi, and draws fans of fishing from far and wide.
Darwin also holds its turbulent history close to its communal heart. The Bombing of Darwin that took place on 19 February 1942 was the largest single attack ever mounted by a foreign power on Australian soil, and is memorialised in various locations around the city, from memorial parks to WW2 ruins themselves. Around 240 Japanese aircraft attacked Darwin in two separate raids, and more than 240 civilians and Australian and US service personnel were killed, and eight ships were sunk in the city’s harbour.
If you’re interested in learning more about Darwin’s WW2 history, there are several places to start. The Bombing of Darwin WW2 Heritage Tour, Sea Darwin and The Darwin History and Wartime Experience will take you on a journey back in time. You can also follow the WW2 Oil Storage Tunnels and delve deep under the city of Darwin.
Another defining period in Darwin’s history occurred from the 24th until the 26th December, 1974, when Cyclone Tracey decimated the city of Darwin and beyond, killing 71 people and causing $837 million in damage (1974 dollars). The Category 4 tropical cyclone destroyed 70 percent of Darwin’s buildings, including 80 percent of houses, leaving more than 25,000 people out of the 47,000 inhabitants homeless. 30,000 people were evacuated, many to never return. You can take an incredibly moving tour at the Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory (MAGNT) that takes you through exactly how the locals were living on Christmas Eve when they were caught unprepared (many thought the cyclone had passed by) including entering a black room where you can listen to what the people stuck in their homes would have heard.
The gallery is also home to the 5.1 metre, 780 kilogram (stuffed) saltwater crocodile called Sweetheart. In the 1970s, Sweetheart gained notoriety for attacking fishermen in Darwin, and on at least two occasions tipped them out of their boats. The mammoth saltie, whose name came from the fact that he inhabited Sweets Lookout Billabong (as opposed to being related to his sweet nature) was meant to be safely relocated, but while anaesthetised he became entangled in a log and drowned. The body was presented to MAGNT, and a taxidermist prepared Sweetheart as a skin mount and also a skeleton so that visitors can get up close and personal with the type of crocs that can be found all over the NT.
Get up-close and personal with real crocs
For those looking for an adrenaline-pumping experience with really large, living salties, visit the Cage of Death at Crocosaurus Cove in the heart of Darwin. Begin with a Swim with the Crocs experience, jump on the Fishing for Crocs platform and visit the turtles at Turtle Billabong before heading to the renowned Cage of Death activity, where you’re lowered into the water in a protective capsule so that you can be face-to-face with a crocodile for 15 minutes. Do make reservations as this is one of Darwin’s most popular experiences for tourists and locals.
If you’d prefer to be in the wild outdoors with your salties (but still safely tucked into a boat) then get yourself on to a cruise with the original, family-owned Jumping Crocodile Cruises and view these majestic creatures jumping up into the air right before your eyes. The experience is both educational and exciting whilst being brief enough to ensure there is minimal impact on the surrounding ecosystem, and the company offers both boat and helicopter tours. For your chance to win a Jumping Croc Experience, click here.
Top hotels in Darwin
With so much to see and do in and around Darwin, you’ll need a place a (cool) place kick back and rest, preferably with somewhere to swim, as it gets incredibly hot in Darwin.
The Adina Darwin Waterfront hotel is right in the middle of the action, nestled amongst some of the best waterfront restaurants in the city, beside the Darwin Wave Lagoon – which is the best place to go in Darwin for a swim and a body surf. There 4,000 square metre lagoon has a sandy beach and grassy park areas, sun lounges, much-needed umbrellas for shade, and when you pay your $5 entry you can also grab a floating device in the form of a rubber ring or a pool noodle. The clever set-up rolls out 10 different wave patterns, from gentle swells to waves up to 1.2 metres high, so it’s ideal for boogie boarders. It’s great for little ones as well, as it’s two metres at its deepest point, sloping up to the wet edge where there is shallow water to loll about or paddle.
Right next door to the Adina is The Vibe Hotel Darwin Waterfront, where you can stay in style in one of the 4-star hotel’s 121 well-appointed guest rooms overlooking the harbour and the Wave Lagoon. Vibe also has the added bonus of having its own pool in the courtyard right next to the restaurant and bar, so when it heats up, you don’t have far to go.
If you want to go five-star and have a hotel suite where you can step out of your balcony and into the pool, then Mindl Beach Casino Resort is where you want to be. And you don’t have to go far for awesome food in a choice of three restaurants as il piatto dishes up authentic Italian flavours and inspired new classics in a beautifully relaxed yet refined setting overlooking the Arafura Sea, while Cove is considered one of the city’s best steak restaurants.
One of Darwin’s newest resorts, just minutes from the airport, is the Club Tropical Resort, pictured above. Expect fully serviced modern rooms, apartments and villas scattered among landscaped gardens and two gorgeous pools. Accommodations include free wifi, full fridge, microwave and coffee. Stroll through the Casuarina Coastal Reserve to Lee Point Beach and watch the sunset or enjoy a spot of bird watching.
Places to chow down
Let’s begin with how every good day should start – great coffee and tea and a brekkie made with love.
If you want to mix your dining with the great outdoors before it heats up, Eva’s Cafe in the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens offers some of the best coffee in town, made by experienced baristas. There’s also a delicious breakfast and lunch menu with many Asian-inspired dishes, and the cafe also does high tea for bookings of up to 20 to that you can tuck into some sweet treats.
The Smashed Avo (with beetroot hummus, native Indigenous dukkah with crumbled fetta on sourdough is a popular breakfast dish, while Eva’s Green Bowl (poached chicken or egg with shredded carrot, mushroom, cucumber, spinach, brown rice, pickled daikon & beetroot, kim chi, shaved asparagus, nori, black sesame dressing is a go-to for a healthy vegetarian or vegan lunch. When ordered sans chicken, of course.
After a few days exploring multicultural Darwin, you will have no doubt noticed that due to the city’s close proximity to Asia, there’s a melting pot of Asian-infused cuisine offerings in cafes, restaurants, bars, and at the famous Mindl Beach Sunset Markets, where locals and tourist flock for some of the best street food you can get in Australia.
The markets were launched in Darwin Mall in 1987, but after mainstream shop owners objecting, they were moved to their stunning beach location, and today are home to more than 200 local stalls not only offering a mind-boggling array of food and drinks, but also specialty arts, crafts, clothing and services. The markets are considered a must-do for anyone visiting Darwin as the goods are as seductive as the location and vibe.
Speaking of Asian infusions, one of the most popular causal eateries in town serving up a host of mouth-tingling Asian dishes is CHOW! A Taste of Southeast Asia. It’s essentially a Vietnamese restaurant, but it has dishes inspired from all across Asia, made with fresh, local ingredients. In the mix are steaming bowls of pho and laska, Vietnamese baguettes (known in Vietnam as Bánh mì), Malay noodle soups, wok-tossed stir fries, green paw paw and beef salads, and spicy chicken wings. There’s great Australian wines, bubble teas, cocktails, Asian beers, sake bombs and whole coconuts. And there’s the added bonus that it’s next to the Wave Lagoon so you can have a light and tasty meal and then go for a swim or a boogie board. The place is well-known for its fun atmosphere.
For those with a penchant for fine dining, there’s The Darwin Club located on the second floor of the wonderfully stylish Admiralty House. It’s a modern European steakhouse with a hearty menu complete with many traditional favourites such as whole fish of the day, roasted chicken, gnocci with wild mushrooms and lamb shoulder.
On the first floor is the award-winning Char restaurant, which is applauded across the country for its array of steak offerings (meat is treated like gold here), creative seafood dishes and an extensive wine list.
Outdoors, on lounges under umbrellas, with a sea breeze keeping things cool, enjoy cocktails and light meals such as a plate freshly shucked of oysters on ice at The Lawn Bar.
Another fine dining option is Pee Wee’s at the Point, situated in East Point Reserve on four acres of stunningly landscaped gardens that flow out to the coastline. This restaurant and bar offers a stunning view of Darwin city and the menus aim to reflect the produce, climate and culture of the Northern Territory. Pee Wee’s offer a la carte dining as well as service in the lounge area for a more informal experience. Originally the restaurant was built on a site called Pee Wee’s Camp which was established in 1911 when East Point was developed to protect Port Darwin against naval attacks, and so it has been listed on the National Estate of the NT Heritage registers. Try some of the signature dishes such as Peppered Buffalo Carpaccio with buffalo milk blue cheese, blackberry gel and fennel seed flatbread; Tempura soft shell crab – nori wrapped and served with wasabi aioli, soy and wakame cucumber salad, or (more simple but equally delicious) garlic prawn skewers with chilli, mint and mango salsa
Want some more Top End inspiration? Check out How to eat your way through Darwin or Driving Adelaide to Darwin: The Classic Outback road trip.