Darwin is renowned for fun and adventure, but an interesting mix of history and the slightly obscure is found in the Top End – when you know where to look.
Darwin’s unique charm and character is a by-product not only of its geographical location. History and a few natural events also played a role. During World War II, in February 1942, the city was heavily bombed by the same Japanese Air Force which struck Pearl Harbour three months earlier. Darwin suffered significant damage from the attacks and had to rebuild.
Then, in the early hours of Christmas morning 1974, Cyclone Tracy unleashed its fury, decimating 70 per cent of the city. Another rebuild contributed to the cosmopolitan city’s current ‘youthful’ appearance. Apart from a few buildings and a cluster of heritage-listed houses at the Myilly Point Heritage Precinct, most of Darwin’s buildings are just reaching middle age – a smidge over four decades young.
When to visit Darwin
The top things to see in Darwin vary depending on when you plan to visit. The Top End experiences a year-round tropical climate with two distinct seasons: the dry and the wet. This climate system includes Darwin, Katherine, Kakadu National Park and the Arnhem Land regions. The dry season runs from May to October, with daytime temperatures ranging from an agreeable 21 degrees Celsius up to 33 degrees Celsius. At night-time, temperatures drop to the mid-20s). Between June and July, temperatures can fall to 16 degrees Celsius (this is when you’ll see the locals wearing jumpers!).
Visitors are more likely to select the dry season as the preferred time of year because most attractions are open. Meanwhile the wet season (November-April) is intensely humid (often above 80 per cent) with tropical storms. But when heavy rainfall forces road closures to the national parks, there’s always the option to view the spectacle of overflowing waterfalls by helicopter.
Outdoor markets and events in Darwin
A sunset at Mindil Beach is easily one of the top things to see in Darwin. Visitors flock to these shores to watch the golden orb descend rapidly into the ocean. After sunset, why not track down the origins of the delicious fragrances that linger on the balmy night air at Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. Open Thursdays and Sundays, the markets showcase local goods from Darwin. Offerings include food, craft, local art and the quirky, and very Territorian, crocodile skulls. If you’re a mango lover, you’re in luck. The Northern Territory is the country’s largest producers of the sweet fruit. Once hunger cravings are satiated by the assortment of multicultural food stalls, indulge in a freshly-made mango smoothie.
For an intimate market experience, head to the Parap Village Markets on a Saturday morning. Line up for a laksa at Mary’s Soup (hers is the best laksa I’ve eaten outside of South-East Asia). Then remove any lingering chilli heat with a refreshing smoothie made from locally grown pineapple, mango and banana. Open from 8am to 2pm, you’ll also find assorted local art, clothing, craft and jewellery.
For evening entertainment, check out the outdoor Deckchair Cinema on the edge of Darwin Harbour. The sound of water gently lapping the shoreline and the blanket of starry skies above beats any air-conditioned cinema. Deckchair Cinema is open seven nights a week during the dry season.
Discover the Top End’s unique architecture
An example of ingenious Top End architectural design is Burnett House. This building survived the double-edged brunt of WWII bombings and Cyclone Tracy (during which the house lost its roof ). It was designed by architect Beni Burnett, who trained in Asia before arriving in Darwin. The two-storey house was constructed in 1939 – before the advent of air-conditioning. As a solution, the upstairs timber-framed walls are lined with fibro sheet cladding, while cement louvers encourage airflow. Reinforced concrete columns and beams downstairs keep the house cool. They’re also resistant to termites and strong weather.
Lyons Cottage, located on the Esplanade, is the last example of Colonial bungalow-style architecture in Darwin. Built in 1925, the cottage survived the (earlier) cyclone of 1937 and the bombing raids of 1942. Its roof blew off during Cyclone Tracy, damaging the interior. But extensive work restored the cottage to its former glory. Since 2015, the 100 per cent not-for-profit Aboriginal Bush Traders (supporting Indigenous communities) operates a café out of the cottage offering bush tucker. They also sell original art, craft and homewares.
A short stroll from the Esplanade is the Northern Territory’s Parliament House, which opened in 1994. Often referred to as ‘the wedding cake’, it was built on the site where the original post office and telegraph station once stood, before they were bombed during the surprise WWII air raids.
History and culture in Darwin
The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) is where you’ll find Sweetheart, the most famous of all the NT’s saltwater crocs. Unfortunately, when authorities tried to remove the 5.1-metre nuisance croc from a river south-west of Darwin, Sweetheart drowned. His preserved body (yes, Sweetheart is a ‘he’) is a reminder of how massive these salties can become.
The museum’s gallery includes an array of Aboriginal art and an interactive section on Cyclone Tracy. Enjoy cake, coffee or a cold refreshment at their café with outdoor seating overlooking Fannie Bay. For history buffs, this is right up there as one of the top things to do in Darwin.
Beside Darwin’s Wharf Precinct on Kitchener Driver are the WWII Oil Storage Tunnels. Their purpose was to store oil underground after two aboveground fuel oil storage tanks were destroyed during the bombing of Darwin. Unfortunately, because of delays with digging the tunnel and issues with leaking, they were never put to use before the end of the war. Re-opening in 1992 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin, the tunnels are now a popular historical site.
Another relic from WWII days is the Qantas Hangar in Parap. Built in 1934 to house the Aussie airline’s passenger planes, the large corrugated iron and steel shed was converted to an Australian Air Force base during WWII. It survived the Japanese bombing attacks, but not unscathed. A steel pillar perforated by shrapnel is a reminder of Darwin’s history. Today the hangar houses an eclectic collection of vintage vehicles and gadgets belonging to the Motor Vehicle Enthusiasts Club.
Meet the crocs
Adelaide River is a 30-minute drive south-east of Darwin, famous for its jumping crocs. At the junction of the river and the Arnhem Highway, during the dry season, tour operators offer boat trips (holding up to 30 people) on the waterway.
Pat, the ‘crocodile whisperer’, runs tours on the Adelaide River, preferring close encounters over ‘performing’ crocs. Book via local Darwin business Wallaroo Tours. If you don’t have the time (or inclination) to leave Darwin, you’ll find close croc encounters at Crocosaurus Cove on Mitchell Street. The three-storey building, spread over 5000 square metres, has eight display pools holding some of the Territory’s largest saltwater crocodiles. After watching one of their twice-daily Big Croc Feed Show, I have a greater appreciation for just how quickly these salties move.
This is also the only place in Australia where you can ‘swim’ in the water with a resident saltwater croc. Climb into the ‘cage of death’ for bragging rights of what it’s like to be centimetres from the jaws of one of these dinosaur-like creatures. I can personally vouch for it being an unforgettable Darwin experience.
Getaways from Darwin
Explore Litchfield National Park
Just over an hour’s drive south of Darwin along the Stuart Highway, this 1500-square-kilometre park, has several walking trails. They pass towering termite mounds, waterfalls and rock pools, perfect for a refreshing swim on a hot day. Parks and Wildlife ensure that the rock pools are safe to swim in, but always be ‘croc-wise’ and check the safety signs or ask before entering the water in the NT.
Fishing weekend in the NT
With the highest number of barramundi in Australia, Tourism NT introduced the Million Dollar Fish campaign in 2015, capitalising on the Territory’s popularity with recreational anglers. Season Five kicked off in October 2019 and runs until March 2020. Six $1 million red-tagged barramundi and 100 barramundi worth $10,000 were released into NT’s waters in and around Katherine, Kakadu, Arnhem Land, Darwin and the Tiwi Islands. There are also a further 20 barramundi with a purple charity tag, each worth $5000 prize money. The money is split between the angler and one of three NT charities. Anglers must register for the competition.
Whether you’re a pro or recreational fishing enthusiast, watching the locals reel in a huge catch in one of the top things to see in Darwin and surrounds. Some daring fisherman even try their luck at Cahills Crossing, the infamous croc-infested river crossing between Kakadu and Arnhem Land. You can watch from a safe distance at the viewing platform above.
Things you probably didn’t know about Darwin and the NT
Crocosaurus Cove’s large saltwater crocodiles are ‘nuisance’ crocs that have been relocated from the wild. Instead of being put down, they now live their lives out at the Cove.
The town of Humpty Doo, on the outskirts of Darwin, has one of Australia’s largest pineapple farms and the largest barramundi farm in Australia.
The cathedral termite mounds found in Litchfield National Park are made by mixing termite saliva and faeces with sand. Some mounds are around 100 years old and up to six metres in height.
There are approximately 150,000 saltwater crocodiles and 100,000 freshwater crocodiles in the Northern Territory waterways. With a human population of 245,854 (in 2018), there’s more crocs than people in the NT!
Most NT rivers average five crocodiles per km, but in the Mary River that number climbs to nearly 15 saltwater crocodiles per km.
Want to explore more of the Northern Territory? Read about our experience in the MacDonnell Ranges and Larapinta Trail.