Local's guide: Darwin

Darwin Aerial View Darwin my nrma locals guide
Darwin Aerial View Darwin my nrma locals guide

Aboriginal, European and Asian influences combine to intoxicating effect in Darwin, the small tropical capital with a larger than life reputation and no shortage of thrilling activities on offer.

  • Watch the sunset at Darwin Ski Club
  • Dive with crocs at Crocosaurus Cove
  • Take a dip at Berry Springs Nature Park
  • Discover Indigenous art at Tiwi Design
  • Find a bargain at Nightcliff Markets

Long known as the gateway to epic nature experiences such as Kakadu National Park, Australia’s northernmost capital has lately been attracting attention in its own right, as waves of new residents from “down south” give this quirky city an infusion of urban cred. Darwin still feels like a frontier town, full of intriguing characters who’ve blown in from all across the Top End. But alongside the old school open air markets and charming watering holes, you’ll now also find hip cafes serving single origin coffee and small galleries promoting edgy Indigenous artists. From this vantage point, the Australian Outback, the Torres Strait and South East Asia all seem within easy reach.

Where to eat

Chances are you’ll arrive in Darwin towards the end of the day, so head directly to the confusingly named Darwin Ski Club (it’s for water skiers, not snow skiers) to catch one of the city’s famed sunsets with a crowd of locals. This institution is reputed to have the coldest beer in town, and its bistro serves robust Asian influenced dishes. For a more upmarket dinner, visit the waterside Pee Wee’s at the Point where you’ll find haute cuisine with a twist (the kangaroo carpaccio is a must), or book a table at Char for a top quality steak.

Locals rave about the West Timorese food at Laksa House, which is located in a converted carpark – just don’t expect white tablecloth service. For Asian food with a very Australian slant, seek out Magic Wok and build your own noodle stir fry, with meat options that include crocodile, kangaroo and emu. Reliable coffee and the best pastries in town can be found at Alley Cats Patisserie, and if you’d like to toast your final night in the city, consider Nirvana, which doubles as a restaurant and a lounge bar, and is housed in a pre cyclone building. Tuesday night is jam night.

What to do

Browsing – and eating – your way through an open air market is the quintessential Darwin activity, but high profile Mindil Beach Sunset Markets can feel a little touristy. Instead, consider the food focused Parap Village Markets on Saturdays, or the more eclectic Nightcliff Market on Sundays.

The Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is oddly passed over by many visitors, but it’s a must for anyone with an appreciation of Indigenous art and culture. The museum also houses captivating artefacts from Cyclone Tracy – step into a darkened room to hear a deafening sound recording of the storm at full strength. Of the smaller galleries, Outstation and Tiwi Design are best regarded by art lovers.

Locals cram as many outdoor activities into the dry season as possible, which means numerous open air festivals and events run from May to October, including July’s diverse, weird and wonderful Darwin Fringe. Darwin Cup in early August is always lively, while the 18 day arts and music showcase, the Darwin Festival, also in August, packs quite a punch.

Many visitors stay on dry land, but locals know that the coolest breezes can be found at sea. That’s why you’ll encounter just as many residents as visitors on Sail Darwin’s numerous boat trips, which range from two hours to a few days – and one that even lasts a couple of weeks. The three hour Champagne Sunset Sail is unforgettable.

Where to play

Warm weather and laid back locals make Darwin an excellent destination for families, and there’s enough on offer to fill several trips. The infamous “Cage of Death” – Australia’s only crocodile dive – at Crocosaurus Cove may prove too intense for the younger ones, but kids of all ages will enjoy the lesser known Crocodylus Park, where you can choose to get up close to crocs or meet a menagerie of other animals including water buffalo, lions, monkeys and tortoises.

Older children will find the Defence of Darwin interactive museum experience enthralling. 

There are plenty of water based activities, including the always busy Wave Lagoon for kids craving a saltwater experience. If you fancy something a little less crowded, drive to Berry Springs Nature Park, about 10km out of town, for a dip in one of several dazzlingly clear (and completely safe) swimming holes. There are shaded barbecue and picnic areas, a monsoon forest walk and an array of wildlife to be spotted. Local kids also love the free entry Palmerston Water Park, with its 100m long waterslides and teen play area.

Where to stay

Darwin’s sights are spread across a wide area, so choosing a well located hotel can make a significant difference to your overall trip. The Travelodge Resort Darwin occupies a prime position at the quiet end of Cavenagh Street in the city centre, with shops, restaurants and the waterfront all easily walkable. There are 192 guestrooms plus 32 spacious two storey townhouses ideal for families. On site, you’ll find two large swimming pools, a gym, a pool bar and a barbecue area. The Treetops Restaurant has alfresco dining.

NRMA members can also save 15% on daily rental rates in Darwin with SIXT.

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