Tucked away in the “Top End”, closer to Indonesia than Sydney, Darwin is the least known of Australia’s regional capitals – stunningly remote, buffeted by extreme weather, and with an atmosphere like nowhere else in the country.
Here’s our guide to Darwin – and what to expect on your first visit to this fast-growing, youthful, multicultural city.
Thanks to its proximity to the continent, Darwin is known as “Australia’s gateway to Asia”, home to over 60 different nationalities out of a population of just 135,000.
Southeast Asian communities have a particularly strong presence, which is most notable in the city’s cuisine. In fact, laksa – a spicy, creamy noodle soup found across Southeast Asia – has arguably become Darwin’s favourite dish.
The best places to sample city’s culinary diversity are the Parap Village and Mindil Beach Sunset markets, where you can find everything from authentic Vietnamese pho to crocodile tail sushi.
More than 25% of the people in the Northern Territory are from aboriginal communities, a higher proportion than anywhere else in Australia. Some 80km off the coast of Darwin and connected by ferry services are Bathurst and Melville, jointly known as the Tiwi Islands.
The Tiwi people had only limited contact with mainland aboriginal societies until the nineteenth century, so they developed their own distinct language and culture.
You can visit the Tiwi Islands on a day trip from Darwin, but if you have more time available, travel 150km east of the city to Kakadu National Park. As well as a profusion of wildlife, the reserve has some eye-catching examples of ancient aboriginal rock art, some of it over 20,000 years old.
Darwin’s nightlife is famously lively, and is at its most raucous in the pubs, bars and clubs strung along Mitchell Street in the city centre. For something a bit classier, head to The Pearl, a hip bistro tucked away off the pedestrianized Smith Street Mall with a great cocktail list – try the espresso martini.
Stokes Hill Wharf, which has undergone a major revamp, is another popular drinking spot, with an array of restaurants and bars overlooking a croc- and jellyfish-free lagoon and beach. And at sunset, the beachside Darwin Ski Club, north of the city centre, is hard to beat.
Located 100km south of Darwin and easily accessible as a daytrip – or better still an overnight stay – Litchfield National Park is a great place for a spot of bushwalking. The reserve is home to a series of dramatic waterfalls, innumerable giant termite mounds, and plenty of swimming holes to cool off in – though you should only swim in designated areas and steer well clear of any with crocodile warning signs.
Litchfield is also rich in birdlife: keep an eye out for spangled drongos, rainbow bee-eaters, and yellow orioles.
The capital of the Northern Territory has taken a bit of battering since it was founded in 1869: first by the Japanese air force during the Second World War and later by Cyclone Tracy, which devastated Darwin in 1974. Add in some ferocious termites and it’s easy to understand why Darwin today has modern look.
But some historic gems have survived in the city centre, if you know where to look. The highlight is Government House, a huge gothic pile surrounded by manicured gardens.
Also keep an eye out for the ruined Palmerston Town Hall, which is now used for open-air theatre performances, and Lyons Cottage, which was the first stone house in the city when it was built in 1925.
Darwin played a prominent role in WWII, when frequent Japanese bombing raids gave rise to the nickname “Australia’s Pearl Harbour”. An invasion was an ever-present threat, which prompted the construction of Stuart Highway, the first reliable road link between the city and the rest of Australia.
Based in a former wartime command post, the Darwin Military Museum brings this period to life through its immersive, multimedia Defence of Darwin exhibition.
There are almost as many saltwater crocodiles as people in the Top End, and the region was home to Rod Ansell, the man who inspired Crocodile Dundee. At Darwin’s Crocosaurus Cove you can view, feed or even be lowered in clear plastic containers into the enclosures of these giant reptiles, many of which grow to over six metres in length.
If you prefer to see them in the wild, however, visit the nearby Adelaide River, where several agencies offer “jumping croc” cruises during which the “salties” leap out of the water to snap at morsels dangled from gingerly-held fishing rods.
Shafik Meghji co-authors The Rough Guide to Australia. He blogs at unmappedroutes.com and tweets @ShafikMeghji.
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