In the centre of Australia, with its vast deserts and ochre mountains, the city of Alice Springs stands as a focus of local life.
Home to about 30,000 people, Alice Springs is easily the largest settlement in Central Australia. It’s also a hub for all the communities in the region, with people living in more remote parts of the Northern Territory coming here for major services and events.
It means that Alice Springs can often feel like it has two main layers to the city – the local elements representing those who live here, and the more transient elements that acknowledge this is a place for all of Central Australia (and all that has come to mean).
Some of the best things to do in Alice Springs capture the allure of these two roles. The history of the Telegraph Station and the continued operations of the School of the Air are reminders of the expansive country, for example.
While the Araluen Arts Centre, the Aboriginal art studios, and even the Parrtjima festival show how connected people are to the land and how it inspires such creativity.
The very centre of Alice Springs can, at first glance, seem a little underwhelming, made up of just a handful of blocks that are dominated by supermarkets and cheap department stores.
Even the main shopping strip, the Todd Mall, appears fairly threadbare and doesn’t always feel like the safest place to be.
But when you know what you’re looking for, there are some real gems here – Page 27 Cafe is a favourite of mine, for example, and Red Kangaroo Books has a good selection about the region and its cultures.
Most of the things to do in Alice Springs are outside of this very central part of the city, though, so don’t let first impressions discourage you.
Some highlights aren’t far away at all – an easy walking distance even. Some are just a short drive to another part of town. And then others a little bit out of the city, where interacting with the natural landscape is part of the experience.
I recommend not skipping the city itself, though. It’s worth having at least a couple of days here to experience a decent selection of the things to do in Alice Springs.
If you’re interested in seeing the highlights with a local, I would recommend this ‘A Town Like Alice’ tour.
Together, the attractions here represent some of the best aspects of Central Australia – the art, the nature, and the distinct way of life.
The first topic I want to talk about is one that I think is so special in Alice Springs – and that’s the city’s arts scene.
Art in Central Australia has become a really important way of telling the stories of this part of the country, and the range of styles is really impressive (it’s certainly much more than just dot paintings).
Exploring the depth of the art world in Alice Springs is a great way to get to know more about the region.
Araluen Arts Centre
The Araluen Arts Centre was opened in 1984 to be a focal point for all the region’s art centres, so it’s one of the best things to see in Alice Springs to get an introduction. The collection here covers a range of styles, including Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists, and the display is always changing.
There are four gallery spaces – one generally used for a touring show, one for a solo exhibition, and two for parts of the permanent collection.
The most important artworks at the Araluen Arts Centre are those by Albert Namatjira, the famed Aboriginal watercolour painter who lived in nearby Hermannsburg. This is the only gallery where you can see his paintings and then, within minutes, be amongst the landscapes that inspired them.
Each year in September and October, the Araluen Arts Centre hosts the Desert Mob art festival where there are pieces on display from most of Central Australia’s art centres.
Iltja Ntjarra (Many Hands) Art Centre
Some of Central Australia’s art centres are quite remote and hard to reach. Some, however, are here in Alice Springs so you can see their work even when Desert Mob isn’t being held.
One of my favourites is the Iltja Ntjarra (Many Hands) Art Centre. The artists here are inspired by the watercolour style of Albert Namatjira and many of them have direct links to the painter. What’s particularly interesting, though, is how some have incorporated his style into more modern techniques.
You can visit the Iltja Ntjarra Art Centre to see some of the works and even meet the artists, who are generally here between 10:00 – 15:00 on Monday to Thursday.
Tjanpi Desert Weavers
Another art collective that has a presence in Alice Springs is the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, who have a really special style of craft.
The weavers use native grass to form sculpture shapes and then tie them up to keep them in place with colourful yarn. They also make baskets out of the grass, with reference to traditional techniques.
Although the sculptures have a modern feel – the fun representations are often of animals that have a deep connection to the heritage of the region.
Unfortunately the Tjanpi Desert Weavers headquarters is not a studio space, so you normally can’t meet the artists – most of whom work either in remote communities or from their homes here in Alice Springs. But the gallery here has a great collection of pieces to see and to buy.
Creativity in Alice Springs is not limited to the art centres – in fact, you’ll see plenty of it just by wandering around town.
Street art has become a much more important part of the city in recent years and there is a concerted effort to encourage well-known and emerging artists to decorated parts of Alice Springs, including through a street art festival.
Many of the larger works are in Todd Mall and in the blocks coming off either side of Todd Street, especially around the library. But you’ll find plenty in other spots – with a difference in styles around the Araluen Cultural Precinct and the skate park, for instance.
To find all the works, there’s this great interactive street art map that has all their locations.
And for one of the most spectacular art displays, there’s the Parrtjima festival that is held each year around April.
Parrtjima is a huge collection of artworks created in different ways by light, from neon shapes to an enormous projection onto the canvas of the MacDonnell Ranges. Held at the Alice Springs Desert, it’s fascinating to see the ways that the Aboriginal cultures – including ancient stories – are told through modern technology.
As well as different ways to interact with the artworks, there’s a busy schedule of performances and workshops. It’s well worth trying to time your visit to coincide with the festival, which is definitely one of the best things to do in Alice Springs.
With beautiful landscapes and a rich region to explore, this isn’t a city where you want to spend too much time indoors (except to escape the heat, perhaps!).
But there are a few museums in Alice Springs that are of note, taking you through aspects of Central Australia that you might not be able to see otherwise.
Museum of Central Australia
Covering the region’s natural history, the Museum of Central Australia has displays stretching from the creation of the universe right up to modern day, covering the geology of the Red Centre as well as its animals.
Some of the exhibits of large (and rather scary) extinct animals is interesting – and even the taxidermy specimens of current fauna is fascinating because you don’t get to see many of them in the wild.
The Museum of Central Australia has two main sections. As well as the natural history, there’s a photography exhibition showing life in the Hermannsburg mission in the early 20th century.
The museum is in the Araluen Cultural Precinct, just a few minutes’ walk from the Araluen Arts Centre, so it’s easy to combine a visit to the two institutions (although unfortunately they need separate entry tickets).
An offshoot of the main museum is the Megafauna Central, located in the centre of town. It is focused on those weird extinct animals I mentioned – the megafauna, that roamed the land until about 50,000 years ago (and up to 8 million years ago!).
Some of the particularly intriguing species were the lion that was related to wombats, an emu-like bird that was up to three metres high, and a freshwater crocodile weighing up to 800 kilograms!
Much of the collection at Megafauna Central is from a fossil site called Alcoota that preserved about 30 different types of animals about 150 kilometres from town.
Central Australian Aviation Museum
There was once an aerodrome, built in 1939, on the site of the Central Australian Aviation Museum, and its history is part of the story that’s told here today.
The Central Australian Aviation Museum has a decent collection of heritage aircraft here, including two Royal Flying Doctor Service planes. There’s also other memorabilia related to aviation in the Northern Territory.
It’s also located in the Araluen Cultural Precinct and is hard to miss – there are big planes parked out front!
Even though Alice Springs is a city, it’s sometimes defined more by what is not here than what is – essential services, for instance.
Particularly for many people further out in the region, the challenges of living in the Outback are all too real. Learning about some of this offers a fascinating insight into life here.
Alice Springs Telegraph Station
There would probably be no Alice Springs if it wasn’t for the telegraph station, built in 1872. Because there was pretty much no European settlement here before the site was chosen as a repeater station for the telegraph line between Darwin and Port Augusta in South Australia.
From the telegraph station, a small community started to grow – the stationmaster’s residence, quarters for police, a blacksmith’s shops, sheds for buggies.
What you see now when you visit the Alice Springs Telegraph Station is a historic site, protected and restored to show its heritage. The telegraph operations were moved into the centre of town in 1932, and the buildings were subsequently used as an educational facility until the Second World War.
As well as the historic buildings here, there are bushwalking and cycling trails, and some lovely areas for a picnic or to hang out beside the Todd River.
School of the Air
For many children in Central Australia, the idea of going to school each day is unrealistic. The closest school after all, may be hundreds (or even more than a thousand) kilometres away.
That’s why the School of the Air was established in Alice Springs in 1951, using radio to broadcast lessons to kids in remote communities and farms, so they could talk to both teachers and other students.
Over the years, the school has evolved, but it’s still just as necessary now as it was back then. It may now use satellites and have video as well as audio, but it’s still basically just children separated by massive distances talking to each other every day.
When you visit the Alice Springs School of the Air Experience, you may be able to watch a lesson taking place. There are also presentations about the history of the service and how technology as changed it over the years. It’s a fascinating experience.
Royal Flying Doctor Service
The School of the Air was actually inspired by the Royal Flying Doctor Service, when a member visited a remote cattle station and saw how isolated the children were. The first school used the same technology as the RFDS.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service is another critical part of the infrastructure of the Australian Outback, using planes to take doctors to remote communities for regular appointments, or transferring people to hospitals in emergencies (and treating them along the way).
The RFDS Alice Springs Tourist Facility is in the centre of the city, away from the actual operations at the airport, but it has a comprehensive set of things to see.
There’s a holographic video show that takes you through the history of the service, a replica aircraft that you can go inside, virtual reality stories that show you what it’s like to be a patient onboard, and a museum with lots of historical artefacts.
The sunlight feels different in Central Australia, the colours of the land richer and more vibrant. I think the scenery here is some of the most beautiful in the country and it’s a great reason to come to the Red Centre.
Although there are famous natural landmarks in easy drive of the city, some of the best things to do in Alice Springs itself will give you a wonderful taste of what’s on offer.
Alice Springs Desert Park
The main natural attraction in the city is the Alice Springs Desert Park, a large precinct that has a collection of native flora and fauna that you’ll find around Central Australia.
The park is divided into different habitats, such as sand country, desert rivers, and woodland. Walking trails take you to examples of important plants, and there are areas dedicated to specific animals, such as the Nocturnal House.
As well as displays about the Red Centre’s nature, the Alice Springs Desert Park also has opportunities to learn about how Aboriginal people find food and medicines in the region’s harsh landscapes.
Olive Pink Botanic Gardens
A much smaller (and free) alternative to the Alice Springs Desert Park is the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens, which is also much closer to town.
The reserve has an impressive collection of trees and shrubs that are native to Central Australia, as well as introduced species like trees and cacti that can handle the climate. There’s a waterhole and a sand dune to show different habitats.
There are several short walks at the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens, but the most popular is the Hill Walk, where you’re almost guaranteed to see some kangaroos and cute rock wallabies up close.
The Bean Tree cafe at the gardens is a great place for breakfast or lunch and I would recommend combining a meal with a little exploration of the landscapes here.
The Kangaroo Sanctuary has become a true institution in Alice Springs and heading out there is a really special experience.
The sanctuary is the passion project of Chris Barns (known as Brolga), who started it as a safe place for injured kangaroos or orphaned joeys from road accidents. The aim is to rehabilitate the animals and then release them back into the wild, if possible.
The only way to visit the Kangaroo Sanctuary is on a guided tour around sunset – which is perfect, because this is when the animals are awake and feeding. Not only will you be able to interact with the kangaroos, but Brolga will be able to tell you all about the work here.
The groups are generally small and intimate, so this is a really memorable experience and I think one of the best things to do in Alice Springs.
Alice Springs Reptile Centre
There are some creepy and crawly reptiles in Central Australia, but don’t let looks fool you – most of them are sweethearts when you get to know them!
A good way to meet some of the region’s animals is at the Alice Springs Reptile Centre, where there are more than 100 reptile species, like snakes (including some of the world’s most venomous) and crocodiles, as well as goannas and (my favourite) thorny devils.
The park is easy to visit in the centre of town and there are regular presentations and handling sessions, so it’s worth timing a visit to coincide with one of them.
Pyndan Camel Tracks
Camels are now part of the Central Australian wilderness, after they were released here by the pioneers who used them to settle the centre of the country.
If you’re interested in riding one of nature’s most cantankerous creatures, Pyndan Camel Tracks runs several different walks with the camels in beautiful locations around Alice Springs.
The afternoon tours through the West MacDonnell Ranges have the ochre mountains as the backdrop, while the sunset tour has a whole other range of colours (plus refreshments). You can book any of the tours here.
Look around, and you’ll realise there’s even more to discover out here. To see Alice Springs from some different perspectives, you might like to consider this special viewpoints.
It’s claimed that Anzac Hill is the most visited landmark in Alice Springs and, well, if that’s true, it’s probably because of how convenient it is, not because it’s the best thing to do in Alice Springs.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Anzac Hill – I would suggest you head up to the top as well, because you get an excellent panoramic view of the city and the surrounding scenery. It’s interesting to see the size of Alice Springs, which often feels much more like a town than a city.
Dedicated to Australia’s military, there’s a memorial aspect to the hill. There are also interesting information signs about what you can see from the viewpoint.
You can drive to the top of Anzac Hill, or it’s a relatively easy walk from the bottom.
From the air
Alice Springs looks different from above, with the city just part of the beautiful red desert landscapes of Central Australia. The surrounding mountains, the (usually dry) river beds, and the patches of green flora paint an exquisite picture from the sky.
That’s why one of the aerial experiences is a great thing to do while you’re here – and there are a few different options.
There are helicopter trips that leave from Alice Springs, as well as scenic flights in a small plane.
One of the most relaxing is this early morning hot air balloon flight that takes you across the remote wilderness to see red kangaroos amongst the spinifex grasses and mulga scrub.
I also want to mention a view that sometimes people forget about – looking up!
Just outside Alice Springs, Earth Sanctuary has lots of ecotourism experiences, many of them aimed as school groups. For the average visitor, it’s the astronomy tour that I would recommend.
Sitting under the night sky in this remote part of the country, the stars will seem brighter than you may ever have seen them before. With a laser pointer and a huge amount of knowledge, the Earth Sanctuary guides will talk you through what you’re seeing out there in the universe.
The night sky has been an important part of country for thousands of years, and this is a wonderful way to learn more about it.
For a visit to Alice Springs, I definitely recommend having a car – you’ll be a bit too limited if you’re trying to get around by foot or public transport.
And, with a car, you can venture even further out of town to discover some wonderful nature and heritage just a short drive from the city. Some of the highlights of a visit are found among the top things to do around Alice Springs.
From a historical perspective, Hermannsburg is interesting. About an hour’s drive from Alice Springs, it was established in 1877 as a Lutheran mission and much of the original infrastructure is here.
You can visit the Hermannsburg Historic Precinct to explore this history and learn about the missionaries and the Aboriginal people who lived here – including from their descendants who generally speak quite favourable about the heritage.
But Hermannsburg is also known these days for its art scene, which developed in a large part because this was the home of Albert Namatjira.
You can visit the Hermannsburg Potters, famous for pots painted with watercolour designs, to see the works and speak with the artists in the studio.
There are also other artists around town, and you can take a short drive to see the home built by Albert Namatjira after he found fame.
West MacDonnell Ranges
One of the best ways to see the nature around Alice Springs is with a day trip out to the West MacDonnell Ranges, the start of which is only a short drive from the city.
This stretch of rich red mountains has lots of places to stop along the way for different activities, including swimming, hiking, or just enjoying the vistas.
Some of the most popular places to stop include Simpsons Gap, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge, or even all the way out to Mount Sonder.
If you have the energy, maybe you could tackle some of the 223-kilometre Larapinta Trail! Or you could take this full-day tour that will drive you to all the highlights of the West MacDonnell Ranges.
Most of the West MacDonnell Ranges is covered by the Tjoritja National Park, but one spot that isn’t, which I think is worth special mention, is Standley Chasm.
Standley Chasm is an Aboriginal-owned piece of land, and they have developed a tract of it into a really interesting experience.
The pathway leading into the chasm has lots of information signs about life here and how people used the various plants. There are also tours where you’ll learn a lot more and be able to taste some of the native food.
At the end of the path, the gap in the rock is beautiful – one of the most impressive in the ranges – and worth the walk alone.
If you don’t want to do the driving yourself, there’s this excellent tour to the West Macs that includes a visit to Standley Chasm.
East MacDonnell Ranges
While the western side gets most of the attention, there are also plenty of sights in the East MacDonnell Ranges, and a day trip out to this stretch of the mountains is one of the least touristy things to do in Alice Springs.
The first 75 kilometres are on a sealed road, and then you’ll need a 4WD to go further. Either way, you’ll find beautiful gaps, gorges, water holes, nature parks, and cultural heritage.
There are walking trails to explore the scenery, a bush pub for an Outback feed, Aboriginal art sites to visit, and plenty more.
Especially if you’ve visited Alice Springs before and seen some of the popular attractions to the west, it might be well worth trying the East MacDonnell Ranges this time.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN ALICE SPRINGS
Although there isn’t lots of accommodation, at least there’s a wide range. Have a look at my detailed story about where to stay in Alice Springs, or I’ve got a few of the top suggestions here.