Australia’s northern capital is often seen as just a staging point for bigger adventures around the territory – but you don’t need to look too hard to find lots of things to do in Darwin itself.
Across the city, Darwin’s attractions offer an insight into the heritage of the Top End and a taste of the natural beauty of the region. You can visit a military museum in the morning and be swimming underneath a waterfall by the afternoon, for example.
Darwin is small, with a population of only about 150,000 people – and I think it actually feels even smaller than that because of the way that it’s spread out. Most visitors will spend the majority of their time in the city centre, which is less than two kilometres long.
There’s a laidback atmosphere, which is one of the reasons locals love living here. I’ve had quite a few friends who have moved to Darwin for short term work opportunities and have then stayed for years.
As a visitor, you’ll get more out of your time here if you relax into the slow pace and enjoy a small selection of activities, rather than rush to fill your time with lots of attractions. There may be plenty of things to do in Darwin, but that doesn’t mean you need to see them all!
The weather is also a factor. Whether you visit Darwin in the dry season or the wet season, it will be quite hot and humid, so it’s nice to regularly sit and have a break. Thankfully there are some cool new bars, cafes, and restaurants in Darwin to take a breather.
The best things to do in Darwin
To help you plan a trip to Darwin, I’ve put together this list of the best things to do in Darwin. As you’ll see, there’s quite a variety – and plenty of fun things that are quintessential Top End!!
In the city
Although you may think you’ve come for the nature and the water around Darwin, there’s lots to see around the city, possibly just a short walk from your accommodation.
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
It might make sense to begin your trip at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) to get a good overview of the city and some of the history (plus it has great air conditioning to help you acclimatise).
There are a few permanent exhibitions that give you a nice introduction to Darwin, including the natural history section, where you can see the evolution of some of the local flora and fauna.
There’s also an excellent section about Cyclone Tracy in 1974, that really changed the shape of the city. And, of course, there’s Sweetheart, the famous 5.1-metre crocodile that terrorised boats in the 1970s but is now stuffed and on display.
The Botanic Gardens (officially called George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens) is close to the museum and art gallery and it might make sense to combine the two.
You wouldn’t realise from driving past, but there are quite a few features and different environments within the gardens. One of the highlights is the rainforest, which has a waterfall inside it.
There are some lovely leisurely walks through the botanic gardens and a cafe to get some food and drink. You don’t need to spend too long here, but it’s a nice bit of nature within the city.
Darwin Street Art
Back in the city centre, one of the best free things to do in Darwin these days is explore the street art. The Darwin Street Art Festival began in 2017 and runs annually, meaning there are now more than 50 large murals on walls in the CBD.
There’s a map on the website, but you’ll find most of them if you explore the alleys around the wall. Some of them are enormous and are so beautiful in their detailed depictions of local characters and heritage.
I always think you can tell a lot about the soul of the city from its street art, and these murals show that Darwin has a lot of interesting stories to share.
Darwin is known for its markets and they’re a fantastic way to discover local produce and taste some incredible food. Of course, there’s a huge selection of multicultural dishes (and plenty of different types of laksa).
One of the best markets in Darwin is the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets, held in a park next to the beach on Sundays in the Dry Season (late April to late October). There are more than 200 stalls – a third of which serve food – and a beautiful view of the sunset from the sand.
Another popular market that runs all year round is the Parap Village Markets, held on Saturday mornings. The food is the focus here and, although everything is good, you’ll easily be able to spot the local favourites by the long lines (especially at Mary’s famous laksa).
Royal Flying Doctor Service Darwin Tourist Facility
One of the best museums in Darwin is the Royal Flying Doctor Service Darwin Tourist Facility, which you’ll find at the end of the wharf at the Darwin Waterfront.
This centre uses new technology like virtual reality and life-size holograms to tell two iconic stories about the Top End. The first is about the Royal Flying Doctor Service, including how it was established and the important work that it does in remote areas of the Northern Territory.
The other story is about the Bombing of Darwin, which took place in 1942 during the Second World War. It’s a dramatic enough event but, coupled with the video content, the drama is heightened even further in this retelling.
You can buy tickets in advance here to save yourself time.
World War II Oil Storage Tunnels
Near the RFDS and Darwin Bombing museums, on the edge of the Waterfront, is a related site – the World War II Oil Storage Tunnels.
Construction started on these tunnels in 1942, which were designed to store oil within the escarpment so they couldn’t be attacked (Japanese air raids had already destroyed seven above-ground tanks). 400 labourers worked on the project, digging hundreds of metres by hand.
You can walk through a couple of them to discover the result of the huge engineering project. There are some information panels, but they’re relatively basic. That doesn’t really matter, though, because it’s the tunnels themselves that you’ve come to see.
It’s great that they have been well preserved and offer a good perspective into this period of the city’s history. You can learn more about the time with this WWII Reflections tour, or even with this Bombing of Darwin Cruise.
Darwin Military Museum
And, continuing the theme, another site of interest is the Darwin Military Museum at East Point, about a 10-minute drive from the centre of town.
The museum was founded in the 1960s and has been collecting memorabilia from across the NT ever since. While there’s an exhibition focused on the Bombing of Darwin, other aspects of the territory’s military history is also covered.
There’s an indoor section that has been set up inside an original concrete command post bunker, but there are also lots of vehicles and armaments on display in the outdoor area around it.
Darwin Aviation Museum
The Darwin Aviation Museum was established in 1976 with the initial aim of preserving aircraft and other artefacts from the Second World War. So, it’s probably no great surprise that the museum has displays about the Bombing of Darwin (everyone does, right?) but that’s just a small part of the exhibitions.
There are also fascinating displays about parts of Darwin history that you may not have heard of before – such as the race from London to Darwin in 1919 that was won by brothers Ross and Keith Smith.
The highlight for many visitors to the museum, though, is the enormous B52 bomber, the only one of its kind on display in the Southern Hemisphere.
Fannie Bay Gaol
As Darwin’s main prison for about a century, from 1883 to 1979, Fannie Bay Gaol has certainly got lots of stories to tell!
It’s now a historic site and you can visit it for free on Saturdays to see the heritage buildings. There’s the female block with a small garden, maximum security wings added in the 1950s, and the watch tower.
The heritage site is about halfway between MAGNT and the Darwin Military Museum, so it’s easy to include in your sightseeing.
OK, I get it, you’ve come to Darwin so you want to see a croc. The good news is that it’s not hard to do and there are quite a few options. Plus, there are some other interesting animals to see while you’re at it.
You can’t come to the Top End without having some kind of crocodile encounter – hopefully on your own terms! If you want to get up close to these magnificent creatures, then you can do that right in the centre of the city at Crocosaurus Cove.
You can see some adult crocodiles being fed, you can feed some juvenile ones yourself, and you can even hold some baby crocodiles. For the most adventurous, you can ‘swim’ with the crocodiles, with just glass separating you from these ancient killers.
Obviously everything is carefully managed and you certainly feel like you’re at a tourist attraction – but it’s a fun and easy way to get a quick croc fix.
Crocodylus Park and Zoo
Another option to see crocodiles is Crocodylus Park and Zoo, about 15 minutes out of town. There are about a thousand crocodiles here, from hatchlings to adults, and you can see shows or even feed them yourself.
There are other animals here – some which are endemic to the region and some from around the world (leopards and tigers, for example). This is because the park also operates as a wildlife research centre.
Territory Wildlife Park
And, while we’re on the topic, there’s also Territory Wildlife Park, which is about 45 minutes out of the city centre (near Berry Springs and Barramundi Adventures, which I’ll mention soon).
It’s quite a large park that is divided into different habitats, like a billabong, rocky ridge, or monsoon forest. You can walk around it, or there is a shuttle bus that drives around the loop.
The focus is on animals from the Top End, so it’s a great way to learn more about the region. You’ll see echidnas, wallaroos, quolls, emus… And, of course, crocodiles!