The best things to do in the Northern Territory
Use this table of contents to jump down, or keep reading to see my suggestions for the best things to do in the Northern Territory.
In some of the most remote and sparsely populated land in Australia, the Northern Territory has incredible adventures for visitors. Dramatic national parks, fascinating cultural heritage, outback communities and natural wonders offer just some of the best things to do in the Northern Territory.
You can certainly do a quick trip to the Northern Territory – places like Darwin or Uluru are great for just a few days. But you would be doing yourself a bit of a disservice, because one of the best things about the Northern Territory is taking it slowly, exploring off the track a bit, and feeling like you’ve got no worries in the world (maybe you don’t – lucky you!).
Even if you are just going to focus on one region of the Northern Territory, I recommend hiring a car or taking local tours to see it properly. If you fly into Darwin, for instance, go to Litchfield National Park, camp in Kakadu, catch the ferry over to the Tiwi Islands.
Or, if you’ve got a bit more time, grab a car and take a road trip from north to south (or vice versa), experiencing the vast landscapes and some of the more remote natural and cultural wonders.
To help you with a little inspiration and planning, let me share with you my top tips for the best things to do in the Northern Territory.
A lot of these are natural sites, and that’s no great surprise seeing as the wonderful rock formations of Central Australia and tropical forests of the Top End are absolute gems.
But there’s plenty of Indigenous culture throughout the Northern Territory as well, as learning more about the different traditions is one of the best things you can do in the NT.
Plus there’s just the weird and the wonderful that you find in the Australian Outback – the characters in the small towns, the museums that people have decided to open, and the pubs that capture the spirit of their isolated communities.
Let’s start in Darwin, which has a lot to offer. Sometimes this northern capital gets a bit overlooked as just a launchpad to the main sights in the Top End, but there’s a vibrant local culture here and lots to see.
Start at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) to get a good overview of the city, check out the Military Museum to learn more about the history here, and then head down to the Waterfront for a swim in the wave pool or a ride on a jetski.
The markets are a great way to taste a selection of the excellent Asian food on offer in Darwin and can be a lovely way to make the most of the warm evenings.
Speaking of food, Darwin has changed a lot in recent years and there are some great new restaurants, cafes, and bars in the city centre. It certainly feels much cooler than perhaps it once was. And you’ll also find an incredible collection of street art in the alleys here too.
It’s worth spending a couple of days in Darwin itself, on top of any trips you do around the city. There are heaps of options – check out my list of the best things to do in Darwin.
Litchfield National Park
Although it’s often treated as a day trip from Darwin, Litchfield National Park is a destination in itself. Just 1.5 hours drive from the city, it’s easy to reach on sealed roads, but then there are days worth of activities across the park.
The most iconic parts of Litchfield National Park are its swimming holes – large pristine pools, often at the base of waterfalls. You can spend your day moving between them, exploring different views of the park and staying cool at the same time.
But there are lots of other things to do at Litchfield National Park, including hiking (from short walks to multi-day trails), viewpoints, and Indigenous and modern heritage sites.
There are some accommodation options on the edge of the park, or there are some campsites within the park itself, making for a relatively easy expedition into an area that showcases the best of the landscapes of the Top End.
You can find out more with my guide to Litchfield National Park.
Litchfield National Park is just a taster for the real treasure of the Top End – Kakadu National Park, one of the best things to do in the Northern Territory.
It’s Australia’s biggest national park, covering about 20,000 square kilometres, and has been named a World Heritage Site because of its natural and cultural significance.
There is such a variety of landscapes in Kakadu, from billabongs and swimming pools, to dramatic red escarpments, and lush rainforest. You can get lots in the details of the distinct ecosystems, or take it all in from above.
There is also many millennia of history within the boundaries of the park, and the Indigenous rock art is one of the best ways to learn more about that.
Technically it’s possible to visit Kakadu National Park as a day trip from Darwin, but it would be a real rush and you wouldn’t see much. Even a one-night trip is quite quick. I would recommend going for a few nights – either along or with a tour – and letting the pace of the park get you closer to nature.
Just north of Darwin are the Tiwi Islands, where you’ll find remote nature and fascinating culture – and a very special visitor experience.
Although they’re not far from the coast, the Tiwi Islands feel isolated from the mainland, and it’s this isolation that led to the Indigenous population developing a unique culture over many years. Along with the traditions and customs, their local art has become particularly famous.
There are two main islands that make up the Tiwi Islands and the largest community is Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island. Here, you’ll find several art studios – as well as some other heritage sites. You can visit as a day trip on a ferry from Darwin.
The Tiwi Islands are not public land and you need a permit to go further. But you can arrange overnight stays at the tropically-remote Tiwi Island Retreat, or you can arrange fishing trips and other adventures with local operators.
East Arnhem Land
Most parts of the Northern Territory seem like a bit of an adventure, sparsely-populated with dramatic landscapes. But I think there’s something particularly special about Arnhem Land, which doesn’t see as many tourists as more famous regions.
In East Arnhem Land, you’ll find bright coastlines of blue water and white sand, tropical rainforests and rocky escarpments, rivers teeming with life, and untouched woodlands and savannahs.
And, through it all, is strong Indigenous culture, which the locals are happy to share. You’ll find some unique experiences here, including a women-only retreat to learn about the spirituality of the land.
As well as more adventurous tours taking you amongst the nature of East Arnhem Land, there are quite a few luxury options where you can relax in the uncrowded natural beauty of the coastline.
Going further south, there’s Katherine, which markets itself as ‘where the tropics meet the Outback’. It’s actually a good way to think of the region around Katherine, because you do see those two different environments.
One of my favourite spots here is Nitmiluk Gorge. You can go for a bushwalk along the ridge of the gorge, kayak in the water, or take a dip in a swimming hole. It’s worth taking a Nitmiluk river cruise run by the local Jawoyn guides to learn more.
Another great place to explore nearby is the Cutta Cutta Caves, a large complex of underground caverns that have been carved by nature over millions of years. You can go deep inside to explore the beautiful formations.
And then Katherine itself has a fair share of heritage buildings and stories, plus there are Outback experiences around town where you can get an excellent insight into life on the land and all the hard work that brings with it!
Not just one of the best things to do in the Northern Territory, Uluru is undoubtedly one of the top sites in Australia. But I think it’s important not to think of Uluru as a tourist attraction that just needs to be ticked off a list.
There is something quite spiritual about Uluru and you can feel its energy when you’re there. From a distance, it may just look like a big red rock, but you’ll discover all its different textures and small detail when you get closer.
As well as the wonder of its natural elements, there is a lot of Indigenous heritage here and learning about that will give you a much deeper understanding of the significance of the site.
I would recommend spending a few days at Uluru – including at nearby Kata Tjuta – to explore it properly from every perspective. It changes a lot during the day as the sun arcs across the sky, and you’ll want to go for some walks as well as tours to make the most of your visit.
You can read more about visiting Uluru here.
Alice Springs is one of the most colourful towns in the Northern Territory, where you’ll find an Outback atmosphere that can be used as a base to explore the dramatic sights of the region.
In the town itself, you can visit organisations like the Royal Flying Doctor Service and School of the Air, browse through art galleries, and learn more at heritage sites and the Museum of Central Australia.
Then you can head out to the East or West MacDonnell Ranges to see the magnificent landscapes of gaps and gorges of this mountainous terrain. There are lots of things to do, including bushwalks, but one of the highlights is the 231-kilometre walking route called the Larapinta Trail.
Another beautiful area well worth visiting is Finke Gorge National Park, about 140 kilometres from Alice Springs. It’s said that the river here is one of the oldest in the world (up to 350 million years old) and there are some great hiking trails to get close to the red cliffs and waterholes.
One of the most iconic things to do in the Northern Territory is a walk along the rim of the majestic Kings Canyon, a six-kilometre track that takes you from views across the red sand dunes down to a beautiful rockpool surrounded by palms.
The 300-metre-high sandstone walls are the most famous site but Kings Canyon is just one part of the larger Watarrka National Park that has enough to fill a few days of outback exploration – I think it’s worth more than just a day trip from Uluru (which is how many people approach it).
You can join Indigenous guides to learn more about the heritage of the land, tackle one of the longer hikes, eat a special meal under the night sky, or take a helicopter ride over the remarkable landscape.
Tennant Creek, as a town, was founded first as a location for a critical telegraph station and then, more so, as the base for a huge gold rush in the 1930s. It means there’s plenty of heritage to discover in this small remote outpost about halfway between Darwin and Alice Springs.
But, like much of the Northern Territory, it’s the Indigenous culture and the natural landscapes that are the highlights. You can learn more about the nine Aboriginal groups who live here at the Nyinkka Nyunyu Culture Centre.
For most visitors, the biggest attraction is the Devil’s Marbles, also known as Karlu Karlu. This collection of precariously balanced granite boulders is quite a remarkable site and has a lot of ancient stories associated with it.