Darwin, Northern Territory – The Ultimate Guide

Darwin is not only the gateway to your journey into the wild, rugged Top End of Australia, but it’s also an adventure all on its own.

The Northern Territory capital might be small in size, more closely resembling a town for those from the southern states, but it really is a city with its own distinct rustic yet casual laid-back atmosphere crafted out of its tropical extremes and geographic isolation from the rest of Australia.

Initially forged as a remote outpost, Darwin has proven its resilience more than once. But we’ll get to that shortly.

In fact, the city has been nearly entirely rebuilt four times. Three times due to cyclones, the most recent being Cyclone Tracey in 1974, while the large sections of the city were entirely destroyed by Japanese air raids during World War Two.

It’s this history that has crafted the city into its own unique destination, offering tourists and travellers plenty to see and do before heading off to explore the rest of what the Top End has to offer, in particular, the local wildlife and national parks (most notably Kakadu).

Where is Darwin

Darwin is the northernmost city in continental Australia. As the capital of the Northern Territory, it is actually closer to several Asian cities than it is to other Australian state capitals.

Situated on Australia’s northern coast, Darwin holds a unique position as the gateway to the country’s stunning Top End region.

A Brief History Of Darwin

The history of Darwin begins with its Indigenous inhabitants, the Larrakia people, who have reportedly lived in the area for thousands of years.

European contact with the region began in the early 17th century when Dutch and Portuguese explorers sailed along Australia’s northern coast. However, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that more significant European exploration and settlement took place.

In 1869, a settlement named Palmerston was established on the Adelaide River by British settlers, primarily as a strategic military outpost. It was later renamed Darwin in 1911 in honour of the famous naturalist Charles Darwin.

During World War II, Darwin played a pivotal role in Australia’s defence. It became a major military base for Australian and Allied forces and was subjected to devastating Japanese air raids in 1942, leading to the loss of many lives and substantial damage to the city.

After the war, Darwin underwent significant reconstruction and development, gradually becoming a thriving regional hub. Its natural deep-water port and proximity to Asia contributed to its growing importance.

In 1974, Darwin faced another major catastrophe when Cyclone Tracy struck on Christmas Day, causing widespread destruction and leading to the evacuation of much of the city’s population. The city was subsequently rebuilt with improved infrastructure and building codes. In fact, the city has been nearly entirely rebuilt four times in its history.

Today, Darwin is a vibrant and multicultural city known for its laid-back lifestyle and continues to grow thanks to industries such as mining, offshore oil and gas exploration, and tourism.

The Best Time Of Year To Visit Darwin

Darwin’s dry season, between May and October, is the most ideal time to head to the Top End.

In the peak of the Australian winter, when it is cold in the southern states, is the perfect time to visit the Northern Territory capital. Not only because of the summer-like warmth of its tropical location, but it is also because the city has a fun, relaxed atmosphere driven by all the other tourists in town. Both Australian and international.

You can still visit Darwin during the wet season; in fact, it’s a great time to get some really cheap deals on flights and accommodation. But just keep in that while it doesn’t rain all day every day when it does, it is monsoonal.

That said, you will also find that during the wet season, most of the national parks and waterways around the city are closed because it’s too dangerous due to flooding and crocodile migration.

How To Get To And From Darwin

By Air – Darwin International Airport

Due to its remote location, Darwin International Airport is the main gateway to the city. The airport connects Darwin to the rest of Australia with all of the country’s major airlines offering direct flights to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. Internationally, Darwin is also connected to Singapore and Bali with daily direct services.

As for travelling between Darwin’s CBD and Darwin International Airport, it is relatively straightforward. The airport is located only about a 15-20 minute drive outside of the city centre.

If you don’t need a car while you are in the city (especially if you embarking on an organised tour), my best suggestion is to take a taxi or one of the ride-sharing services like Uber. As a rough estimate, it’ll cost you about $25-$35 for a one-way trip between the airport and the city.

There have been a variety of shuttle bus services over the years, but they tend to change and often need to be booked well in advance.

That said, I do recommend renting a car while visiting Darwin. While the city is only small and very walkable, a lot of the key attractions that you will want to see while you are in the city will need to be driven to. So renting a car at the airport just makes things much more convenient.

By Rail/Coach

What could be Australia’s most famous scenic train service, “The Ghan”, connects Darwin with Adelaide. Passing through the heart of the Australian Outback, this rail trip is a bucket list journey for many people and a fantastic way to experience the vastness and diversity of central Australia.

Alternatively, Greyhound operates coach services that interlink Darwin to Adelaide, Broome, Townsville and Brisbane.

By Road

Despite its remote location, a well-serviced highway network does connect Darwin to the rest of the country. The Stuart Highway, in particular, connects the city with Adelaide.

Branching off the Stuart Highway, the Victoria Highway/Great Northern Highway route links Darwin to Broome and all the way down to Perth. The Barkly Highway connects to Queensland’s highway network.

Just keep in mind these are all multiday road trips, even if you are in a hurry.

How To Get Around Darwin

Given its typically good weather (in the dry season) and relatively flat nature, especially around the CBD and Waterfront precinct, simply walking around Darwin is a great way to get around the city.

The city itself isn’t all that big, really only several city blocks and there are well-pathed footpaths everywhere. So it is a very walkable city.

I will mention you might see groups of local indigenous people begging for handouts. It’s not all local indigenous who beg, just a select few, and for the most part, they are completely harmless and will leave you alone if ignored.

However while, the CBD itself very walkable, many of the attractions you might want to visit while in Darwin will need another mode of transport.

There is a public bus network. However, if you want to see a lot in a short amount of time, Darwin’s Big Bus tour is a great way to most of the city’s key attractions in a single day.

That said, as I mentioned earlier in this post, having your own transport (i.e. renting a car) will allow you to see so much more while you are in Darwin. In particular, the national parks that the Top End is most famous for.

Driving around Darwin is really straightforward. Traffic is almost non-existent, given the size and diversity of the population. In fact, driving through the city of Darwin is more like driving around a country town, if that’s a concern to you.

One thing I will mention is if you want to visit some of these attractions and plan on driving, take advantage of the offline maps feature in Google Maps. Mobile Phone reception can be limited once you get outside of the city, especially in the national parks, and using the offline mode feature will help you get around and back to Darwin without issues.

Also keep in mind that finding parking within the city can be tricky at times, with very limited free parking around the city.

Where To Stay In Darwin

With a high influx of luxury tours and backpackers each and every year, there is a diverse range of accommodation options in and around Darwin.

Best of all, given the compact size of Darwin’s CBD, all of these options are very close to each other as well as a lot of what the city has to offer. Especially the city’s essential bars and restaurants.

If you are chasing views and a luxury experience while you are in the top end, then I would recommend either the DoubleTree by Hilton Esplanade Darwin or Adina Apartment Hotel Darwin Waterfront.

Personally, I prefer to stay in something a little more middle of the range. Given the popularity of Darwin during the dry season, accommodation can get quite expensive. But what you get for that price can vary greatly. I’ve found that the following options are clean, comfortable and well air-conditioned (extremely important in Darwin). As well as being centrally located.

If you are on a really tight budget and looking for something on the cheaper side of things, especially backpacker-style accommodation, then you’ll have a few options on Mitchell Street. While these days, I tend to avoid this style of accommodation, I’ve found that MOM Darwin is the best of these options and located right in the heart of the city. MOM Darwin offers everything from 6-bed dormitories to individual self-enclosed rooms with their own bathrooms.

If you are solo travelling, they have a communal balcony area that is extremely popular with other travellers visiting the city. A great place to make new friends and find people to explore the Northern Territory with.

The Best Things To Do In Darwin

With so much to see and do in and around Darwin, I’ve dedicated a separate blog post to cover all of the options for you. Make sure you check that out.

Where To Find Food In Darwin/What To Do In The Evenings

Darwin has no shortage of nightlife… In fact, it’s quite a lively place in the evenings, particularly Mitchell Street, during the dry season.

The touristy nature of Darwin, coupled with the relaxed, casual vibe of the locals, means every night is a good night to be out in the city, no matter if you are just looking for dinner or to kick on further into the evening.

If you happen to be in Darwin on a Thursday or Sunday night during the dry season, then I would definitely recommend that you head to Mindil Markets. For both the sunset and a good feed, but I’ve already covered that.

Also, as I’ve mentioned early, the restaurants and pubs along Mitchell Street are always buzzing. There is a good mix of takeaway, pub and casual dining options along the road. All you need to do is take a stroll along the street until you find something that sparks your interest.

That said, if you aren’t sure, The Tap on Mitchell is a great relaxed option for either a meal or just a couple of afternoon beverages. At the same time, Monsoons tends to pick up a bit later in the evening to kick on well into the night.

If you are after something a little more fancy, then I would suggest you head to either Stokes Hill Wharf or Waterfront Precinct, where you’ll find some really nice but often pricey restaurants. My personal pick is Hot Tamale.

If you’d like to get more information to help plan your trip to and around Australia… Check out the rest of my blog posts.

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About the author

Rhys Vandersyde

Traveller, Photographer, Content Creator - I've spent the last 20 years actively seeking out new destinations and new adventures. Find out more about me here: vandersyde.com.au

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