Luxury Escapes Guide to Darwin

Perched in the Top End, Darwin’s stunning remoteness has cultivated a unique culture, cafe and art scene that is wholly its own — this is no place to rush.

The smallest of Australia’s capital cities is unlike anywhere else in the country. Surrounded on all sides by a seemingly unending sweep of natural beauty, Darwin conjures images of ancient Indigenous art gracing the walls of Katherine Gorge, the magnificent Termite Mounds of Litchfield National Park and sacred Aboriginal land in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park. But this little city is also a thriving cosmopolitan centre, albeit with a treasure trove of natural riches and balmy tropical weather.

It’s only here that you can find an almost one-to-one ratio of people to ancient saltwater crocodiles (and almost rub noses with them), visit ‘Australia’s Pearl Harbour’ and spend an afternoon strolling through beachfront markets, before choosing from a string of multicultural harbourside restaurants.

Indeed, Darwin wears its closer proximity to Indonesia than Sydney as a badge of pride, boasting some of the strongest southeast Asian culinary influence in the country, showcased in the capital’s only hatted restaurant, Hanuman.

It’s the art scene that puts the feather in Darwin’s cap, with world-class street art placed on the map by the annual Darwin Street Art Festival, and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which offers one of the largest exhibits of Australian Indigenous art in the world.

Our tip: visit Darwin during the dry season, between mid-April to mid-November, when you can enjoy balmy days on the beachfront at the seasonal Mindil Sunset Markets and cool nights in buzzing restaurants along Mitchell and Smith Street.

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Things to see and do

Get under the skin of Kakadu National Park

A UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, Australia’s largest national park is in a league of its own. The walking trails, photogenic sunsets and Indigenous art are exquisite, but the undisputed highlight of Kakadu is the billabong, Yellow Water, where you can spy crocodiles and water buffalo. Keen art and nature buffs will find much to love along the particularly scenic Ubirr, an Aboriginal rock-art gallery with drawings ranging from 15,000 years to 150–years old, dazzling with Dreamtime folklore and first contact with white settlers.

See incredible termite mounds at Litchfield National Park

Two hours outside of Darwin, you can experience the real outback at Litchfield National Park. Wander among the two-metre high Magnetic Termite Mounds, see the four-metre tall Cathedral Mounds and ponder why these natural formations are perfectly aligned from north to south. For a more off-the-beaten-track adventure, drive deeper into the forest to discover the Lost City; a collection of eerie sandstone outcrops weathered and sculpted by the sun, wind and rain for millennia to resemble a lost civilisation. Only accessible by 4WD, getting to the Lost City will be an off-road feat worthy of Indiana Jones.

Discover local Indigenous art and history at MAGNT

The Northern Territory is home to more people from Aboriginal communities than any other state. To check out the best and brightest of Indigenous art, a visit to the Museum Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, known by locals as MAGNT, is a must. In this unique gallery, corridors proudly showcase an ever-changing roster of Indigenous art collections and scientific exhibits, offering a fascinating insight into the local cultures and people at play here. With many of the exhibits offering free entry, this is the perfect reprieve from the balmy-turned-rainy weather come wet season.

Learn about Darwin’s military history

Known as ‘Australia’s Pearl Harbour’, Darwin was the site of Japanese bombing raids in 1942, sinking Allied ships and killing soldiers and civilians. There are plenty of nods towards Darwin’s wartime history scattered about town, but perhaps the most fascinating are the labyrinthine World War II storage tunnels, which were carved by more than 400 men as an alternative to land storage, but ultimately never used. Don‘t miss the WWII walking trail in Bicentennial Park, commanding a grassy stretch of Darwin’s harbour overlooking the esplanade — a poignant reminder of the loss of life experienced here.

Swim with giant saltwater crocs at Crocosaurus Cove

Crocosaurus Cave is not your average tourist attraction. More like a daredevil stunt you’d see on Fear Factor, Australia’s only saltwater crocodile dive is built for those who want a safer way to experience the rush of near-death by crocodile. The aptly named ‘Cage of Death’ offers the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be willingly lowered into a pool with just a plastic cylinder separating you and a five-metre saltie. If you’d prefer something a on the tamer side without the kick of adrenaline, Crocosaurus Cove offers you the opportunity to feed a crocodile instead.

Settle into the Deckchair Cinema

Why see a movie at a run-of-the-mill cinema when you can take to the outdoors and see one under the stars? Celebrate your enduring love affair with the balmy Darwin dry season with a picnic or a feed along the city’s esplanade and make the most of Darwin’s warm weather at the Deckchair Cinema, Darwin’s only open-air cinema. Snag a deckchair and make yourself comfortable, watching a film in the evening breeze beside Darwin Harbour.

Experience the famous Mindil Beach Sunset Market

Food lovers rejoice — every dry season the iconic Mindil Beach Sunset Market returns. Pull up your deck chair, fill your esky with tinnies (no alcohol is sold here, but BYO is encouraged) and take a gastronomic tour of Darwin. Taste your way through over 60 stalls of sizzling kangaroo, caramelised bao and barramundi tacos, to name a few. When you’re not downing the hawker-style delicacies, browse endless stalls of jewelry, pick-up a handcrafted wallet, and have your fortune told in tarots. The markets at Parap, Rapid Creek and Nightcliff are also well worth a visit.

Thursday to Sunday afternoons during the dry season.

Check out Darwin’s laneways

Darwin’s laneways have had a renaissance in the last several years, as uninteresting buildings have been transformed into large-scale stencil and graffiti street art canvasses. Affectionately dubbed ‘Graffiti Lane’, Austin Lane has seen the greatest makeover as part of the Darwin City Council’s Laneways Series initiative in 2017. The annual Darwin Street Art Festival sees high profile interstate and local artists paint murals around town — with artists such as Vexx, Lisa King and Sofles leaving their mark with metres-high, multi-storied artworks. The festival date changes every year, but you can catch the finished works of art year-round.

Watch saltwater crocodiles leap from the Adelaide River

Seeing prehistoric crocodiles in the Northern Territory is a must, and what better way to get up close and personal with these ancient creatures than on a jumping crocodile cruise? AAT Kings offers an incredible one-hour cruise experience an hour outside of Darwin on the Adelaide River. Hop aboard and watch these prehistoric creatures leap from the waters to snag a piece of meat dangling from a pole. Oh, and you’ll learn about their habits, ecosystem and nicknames too, before journeying to the Window on the Wetlands Visitor Centre to learn about wildlife and Aboriginal history.

Top places to eat and drink

Cucina Sotto le Stelle

When the pizza chef is locally referred to as the ‘pope’s personal pizza preparer’, you know you’ve found somewhere special. A true Nightcliff institution on Chapman Road, Cucina Sotto le Stelle is a pop-up, wood-fired pizza van whose name literally translates to ‘kitchen under the stars’. The magic of this place is not just the perfect slices of pizza topped with handfuls of mozzarella and fresh herbs, but its open air location, where you can choose to have your own picnic or join the locals around communal tables with fairy lights glittering overhead. Bellissimo.

PM Eat & Drink

Hidden in the former Woolworths building on graffiti-covered Austin Lane, PM Eat & Drink’s décor alone will reel you in, but it’s the food that will really impress. Promising fresh, seasonal tapas-style fare influenced by European and Asian flavours, PM Eat & Drink won’t disappoint with a banquet of sizzling saganaki drizzled with honey, sesame and a squeeze of lemon, whole-grilled local reef fish with a sprig of thyme, and churros perfect for dipping in the salted-miso caramel.

Little Miss Korea

For mouthwatering Korean BBQ, flowing soju and a buzzing atmosphere, Little Miss Korea is the place to be. Despite its hidden graffiti-covered entry on Austin Lane, this humble little eatery, opened by celebrity Korean chef Chung Jae Lee in 2015, certainly makes an impression with a funky décor straight out of Melbourne's laneways. From bulgogi to bibimbap and beautifully marbled wagyu sizzled over a chargrill BBQ, you really can’t go wrong here. Be sure to wash it down with a G&T — they have over 20 boutique craft gins to choose from — or a signature cocktail... or two.

Oyster Bar

Whether you’re an oyster au naturel purist or have been known to enjoy a half-dozen (or cheeky full) Kilpatrick, Oyster Bar will fill the order effortlessly with its freshly shucked, chilled or grilled oysters on a bed of salt. Time your visit with sunset, and then tuck into some of Darwin’s finest, freshest oysters alfresco-style with sweeping views from Darwin’s waterfront precinct. But this isn’t a one-trick pony; share plates such as panko prawns and buffalo chicken wings star on this menu, as well as larger serves of grilled barramundi and salt and pepper squid.

Laneway Specialty Coffee

Darwin's café scene shines at Laneway Specialty Coffee, where the lattes are perfectly poured, the granola is Instagram-worthy, and the décor wouldn’t look out of place in a Melbourne laneway. There’s always a queue out the door and a wait list for tables, but hovering outside on the street is part of Laneway Specialty Coffee’s charm as you admire the lush foliage brushing the café windows, and the aroma of crisp, caramelised bacon fills your nostrils. Sit down to an Industrial-style wood table, order a cup of Campos Coffee and order the poached eggs with herb hollandaise on sourdough toast. For the sweet tooth, dig into organic buckwheat hotcakes with wattleseed panacotta.

Frying Nemo

You know it and the seagulls know it: not all fish and chippers are created equal — only the very best offer the perfect combination of crunch, golden finish and satisfying balance of salt. And nowhere ticks all the boxes like Frying Nemo, serving the ‘Best Fish & Chips in NT’, with several awards to prove it. A five-minute drive off the Darwin Waterfront precinct, this tucked-away hidden gem offers all the classics with some adventurous creations such as coconut-crusted NT banana prawns and wild-caught NT black-tip shark.