Darwin – Overview & Things to See and Do
Darwin is a relatively new city, rebuilt after a devastating cyclone on Christmas Eve 1974. Forty seven or so nationalities reside here. This cultural mix, torrid climate, remoteness from anywhere in Australia, experience with disaster both natural and man-made and its hard-drinking ‘frontier town’ reputation are the basis for Darwin’s flair, charm and attraction for visitors.
Located in the tropics, Darwin has a relaxed atmosphere and is increasingly living up to its cosmopolitan claim. Recreation in Darwin centres predominately around outdoor activities such as sports, fishing, camping and swimming in “safe to swim” waterholes.
Living in Darwin is a lifestyle choice and retaining the laid back tropical lifestyle remains a key goal for both locals and politicians. The challenge however is to improve the goods and service standards as Australia looks to grow its trade and business in the region. Darwin has always been the focus of links with Asia and recent transport capital projects and developments in offshore gas exploration has reignited the national focus on Darwin. There is an overall feeling of optimism in Darwin towards the future and the potential in the region.
Darwin’s charm is unique and to an outsider who only spends a short time there, the attraction isn’t always obvious. Yet statistics show a large number of people who spend extended time in Darwin choose to return and live there permanently.
The city has been designed for a future population of 1 million people so the relatively small population of less than 80000 enjoys excellent infrastructure. Darwin usually comes as a pleasant surprise for first time visitors.
Darwin has a fantastic climate during the dry season (early May to October) but high humidity during the build up and wet season (November to April) . (See the section on seasons as this will influence the timing of any trip you plan to this region.)
Darwin’s history tells the story of a true frontier outback town. It is a history filled with set backs and determination despite the odds.
The general area was first charted in the 1810’s and the harbour was entered by Lieutenant John Lort Stokes on 9th September 1839. He named the area Port Darwin after his good friend, the famous evolutionist Charles Darwin.
In 1869, after four earlier attempts by others to settle surrounding areas had failed, George Goyder, mapped out a town in the current location based on Adelaide’s grid lines. The streets continue to this day in the city centre and are all named after surveyors in his party: Smith, Bennett, MacLachlan, Knuckey, Woods, McMinn and Mitchell.
There was little interest in this new settlement, and it could easily have been abandoned. The climate was harsh, the landscape hostile and there was little upside. However, in 1871 Darwin (or Palmerston as it was known then) was chosen as the landfall point for the submarine telegraph cable to connect Australia and Britain. The settlement remained, but a devastating cyclone destroyed Darwin in 1897 and the people had to rebuild.
By 1911 the Overland Telegraph line and a narrow-gauge rail line which stretched from Darwin south about 400 kilometres had been built. However most other projects including sugar, tobacco and coffee did not provide returns, although not through lack of trying.
In 1938 hastened by the worsening international situation, coastal guns, an anti-submarine boom net, and defence logistics were rapidly established and put in place. By 1941, Darwin and the Territory had assumed a strategic role in the Allied defence. With the entry of Japan to the Second World War on 7th December 1941, this position escalated.
By 1942, the Territory was a jump off point for American and Allied forces. The strategic threat posed by Darwin was not lost on the Japanese who struck on February 19th, 1942. 188 Japanese fighters and bombers began an assault on Darwin that was to last over 20 months. In that period, Darwin was attacked 64 times resulting in 243 dead and more than 300 wounded. Eight ships were sunk and 23 aircraft were destroyed. Darwin was forced to rebuild again.
After the war and into the late 40’s Darwin experienced a period of stagnation due to lack of business confidence. The 1950’s & 60’s brought rapid expansion with new buildings and homes going up everywhere. The threat of cyclone was ignored.
On Christmas Eve 1974 a category 4 cyclone, Cyclone Tracy, decimated Darwin. 64 residents lost their lives, thousands more were injured and Darwin was all but destroyed. 95% of dwellings were either destroyed or seriously damaged. More than 30,000 people were evacuated in the largest airlift in Australian history. Darwin once again had to be rebuilt.
For a long time the politicians debated whether to rebuild Darwin at all. Once a decision was made, the rebuilding of the city occurred quite rapidly, and construction continues to this day. The expectation is that the population will continue to grow strongly over the next 25 years.
The number of European backpackers that travel to Darwin during the dry season bolsters Darwin’s nightlife. The clubs & Irish pubs along Mitchell St are happening every night of the week. Recently with the opening of Discovery nightclub as a venue, Darwin has been seeing more nationally recognised performers.
Live theatre and concerts are available but not of the same high standard and variety as the southern capital cities. A lot of that has to do with the commercial reality that the distance and population of Darwin presents.
An institution in Darwin and well worth attending is the Darwin Symphony Orchestra. Recently celebrating its ten year anniversary, the Artistic Director and conductor Marin Jarvis brings together 75 volunteers with a professional Artistic Concert Master to hold eight concerts a year. As part of its role as a community orchestra the DSO takes its tour to outdoor and isolated areas including memorable performances in Katherine Gorge and Kakadu.
Sport & Recreation
Outdoor sports are well catered for with local operators offering charters including (but not limited to) hot air ballooning, sailing, abseiling, parachuting and rock climbing. Scuba diving is very popular with many WWII wrecks and reefs around the harbour. Operators can take you out on a two-hour through to a full day tour. The water is warm and clear making for great diving.
Fishing is the major past time in the Territory with one in three locals fishing regularly. There are a large number of fishing tour operators who will passionately lead you out into the estuaries or Wetlands searching for the famous Barramundi. Blue water charters targeting Reef Fish leave from Cullen Bay. If you are into fishing, you already know this is a must do activity when in the Territory. If your not into fishing this is still a fantasitc way to see some of the flora, fauna and wildlife of the region and after catching your first barra you’ll be hooked. For more information refer fishing section.
Darwin has one major shopping centre in Casuarina with 170 stores including the big department stores. Alternatively, each suburb has its own or an adjoining shopping centre usually with a major food outlet as well as variety stores. Darwin City also provides shopping opportunities, particularly targeting tourists, with the main shopping precinct located in Smith Street Mall.
For Aboriginal art, visit Framed – The Darwin Gallery at 55 Stuart Hwy Stuart Park (Ph 08 8981 2994) A great range of fine art and craft by recognised Aboriginal and non Aboriginal artists. A good place for the serious collector also.
Another good gallery is the Aboriginal Fine Arts Gallery located on the 1st Floor Cnr Mitchell & Knuckey St (Ph 08 8981 1315). They are an authorised Aboriginal Art Valuer & Consultant.
Darwin has a good range and quality of restaurants at the top end of the scale. The lower end cafes can be a bit hit and miss. Being a transient city, staff in these places tend to be backpackers or short term visitors so changes happen regularly.
Located closer to South East Asia than any other Australian city, Darwin has some excellent Asian restaurants. A good source of up to date information is the local tourism guide.
Nirvana Restaurant ** Recommended
Excellent Thai, Indian and Malaysian Cuisine that requires some explanation to the uninitiated, but the staff are only too happy to help. Everything on the menu tastes great so you can’t make a bad decision anyway. A funky atmosphere, and live Blues & Jazz near the front bar for you to enjoy before or after your meal. Very popular with the locals bookings are recommended. Phone 08 8981 2025
Hanuman Thai ** Recommended
An outstanding Thai restaurant, that has won a number of national awards. Arguably the best Thai food in Darwin and some claim the region. Hanuman also has an excellent wine list. Don’t miss the Hanuman oysters, served under terracotta hats with basil leaves and tangy lemongrass sauce. Excellent service. 28 Mitchell St Darwin Phone: 08 8941 3500
Recommend you book several days in advance if you are dining on the weekend.
An institution in Darwin, Christo’s used to be on the wharf but moved recently to the centre of the city. The charm and menu has been brought across to the new location. A mixture of Modern Greek cuisine with excellent seafood. Don’t be surprised if the bar staff start dancing the zorba. 32 Mitchell St Darwin
Pee Wee’s on the Point
Located in East Point with great views of the city overlooking the bay. An imaginative menu including whole chillies filled with Mexican style cheese sauce. Beautiful deserts and cheeses. If you’re dining get there early enough to experience the beautiful sunsets Alec Fong Lim Drive, East Point Reserve Ph: 08 8981 6868
Cafes & Other
Situated at Cullen Bay, Lolas overlooks the beautiful marina and it’s location alone makes it well worth visiting, if only for coffee or dips. The food is very good, although the service can be a little slow. If dining at Lolas make sure to check out the Men’s Room. (Ladies check that the coast is clear first). Marina Blvd, Cullen Bay
Tims Surf & Turf
Tim’s offer excellent fresh seafood buffet style at very reasonable prices. 10 litchfield st, Darwin Phone: (08) 8981 1024
Stokes Hill Wharf
Stokes Hill Wharf is a working wharf and is a popular spot for dinner. Offering communal outdoor seating and a selection of eateries with affordable meals, you also get live entertainment (seasonal), cool sea breezes & spectacular sunsets. The eateries offer a wide choice of options from steak, seafood & asian right through to specialties such as buffalo & crocodile. There is also a fully licensed takeaway bar.
Aquascene Fish Feeding **Recommended
At Doctor’s Gully, hundreds of fish come in for a feed every day at high tide. The fish eat stale bread and can be fed by hand. Voted ‘most popular attraction’ in tourism surveys it is a unique and enjoyable activity. There is a concrete ramp that allows adults and children alike to stand in the water surrounded by the fish they are feeding.
A visit to this attraction needs to be planned around opening times which vary daily according to tidal movements and taking into consideration the remainder of your sightseeing schedule.
Open: Check local publications or call 08 89817837 for feeding times. Admission is $4.00 ($2.50 children) bread is supplied free. Typical Time: 1/2 hr
Territory Wildlife Park **Recommended
A multi award winning and world class nature attraction designed to showcase Territory wildlife in natural habitats. It is set in 400 hectares of bushland with 6 kilometres of walking trails and a free shuttle train operating to link the 26 major exhibits. Arguably the best wildlife Park in Australia. The Staff’s passion for the animals is clearly evident in the displays.
Ensure you keep hydrated as you travel around the park. Take a hat and sunscreen and use the shuttle bus . There is an cafe in the main station. The excellent exhibitions are complimented with park lead feedings and other displays throughout the day. A “must see” display is the Birds of Prey demonstration, which runs daily at 11am. Open Daily from 9.00am – 5.00pm last admission 4.00pm Costs: Adult $32.00 Children $16.00 Family $87.00 Phone: 08 8988 7200 Allow 4hrs to a full day
Berry Springs Nature Park
Next to the Territory Wildlife Park, Berry Springs Nature Park has a warm thermal waterfall, and two large spring fed pools. A convenient place to cool off if you’ve spent a hot day walking around the Territory Wildlife Park.
Open Daily from 8.30am – 6.30pm
Crocodylus Park is a research base and public education facility on the world of crocodiles. Inside videos, a museum and tours share the latest research from around the world. The park also includes emus, primates, sea turtles and iguanas.
The park claims to have the most advanced crocodile breeding pens in the world. Eggs are removed as soon as they are laid and incubated to increase the chances of survival.
Feeding and tour times are 10.00am, 12.00pm & 2.00pm.
Open Daily from 9am – 5pm Admission $19.50 adults $16.00 children $49.00 families Under 4 free Typical Time: 2hrs
Indo Pacific Marine
Part of the Wharf precinct, Indo Pacific Marine is a display of a live coral reef ecosystem in its natural state without filtration or feeding. One of only a hand full of living displays in the world, this is an interesting exhibit. Guided tours are available.
Open Daily from 9am – 5pm Admission $15.40 adults $5.50 children Typical Time: 1hr
Parks & Reserves
Darwin Botanic Gardens **Recommended
A lush and shady 42-hectare retreat, that dates back to 1870 when Darwin was first settled. Cyclone Tracy destroyed about 80 per cent of the trees and shrubs in 1974, so much of what you see today amazingly has been planted only since then. The park is internationally recognised, showcasing the tropical habitats of Northern Australia and other tropical habitats around the world. The Parks and Wildlife Commission, in co-operation with local Aboriginal people, has established a series of self learn botanical walking trails, providing details on the use of native plants to the Aboriginal way of life. Information is presented on the use of plants as food, medicine and for ceremonies, tools and art.There is also a Children’s Evolutionary Playground which leads you through the changes in plant groups through time, using a visual blend of science and creative art. Darwin Botanic Gardens offers a good location for picnics and barbecues. Cost Free Typical Stay: 2-3hrs
Casuarina Coastal Reserve **Recommended
This attractive reserve stretches in a wide area around Darwin’s northern waterfront from Nightcliff to Lee Point .The park is the Territory’s most popular reserve. The stretch along Casuarina drive between Nightcliff and Rapid Creek is very popular with cyclists and joggers every morning and afternoon. It is also a very popular spot to watch Darwin’s famous sunsets. Box jellyfish are common in these waters between October and May and visitors are strongly urged not to enter the water at this time. Crocodiles are a risk all year round (refer section on crocodiles). Casuarina Coastal Reserve is an area of great significance to Aboriginal people. Old Man Rock, clearly visible off Casuarina Beach at low tide, is a particularly important sacred site of the local Larrakia people and should not be disturbed or damaged in any way. A stretch of the 7km long Casuarina beach has been marked as an official nude beach. The park includes a challenging mountain bike track from Rapid Creek through to Lee point crossing a number of creeks in the process. Lots of fun if you don’t mind getting muddy especially during or just after the wet season.
Crocosauras Cove **Recommended
One of Darwin’s most popular attractions, Situated right in the heart of Darwin’s Central Business District in Mitchell Street, next door to the Melaleuca on Mitchell and easy walking distance to all Darwin City hotels, Crocosaurus Cove features awesome Northern Territory Saltwater Crocodiles and everything that is “Crocodile”: At least seven enormous crocodiles are on display in specially designed tanks. Daily Crocodile feeding and photo opportunies. For the adventurous few, Swim with the Crocodiles, an adrenaline experience for those wanting the ultimate Crocodile experience. Opens Daily. 08 8981 5511. For more information click here
East Point Reserve & military museum
A 200 Hectare recreation area, East Point reserve features Lake Alexander, the only safe saltwater swimming spot in Darwin. This lake is near the entrance to the reserve and there is an interesting WWII museum at the point. The large concrete structures located at the point were built to house two large guns. Construction was disrupted when Japan raided Darwin in 1942. The guns were finally finished in 1945 by which time the war was over. The guns which cost $200,000 to build and install were sold off for scrap in 1960.
East Point offers great views of the harbour especially those back towards the city.
Howard Springs Nature Park
The picturesque 383-hectare park offers safe swimming, picnic and barbecue facilities, wildlife watching and interpretive forest walks. Barramundi and turtles are common around the main pool area and can be seen from the path across the weir. All animals are protected here and fishing is prohibited. The weir that forms the main pool was built during WWII to supplement Darwin’s water supplies. The informative display on the weir relates to the fish in the local area.
Open Daily from 8.00am – 8.00pm Costs: free. For more information click here
Art & Craft
Mindle Beach Markets ** Recommended
One of the highlights of the Darwin social calendar in the dry season. Held every Thursday evening during the Dry Season only, it is a bustling Asian style market with food, art and entertainment. It is an extremely popular market with locals and tourists alike, attracting up to 15,000 people. A recommended experience if your stay in Darwin coincides with a Thursday evening.
Museum & Art Gallery
An excellent museum and Art gallery full of interesting displays, including the countries best aboriginal art collection. Pride of place among the stuffed animal displays is Sweetheart, a 5m 780kg saltwater crocodile who was quite famous in Darwin for attacks on fishermen. The Museum has an excellent licensed restaurant which is worth a visit in its own right.
Open: Costs: Phone: Typical Time: 2 1/2 hrs
A modern and attractive marina suburb built in the 1990’s. Cullen Bay is the wealthy side of town with permanent boat moorings and a number of exclusive apartments and houses. The unique two stage loch protects the bay and its houses, from the 7m tidal movements in the harbour.
Cullen Bay has a selection of good restaurants and boutique stores. It is also the pick up point for a number of watersport and Harbour sunset tour operators. Recommended.
An open-air cinema, that operates for six months of the year during the Dry between May & November. The Cinema shows classic and alternative films. For information on what’s showing ring . Bring a pillow to get really comfortable on the deck chairs.
Australian Aviation Heritage Hanger
This aviation museum displays a full size B52 bomber. It is one of only two displayed outside the USA. The hanger was specifically designed to house the B52 so it takes up a considerable
amount of the focus. Under the wings and around the voids there are other interesting aircraft and displays. The museum also includes a video of air action during the Second World War. Open Daily from 9am – 5pm Admission $11.00 adults $7.50 children under 5 free Typical Time: 1 hr
Fannie Bay Gaol
Built in the 1880’s Fannie Bay Gaol was used until 1979 when the current Berrimah facility took over. A free tour of the cells and the gallows is available and there is a good display of cyclone Tracey and its impact. Open Daily from 10am – 4.30pm Costs free Typical Time: 1 1/2 hrs
MGM Grand Casino
A small casino with bar, outdoor recreation area and 5 star hotel. While the number of tables is not large, most games are catered for and despite its size rarely gets overcrowded.
Open: 24hrs Admission: free entry and parking Phone: Typical Time: Depends on your luck
Stokes Hill Wharf
Below the cliffs at the southern end of town is the original wharf. With the introduction of East Arm Wharf, most ships now berth away from this location making it more attractive to tourists. Keeping with the tourist friendly theme, Naval Ships and Cruise liners still berth here which makes for interesting viewing.
The area has an outdoor eatery with a variety of basic take away shops. At night lights beam down on the water and fish have become accustomed to being fed. Occasionally you will see the food chain in action when a bigger fish decides its hungry.
WWII Oil Tunnels
Situated down at the wharf precinct, a series of underground tunnels were dug into the cliff face below the city during WWII. Designed to be for oil storage tanks they were hand dug at an estimated cost of £1,109,500. They were never used because by the time they were completed, the war had finished. Tunnels 5 & 6 are open to the public with photographs and other memorabilia from the war years. Tunnel 6 is 177m long and an amazing site.
Typical Time: 1 1/2 hrs
Manton Dam is a recreation reserve, popular with water sport enthusiasts seeking safe refuge during the wet season. The dam was built in the early 1940’s to supply fresh water to the city of Darwin and still serves that purpose as a backup source. Most people visit Manton Dam Recreation Area to water ski, or fish. In the early 1990s, the NT Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries released about 100,000 Barramundi fingerlings into Manton Dam and is now starting to produce some good size fish. Manton Dam offers good picnic and barbecue facilities as well as plenty of shady, grassed areas to relax. Other facilities include public toilets and a boat ramp. No boat hire is available & camping is prohibited.
Open from 9am – 5pm weekdays and 8am – 7pm on weekends. Costs: free
Southport Exotic Fruit Farm
A 16 hectare farm with woodland and landscaped gardens, the fruit farm is run by the owners who have been in the Territory over forty years and established this property over 20 years ago. You can taste the exotic fruits and juices that are in season and tour the orchard which consists of 150 well marked trees.
The farm has only been open to the public for a few years, but word is already getting around.
The farm is open to the public Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Bookings are essential for the 9.30am tours and twenty four hours notice is required to allow for fruit collection.
Tours 9.30am Tuesday, Thursday & Saturday or by appointment 8924 1124 Costs: Adult $16.50 Pensioners $11 Children $6 Under 5 free. Allow:
Australian Pearling Exhibition
A well presented exhibition exploring the history and future of pearling in Northern Australian Waters. The exhibition contains static and audio-visual displays. Exhibition guides are available but must be booked in advance. Open Daily from 10am – 5pm Admission $6.00 adults $3 children $15 families Typical Time: 1 1/4 hrs
Lake Bennett Wilderness Resort
Lake Bennett was built in 1975 by George Bennett to irrigate crops that he was introducing to the area. Since 1996 the property has been transformed to high standard resort that caters for all budgets and tastes offering seven choices of accommodation. Activities include croc free swimming, golf driving range and a chip & put green, grass volleyball, archery, future tennis courts, golf course, good fishing, bistro, bush walking, horse riding and the Billabong Cruise in surrounding areas. A fully sealed 7km road leads to the privately owned resort. This is an excellent base to explore the Top End from resort style accommodation.