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Situated on the edge of the Timor Sea, Darwin has always been a compelling travel destination. The Northern Territory capital’s vibrant Indigenous community and culture has for years been complemented by a rich Southeast Asian influence, resulting in a diverse art, entertainment and food scenes.
There’s also plenty of modern history here. The city began to grow in the late 19th century, when gold was discovered in nearby Pine Creek. It was bombed in the '40s by the Japanese during World War II, and in 1974 was devastated by Cyclone Tracy, which destroyed almost three quarters of the city.
But in 2020, Darwin is all grown up. The city now has a bunch of classy hotels, museums, galleries, restaurants and bars, the quality of which might surprise first-timers. It’s also an easy drive away from Kakadu, Litchfield and Mary River National Parks, making it a great gateway to awe-inspiring gorges, surging waterfalls and vast wetlands teeming with wildlife.
Here’s a guide to the city and its surrounds – what to eat, drink and do, and where to stay.
Ask a local where to eat in the Darwin CBD and they’ll invariably mention this exceptional Southeast Asian restaurant. A meal at Hanuman – originally opened by chef-patron Jimmy Shu in 1992 (you might recognise Shu from Jimmy Shu’s Taste of the Territory on SBS) – is a rite of passage for any Top End getaway.
The first decision is where to sit. Inside works for couples – sleek, sophisticated and intimate – but if you’re in a group, the true Northern Territory experience is with a seat on the deck under the spinning ceiling fans.
The menu is a snapshot of Darwin’s dizzying multicultural food culture: Shu’s chefs make a heady fusion of Thai, Indian, Nonya and Tamil cuisine. There’s Malaysian-style fish curry and a spicy chicken Chettinad, but make a point of ordering the meen moilee (a southern Indian and Sri Lankan dish of spicy fish served in turmeric and coconut sauce), which taps into Shu’s obsession with silver barramundi.
For drinks, there’s a well-priced list of superstar Australian wines with a focus on South Australian drops, backed by local beers and a tropically minded cocktail list.
De la Plage
Part cafe, part community hub, De la Plage operates out of the ground floor of the Darwin Surf Life Saving Club from April to November.
This is an all-day affair. Mornings are about espresso and a simple, locally sourced menu of brekkie rolls, smashed avo and house-made raisin toast. Later in the day, it’s Reuben sandwiches, tagliatelle bolognaise and a neat collection of burgers. Seating amounts to a bunch of beanbags and chairs on a shady expanse of grass that runs down to Casuarina Beach.
This is as much about mixing with locals as it is about the food. Friday nights are fish’n’chip nights, and on Sundays there’s live music from 5pm. Try and time your visit with the first Sunday of the month for the cafe’s regular street-food event – each instalment showcases a different cuisine from around the world.
Little Miss Korea
This chic eatery takes Korean charcoal barbeque and applies it to fresh Top End fish, meat and poultry.
Don’t expect the extensive kind of menu you see at your neighbourhood Korean joint. Instead, chef-owner Chung Jae Lee keeps things concise with creations such as torched chilli-paste pork belly, and local barramundi served with Thai basil, garlic and ginger. There’s also a bunch of barbeque sets if you want to go large, and a selection of hot-bowl bibimbap. To drink, there’s beer, a cocktail list and a generous wine list that favours South Australian drops.
The restaurant is situated in the loading bay of an old warehouse on Austin Lane. With a vivid mural and industrial accents, it has a buzzy vibe that makes it the perfect place to kick off a night on the town. Speaking of which – make some time for a tipple at Little Miss Korea’s sister venue, The Loading Bay, located just next door. It has an impressive, gin-focused cocktail menu.
The Trader Bar
An exquisitely appointed little wine and spirits bar squeezed into a converted old Darwin house just off Daly Street, The Trader Bar is a magnet for Darwin’s bright young things – they come for Friday happy hour in the cute green garden, then kick on inside with DJs spinning tunes late into the night.
The drinks menu includes an internationally minded wine list, a selection of tropically inflected cocktails and a brilliant range of small-distiller gins (such as Applewood, Archie Rose, Brookie’s and Four Pillars).
But really, this is just a pleasant place to spend some time, winding down in beautiful surroundings. It also opens early during the week for coffees and pastries, if that’s more your thing.
Darwin Ski Club
The home of the Northern Territory Water Ski Association, the Darwin Ski Club’s Bali Bar also happens to be one of the best sunset spots in town.
Cradling a frothy or two on the lawn underneath the festoon lights and palm trees while the sun dips down over Darwin Harbour is about as tropical as holidays get. There’s also a kitchen here called Little Miss Chef, which serves pub grub such as house-made chicken parmas, beer-battered local fish, and pasta and curry specials.
Make an afternoon of it or stay for local and interstate bands on Friday and Saturday nights if you’re looking for a late one.
One Mile Brewing Company
What started in Stuart Brown’s shed with a home-brew kit is now a cherished brewpub in Winnellie, 10 minutes out of town.
Brown and One Mile co-owner Bardy Bayram’s beers have an unfussy feel – the core range features easy-drinking drops that go heavy on character and easy on the ABV. There’s a light-bodied 4:21 Kolsch, named after the traditional knockoff time of Darwin’s civil servants, and Otto’s, a malt-driven, ruby-red brew with biscuit and caramel flavours.
The venue itself is an unassuming warehouse and beer garden in a semi-industrial area. It fills up on the weekends with groups of mates and local families – they come for a bit of liquid relief from the Darwin humidity, and stick around for the house-made pizza and convivial atmosphere.
The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (Magnt)
Consider Magnt your Rosetta Stone on Northern Territory history, culture and geography. This fantastic facility is home to a stack of Aboriginal art, World War II exhibits and artefacts from across Southeast Asia, making it a great place to learn what makes the Top End tick.
The blockbuster attractions include the preserved remains of Sweetheart, a five-metre-long, 780-kilogram crocodile, and a Cyclone Tracy exhibit that mimics the frightening roar of the category-four storm that struck the city on Christmas Eve in 1974. There’s also the Defence of Darwin Experience in nearby East Point, which tells the story of the city during WWII, when it was attacked by the Japanese.
But Magnt’s regular schedule of exhibitions – both visiting and drawn from its own collection – are always excellent. Keep an eye on the website for what’s coming up.
The Mindil Beach Sunset Market
This iconic market is the place to be in Darwin on Thursday and Sunday evenings from April to October. Locals flock to rummage through more than 200 specialty outlets and food vendors, or simply throw out a picnic rug on the beach and soak up the last rays of the sun as it descends over the sea.
There are tons of homewares and knick-knacks to peruse, but what you’re really here for is the cuisine. More than 50 nationalities call Darwin home, and that cultural breadth is apparent in what’s on offer: Indonesian barbequed skewers, homemade Thai laksa, Bangladeshi curries, Korean fried chicken and more. Tip: put aside an entire night to check it out.
Kakadu’s Ubirr Rock Art Galleries
Darwin isn’t just a city – it’s also a gateway to some of Australia’s most treasured natural wonders. There are the cascading waterfalls and four-metre-high termite cathedrals of Litchfield National Park, and the wetlands (and saltwater crocodiles) of Mary River National Park.
Most iconic, though, is the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, a three-hour drive east of Darwin. Kakadu is a place full of picture-postcard sites – see Twin Falls gorge or the Gunlom “infinity” pool – but is perhaps best known for its precious Ubirr rock art galleries.
The works here range from a painting of a Tasmanian tiger – extinct on the mainland for at least 2000 years – to depictions of 19th-century European buffalo hunters. From Ubirr, it’s a short walk to Nadab Lookout with its brilliant views of the surrounding floodplain – try to catch a sunset here, if you can.
A Matt Wright Explore the Wild Tour
If you have limited time to get out and experience the wilderness, this tour is a great way to tick a bunch of NT boxes. It takes you deep into Litchfield region during the wet season, right when it’s bursting with wildlife.
You’ll encounter crocodiles, get the opportunity to swim in a croc-safe pool, surge across a flooded billabong in an airboat, and take a more sedate trip on the water for a spot of nature watching. You’ll even get a bird’s-eye view of the area with a scenic helicopter ride.
The tour includes morning tea, a barbeque lunch and free transfers from Darwin. Just keep in mind that this runs during the Top End wet season, so from November to March only.
Adina Apartment Hotel Darwin Waterfront
The Adina is a great spot to anchor and get a taste of day-to-day life in Darwin.
Locals come to dine at the Darwin Waterfront precinct’s stack of restaurants, cafes and bars, or paddle about in its enormous wave pool. A stone’s throw away, students amble across the local campus of Charles Darwin University. A stay at the Adina is to be properly immersed in the city.
The 121-room hotel itself is well-appointed, with some exceptional Indigenous art in the public areas. The accommodation ranges from studio rooms to one and two-bedroom apartments, many with water views. Opt for an apartment if you can: they’re equipped with modern kitchens – if you have some local produce you want to cook – and many feature balconies (standard for the two bedders and available on request for a limited number of one bedders).
Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Esplanade Darwin
If you want to be in the centre of the action, the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Esplanade is the place to stay.
The hotel backs onto Mitchell Street, home to many of the city’s restaurants, bars and clubs. It’s also just across the road from Bicentennial Park, making for an easy (and pretty) walk to the Darwin Waterfront precinct, Deckchair Cinema and the historic WWII Oil Storage Tunnels, as well as within easy reach of other attractions such as Mindil Beach and Crocosaurus Cove.
The accommodation is what you’d expect from the Hilton brand: sizeable and modern rooms with plush furnishings, exceptional service and first-class facilities – including one of the most inviting hotel pools in town. There’s also some suites, the largest of which has a kitchenette.
Tip: be aware this is one of two Hilton hotels that sit right next to each other and have very similar names. You want the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Esplanade Darwin (the other is the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Darwin). Got it? Got it.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Tourism Australia. Whether you’re seeking a quick getaway, a lazy holiday or an epic trek, Australia is a land of endless adventures. There’s never been a better – or more important – time to get out and explore. Take a Holiday Here This Year.