An intriguing tropical city that doubles as a gateway to the outback – an expert guide to Darwin

Chloe Cann
Darwin is known for producing spectacular sunsets - iStock

Why go?

This tropical city is steeped in history and boasts some stellar attractions, plus a strong indigenous heritage. Those who don’t have time to delve deep into Australia’s rich tapestry of Aboriginal culture, or to explore the vast hinterland of this continent, can gain insight with a cruise call to the Northern Territory’s capital.

Cruise port location

Fort Hill Wharf is located in the south of the city, less than a mile from the city centre. It’s uncommon for cruises to start or finish here, rather, the destination is typically included on sailings between Australia and Asia and on circumnavigational cruises of the country. 

Can I walk to any places of interest?

Everything within Darwin’s city centre is walkable from the port, and at most a 30-minute stroll away. The closest attractions include the WWII Oil Storage Tunnels and the cafes and restaurants that line the Darwin Waterfront Precinct (all less than a five-minute walk away). 

Getting around

There is a public bus system in Darwin, but as the principal points of interest are situated so close to the cruise port terminal it makes much more sense to walk than waste precious time trying to locate bus stops and negotiate local timetables. Less mobile passengers would be best off booking an official shore excursion, using taxis, or buying a ticket for the hop-on, hop-off Big Bus Tour, which performs a loop of the city. Some cruise lines offer a shuttle bus service to the city centre.


Darwin Waterfront Precinct is walkable from the port Credit: iStock

What to see and do

A hardy city that’s been rebuilt almost entirely four times thanks to cyclones and air raids during World War II, Darwin has a distinctly different vibe to its other state counterparts. Though it has long served as a popular gateway to the NT’s national parks, this balmy Top End city merits exploration too. 

What can I do in four hours or less?

It would be quite easy to while away four hours relaxing at Darwin’s bohemian cafes, leafing through the collections of the local indigenous art galleries and snapping pictures of the city’s burgeoning street mural scene. But there is plenty to do beyond meander, and independent exploration is largely straightforward in this compact city. Popular options include Crocosaurus Cove, which is home to the world’s largest display of Australian reptiles, with saltwater crocodiles taking centre stage, of course; and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which pays homage to the territory’s long pedigree for indigenous art, with collections showcasing both the traditional and the contemporary.

Aviation and history buffs will uncover plenty of thrills, such as the RFDS Darwin Tourist Facility, which incorporates fascinating interactive and virtual reality exhibits of Australia’s Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Bombing of Darwin Harbour. There’s also the Darwin Military Museum, the WWII Oil Storage Tunnels, and the Darwin Aviation Museum. 

Worthy shore excursions in Darwin feature some of the city’s less accessible attractions. These include the Botanic Gardens by Segway (offered by several cruise lines, such as Holland America Line and P&O Cruises), and the ‘Jumping Crocs’ Cruise on the Adelaide River, where visitors can get astoundingly close to ‘salties’ in the wild (bookable through Viking Cruises, Cunard, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises among others).

A 'saltie' Credit: iStock

What can I do in eight hours or less?

With the great outdoors on Darwin’s doorstep it would be remiss not to capitalise on the nearby natural attractions. Litchfield National Park is the go-to for most cruise lines with eight hours or less on the clock, replete with numerous hidden swimming holes and waterfalls, strikingly tall termite mounds and lashings of monsoon forest. Holland America Line, MSC Cruises, Azamara and Seabourn all offer trips to Litchfield. 

Viking lets visitors dial up the adventure a notch with a 4.5-hour trip by seaplane, boat and airboat to a remote lagoon, inhabited by a wealth of birdlife. The Ultimate Outback Experience includes a barbecue-style lunch and a refreshing dip in a cool, crocodile-safe pool.

What can I do with a bit longer? 

Take off on a sunset harbour cruise, enjoy an al fresco seafood feast at one of the local restaurants, or – if you’re visiting during the dry season (May to October) – enjoy the street food and artisanal wares on offer at the seasonal Mindil Beach Sunset Market.

Eat and drink

Though small (population 146,000) Darwin is surprisingly multicultural, with significant Asian and European populations – an aspect which colours many of the food options in town. A glut of good mid-range eateries can be found at the Darwin Waterfront Precinct, Mindil Beach Sunset Market and in the city centre.

Termite mound in Litchfield National Park, a popular day trip from Darwin Credit: iStock

Don’t leave Darwin without…

Purchasing pearl jewellery from local brand Paspaley, or ethically sourced indigenous art, which you can pick up at the Mindil Beach Sunset Market or one of the galleries in town. The Northern Territory has the highest proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of any state or territory in Australia.

Need to know 

Flight time

There are no direct flights from the UK to Darwin. Instead, choose from the numerous Middle Eastern and Asian carriers that fly to Darwin via their hubs. The minimum flight time (including connections) is approximately 18.5 hours.  

Safety

Like most Australian capitals Darwin is generally a safe city to visit, however, there have been incidents of petty crime, particularly late at night, so it’s best to avoid walking alone in unlit areas.

Best time to go

Australia is a year-round cruise destination, but as Darwin is located in the Tropics – unlike most other cruise ports Down Under – it has both a wet and a dry season. Though many cruise lines visit Darwin during the wet season, or cyclone season, which runs between early November and late April, the dry season offers more comfortable weather for touring, including less humidity, fewer downpours and much cooler climes. The city truly comes alive during ‘the dry’, with events such as the Mindil Beach Sunset Market, the Darwin Festival, and the Darwin Fringe Festival taking place. 

Closures

Many cafes, restaurants and shops run shorter opening hours at the weekend, and some close completely on Sundays. 

Save money

Experience Oz offers a Darwin Four Attraction Pass, which includes admission to Crocosaurus Cove and the RFDS Tourist Facility, plus a 24-hour Hop-On Hop-Off bus pass and a two-hour sunset Darwin Harbour Cruise.