A trip to Darwin brings you to the heart of Australia's “Top End” and the capital of Australia's Northern Territory. The city and territory bring together a mix of eclectic cultures, the rich Aboriginal history of these traditional lands, and stunning natural beauty that can stir the soul. If that's enough, enjoy the notoriously lively nightlife!
As a smaller city, Darwin is better-priced than its bigger siblings. Smart budgeters can splash out on nice accommodation, delicious food and drink, and take tours. You might find some crocodiles sunning themselves on riverbanks under the watchful eyes of exotic birds in the sensational Kakadu National Park. I've seen it! You'll find friendly faces here if you travel solo or need to catch up on your work as a digital nomad.
In this Darwin Travel Guide, let's dive into what this tropical town offers and how best to plan for a trip to this far flung stretch of Australian coastline. There are must-visit sights alongside hidden gems, so pack your ultralight backpack and work out how best to spend a few days in Darwin!
TOP 10 THINGS TO DO IN DARWIN
1. Explore Kakadu National Park: The beauty of Kakadu was a bit of a shock to me. The park covers an area larger than some countries and brims with diverse wildlife, awe-inspiring landscapes, ancient rock art, and significant Aboriginal cultural sites. It's sensational and I would go back in a heartbeat to this UNESCO World Heritage site. The *best* choice is to join a guided tour group of Kakadu to fully appreciate the history and context of the place. The guides are very knowledgeable and you'll see the wild in a whole new way.
2. Visit the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory: Learn about the natural history, art, and cultural heritage of the Northern Territory with free entry to MAGNT. The museum houses a wide array of Aboriginal art, a maritime gallery, and an exhibit detailing the devastating impact of Cyclone Tracy. It's a solo-friendly activity that'll help you appreciate the territory's unique culture.
3. Stroll around Darwin Waterfront: This area is busy with things to do at most times of the day. From an array of eateries serving everything from local delicacies to cool Asian cuisine (read about Chow!), to shops, green spaces, and the man-made wave pool and beach – there's always something to see or do. This is a great place to hang out for digital nomads and solo travelers as there's usually a nice mix of visitors and locals enjoying the coffee shops.
4. Experience Mindil Beach Sunset Markets: Operating from April to October, the markets offer a fantastic mix of food stalls, artisan vendors, and live entertainment. Make sure to stay until the sun sets for a breathtaking view. These markets are very solo-traveler friendly – with communal eating areas, it's easy to get chatting with locals and fellow travelers.
5. Discover Litchfield National Park: A day trip to Litchfield National Park is a must. Marvel at the gigantic termite mounds, take a dip in the crystal-clear natural swimming holes, and relax under cascading waterfalls. For solo travelers, consider joining a group tour. To be honest, they tend to be smaller groups in the NT, so it's a cool way to meet people while you all navigate the park with an expert guide.
6. Take a Jumping Crocodile Cruise on Adelaide River: For a thrilling adventure, take a boat tour to see saltwater crocodiles jumping out of the water. It's a popular group activity but is also suitable for solo travelers. Just remember to keep your hands inside the boat at all times!
7. Go catch a show: on my last visit to Darwin, I looked for theatre or comedy shows at The Playhouse, the main performance venue in the city. I managed to catch an edition of Raw Comedy, a fun competition aiming to select a regional comedian to send to the national finals. A fun way to meet people too!
8. Trek the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens: although the gardens are about 2km outside the city, they are a really peaceful retreat. Explore native Australian flora and other exotic plants from around the world in these gardens. It also offers guided walks where you can join a group and learn more about the various species present.
9. Visit the Territory Wildlife Park: If you want to get out of town (about 45m), this wildlife park gives visitors a chance to see local animals up close. Walk through aviaries, a nocturnal house, and an aquarium. Daily talks and feedings offer the chance to learn more and interact with other visitors. The price is just under $40 AUD for an adult.
10. Check out the Darwin Fish Market: For a real taste of Darwin, head to the fish market. You can buy a variety of freshly caught seafood, from barramundi to mud crabs.
For further details on other cities to visit in Australia, check out my city travel guides:
GETTING HERE & GETTING AROUND
I booked my flight itinerary BEFORE arriving in Australia, using the Qantas Explorer ticket for arriving international passengers (it gives a serious discount but you need to do this in advance). To get to the Top End, I flew from Alice Springs to Darwin with Qantas.
Darwin has plenty of options to get around this small but perfectly formed city.
Darwin International Airport offers direct flights to other parts of Australia and international destinations like Bali, Dili and Singapore. Use Skyscanner to explore the options. While the airport is small, it's the primary hub for reaching remote parts of the Northern Territory that are otherwise inaccessible.
The famous Ghan train service runs from Darwin to Adelaide, passing through Alice Springs and offering an unforgettable journey through the heart of Australia.
If you need car rental, it's best to pick it up at the airport. I tend to use Expedia to compare the main agencies. If you want to drive into remote areas, consider getting a 4WD vehicle and prepare for extra restrictions and insurance costs.
Taxis are plentiful in Darwin and they're convenient but expensive. Uber is available too. To be honest, I found that most things are walking distance so check before you book either.
Darwin is a bike-friendly city with around 70km of cycling paths. There's a few bike hire places, which can be a fun and eco-friendly way to explore the city.
DARWIN DAILY EXPENSES & BUDGETING
Daily Expenses: Travel Costs
Accommodation: prices are comparatively decent for Darwin, starting at less than $70 AUD for a shared dormitory in a hostel through to around $190 AUD per night for a really nice quality 4* room in the CBD. Check out my article, the 5 Best Hotels in Darwin to help you plan. Airbnb is widely available but if I'm blunt about it, I didn't see any better value compared to hotels once you add in the service charges.
Food: Food options are certainly wide and varied in Darwin, particularly as home to people of so many cultures. For lunch, you're likely to pay $10 and up if you keep things simple. Expect to pay $15 AUD or more for a typical entree at dinner.
Tipping in Australia: while not expected, most people tip up to 10% of the bill especially if service was good.
As a solo traveler, I plan my outgoings as a “smart budget”, allowing for a decent hotel and meal per day, plus 1-2 excursions per location. By keeping general expenditure within a sensible range, my ‘smart budget' can adapt to incorporate once-in-a-lifetime experiences by managing down elsewhere.
For Australia, my suggested ‘smart budget‘ is $240 AUD per day for most solo travelers. That will go a LONG way in Darwin, where costs are lower than on average, so this either is a great city to splash out a little, or to save some funds for a big splash elsewhere. If you're a backpacker, put aside $80 a day for Darwin, which means a hostel bed, self-catering, no alcohol and keeping excursions free or inexpensive. A luxury budget for Darwin starts from $350 and up per day (typically $500 per day for Australia overall).
DARWIN ACCOMMODATION & FOOD
If you're looking for well-priced hotels in Darwin, the choices are overwhelming. I've written a post on the best 5 hotels in Darwin but, in short, here's my top 5:
Best 4* Hotel ($$$): Hilton Darwin
Best Darwin Waterfront Hotel ($$): Vibe Hotel Darwin Waterfront
Best Budget 4* Hotel ($$): Rydges Darwin Central
Best Budget 3* Hotel ($): Winnellie Hotel Motel
Best Backpacker Hostel ($): Youth Shack Backpackers
Food: Asian options here are top quality, e.g., I loved Chow Restaurant near the Waterfront for fusion lunch bites. On the other hand, I had some less-than-perfect service at PM Eat & Drink, which promises much but didn't deliver. Keep an eye out for Simply Foods (vegan and veggie options), Moorish Cafe for North African bites and Yogi's Way for Nepalese curries.
BEST TIME TO GO TO DARWIN
With Darwin's unique climate, timing your visit is everything! The city has a tropical climate, which means there's just two seasons: Wet and Dry!
The dry season runs from May to October, and most people believe it's the best time to visit. During this time, the weather is sunny and warm, with low humidity and almost no rain, perfect for outdoor adventures and sightseeing. The nights are cool, and the clear skies make for some pretty spectacular star gazing. It's also the peak tourist season, with festivals and events in full swing, like the Mindil Beach Sunset Market.
The wet season runs from November to April and you'll find the weather hot and humid with heavy rains. I think you shouldn't entirely dismiss a visit in the wet season; this is when the landscapes are at their lushest, waterfalls are in full flow, and hotel rates are often lower. Personally, I love a tropical thunderstorm (from inside!). Just be warned about what to expect.
SOLO TRAVEL TO DARWIN
Solo travel to Darwin can be a bit of an adventure! The people are warm and welcoming, and Darwin's small-town feel can make solo travelers feel comfortable. This is a multicultural city and the social scene is pumping, so there's plenty of chances to get out and mingle. That's not just for tipples, the Mindil Beach Sunset Market is a lot of fun. Getting around is easy, particularly if you stay pretty central to the CBD and Waterfront. I would seriously advise you to take a trip or two, especially to Kakadu or Katherine Gorge as those trips provide a safe way to explore with companionship.
DIGITAL NOMADS IN DARWIN
Darwin might not be the first choice for digital nomads visiting Australia. The internet speeds might not match some of the better spots in Sydney or Melbourne, but you will at least find free wi-fi in most places you'll stay or get coffee.
There are some coworking spaces though most are clearly pitched at hothousing start-ups or medium term innovation enterprises. I'd prefer to focus on being a tourist in Darwin and heading to one of the bigger cities for more casual co-working drop-ins.
LGBTQ+ TRAVEL TO DARWIN
Darwin is generally pretty friendly to LGBTQ+ travelers, alongside the rest of Australia. I don't think you'll find Darwin to be the Sitges of Australia, the population is simply too small and the draw of Sydney much too strong for some gay Darwinians. There are no specifically gay hotels, but you'll find most places are gay-friendly. I was surprised to find a rainbow street crossing on my last visit!
There is an annual Darwin Pride Festival that runs for a week, as well as LGBTQ+/friendly venues, particularly Throb Nightclub, the sole nightclub. It's open only on Fridays and Saturdays and is known for its drag scene. Other venues in the CBD and Waterfront will generally also be gay-friendly: try out Wisdom Bar for casual drinks and Stone House for glasses of Australian wine. However, like anywhere, it's always good to remain aware of your surroundings, particularly in less crowded and less touristy areas.
HOW SAFE IS DARWIN?
Overall, Australia is a very safe country with low crime rates. Darwin is no different, although crimes can happen like scams and pickpockets. Stay vigilant, especially at night.
There is probably more danger to be had from the wildlife: crocodiles and snakes in particular. If you're exploring, please do it with an organised guide as they will know how to handle anything that arises.
The tropical climate can be intense, especially in the wet season, so you'll need to be extra prepared and cautious for outdoor activities.
DARWIN TRAVEL GUIDE: BOOKING RESOURCES
These are the companies that I use to make bookings when I travel.
- Expedia – this is the website I use most for looking at hotels. They've really worked on their ‘Filters' and I can set everything to look for options within my Smart Budget.
- Skyscanner – this is where I start every search for flights. Skyscanner searches the main airlines and a bunch of alternatives so you can find the best deal for your trip.
- Get Your Guide – this website is all about tours and excursions. I've used them a lot; GYG has multiple options for each place I'm visiting so I can usually find a short or longer excursion depending on my budget and wants.
- Viator – Viator is a big central marketplace for tours and outings. Using Viator gives you access to everything from tours to food tastings, group walking tours, history and culture.
- VRBO – I've used VRBO in the US and Mexico to book ‘whole properties' (no risk of accidentally booking a room in someone's house!). The pricing is very sensible and it's clear what you will get in terms of amenities.
- G Adventures – this travel group organises small group travel for solo travelers to some amazing places. Check out their regular discounts.
- Peak Design – I use Peak Design products for camera accessories and bags. Everything I've used is strongly constructed and hard-wearing.