Once derided for its unpolished outback character and isolation, Darwin has undergone a revolution, transforming itself into Australia’s most exuberant city, crowned with a vast waterfront redevelopment. Delightful colonial buildings and a Chinese temple – a recreation of an 1880s original – attest to its past, but strolling the harbour-front, shopping precincts and nightlife-oriented Mitchell Street provides a modern buzz.
Get about on buses with a day pass ($7) and enjoy Darwin’s many free attractions. The excellent Art Galleries of the Northern Territory includes New Guinean, Balinese, Tiwi and Aboriginal artefacts and has a fascinating marine section which displays Polynesian outrigger canoes, pearling luggers and Indonesian praus. Continue on to East Point Reserve for jellyfish-free saltwater swimming in Lake Alexander, walking, picnic areas and friendly wallabies. Then hit Mindil Beach for spectacular sunsets and Thursday and Saturday evening markets with varied Asian food ($15). Stay at the conveniently-located, popular Youth Shack (from $31), which has a pool and free airport transfers if you stay three nights.
Take a walk around central Darwin starting with its oldest building, Government House, and the nearby, ultra-modern Parliament House before investigating the colourful altars of the Chinese temple. Then hit Smith Street, Darwin’s central shopping drag, for a beer at the historic Victoria Hotel and a light Asian-inspired lunch (or all-day breakfast) at Roma Bar ($15). Later, a stroll along the Esplanade brings you to Aquascene ($15), where the kids will love hand-feeding an abundance of wild fish. Adina Apartment Hotel Darwin Waterfront ($150) sits right in the middle of Darwin’s extensive waterfront redevelopment, just the place to enjoy the harbour-side restaurants, cafés and shops in the evening.
Take an early-morning scenic flight over Darwin with Coolibah Air ($160) for superb views of bays and bluffs. Then browse Darwin shops such as the Aboriginal Fine Arts Gallery, Creative Jewellers and Paspaley Pearls for quality souvenirs. Have an adrenaline-packed afternoon at Crocosaurus Cove, where you can ‘swim’ with crocs in the Cage of Death ($160), then calm down at Indo Pacific Marine ($24) an aquarium with spectacular coral displays. Have an exotic Nonya (fusion Chinese-Malay) meal at Hanuman (mains around $27). Stay at beachfront Skycity Darwin (from $190), which has a heated outdoor pool and complimentary access to a nearby golf course.
Tourism Top End has a comprehensive website on Darwin and surrounding attractions.