Darwin is Australia's most colorful, and exotic, capital city. Surrounded on three sides by the turquoise waters of the Timor Sea, the streets are lined with tropical flowers and trees. Warm and dry in winter, hot and steamy in summer, it's a relaxed and casual place, as well as a beguiling blend of tropical frontier outpost and Outback hardiness. Thanks to its close proximity to Southeast Asia and its multicultural population it also seems more like Asia than the rest of Australia. Darwin is a city that has always had to fight for its survival. The seductiveness of contemporary Darwin lifestyles belies a history of failed attempts that date from 1824 when Europeans attempted to establish an enclave in this harsh, unyielding climate. The original 1869 settlement, called Palmerston, was built on a parcel of mangrove wetlands and scrub forest that had changed little in 15 million years. It was not until 1911, after it had already weathered the disastrous cyclones of 1878, 1882, and 1897, that the town was named after the scientist who had visited Australia's shores aboard the Beagle in 1839. During World War II it was bombed more than 60 times, as the harbor full of warships was a prime target for the Japanese war planes. Then, on the night of Christmas Eve 1974, the city was almost completely destroyed by Cyclone Tracy, Australia’s greatest natural disaster. It's a tribute to those who stayed and to those who have come to live here after Tracy that the rebuilt city now thrives as an administrative and commercial center for northern Australia. Old Darwin has been replaced by something of an edifice complex—such buildings as Parliament House and the Supreme Court all seem very grand for such a small city, especially one that prides itself on its casual, outdoor-centric lifestyle. Today Darwin is the best place from which to explore Australia's Top End, with its wonders of Kakadu and the Kimberley region.
Rapid Creek Markets
Open Sundays 8 am–1:30 pm, the Rapid Creek Markets are Darwin's oldest and have fresh food produce, as well as locally made handicrafts.
Mindil Beach Sunset Market
The Mindil Beach Sunset Market is an extravaganza that takes place every Thursday 5 pm–10 pm and every Sunday 4 pm–9 pm from April to October; the Sunday market is smaller than Thursday. Come in the late afternoon to snack at a choice of 60 stalls offering food from more than 25 different countries; shop at more than 200 artisans' booths; and enjoy singers, dancers, and musicians. Or join the other Darwinites with a bottle of wine to watch the sun plunge into the sea.
North of downtown, the Parap Markets are open Saturday 8 am–2 pm and have a terrific selection of ethnic Asian food, including some of the best laksa in the country.
Nightcliff Market takes place Sunday 8 am–2 pm in Nightcliff Village, with craft and food stalls and entertainers; it's a great spot for breakfast.
Litchfield National Park
This beautiful park lies just 122 km (76 miles) south of Darwin off the Stuart Highway. Its 1,340 square km (515 square miles) are an untouched wilderness of monsoonal rain forests, rivers, and striking rock formations. The highlights are four separate, spectacular waterfalls—Florence, Tjaynera, Wangi, and Tolmer Falls —all of which have secluded plunge pools (The pools are suitable for swimming but occasionally there are crocs here, so observe any "no swimming" signs). There is also a dramatic group of large, freestanding sandstone pillars known as the Lost City, and the Magnetic Termite Mounds, which have an eerie resemblance to eroded grave markers, dot the black-soiled plains of the park's northern area. You'll need to camp if you want to stay in the park; campgrounds and RV sites are near several of the major sights (call the Parks and Wildlife Service of the Northern Territory at 08/8976–0282 for information). There are also a few restaurants and a modest hotel (the Batchelor Resort [08/8976–0123], which has comfortable hotel rooms, as well as RV and camping facilities) in the nearby town of Batchelor.
Crocodylus Park and Zoo
This research facility has an excellent air-conditioned crocodile museum and education center. There are more than 1,200 crocodiles here, from babies to giants up to 5 meters long. The saurian section of the zoo includes the croc-infested Bellairs Lagoon and pens for breeding and raising. The park also has enclosures with lions, tigers, cassowaries, primates, and turtles, and it holds one of the biggest snakes in Australia: a Burmese python weighing 140 kg (308 lbs). Tours and feedings are at 10, noon, 2, and 3:30.
Indo Pacific Marine
This marine interpretative center houses a large open tank with one of the few self-contained coral-reef ecosystems in the southern hemisphere—and it's been growing on its own for almost 20 years. Other exhibits include a static display of rare, deepwater coral skeletons and an exhibit explaining the effects of global warming on the planet. Night tours, which begin at 6:30 on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, take you by ultraviolet flashlight to view the biodiversity of the fluorescing reef and live venomous animals; the colours the coral produce are astounding. The tours include a four-course seafood dinner, followed by a nocturnal coral reef tour of the exhibitions. Bookings are essential.
Territory Wildlife Park
In 1,000 acres of natural bushland, this impressive park is dedicated to the Northern Territory's native fauna and flora. In addition to saltwater crocodiles, water buffalo, dingoes, and waterbirds, it also has an underwater viewing area for observing freshwater fish and a nocturnal house kept dark for late night creatures. The treetop-level walkway through the huge aviary allows you to watch native birds from the swamps and forests at close range. Daily events include feeding at 9 am and a birds of prey display at 11 am and 2:30 pm.
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
Collections at this excellent museum and art gallery encompass Aboriginal art and culture, maritime archaeology, Northern Territory history, and natural sciences. One gallery is devoted to Cyclone Tracy where you can listen to a terrifying recording of the howling winds, and you can see "Sweetheart," a 16-foot 10-inch stuffed saltwater crocodile that attacked fishing boats on the Finniss River in the 1970s. The Cornucopia Museum Café overlooks tropical gardens and the Darwin harbor and is open all day for meals.
Stokes Hill Wharf
The best views of Darwin Harbour are from this working pier, which receives cargo ships, trawlers, defense vessels, and, occasionally, huge cruise liners. It's also a favorite spot for Darwinites to fish, and when the mackerel are running you can join scores of locals over a few beers. The cluster of cafés becomes crowded on weekends and when cruise ships arrive. On the city side, in the Waterfront Precinct, is the Wave Lagoon (entry A$5 half day, $8 full day; open daily 10–6) and a free, stinger-free (safe from jellyfish) swimming lagoon. Both are understandably popular on hot days.
George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens
First planted in 1886 and largely destroyed by Cyclone Tracy, the 92-acre site today displays rain forest, mangroves, and open woodland environments. There are more than 450 species of palms growing in the gardens. A popular walk takes visitors on a self-guided tour of plants Aborigines used for medicinal purposes. The Children's Evolutionary Playground is an award-winning playground that traces the changes in plant groups through time, while the plant display house has tropical ferns, orchids, and other exotic plants.
Australian Aviation Heritage Centre
Due to its isolation and sparse population, the Northern Territory played an important role in the expansion of aviation in Australia, and this impressive museum traces the history of flight Down Under. Planes on exhibition include a massive B-52 bomber on permanent loan from the United States, a recently retired RAAF F-111 fighter jet as well as a Japanese Zero shot down on the first day of bombing raids in 1942.