What to do in and around Darwin and Alice Springs, in Australia’s Northern Territory

From spectacular scenery brimming with wildlife to world-renowned indigenous art, Darwin and Alice Springs, in Australia's Northern Territory, are loaded with natural and cultural wonders. Here's what not to miss when planning your next trip.

By Northern Territory
Published 27 Apr 2021, 08:19 BST
West of Alice Springs is Glen Helen Gorge on the Finke River, which is among the ...

West of Alice Springs is Glen Helen Gorge on the Finke River, which is among the most spectacular natural wonders of Central Australia.

Photograph by Alamy

What to do in and around Darwin

As the capital of the Northern Territory, Darwin is a gateway to some of the finest and largest tracts of unspoiled nature Australia has to offer. Its lush greenery, tropical climate and cultural melting pot make for a unique stay. Being a compact coastal city creates an abundance of opportunities for eye-popping views, including — depending on the season — epic storms rolling in or the sun setting on the sapphire waters of the Arafura Sea.

1. Check out the city sights

For a taste of Darwin’s laidback urban-meets-rural lifestyle, wander between the city’s lively local markets, including Parap and Mindil, and its traffic-free shopping and restaurant districts in the CBD and Cullen Bay Marina. The excellent Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory gives visitors insights into the history and cultures that have shaped this fusion city, including Indigenous Australian cultures stretching back thousands of years, an Asian influence that goes back centuries and a famous 'larrikin streak' — a boisterous attitude and lack of respect for authority — born out of the region’s remoteness and finding humour in tough situations. 
Time for more? Head to Darwin Waterfront for an early dinner and film at the city’s much-loved outdoor Deckchair Cinema. Nestled in greenery, you’ll be just as charmed by the ocean view and pre-movie meal with full bar service as you will by the film selection, lovingly curated by local film buffs.

2. Explore its wealth of nature and wildlife

Darwin Harbour is home to a number of dolphin species. For the chance to spot a pod, book a boat tour with one of the companies based there, including Sea Darwin and Darwin Harbour Cruises. Their range of tours focus, variously, on history, wildlife and sunset views. You can also head out to Bare Sand Island for guided turtle nest-viewing experiences (note that hatchlings or nesting sightings can’t be guaranteed). Wildlife fanatics will want to head out on a trip to the Mary River region, an hour east of Darwin, which offers the opportunity to see an abundance of wildlife, including wallabies, crocodiles and around 250 species of bird. Make sure to also drink in the views at the Nightcliff Foreshore, Casuarina Coastal Reserve or East Point Reserve (the latter is home to a wild population of agile wallabies), where tracts of monsoon rainforest meet burnt orange-streaked sandstone cliffs and pristine beaches. Reserve a full day for Litchfield National Park to cool off in waterfalls and crystal-clear swimming holes or tackle some of the hiking trails.
Time for more? Bird-lovers and fishing aficionados will find plenty of specialised tours operating on the Mary and Daly Rivers. Boat tours are also a great way to explore the Tiwi Islands, situated 37 miles north of Darwin.

Litchfield National Park, an hour's drive south of Darwin, is home to waterfalls, crystal-clear swimming holes and hiking trails. 

Photograph by Northern Territory

3. Tuck into its diverse food scene 

Darwin’s multiculturalism is reflected in its culinary scene, which ranges from Southeast Asian to Middle Eastern. For Indonesian curries and meat satays, head to Sari Rasa on Cavenagh Street, or for one of the best laksas in town, try the popular Laksa House on Stuart Hwy. For those who can’t get enough of this spicy noodle dish, there’s the Darwin International Laksa Festival to consider. Other great places to try it include Asian Pot or Chok’s Place (both festival award-winners) or one of Darwin’s six outdoor markets — Yatis Laksa at Parap is a good option. If Middle Eastern food is more your thing, there’s Syrian restaurant Damasquino, or for traditional Greek fare, Kalidonis, next to Kalidonis village, won’t disappoint. Darwin also boasts great pizza options, including the bohemian Lucky Bat and food truck Cucina Sotto Le Stelle

Reserve a couple of special meals for fine dining establishments like Hanuman, for sublime Thai and Indian food, and Pee Wee's at the Point, which serves up local cuisine and overlooks the beautiful East Point Nature Reserve. Craft beer aficionados should head to the family-owned microbrewery Beaver Brewery – note that it's only open on Fridays. Or, if gin is your tipple of choice, cocktail lounge and speakeasy Charlie's of Darwin comes with its own in-house distillery, an all-seasons rooftop bar and a tasting menu with matching beverages. Bush foods at Aboriginal Bush Traders make for great take-home items.
Time for more? Try a freshly baked pastry and spy on the locals having brunch at Sweet Brew or Ruby G’s.

What to do in and around Alice Springs

While the great red monolith of Uluru dominates the postcards, there’s plenty more to see in Australia’s desert-filled Red Centre and its main town of Alice Springs. Surrounded by the MacDonnell Ranges — known as Tjoritja to the local Arrernte Aboriginal people, whose Dreamtime story has it that they were created by giant ancestral caterpillars — Alice Springs is home to striking desert art and nature parks.

Mbantua Art Gallery, with locations in both Darwin and Alice Springs, showcases authentic Aboriginal art from artists including Minnie Pwerle and Polly Ngale. 

Photograph by Northern Territory

1. Learn about indigenous art and culture

So exceptional is the art that comes from the Central Desert Region that its intricate dot painting style has become synonymous the world over with Aboriginal Australian art. Head to Todd Street Mall for a strip of commercial art galleries with artwork priced between a hundred and many thousands of dollars. Establishments guaranteed to have jaw-dropping works include Papunya Tula Artists, Mbantua Gallery and Talapi. For a more curated experience, visit the Araluen Arts Centre, which, along with art exhibitions, also hosts performances and films.
Time for more? Desart, the arts body representing Aboriginal Art Centres in Central Australia, has a map and additional information about venturing further afield to meet artists in their communities. For example, Hermannsburg, a couple of hours west of Alice Springs, is a great place for admirers of one of the region’s most famous artists, Albert Namatjira, and the striking painted ceramics of the Hermannsburg Potters.

2. Treat yourself to a baked treat or a craft brew

There’s an Alice Springs establishment so famous for its baked goods that it’s simply known as The Bakery. Start the day right with its locally roasted coffee, freshly baked sourdough and the jammiest jam doughnuts you’ve ever had. For a snack later in the day, head to the vegetarian deli Tea Shrine, or grab a coffee and cake and stroll around the nearby Olive Pink Botanic Garden. When evening descends, the locals head to rooftop bar Epilogue Lounge for a beverage and some local live music.
Time for more? Head to the Red Centre’s only craft brewery, Alice Springs Brewing Co, for some delicious dinner options paired with a tasting paddle of locally brewed beers.

The short-eared, black-footed rock-wallabies are commonly found in the West MacDonnell Ranges, just a short drive from Alice Springs.

Photograph by Getty Images

3. Go on a bushwalk and meet baby kangaroos

West of Alice Springs is the 139-mile Larapinta Trail — famous among bushwalkers for its mountain ranges and refreshing swimming holes. If trekking isn’t your bag, you can also drive to most of the main sites, including Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Glen Helen Gorge and Redbank Gorge. And while those places offer plenty of reptile-, emu- and roo-spotting, if you’re keen on more, try the Alice Springs Desert Park. The daily bird show featuring trained raptors performing truly extraordinary feats is a must. You can also catch the same show at sister venue, Territory Wildlife Park, near Darwin. A 15-minute drive from here is The Kangaroo Sanctuary, a 188-acre site where visitors get to meet rescued orphaned baby and adult kangaroos.
Time for more? If you’re keen to break up the drive to Uluru, stop at the sandstone bluffs and multicoloured cliffs of Rainbow Valley. Note that this is only accessible using a four-wheel drive. 

How to do it

Darwin and Alice Springs both have airports. They’re connected by plane, a three-day, 935-mile drive in a rented car, motorhome or as part of the overnight upmarket railroad journey The Ghan, which connects Darwin, Katherine and Alice Springs with Adelaide in South Australia. Darwin, Alice Springs and Yulara can also be accessed via most major Australian airports. Singapore Airlines flies daily (during normal times) to Darwin from London and Manchester via Singapore. While the two regions have strikingly different climates, both are coolest and most comfortable during the austral winter (peak tourist season, from May to October). Head to the government-run tourism site northernterritory.com for more information, including an events calendar listing a diverse programme of arts and cultural festivals.

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