A Backpacker’s Guide to Darwin, Australia

Written by: Dave Owen

There’s a reason so many backpackers end up in Darwin, capital city of Australia’s epic Northern Territory, and that’s because it feels like real Australia.

Darwin sits on the north coast, surrounded by the vast Australian outback, and has a population of only around 140,000 people that includes a large indigenous community. While many travellers arrive in Darwin to use it as a jumping off point to visit the incredible natural wonders of the Top End, including Kakadu National Park and Katherine Gorge, many end up staying due to the lively backpacker scene, abundance of work during the dry season, and an authentic Aussie atmosphere that sets it apart from larger cities elsewhere.

Whether you’re planning a flying visit or looking for somewhere to settle down, we’ve put together a complete guide to Darwin for backpackers.

Getting to Darwin

Flights from the UK to Australia are always going to take a while, but Darwin’s position at the top of the country makes it one of the fastest hubs to reach – usually with only one change along the way.

For example, you can fly from London Heathrow to Darwin with Philippine Airlines, stopping over in Manila, for a total journey time of a little over 24 hours.

If you’re already in Australia, you can fly to Darwin from almost any other Australian city, and its position at the top of the Stuart Highway – which runs from the north to the south coast via Alice Springs – makes it a great place to aim for during an epic Aussie road trip.

Accommodation in Darwin

Darwin is a hugely popular backpacker destination, which means there’s loads of budget-friendly accommodation. A lot of it is found on Mitchell Street – the place to be in Darwin – to put you right at the heart of the action.

One of our favourites is Darwin YHA – Melaleuca on Mitchell, which can suit any budget by offering everything from dormitory spaces to private rooms, and comes complete with buzzing rooftop bar, two pools, and a waterfall spa. It’s always lively, and its central location puts you within walking distance of the city’s top sights.

Other reasonably priced hostels in Darwin include Youth Shack, Chilli’s Backpackers and, a little further outside the city centre if you want a quieter stay, Gecko Lodge.

If your budget can stretch a little further, or you want to treat yourself to a night of luxury, there are also plenty of hotels in Darwin, including Novotel and Hilton hotels close to the city centre. We recommend Palms City Resort: here you can stay in a private garden bungalow complete with hot tub and barbeque.

Top things to do in Darwin

Darwin might be a small city, but it’s absolutely packed with incredible things to see and do. These are just a few of our favourites.

Crocosaurus Cove

Ever wanted to get up close and personal with saltwater crocodiles? Okay, probably not, but Crocosaurus Cove is the only place in Australia you can dive safely with these fearsome beasties. The ‘Cage of Death’ experience (honestly safer than it sounds) seals you away in a glass cage and lowers you into a crocodile enclosure to see these amazing five-metre-long creatures up close. Truly, this is something you will never forget.

Crocosaurus Cove is also home to the world’s largest collection of Australian reptiles, a huge aquarium, and holds regular crocodile feeding shows throughout the day. It’s an unmissable experience.

Darwin Harbour sunset tours

Darwin’s Harbour is eight times the size of Sydney’s, and the dry season guarantees picture-perfect sunsets across the water every night. Although you can enjoy great views from numerous spots on dry land, the best are found by taking a boat tour around the harbour.

There are several available, but our favourite is family-run business Sunset Fish and Chips. As part of a long, relaxed tour of the harbour you’ll pull in for fresh, locally caught fish ‘n’ chips and, depending on the tide, you might be able to sit out on a sandbar in the middle of the water to eat with the sunset as your backdrop. Bliss.

Darwin museums

Darwin and the surrounding area has a long, fascinating history, and this is documented in several engaging and enjoyable museums. Arguably the best is the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, with its wonderful exhibitions on indigenous art, Cyclone Tracy, which levelled the city on Christmas Eve in 1974, and Northern Territory wildlife – including a five-metre long stuffed crocodile called Sweetheart.

Elsewhere, you can explore Darwin’s key role in World War II by visiting the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which uses virtual reality to recreate the bombing of Darwin Harbour, the more traditional Defence of Darwin Experience, and the WWII Oil Storage Tunnels for something a little different.

Darwin Waterfront

It’s recommended you don’t go swimming in Darwin Harbour due to the dangers of local wildlife. But the Waterfront offers a great alternative in its Recreation Lagoon, a natural beach and water safe for swimming, as well as the Wave Lagoon, where you can frolic in man-made waves (or just sunbathe at the side).

There are also bars, restaurants, and hotels here, with a program of cultural events running through the year, making the Waterfront a one-stop embodiment of the relaxed Darwin lifestyle.

Getting around Darwin

All of Darwin’s visitor attractions can be easily accessed by buying a hop-on-hop-off ticket for the BigBus Darwin bus tour. These buses run throughout the day, stopping at all of Darwin’s top sights, letting you get off and hop on as much as you want on a single ticket. While you ride you’ll also get an audio tour revealing history and secrets of Darwin.

Darwin is a compact city, meaning you can comfortably get around on foot or on the local bus service running seven days a week. You can also hire bikes from points all around the city.

Attractions close to Darwin

Darwin is the perfect jumping-off point to visit some of Australia’s most awe-inspiring natural sights, as it’s only a few hours’ drive from Kakadu National Park, Litchfield National Park, and Katherine Gorge. Many people also start here on longer trips to Alice Springs and Uluru. You can hire a car in Darwin to drive yourself, or join one of the many guided tours that depart from the city.

Check out our article on the best things to do from Darwin for more information.

Food and drink in Darwin

Good grub can eat up a large portion of your backpacking budget, but Darwin has plenty of places to get great food for low prices.

Alley Cats, just off Mitchell Street, is a glorious cat-themed cafe and patisserie offering fresh bakes, brunch, and lunch (as well as incredible smoothies and milkshakes), while Lola’s Pergola in picturesque Cullen Bay is a quirky carnival-themed restaurant and bar with a varied menu. The harbour means you’re never far from fresh seafood (barramundi, anyone?), while Darwin’s ethnic diversity means you’ll find great Greek, Chinese, Indian restaurants and more.

If you need even more choice, head to Mindil Beach Sunset Market, aka street food paradise. Open every Thursday and Sunday night throughout the dry season, the market offers a massive range of foodie options – including Thai, Portuguese, Sri Lankan, Chinese and more – for around $6-12 a portion, alongside craft stalls and entertainment. Once you’ve got your food, you can wander onto the beach to watch a stunning sunset while you chow down. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Nightlife in Darwin

The backpacker scene in Darwin is always lively, meaning there are plenty of bars offering cheap drinks and entertainment. One of the most popular bars in Darwin is Monsoons on Mitchell Street, its relaxed daytime setting transforming into raucous parties at night, with live entertainment seven nights a week. Close by you’ll find The Trader Bar, Tap on Mitchell, and Hotel Darwin Sports Bar, all offering great prices and great atmosphere for backpackers.

If it’s a really big night out you’re after, Discovery or Throb offer pulsing nightclubs to keep you partying long in the early hours of the morning.

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