Darwin highlights: 6 of the best

Six Darwin highlights

Most guide books devote little space to Darwin preferring to recommend places like Kakadu, Litchfield and Nitmiluk National Parks. It is often relegated to “a great base for exploring the Top End…” and given a page or two.

I visited Darwin for the first time for my daughter’s wedding. Of necessity, considering the occasion, I spent a good few days there and discovered that there is much more to Darwin than the guidebooks would have you believe. I can’t cover all Darwin has to offer in one post so I have picked out six of my favourites.

In Darwin people love to go sunset watching and often it is combined with some other activity such as the following:

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Mindil Beach crowds sunset-watching
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Sunset seen from Mindil Beach

Mindil Beach Markets

At around 5:00pm on a Thursday and Sunday in the dry season the market opens behind the dunes of Mindil Beach. People begin to arrive soon after and stake their claim for a picnic spot on the beach or just behind it. No one it seems has brought much in the way of food. By sunset the beach is pretty full as everyone prepares for the 30 minute spectacular that is the Darwin sunset. Darwin is in the tropics and the sunsets rapidly. Soon after the golden orb disappears below the horizon people begin pouring off the beach and into the market. Now it is obvious why so many have come to picnic without any food; Mindil Beach Market is all about food and crafts.

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Street food is always popular at the Mindil Beach Markets
Artist at work
Artist at work

Stretched along behind the dunes are stalls selling all kinds of street food. Being so close to Asia means the food is influenced by that region of the world. Indonesian, Chinese and Vietnamese food stalls dominate with a few Malaysian, Indian and Korean added into the mix. Of course there are also many foodstalls selling Australian food including kangaroo burgers, buffalo and crocodile steaks and the Darwin signature food Barramundi and Chips.

Embroidered umbrellas
Embroidered umbrellas
Goods made from truck tarpaulins are popular
Goods made from truck tarpaulins are popular

Crafts range from Aboriginal artwork through jewellery and leather goods to the unusual like hats and travel accessories made from overland truck tarpaulins. The market goes on until 11:00pm and is to all intents is a night market similar to those in Asian cities to the north.

East Point Reserve
East Point Reserve

East Point Reserve

This reserve, just north of the city, is special to the people of Darwin. Apart from being a great place to watch the Darwin sunsets it is one of the favourite recreational areas of the city. It’s also a favourite with Darwin photographers. There is a saltwater swimming lake, hiking and boardwalk trails among the mangroves and along the coast and a cycle track.

Mangroves and exposed reef at East Point Reserve
Mangroves and exposed reef at East Point Reserve

In the evening the wallabies come out to feed and there are plenty of bush fowl that nest in the undergrowth here and make suicidal dashes across the road for no apparently reason. The Darwin Military Museum, WW2 gun emplacements and other military relics a reminder that Darwin was the only city in Australia to be attacked. Although there is a great beach it is unsafe to swim in the water because of box jellyfish whose sting can be lethal. For this reason Alexander Lake was created for safe swimming just back from the beach.

The highlight for me though has to be watching the sun set over Darwin Harbour.

Cornucopia Museum Cafe
Cornucopia Museum Cafe
Cake and Mocktail in the afternoon
Cake and Mocktail in the afternoon

Cornucopia Museum Cafe

After the sunsets this is probably the next most important Darwin institution. Appended to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory this cafe is unlike any other museum cafe I have ever visited. It is popular all week but over weekends you will need to call and book. Breakfast at Cornucopia is very popular, there is great coffee there as well as some refreshing mocktails and generous slices of cake and other desserts. The verandah looks out across the bay and tables here are snapped up early.

Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory

You do not have to visit the museum to eat or drink at the Cornucopia Cafe. However the museum is well worth a visit for glimpses in to the history of Darwin, including the experiential section retelling the story of Cyclone Tracey that all but wiped the city off the map. The natural history section documents Northern Territory wildlife. Star exhibit here is the giant legendary saltwater crocodile, Sweetheart. There is also a very interesting section on Aboriginal culture and painting which goes a long way to understanding the original inhabitants of Australia. Entry to the museum is free.

Stokes Hill Wharf, one of Darwin's popular eating places
Stokes Hill Wharf, one of Darwin’s popular eating places

Stokes Hill Wharf

This is a popular place at lunchtime and in the evening as it is a great place to eat especially if you like fish and seafood. Darwin’s most popular food Barramundi and chips is available here from several vendors. Make sure you order barra and chips and not fish and chips as the latter is fish imported from Asia. There is also plenty of Asian food here. All of it is take-away but most people get no further than the tables and chairs set out along either side of the wharf.

Apart from being a favourite spot for fishing this is the place where you can catch a boat for a sunset cruise around the harbour. The more romantic offerings are the traditional pearl fishing luggers where a sunset dinner is included.

The safest place in Darwin to enjoy the waves with out crocs and jellyfish - the Wave Lagoon
The safest place in Darwin to enjoy the waves with out crocs and jellyfish – the Wave Lagoon
Enjoying the Wave Lagoon
Enjoying the Wave Lagoon

Darwin Waterfront Lagoon

This a relatively new development and is an artificially created lagoon close to Stokes Hill Wharf. The lagoon was created for safe swimming in an area infested by box jelly fish and aggressive saltwater crocodiles. It’s a little commercialised being surrounded by apartments but has some great cafes, places to eat and a booth selling the most amazing gelato.

The lagoon is surrounded by lawns that fill with sunbathers but is a little tame for those who enjoy the waves on a beach. Just back from the lagoon though is the Wave Lagoon where, at regular intervals, waves are generated so that you can experience the sea with out experiencing the local hazards of crocodiles and box jellyfish.

There are plenty more things to do in Darwin and no doubt I have left someone’s favourite out. Perhaps I will write another post sometime in the future that will feature other places to visit and other things to do.

Have you visited Darwin? Do you have a favourite place to recommend? Share with us your Darwin favourites in the comments below.

For more on what to do in Darwin visit www.australiasoutback.co.uk

I will be writing more about the Northern Territory and Darwin in future posts. If you would like to know when these appear then sign up to be notified in the sidebar or like the Travel Unpacked Facebook page

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