Back in 2007, I was traveling around Australia and landed in Darwin, the main top-end town and the gateway to Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks. I didn’t spend much time in Darwin while I was there, forgoing the city for the parks that surround it. But from what I did see, I was fascinated. The architecture seemed new and hip, and the city had a youthful atmosphere to it.
A few weeks ago I was back in Australia and actually spent more time in the city, seeing if my first impression was right. One of the things you notice almost immediately about Darwin is the architecture. The buildings have an industrial look to them, with sharp corners, exposed frames, lots of metal, and weird angles. But into this look they also incorporate a lot of beautiful and bright colors. It makes the buildings look very modern and makes Darwin look very beautiful.
As a place to visit, most of the action in Darwin actually happens outside the city in Litchfield and Kakadu Parks. Tourists tend to come in for a few days, spend most of their time in the parks, and then leave again. Those who stay longer get hospitality jobs or end up working on farms and ranches. Backpacker labor makes this city function. It also keeps the city young, so there is a vibrant nightlife. But for those that want to stay in the city, what is there to really see?
Well, a few things.
For starters, it’s a very green city, with a lot of parks. The sunsets over Bicentennial Park are amazing. It’s a very big park and there’s also a lot of space to have a picnic on. Plus, there’s a beach where you can swim during the dry season (though I think the wharf area is better for that). You can also head up to the East Point Reserve for amazing sunsets, good running trails, hiking, and a nice dinner at Pedro on the Point; the only downside is that this area is a bit out of the city center. There is also the amazing Botanical Gardens and a ton of “ovals” (Aussie-speak for public fields). In short, Darwin is a city for people who really like parks! Additionally, I find all this green space makes the city feel more nature-oriented and open.
For history buffs, you can spend a good half-day walking around and visiting the historic sites. Darwin was attacked during World War II over 100 times, and the famous Christmas Day cyclone Tracy left the town devastated. These disasters not only created a lot of history but allowed for a lot of rebuilding and the modernization that is so prominent in the city.
Several buildings incorporate older buildings into them. You’ll identify many of the old buildings by their sandstone walls. (Or by the fact that they are half-destroyed ruins in the middle of a park.) The area by Parliament has most of these old buildings.
If you want a good walking tour, I recommend Darwin Walking Tours. It takes a few hours (you can even do it on a bike) and gives you a good detailed history of the city.
One new addition to the city is the wharf area. In the last few years, Darwin cleaned up its old wharf area and made it an eco-friendly place to live and play. There are beautiful-looking apartment buildings, great restaurants and cafés, a little lagoon to swim in, and even a wave pool ($5). It’s a popular place throughout the year. Backpackers especially like it because, in this expensive city, it’s free.
The downside is that Darwin is not a cheap city. Its distance from everything keeps costs high; food, drinks, and tours can eat into your budget. Most hostel rooms begin around $26 AUD per night. Private rooms are around $80 AUD per night. Multi-day Kakadu and Litchfield tours cost around $300 AUD. However, with all the parks, free historical attractions, and the wharf, you can do a lot here for very little.
This second trip to Darwin cemented my love for the city and confirmed all my first impressions. The city is youthful and energetic, and has beautiful buildings and lots of green space, and is close to some of the best national parks in all of Australia.
Note: While I paid for my own trip in 2007, the trip to Darwin in October was paid for by Tourism Australia.