Living like locals in Darwin, Australia’s Northern Territory capital, is the best way to appreciate this sultry tropical city’s laidback vibe, rich indigenous culture, ethnic diversity, multicultural neighbourhood markets, and gobsmacking sunsets.
For many travellers to Australia, Darwin is little more than the launching pad for more epic adventures east, south (to Alice Springs and Uluru) or west (to the Kimberley). But Darwin itself is an engaging city. Having weathered air raids and bombings during WWII and a devastating cyclone, Darwin is a city that takes things – especially the often-stifling humidity – in its slow stride.
Rent a Darwin serviced apartment, book a hire car for pick-up at the airport, and settle in for a while to shop the markets, graze on street food, absorb indigenous art, stroll the parks, savour the sunsets, and, naturally, down some refreshing ales in the sultry Top End capital.
Here’s our guide to living like locals in Darwin, Australia’s tropical Top End capital.
Living like Locals in Darwin – How to Settle Into the Top End’s Tropical Capital
Settle Into a Darwin City Centre Apartment
Our first experience at living like locals in Darwin was at Balinese-style Moonshadow Villas set in lush gardens in the suburbs a decade ago. The well-stocked kitchen that welcomed us with Australian wine, craft beer, champagne, home made jams, just-baked bread, a tropical fruit and cheese platter, and an espresso machine quickly made us feel right at home. That stay partly inspired our slow, local and experiential Grantourismo project.
On our last trip, immediately after arriving at the sleek one-bedroom apartment at the central Oaks Elan Darwin, we made a beeline for the nearest supermarket to fill our enormous fridge ourselves – with Aussie wines and snacks. The next morning we hit the morning markets and packed it even more with local specialties, including the leftovers of our colossal bowls of Parap Village Market’s legendary laksa.
Fresh off the Indian-Pacific train the week before, upon which we’d learnt about native ingredients from indigenous chef Mark Olive, Terence whipped up home-cooked meals, like kangaroo meat burgers spread with lashings of Kutjera relish, made from desert raisins, wattle seeds, lemon myrtle, mountain pepper-berries, and bush tomatoes, which we tucked into for lunch on our sunny balcony.
Come sunset, we were out on the patio again savouring the panoramic views of the city skyline and the orange glow of the sinking sun as we nibbled on plates of Aussie olives, charcuterie and cheeses, washed down with a crisp white wine. And we highly recommend you do the same.
The Oaks Elan Darwin is on the edge of the compact city centre, just a couple of blocks from the Mitchell Street bars and restaurants and the lovely esplanade. The property is home to serviced apartments as well hotel rooms, so make sure you book an apartment. While you can walk everywhere in the centre, we recommend hiring a car (there’s on-site parking) for your market jaunts and getaways to Kakadu, Litchfield National Park, and beyond.
Shop the Local Markets
Darwin may be a small city, but it’s incredibly cosmopolitan with a multicultural population of Australians from diverse backgrounds, and, as it’s closer to Bali than to Sydney or Melbourne, a sizeable number of foreign students, mostly from Southeast Asia. As a result, Darwin is home to an array of vibrant local markets with coffee vans, street food stalls and food trucks, selling everything from Cambodian turmeric-tinted savoury pancakes to Thai sticky rice with mango in coconut cream, and an abundance of fresh organic local produce. Start with the Parap Village Market, held every Saturday (8am-2pm) year-round, for its spicy Asian fare, local art and crafts, and hippy clothes. We’ve got another post coming soon on Darwin’s best markets.
Get Your Bearings on a Local Tour
Whether you’re living like locals in Darwin or Dunedin, the fastest way to get your bearings in a place is on a walking tour with a local. Nerida and John Hart’s fascinating two-hour Darwin Heritage Walk provides a local’s perspective on the development and history of Darwin and how the city has evolved into the modern multicultural Top End capital that it is today as you stroll through the city centre streets at an easy pace. If you’re not planning on renting a car, the hop-on-hop-off Tour Tub minibus is also a good idea as it takes in most of the big sights in town.
Take a Walk in the Park – and Around Town
You will see mad dogs and English persons out in the midday sun and yes, it is foolish, so head out early – or late. Darwin’s city centre is compact but first thing in the morning or late afternoon are the best times for a stroll. Spend the scorching midday periods at a café or restaurant or by a pool. When you do venture out, Smith Street Mall is a good place to start, with plenty of galleries and gift shops selling everything from kitschy Aussie souvenirs to wonderful Aboriginal art. Walk to the end of Smith Street to the Esplanade, then turn right and you’ll find the rather gracious old Government House building on your left, the striking Parliament House on your right, and around the corner, leafy Bicentennial Park looking over the aquamarine sea – it’s a wonderful place for a stroll. You’ll find loads of good cafés and restaurants for lunch dotted around the centre.
Soak Up Some Local Art
Spend the hottest part of the day indoors having lunch or hit Darwin’s excellent state museum to absorb outstanding indigenous art. If it’s your first experience of a significant Aboriginal Art collection, you’re off to a great start at the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT. The Indigenous Art collection is jaw-dropping, featuring art by the local Tiwi people of nearby Bathurst and Melville islands, bark paintings from Arnhem Land, and the iconic dot-paintings by artists from the Central Desert down south. The exhibit on Darwin’s tragic destruction on Christmas Eve 1974 by Cyclone Tracy is touching and terrifying. The terror factor is only surpassed by the appearance of Sweetheart, a (thankfully stuffed) 5.1m saltwater crocodile that was 50 years old and weighed 780kg when it was accidently killed. The museum café is a good choice for lunch.
Savour Sunset From Your Balcony, the Beach or Sea
The sunsets are extraordinary in Darwin and – aside from the sunsets from our balcony or from Mindil Beach – there are few better ways to savour the sun going down than from an historic pearl lugger such as the Streeter, launched in Broome in 1959. Pearling experience not required. You just need to be able to sip champagne and snack on scrummy canapés. Another sunset cruise to consider is the Spirit of Darwin leaving from Cullen Bay Marina. Both boats have bars – naturally – and set sail around 6pm.
Kick Back at Mindil Beach Sunset Markets
It’s compulsory to kick back at the Mindil Beach Markets if you’re serious about living like locals in Darwin. Held during dry season only (May–October), an evening spent grazing street food and savouring the sunset from the sand at Mindil Beach Markets are a must. First: find a possie on the beach, which gets packed with locals and visitors alike who bring their fold-up chairs and beer-filled eskies to gaze at the sunset while they enjoy a few brews. That done, the mouthwatering aromas from the myriad food trucks should lure you over the dunes and into the market itself. Look for the Indonesian satay guy first. You should see the long line of locals before you spot him fanning his succulent skewers on a grill over coals. Don’t hesitate: he runs out of fast! Next: there’s plenty of entertainment, from indigenous bands to fire-jugglers, and more food stalls to investigate. Just don’t miss the sunset!
Tuck into Local Seafood by the Sea
If Darwin’s locals aren’t tucking into local street food at the markets, they’re heading to a marina for something more filling and that usually involves seafood. If you’re living like locals in Darwin, then dinner by the water is a must-do. Frequently. Whether it’s fish and chips wrapped in paper and washed down with beers on the boardwalk or a more refined meal at Crustaceans at Stokes Hill Wharf, regular seafood feasts by the sea are massively popular with locals. Cullen Bay Marina also has a fantastic selection of eateries that are perfect for a moonlit feast, with many of the restaurant menus featuring Australian seafood. YOTS Greek Taverna has long been a local favourite. The waterfront setting and freshly shucked oysters are sublime.
Down a Few Drinks with Darwin’s Locals
We’ve saved Darwin’s favourite pastime for last – drinking! Darwin’s alcohol consumption is well above the already heady national Australian average. The locals love to have a drink and Mitchell Street is where the action is. You can stroll the street and find your spot, or start at local favourite such as The Cavenagh, long known locally as ‘The Cav’, which attracts an animated young crowd who come for the live music. Things get a boisterous in Darwin as the night wears on – hence the rather large gentlemen who greet you at the doors of most establishments. Be polite.