Laksa, larrikins and Tropical Light: a visitor's guide to Darwin

Crocodiles and relentless heat aside, Darwin subverts expectations

Darwin is a city obsessed with laksa. In the NT, the fragrant noodle soup is such a big deal it’s celebrated in a month-long dedicated festival. Locals have started stuffing it in toasted sandwiches. They even, somewhat horrifically, infuse the flavour in scoops of ice-cream. (“It tastes pretty much exactly like laksa, only frozen,” apparently.)

The Top End capital is often stereotyped as Australia at its most ocker – a place you come to crack a cold one, skim read an NT News article about blokes wrestling crocs and watch the sunset over the ocean (don’t get in the water though – the crocs and stingers are not a lie to scare tourists).

The city is the gateway to the NT’s beautiful national parks, but it should be treated as more than just a stopover on the way to Kakadu. Darwin’s true appeal lies in its unique cultural makeup. Which is where the laksa comes in.

Laksa at Parap Markets
Laksa at Parap markets.
Photograph: Matt Cherubino/Tourism NT

Geographically, as many have noted, Darwin is whole lot closer to Bali than it is Bondi or Brunswick. It certainly feels like an extension of south-east Asia: palm trees dot the city and humidity hugs you year round. Thai sweets, Cambodian pancakes and bowls of Vietnamese pho are sold alongside even more laksa at the city’s many outdoor markets. On FM radio, furniture shops advertise the chance to win a trip to nearby Timor Leste if you spend enough on a lounge set.

So it fits that as of the 2016 census, Darwin was more multicultural than Australia as a whole – 37% of the population was born overseas, with the Philippines leading the migration charge. And those born here are more likely to be Indigenous than elsewhere in Australia. Darwin is home to a bigger First Nations population than any other capital city. It’s also the staging ground for events like the National Indigenous Music Awards and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (Natsiaas), the latter of which in particular is worth planning a trip around.

And unlike say Sydney, Darwin is too tiny to relegate its diversity to the outer suburbs. As Australia’s smallest capital city – the population only officially cracked the 100,000 mark in 2001 – it often functions more like a small town. That means you can forget about much of anything except the local market being open before noon (if at all) on a Sunday, and locals will usually spot 27 people they know before they’ve finished their second iced latte.

The sunset over Darwin Harbour
The sunset over Darwin Harbour. Photograph: Jules Ingall/Tourism NT

Many of the places visitors will want to hit are clustered around the CBD and waterfront area, which can easily be tackled on foot. Remember to keep hydrated, though – there are two seasons here and both of them are hot. Most other destinations can be reached on a single bus ride, though the city’s public transport system is far from perfect. Other that’s-so-Darwin quirks include the tendency for red wine to be served cold by default and the local obsession with Paul’s iced coffee, a point of pride I don’t quite understand but have to respect.

Of course, those who come seeking the Russel Coight experience will find plenty to keep busy with. You can even find real-life crocodiles in the middle of the main street, at a delightfully kitsch tourist trap dubbed Crocosaurus Cove.

Keep your eyes peeled and you might even spot the Territory’s purest source of joy — “CU in the NT” T-shirts for sale in the window of a dinky souvenir shop, a nod to the viral, sadly fake NT Tourism campaign that swept social media in 2016. Never forget.

Shopping for fresh fruit at Parap village markets.
Shopping for fresh fruit at Parap village markets. Photograph: Cait Miers/Tourism NT

Don’t miss: The markets, which are home to some of the best food in town and a cherished social ritual for Territorians. During the dry season, crowds converge at Mindil Beach markets on Thursday evenings, while Parap markets, home of the breakfast laksa (regular laksa, just eaten at 8am), whir year-round on Saturdays. Rapid Creek markets also run every Saturday and Sunday.

Where to eat and drink: The city’s best feed is a matter of fierce debate. Darwin-bred musician James Mangohig swears “the best food EVER in Darwin” is at Sari Rasa, an Indonesian spot in the city only open for lunch during the week. Gurindji painter and fellow local Sarrita King – who confirms that yes, laksa is the “unofficial cuisine” of Darwin – votes that the best bowl in town is at Rendezvous cafe on Mitchell Street.

For brunch, the spot for your flat white and smashed avo fix is Laneway Specialty Coffee in Parap. Come sunset, Mangohig says, you’ll want to be at the Ski Club (so named for water skis, not the white stuff), which pairs a relaxed RSL vibe with the best view in town.

But if you’re in the mood for something slightly fancier, head to Char Restaurant, an upmarket steakhouse set in a heritage-listed building. “You pay for the quality but it’s worth every cent,” says Mangohig.

Where to stay: With rooms starting from around $140 a night, the Hilton on Mitchell Street and the Mindil Beach Casino Resort are about as fancy as things get in Darwin; just down the road in the CBD the Darwin City Hotel has rooms starting at $80 a night.

Visitors at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
Visitors at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. Photograph: Shaana McNaught/Tourism NT

Culture fix: The obvious first stop is the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT), home to a large permanent collection of Indigenous art and a great place to dig into Darwin’s remarkable history, from the World War II bombing to Cyclone Tracey. For a glimpse of the city’s music scene, Mangohig recommends hitting the Air Raid Arcade on Cavenagh Street, home to two record stores and a cosy drinking establishment in Babylon Bar.

And if you’re keen to explore things on foot? “Everyone should download the Darwin Audio Tour,” Mangohig adds. “It’s an app and you take the tour and it’s narrated by a legend named Charlie King who is a Gurindji man and one of the most beloved ABC presenters.”

Must-do day trip: A day trip to Litchfield National Park will take you to waterfalls, termite mounds and swimming holes. If you don’t have a car, there are several operators who offer one-day trips from the city.

‘Sun Lily’ an illuminated sculpture installation in Darwin as part of Tropical Light.
‘Sun Lily’, an illuminated sculpture installation in Darwin as part of Tropical Light. Photograph: Helen Orr/Tourism NT

When to visit: Visit before April 30, 2020 to see artist Bruce Munro’s Tropical Light exhibit, a 2.5-kilometre trail of installation pieces that stretches from the waterfront to the CBD. The light “sculptures” tip their hat to Australiana and Territory icons – think hills hoists decorated with technicolour clothes pegs and fishing rods arranged to form the NT’s floral emblem, the Sturt desert rose.

Works showcased in the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards are on display at MAGNT from August to November of each year.

The trip was provided by Tourism NT.


Katie Cunningham

The GuardianTramp

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