It didn’t take very long for it to dawn on me: Darwin is expensive. Well, Australia in general is expensive, but being the first stop, Darwin shocked me.
Imagine how big my eyes got and how low my jaw dropped when I got hold of my first bottle of soda at a convenience store. Four dollars a bottle is quadruple the price I am used to. As a frugal guy who spent most of his life in Southeast Asia (where almost everything is cheaper than in almost anywhere else in the world), in my early days in Oz, I bled every time I wanted to eat. But you know what they say, stop converting, otherwise you’ll spoil the fun.
Despite the high price of almost everything in Darwin, she had come to snatch my fickle, cheap heart. While we initially treated her as our jumpoff point to Kakadu and Litchfield national parks, we slowly discovered her many simple spots. She’s unassuming, but she has a lot to offer. Yes, she’s a bit high-maintenance: some dates are hardly within the limits of financial capacity. But on some days, the bill was on her. Here are some of the places that she treated me to at no to little cost.
WHAT'S COVERED IN THIS GUIDE?
As a peninsular city, Darwin’s coast is naturally glazed with supple beaches. But one of the most popular, and rightly so, is Mindil Beach. Swimming is not advised all months of the year (bummer, I know, blame the box jellyfish), but its west-facing, wide bed of beige sand makes it a front-row seat for that honey-colored sunset.
Address: Maria Liveris Drive
Mindil Sunset Market
And if your timing is just right, you’ll also get to partake in a feast (not free, of course). Every Thursday and Sunday, food stalls mushroom along Maria Liveris Drive, offering a smorgasbord of gastronomic delights. Darwin is a multi-cultural city, so expect a wide range of cuisines.
Address: Maria Liveris Drive
Operating Hours: Thursdays and Sundays of May-October, 4-9pm
George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens
Just across the street from Mindil Beach is the 42-hectare George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens, just 2km north of the city’s central business district. Established in 1886, the 130-year-old gardens have survived many cyclones and even World War II. They showcase Northern Australia’s monsoon flora, including those found in Tiwi Islands and Arnhem Land.
Address: Gardens Road
Operating Hours: 7am-7pm, Daily
Fannie Bay Gaol
Not too far from the Gardens lies the historic Fannie Bay Gaol. Operational from 1883 to 1979, this prison had sheltered the Northern Territory’s offenders, including Jerry Coci and Jonus Novotny, the last inmates to be hanged here. Accessible to the public are the gallows, where these executions were carried out. My bestfriend Wikipedia describes the site, “A pit was dug into the floor at one end of the building, with brick walls either side to support the beam. A small trapdoor and flight of steps led down into the pit for the doctor to examine the bodies after the drop. The prisoners were held in wire cages at the other end of the infirmary prior to execution.”
Address: East Point Rd & Ross Smith Ave
Operating Hours: 10am-5pm
Adelaide River War Cemetery
The Bombing of Darwin was the first and biggest direct attack on Australia by a foreign power. On 19 February 1942, 242 Japanese aircraft led two air raids on the city of Darwin. It was just the beginning of a series of attacks that pushed Australia to widen its participation in World War II. (Australia had been involved in the war against Germany as a British commonwealth.)
Today, there’s hardly any reminder of that gruesome day, but its aftermath is felt the hardest at the Adelaide River War Cemetery, where Australian soldiers and civilians who perished that day were buried and are honored.
Address: 97 & 105 Memorial Terrace, Adelaide River
Like the War Cemetery, the Bicentennial Park pays tribute to the souls lost during the Battle of Darwin. War memorials and monuments dot the map of the park, which makes a walk in it all the more insightful and educational.
The truth is, walking along these greens is like having a tour of the city, for it straddles the length of the waterfront, lying next to many of the area’s key landmarks. Follow the signs and you will find trails leading to small beaches. Several species of birds, including the sometimes intrusive Australian white ibis, can be spotted here.
Darwin isn’t really known for centuries-old structures — the war made sure there won’t be much left — but it does take pride in a few historic gems. One of these is the Lyons Cottage, aka British Australian Telegraph House. The only remaining colonial bungalow building in the city, this stone house was built with quarried porcelanite stone.
On the other end of the spectrum is the quite modern Parliament House, dubbed by many “The Wedding Cake.” Completed in 1994, it is the seat of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly.
World War II Tunnels
If what’s on the surface doesn’t quite appeal to you, maybe you’ll be fascinated by what lies beneath. Following the Japanese air raid of 1942 which also bombed the oil storage tanks of the city, the government started the construction of tunnels that would safely shelter fuel oil. Today, only two of them are open to the public, and they house a photo exhibit depicting life in Darwin during the war.
Address: Kitchener Drive
Operating Hours: May-September: 9am-4pm, October to April: 9am-1pm
Closed: 1-27 December, New Years Day.
Cost: Adults AUD5, Children AUD3
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
Popularly known as MAGNT, it showcases Northern Territory’s cultural and natural history, divided into five permanent galleries. Some of the key highlights are an 18-foot saltwater crocodile called “Sweetheart,” notorious for attacking humans decades ago; and accounts on Cyclone Tracy, one of Australia’s most devastating storms, killing 71 people and destroying over 70% of infrastructure.
Address: 19 Conacher Street, The Gardens
Operating Hours: Monday-Friday 9am-5pm, Weekends, 10am-5pm
Closed: New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Christmas, Boxing Day,
Darwinians’ love for the outdoors is evident even when watching movies. Deckchair Cinema holds film screenings under the stars every nightly during dry season. This is a favorite among locals and tourists alike.
Address: Jervois Road off Kitchener Drive, Wharf Precinct
Operating Hours: Opens at 6:30PM, April-November
Cost: AUD 13
Where to stay: Darwin is the closest major city. Darwin YHA Hostel offers affordable accommodations right at the heart of the city center and with fast internet connection. Day tours are also available. Visit their official website or book now at: www.yha.com.au.