The Cascades Litchfield National Park

Imagine swimming under tumbling waterfalls, scrambling to the top of rocky escarpments to watch the golden sunset, and gazing at some of the most impressive Aboriginal rock art in Australia. This is the Northern Territory’s Top End. The tropical top half of the Northern Territory comes alive in the dry season, with an incredible variety of things to do in Darwin and Katherine.

From exploring natural swimming holes in Litchfield National Park to catching a glimpse of intimidating saltwater crocodiles in Kakadu National Park, a trip around the Top End is one of the most enriching and soul satisfying trips you can take in Australia. Reconnecting yourself back to the land and our Aboriginal history, there’s plenty of opportunities to explore the landscapes of the Northern Territory and the city of Darwin in the dry season.

In this post, I’m going to detail all the best things to do in Darwin, Katherine and the Top End, bringing together all the must see sights and fun activities that I got to experience over two months exploring this beautiful part of Australia.

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Visiting Darwin and the Top End in the Dry Season

The Top End of the Northern Territory has two main seasons: the dry season and wet season. The dry season runs from May until October and is undoubtedly the most popular time to visit Darwin, Katherine and the surrounding national parks. The temperatures are still quite warm at this time, ranging from low 20s up to mid-30s, but it’s a much drier heat than the humid wet season.

The dry season is also when most of the swimming spots are safe and open to the public, with the flood waters receding, it’s difficult for saltwater crocodiles to get into some of the rivers and swimming holes. It’s the best time of year to escape the winter further south in Australia and enjoy swimming under waterfalls and watching the sunset over wetlands.

The Larrakia or ‘Saltwater’ people are the traditional owners of the land in and around Darwin. The city and the Top End in general really come alive in the dry season, with plenty of festivals, events, and so many things to do, all while the weather is at its most ideal. However, it also means, places can get quite busy, especially at famous locations like Ubirr Rock Art in Kakadu and Florence Falls in Litchfield National Park. Yet, it’s still an underrated holiday destination, and you’ll find places that you can easily enjoy to yourself.

I spent almost two months exploring Katherine, Darwin and the Top End in my van from July until September. It’s definitely some of the most fun I’ve ever had, and I think Darwin is an incredibly underrated travel destination in Australia. Read on to find out what you can get up to in the Top End!

Read next: The Ultimate Adelaide to Darwin Road Trip Itinerary

Litchfield National Park Florence Falls
Litchfield National Park – Florence Falls

Don’t Forget Your Parks Pass! Northern Territory has introduced a Parks Pass for most of its national parks. Get yours here.

Best Things to Do in Darwin and the Top End

If you’re planning a trip up to the Top End this winter, then here are all the best things to do in Darwin and Katherine that you’ll want to add to your itinerary!

Mindil Beach
Mindil Beach

1. Eat Your Way Around the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets

Mindil Beach Sunset Market is probably the most iconic experience in Darwin. As one of the most famous markets in all of Australia, a night spent watching the sunset and eating all the best local food at Mindil Beach is a must.

The market is on every Thursday and Sunday from 4pm to 9pm and only in the dry season from April to October. You’ll find stalls spread out around Mindil Beach Park with everything from hot meals showcasing almost every international cuisine to fresh produce and local handicrafts and souvenirs.

It’s an absolute feast for the senses, so definitely arrive hungry because you’ll certainly leave with a full stomach. From Thai curries to Spanish paella and fresh grilled seafood, you’ll find every possible cuisine you could wish for. There’s also live music performances, Aboriginal artwork for sale and a range of different stalls selling crafts and souvenirs. 

There’s plenty of free parking offered on the grass at the market, otherwise, you may have to look down the roads opposite or near the Botanic Gardens as it does get VERY busy. Although I always managed to get a park at the market itself by arriving in the first couple of hours.

There are so many good markets in Darwin though, find more here: 7 Best Markets in Darwin

Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory

2. Visit the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory

As the territory’s leading art gallery and museum, this is definitely a must visit for those interested in appreciating some of the best Aboriginal artwork in the country and learning more about the history of Darwin. Overlooking Fannie Bay and not far up from Mindil Beach, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) is completely free to visit.

It’s home to the annual Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, so you’ll find an extensive collection of some of the best Aboriginal art in the world.

There are also some fascinating exhibits on the natural history, archaeology and geology, particularly the permanent displays on Cyclone Tracey and the over 5m long “Sweetheart” crocodile that’s been preserved in the museum since 1979.

Darwin Waterfront Precinct
Darwin Waterfront Precinct

3. Relax at the Darwin Waterfront Lagoon

The Darwin Waterfront Precinct is one of the newer additions to the cityscape, but one that is incredibly popular with locals and visitors alike. Since swimming in the ocean is not recommended (thanks to the saltwater crocs present), the precinct is home to a recreation lagoon and saltwater swimming pool perfect for a day in the water.

They’ve designed it so it still provides the same feeling as being at the beach, with sandy banks and beautiful green park space around it so you can relax in the sun after a dip. You’ll also find a range of upmarket cafes, bars and restaurants surrounding the precinct which are always busy on a warm weekend in the dry season.

Darwin Military Museum
Darwin Military Museum

4. Explore the Darwin Military Museum

Out at East Point Reserve between Nightcliff and Fannie Bay, the Darwin Military Museum displays the long military history of the Northern Territory. The spotlight of the museum is on the 1942 bombing of Darwin, with an audio-visual display and plenty of artefacts and first hand accounts.

In the surrounding grounds of the museum, there are also bunkers, old tanks and army vehicles dating back to the Second World War. This is especially great for kids who can get a hands on experience through the history of military equipment. The museum has an entry fee of about $20 per adult.

If you want more WWII sights, then also check out the Darwin Museum Underground WWII Oil Storage Tunnels. These tunnels lie under the CBD and are open to the public to explore. Tickets are available at the tunnel entrance and are around $9.50 per adult.

Nightcliff sunset
Nightcliff sunset

5. Watch the Sunset in Nightcliff

Nightcliff is one of the northern suburbs of Darwin overlooking the ocean. It’s become one of the coolest neighbourhoods, that’s not only home to a great weekend market, but also has a beautiful foreshore area and park space where locals love to head at the end of the day. Darwin has incredible sunsets, that’s no secret. So, heading out on a little sunset mission at least once is a must.

Just as the temperature is dropping a little in the late afternoon, locals flock to Nightcliff foreshore where you’ll find shared walking and bicycle paths and plenty of green space to set up a picnic or kick back in camp chairs to watch the sunset. A couple of the best spots are Sunset Park (obviously!) and the Nightcliff Jetty.

Sunset in Darwin
Sunset in Darwin

6. Stroll Through the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens

Just opposite Mindil Beach, the George Brown Botanic Gardens are the perfect place for a leisurely stroll. Across 42 hectares of park space, the gardens are home to plenty of Australian native and other tropical plant species.

Some of the highlights include, a sensory garden filled with butterflies, the tallest water fountain in Darwin, and the rainforest gully with a waterfall. There are also signposted walks, from the Tree Walk to the Matboerrma Walk, taking you through native plants used by the Larrakia people for medicinal purposes.

The gardens also have a Visitor Center with information and a gift store, and Eva’s Cafe, housed in an old 19th century church. It’s free to visit.

Territory Day Fireworks
Territory Day Fireworks

7. Enjoy Festivals and Events During the Dry Season

The dry season is definitely festival season in Darwin. There’s lots on around the city to join in and party with the locals. I was lucky to be there for three of the best festivals and events of the dry season, and they really were a highlight of my time. They not only showcase the Territory’s unique ways but also add a different party vibe to the otherwise laidback city.

Here are the three events I suggest you try not to miss if you have the time:

  • Beer Can Regatta: Held in July, the Darwin Lions Beer Can Regatta is both ridiculous and a whole lot of fun. Held since 1974 at Mindil Beach, the annual event is when teams design and build a boat out of, you guessed it, beer cans. They then take them around a course in the bay, and the first one back without sinking wins. There’s also other events like a giant tug of war as well.
  • Territory Day: On 1 July, Territory Day commemorates the territory achieving self-government in 1978. It’s famously celebrated by everyone buying and letting off fireworks around the city, and is undoubtedly a raucous event every year. While it’s celebrated around the whole territory, the best place to be is Mindil Beach in Darwin where there’s a free concert with huge headline acts, past singers have included Jessica Mauboy to world famous DJs.
  • Darwin Festival: Running for a couple of weeks in August each year, Darwin Festival celebrates all the arts and culture of the city with many events on across town. The main hub of the festival is at Civic Park and Festival Park on Smith Street, with free live performances and food trucks. But there are events on at almost every venue around the city as well.
Berry Springs Nature Park
Berry Springs Nature Park

8. Swim at Berry Springs Nature Park

If you want a taste of Litchfield National Park but don’t want to drive too far, Berry Springs is a wonderful natural swimming spot just 50km south of the city centre. An incredibly dreamy lush environment, the park has warm water of the natural spring running through a monsoon forest.

There are toilet facilities and paved pathways leading down to various spots along the creek, with ladders and steps to help you get into the water. Many people bring floating devices and float down from one end to the other. Otherwise, you can find a spot and just chill out in the water with friends.

It gets very busy in the dry season but there’s plenty of room to spread out and swim around. I suggest going early in the morning, or late in the evening. It’s free and open from 8am to 6.30pm. Occasionally, it’s closed if water levels are high, but in the dry season it’s pretty safe.

9. Catch the Ferry to the Tiwi Islands

Located 80km off the coast to the north of Darwin, the Tiwi Islands are an incredible tropical paradise and cultural experience. Home to a rich Aboriginal culture, fishing lodges, and breathtaking sunsets, the islands are a tranquil step into the traditional lifestyle of the Indigenous people.

While there are certainly day tours heading out to the islands, you can also catch the ferry from Darwin independently. There are a few ferry trips per week, plus more in the peak of dry season. The trip is 2.5 hours one way across the sea, and tickets are $60 per person one way. Ferries are operated by SeaLink.

If you do decide to go to the islands independently, don’t forget that you’ll need a permit from the Tiwi Land Council to visit the islands.

Swimming in Litchfield National Park
Swimming at Florence Falls

10. Spend a Couple of Days in Litchfield National Park

Definitely one of the highlights of the Top End, Litchfield National Park is an absolute paradise. At just 100km from Darwin, the park is filled with many waterfalls, walking trails, campgrounds and swimming holes, which are all open over the dry season. Litchfield is the traditional home of the Koongurrukun, Mak Mak Marranunggu, Werat and Warray Aboriginal people.

While some people head to the park on a day trip from Darwin, I would highly recommend spending at least a couple of days in Litchfield, either by camping the night or staying nearby. The best campgrounds are the two inside the park: Wangi Falls Campground and Florence Falls Campground. These are ideally located at the two most popular waterfalls as well, so you can experience the swimming holes when the crowds have gone back to the city.

My personal favourite spot in Litchfield though was The Cascades, which is actually the closest spot to Darwin. This series of rock pools and small waterfalls are in a dense monsoon forest, and is usually much quieter than other spots. Find out more about visiting Litchfield in my post below.

Read next: Best Swimming Spots and Waterfalls in Litchfield National Park

Kakadu National Park sunset
Kakadu National Park

11. Head Out to Kakadu National Park

Kakadu National Park is a once in a lifetime experience. The national park is an absolute must visit for everyone who heads to the Northern Territory. The UNESCO World Heritage Listed Area is the heart of the oldest living culture in the world with some of the most important rock art and cultural sites.

The expansive park is the traditional home of the Bininj/Mungguy people. If you’re coming from Darwin, the park boundary of Kakadu National Park is just over 150km southeast of the city on Arnhem Highway. This means it’s technically possible to visit on a day trip from the city, but I highly recommend allowing at least a couple of days to explore it properly.

Ubirr Rock Art
Ubirr Rock Art

While it can be explored by either 2WD or 4WD, there are significant limitations if you just have a conventional vehicle. Still, in the dry season, the main attractions in the park are now connected by sealed roads so you can definitely still get to Ubirr, Mamukala Wetlands, Yellow Water and more, with a regular car.

Jabiru is the main town in the park which offers accommodation choices. Otherwise, there’s more primitive camping available around the national park as well. For a more detailed look at exploring Kakadu National Park, read my blog post below.

Read next: Travel Guide to Kakadu National Park Without a 4WD

Sunset from a lookout at Edith Falls
Sunset from a lookout at Edith Falls

12. Stop in at Edith Falls on Your Way to Katherine

If you’re heading down to Katherine from Darwin to explore more of the Top End, then a stop in at Edith Falls is a must. It’s about 290km south of Darwin or a three hour drive, and is the first attraction you’ll come across as part of the expansive Nitmiluk National Park.

The traditional home to the Jawoyn people, Edith Falls or Leliyn are on the western side of Nitmiluk National Park. It’s home to an incredible permanent water hole at the base of a cascading waterfall, with numerous tiers of pools and falls on upper levels too. It’s definitely one of the most famous swimming spots in all of the Top End, so it’s busy all dry season long.

There are plenty of facilities at the falls, including a basic campground, cafe and picnic spots. There are also a few walks to do, as it’s the end point of the famous long distance Jatbula Trail. I recommend spending a night in the campground, which will give you more time to explore the falls and upper levels.

Read next: Essential Guide to Edith Falls/Leliyn

Nitmiluk Boat Cruise
Nitmiluk Boat Cruise

13. Explore Nitmiluk Gorge/Katherine Gorge for a Day

Once you get to Katherine, the main attraction is Nitmiluk Gorge/Katherine Gorge. As the traditional land of the Jawoyn people, this national park is characterised by 13 connected gorges, Aboriginal rock art, and natural swimming holes and waterfalls. It’s undoubtedly one of the most iconic and dramatic landscape features of the Top End.

It’s just 30km northeast of Katherine, with the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre being the gateway to the main park area. From there, you can explore the gorges for the day (or longer). One of the most popular activities is a Katherine Gorge Cruise, which takes you up the gorge for two hours while detailing many of the Aboriginal stories and history of the area.

But, if you’re like me and prefer to explore on foot, there are some great walks to do as well. I highly recommend either the Butterfly Gorge Loop or Jedda’s Rock and Pat’s Lookout Loop, if you have time for a great day hike. But start as early as possible, as it gets extremely hot on the escarpment above the gorge. Read all about these walks and other things to do in my post below.

Read next: Complete Guide to Nitmiluk National Park / Katherine Gorge

Hiking the Jatbula Trail

14. Hike the Jatbula Trail (or Southern Walks)

As one of the most iconic multi-day hikes in Australia, the Jatbula Trail is a highly sought-after experience in Nitmiluk National Park. The 62km one way trail begins at the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre outside of Katherine and crosses the national park to finish at Edith Falls/Leliyn. The 5-6 day hike is spent camping next to natural swimming holes and waterfalls every night in complete seclusion from anyone else.

I was lucky enough to score a last minute permit, but usually the permits go on sale months in advance and sell out extremely quickly. There is a strict limit of how many hikers are allowed on the trail at once. You can find out more about the Jatbula in my detailed guide to the hike.

Swimming at Eighth Gorge
Swimming at Eighth Gorge

If you don’t manage to score a permit, don’t worry too much because there’s another multi-day trail in the national park. The three day Southern Walks hike begins and ends from Nitmiluk Visitor Centre and permits are much easier to get. This allows you to explore more of Katherine Gorge on foot with opportunities to swim each day as well. You can read more about this hike in my detailed post linked just below.

It’s damn hot though, and you should be very prepared for hiking in extreme heat on the escarpments. I’ve got a detailed guide to hiking in extreme heat which will help you prepare and plan for these walks.

Read next: Complete Guide to Hiking the Jatbula Trail & Guide to the Three Day Hike on the Southern Walks in Nitmiluk

Mataranka Thermal Pools
Mataranka Thermal Pools

15. Soak in the Hot Springs in Elsey National Park: Mataranka Thermal Pools and Bitter Springs

Just 120km south of Katherine is Elsey National Park at Mataranka. While looking at a map you may not assume it’s worth the drive, but it’s an incredibly unique spot of the Top End that has become a must visit on any road trip. It’s known for its famous thermal springs and swimming spots amongst a lush monsoon forest, with a couple of great campgrounds where you can stay nearby.

Mataranka is the main town near the park, although it’s quite small in comparison to Katherine. Most people stay at either Mataranka Homestead which is right next to the Mataranka Thermal Pool and Rainbow Springs or Bitter Springs Cabins and Camping which is right near Bitter Springs Thermal Pool.

I stayed at Bitter Springs, which is a more rustic and laidback option. Both places are full throughout the dry season, although each day a few unpowered camping sites usually pop up, so arrive early or call ahead. Whichever place you choose to stay, it’s worth visiting both Bitter Springs and Mataranka Thermal Pool. Mataranka is more of a developed pool now, whereas Bitter Springs is more similar to Berry Springs near Darwin where you can float down the thermal waters in your own floating device. Both places are free!

Bitter Springs
Bitter Springs

Where to Stay in Darwin

If you’re planning your trip to Darwin, then I have some great recommendations for you. Whether you want to be in the city centre or one of the trendy northern suburbs, here are my picks:

Bali Studio || Right opposite the Parap Market, this one bedroom self-contained apartment is in a great location for exploring Darwin and it’s surrounding suburbs. Prices start from $120 per night. 

Discovery Parks – Darwin || If you’d prefer a caravan park for the kids, this is the best one in Darwin. Located just 10 minutes out of the city centre, you can easily get around to all the markets and sights. They offer powered camping sites and a range of cabins.

Capitanos || A clean and comfortable 3 star hotel in the Darwin CBD, this property offers double, twin and family rooms at reasonable prices. It’s perfect for exploring the city’s sights. Prices starts from $125 per night.

Darwin from East Point
Darwin from East Point

Where to Stay in Katherine

Once you travel down to Katherine, check out some of these places to stay in town and close to the national park:

Pine Tree Motel || A comfortable option close to the main street in town. It has double rooms, family rooms and inter-connecting rooms for larger groups, as well as an outdoor pool. Check availability here.

Discovery Parks – Katherine || A popular caravan park just outside of town on the way to Nitmiluk National Park. They offer powered camping sites, as well as, a variety of cabins. Check availability here.

Heading to Alice Springs and Central Australia?

If you’re heading further south to explore Central Australia and the Red Centre, check out some of my guides:

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