The Outback Travel Guide

Go Wild in Australia’s Top End

Tourism NT / Shaana McNaught

In Australia, a rugged stretch of land along the northern edge of the Outback, known as the Top End, teems with natural wonders. Tropical wetlands inhabited by colorful birds, awe-inspiring national parks—some with impeccably preserved Aboriginal rock art—tranquil rivers dotted with crocodiles, and distinct regional cultures are just a few reasons to visit this emerging part of the country. While most visitors to the Outback traditionally have flown in and out of Uluru, it's worth the time and effort to venture farther to the coastal part of the Northern Territory to experience all that the Top End has to offer.

By Luke Epplin

Courtesy of Tourism NT

Darwin Sightseeing

The capital of Australia's Northern Territory, Darwin is a laid-back, tropical metropolis of approximately 116,000 residents and plenty of stellar sights and restaurants. Don't miss the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which exhibits several remarkable galleries of Aboriginal art from the region. Darwin's renovated waterfront precinct includes an enclosed wave lagoon, scenic walking and bike paths, and a cluster of top-notch cafés, bars, and bistros with views of the harbor. Wharf One Food & Wine, a chic restaurant specializing in contemporary Australian cuisine, is just one notable example.

Insider Tip: If you're on a tight schedule, purchase a one-day pass on the double-decker Darwin Explorer bus. This hop-on, hop-off bus loops around eleven different areas of the city, allowing you to explore Darwin's top sights in a timely fashion.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Darwin Travel Guide

Courtesy of Tourism NT

Mindil Beach Sunset Market

The Mindil Beach Sunset Market in Darwin is the best place to buy local arts and crafts in Australia's Top End. Here you can stock up on handmade jewelry, Aboriginal artwork, wallets and belts made from crocodile skin, and unique Australian gifts like boomerangs, digeridoos, and toy kangaroos and koalas.

This colorful, vibrant market takes place every Thursday and Sunday afternoon from April through October next to Darwin’s Mindil Beach, right behind the SKYCITY Darwin Casino. While you browse among more than 200 artist stalls, you can listen to digeridoo concerts, watch a whip-cracking show, and sample tasty regional snacks.

Insider Tip: Make your way to Mindil Beach around sunset. Watching the sun plummet into the turquoise Timor Sea here can’t be beat.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Darwin Travel Guide

Courtesy of Tourism NT / Shaana McNaught

Outback Cuisine

Ever tried a crocodile burger? How about fresh prawns smothered in spicy chili sauce? You’ll find such dishes and much more in restaurants along the Top End. Perhaps the region’s most iconic dish is the barramundi, a flavorful white fish caught directly from the waters along Australia’s north-central coast. If it’s fine dining you’re after, spend a few nights restaurant-hopping in Darwin. Not to be missed is Char Restaurant Darwin, a sleek, upscale establishment with an extensive wine list and such creative dishes as pan-seared barramundi with saffron velouté, tiger prawns, and Tasmanian mussels.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Darwin Travel Guide

Courtesy of Tourism NT / Nick Rains

Litchfield National Park

Roughly two hours south of Darwin, Litchfield National Park is a land of wonders. At the entrance to the park, massive, conical termite mounds, which can tower up to 10 feet high, loom across the scrubby plains. Farther inside, there are excellent hiking trails that lead to dramatic waterfalls. Slip into your bathing suit and let the falling water wash over you in the attending plunge pools.

Insider Tip: Walleroo Tours offers day trips to Litchfield National Park from Darwin, complete with lunch and a Champagne sunset toast along Darwin’s western shores.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Outback Travel Guide

Courtesy of Tourism NT / Shaana McNaught

Crocodile Spotting

With nearly a one-to-one ratio of humans to crocodiles in the Top End, chances are good that you’ll spot at least one of these spiny reptiles on your journey here. On boat tours along the Adelaide River, experienced guides dangle hunks of meat over the murky waters, enticing submerged crocs to the surface; many leap vertically out of the river to chomp at the food, exposing their massive undersides. By late morning, expect to glimpse several crocs sunning themselves along the river's muddy banks, perfectly posed for photos.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Outback Travel Guide

Courtesy of Tourism NT / Shaana McNaught

Kakadu National Park

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Kakadu National Park is the premier outdoor destination in northern Australia. Spread amongst its more than 7,600 square miles you’ll find outstanding Aboriginal rock art, raging waterfalls, stunning rock formations, crocodiles peeking their heads out of yellow rivers, bush hiking, and some of the country’s best bird-watching. The varying landscapes in Kakadu—from Savanna lowlands to sandstone cliffs to marshy wetlands—are reason enough to visit.

Because Kakadu is such an immense national park, the most efficient way of exploring it is through a tour company. AAT Kings, an excellent Darwin-based operator, runs one-, two-, and three-day tours of the park. Keep in mind that it’s a three-hour drive to Kakadu from Darwin, and distances are long between major sites within the park’s borders. To take in the full scope of the parks and its many landscapes, book a one-hour scenic flight with Air Kakadu. Among the many lodges within the park, Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, which is in the shape of the region’s signature reptile, is the most luxurious option.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Kakadu National Park Travel Guide

Courtesy of Tourism NT / Peter Eve

Aboriginal Rock Art

There’s no better place to glimpse historic Aboriginal rock art than in Australia’s Top End. Some of the rock art in Kakadu National Park dates back more than 20,000 years. Two particular spots in this park shouldn’t be missed: The colorful mythological scenes etched into Nourlangie Rock awe spectators with their attention to detail and dynamism; more impressive still are the rock paintings at Ubirr. Expect to see expert depictions of turtles, wallabies, barramundi, and human handprints. Once you've finished marveling at the art, climb to the top of the rock for panoramic views of the surrounding wetlands.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Kakadu National Park Travel Guide

Courtesy of Tourism NT / Steve Strike

The Ghan

Operated by the Great Southern Rail, the Ghan takes passengers on one of the world’s most iconic train journeys. The two-day, 1,861-mile route originates in Darwin and cuts south through the heart of the Outback. The wide windows in the train's comfortable cabins provide unobstructed views of the stark landscape as it turns deeper shades of red the farther south the train travels. Passengers can disembark for lengthy outdoor excursions at Katherine and Alice Springs.

Insider Tip: It’s best to purchase a gold or platinum ticket rather than a standard ticket. Both options include a private cabin, all meals, most alcoholic beverages, off-board excursions, and bathroom and shower facilities.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Darwin Travel Guide

Courtesy of Tourism NT / Shaana McNaught

Katherine Gorge

Outside the town of Katherine, roughly four hours southeast of Darwin, Nitmiluk National Park (colloquially known as Katherine Gorge) contains Australia’s most spectacular rock formations this side of Uluru. The best way to experience the park is by taking a cruise on the Katherine River, which slices through the gorges. Towering red-rock walls and massive boulders rise from both sides of the riverbank, encouraging most passengers to gaze upward in awe throughout the boat ride.

Insider Tip: It’s possible to take a lengthy day-trip to Nitmiluk National Park from Darwin. AAT Kings offer a reasonable tour here that returns to Darwin in time for a late dinner.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Nitmuluk National Park Guide

Courtesy of Tourism NT / Shanna McNaught

Getting Here and Around

There's no getting around it: Australia's Top End is remote, at least in relation to the major cities in the southeastern portion of the continent. But this shouldn't dissuade you from planning a journey here. Indeed, with tourism on the rise in the region, it's never been easier to travel to and around the Top End.

Qantas offers multiple nonstop flights daily to Darwin from Sydney (4 hours, 40 minutes) and Melbourne (4 hours, 30 minutes). It's best to base yourself in Darwin and make day-trips from there to the region's many attractions. Renting a car is a possibility, but will entail long hours on the road, as distances between sites can be vast. It's better—and more relaxing—to book tours to each attraction through the many reputable operators in Darwin. Note that the best time to visit the Top End is during the region's dry season, which runs from May to October.