Like most of Darwin, the city centre is open and vibrant with wide streets, leafy parks, a cool mall and outdoor dining. Arching shade trees and towering palms are features of the lush parks and reserves, while stunning Aboriginal art and artefacts are characteristic of the retail areas. Tall, modern structures have begun to replace the old colonial-style buildings, but they still retain a fresh, tropical flavour with overhanging eaves, corrugated iron and lush vegetation.
Smith Street Mall is the retail heart of the central business district (CBD). Shady Raintree Park at the northern end is popular with tourists and locals at lunchtime, and many outdoor concerts are held here during the dry season. A walk down the mall between May and the end of August will reveal buskers from all over Australia who have travelled north to beat the southern winter. Plazas and small arcades reveal shops where visitors can buy Aboriginal art, locally made jewellery and tropical clothing. Halfway down the mall is the Victoria Hotel, a Darwin landmark and one of its oldest pubs. Almost directly opposite is Star Village Arcade, which used to house the old open-air Star Theatre. At the southern end of the mall are some of the city’s grandest buildings where it is possible to look at or buy South Sea pearls – one of northern Australia’s most valued exports.
Across Bennett Street, Smith Street continues south towards the harbour past Brown’s Mart, which was built in 1883 and is now home to the Darwin Theatre Company.
Behind Brown’s Mart are the Darwin City Council Chambers, where an ancient banyan tree known as the Tree of Knowledge casts a huge umbrella of shade. Planted at the end of the 19th century, the tree has been a meeting place, dormitory and soapbox for generations who lived in or passed through Darwin. At the southern end of Smith Street is Christ Church Cathedral, built in 1902 and damaged by both Japanese bombers and cyclone Tracy.
One street to the west of Smith Street is Mitchell Street, a popular dining and entertainment area specialising in outdoor eateries. With backpacker accommodation, pubs and outdoor dining areas, Mitchell Street is the party precinct of Darwin. You’ll find cinemas and the Darwin Performing Arts Centre, which hosts many exciting theatrical performances, particularly late in the dry season during the Festival of Darwin (). At Crocosaurus Cove, visitors can swim with crocodiles – safely protected inside a perspex cage!
Cavenagh Street is one street east of Smith Street. Among the commercial buildings and government departments, it boasts a few art galleries and cafes. At the Roma Bar, which is popular with politicians, journalists, writers and artists, people from all walks of life rub shoulders over a coffee.
This street was Darwin’s original Chinatown. In the late 1800s the southern end was full of ramshackle huts and shops with the occasional opium den. While some of the original stone buildings remain up near Darwin Post Office, a reminder of its Asian history is at nearby Litchfield Street where a modern Chinese Temple is built on the site of an older temple that was constructed in 1887. The Northern Territory Chinese Museum next door has displays taking visitors through the history of Chinese people in Darwin from the establishment of Chinatown and market gardens to the bombings in World War II. Open during the dry season; admission by gold coin donation.
Much of Darwin’s up-market accommodation is built along The Esplanade, with balconies and windows looking out over Darwin Harbour and the new Darwin Waterfront development. Oil rigs can often be seen being towed out to the offshore fields of the Timor Sea, as can cattle boats lying at anchor, awaiting shipments. There are many Australian and American wrecks at the bottom of the harbour, sunk by the Japanese bombers that struck without warning in February 1942. There are memorial sites all around the harbour recording the hundreds of bombing raids that were made on the city during World War II.
Beautiful Bicentennial Park runs the length of The Esplanade and a walking/cycling track goes from Doctors Gully in the north to the Wharf Precinct in the south. The park is a great place to relax under a shady tree, enjoy lunch or simply watch the day go by; in the mornings and evenings, this is also a popular area for joggers and walkers. There is a children’s playground halfway along the park, an eagle’s nest lookout at the northern end and a Cenotaph honouring service men and women at the southern end. A branch of the walking/cycling track goes past Lameroo Beach and the Deckchair Cinema, showing current and popular films ‘under the stars’ every night during the dry season.
On the corner of Knuckey Street, at the southern end of The Esplanade, is Old Admiralty House, built in 1937. It shows off tropical design and living standards before the city was devastated in 1974, and is now incorporated into a restaurant. Further north is Lyons Cottage, the former British Australian Telegraph (BAT) headquarters for the Overland Telegraph. Built in 1925 for BAT staff, it now houses an excellent chronology of early Darwin life. Lyons Cottage: cnr The Esplanade and Knuckey St; open daily; admission free.