The 'capital' of northern Australia is closer to Jakarta than it is to Sydney, and closer to Singapore than it is to Melbourne, so it's no surprise that it looks outward to Asia as much as it looks inland to the rest of Australia. This proximity and familiarity with Australia's northern neighbours is reflected in the town's relaxed, cosmopolitan, tropical atmosphere.
Darwin is in the far north of the Northern Territory, west of Arnhem Land. Darwin's centre is a fairly compact area at the end of a peninsula. Most of what you'll want in central Darwin is within two or three blocks of the main shopping centre, Smith St mall. The suburbs spread a good 12 to 15km (7 to 9mi) to the north and east.
Darwin's airport is 6km (4mi) north of the town centre. The transit centre, where buses arrive and depart, is in the centre of town.
Accommodation in Darwin includes hostels, guesthouses, motels, holiday flats, and a clutch of up-market hotels, mostly clustered along the beach. The city's many caravan parks are all several km out of town. Darwin's proximity to Asia is signalled by the large number of Asian eateries - there are plenty of these, as well as lots of takeaway spots, around Smith St mall. Asian-style markets, such as the one held at Mindil Beach on Thursday nights during the dry season, are the best places to find cheap eats.
It took a long time to decide on Darwin as the site for the region's centre, and even after the city was established, growth was slow and troubled. Early attempts to settle the Top End were mainly due to British fears that the French or Dutch might get a foothold in Australia. Between 1824 and 1829 Fort Dundas on Melville Island and Fort Wellington on the Cobourg Peninsula, 200km (124mi) north-east of Darwin, were settled and then abandoned.
In 1845 the explorer Leichardt reached Port Essington overland from Brisbane, arousing prologned interest in the Top End. The region came under the control of South Australia in 1863, and more ambitious development plans were made. A settlement was established in 1864 at Escape Cliffs on the mouth of the Adelaide River, not too far from Darwin's present location, but this was abandoned in 1866. Present-day Darwin was finally founded in 1869. The harbour had been discovered back in 1839 by John Lort Stokes aboard the Beagle, who named it Port Darwin after former shipmate, Charles Darwin.
The process of white settlement in the Northern Territory was just as troubled and violent as elsewhere in Australia, with Aboriginal groups vainly trying to resist the takeover of land on which their way of life depended.
Darwin's growth was accelerated by the discovery of gold at Pine Creek, about 200km (124mi) south, in 1871. But once the gold fever had run its course, Darwin's development slowed down, due to the harsh, unpredictable climate (including occasional cyclones) and poor communications with other Australian cities. By the early 20th century, most of the Aboriginal people who had inhabited the land which had become Darwin were confined to government reserves or Christian missions, or were living on cattle stations working as stockmen or domestic help.
WWII put Darwin permanently on the map when the town became an important base for Allied action against the Japanese in the Pacific. The road south to the railhead at Alice Springs was surfaced, finally putting the city in direct contact with the rest of the country. Darwin was attacked 64 times during the war and 243 people lost their lives; it was the only place in Australia to suffer prolonged attack.
Modern Darwin has an important role as the front door to Australia's northern region and as a centre for administration and mining. The port facilities have recently had a major upgrade, and there's even talk of the railway line to Alice Springs being completed.