Central Australia is the most peculiar part of the whole continent. If you want to see the ‘real’ Australia, you must include a visit to its Red Centre on your Australian itinerary. Alice Springs is the capital of Central Australia, and it is (almost) the geographical centre of the country. In this post, I am sharing a list of things to do in Alice Springs and Central Australia.
This post was first published on my previous blog When Woman Travels.
Why visit Alice Springs?
Many people believe, once they have seen Uluru, they know everything about Australia’s Red Centre. They can’t be further from the truth. Uluru is the main tourist attraction in Central Australia. And it deserves its important place not only because it offers the most attractive landscape but also because of its significance for the Aboriginal culture. However, like all tourist attractions, it has lost its authenticity and offers a polished look into the culture.
If you are one of the curious and always thirsty for knowledge travellers, include a stay at the Red Centre’s capital Alice Springs in your itinerary. It will not only allow you to understand the contemporary Australian Outback but also will give you a chance to visit some of the many secret places in Central Australia that international tourists rarely visit because of a lack of time and knowledge.
Where is Alice Springs located and why is significant for Australia
Alice Springs is the place that had (and still has) the most important role in the existence of Outback Australia. If you look at the map of Australia, you will see that the town is situated almost in the perfect middle… of nowhere. This location was very important in the late 1800s when the Overland Telegraph Station from Adelaide to Darwin was completed (see the Old Telegraph Station). Without the post in Alice Springs, the telegraph line connecting Australia with overseas couldn’t exist.
It is very important for you to understand
Distances in Central Australia are huge. What is ‘nearby’ for you might be 40-60 km away. In Central Australia’s language, it is 130-160 km and more. I have listed where possible the distances to each of the places I’ve included in this post. However, I strongly recommend you make your own thorough research and create a plan, considering all – roadhouses available on the road, the places where camping is allowed, are the roads sealed or unsealed, and very importantly, the weather conditions.
About the Aboriginal Culture in Alice Springs
As there is a lot to see and do if you want to learn about the Aboriginal culture in Alice Springs, I have written a separate post about it.
Things to do in Alice Springs
Museums in Alice Springs
Contrary to what you might expect from one of the remotest towns in Australia, there is a lot to be seen and done in Alice. There is an abundance of museums but as I consider that some of them might not be so interesting to the international visitor, I have listed the ones I believe are significant and unique in their own merits.
Women’s Museum of Australia and Old Gaol Alice Springs
The Women’s Museum of Australia has an impressive collection of profiles of women who were first in their fields in Australia. Some of these women achieved unbelievable things in times when women were totally dependent on marriage and their husbands.
However, the unique exhibition of the museum showcases the life of the first (white) women who came to live in the vast remoteness of Central Australia. Despite the harsh living conditions, these women created history and inspire even today.
One of the things that may shock and confuse you about this museum, is that it is in an old gaol. But this is what makes it even more interesting. In addition to the women-focused exhibitions, you can visit the premises of the old jail cells. They are divided into men’s and women’s block. If this side of the museum is not what you would be interested in, you can have just a quick look in the women’s block which is just behind the corner after you have exited the shop/reception area.
In the museum’s shop, you will find some beautiful pieces of handmade Aboriginal crafts and paintings at very good prices. These are items made by inmates of the new correctional centre (read, the new goal) located near Alice Springs. It is said that money from these sales is going back to the inmates to support them after they have served their sentences.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service
There is no better story than the one of the RFDS in Australia’s Outback. To understand the challenges that people face still today living in remote places around Australia, you need to visit this museum in Alice Springs.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service was started in 1939 by a visionary John Flynn. In the museum, you will learn the story of one of the biggest ‘air ambulances’ in the world. It is a non-profit organization that operates in remote and regional areas and without its help people in these areas wouldn’t be able to receive medical help or even, in many cases, survive. To visit this museum is to understand the Australian Outback in its most profound meaning – how difficult life is and how much survival is the word that describes it.
Don’t miss it!
The best coffee and brunch in Alice Springs are in the RDFS’ café adjacent to the museum. I discovered this fact by accident after I’ve been frequenting the more centrally located places. After this discovery, I was often enjoying the quiet and sunny garden and the strong and fragrant coffee. Take the chance to sample some of the breakfasts or delicious cakes they offer.
Alice Springs Reptile Centre
If you plan to explore more outback places, you need to learn more about the beautiful but deadly creatures inhabiting these lands. In the Reptile Centre in Alice Springs, you will pay a small fee for such knowledge.
Behind the thick glass, the notorious Taipan and Brown Snake are displayed in a light environment. You know how most of the reptile centres are dark and you can’t see the details of the animals? Here you can see and study the patterns on the snakes’ backs. Such knowledge can be crucial in case you or someone around you has been bitten because of the different antivenoms. However, recently an antivenom was created that can be used to treat all of Australia’s snakes’ bites.
Here you will also see crocodiles, including the saltwater type that lives in the north, in Darwin’s tropics. There are also lizards, dragons and goannas. There are more than 100 reptiles from 60 different species, representing the most significant of the fauna in the Northern Territory.
Every day, three times a day, there are shows where you can learn more about the animals and even touch some of them. If you are interested to join, make sure you visit the centre around 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., or 3:30 p.m.
The Residency & the Cultural Precinct
The Residency is a historical building that has a significant meaning for the people of Alice Springs. However, the international visitor may be more interested to see typical Northern Territory architecture from before air-conditioned life. I loved my visit there because it gave me an understanding of the early years of Alice Springs as a town. The wide closed verandas are exemplary for the Central Australia style and anybody who has a keen interest in architecture must visit the Residency.
There is no entrance fee to visit this museum, but donations are appreciated and help maintain the building. It is located, very conveniently for every visitor, next to the post office in the heart of Alice Springs.
The Old Telegraph Station
To understand how life in Central Australia has begun in the form we know it today, your visit to the Old Telegraph Station in Alice Springs is essential. You will learn why and how Alice Springs was created in the middle of the land known also as the Never Never.
What visitors will find here is not only the story of the telegraph line that allowed Australia to connect with the rest of the world but also a tale of strength and courage. You will see how the life of the families living here at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries was organized. It is a visual presentation of the first Northern Territory pioneers’ life, full of hard work, challenges, and much of a sense of adventure.
The telegraph line was opened in 1872 and allowed messages to be send and received only in several hours’ time instead of months, as it was before. Imagine the importance in the people’s lives, many of whom had families overseas, in the European countries.
You will need to buy an entrance ticket from the Trail Station Café. Enjoy a moment sitting on the veranda facing the yard of the Old Telegraph Station, sipping from your cup of coffee and savouring some of the classics of the Australian Outback. Scones served with butter and jam, vanilla slices and Anzac cookies are those you must try at some point in your Central Australia journey!
At the telegraph station, you will also see an exposition about the Stolen Generation, as at one point housed children from this infamous governmental program. It is an emotional but also informative exposition.
Guided tours of the Alice Springs Old Telegraph Station run at 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. every day from March to November.
Transport Hall of Fame, Alice Springs
The Ghan is an Outback icon. It is a railway line that connects Australia’s South with the Northern part of the country. The trip from Adelaide to Darwin takes 54 hours and has a stopover in Alice Springs. The construction of the almost 3000 km long railway started in 1878 and finished in 2001 when the last section to Darwin was completed.
It is a magnificent sight to see the Ghan arriving in Alice Springs. Its silvery body snakes slowly as it passes through the Gap. The camel logo on its sides vibrates under the sun with an allure of adventure.
In Alice Springs, you can visit the Old Ghan Museum and Transport Hall of Fame to learn more about the pioneering times when the inner part of the continent was not accessible so easily. Engineers and workers who helped build this line suffered from sickness and hardship of everyday life. Some of them even came into the vast Emptiness with their wives who, however, went back to the cities when they had children.
Visiting the museum is a trip through the history with a lot of information and artifacts provided to help you understand not only the history and the importance of the Old Ghan for the country but the character and the past of the Australian Outback itself.
Except for the Ghan history, you can have a look at the old cars and tractors collection. However, this is at an additional price.
Araluen Cultural Precinct
Araluen Cultural District is the artistic heart of Alice Springs. Here you will find exhibitions showcasing Central Australia arts and crafts, theatre and ballet shows, much-loved festivals like the Beanie Festival, and much more.
The Museum of Central Australia is also located in the precinct. If you are a nature buff, you absolutely need to visit this museum where you will learn about Central Australia’s fauna and flora from the beginning to nowadays. Central Australia is one of the most interesting and still mysterious places on the continent. It is also a fascinating region. It seems that not much life can survive here. However, this is not the case and many unique and intriguing species can be found here.
Keep an eye on events
As soon as you arrive (or even better prior to arrival) in Alice Spring, check what is on the event’s page of the Cultural Precinct. Often, the most interesting events (such as Beanie Festival) in town take place here.
Places to Eat, Drink and Socialize in Alice Springs
Page 27 and Epilogue cater to vegetarians and vegans in a hipster atmosphere. Epilogue is also good for dinner and has regular weekend events at their rooftop bar. Another great place for breakfast, or just a coffee break, is Olive Pink Garden located at the Botanic Gardens. It is a nice outdoor environment with a lot of birds and animals. There is also a sand pit playground for the little ones.
The Flying Doctor’s Café is my favourite. It makes the best coffee in town and serves the most flavorous breakfasts and delicious cakes. The Water Tank is the craziest café and the hidden gem of Alice Springs. It has a quirky and alternative menu but with an emphasis on fresh, healthy food. It has an authentic shabby chic feel in a rustic old workshop shed.
Monte’s is a carnival-inspired outdoor restaurant-bar with hearty food and plenty of live music. There is a trivia Thursday night at 7 p.m. that is extremely popular with the locals. If you want to get a table, best to arrive an hour early.
Bojangles has a wild-west atmosphere. All the boys and girls working in the cattle stations around love going to Bojangles. Apart from its Australian western vibe, people like it for its big farmer-size servings of juicy beefsteaks and flavoury fish and chips (the Kid’s size fish and chips serving are enough for a woman). Its menu, however, includes also many other Australian classics.
Sunrises and Sunsets in Alice Springs
Central Australia is famous for its vast horizons. Which makes sunrises and sunsets spectacular. The best spot to see the sunrise in Alice Springs is at the ‘Alice Springs’ sign, not far from the airport. This is because the flat land south of the Ranges allows you to see all the colours of the sun without interruption as it rises.
For a sunset, go to Flynn’s Grave. This is the resting place of John Flynn – the founder of the Royal Flying Doctors. From there, you can take the track to Mount Gillen, it takes 2 hours to return. However, be back at the starting point before dark as the track is difficult at times and not very well marked.
For a really stunning sunset, drive to Neil Hargrave Lookout, 1 h 20 min from Alice along Namatjra Drive.
Alice Springs Festivals and Events All Year Round
There are many events happening in Alice Springs all year round. Some of them are unique and peculiar.
The Beanie Festival is a favourite of all – locals and visitors. The idea of this event was to help the local Indigenous communities in Central Australia but now it became a funny, treasure-hunting-like game. People from all over Australia contribute with the creations they make during the year.
The Desert Mob is one of the biggest events in the country, promoting Aboriginal culture and art. There are hundreds of new Aboriginal artworks exhibited each year and the possibility to meet the artists in person.
Territory Day Celebrations
The Territory Day Celebrations are on the first of July. This is the only day in the year when the Territorians can have private fireworks. You can imagine that they get crazy on this day! The shops selling fireworks get busy on this day with long queues of (mostly) men of all ages.
Finke Desert Race
Finke Desert Race is one of the remotest races in the world. Both cars and bikes take part and in 2018, we witnessed some very passionate and ambitious women drivers among the hundreds of men.
Parrtjima Festival of Light
Parrtjima Festival of Light is an event that lasts for 10 nights during which light installations are created by some of the Aboriginal artists of Central Australia. There are also other events. Talks and live music enhance the spectacular festival. Parrtjima is free of charge to attend.
Find what’s on
There are dozens of events happening in Alice Springs and Central Australia. Check what’s on in the Red Centre when you are planning your visit.
Other places near Alice Springs to explore in Central Australia
This is an old Lutheran Mission that today houses a café and art shop with some of the most amazing Aboriginal artworks you will find in Central Australia. Its surroundings and buildings haven’t changed much since 1877 when the mission was established. You can combine your visit to Palm Valley with visiting Hermannsburg as the turn to the valley is just a few kilometres away.
Try the scones with butter and jam in the Hermannsburg Café. If you are lucky, you might be able to buy freshly picked lemons from the tree at the front. It’s a real wonder that lemons and roses thrive in this dry and hot climate!
Alice Springs to Uluru
Alice Springs to Uluru is one of the most travelled routes in the Northern Territory. You can fly to Uluru directly and visit only the Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park (the park entrance fee is $25 and valid for three consecutive days). However, if you have time, my advice is to spend more time exploring Central Australia.
Accommodation in Ayers Rock Resort is very expensive. Alternatively, you can join a camping tour from Alice Springs to Uluru – Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon. They usually last three or four days and are the best budget option, especially for a solo female traveller. It is also the safest way to do this trip if you are alone on the road.
For the adventure-seekers
The best part of these tours is the opportunity to sleep under the stars in another Australian Outback icon – the swag.
Ross River Homestead
Ross River Homestead is an old homestead now turned into a resort. There are cabins and campgrounds available, check the accommodation rates here. The best part of the place is the café-bar that is in the old homestead building and offers an authentic historical feel. You can learn a lot and imagine how life looked like in the past by just walking from room to room. Don’t be shy to ask the staff any questions you might have. They love sharing stories about the Outback.
For the party lovers
Ross River Homestead Resort is also the place where the Wide Open Spaces Festival happens.
Glen Helen Homestead
Glen Helen Homestead is another old homestead with a bar and restaurant. Finke River is running behind it and you can swim in the waterhole there. I haven’t been there and can’t give you more details about the place.
This post includes almost every point of interest for Alice Springs and Central Australia. As Australia is a vast continent, you need to be efficient with your time.