Alice Springs wouldn't win a beauty contest, but there's more going on here than first meets the eye, from the inspirational (excellent museums, a fine wildlife park and outstanding galleries of Indigenous art) to the practical (a wide range of accommodation, good dining options and travel connections).
It's the gateway to some of central Australia's most stirring landscapes: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is a four-hour drive away, while closer still, the ruggedly beautiful MacDonnell Ranges stretch east and west; you don't have to venture far to find yourself among ochre-red gorges, pastel-hued hills and ghostly white gum trees.
Alice is a key touchstone for understanding Aboriginal Australia in all its complexity and its present-day challenges. The Aboriginal name for Alice Springs is Mparntwe, and the region's traditional owners are the Arrernte, although many different Aboriginal communities now call Alice Spring home.
When it's not too hot, Alice can be good for cycling.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Alice Springs.
Head to Desert Park, where the creatures of central Australia are all on display in one place, including many that are extremely difficult to find out on the trail. The predominantly open-air exhibits faithfully re-create the animals' natural environments in a series of habitats: inland river, sand country and woodland. It's an easy 2.5km cycle to the park. Pick up a free audio guide (available in various languages) or join one of the free ranger-led talks throughout the day.
A network of meandering trails leads through this lovely arid zone botanic garden, which was founded by the prominent anthropologist Olive Pink. The garden has more than 500 central Australian plant species and grows bush foods and medicinal plants such as native lemon grass, quandong and bush passionfruit.
The Araluen Cultural Precinct is Alice Springs' cultural hub; leave a couple of hours aside for exploration of its excellent sights which include the Araluen Arts Centre, Museum of Central Australia and Central Australia Aviation Museum. You can wander around freely outside, accessing the Alice Springs Memorial Cemetery, where Albert Namatjira is buried, and grounds.
This excellent museum, filled with interactive information portals, is the home of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, whose dedicated health workers provide 24-hour emergency retrievals across an area of around 1.25 million sq km. State-of-the-art facilities include a hologram of John Flynn (the RFDS founder) and a look at the operational control room, as well as some ancient medical gear and a flight simulator. Guided tours leave every half hour, with the last at 4pm.
The old Telegraph Station, which used to relay messages between Darwin and Adelaide, offers a fascinating glimpse of the town's European beginnings. It's an easy 4km walk or cycle north from Todd Mall; follow the path on the riverbed's western side. Nearby is the original 'Alice' spring (Thereyurre to the Arrernte Aboriginal people), a semipermanent waterhole in the Todd River after which the town is named.
At the MacDonnell siding, 10km south of Alice and 1km west of the Stuart Hwy, are two museums dedicated to big trucks and old trains. The Old Ghan Heritage Railway Museum has a collection of restored Ghan locos, tearooms and railway memorabilia in the lovely Stuart railway station. For a truckin' good time, head to the National Road Transport Hall of Fame, which has a fabulous selection of big rigs, including a few ancient road trains.
The natural history collection at this compact museum is beautifully displayed, with geological exhibits such as meteorite fragments and fossils, as well as items of cultural interest and local fauna specimens. The museum houses the Strehlow Research Centre with displays on the work of Professor TGH Strehlow, a linguist, anthropologist and avid collector of Indigenous artefacts, although most of the collection is off limits for cultural reasons. There's a new outpost of the museum on Todd Mall – it focuses on the region's ancient megafauna.
In the Connellan Airways Hangar, Alice's original aerodrome, displays on pioneer aviation in the Territory include Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) planes. Easily the most interesting exhibit is the wreck of the Kookaburra, a tiny plane that crashed in the Tanami Desert in 1929 while searching for Charles Kingsford Smith and his copilot Charles Ulm. The Kookaburra pilots, Keith Anderson and Bob Hitchcock, perished in the desert; Kingsford Smith and Ulm were rescued.
It may be small, but this reptile centre packs a poisonous punch with its impressive collection of venomous snakes, thorny devils and bearded dragons. Inside the cave room are 11 species of NT geckos and outside there's Terry, a 3.3m saltwater croc, plus Bub, a magnificent perentie, Australia's largest lizard. The enthusiastic guides will happily plonk a python around your neck during the handling demonstrations (check the website for times) or let you pet a blue-tongue lizard.