This paper contributes to recent debates about whether urban policy discourses are transferable and what is at stake in their translation. It draws on discussion of Darwin (Northwest Territory, Australia), a tropical savanna location that the local government wants to promote as a ‘creative city’, without quite knowing what this might require. We discuss relevant debates on research knowledge construction, the creative city and the path-dependent character of neoliberal governmental objectives. We then turn to the geographical, demographic and cultural characteristics that make Darwin a challenging and distinct context for translation of global theories of creative city rejuvenation. As well as arguing a case for more nuanced, locationally specific, analysis of the capacity of places to embrace travelling policy discourses, we suggest ways in which creative city research can be refreshed through engaging with literatures on (post)colonial urban politics and intersections with policy initiatives other than those targeted at ‘creative industries’per se. We systematically outline the particular challenges that tropical cities in remote locations provide to accepted wisdom about creativity-led urban planning.