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When most Aussies think of Canberra, two Ps – penny-bangers and pollies – spring to mind, due to the ready availability of fireworks for sale and the ready availability of people in suits to pontificate outside Parliament House. But is that reason enough to go there?
For years, you had to seek out Canberra’s attractions – which were far from apparent on the long drive down Northbourne Avenue into a seemingly deserted City Centre. Now, though, thanks to ANU students and an infusion of young urban professionals chasing the best pay packets in the country, Canberra is adopting more of the café and pub culture seen in Sydney and Melbourne. Its sprawling suburbs (especially trendy neighbourhoods like Lyneham and Braddon) are even developing their own cultural scenes.
Being the hub of the public service (over 75% of Canberrans work for the government), Canberra is a great place to while away the hours. Take long lunches. Jam the photocopier. That sort of thing.
In all seriousness, though, Canberra invites a slower pace. Climb the grassy slopes of Mount Ainslie, explore the flora in the National Botanic Gardens and peruse the boutiques of fashionable Manuka. You won’t be short of opportunities to indulge those more refined tastes, either, with the National Gallery, the National Library, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian War Memorial all providing some serious cultural cred.
Yes, Canberra is a little… well, nerdy, but that’s part of its charm. And we’d be living in a pretty dull country if everywhere was the same.
Canberra’s Top 10
10. Mount Ainslie Contrary to some accounts, James Ainslie is not actually buried at the base of this hill – but it’s still worth visiting for the views.
5.National Gallery of Australia More than 120,000 works of art grace the walls of this contemporary space, including the famous Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock, bought in the ’70s by the Whitlam Government for $2 million, then the highest price ever paid for a modern painting – now a dead-set bargain.
9. Capital Region Farmers Market Do as the Canberrans do and get up bright and early to sample local produce and pack the fridge with quality supplies.
4. Australian National Botanic Gardens Walking through Rainforest Gully on a misty day, you’ll feel a million miles away from the bureaucracy taking place in the neighbouring suburbs.
8. Canberra Nature Park 30 separate protected areas make up this park. With most Canberrans living within easy walking distance of one, you’ll probably end up visiting even if you don’t mean to.
3. Canberra Museum and Gallery Museums usually have the same boring connotations as Canberra itself, but this contemporary space is surprisingly colourful.
7. Questacon ‘Making science fun; sounds lame and clichéd, but the complex interactive exhibits here will change your mind – especially the zero gravity slide or the machine that simulates a 6.5-magnitude earthquake.
2. National Museum of Australia Named Australia’s best major tourist attraction in 2005 and 2006, the jury’s still out on the external design, which looks somewhat like a giant child’s playground.
6. Parliament House 4700 rooms and a huge marble staircase fill the interior of Canberra’s Parliament House, which cost a whopping $1.1 billion to build. A glorious place for inglorious people?
1. Australian War Memorial Thought-provoking and inspirational, check out the exhibitions, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Wall of Remembrance. If your ancestors died in war, their names will live on here.
- Old Parliament House – The seat of the government from 1927 to 1988 and one of the oldest buildings in Canberra.
- National Carillon – A tower that was a gift for the city's 50th birthday, it contains 55 bronze bells.
- Papua New Guinea High Commission – An architecturally interesting building that resembles the spirit houses found in the Sepik region.
- Thai Embassy – A diplomatic building that has an orange-tiled roof and looks like temples found in Bangkok.
- High Court – A grandiose building that opened in 1980 and is nicknamed “Gar’s Mahal”.
Canberra Art & Culture
- War Memorial – This is one of the best museums in the country, showing how battle is a part of Australia’s history and heritage.
- National Museum of Australia – Many exhibitions that provide information on the indigenous culture, environmental changes, national icons and much more.
- National Portrait Gallery – Contains portraits of Australians from colonial times to the most recent photos of celebrities and important Australians.
- Lanyon Homestead – This restored homestead dates back to 1859.
- National Archives – This was the original post office of Canberra but today contains all the government records.
- Canberra Centre – The largest shopping centre in the city with a wide range of stores.
- Craft ACT – Contains many exhibitions of arts and crafts from the area that are all available for purchase.
- Kamberra Wine Company – A store that showcases the many wines made in the area.
- Old Bus Depot Markets – These indoor markets specialize in regional foods and handicraft goods.
- Bungendore Markets – Open on the third Sunday of each month, these markets offer unique produce, treasures, trash, crafts and more.
Gay & Lesbian Canberra
- Electric Shadows Bookshop – A bookstore that specializes in lesbian and gay books as well as art-house DVDs and books on film and theatre.
- Cube Nightclub – Gay and lesbian nightclub that is found beneath Antigo’s restaurant and has many themed parties.
- Toast – Alternative and gay-friendly nightclub that is above Electric Shadows cinemas.
- Tilley’s Devine Café – A gay-friendly Canberra bar and performance venue that has live music and special events.
- Bar 32 – Gay-friendly bar located on Northbourne Avenue.
- Australian National Botanic Gardens – More than 90 hectares are covered in garden that displays the plant diversity in Australia.
- Namadgi National Park – Offers many climbing spots, as well as several aboriginal sites.
- Lake Burely Griffin – A lake built by damming the Molonglo River.
- Kambah Pools – The perfect spot for swimming in the Murrumbidgee River and to escape the hot temperatures of Canberra.
- Balloon Aloft – Spend the morning seeing the city from above while enjoying a hot-air balloon ride.
- Watch a game of rugby at the Canberra Stadium, which offers regular games during the season.
- Participate in one of the many water sports like sailing on the lakes in Canberra, such as Lake Burrley Griffin.
- There are many first-class golf courses where visitors can spend the day perfecting their game.
- Rent a bicycle and explore the many cycle ways available through the Blue Mountain Nature Park.
- Take overnight hikes through the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve and Namadgi National Park.
Canberra is one of the worst designed cities anywhere in terms of being visitor-friendly. Not only are its attractions spread across a sizeable area, there is no underground train system, and the local buses are both expensive and infrequent. Drive there, or fly and rent a car to make the most of the region.Civic
Canberra’s CBD is the unimaginatively named Civic. While it is a hub of business, you’d be forgiven for missing it as it boasts none of the trademark skyscrapers of other CBDs. (Buildings are prohibited from being taller than the Parliament House flagpole.)
Happily, though, Civic makes up for this with a healthy nightlife and one of the biggest shopping malls in the country, the Canberra Centre. You’ll also find plenty of specialty boutiques along Bunda Street and City Walk. Civic is also home to Academy Nightclub, King O’Malleys and UniPub, so once the shopping has worn you out you can kick up your heels with the (thirsty) after-work crowd.Tuggeranong
Canberra’s southernmost area has been occupied by the original indigenous inhabitants for over 21,000 years, but there has been a huge amount of urban development in that time. The Hyperdome is the optimistic name given to Tuggeranong’s large regional shopping centre, where you’ll find the ubiquitous mildly threatening teens doing whatever it is they do in shopping centres all day.
Tuggeranong is best known for its natural attractions, which include Pine Island, a sandy river beach on the shores of the Murrimbidgee, which attracts picnickers and swimmers in the summer, as well as Tidbinbilla, a picturesque nature reserve where you can get up close and personal with kangaroos, emus and koalas. Historic Tuggeranong Homestead is both scenic and a pleasant place to explore. Staying for dinner is an added treat.Manuka
Manuka is the trendy, fashionable hub of Canberra, and it boasts a plethora of fashion boutiques and designer stores. The coffee at Zucchero is as good as you’d find down any alley in Melbourne, and the Wine and Cheese Providore is a relatively modest name for what is nothing less than a sensory extravaganza. Manuka also boasts the Manuka Oval, where you can catch a game of AFL or, if it’s the right time of year, the Prime Minister’s XI Cricket Match against whichever country is touring.Kingston
This is the most densely populated suburb of Canberra. Peppered with quality restaurants and bars and a lively, young, urban population, Kingston is one of the most vibrant areas of Canberra. If you’re sick of Westfield malls, the Old Bus Depot Markets are far cooler than they sound, held on the lakeside every Sunday. And if architecture is your bag, the disused power plant Kingston Powerhouse and the newer Canberra Glassworks are both worth a gander.Parkes
This is Canberra’s political zone, bordered by Lake Burley Griffin and home to both Parliament House and Old Parliament House (don’t worry, you can’t possibly get the two confused) and other splendid bureaucratic centres. Pack your walking shoes for a stroll up Capital Hill (it’s further than it looks).
Canberra Eat & Drink
The Ginger Room The food looks as stunning as the room itself, which is the old Members’ Lounge in Old Parliament House.
Parlour Wine Room Spanish tapas with a modern Australian twist. We don’t know what’s better, the ceviche or the plush leather sofas.
Water’s Edge Once lauded as one of the finest fine-diners in the country, Water’s Edge has now realised it’s located in Canberra and has toned down the pretension.
Kismet Kebabs aren’t just for when it’s 4am and you’re heading home from a bar. Try a fresh one at this authentic Turkish establishment.
Chairman and Yip Add some spice to your Canberra vacation with sea snails, sea cucumber and Shanghai duck pancakes. Just don’t spit them out — they’re not cheap.
Maestral Canberra doesn’t actually have any beaches, but Maestral serves some fine Croatian-inspired seafood nonetheless.
Alto Restaurant Set atop Canberra’s iconic Telstra Tower, this place serves excellent grub in a revolving room.
Aubergine Exquisite French food with presentation more stunning than the views from Mount Ainslie. Surely, though, the restaurant should be called Eggplant here?
Silo Bakery A crisp Canberra morning is taken from pleasant to sublime with an award-winning brekkie from this bakery.
Rama’s Dubbed Canberra’s top restaurant, so try something more exciting than an extra-mild butter chicken.
Four days of high-octane entertainment come to Canberra in January for the Summernats Car Festival, the only time when burn-outs, mullets and wet T-shirt competitions are socially acceptable. OK, they’re never socially acceptable, but they’re certainly celebrated at this festival.
Canberrans have more than just chocolate to look forward to at Easter – there’s also the food, markets and music of the National Folk Festival.
The ANZAC Day Concert is a new annual event acknowledging the fallen through music, song, spoken word and film.
You could just watch the Melbourne Cup on the telly, but Thoroughbred Park is when Canberra is at its most vibrant, and with Canberrans getting a(nother) public holiday to celebrate, it’s definitely the place to be!
Winter brings the Antarctica Music Festival in June.
July in Canberra gets less bleak with Skate in the City, a huge open-air ice skating rink.
Canberra is at its most colourful in spring, when locals gather to watch millions of flower bloom at Floriade.
The Floriade Night Festival proves that garden beds aren’t only fun if you’re over 65.
Pause at the Australian War Memorial for Remembrance Day, held on the 11th day of the 11th month.
Canberrans try to keep it classy when 21 cellars open their doors for Wine, Roses and All That Jazz in November.
When To Go
Canberra has a dry climate with four distinct seasons.
Travellers from warmer climates up north will find themselves a tad uncomfortable during winter, which can drop to zero degrees.
Spring and autumn are probably the most pleasant times to visit, with temperatures ranging between 10 and 23 degrees and the autumn leaves putting on a very pretty show.
Summer can get stiflingly hot in Canberra with the mercury climbing over 40°C.
What To Miss
Canberra actually looks rather nice from a good height, but catch the views from the top of Mount Ainslie rather than the Telstra Tower.
‘The Love Tour’ is not very romantic at all, but if you’re into brothels and strip joints, then go ahead.
Cockington Green is a village of miniature houses that are only exciting if you’re less than four foot tall.
Planned cities may not be the most interesting architecturally, but they are a lot easier to drive around.
Action buses cover most of Canberra, but if you’re venturing beyond the major areas it’s probably worth renting a car (assuming you don’t already have one).
Sydneysiders and Melbournians don’t agree on much, but the residents of Australia’s two biggest cities are united on one thing: that they are both waaaay more exciting than the planned capital city of Canberra. Designed as a compromise between the two (both wanted to be Australia’s capital), Canberra is lacking Sydney’s confidence and Melbourne’s hidden excitements. It is also said to be sprawling, almost too tidy and exceedingly boring.
… as well as being Australia’s political heart, Canberra is also the land of gay unions and the most liberal laws in the country. Its Manuka district restaurants are brimming with power-lunchers, while the National Archives draws culture vultures. Kambah Pools offer an escape from it all, and within the Civic there are even a few trendy bars – although you’ll never get Melbourne to admit it. Forget the reputation, because Canberra is cool!
The purpose-built capital of Australia is a clean, attractive city with many fine monuments and landmarks to explore. Tidy Canberra sits today as the result of a compromise between Sydney and Melbourne. While both had plans to assume national capital status, a new city was instead built from scratch between 1913 and 1927 to house the federal government and bureaucracy.
Canberra has grown by leaps and bounds ever since. The city’s development in fact, now far outstrips the original and frankly, modest, urban plan. With close to 350,000 people, Canberra is a vibrant little metropolis. The most significant landmarks in the capital city are conveniently built around Lake Burley Griffin in the Parliamentary Triangle precinct. These include the Parliament House, Questacon National Science and Technology Centre, National Museum of Australia, National Gallery of Australia and Australian National Botanic Gardens. Outside the city proper, vast swaths of lush landscape unfurl in Canberra Nature Park.
Attractions & Activities
- Australian War Memorial
- Canberra Museum and Gallery
- National Museum of Australia
- Australian National Botanic Gardens
- National Gallery of Australia
- Capital Region Farmers Market
- Mount Ainslie
- Namadgi National Park
- Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve
- National Folk Festival
Restaurant & Nightlife
- Hippo Lounge
- Trinity Bar
- Old Parliament House
Canberra has a dry, continental climate, with four distinct seasons.
- Summer (December to March) 11-28°C
- Fall (April to May) 3-20°C
- Winter (June to September) 0-16°C
- Spring (October to November) 6-23°C
Canberra On Wikipedia
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