The big-ticket destinations of the Great Barrier Reef, Margaret River, Sydney and Uluru are the main ports of call for most tourists to Australia. Quite apart from these major attractions though is Canberra, a laidback alternative offering all the advantages of a big city, four seasons and lots of kangaroo-spotting.
This city has long been a victim of “Canberra bashing”, a colloquial phrase which refers to the tendency of outsiders to disparage the place and its inhabitants, and is used so widely that it qualified as an entry in the Australian National Dictionary. American author Bill Bryson didn’t rate the city highly either, when he wrote: “Canberra: Why wait for death?”.
Other capital cities have been subjected to this kind ridicule, too: I’ve seen Canada’s Ottawa and Brazil’s Brasília described in similarly derogatory tones. Whether you like Canberra, or not, is subjective and depends on what you’re looking for in a travel experience, but there’s certainly plenty on offer for tourists.
Part of the appeal of the city, especially for visitors from the equator, is its four distinct seasons. As a university student, I resented the long winters because of my hefty heating bills, but the morning frosts herald clear days from June to August. Sunny spring brings daffodils from September to November and the incredible Floriade, a spectacle of one million blooming flowers. The hot, dry summer months over Christmas are an excuse to swim, while the introduced deciduous trees (native eucalyptus trees are evergreen) put on a colourful display from March to May.
It’s common for international tourists to be told to visit Canberra rather than the outback to see Australia’s favourite marsupial. Kangaroos are a protected species, and thousands can be found in and around the city; camels and emus are more common along the road to Uluru. While you may see kangaroos, it’s unlikely you’ll see even a fraction of Canberra’s 370,000 residents due to the vast, park-like design of the city.
This spaciousness owes much to American planner Walter Burley-Griffin who, in 1912, won an international contest to come up with a design. This was the resolution of a long-running battle between Sydney and Melbourne as to which of them should be the capital. In typically pragmatic Australian style, it was decided to settle the argument by building a new city. The result is wide, tree-lined suburbs and freeways linking seven sprawling residential districts, with acres of bush in between.
However, most of the activity and attractions for visitors lie in the city centre, where there’s an assortment of experiences on offer to suit all interests.
Wine and Dine
Of the more than 25 vineyards within a half-hour drive of Canberra, many have cellar doors for tasting and some have cafés dishing up gourmet food. The picturesque Mount Majura Vineyard offers a Gumboot Tour where you can learn more about viticulture. Enjoy pizza after wine-tasting at Lambert Vineyards, and top it off by trying the Poachers Pantry Smokehouse Café’s unique and native regional produce. In Canberra itself there’s an international selection of restaurants, cafés and bakeries, and very good coffee too.
Art and Culture
For an insight into the country’s culture, the National Museum of Australia is unbeatable. Find quirky items like a Wiggles skivvy (polo-neck shirt), indigenous bark paintings and a treasure trove of stories about Australia. On the other side of the lake is the National Gallery of Australia, which features permanent galleries of Australian artists plus international blockbuster travelling exhibitions. It has a great gift shop too. Watch artists hard at work creating glass objects at the Canberra Glassworks in the heritage-listed Kingston Powerhouse Building.
There’s a corny joke that Canberra is full of the hot air that emanates from the politicians who head to Canberra for the sitting weeks at Parliament House. Judge for yourself by watching Question Time, and take a free guided tour of the enormous building. Built into a hill in the centre of the city, it boasts an 81-metre flagpole which is visible for kilometres. For more politics, there’s Old Parliament House, a delightful 1930s building now housing the Museum of Australian Democracy.
Smell eucalyptus? Canberra is surrounded by thousands of acres of bush including national parks, and the city itself is studded with parks and tree-lined nature strips – part of the reason it’s known as the bush capital. For stargazing and tours head to Mount Stromlo Observatory; Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve and Namadgi National Park are perfect for bush walks and spotting kangaroos and birds – parrots, galahs and cockatoos are prolific. In the city itself, there are numerous options for cycling and walking around Lake Burley Griffin. The lookout at Black Mountain Tower offers 360-degree views of the city, as does an early morning hot air balloon flight.
For a selection of seasonal food, head to the Capital Region Farmers Markets every Saturday for a chat with the growers and to sample their produce. Every Sunday, stalls at the popular Old Bus Depot Markets at Kingston sell jewellery, fashion, collectables, art and food. While it is definitely not going to rival Orchard Road, the Canberra Centre is, by Australian standards, a decent shopping centre with hundreds of shops including iconic department stores Myer and David Jones. Connoisseurs of tableware will appreciate the classic lines and beautiful rainbow glazes of the distinctive Bisonhome ceramics, located on the edge of the city.
Both a sobering reminder of war and a mark of respect, the Australian War Memorial is fascinating for kids. They can whizz past the serious displays for some hands-on play: dodging sniper fire in a WWI trench, sitting in a Vietnam War-era helicopter or a Cold War submarine. Who says physics has to be boring? At Questacon, science is learnt through interaction, while the National Zoo and Aquarium is the place to experience Australian animals up close. For girls who’ve always yearned to ride a pony, it’s possible at Forest Park Riding School, which caters both for beginners and for experienced riders. Budding scientists can watch scientists at work, get stuck into experiments and have their minds stimulated at the CSIRO Discovery Centre.
How to get there
Direct coaches depart on the hour from Sydney CBD and airport.
Qantas and Virgin have direct flights from most Australia capital cities.
By car, it’s an easy three-hour drive from Sydney, or eight hours from Melbourne.
Tip: Public transport is adequate, but taxis are expensive, so hiring a car is probably the most economical and convenient way to see Canberra.
Events to plan a visit to Canberra around
There is a festival, carnival, gala or gathering almost every day in Canberra. Here are just a few of them. We suggest checking before you visit, as there are many special events in honour of Canberra’s 2013 centenary.
Canberra Wine Show (1 – 30 September)
Floriade (flower festival, 14 September – 13 October)
Festival of Squash (1 August – 31 October
Murrumbateman Field Days (small farm field days, 19 – 20 October)
Summernats (car festival, 2 – 5 January 2014)
Balloon Festival (8 – 16 March 2014)
- Canberra, known as the “bush capital”, celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2013.
- A resident of Canberra is known as a Canberran and they are a well-educated bunch. The city is home to Canberra University, the Australian Catholic University, the Australian National University, the Australian Defence Force Academy and the Royal Military College.
- The name Canberra is thought to originate from the language of the local Aboriginals and means “meeting place”.
- It’s the only place in Australia where it is legal to buy fireworks (on selected weekends) and, before the internet, the ACT and Northern Territory were the only states where you could legally purchase X-rated videos. The mind boggles.
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