By Amanda Little
All those going to Australia know about Sydney and Melbourne, but not enough know about the country's capital, Canberra. A city once know for being rigid and tame is now a stunning metropolis packed with culture, cuisine, history, shopping opportunities, and more!
Explore the city
For those looking for food or fun, seek out some the capital’s best cafes, bakeries, restaurants, and bars in trendy NewActon. This precinct offers designer stays, groundbreaking cuisine, and spectacular bars and bakeries. Whether you’re sipping in style at Mocan & Green Grout or reveling in the distressed walls and fresh pastries of A. Baker, NewActon offers a chic city experience. If you’re looking for more party and less pomp, head down to Braddon’s Lonsdale Street. The liveliest coffee hot spots, cafes, bars, and restaurants draw in the young and vibrant crowds, possibly more than Melbourne. Be sure to stop into Canberra’s top restaurants, like Aubergine and Monster Kitchen and Bar, or at least seek out the places selling Frankenstein-like food items, like Freakshakes.
Revel in the natural beauty
Canberra has a lovely array of natural scenery to explore and enjoy. Nature enthusiasts can explore over 600 acres of Canberra’s National Arboretum, which spreads out over the sloped of Black Mountain. It is one of the city’s newest attractions and hosts about 100 fledgling forests from around the world. Picnics, hiking, and even smaller events like a visit to the Red Center garden or the birds and butterflies exhibits are open to the public. The Australian National Botanic Gardens are also available for a leisurely afternoon stroll, and are positioned less than a mile from the city center. Beautifully tended collections of Australian flora spend their days being admired by passersby.
Photo by Instagram user @papuanewguineans
Take a stroll around the world
Pick out a few of the unique embassy buildings to see from around the world, or take a car and embark on a self-drive tour through the Diplomatic Circuit. Each building is built in the architectural style of the nation it represents, aside from a few who have opted to strive for efficiency in architecture instead of tradition. Seek out the tour of the Yarralumla diplomatic zone, or pick out the nations you’d like to see individually.
Get involved in Parliament
Or at least, see where the magic happens. The Old Parliament House is open with exhibitions for history buffs, with a perfectly preserved Prime Minister’s office still maintained. Tourists can see the office, admire panels of Australian wood and wall hangings of Australian flora, explore family-friendly exhibits, and even go for a stroll in the National Rose Gardens. Follow the free, guided tour to learn the most!
Or you could visit the truly Aussie boomerang-shaped structure that is the New Parliament building. Nestled comfortably into Capital Hill, the expansive grassy walkway forms the roof where visitors can enjoy panoramic views of Canberra before entering. The Ceremonial Pool, the circular granite walls following the curves of the hill, the 48 marble columns representing a eucalyptus forest, and historic exhibits are all stunning draws to the building itself. Free guided tours are also offered here to see how Parliament works and to get a better understanding of the building’s history.
Spend the day adoring cute animals
The National Zoo and Aquarium is located on the outskirts of the city, and is the only combination zoo and aquarium in Australia. While the Aquarium offers a wide array of marine life native to the country, the zoo has exhibits of native animals as well as exotic species like tigers, bears, and cheetahs. The zoo also offers two unique and highly popular attractions: animal encounters, where guests can interact with giraffes, cheetahs, red pandas, and more, and the Jamala Wildlife Lodge. This lodge is on the premises, and allows visitors to stay overnight at the zoo and see lions and bears up close.
Lake Burley Griffin
This stunning artificial lake sits as the centerpiece of Canberra, and is host to many fun-filled events. While an average day at the lake could be as simple as a picnic, stroll, fishing, or paddling out onto the water, Lake Burley Griffin also has festivals, hidden events on the small islands in its center, and more. Make your way to Apen Island, the largest of the 6, to see the National Carillon, an impressive tower with 55 bronze bells that was a gift from the British government. Picnic at the foot of the sleek columns inlaid with opal and quartz as the bells play, or listen as the melody makes its way across the water. Surrounding the lake is the National Gallery, the National Library, the National Museum, and Questacon, an interactive technology and science center. Spot the Captain Cook Memorial from the banks of the lake, spend an afternoon at Commonwealth park where an amphitheater and waterfalls draw in crowds.
Great Tip: Go to the Floriade festival in spring, when millions of flowers are in bloom.
Get to know your creative side
Explore visual, interactive, and performance art as you make your way through Canberra. You could stop in at the Nishi Gallery where artists and curators display a breathtaking variety of art, or head to the National Gallery, which is home to Australia’s largest art collection. Wander along the National Portrait Gallery to meet Australia's memorable people face-to-face, either on canvas or in sculpture. Explore the cafes and bookshops offering special exhibitions along King Edward Terrace, or head down to Canberra Glassworks for a glass-blowing demonstration.
Photo by Instagram user @annastylehound
Take in an old market
Canberra’s bus depot market is over 20 years old, but their age hasn’t diminished their flair or popularity. The abandoned building opens up high overhead, almost like an airplane hangar, but the floor is where the action is. Dozens of stalls selling everything from clothing and homeware to jewelery and food cram into the space to create a makeshift bazaar perfect for seeking out souvenirs, picking up authentic Australian items, and haggling over prices. The market is open every Sunday from 10 to 4, so don’t miss your chance to see an explosion of Aussie color, sound, and fun!
Wander many museums
Those looking for intellectual stimulation are in for a historically good time. With the National Museum highlighting Aboriginal heritage resting on the edge of the lake, the unique National Portrait Gallery garnering visitors, the National Gallery of Australia, the Drill Hall Gallery, the Strathnairn Gallery, the Canberra Museum and Gallery, Questacon, Canberra Glassworks, the National Bonsai & Penjing Collections (seriously), and even more, Canberra is a city of museums. Pick your favorite thing, and find the museum for it in Canberra. You won’t be disappointed.
Australian War Memorial
A must-see while in Australia’s capital is definitely the Australian War Memorial. While the subject is a little grim, this Byzantine-styled monument honors all those who had fallen. While it was inaugurated during WWII, the monument offers archives, a library, an art gallery and a museum documenting all of Austalia’s armed conflicts, reaching as far back as colonial times. There are family-friendly areas, a hauntingly beautiful Commemorative Courtyard, and even a tribute called the Last Post, which performs at 4:55pm every day. Join in on a free guided tour while visiting to get the full scope of the history laid out before you.
Royal Australian Mint
It’s all about the money at the Royal Australian Mint! Here you can engage in an free tour that takes you through the manufacturing of all Australian coins. You'll even have the chance to mint your own $1 coin! The building is stunning, and there is also a small souvenir shop as well as a museum on the currency and its history.
Spend a day outside the city
While the city is packed with amazing things to do and plenty of sights to see, Australia is a huge country! About 25 miles south of the city is the Lanyon Homestead, a stunning parkland that throws back to the 19th-century way of life. You can step back in time here, watch people tend to sheep, cattle, and horses, and sit down at the cafe. You could also take an hour-long ride to Canberra’s Deep Space Communication Complex, where you can learn about Australia’s role in space, or go just a little further to the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, where you can see gray kangaroos, emus, koalas, and rock wallabies.
The Snowy Mountains are just two hours away, and are a popular year-round hiking destination for the adventurous. If you head just five miles north of Canberra, you’ll Find Cockington Green, a charming city riddled with pretty gardens, sprawling green lawns, a mini-English village, and a display of buildings from around the world. Hop aboard a miniature steam train to admire tiny cottages, pint-sized castles, and scaled-down architecture styles.