Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, dining, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. Adam Ford checks in from Canberra...
Nominated by Lonely Planet as one of the top ten cities worldwide to visit in 2018, Canberra is stepping up to take its place as a must-see Aussie travel destination.
Australia’s purpose-built capital city has changed beyond all recognition over the past two decades. What was once largely a bureaucratic enclave occupied by a transitory workforce, is now a dignified, refined and leafy city — home to 430,000 people and packed with world-class cultural institutions and monuments that reflect the country’s nation pride.
Canberra has also been quietly building a very solid footing as a culinary destination and foodies will find plenty of top-notch nosh on offer.
Top spots for a beverage: City, Braddon, ANU, Kingston (lakeside)
Must-dos: National Portrait Gallery, Parliament House tour, hot air balloon flight at dawn
Best times to visit Canberra
Summer and autumn are the perfect seasons to enjoy everything the capital has to offer, including a stroll around the picturesque parliamentary precinct. December to February is characterised by warm to hot days, low humidity, and temperatures in the mid to high 20s. From March to May, the temperature drops into the high teens and a jacket is handy for evenings.
From June to August it gets mighty chilly in Canberra. The temperature is likely to be stuck in single digits, falling to freezing overnight. From September to November, the rainy mornings tend to be crisp but days warm slightly into the mid teens. Pack enough clothing to layer up as needed.
Top cultural experiences in Canberra
There’s no shortage of things to do in Canberra that celebrate our nation’s culture.
If you’re looking for a collection that will appeal to a broad range of age groups, the National Portrait Gallery is a good choice. Browse the portraits of those who have played a key role in shaping our nation and cultural identity, including bushrangers, artists, musicians, pollies and sporting heroes.
You can watch local creatives in action at the superb Canberra Glassworks. Housed in Canberra’s oldest public building — the Kingston Powerhouse, Canberra Glassworks is a facility dedicated wholly to glass art. Resident artists work up a sweat in the hotshop, while the finishing touches are made to each creation in the coldshop. There’s an exhibition space, school holiday classes and a very fine gift shop to explore on the way out.
For a dose of café culture, Lonsdale Street Roasters over in Braddon is a popular option and deservedly so. Caffeine-connoisseurs you are well catered for here, with locally roasted beans and a shabby chic setting in which to enjoy your brew. You’ll also find great coffee in the city, around ANU, and in leafy Manuka.
Canberra for history lovers
Parliament House is the home of Australian democracy, and history is being made there every day.
There have been two Parliament Houses since Canberra was established. Historic Old Parliament House will forever occupy a special place in the Australian psyche, thanks largely to Gough Whitlam’s famous quip on the front steps about the then Governor General — Sir John Kerr — following the Dismissal in 1975. Stand in Gough’s footsteps and gaze across the Aboriginal Tent Embassy towards the lake and the city proper. It’s quite stirring. Visit the Museum of Australian Democracy inside.
New Parliament House was designed by New York architects Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp and opened in 1988. There are a variety of free tours on offer and the chance to view pollies behaving badly during Question Time. You can book tickets for Question Time by giving the Serjeant-at-Arms a call on (02) 6277 4889. Book early to avoid disappointment.
Great places to eat in Canberra
The capital’s dining scene offers lots of delicious creativity and innovation.
Nowhere is that more evident than at Pialligo Estate. It offers paddock to plate cuisine — with almost all ingredients produced on the picturesque 86-acre estate or sourced from the local area.
For the latest offering from the team behind local fine dining doyenne Aubergine, head to Temporada in the city centre for tapas and shared plates. Italian and Sons in Braddon offers great Italian cuisine in a stylish and sophisticated setting. Bacaro wine bar is located behind the main restaurant, and is perfect for an intimate impromptu gathering. Enter through the unmarked door in the car park, and enjoy a wood-fired pizza and a fine Chianti by the open fire.
Chifley’s Bar & Grill at the historic Hotel Kurrajong is the place to go for a great steak — with eighteen different cuts on the menu. Savour your scotch fillet in the sophisticated surroundings of this fabulous hotel, which opened back in 1926 and has played host to the who’s who of Aussie politics ever since.
In nearby Kingston you’ll find former food van Brodburger cooking up a storm in their permanent home at the Canberra Glassworks. These are without doubt the most popular buns in town so get there early to avoid the crushing queues.
Where to shop in Canberra
There are plenty of opportunities for a spot of retail therapy in Canberra.
For label shopping all the usual suspects are present and accounted for in Canberra and there are plenty of shopping malls and designer outlets to indulge in. The Canberra Centre in Bunda Street in the city centre should meet the requirements of the most ardent shopaholics.
Both the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery have fabulous design shops packed with on-trend homewares and gift ideas. The Canberra Glassworks offers an eclectic range of hand-crafted glass works and one-off pieces.
Canberra has an array of regular and semi-regular markets. If you can time your visit just right, one of the best options is Handmade Canberra, which is held quarterly at Exhibition Park. Around 300 stallholders showcase a swag of Australian handmade goods. Shop for homewares, gifts, fashion, and gourmet foodstuffs.
Ways to relax in Canberra
Taking a relaxing strolling around Lake Burley Griffin and exploring the parks, monuments and grand public buildings near Parliament House are must-dos for many visitors to the capital.
While much of it is easily accessible on foot, why stride when you can ride? Seg Glide Ride offers a fabulous one-hour Segway tour of the parliamentary precinct of Barton. Glide by the National Library, Portrait Gallery, Questacon, Old Parliament House, and many other landmarks of distinction. The lakeside Australian of the Year Walk is a definite highlight.
Welcome to The Big Bus tour and travel guide, as we join Segway operator Seg Glide Ride on a guided tour on two wheels around Canberra’s beautiful Lake Burley Griffin! The wide lanes and pathways that weave between many of our national icons are perfect for exploring by Segway.
A day spent chilling with the furry and feathered locals at Canberra’s excellent National Zoo and Aquarium can now be extended to include an overnight stay. Spend a night or two in total luxury inside the zoo at the fabulous Jamala Wildlife Lodge. This is seriously mind-blowing. The all-inclusive packages include luxury African lodge-style accommodation, gourmet meals and guided visits to the animal enclosures.
Welcome to The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a sneak peek inside Canberra’s fabulous Jamala Wildlife Lodge! Fancy waking up with a pride of lions or a brown bear just metres from your bed? It’s possible at Canberra’s National Zoo & Aquarium with the opening of the fabulous $20million Jamala Wildlife Lodge.
Where to stay in Canberra
Hotel Kurrajong Canberra
The historic Hotel Kurrajong Canberra in Barton has been a part of Australia’s political landscape for almost a century, having hosted pollies past and present, and served as the Canberra residence of our 16th Prime Minister — Ben Chifley. The hotel recently reopened its doors following an extensive renovation and refurbishment program.
The building dates back to 1926. It was designed by John Smith Murdoch — chief architect for the Commonwealth of Australia from 1919 to 1929 (who also designed Old Parliament House) — and is firmly in keeping with the Garden Pavilion style that is reflected in much of Canberra’s early architecture.
Many of the hotel’s amazing period features were retained during the renovation. From the Art Deco elegance of the foyer lounge with its open fireplace, to the supremely comfortable guest rooms and suites — 26 of which are located in the Heritage wing — the hotel is endlessly charming.
In the evening, enjoy a tipple overlooking the garden courtyard, which was laid out in 1926 by Thomas Charles Weston — the Commonwealth horticulturist of the day. Stay on for dinner at the hotel’s aforementioned Chifley’s Bar & Grill.
Do you have any tips to add to our Canberra travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.