Location: Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
Historically speaking, Australia’s capital city has been known for mostly three things; politicians, pornography and for being boring. For a long time Canberra was the butt of a lot of jokes around the country as the place where public servants go to die a quiet and painless death. However, in the span of five short years, the nation’s capital has been undergoing a quiet renaissance, both on the exterior and the interior. The ACT (government workers love acronyms, and this one stands for Australian Capital Territory), has been spearheading an aggressive and imaginative urban renewal rollout to not only increase the territories livability, but also to allow for further expansion and investment in area’s other than government (and pornography for that matter). Even though the ACT is known to have a high standard of living on account of the main industry revolving around government employment, it can be a surprisingly affordable, nay I say, budget travel destination you may want to add to your Australian travel list.
Canberra is a very compact city and nothing is more than a 30 minute drive away in the ACT! This means that if you have a car you can easily pack in a lot more during your stay, otherwise their public transport system is pretty good too. Alternatively, you can hire bikes and cycle along the Territory’s excellent bicycle path network (Mr Spokes does all day hire for $40) and there are many bike lock up areas around the place. Since I was there for awhile I choose to walk around the main areas of Canberra and found that was easy to navigate even without a map, and we drove on those days where we were feeling lazy or going up to the view points. Another thing to know about Canberra is that they have a lot of round-a-bouts, so when you’re driving make sure you are in the correct lane for your exit and that you give way when appropriate.
Museums and Galleries
I mentioned earlier that even for the budget conscious traveler Canberra is surprisingly affordable, and that is because for most of their museums, galleries and memorials it’s free to view the permanent collections. Most of them are also conveniently located within a short walk of each other which makes viewing a few in a day very easy, and with so much choice I’d definitely recommend including the following selection in your itinerary.
The National Gallery of Australia was by far my favorite out of all the galleries and museums we visited, and I especially loved seeing Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly Series and viewing Jackson Pollocks’ divisive ‘Blue Poles’ painting (otherwise known as ‘Number 11’); and also allow yourself time to explore the sculpture garden that encompasses the Gallery! Next door to the National Gallery is the National Portrait Gallery that displays many portraits of prominent Australian figures representing diverse ‘spheres such as politics, exploration, the arts, science, business and sport’. One of the highlights for me was seeing how I stacked up against Princess Mary, and viewing the winner of the 2009 Archibald Prize of singer-songwriter, Gurrumul, by Guy Maestri.
A little further away from the Galleries and you’ll find yourself walking towards a grassy and steel looking knoll that turns out to be Australia’s Parliament House. Officially opened in 1988, Parliament House integrates Australian materials, environmental and sustainability principles as well as traditional Australian motifs into it’s design. I highly recommend catching the lift up to the roof top where you’ll find views of the surrounding area and get a better idea on just how big that flag is (it’s seriously HUGE). And you can also sit in on a Question Time if you’re there at the right time of the day and political calendar. Down the road is the Museum of Australian Democracy (otherwise known as Old Parliament House), and if you’re interested in social and political history, this is a great one to check out too.
The Australian War Memorial houses not only the Memorial to the many lives lost in international combat, but also a Museum and exhibits related to Australian’s in war. And if you can time your visit to coincide with the last post ceremony (daily at 4:55pm), you’ll be privy a moving tribute to all who fought for Australia, and to thank and farewell the visitors who have come to pay their respects.
This is just a small selection of the many galleries and museums that are free to view, and if you can fit in a few more then definitely get yourself to the Canberra Museum and Gallery, the National Museum of Australia, the High Court, and how ever many more your itinerary can fit!
Canberra was designed around the Molonglo river that was dammed along with the construction of the Scrivener to create Lake Burley Griffin. The city has a big focus on the outdoors and you can walk, run, or ride on a self guided tour; join a Segway tour ($30 for 30 minutes, $59 for one hour) around the lake; or grab your watercraft of choice and get on the river too. Other popular outdoor pursuits for nature lovers are the various hiking and bushwalking opportunities that are close to the city centre. Both Mount Ainsley and Black Mountain (the one with the big telecommunications pole on it) have trails zig zagging the ascent and also offer stunning 360 degree views of the ACT. I found Canberra Tracks to be a wealth of information on the various trails in and around Canberra, and you can find just about any type or length of trail on their informative site.
Mountain biking is also a very popular pastime for Canberran’s, and will take you further out towards the more rugged national parks including Stromlo Forest Park and Corin Forrest (which sees snow during the winter time).
Shopping and food
With many smaller shopping areas located in suburbs such as Braddon, Fyshwick and Kingston, the biggest shopping area is located in Canberra Central, with a large shopping complex housing all the usual hughstreet labels and high end stores, as well as a number of cafes, bars and restaurants for you to choose from in the one convenient location.
Not far from the main shopping area is where the resurgence in cafe culture began. Lonsdale street is home to the Lonsdale Street Roasters, who were the first to roast in-house their own beans and with it’s Melbourne-esque industrial style decor, it’s not hard to see why this little establishment was groundbreaking in the staid Canberra cafe scene when it threw open its doors in 2010. The coffee resurgence has spread across Lake Burley Griffith all the way to Manuka and the revamped Kingston foreshore precinct, with many new and excellent cafes to choose from including 38 Espresso and Penny University Coffee Roasters. Whilst you’re on this side of the Lake, you’ll also find some of the best bakeries and patisseries in the Territory, with Silo Bakery & Cafe consistently ranking highly in not just people’s stomachs but also recommendations, and new comer Patissez with their delicious french inspired cakes and devilishly indulgent range of milkshakes.
This write up may seem like a lot, but seriously, I haven’t only just scratched the surface with what you can do with a visit to Canberra! The nation’s capital city is finally coming of age, and the best thing about it is that instead of trying to compete with bigger brother’s Sydney and Melbourne, it’s finding it’s own way to stand out on the Australian landscape. And if you’re seriously looking for somewhere else to go, and neither Melbourne or Sydney are winning you over, give Canberra a go! You will be surprised. I promise you.
Looking for other Australian city break ideas? Check out what you can get up to in Adelaide in two days or Melbourne in a day, or even explore Melbourne’s many suburbs for something different. And don’t forget if you want to keep up with us you can SUBSCRIBE to receive The Travelleur updates in your inbox (over in the side bar), LIKE us on Facebook or FOLLOW us on Instagram – @thetravelleur.
Second and fourth photograph by Auyeung Photography, all others by Jelena Stipanicev.