April 14, 2023
16 mins Read
If you know anything about Australia’s capital, it’s probably that it’s the epicentre for Australian history, culture – and politics. Canberra’s museums and galleries are some of the most boundary-pushing in the country. It’s because of this that the nation’s capital has become a destination for those who seek to learn more about our First Nations people, appreciate world-class art, and learn about those who have fallen in battle for our freedom.
With the Australian War Memorial and the National Library making up just two of 12 major culture centres in Canberra, there’s truly nowhere else you need go. It’s time to drop multiple pins on Google maps and pinball between these A-list institutions during your next trip to Canberra.
There are a lot of great reasons to visit the ACT. The National Dinosaur Museum is one of Canberra’s premier tourist attractions. It has one of the largest permanent collections of interactive dinosaurs in Australia, 23 complete skeletons and more than 300 displays of individual fossils.
You will enhance your children’s appreciation of reptiles from the Mesozoic era when you take them to the National Dinosaur Museum. It’s one of the best things for tweens to tick off in Canberra. But the museum is not just about dinosaurs: it is aimed at anyone curious about the history of life on Earth.
Budding palaeontologists will appreciate the trove of skulls, skeletons, replica models and interactive animatronic dinosaurs in the collection. But it’s the fossils that are the only ones of their kind on display that really help our understanding of the prehistoric past.
Beautifully painted murals set the scene for reconstructions of prehistoric Earth replete with ginormous replicas of sauropods and tyrannosaurus that once roamed the Earth. The museum curators were inspired by the work of palaeontologists to piece together exhibitions and stories that compare the behaviour of different dinosaurs. Got a child obsessed with dinosaurs? Dinosaur-themed birthday parties are a thing.
Highlight: Meeting Stan, the larger-than-life 20-metre-long T-Rex Dinosaur that looms over the entrance to the Dinosaur Garden.
Cost: From $20
Address: 6 Gold Creek Rd, Nicholls, ACT
Walking around Old Parliament House is like being on a film set from the 1980s. It does a fine job as a set piece perhaps because it did play a leading role in Australian politics as the home of the Federal parliament between 1927 and 1988. But the legacy of the building does not rely solely on the events that took place there (although one can almost imagine those important moments… such as the dismissal of the Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government in 1975).
Old Parliament House served as a working parliament for about six decades, during a time of great change for Australia. The Museum of Australian Democracy now occupies Old Parliament House, and it’s worth taking a 45-minute tour to understand the historical and social value of the building.
Expect amusing anecdotes from the Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD) experience officers who tell stories about the staff scurrying around with fire extinguishers to put out fires lit by a certain pipe-smoking prime minister. They also touch on the inspiring speeches that took place here. And steer you toward rooms that present like portals into our political past.
One can almost imagine bumping into Bob Hawke walking through the hallowed halls. There’s even an ensuite where the hairspray favoured by our hirsute Hawkey is on display as well as his old-school telephone, sitting in its cradle. You can stay and play as part of The Chifley Experience at Hotel Kurrajong, which includes a tour of the MoAD and is one of the best places to stay in Canberra.
Highlight: The Prime Minister’s Office where Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke all served. The office is presented as it was during Hawke’s term of office. If only the walls could talk.
Cost: Entry is free
Address: 18 King George Terrace, Parkes, ACT
Canberra Railway Museum celebrates the golden age of rail travel. The national capital has a long history with the railways which were built to connect Canberra to the rest of the country. Learn all about the locomotives and carriages that were the preferred mode of transport for politicians who were toing and froing from parliament.
Forget Thomas the Tank Engine. Head here to help your kids let off some steam as the cabooses are the real deal. Sit and contemplate the passage of time onboard a steam locomotive that brought the first train to Canberra in 1914. Or gauge how the style of the sleeping car evolved from a lavish 1901 Pullman to the stylish Art Deco Southern Aurora.
The Railway Museum began life in 1975 when the Beyer-Garratt locomotive 6029 chugged into Canberra after being purchased for display at the National Museum of Australia. But the loco was not a good fit for the NMA so was sold to the founder of the fledgling railway museum for a measly $1.
Highlight: The AL class Pullman sleeping car. The car, built in 1901, briefly became a mobile dental clinic before being destroyed by fire. It was faithfully recreated after a long period in storage with original pressed metal ceilings, red cedar timberwork and elegant white upholstery.
Cost: Adults $10; 5-15 $5; Concession $7.50.
Address: 2 Geijera Place, Fyshwick, ACT
The Australian War Memorial’s (AWM) is a solemn place in which to reflect on Australia’s experience in war and operations. The sweeping, poppy-strewn Roll of Honour is unsurpassed. It bears the names of more than 103,000 fallen members of the Australian Defence Force, showcasting the consequences of war all too clearly. Search the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial.
The Memorial’s comprehensive galleries try to show the how, where and why behind Australia’s involvement in conflict and its enduring impact on our society. This profound blending of military history and personal stories is what the AWM does so well. Detailed through hosts of exhibitions, objects and artefacts, individual stories share the experience behind world-war narratives.
There’s no glorifying war here. Dioramas such as Semakh by artist Alexander McKenzie depict and interpret a brutal battle. Reconstructed examples of a homemade Anderson air-raid shelter confirm how deeply hostilities from afar have afflicted the country’s psyche over the years.
By honouring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and those who continue to serve our nation, the Australian War Memorial ensures their service is not forgotten. The Stone of Remembrance is one of the iconic landmarks at the Memorial, paying tribute to this sacrifice across generations.
The current development underway to expand and modernise the Memorial’s galleries aims to ensure the tradition of commemoration continues. The vision behind the project aims to ensure that recent servicemen and servicewomen are as equally recognised as those who came before them, and is seeking to share stories of what Australia does to prevent war and contribute to peace.
Highlight: Take a guided tour to get your bearings and hear war-time stories come to life.
Cost: Entry is free, but all visitors require a free timed ticket to enter the Memorial Galleries and to attend the Last Post Ceremony.
Address: Treloar Cres, Campbell, ACT
Canberra’s National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) is dedicated to the preservation and documentation of both motion pictures and recorded sounds. The NFSA contains archival footage, recordings from some of the country’s most prodigious talents as well as memorabilia that celebrates the rich history of Australian cinema.
The heritage-listed building in Acton is a national institution. Movie buffs will love wandering through the grand old building to see rare memorabilia, props and footage and audio-visual collections. The race is on to continue to digitise the vast collection which includes news film footage of the first Mardi Gras in Sydney and more than 4 million items indexed in curated collections.
Look inside the costume department of Australian films, discover recordings filed under the Sounds of Australia collection and celebrate the success and achievements of Australian creatives.
Highlight: Press rewind at the NFSA to enjoy everything from great moments in rugby league to oral histories of Hollywood. If it’s a rainy day, and you’re travelling with children in tow, you can tune in to old tourism footage of Australian cities.
Cost: Access to the main NFSA building is free for the two small exhibition spaces called Hive and The Marvellous Corricks, and daily programs are held throughout the day. Tickets for the Australians & Hollywood exhibition can be purchased online. Adults $14.50; $11.50 concession; and $7.50 for under 18s with children under four receiving free entry.
Address: McCoy Cct, Acton, ACT (just a 10-minute walk from the city)
The National Museum of Australia (NMA) building forms its own landscape of themes and colours. Located on its own peninsula, it is, all at once, out there and polarising, in that utterly Australian, love-it-or-hate-it Vegemite sort of way.
Like the exhibitions inside, the pieces of the puzzle are laid out in front of you, leaving you to interpret as you please. There are no dusty, ignored corners jammed with singular grand narratives; this is a social history project, woven from a fluid stream of small voices representing all heritages, cultures, quirks and mistakes.
The extensive First Australians gallery lays bare the spectrum of multiple, evolving views about Aboriginal Australia, from its ancient ingenuity to darker moments in history. You’ll want to exit via the gift shop here, too. It’s one of the best around for finding idiosyncratic pressies, from vintage balms to a Yoda-in-a-top-hat dinnerware set.
Highlight: The fascinating Eternity Gallery best represents the NMA’s method, with its biographical vignettes: the ‘mystery’ of Granny Locke and ‘loneliness’ as seen by Paquita Mawson, wife of explorer Sir Douglas.
Cost: General admission is free. Admission charges for special exhibitions and events vary.
Address: Lawson Cres, Acton, ACT
Reflecting on an interesting book, a glass of Canberra riesling in hand, is not what you’d expect to be doing in a library. But then, the National Library of Australia (NLA) does quite a few ‘un-library’ things. There is an eclectic range of great cafes for breakfast and brunch in Canberra. But not all of them have literary leanings. You’ll want to bookmark Bookplate Cafe for that reason. The library cafe offers lunch specials that include two courses and a drink.
It’s one of the few genuine destination libraries in the world: part book temple, part gallery and part architectural curiosity. The Treasures Gallery houses endless quirky bits and pieces to unearth, from Olympic torches to ancient maps, furniture and Beethoven’s life mask.
A vision of architect Walter Bunning’s version of Greece’s Parthenon, the NLA is stripped back of motifs, contradicted by 16 stained Belgian and French chunk-glass windows. Even without picking up a book, check-in for at least a couple of hours here.
Cost: Entry is free and the library also runs free daily tours.
Address: Parkes Pl W, Canberra, ACT
If you only had 72 hours in Canberra, you’d factor in a visit to the National Gallery of Australia. Opened by the late Queen Elizabeth II on 12 October 1982, the National Gallery of Australia is a destination in its own right. The comprehensive collection of works housed in our behemoth national gallery encompasses Australian, Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander, American and European, Asian and Pacific art. All up, there are about 166,000 works that make up the permanent collection.
The gallery’s vision is to ‘be a source of inspiration for the people of Australia.’ It was established in 1967 by the Australian Government as a national public art museum. The gallery relies on funding from the Commonwealth Government and actively seeks financial support from private and corporate sources.
The gallery also runs tours throughout the year, featuring stunning outdoor areas with art to explore, too. Plus, it hosts a multitude of family-friendly events throughout the year.
Highlight: Seeing Claude Monet’s Water Lilies and Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles: No. 11.
Cost: Entry to the gallery is free, though some major events are ticketed.
Address: Parkes Pl E, Parkes, ACT
The National Portrait Gallery is a hidden jewel in Canberra’s cultural crown. You’ll find a collection of significant portraits of famous and infamous Aussies from across the ages on show within the NPG’s jutting, soaring structure. Those featured are considered important in their field of endeavour or are people whose life sets them apart as an individual of long-term public interest.
The NPG, which opened in 1968, is moving with the times, with everything from exhibitions to events, live-streaming activations and apps. Take a guided tour of the gallery and you will be led to a portrait of Trucanini, Australia’s most celebrated Indigenous leader. You might also expect to see familiar faces such as singer Nick Cave, entertainer Barry Humphries and Mick Fanning. You can also check out legendary Australians such as Indonesian-Australian TV presenter Lee Lin Chin, and four-time Olympic champion Betty Cuthbert in the collection.
There are usually about 1,400 portraits on display, from sculptures to oils on canvas. Use the search tool on the NPA website to discover some of the artists and people who’ve made the cut.
Highlight: Many exhibitions run year-round, and the gallery hosts various tours that give visitors a sense of the Australian character in a way they may have never experienced
Cost: Entry to the gallery is free, though some major events are ticketed.
Address: King Edward Terrace, Parkes, ACT
The art on show in the backyard of Canberra resident Anne Masters is wide-ranging. Masters runs Canberra’s tiniest walk-in gallery and showcases everyone from up-and-coming designers to established artists. The Gallery of Small Things is a great snapshot of Canberra’s creative talent, while also offering a platform for artists and makers from the region to further their careers.
Visit the gallery in Wade St Watson and you will see a carefully curated exhibition of works in textiles, jewellery, photography, paintings and print media. Anne transformed her 1960s laundry into a tiny gallery so she could realise her dream of starting up workshops to assist artists with business basics.
Masters’ big idea, to celebrate all things small, continues to grow. Visit the gallery from Thursdays to Sundays between 11am and 4pm or by appointment.
Highlight: The fact you can shop online from the GOST website from the makers, designers and artists that Masters mentors.
Cost: Entry to the gallery and annual GOST show is free.
Address: 27 Wade St, Watson, ACT
Questacon is one of Canberra’s biggest draws for families. The national science and technology centre has mastered the art of creating tailored and interactive explorations of science. But it’s not all about fun (although that’s a huge part of it). The quest for Questacon is to create a brighter future by engaging young minds to think about science, technology and innovation.
There is a special learn and play centre that helps to spark curiosity in kids. Here, children can listen to inspired stories about science and innovation, make a stethoscope, put a fridge magnet to test and learn all about heat and insulation.
Highlight: The Spectacular Science Shows that use humour and storytelling to present the magic of science and technology.
Cost: Adult $24.50; Concession $18.90; Children U-16 $18.90; Family: $73.40
Address: Questacon, Ngunawal Country, King Edward Terrace, Canberra, ACT
Canberra Glassworks is both a glass studio and a gallery where you can observe the art of glass making and purchase bespoke pieces. It is the largest professional facility dedicated to studio glass in the country and is housed in the heritage-listed Kingston Powerhouse with support from the ACT Government.
Visit Canberra Glassworks to enjoy exhibitions, classes and tours that offer insight into the practices of artists working in contemporary glass art, craft and design. Learn to make your own creations in glass using a range of techniques in their state-of-the-art workshops.
Try blowing in the Hotshop, fusing in the kiln, sculpting with flame, casting from moulds or bending with neon. Peer into the Engine Room to see the artists in residence developing projects that range from pendant lights and wine decanters to experimental installations and collaborations for exhibition.
Canberra Glassworks has developed classes and workshops that appeal to the complete novice through to those with experience who want to grow their skills. The classes are led by experts in their field and include everything from half-day beadmaking courses to term-long workshops to sculpt your own chess set.
Take a free Saturday heritage tour of the Kingston Powerhouse to learn more about the history of Canberra’s first public building which celebrated its centenary in 2015.
Highlight: Seeing artists in action turning molten glass into bespoke objects.
Cost: Admission is by donation. A behind-the-scenes tour of the Canberra Glassworks costs $20 per person or $30 per person with the addition of a glass tile-making class.
Address: 11 Wentworth Avenue, Kingston, ACT
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Add the Scott Leggo Gallery to your list. Scott is an award winning Aust landscape photographer and veteran.
They are listed with VisitCanberra and website scottleggo.com
Scott Leggo Gallery is 45 Jardine St Kingston
– all things Australian made – artworks and stunning gifts too.