Once the domain of politicians and public servants, our national capital is now the capital of cool with chic cafes, bustling neighbourhoods and serious culture cachet.
The tired old stereotype that Canberra is filled with public servants and little else has been well and truly put to rest in the last decade as the city has become a hotbed of creativity, a serious foodie destination and a home ownership haven for those looking for an alternative to the bustle (and prices) of our coastal capitals. Add to this the fact that its well-planned streetscape is littered with sights and attractions and you have the makings of a perfect city.
Integral to the city’s appeal is the fact that it is so easy to get around, with wide roads, short distances and lots of green spaces navigable by foot or bike.
Get around like a local
To get an idea of how the locals live, head to Lake Burley Griffin. The pathways at its edges are constantly busy with walkers and Lycra-wearing riders (hire a bike to do the same), or you can take to the waters themselves by hiring a kayak, boat or stand-up paddle board.
There are plenty of other opportunities to spend time outdoors: the National Arboretum Canberra on the western outskirts of the city boasts living forest and verdant gardens, as well as the Pod Playground, a kids’ space made up of giant acorns they can climb in and on.
The Australian National Botanic Gardens is also a lovely spot to stroll, with its lush Rainforest Gully the perfect spot to find respite from the summer heat.
Surprisingly, the National Gallery Of Australia also has a number of outdoor exhibits worth heading outside for: James Turrell’s Within Without skyscape installation shifts and changes based on the natural light that inhabits it, and as a result comes with a daily guide to optimum viewing times, while Fiona Hall’s Fern garden uses Dicksonia antarctica tree ferns to create a lush, living work of art.
Blue Poles by Artist Jackson Pollock at the National Gallery of Australia. (Credit: Tourism Australia)
Spend the day outdoors
Of course, the city’s ultimate outdoor attraction bursts into life every spring when Floriade transforms the landscape into a sea of fragrant kaleidoscope blooms. The Canberra Centenary Trail presents another opportunity to breathe the fresh air and see the sights on a 145-kilometre circular bike and walking course around the city.
It’s broken up into sections if you don’t have the week required to walk its entirety. And possibly the most ethereal way to get out and about (and up) when in Canberra is in the basket of a Hot Air Balloon, gently floating over its expanse as the sun rises on another day in the capital of cool.
Hot Air Ballooning over Parliament House, Canberra. (Credit: Canberra Tourist Commission)
How to spend 72 hours in Canberra
The Canberra region is a prodigious wine-making location, with more than 140 vineyards and some 30 cellar doors. Head to Murrumbateman to do a leisurely bike tour to sample the wares.
If you can’t make it to the annual Canberra Truffle Festival, head to The Truffle Farm from May to August to join a truffle hunt, followed by a six-course truffle-laden degustation lunch.
A 25-minute drive from the city delivers you to Poachers Pantry, where the lovely farmhouse restaurant serves meats cured and smoked on site, including its smoked lamb cutlets.
The walk to the top of Mt Ainslie is a treat for birdwatchers and wildlife lovers, but to really get the best out of it plan your visit to take in the spectacular views at sunrise and sunset.
Wonder at the night sky at one of the Australian National University’s private stargazing nights at the iconic Mount Stromlo Observatory or join one of its popular public astronomy nights.
Mount Stromlo Observatory in Canberra.
When it comes to seriously stylish accommodation at a surprising price point, Canberra spoils with choice.
Bicicletta Restaurant at Peppers Peppers Gallery Hotel, Canberra.
The roster of hotels offering up exuberant design elements, unique inclusions and gracious services includes Abode Kingston, Midnight Hotel, East Hotel, Little National Hotel, Peppers Gallery Hotel, Ovolo Nishi, Hotel Realm and Burbury Hotel.
The Ovolo Nishi Hotel in Canberra. (Credit: Photox – Canberra Photography Services)
Canberra’s distinctive, personality-filled suburbs are dining microcosms, reflecting the city’s slavish pursuit of good food. Head to New Acton, Manuka or Kingston Foreshore and you will find clusters of interesting restaurants (and bars) serving up cuisines from far and wide.
The densest concentration of dining options can be found in Braddon, where the fuss of being the place to be seen has settled into a less sceney, more familiar ‘best neighbourhood in the city’ kind of vibe.
Trailblazers who moved to Lonsdale Street are still going strong – the likes of Eightysix, Italian & Sons and Bentspoke Brewing Co. – and have been joined by cafes such as Rye, with its healthy Scandi-influenced menu, and a bevy of jovial burger joints including The Greasy Monkey and Milky Lane.
And, if you are in the mood to splash some cash, the city has fine dining covered too: try Sage Dinging Rooms and sibling Mint Garden Bar, which harvest organic produce from the Sage Farm; the super-cool pan-Asian Xo, Rubicon, which turns 21 in 2021; the exquisitely executed Raku; and the always excellent Aubergine.
Given its proliferation of cultural sites of national importance, there is a long list of essentials to work your way through during a visit to the nation’s capital. Plan to see all of them in at least a day –and then plan to return to lavish more time on each one.
Start in Parkes at the National Gallery of Australia and make your way around in a loop taking in the National Archives of Australia, Museum of Australian Democracy, The National Library Of Australia and Questacon. Then head over the lake to the National Museum of Australia and Australian War Memorial.
The Australian War Memorial in Canberra. (Credit: Australian War Memorial)
While Canberra is made for walking with all those lakeside pathways, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, a 45-minute drive from the centre of the city, is the perfect choice for a ramble amid nature. With its 22 marked trails, from 15-minute jaunts to full-day hikes, the ultimate drawcard is the chance to spot Australia’s big five: Koala, Platypus, Kangaroo, Emu and Wombat.
While much has been made of Braddon’s elevation to hop hood status, with cafes and shopping galore, the outer suburb of Fyshwick is fast transforming from industrial or interesting, with Capital Brewing Co., Wildflour and an outlet of Brodburger taking up residence.
Wildflour café in Fyshwick, Canberra.
Conscious Traveller tip
Take a bush ride with Burnelee Excursions on Horseback to explore Picaree Hill, a pretty 400-hectare patch of remnant and regenerating vegetation on the outskirts of the city. Managed in order to save the plant and animal species found there, and establish a bush corridor, Picaree Hill represents a significant biodiversity site in the area.