Explore Canberra to experience Australian culture and history at superb monuments and galleries. It's also a city surrounded by parkland and native bush.
By Georgia Rickard
As Australia's capital city (and the home of Parliament House), Canberra plays host to a community of residents who've relocated from larger cities such as Melbourne and Sydney to work in politics, government and related industries such as media. Add a large student population (some of Australia's most prestigious universities are located here) and a number of renowned galleries and museums, and the result is a small but cosmopolitan city with a great food scene and plenty of creative flair.
- Immerse yourself in the arts at renowned galleries and local craft markets
- Feast on gourmet cuisine in a number of dining precincts
- Celebrate the city's many festivals
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Seasonal weather in Canberra
Crisp, dry weather makes Canberra perfect for hot air ballooning.
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Top things to do in Canberra
Wine and dine around Canberra
Canberra's reputation as a culinary destination is relatively newfound. The city has played host to several excellent fine dining restaurants, such as Chairman & Yip, for decades. But in the past 10 years Canberra has found its own culinary identity based around an emerging cool climate wine region (Lerida Estate is particularly memorable) and an explosion of mid-tier eateries reflecting residents' changing tastes. Head to ONA Coffee to try a particularly excellent flat white (the cafe is owned by local Sasa Sesic, who won the World Barista Championship in 2015). Eightysix offers upscale modern Australian in hipster surrounds. For a dining experience that encapsulates modern Canberra's current tastes, book ahead for a table at the city's hottest restaurant, Monster.
Shop at the Old Bus Depot markets
Canberra's large student population and flourishing media industry has resulted in a lively creative scene, and one of the best ways to experience this is at the weekly Old Bus Depot Markets. From hipster clothes and homewares to delicious organic produce and excellent coffee, the markets are packed with interesting things to buy, eat and sample, and are a wonderful place to socialise with locals every Sunday from 10am to 4pm. The handmade ice cream at Home Made Sweet Delights is a standout. If it's not market day, head toward Lonsdale Street, Braddon, where you'll find locally designed art, jewellery, homewares and fashion on a lively strip.
Stay at a design hotel
Several headline hotels have opened recently in Canberra, in particular Ovolo Nishi, a moody, retro-Australian luxury hotel located in the architecturally beautiful Nishi building. Nearby is QT Canberra, a playful, politically themed five-star stay with a designer pop-art aesthetic. Little National is a sophisticated 120-room affair of polished concrete and minimalism, while five-star Hotel Realm is essentially its own lifestyle precinct, encompassing several upmarket restaurants and bars.
Escape to nature near the city
The heavily forested valley of Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve is only 40 minutes from Canberra, but it teems with wildlife, including emus, kangaroos and cockatoos. Even closer to the city (20 minutes away) is Uriarra Crossing. Walk, picnic or fish on this short, lovely section of the Murrumbidgee River's epic 1600 kilometre (994 mile) journey from the Australian Alps. If you really want to get up close and personal with wildlife however, consider a stay at Jamala Wildlife Lodge. This incredible new hotel - located within Canberra's National Zoo and Aquarium, right in the centre of the city - has bungalows with glass walls that look onto animal enclosures, and suites in treehouses, with balconies that overlook the zoo's giraffes.
Try a FreakShake
FreakShakes took over Instagram – and menus around the globe – after a Canberra café started the trend in 2015, and there's no better place to try one than at the original café. Pâtissez serves up a changing roster of flavours such as the 'Like a Velvet' (layers of raspberry gel-filled red velvet cake, freshly whipped cream, cheese frosting and raspberry coulis, drizzled with whipped ice cream and full cream milk, topped with freeze-dried raspberries and fresh strawberries), and the Snickers Shake (salted caramel pastry, vanilla bean ice cream, fresh whipped cream, homemade pecan pie and melted salted caramel drizzled on top). You won't leave hungry.
Explore beautiful galleries
As Australia's capital city, Canberra houses many of the nation's most important art, including a priceless collection of Aboriginal art. The National Gallery of Australia is Australia's pre-eminent public compiler of art, housing more than 7500 Australian, Asian and Aboriginal artworks across 13 different galleries. Nearby is the very cool National Portrait Gallery, featuring a wildly varied body of portraiture (from Mick Jagger to Barry Humphries), which originally came into being as a temporary exhibition called Uncommon Australians.
See democracy in action at Parliament House
Australia's Parliament House is a gorgeous example of modern architecture, which was only unveiled in 1988. Visitors can take a free guided tour through the building every day at 9.30am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm and 3.30pm. When Parliament is in session you can watch Question Time (from 2pm onwards), at which government ministers are questioned by other members of parliament. The building also houses a number of exhibitions and public galleries.
Admire the stunning sights of Floriade
The annual Floriade festival takes place over the course of one month between September and October each year (exact dates vary), and attracts flower lovers and garden experts from around the world for its colourful displays. Across 8000 square metres (two acres) of inner city parkland, more than one million bulbs bloom into gorgeous, carefully synchronised displays of colour and texture in what is Australia's biggest celebration of spring. It's accompanied by a lively program of night-time entertainment, and beautifully illuminated flowerbeds, during Floriade NightFest. Entry to see the flowers is free for the entire month.
See the National Arboretum
If you appreciate the beauty of nature, Canberra's gorgeous National Arboretum is also worth a visit. This 250 hectare (618 acre) patch of land was decimated by bushfires between 2001 and 2003; the city held a nationwide call out for architects to redesign the area. The chosen design features 100 forests and 100 gardens focusing on threatened, rare, and symbolic trees from around the world along with Australia's national bonsai tree collection. The Arboretum also plays host to a café and restaurant, many picnic areas and several Instagram-worthy pieces of public art, including an enormous sentence from a well-known Australian poem, My Country, scrawled across the landscape in letters that stand taller than the average adult.
Drift over a dreamy lake
Canberra has virtually been built around Lake Burley Griffin, a pretty expanse of water used for leisure activities including yachting, kayaking, paddle boating and windsurfing. There are several ways you can experience the sights of the lake, but one of the best is surely an early morning hot-air balloon ride over its surface. There are few cities on earth where hot air ballooning is consistently available - most do not have sufficient open spaces to offer hot air ballooning every day, since the balloons must be able to land wherever the wind takes them - but Canberra's many parks and grassed areas ensure that this lovely pursuit is readily available regardless of wind direction. Take a ride with either Balloon Aloft or Dawn Drifters and enjoy sights that may include not just the lake, but the city, Parliament House, national parks and the National Arboretum. Alternatively, hire a bicycle and cycle around the lake's 35 kilometre (22 mile) perimeter - an easy, relatively flat pathway which will take you past cafés, parks, pretty bays and Canberra attractions such as the National Gallery of Australia. There are many cycling pathways around Lake Burley Griffin that show you various angles of Canberra and Cycle Canberra has a range of bikes, including tandem bikes and trailers for the kids, and they'll even deliver them to your hotel.
How to get there
International flights fly directly to Canberra Airport from Singapore and Wellington. There are also frequent domestic flights from major Australian capital cities. Canberra is a three hour drive from Sydney and a 6 1/2 hour drive from Melbourne.