An ultra-planned capital city of endless roundabouts and spacious suburbia, unfairly-maligned Canberra is generally seen as a handy way of keeping the politicians away from the rest of the Australian populace.
But it has two major strings to its bow – culture and nature. The museum collection is excellent, far surpassing that of any other Australian city, and Canberra is known as ‘the bush capital’ for a good reason. The mountains and national parks are a short drive out of the city centre; kangaroos can routinely be found bounding around leafier built-up areas. The artificially-created Lake Burley-Griffin, meanwhile, forms a spectacular-looking recreational heart.
If you look in the right places, though, Canberra is starting to get unexpectedly cool. In Braddon, old car yards have been turned into little independent shops and cafés, while the NewActon precinct has filled daring architecture with hot restaurants, hotels and an arthouse cinema.
A comfortable bed
The Hyatt (Canberra.park.hyatt, 00 61 2 6270 1234) is the most historic hotel in town – the original wing was built to house the workers constructing Canberra’s original Parliament House. Rooms are spacious and marble-drenched, while you’ve a high chance of bumping into an ambassador at the gym next to the tennis court. Doubles from A$315.
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The QT (www.qtcanberra.com.au; 00 61 2 6247 6244) is lots of fun – deliberately playing on Canberra’s political image with room numbers made to look like ballot boxes and mirrors surrounded by cut-outs of world leaders’ faces. Doubles from A$155.
The most staggering property in town, though, is Hotel Hotel (www.hotel-hotel.com, 00 61 2 6287 6287). It looks like a giant Jenga kit, is moodily lit and has engagingly edgy details such as the unexpectedly potty-mouthed fire evacuation signs. Doubles from A$248.
Find your feet
www.aph.gov.au, 00 61 2 6277 7111) is a remarkable building, not least for the amount of access the public has to it. It’s possible to wander around pretty much where you like, including on the grass-topped roof. The free guided tours that leave three times a day are well worth taking to understand the thinking behind the architecture and decoration.’s Parliament House (
From there, stroll through the Parliamentary Quarter for a cluster of big, important museums. The National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery are pretty good, but the National Library (www.nla.gov.au, 00 61 2 6262 1111) is the big surprise. It contains hugely important documents from Australia’s history – including Captain Cook’s log from when he discovered the country in 1770 and what’s thought to be the first letter written by an Aboriginal Australian.
Cross Lake Burley-Griffin by walking over the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, and head to the National Museum of Australia (www.nma.gov.au, 00 61 2 6208 5000) on the Acton Peninsula. It does a brilliant job of tackling the continent’s history and geography, themed around the people and places that have helped to shape it.
Meet the locals
Much of the relatively miniscule (by Australian standards) Australian Capital Territory is taken up by the Namadgi National Park. It’s covered in glorious sub-Alpine bushland, with plenty of hiking trails to disappear down and vertiginous lookouts to trek up to. It’s wild enough to ensure you’ll not see many people – but there’s a strong chance of encountering the prodigious local kangaroo population.
Book a table
A Baker (www.abaker.com.au; 00 61 2 6287 6150) in the NewActon precinct manages to pull-off a combination of top-notch bakery and hip restaurant. The décor’s arresting – a fire ripped through in 2011 and they simply kept the burn marks on the walls for a hyper-industrial look – and the heavily seasonal dishes have a diligent focus on using local ingredients. The likes of Snowy River trout with yellow beets, brioche and kipfler potato will set you back $29.
Ottoman (www.ottomancuisine.com.au, 00 61 2 6208 5000) meanwhile, offers exemplary Turkish cuisine in an utterly gorgeous park pavilion-style building. The A$80 degustation menu is the best way to work through the dishes.
On Sundays, the Old Bus Depot Markets (www.obdm.com.au, 00 61 2 6295 3331) in the newly developed Kingston Foreshore area are a great place for gift shopping. The traders offer everything from sheepskin slippers to hand-made glass trinkets.
The city’s emerging hip side is best found at Lonsdale Street Traders (27 Lonsdale Street) in Braddon, where a grouping of tiny shops has taken over a former tyre warehouse. Contemporary jewellery, bohemian fashion and skateboard gear rub shoulders.
What to avoid
If driving up from(as many people do), don’t let the phenomenally boring Hume Highway lull you into the trap of going too fast. Speed cameras and radar gun-wielding traffic police are commonly sighted on the way, eager to generate fines for anyone going above 110km/h.
The Australian War Memorial (www.awm.gov.au; 00 61 2 6243 4211) is a place to get lost in for hours. It tackles the last century-or-so of conflict, particularly emphasising the two World Wars, with an Australian slant. Photos of emaciated prisoners of war, dioramas of national character-forming battles and personal tales of bravery prove utterly absorbing. Get there for the reliably moving Last Post ceremony, just before closing at 5pm. The story of one name from over 100,000 that died serving their country is read out before the lone bugler pierces the sombre silence.
This guide was researched in September 2014, and originally published in The National.
All content copyright David Whitley.