Nominated by Lonely Planet as one of the ten must-visit cities in the world in 2018, Canberra has stepped up to take its place among Australia’s top travel destinations.
Our purpose-built federal capital has changed beyond all recognition over the past three decades. What was once largely a bureaucratic enclave occupied by a transitory workforce, is now a dignified, refined and leafy city — home to 400,000 people and packed with world-class cultural institutions and monuments that reflect the country’s national pride.
With easy access to fabulous fresh produce, Canberra also has first-class culinary credentials. Foodies will find no end of top-notch nosh on offer, and cool climate wine buffs are also in for a treat.
This Canberra city guide is packed with ideas for things to see and do. Enjoy your visit.
Watch our video of ten top things to do in Canberra:
Those wanting to visit an arts facility with broad generational appeal should head to the National Portrait Gallery. It’s packed with portraits of those who have played a key role in shaping Australia’s cultural identity, including bushrangers, artists, actors, musicians, pollies and sporting heroes. To keep the peace with any budding Einsteins in your brood, head across Reconciliation Place to Questacon (the National Science and Technology Centre) afterwards.
You can watch local creatives in action at the superb Canberra Glassworks. Housed in Canberra’s oldest public building, the Kingston Powerhouse, the facility is dedicated wholly to glass art. Resident artists work up a sweat in the hotshop, before putting the finishing touches to their creations in the coldshop. There’s an exhibition space, school holiday classes, and a very fine gift shop to explore on the way out.
Café culture is alive and well in Canberra too. Check out Barrio Collective Coffee, Rye, tiny Kyo Coffee Project, and Lonsdale Street Roasters in Braddon. At the latter, they roast their beans with infrared rays (which sounds impressive at the very least!). You’ll also find great coffee around The Australian National University (ANU) precinct, New Acton, the Kingston Foreshore, and in leafy Manuka.
Canberra for history lovers
The development of the nation’s capital began around 1911 and continued for several decades.
To appreciate young American architect Walter Burley Griffin’s masterstroke of urban planning and design, head up to Mount Ainslie Lookout for a bird’s eye view across the city. If you’re an early riser, the view from the lookout at sunrise is truly sublime.
You’ll be able to see both the old and new parliament houses. Old Parliament House is open to the public as the Museum of Australian Democracy and will forever occupy a special place in the country’s psyche, thanks largely to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s famous quip on the front steps about Governor General Sir John Kerr following the Dismissal in 1975. Stand in Gough’s footsteps and gaze across the Aboriginal Tent Embassy towards the lake and Australian War Memorial in the distance. It’s quite stirring.
New Parliament House on Capital Hill was designed by New York architects Mitchell, Giurgola & Thorp and opened in 1988. There are a variety of free tours on offer and the chance to watch pollies behaving badly during Question Time. You can book tickets for the cross examination by the opposition by giving the Serjeant-at-Arms a call on (02) 6277 4889 before 12.45pm on the day they are required. Check that Parliament is sitting first.
Great places to eat in Canberra
The capital is generously seasoned with top notch eateries.
If you’re looking to push the boat out on a special occasion, book a table for two at Pialligo Estate — situated 15-minutes’ drive east of the city centre. It offers true paddock-to-plate cuisine, with almost all ingredients produced on the picturesque 86-acre estate or sourced from the surrounding area.
For innovative but relaxed dining in the CBD, try Temporada for tapas and shared plates (the same team are behind fine dining doyenne Aubergine in Griffith). Neighbouring New Acton’s Rebel Rebel is a fairly recent addition to the dining scene and is well worth seeking out. The interior incorporates a dramatic roofline of reclaimed timber (which was also used to make the tables). Chef Andrew McConnell’s menu of Modern Oz is equally memorable.
Over in Braddon, Italian and Sons serves up great Italian cuisine in a stylish and sophisticated setting. Bacaro wine bar is located behind the main restaurant and is perfect for an intimate impromptu gathering. Enter through the unmarked door in the car park, and enjoy a wood-fired pizza and a fine chianti by the open fire. Just a stone’s throw from there, fabulous Rizla revels in the return-to-favour of the reisling. There are lots of other options on the wine list, but these guys love matching local rieslings with their divine culinary creations. Put yourself in Chef’s hands via the $60pp tasting menu.
Chifley’s Bar and Grill at the historic Hotel Kurrajong is ground zero for a great steak — with eighteen different cuts on the menu. Savour your scotch fillet in the sophisticated surroundings of this fabulous hotel, which opened back in 1926 and has played host to the who’s who of Aussie politics ever since.
For casual eats in nearby Kingston, food-van-success-story Brodburger has a permanent home behind Canberra Glassworks. These are without doubt the most popular buns in town, so get there early to avoid the crushing queues. The Brod team have gone back to their roots in recent times, opening a number of new van locations around town to complement the Kingston HQ.
If you love a top drop with your fine fare, you’re in luck. There are some 30 winery cellar doors within easy reach of the city. Book a wine tour and let someone else take care of both the driving and decisions on where to visit. It will leave you free to focus on taste-testing the best of the region, including its crisp rieslings and medium bodied shiraz.
Where to shop in Canberra
One of the boons of having some many museums and galleries in one city is that there’s no shortage of design shops to browse in on the way out.
Both the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery have fabulous stores packed with on-trend homewares and accessories, while Canberra Glassworks offers a wonderful range of hand-crafted glass objet d’art.
Canberra hosts an array of regular and semi-regular markets. If you can time your visit just right, one of the best options is Handmade Canberra, which is held quarterly at Exhibition Park. Around 300 stallholders showcase a swag of Australian handmade goods. Shop for homewares, gifts, fashion, and gourmet foodstuffs.
Ways to relax in Canberra
Exploring the parks and squares between New Parliament House and Lake Burley Griffin is a delightful way to while away a day in the capital.
While the precinct is entirely walkable, why stride when you can ride? Join Seg Glide Ride on a Segway tour, which will see you whirring past the National Library, Portrait Gallery, Questacon, Old Parliament House, and the plaques that line the Australians of the Year Walk.
It was always envisaged by Burley Griffin that Canberra would be a ‘garden city’, and the historic Yarralumla Nursery played a key role in bringing that vision to life. 2013 saw the opening of the National Arboretum at the western end of Lake Burley Griffin. The living exhibition of significant, rare and endangered trees covers 250 hectares, divided into one hundred different zones. The bonsai and penjing centre is particularly popular with visitors.
While you’re in this neck of the woods, drop by the excellent National Zoo and Aquarium. A day visit to the zoo can be extended to an overnight stay at the fabulous Jamala Wildlife Lodge. This is seriously mind-blowing. The all-inclusive packages include luxury African lodge-style accommodation, gourmet meals and guided visits to the animal enclosures.
Where to stay in Canberra
Hotel Kurrajong Canberra
The historic Hotel Kurrajong Canberra in Barton has been part of Australia’s political landscape for almost a century, having hosted pollies past and present, and served as the residence of our 16th Prime Minister — Ben Chifley. The hotel received a new lease of life in 2014 following a change of ownership and extensive renovation.
The building itself dates back to 1926. It was designed by John Smith Murdoch — chief architect for the Commonwealth of Australia from 1919 to 1929 (who also designed Old Parliament House) — and is firmly in keeping with the Stripped Classical style that’s reflected in much of Canberra’s early architecture.
Many of the hotel’s amazing period features were retained during the renovation. From the Art Deco elegance of the foyer lounge with its open fireplace, to the supremely comfortable guest rooms and suites — 26 of which are located in the Heritage wing — the hotel is endlessly charming.
In the evening, enjoy a tipple overlooking the garden courtyard, which was laid out in 1926 by Thomas Charles Weston — the Commonwealth horticulturist of the day. Stay on for dinner at the hotel’s aforementioned Chifley’s Bar and Grill.
Top Oz Tours offers a great range of Canberra day tours, guided experiences, and attraction tickets and passes. There are no booking or credit card fees when you book through us, and you'll have access to the widest choice of activities and most competitive prices.
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About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of Top Oz Tours and Travel Ideas, and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger, and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.