Canberra has become one of the country's most engaging travel destinations, with plenty to offer history buffs, culture vultures, foodies and wine lovers in equal measure. Here's a checklist of ten amazing things to do, thanks to Choice Hotels.
You may not be too keen on the politics, but there’s a lot to love about a visit to Canberra.
The nation’s capital is a destination of world class museums and galleries, fascinating historical attractions, fabulous cuisine and cool climate wines, and an all-too-delightful setting around gorgeous Lake Burley Griffin. Prepare to go into patriotic overdrive as you ricochet from one national monument and cultural facility to the next, always within sight of the giant Australian flag that flies high above the ‘house on the hill’. And who knows; by the end of your visit, even the politics may have grown on you.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Canberra on a first visit.
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1. Take in the view from Mount Ainslie
Located right beside the city centre, and at 842 metres high, the Mount Ainslie Lookout offers a breathtaking panorama of what evolved from American architect Walter Burley Griffin’s vision for the capital. The implementation of his plan actually took many decades and was changed and adapted along the way (for example, Burley Griffin envisaged a much more geometric form for his eponymous lake). Your eye will automatically follow the axis from the Australian War Memorial, along Anzac Parade, across the lake (formed by the damming of the Molonglo River), over Reconciliation Place to Old Parliament House, and up to new Parliament House on Capital Hill. It’s actually designed to be looked at from the other direction, so try and do that sometime during your stay.
Choose a good day to head up the mountain, as it can have its head in the clouds, literally. The drive from the city centre will take you about 15 minutes.
2. Pay your respects at the Australian War Memorial
There are few museums or monuments in the world as regal or emotive as the Australian War Memorial. Dedicated to all Australians who have served in the armed forces or lost their lives in armed conflict, this incredible facility is currently undergoing a significant expansion (due to be completed in 2028) that will increase exhibition space and see the addition of a research centre. What won’t be touched is the central Commemorative Courtyard, with its domed Hall of Memory and Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier at one end, the glistening Pool of Reflection and Roll of Honour halls. Time becomes an abstract concept here, as you listen to a range of voices reciting the names of those who have given their lives for their country.
In the surrounding exhibition halls, you’ll find detailed displays on all the armed conflicts that the country has participated in. Give yourself the best part of a day to try and do it justice. Entry to the Memorial is free.
3. Walk in the footsteps of PMs past at Old Parliament House
While it would be naive to think that politics was less bruising back in the day when Old Parliament House was the home of our federal government, it was certainly cosier. Designed by Commonwealth government architect John Smith Murdoch in the Stripped Classical style, and completed in 1927, the low rise provisional parliament building was meant to house politicians and public servants numbering in the hundreds; by the 1980s more than 3,000 people worked there.
Today the building is open to the public as the Museum of Australian Democracy, and is essentially one large time capsule. The two legislative chambers are obvious must-sees, along with the Prime Minister’s office, which was last occupied by Bob Hawke. The tiny offices and ‘snugs’ of his staffers have been left to look as though everyone got up from their desks in June 1988 and marched out the door and up the hill to new Parliament House without a backward glance. Long silent typewriters, Dictaphones, reading glasses and cardigans hanging on the backs of office chairs seemingly wait patiently for their return. Prepare to get a bit nostalgic for a simpler time.
4. Visit the National Gallery of Australia
From Old Parliament House it’s an easy, leafy walk through the Parliamentary Triangle to many of the capital’s most prestigious cultural and social institutions, including the National Gallery of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Library of Australia, the High Court of Australia, and Questacon — the National Science and Technology Centre. The National Gallery of Australia is located lakeside and is a must-visit, particularly to see its staggering holding of Indigenous art. The poignant installation in the foyer of 200 hollow log coffins from Central Arnhem Land was commissioned by the gallery to mark Australia’s bicentenary in 1988.
While the emphasis is, understandably, very much on homegrown work, tucked up on the top floor you’ll find some of the gallery’s international pieces, including, of course, the famous abstract expressionist Blue Poles by Jackson Pollack. The Whitlam government paid a then scandalous 1.3 million Australian dollars for the work in 1973. It’s on permanent display.
5. Admire glass art at Canberra Glassworks
Just a short distance from the NGA is Canberra’s oldest public building — the Kingston Powerhouse. Also designed by John Smith Murdoch, this hulking edifice closed as a power plant back in 1957 and 50 years later Canberra Glassworks moved in. This is the only cultural facility in Australia dedicated to contemporary glass art. It’s a production studio on an industrial scale and visitors get to observe working resident artists fashioning their fantastic creations at temperatures in excess of 500 degrees Celsius. It’s hot work for the artists, but endlessly fascinating to watch, and the early 20th century setting only adds to the spectacle. Many of the pieces are available for purchase in the design store. Canberra Glassworks offers a free guided tour of the building on Saturday mornings.
6. Get upright on two wheels
OK, so if you’re one of the uninitiated, secretly, you’ve always wanted to ride a Segway, right? The good news is that anyone can master these zippy two-wheel chariots, so why not do it on your visit to Canberra? Seg Glide Ride operates from a base by the lake in the Parliamentary Triangle, and offers guided tours that take in all the highlights of the area, including Old Parliament House, Reconciliation Place and the Australian of the Year Walk. Despite some initial concerns about ending up in the drink, mastering the Segway before our tour turned out to be a breeze, and guide Keira told us that the oldest guest they’ve ever had was 91. There goes your excuse.
7. Cruise Lake Burley Griffin
As you buzz along by the lake, you may spot a jaunty cruise boat bobbing up and down in front of the High Court. Lake Burley Griffin Cruises runs one-hour sightseeing cruises, and at $23pp (at the time of writing) this has be one of the best value things to do in the city. Owner/skipper Jim provides live commentary and he’s a fountain of knowledge about the capital and its key sights. Speaking of fountains, you’ll get a good view of the Captain Cook Memorial Jet, along with the National Museum of Australia, Commonwealth Avenue Bridge and the expansive Commonwealth Park. And what do you get the city that has everything? Try a National Carillon with 57 giant bronze bells. It was a gift from the Brits to celebrate Canberra’s 50th anniversary.
8. Enjoy paddock-to-plate cuisine at Pialligo Estate
Canberra’s dining scene just goes from strength to strength and there are lots of superb eateries in the CBD and fringe precincts of New Acton and Braddon. One unmissable dining experience is a short drive from the action, but well worth the effort or Uber fare. Pialligo Estate is a self-saucing culinary experience, in that much of what you see on your plate comes from the estate itself. It incorporates river flat grazing land, a market garden, orchard, vineyard, olive grove, and smallgoods smokehouse. Prepare to be wowed.
9. Do a wine, beer and distilling tour
If you’re partial to a fermented, brewed or distilled libation, you have come to the right place. Canberra’s wine making, craft brewing and boutique distilling scene is huge, and while you could drive yourself around on a fact finding/tasting mission, it might be best to let someone else take the wheel. Dave’s Tours offers an afternoon tour that rolls the best of all three industries into one relaxed experience. The tour convenes at the Bentspoke Brewing Company’s brewpub in Braddon, where you’ll learn some of the history of brewing and taste four or five of the brewery’s top drops. From there, it’s on to one of the 30 or so winery cellars doors within close proximity to the city. We visited Mount Majura Wines for a tasting and matching cheese platter (which was an unexpected treat). The red clay soil here produces characterful whites and distinctive reds, including the flagship tempranillo and experimental varieties like mondeuse.
Our final stop was the Big River Distilling Company in Fyshwick, where host Clyde gave us an engaging introduction to his artisanal spirits. Wherever the stops are on the day of your tour, they’re sure to be memorable.
10. Go where the wild things are
Tucked away on the western side of the city, and just a bonsai pebble’s throw from the National Arboretum (which includes a popular collection of the miniature trees), families will love the National Zoo and Aquarium. This beautifully presented wildlife facility is privately owned and home to some of Africa’s most iconic species. See lions, tigers, cheetahs, giraffes white rhinos, zebras and meerkats, alongside all your favourite native critters. The zoo offers a range of small group animal encounters, which cost extra but help fund several local and international animal conservation projects.
Where to stay in Canberra
Quality Hotel Dickson
The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) is made up of number of ‘districts’, and for most visitors there are few reasons to venture too far from the city centre (Civic) in North Canberra, or neighbouring South Canberra (home to the parliamentary precinct). Belconnen is one notable exception as it’s home to the Australian Institute of Sport; the suburb of Dickson just north of Civic is another, because of its plethora of Asian-style restaurants and bustling cafes. It’s a ten minute drive from the CBD, or a short tram ride along Northbourne Avenue.
That makes a stay at the Quality Hotel Dickson a doable option even for those that don’t have a car, and the benefits are many. The hotel is part of a club complex that includes a bistro, café, lounge, wine bar and bottle shop, and gaming facilities. The guest rooms are large, contemporary in style, and offer room service from the bistro. The in-house Wi-Fi is fast and both it and the parking beneath the complex are complimentary.
Dickson is also ideally placed for those arriving by car from Sydney and is less than 15 minutes’ drive from the airport. In addition to its many eateries, the precinct has a supermarket, post office, petrol station, and various other services.
Top Oz Tours offers a great range of Canberra 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.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Canberra? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
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.