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Visiting Canberra – A City Guide
Australia’s capital city, Canberra blends parks and nature reserves with monumental architecture in a planned city setting. There’s lots to explore, with national institutions and museums such as Parliament House and the National Gallery of Australia offering lively programmes for visitors, a thriving restaurant and café scene and a vibrant home-grown cultural community.
Canberra: city layout
Canberra’s centrepiece is artificial Lake Burley Griffin, named after the city’s planner, ringed by parkland and spanned by two bridges. You’ll find major sights including the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of Australia dotted around the shore, and the shopping and dining hub known as Civic to the north. Parliament House stands on Capital Hill to the south.
Outside the centre there are several sprawling, mainly residential, districts, each with its own town centre, separated by swathes of bushland.
The entire city stretches around 40 kilometres north to south and a car is an advantage. If you’re feeling energetic, there’s a network of off-road bicycle paths which connect the main sights.
Top attractions in Canberra
As Australia’s capital, Canberra is home to an array of national institutions, museums and memorials, most of them close to the city centre.
Opened in 1988, Parliament House is a huge modern structure built into Capital Hill, topped by an 81-metre flagpole. You can take a free guided tour to discover the vast Australian art collection, climb to the grass-covered roof for 360-degree views, and watch the action from a public gallery when parliament is sitting.
The Australian War Memorial is a shrine to war veterans. Enter via the Commemorative Courtyard, passing the honour roll of the fallen, to discover Interactive exhibits and sound-and-light shows recreating historic battles in the cavernous Anzac Hall.
The concierge recommends…
● Climbing Telstra Tower on Black Mountain for views of Lake Burley Griffin, Parliament House and Canberra’s suburbs stretching into the countryside.
● A visit to The National Museum of Australia to discover hands-on exhibits focusing on Aboriginal culture and Australia’s history since European settlement. Restless kids can build their own time-travelling robot as part of the Kspace interactive adventure.
● Questacon on the lake foreshore, where science and technology are explained through playful interactive exhibits. Kids of all ages can experience an earthquake, free-fall down a six-metre slide or challenge a robot to an air hockey match.
● A tour of the embassy zone in Yarralumla, where many nations have custom-built embassies that reflect their national culture.
Hotels in Canberra
You’ll find a wide range of accommodation throughout Canberra, from backpackers’ hostels to functional motels and upscale hotels. There are some hotels in the suburban centres, but most are concentrated along Northbourne Avenue and in the city centre.
Staying in the city centre puts you within easy reach of Civic, the city’s main dining hub, with cafés and restaurants clustered around Bunda Street. The Canberra Centre mall and pedestrianised City Walk are steps away, and business travellers are a short walk from the National Convention Centre.
Lake Burley Griffin is within strolling distance, and nearby green spaces such as Glebe Park and Commonwealth Park are especially inviting when the leaves turn red in autumn (March, April and May).
Eating Out in Canberra
A young and multicultural population have made Canberra a foodie capital. The inland location and altitude make for a rich selection of seasonal produce and you’ll find an array of wineries a short drive from the city.
Canberra city centre is home to everything from student haunts near the Australian National University and pubs serving up hearty, inexpensive food to affordable global cuisine and upscale gourmet restaurants. The North Quarter and Bunda Street in Civic have something for everyone.
Braddon, a short walk away, is a newly-hip neighbourhood where you’ll find cool cafés and craft beer pubs. Dickson has a mini-Chinatown alongside Thai, Vietnamese and other Asian cuisines. South of the lake, the trendy cafés of Kingston and Manuka are a mecca for coffee-lovers. For lunch or coffee with lake views, try the cafés at the National Library or the National Museum.
The chef recommends...
● Canberra wines: You can sample local vintages at more than 30 wineries within a 35-minute drive of the city, which produce excellent Shiraz, Riesling and more. The Canberra District Wine Association provide handy information on tours and events.
● Canberra craft beers: Watch beers and ciders brewing at BentSpoke in Braddon, or head to the Australian National University to sample the brews at the Wig and Pen.
● Milkshakes: Pâtissez in Civic and Manuka elevates the humble milkshake to an art form more commonly known as freak shakes. You can try over-the-top creations like “The Fruity Freak” and “The Peanut Butter Monster Cake”.
Shopping in Canberra
Shopping in Canberra takes in high-end malls, exclusive boutiques and edgy independent designers, pop-up stores and boisterous markets.
Canberra Centre in Civic has more than 250 shops including popular department store chains Myer and David Jones. Step outside to browse independent designer boutiques, bookshops and more on City Walk and Garema Place.
Hip Lonsdale Street in Braddon is the place to head for edgy fashion, handmade gifts and stylish homewares, as well as cafés, bars and hairdressing salons.
South of Lake Burley Griffin in Kingston and Manuka you can browse 1920s shopping arcades and boutique shops for fashion, antiques and high-end homewares.
The best markets in Canberra…
● Capital Region Farmers Market at Exhibition Park, held every Saturday, offers fresh seasonal produce from local growers and wines from regional vineyards.
● Cosmopolitan Fyshwick Fresh Food Market is the place to head from Thursday to Sunday for gourmet treats from over 30 food shops. Nearby Canberra Antiques Centre is a bustling warehouse where dealers sell high-quality furniture, jewellery and collectables.
● The Old Bus Depot Markets in Kingston are a Sunday institution with a live-music soundtrack and a friendly vibe. Look out for clothes, jewellery and homewares by Canberra designers alongside foodstuffs, coffee and wines.
Culture & Nightlife in Canberra
Canberra is home to several of Australia’s best museums and galleries. Entry to many, including the National Gallery of Australia, the Australian War Memorial and The National Museum of Australia, is free.
You can catch concerts, comedy and drama by local and visiting performers in the comfortable surroundings of The Street and the Canberra Theatre Centre in Civic.
Discover a vast collection of audio and moving pictures at the National Film & Sound Archive near the Australian National University, which screens arthouse and off-beat classic films at its Arc cinema. Head to the Dendy Cinema and Palace Electric Cinema in Civic for arthouse movies and international blockbusters.
Nightlife in the city centre is concentrated on City Walk, Garema Place and the 1920s Sydney and Melbourne Buildings, where you’ll find pulsating dance clubs, trendy bars and cosy pubs. Hipster quarter Braddon has cool brewpubs and bars, and you’ll also find fashionable drinking holes south of the lake in Kingston and Manuka.
The best art galleries in Canberra
● The National Gallery of Australia on the lake foreshore has a major collection of Australian and international painting and sculpture alongside works by indigenous artists. You can pick up handicrafts, aboriginal art and prints in the gift shop.
● The National Portrait Gallery explores the Australian identity through paintings and photos ranging from Aboriginal Australians and early settlers to contemporary personalities.
● If you’re hunting for a unique souvenir, the private Beaver Galleries in Deakin shows paintings, jewellery, ceramics and glass, all of which are for sale.
Leisure in Canberra
Canberra is a garden city where parks, nature reserves and natural bushland are an integral part of the environment. The city’s centrepiece, Lake Burley Griffin, is surrounded by parkland where you can hike, cycle or picnic. You can take to the water in kayaks and sailing boats, or just book a cruise.
Several major annual events take place around the lake. Commonwealth Park becomes a sea of colour during Floriade (September - October), the spring floral festival. Colourful hot air balloons take to the sky around Old Parliament House at the Canberra Balloon Spectacular in March.
At the National Arboretum you can stroll through forests of rare and endangered trees before lunch with a view at the Conservatory Restaurant, and kids can let off steam at the adventure playground.
Try taking a picnic to the Australian National Botanic Gardens on Black Mountain, and dine among a huge collection of native plants and flowers.
The best outdoor activities in Canberra
● A bicycle tour around Lake Burley Griffin: You can rent a bike at Capital Bicycle Hire to follow the cycle paths, and there are plenty of cafés and picnic spots if you need a rest.
● A climb to the summit of Mount Ainslie for views across Lake Burley Griffin to Parliament House and the mountains surrounding the city. Follow the hiking trail from behind the Australian War Memorial.
● Spot kangaroos, koalas, emus and more at tranquil Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, 40 minutes’ drive from the city. Pick up a map from the visitor centre to follow the trails and boardwalks that crisscross the park.