If you want a truly Australian experience, why not put Canberra at the top of your Australian bucket list? It’s quite often forgotten about by international tourists and domestic tourists, but Canberra is a unique destination for those seeking the laid back Aussie lifestyle and history right in the heart of some of the most beautiful bushland.
Located about three hours’ drive (or one hour flight) south west of Sydney, Canberra is Australia’s capital city – which might come as a surprise to some who thought it was Sydney or Melbourne. And, much like Washington D.C. in the United States, Canberra is home to some of the county’s major cultural organisations and important cultural landmarks like the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery of Australia, the High Court, Parliament House, the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, and the National Library of Australia.
So, if you want to learn about the nation’s history in the middle of the beautiful Australian bush, it is well worth a visit!
A brief history of Canberra
Australia’s rich and extensive history started long before the First Fleet of British ships arrived in 1788 and European explorers started venturing across the sunburnt plains. Aboriginal Australians are believed to have first arrived between 40,000 and 70,000 years ago and there is still evidence of their unique cultures and traditions.
The Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed on 1 January 1901 when six colonies voted to become one country. It was after Federation that an international competition was held to design the new capital city of Australia in the Australian Capital Territory and American architect Walter Burley Griffin, with drawings drafted by wife Marion Mahony Griffin, won the competition.
World War I and the great depression slowed progress on the development of Canberra until Old Parliament House opened in 1927 and served as the home of Federal Parliament. The population of Canberra continued to grow in the boom following World War II and now contains a population of more than 300,000.
The small but unique city is nestled in a eucalyptus forest between several large hills near the Brindabella Ranges and surrounds the deliberately designed, iconic Lake Burley Griffin. The major roads follow a wheel-and-spoke pattern rather than a grid and urban areas of Canberra are organised into a hierarchy of districts, town centres and local suburbs.
How to see all the best things in Canberra in two days
We arrived in Canberra on a very wet and windy Sunday afternoon in August. We were there to catch up with family and I wanted to show Dan where I spent many happy family gatherings when I was growing up. And, since Dan had not yet been to Canberra, we decided to brave the hordes of school children on their excursions and visit all of the major sites – it was the perfect way to get our Aussie fix before our big move back to London.
Australian War Memorial
On our first full day in Canberra we arrived at the Australian War Memorial at the top of Anzac Parade just in time for a guided tour of the galleries. The free 90 minute highlight tours commence from the Front Foyer and are conducted daily by the Memorial’s voluntary guides.
We were guided to The Roll of Honour in the Cloisters, the Hall of Memory (where the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier lies) and then taken to see highlights of the Second World War galleries as well as The Hall of Valour and Aircraft Hall, where you can see “G for George”, an Avro Lancaster Bomber.
There are many interesting films, recordings and stories shown throughout the galleries that are a must-see. You could spend several days exploring all that the Australian War Memorial has to offer, and I definitely recommend that you spend at least a few hours.
If you stay until closing the Memorial farewells visitors with its moving Last Post Ceremony, commencing at 4.55 pm AEST. The ceremony begins with the singing of the Australian National Anthem, followed by the poignant strains of a Lament, played by a piper. Visitors are invited to lay wreaths and floral tributes beside the Pool of Reflection.
The First World War galleries are undergoing a major redevelopment and are closed until 2015, the 100th anniversary of when the ANZAC troops stormed the beaches in Gallipoli, Turkey. After our amazing trip to Gallipolo in April this year, I was sad to miss this exhibition. But at least I have a good excuse to visit again!
(Entry cost: Free. Memorial and gallery opening hours: 10.00am – 5.00pm daily. Free guided tours: 10.00am, 10:15am, 10:30am, 11.00am, 12.00noon, 1.00pm, 2.00pm and 3.00pm. http://www.awm.gov.au/visit/)
We ate a quick lunch at Poppy’s Cafe, joined by Julie, Russell and cousin Hayden. Hayden was on a day trip from The Army Recruit Training Centre (ARTC) at Kapooka to see the Australian War Memorial. A happy coincidence!
We drove south along Anzac Parade and across Lake Burley Griffin to Parliament House, located on a 32-hectare site on Capital Hill and the focal point of Canberra. Parliament House is open every day of the year except for Christmas day and has a free guided tour three times a day for around 30 – 45 minutes. When the Houses are not in session visitors may visit the Public Galleries. On sitting days, Question Time in both the House of Representative and the Senate chambers is held at 2.00pm.
From Federation in 1901 to 1927 the Parliament met in the Victorian Parliament House. Old Parliament House was opened in 1927 and served as the home of Federal Parliament until “New Parliament House” was opened by her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II on 9 May 1988.
Australia’s history is recognised throughout the dramatic building through the use of symbolic design and materials. The use of beautiful dark, green and pink marble and timber in the main Foyer provides a link to the arrival of Europeans to Australia, while in the Great Hall, the rich Australian timbers, the Great Hall Tapestry and the Embroidery make subtle reference to the settlement and cultivation of the land. The Forecourt, with its featured mosaic dot painting, recognises the long history of Aboriginal culture in Australia.
Parliament House also boasts a number of displays including a public art gallery, exhibitions, a gallery of parliamentary representatives and the work of the Parliament. Highlights include the 2008 Federal Government Apology to the Stolen Generation and the Magna Carta.
Visitors to Parliament House may view the proceedings of both the House of Representatives and the Senate from the Public Galleries in the Chambers whenever the Houses are in session. Free tickets for the House of Representatives can be booked during office hours by telephoning the office of the Serjeant-at-Arms on 6277 4889 up until 12.30 on the day required. Bookings are not required for Question Time in the Senate.
(Entry cost: Free. Opening hours: 9.00am – 5.00pm on non-sitting days, 9:00am on Monday and Tuesday and from 8:30am on Wednesday and Thursday to House rise on sitting days. Free guided tours: 10.00am, 1.00pm and 3.00pm. http://www.aph.gov.au/Visit_Parliament/)
National Museum of Australia
After learning about the roles of the House of Representative and the Senate at Parliament House we drove back across Lake Burley Griffin to the National Museum of Australia. The National Museum of Australia preserves and interprets Australia’s social history, featuring three key themes: Australian society and history; Aboriginal Australia; and, people’s interaction with the environment.
The National Museum building was opened in 2001. The colourful architectural landmark located on Lawson Crescent, Acton Peninsula, was inspired by the idea of a jigsaw puzzle, reflecting many intertwined stories that make up Australia’s history.
A rotating theatre is located at the entry to the National Museum of Australia’s galleries. Circa provides visitors with a 16-minute audiovisual experience that takes them on a journey through Australia’s past and introduces them to the National Museum’s collections. From there, visitors can explore the three levels and garden of the museum at their leisure. There are so many interactive activities, family friendly exhibitions and innovative galleries that you could spend a whole day here!
(Entry cost: Free. Opening hours: 9.00am – 5.00pm. Ultimate Museum Experience (tour, meal and glass of wine) tour times: 10.00am, 1.00pm and 3.00pm and cost $35 per person. Other guided tours: Adult: $10, Concession: $8, Children: $5. http://www.nma.gov.au/whats-on/planning-your-visit)
Dinner and a drink at BentSpoke
In the heart of the bustling and recently redeveloped Braddon precinct of Canberra you can find a number of unique restaurants, boutique shops and modern bars that will entice the pickiest of foodies.
For the craft beer lovers, there is BentSpoke, a microbrewery and taphouse that is truly world-class. Located at 38 Mort St, BentSpoke is a fusion of great pub food and craft ales and lagers. One-off batches, seasonal ales and lagers, barrel ales and hand crushed ciders feature on tap, however The Straight Six are the regular and well loved beers and cider. Try the Crankshaft IPA for a crisp clean pale ale, the Dick Tracy for a fruity, slightly nutty after taste, or the Adam’s cider for a traditional hand pressed apple cider.
(Food: $20 – $30 per meal. Beer: $7-8 half, $10 – $13 pint)
Royal Australian Mint
Located southwest of Capital Hill, the Royal Australian Mint is the sole mint in Australia to make every currently circulated coin. On our second day in Canberra we visited the Mint and minted our own coin!
The Mint’s observation gallery showcases the coin production factory, its workers and its robots, while the theatrette features a behind the scenes video that will explain the coin making process. You can learn about the history of Australian currency and even mint your own $1 coin in the Mint Coin Shop (for a $3 fee).
(Entry cost: Free. Opening hours: 8.30am – 5.00pm Monday to Friday, 10.00am – 4.00pm Saturday to Sunday and Public Holidays. Free guided tours: 10.00am and 2.00pm Monday to Friday, 11.00am and 2.00pm Saturday and Sunday. http://www.ramint.gov.au/visit/)
Black Mountain and Telstra Tower
Simply because the sun was shining and the skies above were blue, we decided to visit Black Mountain for a quick view of Canberra.
Black Mountain stands 812 metres above sea level to the west of Canberra’s CBD and on the northern shore of Lake Burley Griffin. The small mountain and the Black Mountain Nature Park allows visitors to admire the view of Canberra either from one of the viewing platforms and picnic spots dotted around the bushy hillside, or from the iconic telecommunications tower, Telstra Tower, which stands 192m above the summit. The view from Telstra Tower is not free, but it does offer 360 degree views of the city of Canberra as it nestles against an Australian rural outback.
(Telstra Tower Entry cost: $7.50 adults, $3.00 aged pensioners and children, $17 family. Opening hours: 9.00am – 10.00pm daily.)
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit all of Canberra’s landmarks. But that just means that we have these ones to look forward to next time we visit:
The National Science and Technology Centre, otherwise known as Questacon, is located below Capital Hill, on the southern shore of Lake Burley Griffin. It is a large centre, spread genrously across many levels, featuring free games, quizzes, and over 200 interactive exhibits relating to science and technology.
I have very fond memories of Questacon as a child. I visited the science centre 9 times during my childhood with my grandparents. My favourite exhibitions were the earthquake simulator and the lightning exhibition. This really is a must-see attraction for any Canberra visitors with children or young-hearted adults.
(Entry cost: $23.00 adults, $17.50 concession and children, $70 family. Opening hours: 9.00am – 5.00pm daily.)
National Gallery of Australia
The National Gallery of Australia features expansive collections of Australian art, including Aboriginal prints and sculptures as well as Australian art from colonisation in 1788 to the present day. Specifically, the permanent collection contains more than 160,000 works of art across four main themes: Australian art, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander art, Asian art and European and American art. The Gallery and its relaxing surrounds include the Sculpture Garden, and the Australian Garden with the nearby Turrell Skyspace and moat. Exhibitions are featured throughout the year and provide more variety to this already world-renowned collection.
(Entry cost: Free. Opening hours: 10.00am – 5.00pm daily. Guided Tours: Australian art 10.30 am and 1.30 pm daily, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art 12.30 pm Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, Collection highlights 11.30 am and 2.30 pm daily, plus 12.30 pm on Mon, Wed, Fri & Sat.)
Old Parliament House / Museum of Australian Democracy
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit the Old Parliament House, but it is on our list for next time!
The impressive white building has became synonymous with some of the country’s most important historical moments including Australia’s declaration of war in 1939 and the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government in 1975. It is located at 18 King George Terrace, below Capital Hill and overlooking Lake Burley Griffin towards the Australian War Memorial.
Today the Old Parliament House is the home to the Museum of Australian Democracy, showcasing the past, present and possible future journeys of Australian democracy.
(Entry cost: $2 adult, $1 children/conc., $5 famliy. Opening hours: 9.00am – 5.00pm. http://moadoph.gov.au/visiting/)
Mount Ainslie Lookout
With arguably the best view of Canberra, Mount Ainslie sits above the Australian War Memorial and to the east of the Canberra CBD. It boasts walking and cycle paths and a unique view of Canberra that looks directly on to the the Australian War Memorial, Anzac Parade, Lake Burley Griffin, Old Parliament House and Parliament House atop Capital Hill. It is well worth a visit on a clear day.
Looking for more travel inspiration or destination guides?
Check out my recommendations on what to do in: Amsterdam, Bali, Berlin, Brisbane, Bristol, Budapest, Cambridge, Canberra, Cappadocia, Chamonix, Copenhagen, Dubrovnik, Istanbul, Kotor, Kyoto, London, Madrid, New York City, Paris, Riga, Scotland, Tokyo, and Washington D.C.