One of the first things that Canberran novices notice is that the city is so neat, organised, chaos-free and clean. It’s a dream city to navigate, and even if you have only a weekend to spare, you can comfortably fit in many of its highlights.
Canberra is like a model with four distinct colour palettes to express her different moods according to the seasons – fiery reds, oranges teamed with brilliant blues for autumn; restrained greys and browns with silver and black trims for winter; ribbons of popping bright hues and touches of pretty pastels for spring. And in summer, the heat makes her shimmer like an oasis in the desert. There’s a reason for these extreme seasonal showcases – Canberra was a meticulously designed city, where the gardens, trees and waterways were as thoughtfully considered as the roads, buildings, and infrastructure. So, it comes as no surprise that our list of awesome Canberra activities is a long one.
But first, a sprinkling of history
Canberra was built to appease the politicians who vigorously debated where our capital city should be after Australia’s federation in 1901. Some of the most outspoken were from Victoria and NSW, and they argued that their cities – Sydney and Melbourne – should be our nation’s capital.
The location scout for the ideal location of the new reigning city ensued, and places such as Dalgety, Bathurst, Orange, Albury and Bombala were considered. In 1909, after eight years of recces and debate, Canberra was chosen. It was legislated in 1911 and in 1913 it was officially named as the capital of Australia. Interestingly, as Canberra does not have a seaport, in 1915 it was decided that Jervis Bay was to be a city of Canberra, even though it’s 230 kilometres away.
Back to our model called Canberra. She avoided the ungainly, haphazard growth spurts that led to the misplaced, confusing (for drivers) and sometimes downright unattractive developments and urban sprawls in cities such as Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, by having an international design competition launched in her honour so that she had the right look and feel right from the start.
The competition attracted 137 entries, and a savvy husband and wife architectural team from Chicago (home to some of the best modern city architecture in America) won. Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin, set the vision for the city of today: with Lake Burley Griffin at the heart and a visible Parliamentary Triangle able to be seen from vantage points including Mount Ainslie and, rather cleverly, a hot air balloon.
Marion, who was a graphic designer and the first accredited female architect in Illinois, was the one who encouraged Walter to enter the competition. It was her beautiful illustrations that no doubt swayed the judges but her name was nowhere to be seen on the documents and of course the lake was named after him. Marion didn’t disappear into history as in 2013, the ACT Government named the view from the top of Mount Ainslie after her, and a bust was made in her honour. It sits proudly overlooking the city she helped to shape.
The couple’s designs and ideas are the reason that Canberra is what it is today – a model city where the man-made and natural landscapes balance one another to create a ‘bush capital’ that struts her stuff in all seasons.
Canberra activities you can’t miss
Cruise around Lake Burley Griffin
Some might say that Canberra’s centrepiece is the parliamentary triangle but others would give that accolade to Lake Burley Griffin, as it really is the heart of Canberra. Around the lake, joining up the many inner-city suburbs and beyond into the outer lying vineyards and fields, are winding, flat paths made for walking, cycling, and in recent years, scootering.
In all seasons, the lake is a peaceful place where you can stop at one of many cafes for a cuppa, explore parklands and cruise along the foreshore admiring the many new developments. The apartments crowded around the squeaky-clean Kingston create a modern, architecturally designed village bursting at the seams with bars, restaurants and shops, and it has its own marina where you head out on the lake on a boat or kayak.
Photography buffs should check out this private tour with a local photography expert, capturing all the best angles of the city.
Scoot around the capital
There are so many places where you can hire bikes and scooters, but WalkSmart is ideally located in Campbell, a few minutes scooter from a gateway to the lake’s pathways, and also a stone’s throw from the enormous sculpture walk that leads to the Australian War Memorial.
WalkSmart’s mission is to make it convenient, safe and affordable for people to get around, as the founders believe too many people utilise transport options that are expensive, harmful for the environment, inconvenient and inflexible.
The scooters can go up to 25km an hour and are an ideal way to see Canberra because the pathways also connect all of the must-do attractions such as the National Gallery of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Museum of Australia. Speaking of the museum, there’s an EPIC tour, dine and shop experience available for visitors. Enjoy a lavish lunch at the museum cafe with a glass of wine or beer, an unforgettable tour of the museum and $20 to spend in the gift shop.
You can book your scooter adventure from as little as $50 a day here.
Blow your mind at Questacon
Although it’s a family favourite, even if you don’t have kids with you, fit Questacon into your plans. It’s jam-packed with things to do and see – many of which will challenge your brain and have you seeing things in a different way. Interestingly, the foundations were laid for what it is today in 1980 when Questacon began as a project of The Australian National University (ANU) in an unused space at Ainslie Public School. It opened with 15 exhibits and was staffed entirely by volunteers.
In the past 40 years it’s become so much more and is a popular centre with a goal of promoting greater understanding and awareness of science and technology in a fun and interactive way.
You can watch lightning strike in a room and see what dry ice does when it hits water (it’s mesmerising!). You can stand in a room and feel an earthquake, play air hockey with a robot (it’s hard to win) or feel what it’s like to free-fall from a few stories by dropping off the side of a cliff in a suit that keeps you nice and safe. Talk about an adrenaline rush!
Check-in to the East Hotel, Canberra
If you’re after a weekend of indulgence – great wine, beers, cocktails, fantastic pasta, risotto, pizza and dessert – with a happening place to socialise and hang out in style, the East Hotel in downtown Kingston has it all in spades. Add a cosy, stylish bookstore café called Muse into the mix and suites oozing with a fun sense of style, and you have your time in Canberra sorted.
As soon as you step into East Hotel, it’s obvious that owners Kelly and Dion set out with a mission to create a tantalising destination rather than simply a hotel to lay your head. The rooms are quirky, colourful, light-filled, spacious and comfortable.
The lobby, with its soaring ceilings and creative glass and flower sculptures, has the feel of an inner-city dining alley merged with an upmarket art gallery and a European ski lodge complete with an open fireplace.
The rich autumnal colour palette interspersed with creamy flowers in bloom and an ice blue sky on a floral patchwork carpet captures Canberra’s vibrant seasons. Luxurious armchairs in dark brown leather and olive-green fabrics, teamed with tables of Italian green marble and lounges in teal suede come together to create a lounging space made for sipping on martinis in a silk gown and slippers.
Wine and dine at Joe’s Bar and Agnostis
Speaking of martinis, once you’ve settled in, pop on over to Joe’s Bar, where you can take your pick from classic cocktails and a well curated wine and craft beer list. Mix and match with the delicious snacks available – such as arancini al pomodoro (tomato and mozzarella) or Ricotta and focaccia – so good you would be forgiven for eating an entire plate yourself.
For the main affair, head on over to Agnostis restaurant where you can make your life easy and select a feast for a set price, such as the $70 ‘Festa’ of antipasto, two pizzas, one pasta, one main, two sides and a dessert board.
Or you can be choosey and select a range of delectable dishes from Chef Francesco’s mouth-watering menu packed with Italian classics, pizzas and pastas, steaks and other hearty dishes.
The Pappardelle al Ragu Toscano is nothing short of sensational, and for lovers of seafood, the seafood linguine ai Frutti di mare – (meaning fruit of the sea) is pure heaven.
Before you know it, you’ll feel like you’re in Italy. And as anyone who has been to an Italian home or eatery knows, you won’t be able to escape without trying at least one dessert. You must eat-uh! Try the Tiramisu paired with an espresso martini or a lovely pinot noir. When in Rome… I mean Canberra. Even when it comes to dining, she’s a model of indulgence.
You can check out the best rates and book your stay at East Hotel here.
Rex operates multiple flights between Sydney and Melbourne everyday, as well as plenty of connecting flights from Rex’s regional and metropolitan hubs around Australia. To book your seat, head to rex.com.au.
If you’re still searching for more Canberran fun, have a look at these stories:
Small towns near Canberra that are worth a visit
Braddon and Fyshwick: where to eat in Canberra’s up-and-comers