Canberra was once more of a place for school excursions rather than a desirable holiday destination, but Australia’s capital has booted that perception in recent years, now offering countless options of culturally rich places to visit.
The National Gallery of Australia, the Australian War Memorial, Parliament House, the Royal Australian Mint and the Australian Institute of Sport all offer historical and educational experiences that could keep anyone busy for days. However there’s plenty of other things to enjoy in the Capital, from nature reserves teeming with wildlife, to bicycle tracks that offer stunning lake and mountain views, to hip restaurants and bars buzzing with locals and tourists. For foodies, cocktail connoisseurs, wildlife lovers and culture vultures, spending time in Canberra is a real treat.
Exploring Canberra by foot
One of the best ways to see and explore Canberra is by lacing up your shoes and hitting the pavement. Apps such as GPSmycity are perfect for conducting self-guided walking tours. Canberra has several routes that follow specific themes – downtown, historic and religious sites, cultural heritage landmarks – so you’re bound to find something that suits your interests.
Other eco-friendly ways to get around include eBikes (or regular bikes), and you can rent them at various points around the city in a pay-as-you-pedal way. eScooters, such as the ones on offer at WalkSMART, are also becoming more popular. In fact, the city’s wide roads, smooth footpaths and dedicated cycle lanes make it one of the safest cities in Australia to get around on two wheels.
Outdoor adventures around the capital
Interested in learning more about local flora? Make sure you fit in an exploration of the Australian National Botanical Gardens. Enjoy a walk in the fresh air as you wander through the beautifully landscaped gardens, where the plants have been sourced from all across Australia, allowing visitors to marvel at blooms they may not get a chance to see anywhere else.
Note: As of 8 December 2020, to assist with social distancing, the walking paths are marked directionally as one-way. While most gardens are now open, parts of the Rainforest Gully remain closed.
Looking for a unique Canberra attraction that can be enjoyed by the whole family? Check out the utterly charming (and rather eccentric) Cockington Green Gardens. In this meticulously crafted model world, you’ll find a fascinating display of miniature buildings – including educational landmarks from around the world. Look closely and you’ll find many ‘in-house’ jokes on signs and enacted by the tiny model residents. Take a ride on the quaint steam train or enjoy a room-with-a-view from the 34-room dollhouse. The peaceful surroundings are the perfect setting for a relaxing picnic with the family. There is also a gift shop where you’ll find a quirky assortment of souvenirs. The Rose Room Gift Shop carries specialty items such as dolls, toys and more for those interested in beginning a collection of their own.
Looking for a more elevated experience? Canberra’s Telstra Tower offers 360-degree views from three different viewing platforms.
Built in 1980 by the then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, the tower was originally named Telecom Tower, however locally it was simply known as Black Mountain Tower. There was much debate (referred to as the ‘Tower saga’) around its creation, but regardless of the many people who fiercely opposed it, the landmark – that cost $16 million – attracts around 430,000 visitors a year. Its fascinating Telstra Heritage Exhibition is a popular drawcard as it traces the history of Australian telecommunications, with a display of phones from when they were invented, right up to the modern-day mobile phones.
Where to stay
Canberra has a variety of top-notch accommodation options to meet any style and budget. In fact, there has been a recent boom in 4- and 5-star hotel openings, so there is no shortage of cool places to lay your head after a big day or exploring.
For anyone who loves animals or is looking for a unique experience, consider a visit to Jamala Wildlife Lodge, which is nestled into the landscape of the National Zoo and Aquarium. Owned and operated by a local family who are passionate about wildlife conservation, the animals at the wildlife park have been rescued from dire situations and conditions around the world. You can put a day aside to explore the grounds, or if you splash out and stay the night, you can also book an afternoon/evening tour of the animal’s quarters, and even book a personal animal encounter, such as feeding the lions, patting a cheetah or hand-feeding sharks. Every room offers a different vantage point where you can watch the animals, the heated floors near the Sumatran tiger, black bear and lion enclosures means that you are sure to see some of the world’s most majestic creatures up close. For giraffe fans, The Giraffe Treehouses are very special as the giraffes walk right by your balcony and poke their heads in to say hello.
Jamala Lodge also offers a remarkable dining experience in its underground Rainforest Cave restaurant, where you can enjoy a four-course meal. If you’re lucky, you’ll be joined by the zoo’s two white lions – Jake and Mishka, as one of their favourite dens is conveniently located next to the dining room table. There is glass separating you, but you wouldn’t know it from the photos. Hyenas also prowl around the restaurant in their den, so you can see them at close quarters as well.
Right in the city by the famous manmade Lake Burley Griffin (which has awesome cycleways the whole way round), Ovolo Nishi hotel offers a luxurious stay in an industrial-style environment. The entry staircase (called the Grand Stair) is an attraction in itself, with the design created by March Studio of Melbourne. The staircase and surrounding space uses reclaimed timber from a demolished house and basketball court, the Nishi building site, and offcuts from the building’s distinctive blackbutt timber facade. No two pieces of wood are the same and if you look closely, you’ll see that some are polished while others are rough, some are painted and others are not. Some are perfectly sanded and others are scarred by nails.
The Ovolo Hotel brand prides itself on creating distinctive experiences from one hotel to the next and the Canberra arm has partnered with local activity providers to help create your ultimate getaway. Among the many personalised offerings, the hotel hosts sundowner drinks, midnight treats and complimentary breakfast to get you going in the morning.
Step back into the past at the historic Hotel Kurrajong Canberra, which first opened its doors in 1926. It was designed by the Commonwealth Chief Architect, John Smith Murdoch, who is also famous for designing Old Parliament House. Still considered to be one of Canberra’s most iconic hotels, it has hosted (and continues to do so) many distinguished guests, including prominent politicians and Prime Ministers.
The hotel combines 1920s elegance with modern luxury and there’s a wide range of rooms and suites, each featuring a view of the perfectly manicured gardens with courtyard where you can enjoy a drink or snack. To complete your Kurrajong experience, indulge in local fare at Chifley’s Bar & Grill, where nostalgia meets modernity.
If you want to browse a wide range of options and compare prices and dates simultaneously, head here.
Restaurants & bars in Canberra
If you’re searching for a more casual place to hang out, eat, drink and play some good old-fashioned games, check out Guild which is open daily from noon, until late. In cosy yet cool surrounds you can have your meal and play a board game too. The innovative, quirky concept of combining games and gourmet bites means you can dine on a wood-fired pizza and enjoy a beer or a margarita with a side of Monopoly. Or you can challenge your date to a game of Scrabble over a bottle of wine and a hearty pasta. Be a winner over a chicken dinner.
For contemporary food with a Spanish influence, try Parlour, which is located in one Canberra’s iconic heritage-listed buildings, the 1927 Hotel Acton. Among the selections offered on the lunch and dinner menus, you’ll find a variety of tapas from the kitchen of chef Sam McCarthy. There is an extensive list of local and international boutique wines as well as classic yet obscure cocktails. The restaurant staff pride themselves on creating special events with tailored menus that capture a sense of the building’s history, in curtained or terraced spaces for up to 150 people. The environment is ideal for lavish late nights and those in need of a night-cap.
For those with a hankering for fine dining with a paddock-to-plate approach, Sage Dining Rooms is a stellar option. This outfit took home the win as TripAdvisor’s top fine dining restaurant in Australia for 2020, and it has its very own farm with a dam and landscaped gardens, aptly called Sage Farm. Spread over 6oo acres in the Majura valley (8km from the restaurant), the farm has been designed to showcase urban farming and food sustainability practices. It’s home to over 100 head of black angus cattle, suffolk sheep, rare-breed pigs and native fish. Soon chickens will be joining the crew, and the idea is to create a foodie’s haven for functions, events and weekend visits.
Pack your fanciest stretchy pants as there are two-course, three-course and five-course options with matched wines. With dishes such as Jerusalem artichoke with whipped garlic, buckwheat dukkah and dashi; and seared barramundi, lotus root with lemon myrtle on the menu, you’ll no doubt opt for the latter offering that will have you lingering longer. The Mint Garden Bar offers a selection of classic cocktails that can be enjoyed in the historic building’s beautiful heritage garden.
Looking for more cool things to do in Canberra? Get your feet moving with Walks around Canberra that will smash your step goal, or opt for a food & wine escape at the Canberra vineyards.