The best things to do in Canberra

Red Hill Lookout, Canberra

Joanne Brookfield

Posted February 10, 2022


There’s more than meets the eye for culture and nature seekers in the nation’s capital. Here’s a guide to everything must see in Canberra, strategically placed between Melbourne and Sydney.

Canberra makes regular appearances on hotly contested “most liveable” and “best city” lists. The nation’s capital has even appeared on quirkier ones, being highly ranked for safety, hygiene and most recently for providing a good night’s sleep, given its air quality and relative lack of pollution.

However, Canberra isn’t just a great place to live, it’s also a great place to visit. Nicknamed ‘The Bush Capital’, this predominantly low-rise city enjoys a sense of space in the urban areas, which is enhanced by all the surrounding bushland and mountains.

In fact, being so far inland means snow-capped mountains are visible during winter so you’re also not far from popular alpine regions like the Snowy Mountains.

The city itself has something for everyone, with travellers having no shortage of national treasures, history, architecture, art, culture and dining to enjoy.

Best places to visit in Canberra


Lake Burley Griffin

Despite what it might appear, Canberra wasn’t built around a lake. Instead, American architects Marion Mahony Griffin and Walter Burley Griffin placed an artificial one in the centre of their city masterplan.

Surrounded by parklands and several important institutions, it’s a magnet for multiple users. Bridges create a 5-kilometre loop for jogging politicians or strolling tourists, but with a perimeter of 28 kilometres, it also makes for a great cycle track.

Hire a bike from the Canberra Visitors Centre, or the Share A Bike scheme. There’s also a similar app-based e-scooter option, too, or Segways to get around. If you’d rather get on the water, there’s stand-up paddle boarding, or you can have a floating picnic on a GoBoat.

Portraits

Imagine if you could actually walk through an Instagram feed, rather than scroll through it? Well, that’s pretty much what a visit to the National Portrait Gallery is like.

On every wall, famous and not-so-famous faces look back at you, rendered in every medium imaginable – photography, drawing, painting, mixed media, textiles. It’s a who’s who of both the people and artists who have shaped our national identity and is a must-see when in Canberra.

Paintings

Art lovers are spoiled for choice with the city centre and suburbs home to more than 30 galleries, exhibiting works from local, national, Indigenous and international artists.

The National Gallery of Australia, holders of the world’s largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, is a great place start. One of their most famous pieces, Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, is said to now be worth $350 million and is a massive two metres by five metres.

Too big? Then head to Watson where you’ll find the tiniest exhibition space in town, the Gallery of Small Things.

 

Sit by the lake and relax. Credit: Visit Canberra

Sit by Lake Burley Griffin and relax. Credit: Visit Canberra


Deco Dip

Backstroke back in time to the roaring 30s at Manuka Pool. Originally intended to be twice its actual length, Great Depression budgets didn’t stretch that far, but what they did build is Canberra’s oldest outdoor public pool. Designed in a Federal Art Deco style, and lovingly preserved, you can get some laps in over the warmer months from November to March.

If you’d rather dip into Deco design history without getting wet, head to Acton to check out the National Film and Sound Archive, the School of Art & Design building at the ANU, Ainslie Primary School in Braddon or the magnificent Australian War Memorial in Campbell.

War Memorial

Deserving of an entry all of its own, the Australian War Memorial is one of those sites that will touch your soul and reside in your memory long after you have returned home.

Rising from the violence of war is this stunning piece of architecture, a truly beautiful and serene space that allows visitors to contemplate the pain and shocking, widespread loss that the building’s very existence demands we never forget.

From the The Roll of Honour, a wall listing names of the dead blanketed in a vertical field of red poppies, to the haunting lone bugle playing ‘Last Post’ each day at closing, plus the detailed galleries and exhibitions, you will be moved at every turn.

Hot Air

Bright pink unicorns, green frogs, owls, dogs and even a T-Rex - turns out hot air balloons can come in all kinds of shapes and the dawn sky fills with them for nine days during the Canberra Balloon Spectacular.

Held as part of the Enlighten Festival, which bathes the city’s most iconic buildings in large-scale light projections each March, dozens of these hot air balloons take off every morning from the lawns of Old Parliament House.

RACV members can also glide above the city with member discounts available for hot air balloon rides here.

Australian War Memorial. Credit: Visit Canberra
Hot Air Balloon spectacular. Credit: Visit Canberra

Politics

Intellectual, political and cultural institutions, Canberra has them all. If you’re interested in seeing how the country runs, there are plenty of options.

Check out Old Parliament House, which is now The Museum of Australian Democracy, New Parliament House, the High Court of Australia, the National Library and the National Museum - which are all open for visits and tours.

Plus, you can see where our coins are made at the Royal Australian Mint.

Plants

When you think of “forest bathing”, Canberra, better known for its meticulous urban planning, isn’t usually the first place that springs to mind. However, the National Arboretum has almost one hundred forests of differing tree types to stroll through and is only 6km from the CBD.

A seven-minute drive from there is the Australian National Botanic Gardens. There’s not an English rose or Californian cactus here as these gardens are exclusively Australian natives. Over summer, they also have sunset cinema under the eucalypts, plus lunchtime ‘Thursday Talks’ throughout the year and art exhibitions in the Visitors Centre.

For petal power, and we’re talking the vibrant spectacle of more than one million flowering spring bulbs, Floriade is what you want to see. The largest flower show in the Southern Hemisphere, it takes over Commonwealth Park from mid-September for a month.

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