Canberra: a capital thrill

Travelling Well | Simone Egger | Posted on 12 September 2018

From its inspired beginning to its heady mix of science and nature, Canberra is a work of art that can take you way beyond politics. 

Normally, I wouldn’t use words like ‘winner’ or ‘best’ for things like holidays. They suggest competition, like my holiday is better than yours, or that no other holiday anywhere will ever be this good. But given that Canberra was born from a competition, and that even after driving there, for six-plus hours, for a weekend, it still surpassed expectations, maybe… 

Firstly, let me say, Canberra is between Sydney and Melbourne, so it’s a natural meeting place for us (living north of Melbourne) and our Sydney-based friends. ‘Canberra’ apparently means ‘meeting place’, derived from a Ngunnawal word.

More generally though, Canberra can quietly lift visitors – whether old and jaded, or young and flighty – into the amazing realms of science, art and nature. Canberra can, because it was founded and built on good design.

Good design like this infiltrates the subconscious, and simply makes you happy.
Australian Flag above Parliament House

The Australian flag flies above Parliament House

Canberra is a modernist city, planned by the pioneering Walter Burley Griffin and his collaborator and wife Marion Mahony Griffin, who won the Federal Capital Design Competition in 1912. The government sought to quieten down Melbourne and Sydney, who were loudly vying for capital status, by putting a new capital between them – and introducing a worldwide competition to design it.

Canberra is the convergence of three “outdoor arts”: architecture, town planning and landscape architecture. Seen as a whole or through a few individual institutions, it embodies good design principles. 

More than merely delivering on utility, Canberra is built in tune with the landscape, considering colour, texture, space, light, symbolism and the interests of the community it serves. Not that travellers in the city are necessarily conscious of all this. Good design like this infiltrates the subconscious, and simply makes you happy. Except maybe when you’ve missed a turn-off, again, and you’re going around that roundabout, again, like a goldfish in a bowl.

Everyone simply must experience the National Arboretum. Really, start planning. Winner of World Landscape of the Year (in 2014, right after opening), the Arboretum is a sweeping 250-hectare site made up of 100 separate forests. 

The teeny-tiny trees and forest plantings are wondrous.

Walking it, you might be in a grove of silvery-green weeping snowgums one minute, then, literally the next, seeing red, surrounded by Chinese mahoganies. From hilltop vantages, there’s a striking geometry to the tartan-like patterns formed by 50,000 deliberately planted trees, a zigzag path up to the terraced area and expansive visitors centre. In here is the closest a person can get to being inside a glass whale.

aerial view of Arboretum in Canberra

The National Arboretum, Canberra

aerial view of Canberra

Aerial view of Canberra

people walkng thouch canberra park

National Arboretum 

At the visitors centre is the Pod Playground, with giant acorns connected by rope tunnels, slides, swings and big banksia cubbies fitted with music-making instruments. Up here also is the bonsai annexe imbued with a quiet reverence for nature.

The teeny-tiny trees and forest plantings (called yose ue) are wondrous – it’s like being in Land of the Giants or Gulliver’s Travels, depending on your vintage. The children’s and vegie gardens are next door, on the verge of the great dipping amphitheatre. It’s a pretty huge invitation to lie down at its lip and let go.

Tip: If you can, leave your pride in the car, or casually drop in with the children doing it. Also, wear long sleeves; that grass is scratchy. 

The trees at the Arboretum are just kids – all under 10 – full of potential, life and frailty.

We also walked the nearby labyrinth – a complex, contrasting concrete path. Since before recorded history, people have walked labyrinths for their meditative qualities. Labyrinths are associated with religious and magical experiences. More recently though, with the thought: Are we there yet?

The trees at the Arboretum are just kids – all under 10 – full of potential, life and frailty. The park is a regeneration project for the area, destroyed by fire in 2003.

Two stands of trees survived the fires; one of them the magical 98-year-old cork oak forest. Under its sprawling canopy, I thought about what an incredible marker of time nature is. So too its products: cork floors, corkboards and wine, all redolent of other times. 

The kids found sticks, aka wands, bats, hammers, lightsabers. At its most basic, the Arboretum reminds visitors how beautiful nature is.

National Portrait Gallery artwork

National Portrait Gallery

Roll of Honour at the Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Australian War Memorial

Roll of Honour at the Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Australian War Memorial

You might have heard of Questacon, Canberra’s science and technology centre. It holds the answers to universally poetic questions. Why is the sky blue? Does water spin down the drain in the same direction in the southern and northern hemispheres? 

I think we would all, regardless of age, like to learn about aeronautics by folding paper, and launching the result into an air tunnel. The element of competition is here too. How hard can you throw that ball? Can you beat that robot at table hockey? How many times can you freefall from a hatch two storeys high (wearing an oversized orange jumpsuit) before the attendants’ encouragement turns to consternation? 

Actual people are stationed in each gallery to explain things, to answer and to ask questions. It’s charming. Between galleries there are white-coats conducting experiments using water, jars and soap to explain air pressure.

You can play a harp with light beams for strings, and stand transfixed for longer than you thought possible at Sisyphus. It’s a giant, suspended, sand-covered disc that tilts according to stored equations, so that a small silver marble moves to make mesmerising patterns in the sand. It makes maths beautiful.

Portraiture documents life – something we all know something about. Who are these people?

The design for the National Portrait Gallery – all lines and light, and on a human scale – came out of another international design contest (proof that competition can be a good thing). People love to look at people, real or rendered.

Portraiture as an art form is accessible. It documents life – something we all know something about. Who are these people in these photos, paintings and drawings? Why were they chosen as subjects, and presented like this? Step this way and find out. 

If you visit Canberra when the Portrait Gallery is closed for renovations (April to September 2019), you can see what you’re missing on the Portrait Stories app (also available on site), with 1700 portraits, stories and interviews.

Or, you can visit the Australian War Memorial, which is up there with Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal for people’s choice nominations. We ran out of time to visit it – being there for just a weekend. We also missed seeing the High Court, for its brutalist architecture, Lake Burley Griffin and the Museum of Australian Democracy. Oh, and Parliament – the seat of our democracy. Remember when that was all people came to Canberra for?

Pod Playground, National Arboretum Canberra

Pod playground, National Arboretum

Questacon Smoke

Questacon Smoke

Pod Playground, National Arboretum Canberra

Pod Playground, National Arboretum

Need to know

  • Getting there: Australia’s capital city is 660 kilometres (about a six-hour drive) from Melbourne, and 286 kilometres (a three-hour drive) from Sydney. Sometimes called the ‘bush capital’, Canberra is surrounded by protected parks and reserves. 
  • Road-trip tip: Driving from Melbourne or Sydney presents the option to go direct – along major highways – or via a scenic route, taking in the Southern Highlands or Snowy Mountains.
  • A stop of sustenance: Off the Hume Highway from Melbourne, take the turn-off to Jugiong on the Murrumbidgee River. Long Track Pantry does great bakes, shakes and coffee. 
  • Shopping: Do exit through the gift shop at the National Arboretum and Portrait Gallery for well-designed ‘things’ and books, and Questacon for inspired toys and books.
  • Festival: The fifth annual Design Canberra Festival is on 5 to 25 November, with more than 100 events, exhibitions, talks, markets and open homes and studios. 
  • View: The Arboretum affords life-affirming views over Canberra.