In the early 1900s, Australia was debating whether to make the capital Sydney or Melbourne, but no one could agree. Both had compelling arguments as large international cities with their own appeal. Sydney was older and had more history, while Melbourne was more cosmopolitan, the center of commerce, and at the time, larger. Since no agreement could be reached, they launched an international design competition to decide where to build a new capital. An American architect won and Canberra was chosen as the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) almost exactly the mid-point between the rival cities.
Some overlook Canberra as a tourist destination, thinking it’s just a place for official government business, but that’s a major misstep. Once a significant Aboriginal site, Canberra is one of the world’s most liveable cities, purposely planned and developed with plenty of attractions for visitors. Book a visit to Canberra and experience the surprising capital city of Australia.
Here’s a list of what to do once you get there.
One of the best things about Canberra is most of the city’s major attractions are free, making it an affordable and attractive getaway from either Sydney or Melbourne. You can visit Australia’s Parliament House to see democracy in action and head up to the roof, which has one of the best views and selfie spots in the city. The National Gallery of Australia has one of the country’s largest art collections, which features one of Yayoi Kusama’s famed Infinity Rooms. The Australian War Memorial is a mecca for history buffs, while Cockington Green Gardens and the National Botanic Gardens offer some of the most beautiful flora and fauna in the whole country. Be sure to keep an eye out for the Rain Forest Gully and Red Centre Garden.
Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve offers unique animal encounters where you can spot Australia’s most famous locals like the koala, platypus, kangaroo, emu, and wombat. There’s a large wetland sanctuary and protected brushland as part of an endangered species breeding program.
Namadgi National Park is another epic day trip right outside the city. One of 11 protected areas in the Australian Alps, it’s full of biodiversity, Aboriginal history, and breathtaking landscapes from alpine forests to lush meadows. For both parks, be sure to check the websites before you visit as the Australian bush fires have impacted the area, and certain attractions may temporarily be closed.
For the ultimate safari experience, you can also visit Jamala Wildlife Lodge within the National Zoo and Aquarium, which is really two attractions in one. You have the opportunity to get up close and personal with big cats, giraffe, and bears hand-feeding the animals and learning to care for them with a zookeeper.
Catch Your Breath
Australia is an adventure-filled place, and Canberra is no exception. See the city from above on a hot air balloon ride, hike to the Mount Ainslie Lookout, or climb up the Telstra Tower. Walk, bike, kayak, sail, or SUP around Lake Burley Griffin. Or, spend a lovely day on the water. There are ferries and cruises to take you around with many lakeside restaurants and cafes.
Want to get your adrenaline pumping? Try skydiving over the capital or test out being a pilot in a controlled environment through Canberra’s virtual reality Jet Flight Simulator. You can also rent a 4×4 buggy to go off-roading and really explore the territory.
Eat Your Heart Out
If you believe the “camera eats first,” Instagram foods are an Australian specialty with rainbow creations topped with fairy floss (their loveable name for cotton candy) just about everywhere. Space Kitchen’s unicorn waffles are a brunch must, as are Natural 9’s adorable bao characters, and rainbow bagels from Sunday In Canberra Cafe. Be sure to save room for freak shakes from Milky Lane and all kinds of delicious desserts from Ricardo’s Cafe & Pâtisserie.
Café culture is also prominent in Canberra with ONA being one of the best coffee spots to fuel up with a flat white. For real foodies, though, the area is ripe with wineries and truffle farms (the black gold of the food world) where you can take a dog truffle hunting and then learn to cook with them. On Saturdays, be sure to peruse the Capital Region Farmers Markets for more gourmet, artisanal goodies and on Sundays, head to the Old Bus Depot Markets.
Meet the Natives
Aboriginal and indigenous culture is a major part of the territory’s history, so it’s important to get to know the real locals. The National Museum of Australia has exhibits and guided tours dedicated to the First Australians history and stories. Dharwra Aboriginal Cultural Tours also offers the opportunity to identify rock art, try brush food, learn about native tools and artifacts, attend local crafting or language workshops, and visit cultural sites around the region.
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