Following the Federation of Australia in 1901, the bickering over which city – Melbourne or Sydney – should be the nation’s capital was so unrelenting that the creation of a purpose-built city was the only solution. The compromise saw a location in New South Wales chosen – but at least 100 miles from Sydney, and parliament would sit in Melbourne until the city was built. Like a baby conceived in order to save a marriage, Canberra emerged.
The area that would be named Canberra had been inhabited by the Ngunnawal people for over 20,000 years. It was chosen for its location – inland, away from the coast and the threat of warships – and temperate climate. At the time of naming, Canberra was home to more sheep than people. Some believe the name Canberra derives from the Ngunnawa word for “meeting place” while others believe it’s an indigenous name referring to the comely shapes of nearby Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain and means “women’s breasts”.
The decision that Canberra would be a wholly planned city, led to a worldwide design competition, paving the way for American architect Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion to create the capital. Today, Canberra has shrugged off its yawn-inducing reputation as the “city of roundabouts” and bureaucrats. And while Sydney (with its flashy harbour) and Melbourne (with its street art and small-bar-lined laneways) are still at each other over which is the cooler city, Canberra has blossomed as the epicentre of Australian politics and culture, with an innovative and thriving dining scene, many of the country’s leading galleries and museums, and hip boutique hotels.
What to do
The National Portrait Gallery (portrait.gov.au) is often overshadowed by the better known museums and galleries in Canberra. The gallery is home to Australia’s largest collection of portraits – there are 3,000 works in the collection, with 500 on display at any one time.
When The National Gallery of Australia (nga.gov.au) purchased Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles for AUS$1.3 million in 1973 there was a national outcry. Today, the painting, widely considered to be one of the most important pieces of 20th-century art, has been valued at AUS$500 million. There are over 160,000 works at the National Gallery – including the world’s largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Around the back of the building, the gallery’s sculpture gardens are a moody and introspective space overlooking Lake Burley Griffin. From here it’s a ten-minute walk to the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House (moadoph.gov.au), where memorabilia and artefacts tell stories of Australian democracy.
There are 94 forests at the National Arboretum (nationalarboretum.act.gov.au) with 44,000 trees from over 100 countries, making it one of the world’s largest living collections of rare, endangered and significant trees. Visitors can explore the 618-acre site by car, foot or horseback and download the augmented reality app to enjoy some digital extras. The pod playground is a must for families, featuring play equipment inspired by Australian fauna.
Lonsdale Street in the suburb of Braddon is the go-to for shopping – The Ori Building (named for the building’s origami-like folds) has homewares, fashion and design stores, and local favourite Frugii Dessert Laboratory, for a post breakfast ice cream hit. Pink Ink Boutique has high-end fashion, while Bison ceramics is the place to purchase some locally-made dishes or glassware to take home with you.
Where to eat and drink
The Cupping Room (thecuppingroom.com.au) is a Canberra institution widely believed to serve the best coffee in Australia. Start your day here.
A strip mall in the middle of the suburbs is not where you might expect to find one of the country’s most up-and-coming restaurants and yet... here it is. At Pilot (pilotrestaurant.com) lunch is a five-course experience and dinner a ten-course degustation. Don’t be alarmed: the dishes are politely sized, but not arrogantly (or judgmentally) small. The focus here is on artfully blending Asian and European flavours, local produce, and Australian wines, while using the wares of local Canberra artists and ceramicists. It makes this impressive fine-diner feel a lot like what it is: a local’s haunt.
Rebel Rebel’s (rebelrebeldining.com.au) rockstar chef and self-described oyster addict, Sean McConnell, serves only “absolutely flawless” oysters at this must-visit restaurant. The interior feels like the belly of a whale, with crisscrossing timber beams that were salvaged from one of the first post-war government housing estates in Australia.
The green leather booths at Bar Rochford (barrochford.com) are made from the same material that’s used in the House of Representatives, where it was chosen as a nod to both the British Parliament’s House of Commons and the green of the Australian bush. Bar Rochford is beloved Australia-wide for its expertly curated wine list that juggles the home-grown and the from-far-afield with aplomb – try the Mada Wines Sauvignon Blanc for an excellent local drop. People have been known to let loose up here; the dancing starts around 10pm on a Friday or Saturday night.
Where to stay
The Ovolo Nishi (ovolohotels.com/ovolo/nishi) building is a Japanese-inspired, sustainably produced, architectural jungle of wooden beams, clay and concrete. The grand staircase, which leads to the New Acton cultural precinct, is a mish-mash of jutting wooden beams. From the right angle it gives the impression of time whizzing past – it’s wild. The guest rooms are a spacious mix of concrete walls, enormous plush beds and mid-Century furniture. Tip: book directly through Ovolo to enjoy the minibar for free.
Choosing one of the diminutive rooms at Little National (littlenationalhotel.com.au) is a cost-effective and savvy choice for couples, solo travellers, or families with one child, who plan to spend the bulk of their time exploring Canberra and don’t need a spacious room in which to linger. The location is excellent for proximity to government buildings and museums, the rooms are stylish, and guests have free access to the five-star facilities of sister property, Realm, located just across the road.
Escape the city
It’s a 40-minute drive to Lake George Winery (lakegeorgewinery.com.au), known for its exceptional shiraz, riesling, pinot noir and tempranillo. In addition to wine tastings, the bistro is an ideal spot for an early dinner, as the sun sets over the vines. If you don’t want to schlep the 40-minutes back to the city after a long lunch (and accompanying wines), there is the option to make it a sleepover – guests can stay in the tiny, sustainable cottage, ‘Little George’.
Namadgi National Park is the only national park in the Australian Capital Territory and, at over 106 thousand hectares of bushland, takes up almost half of the ACT. Just 40 minutes by car from Canberra, the national park forms the northern tip of the Australian Alps, the tallest mountain ranges in the country. Things to do in the park include hitting 100 miles of walking trails, camping trips, mountain bike riding, and rock climbing. There are several waterfalls for the waterfall-chasers among us and over 200 recorded Aboriginal sites.