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Views over Canberra from Mount Ainslie

A guide to visiting Canberra, Australia’s capital city

This post was originally published on A Globe Well Travelled in 2018. The content has been revised and updated with fresh information.

I barely remember my first trip to Canberra as a teen.

Many Aussie kids will visit the country’s capital to learn about our national historyduring their education, but the school trip that I was on had much more interesting destinations (like Queensland’s Gold Coast with beaches and theme parks). As a result, I wasn’t all that intrigued with visiting the political inland city.

But when Rob and I moved back to Australia after two years of living abroad in New York, we were surprised to discover that some of our Sydney friends had now relocated to Canberra. This presented us with a reason to revisit the capital and see what had changed since our respective childhood visits.

Australian War Memorial in Canberra
Australian War Memorial

I have to admit, visiting Canberra as an adult was way more interesting. As a teenager I just didn’t really care about politics or history, but with an additional 14 years of life experience under my belt, I was much more interested to learn about the part my country played in world history.

The fact that I was now 18+ also made a huge difference to my experience. I could now enjoy things that I couldn’t before, like having a few cocktails in a rum bar on Saturday night or enjoying a fancy brunch on a Sunday morning. The added options that come with adulthood showed me a whole new side of Canberra that I hadn’t been able to experience last time.

Many visitors to Australia won’t bother including Canberra in their itinerary, but I honestly believe that this is a mistake. Canberra actually has a lot to offer visitors and it shouldn’t be skipped! It’s also super close to some of Australia’s ski fields, making it a great stop on the way to the snow in winter.

Hot air balloons over Canberra for Enlighten Festival
Hot air balloons over Canberra for Enlighten Festival

Why you should visit Canberra:

There are plenty of reasons to visit Canberra, but here’s my number one reason: It’s a true representation of an Aussie city. Sure, the other big cities of Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane are awesome places to visit, but Canberra is different in that it’s not a big city, and I think that’s a good thing.

The streets are wide and spacious, there are gum trees lining the major roads and bushy hills right next to downtown. It’s even likely that you’ll see wild kangaroos hopping about within the city limits. It’s the kind of place where you can see the ‘real’ Australia, if you get what I mean.

It also has some fabulous annual events such as the Floriade spring flower festival and the Enlighten Festival, which is held every autumn at various locations around the city.I hit up Canberra for Enlighten in 2020 and was really impressed! The sculptures on the art walk were superb, the beer garden offered delicious local brews, and the Balloon Spectacular event (where dozens of hot air balloons drift into the sky at sunrise) was absolutely worth getting up early for.

Canberra ARIA Hotel

Where to stay in Canberra:

We split our stay between a friend’s house in Braddon, and the Adina Serviced Apartments in Dickson, just north of the city. As we had a rental car, I was a little nervous about finding parking spots but luckily the hotel had secure undercover parking for guests.

Our room was super spacious and had a separate lounge area and kitchen. As we were both working during the weekdays, this place was perfect for us as it had a work desk and free WiFi. There was also a cute little cafe in the lobby which sold real coffee (I seriously can’t deal with instant coffee) and lunch foods with some veggie options.

Views over Canberra from Mount Ainslie at sunrise
Views over Canberra from Mount Ainslie at sunrise

How to get to Canberra:

Sydney is the closest major city to Canberra, and it takes 3 hours to drive between them. Driving from Melbourne is also possible, though it’s a much longer trip at around 7 hours.

There are frequent buses between Sydney and Canberra. The bus trip takes around 3-4 hours and the most basic tickets cost around $45 AUD one way. Check out the Murrays or Greyhound websites for bookings.

You can also fly into Canberra from most capital cities within Australia with Virgin or Qantas. Flights can be fairly expensive, but you might find a good deal if you book in advance.

If you’re more interested in a guided tour option, then you can hop on a Canberra day trip from Sydney which includes transport and access to the major sites.

How to get around Canberra:

Canberra is one of those places that is built for cars. Rob and I chose to rent a car from Sydney Airport to use during our trip to Canberra.

If you really don’t want to rent a car, then you can catch public transport – there are buses and even some light rail, though the system isn’t entirely useful for tourists. Here’s some info I wrote for australia.com on getting around Canberra.

Things to do in Canberra:

Australian War Memorial in Canberra
The Australian War Memorial

Australian War Memorial

Many foreigners might be surprised to know that Australia played a large part in both world wars. The Australian War Memorial is a large museum located inside a commemorative building. Keep in mind that it will probably take much more time to go through this memorial than you might expect.

I’m generally not all that interested in war memorials, but this one I really enjoyed. I didn’t spend too much time in the museum part, but I found the courtyard of the building to be incredibly beautiful and I thought the wall of poppies (officially called the ‘Roll of Honour’) was a thoughtful way of remembering those that lost their lives.

Old Parliament House, Canberra
Old Parliament House

Old Parliament House

It wouldn’t be a trip to Canberra without seeing the Parliament buildings. Old Parliament House was a temporary location for parliament from 1927 to 1988.

Nowadays, there’s a Museum of Australian Democracy inside the building as well as a lovely rose garden outside and a photogenic reflective pool out the front. I was also informed that the building now contains a popular bar out the back!

New Parliament House, Canberra
New Parliament House

New Parliament House

Located just behind Old Parliament House is the new Parliament House. This building opened in 1988 and looks pretty amazing from the front, with a grassy hill seemingly swallowing up the sides of the building.

There are free daily tours of Parliament House, or you can watch the House of Representatives or the Senate if Parliament is sitting on the days that you’re in Canberra. Check the calendar to see if this will be the case.

Views over Canberra from Mount Ainslie
Views over Canberra from Mount Ainslie

Mount Ainslie

I’m a sucker for a good vista point, and Mount Ainslie did not disappoint! This large hill sits just east of the city, and at the summit it has a lookout that lines up perfectly with the War Memorial and Parliament House. If you’re lucky, you might also spot some kangaroos on the drive up. There’s also the option of hiking up from the parking lot at the base, if you’re up for it.

The National Carillon at Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra, ACT
The National Carillon at Lake Burley Griffin

Lake Burley Griffin

This large, man-made lake is the centerpiece of Canberra. Many of the city’s attractions are positioned on the lakefront. You can enjoy the foreshore by going for a bike ride along the shoreline, walking out the National Carillon, or having a picnic lunch on the grass.

National Art Gallery, Canberra
National Gallery of Australia

As a fan of art, I knew I couldn’t visit Canberra without seeing the National Art Gallery. The gallery featured everything from impressionist Australian art to modern Aboriginal art, with art pieces varying from huge canvas paintings to tiny wooden sculptures. Don’t miss this place!

Lonsdale Street in Braddon, Canberra, ACT
Lonsdale Street in Braddon

Lonsdale Street

Rob and I went out to Lonsdale Street in Braddon on our first night, and it immediately became our favourite place to hang out in Canberra. The section of Lonsdale Street between Haig Park and Cooyong Street has a huge selection of coffee shops, restaurants, bars, breweries, brunch spots, and food trucks.

Other activities

Here are some activities that I didn’t get the time to do, but are worth doing if you have extra time to spend exploring Canberra:

*I was a guest of Visit Canberra during my stay in Canberra. I’m proud to be an honest and transparent blogger, so every opinion expressed on AGWT is a true review of my experience.

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