Why everyone must visit Canberra – the nation’s capital – at least once

After decades of travel, it’s hard to believe that I hadn’t been to the capital of Australia. I soon discovered that many other Perth travellers hadn’t made the journey to Canberra either, and it was time to break the trend. 

Firstly, let’s address the elephant in the room. Canberra has an underwhelming reputation and was only named the capital in 1913 as a compromise between Melbourne and Sydney. Despite hosting the government of Australia, not even the prime minister lives there. The city planners did an incredible job of orchestrating a roadmap that works; if only more cities were so well arranged or as pretty, since it’s nestled in a valley bordered by mountain ranges that are snow-capped in winter.

Although Canberra teems with restaurants, bars, high-end shops and fancy hotels, it doesn’t roll out the red carpet. There’s no opera house, but there are two parliament houses. The coast is a couple of hours away, but Lake Burley Griffin glistens at its cosmopolitan centre, beckoning for leisurely cruises and bordered by museums, galleries, iconic landmarks, cafes and parks. 

Inside the Old Parliament House

To gain a sense of Canberra’s orderliness, take the five-kilometre return trail up Mount Ainslie, but if you’re short on time, you can save yourself the sweaty trek and drive up as we did.

From the moment you arrive, it’s clear everyone has a purpose for calling Canberra home, whether for study, work, family or politics. It oozes industrious energy, an energy this 100 per cent renewable city is renowned for, enhanced by the refreshing aroma of eucalyptus in the air – I’ve never known a city that smells so good. It’s not uncommon to see suits zooming along on e-scooters, which you can hire from the Visitors Centre or pick up the abandoned ones along the tree-lined streets. 

With 70 per cent of the ACT dedicated to parks, the ultimate green space is the 250-hectare National Arboretum, adorned with more than 44,000 rare and endangered trees, and over 20km of magical forest trails. Canberra’s wine region almost converted me into a Chardonnay drinker, which I recommend sampling along with a degustation menu at Poacher’s Ridge. Or a tasting at Eden Road where rumour has it the winemaker was poached from Pierro Wines in Margaret River. Most of Canberra’s wine region is technically in New South Wales, and crossing the border into another state within an hour is a novel concept for any Western Australian. 

We got our gallery and museum quota up for the year at the National Portrait Gallery, where many a patron has admired Hugh Jackman’s beauty and Julia Gillard’s vulnerable portrait taken the day after her political career dissolved. The National Gallery of Australia inspired with Russell Drysdale’s The Drover’s Wife, Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly collection and the Aboriginal Memorial installation of 200 hollow log coffins from Central Arnhem Land. The Sculpture Garden bordering Lake Burley Griffin invites a wander among masterpieces by French sculptors Auguste Rodin, Aristide Maillol and Gaston Lachaise.

You can visit the current parliament house, but we chose the Museum of Australian Democracy – Old Parliament House – for a snapshot of the Bob Hawke era. The excessive 80s lingered in the air. It was as though everyone had gone home for the weekend and left their weekly debris of coffee cups, manual typewriters, landline dial phones, jackets slung over the backs of retro chairs and ashtrays overflowing with cigarettes. If you remember or used any of these items, you’ll get a kick out of this museum.

However, if you only have time to see one museum, make it the Australian War Memorial – and this alone is a reason to visit Canberra. Two-hour timed tickets must be booked in advance; two hours certainly isn’t enough time to see everything. You’ll be moved to tears from the start, especially by the letters between the soldiers and their loved ones. Millions of memorabilia share the confronting history of war throughout the ages, including current conflicts. 

Australian War Memorial

The extensive archive, museum and majestic shrine honour countless acts of bravery; Australia wouldn’t be the free country it is today without their ultimate sacrifice. Lest we forget.

Fast Facts:

We enjoyed a glorious stay at A by Adina for its spacious room, kitchenette and sleek décor. On my wish list for my next trip to Canberra are the iconic Ovolo Nishi and the Jamala Wildlife Lodge, where you can mingle with the other furry guests, like giraffes, tigers, sharks, monkeys and meerkats safely from behind your room’s window. In the time it takes you to drive from Perth to Margaret River, you can drive from Sydney to Canberra, stopping at quaint country towns past grazing cattle and rural vistas.