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Quick Guide: 10 Highlights of Visiting Parliament House

Home > Canberra > Disabled Access | Indoor | Museums | Rainy Day | Lists
by Sue W (subscribe)
New to Canberra, I love exploring this city and the secrets that it holds with my family.
Published October 12th 2016
Catch a lift up to the flag & run on the rooftop
When people visit Canberra, Parliament House is often at the top of everyone's "to do" list. Most of us are intrigued to know what it looks like inside the iconic building and to know a little more about what happens within its walls. The building itself, which opened in 1988, is an impressive sight to see on top of Capital Hill, with its white façade reflecting the light and the large Australian flag proudly waving on top. Inside there are 4,700 rooms and it cost 1.1 billion dollars to build. Only one-fifth of the building is open to the public, however it is a large space to explore. So what are the highlights to see when you get there? Here is a quick list of (my personal) highlights that you will see as you walk through the building, however everyone will discover their own favourite attractions. Allow a few hours - there is a lot to discover.

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Take a walk around the expansive forecourt of Parliament House


1/ The Forecourt
After you park your car under Parliament House and walk up to ground level to get to the entrance, the forecourt is a huge expanse that invites you to walk all around it. A highlight of the forecourt has a mosaic dot painting, which recognises the long history of Aboriginal culture in Australia. The mosaic is designed by Indigenous artist Michael Nelson Jagamara, a leading artist from the Papunya community of the Northern Territory, and is based on his painting Possum and Wallaby Dreaming (1985). For more details about the Forecourt Mosaic, see here.

2/ The Marble Foyer
After you walk through security and get your bags X-rayed, the large foyer opens up in front of you with high ceilings, long marble pillars and sweeping staircases up each side. It is tempting to run your hands along the cool marble banisters, which are so beautifully crafted. The use of marble and timber in the main foyer is said to provide a link to the arrival of Europeans to Australia and also creates a cool environment to walk into on a hot summer day. See here for more details.

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View from Parliament House back down to the Forecourt Mosaic


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The marble foyer of Parliament House


3/ Tours

As shown in the photo above, the Information Desk is located below the staircase in the foyer and this is where you can find out more about the free tours available. The tours of Parliament House are held every day, except Christmas Day, at 9.30am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm, and 3.30pm. They last for 40 minutes and they are worth waiting around for, to get an insight into this building and the "behind the scenes" stories of parliament. If you want an in-depth tour, they also provide paid longer tours. See the Parliament House Tours website here.

4/ Garden Tours
Each spring time, Parliament House offers tours of the internal courtyards, to show off their spectacular colour and formal design. There are 19 courtyards inside the building, with the tours visiting 13 of them. In many of the courtyards there are tinkling water features, so that politicians can secretly talk to each other, without the fear of being overheard. The horticulturists that work on the gardens also take "Meet The Gardener Tours", if you have specific questions about the flowers in the gardens. See the Parliament House website here for Visitor Events.

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Source: Parliament House website


5/ Arthur Boyd and The Great Hall Tapestry

When you walk up the staircase behind the Information Desk and turn right, you will find large scale artworks outside the Great Hall. One of these artworks is Arthur Boyd's "Untitled (Shoalhaven Landscape)" (1984). This artwork was chosen to be made into a floor to ceiling tapestry by the Victorian Tapestry Workshop for the Great Hall inside. The Hall is open to the public to view this large scale tapestry, when it is not used for dignitaries' events. See here for more details on Arthur Boyd and The Great Hall Tapestry.

6/ Senate and the House of Representatives
After walking past art exhibitions and informative panels to read about the workings of parliament, you reach the Senate and House of Representatives at the end of the first floor. When parliament isn't in session, visitors can sit up in the Chamber Public Galleries and look down on each room. If you visit when parliament is in session you need to walk through a second set of security screenings before you can enter. See here for more information about watching from the galleries whilst Parliament in session.

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Untitled (Shoalhaven Landscape) (1984), by Arthur Boyd. Parliament House Art Collection


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Note the Chamber Public Galleries at the top of the Senate. Source: About the House: Australian Parliament - House of Representatives Facebook


7/ Portraits in the Members Hall

As you walk between the Senate and the House of Representatives through the Members Hall, there are portraits of previous prime ministers and significant people in history, painted by a variety of different artists in different styles. It is interesting to walk along and see the likeness of each one, noting the formal styles of the older paintings compared to the more informal artworks of the recent additions. See here for more details of the Historical Memorial Collection.

8/ Rooftop
Whilst in the Members Hall, you will find the lift to take you up to the grassy rooftop, where visitors can get a 360 degree view of the city as well as looking up to the flag above, 81 metres up in the air. For tourists and locals, this gives a different perspective on the city, where you can easily see all the other landmarks around the Capital from this unique lookout. Kids in particular enjoy running on the grassy rooftop and getting some fresh air.

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The Honourable Dame Quentin Bryce AD CVO, by Ralph Heiman (2014). Parliament House Art Collection


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Enjoy the views over the city from the rooftop


9/ Tom Roberts "The Big Picture"

After coming back down to the first floor, it is a short walk to the foyer to the Main Committee Room to see this iconic painting by one of Australia's most famous artists. Even if you don't like art in particular, most people are impressed by this large painting by Australian artist Tom Roberts (1856 - 1931). The painting shows the "Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by His Royal Highness the Duke of Cornwall and York, 9th of May, 1901" (1903) - which is also the long title of the painting. The fascinating aspect of this work is that Roberts has painted miniature portraits of every single person who was present for this auspicious occasion, which took him two years to complete. See here for more information on "The Big Picture".

10/ Queens Terrace Café
This scenic café is located back at the top of the marble stairs, on the first floor where you began. It is the ideal spot to finish your time at Parliament House, to have a rest and choose from delicious dessert items, lunchtime sandwiches or light meals from their menu. The most inviting place to sit on a warm day is the outside courtyard, with plenty of seating and umbrellas to sit under. See here for the Queens Terrace Café website.

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The Big Picture by Tom Roberts ((1903). Parliament House Art Collection. This painting can be viewed over two levels.


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Have a break at the Queens Terrace Cafe


Also a sneaky No. 11 to this list, if you have some extra time, is the House of Representatives Formal Gardens, to the side of Parliament House. These stunning gardens are often used for weddings and events, however the rest of the time they are open for the public to enjoy. Allow some time and walk around these gardens and the whole Parliament House property - who knows what fascinating highlights you will discover for yourself?

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Discover the beauty of the House of Representatives Formal Gardens

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Why? See where Australia's decisions are made - and discover more!
When: 9am - 5pm
Phone: Visitor Services: 02 6277 5399
Where: Parliament House, Parliament Drive, Canberra ACT 2600
Cost: Free entry
Your Comment
Another good article, Sue - I've never been to Canberra, but must admit when reading your articles, I almost feel like I know it well already - well done!
by Elaine (score: 3|4062) 346 days ago
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