Here in Canberra there are so many attractions to visit and things to do, that it can be hard to know where to start. If you only have a few days or a weekend to have a quick visit, then where do you visit first? Of course this depends on your interests, as some people will go straight to the art galleries, whereas others will want to check out a few museums before heading out to see the national parks around the region. There are however at least 10 popular places and things to do that people like to do first, before they venture further afield and discover something new. Along the way you are sure to discover a tasty café, delicious coffee, friendly locals and a side of Canberra that you weren't expecting. Canberra is a particularly friendly city and everyone here is more than happy to give you directions or a hot local tip on where to go next. So get out amongst the community and get to know the city of Canberra, as well as its people.
1/ View The City From Above - When Canberra was designed by Walter Burley Griffin and his architect wife Marion Griffin in 1911, the city was based around triangles and shapes, with monuments and important landmarks lined up with each other across the city. When you drive around the planned city you get a good idea of the symmetry and formal layout, however it isn't until you see it from above that you really see how the city was planned out. A popular way to get up high is to drive up to Mount Ainslie Lookout, behind the Australian War Memorial, which looks directly down the centre axis of the city to Parliament House in the distance. From here you get an almost 360 degree view of Canberra and the surrounding region. There are also more lookouts at Mount Pleasant, Dairy Farmers Hill, Telstra Tower and Red Hill. See here for a full list.
Alternatively, if you want to get up early for a balloon flight, Balloons Aloft and Dawn Drifters are the two hot air balloon companies that can be seen in the skies every morning, high above the city in the first light of the day.
Get a different perspective from Mount Pleasant Lookout
2/ The Australian War Memorial is a "must see" for most people when they come to Canberra. If you have a particular interest or have a family member who has experienced war, then you could easily spend at least half a day, to a day at this museum. You can't helped be moved by the stories that are told, the sacrifices made, the heroism and the horror of the war. The interior of this museum is vast, with various rooms explaining different wars, videos to watch and interactive exhibits to make you experience the sights and sounds of wartime. See here for the Australian War Memorial details, with free entry.
If you have more time, stop for a light lunch at The Landing Place cafe inside the museum or venture next door to the colourful Poppy's Café. If you take a walk along Anzac Parade Memorial Walk in front of the museum, there are monuments and memorials for every war that Australia and New Zealand has fought in. Allow at least an hour to walk down one side and up the other and take in each memorial and read the inscriptions.
View of the Australian War Memorial from Anzac Parade
3/ Parliament House is another top attraction when people visit Canberra and rightly so - there is a lot to see. When you park under the building and walk up to the forecourt, you get the full impact of the iconic building on top of Capital Hill. You may even see news reporters out the front reporting for the national news. Don't be alarmed by the armed police at the front of the building, as they are the first to smile and welcome you to Parliament House. After you enter through Security and get your bags X-rayed you can then join a public tour or wander around inside on your own. Take a look in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, admire artworks, wander around exhibitions, look down into the courtyards and learn more about how parliament works. Joining a free public tour is recommended as you learn more than walking around on your own.
You can also enjoy a reasonably priced lunch at the Queen Terrace Café and also take a lift up to the roof of Parliament House, so you can walk around on the grass under the iconic flag on top of the building. Allow at least a couple of hours to explore this building. If you have extra time, the House of Representatives Formal Gardens around the side of the building is also worth the walk. See here for Parliament House details, with free entry.
4/ The National Gallery of Australia is a vast area to explore and contains some of the country's most important artworks. Walk through exhibitions of different art styles and periods on the different floors and appreciate the variety in one location. It is here that you can sit and admire a Monet impressionist artwork and then a short while later you could be admiring a light show by a contemporary artist. There are also temporary exhibitions with paid entry if you wish to go in, however there is at least a few hours of exploring to do around the free exhibits, if you appreciate art.
When you feel like a rest, stop for lunch at the Street Café outside the gallery or the NGA Café inside, which is spacious and comfortable. If you have time, walk around to the back of the building and admire the 26 sculptures in the Sculpture Garden, which includes Fog Sculpture by Fujiko Nakaya. Also out the front of the gallery is a Skyspace by James Turrell titled Within Without 2010, which is a spectacular piece of outdoor art that you can walk into. See here for the National Gallery of Australia details, with free entry.
5/ The National Museum of Australia is located in Acton, with views over Lake Burley Griffin. The building itself is iconic, with the orange Uluru Line twisting and turning above the building, representing Australia's heart and connection to Australia's indigenous people. This museum is another fascinating place to walk around, as it tells the story of Australia and all its different industries, history, people and inventions. Allow at least a couple of hours to walk around this museum, depending on what you find that interests you. When you feel like a rest, there is the Museum Café to enjoy lunch, with views out to Lake Burley Griffin. See here for the National Museum of Australia details, with free entry.
Entrance to the National Museum of Australia. Source: Wikapedia. Image by Myk Dowling - Own work
6/ Lake Burley Griffin is the recreational heart of Canberra, where every day locals and visitors can be seen jogging, bike riding and walking around its many paths. There are three cycling and walking loops around different areas of the lake if you wish to experience the city by foot - which is always the best way to see a city. The shortest walk is the 5km Central Loop which takes in both sides of the lake between the two bridges. Another way to experience the lake is on a lake cruise, with Canberra Southern Cross Cruises and Lake Burley Griffin Cruises the two companies that can take you around with commentary. A good place to introduce yourself to Lake Burley Griffin is to take a walk along Queen Elizabeth Terrace and stop for a gelato and just sit and watch the action go by. Alternatively you can enjoy a coffee with a view at many lake side cafes, or enjoy some fish and chips by the lake at Snapper on the Lake.
Enjoy a bike ride or walk along the scenic Queen Elizabeth Terrace
7/ Old Parliament House is another iconic building, that was used between 1927 to 1988 for Australia's government. It is now the Museum of Australian Democracy, where visitors can walk around the offices of Bob Hawke, walk through the meeting rooms, explore the House of Representatives and Senate chambers, go on a public tour and admire the artworks and sculptures inside the building. There are many areas to explore and you can also go down and walk in the internal courtyards, with Hoi Polloi restaurant located in one of these leafy courtyards. There is also the Terrace Café out the front of the iconic building for a casual bite to eat. Allow a couple of hours to have an overall visit of this museum, or longer if you have a particular interest. If you have brought your own lunch or want a quiet moment in the sun, then take a walk through the Old Parliament House Gardens either side of the building. See here for the details of Old Parliament House, with $2 entry.
Old Parliament House - The Museum of Australian Democracy
8/ The National Arboretum is set up high on a hill overlooking Canberra and has forests of endangered trees growing in various locations around the scenic property. Take the twisty road up the hill and admire the views over the city from this high vantage point. When you get to the top, the Visitors Centre has Pod Playground for the kids to play on, Sprout Café and Conservatory restaurant, a gift shop and maps of walks in the area. You can take a tour and walk to various forests and hear the stories of the critical and endangered species of trees grown there. You can also walk through and admire The National Bonsai and Penjing Collection.
Throughout the year and school holidays there are events held around the property, including the the Warm Trees installation (where the trees are wrapped in colourful scarves) and Voices in the Forest operatic performances. Two other areas of the property which are idyllic to stop at are Dairy Farmers Lookout and the Himalayan Cedar Forest BBQ area. Allow an hour or so to explore the property, depending on your interest. See here for details of the National Arboretum, with free entry.
10/ Events in Canberra are a great time to visit the Capital so you can combine an event with touring the region. Almost every weekend the city comes to life with events, markets and festivals to enjoy. The main ones that attract thousands of people each year are Summernats(January), The National Multicultural Festival (February), Enlighten (March), Canberra Balloon Spectacular (March), The Truffle Festival (June to August), The World Curry Festival (July), The Winter Festival (June to July) and Floriade (September - October). This is just a taste of the main festivals in the city, however there events held throughout the year that celebrate the wine region, movie events at outdoor cinema's, markets, cultural festivals, expo's and more. Why not combine a trip to Canberra with one of these unique festivals, to get you out and about with Canberra's locals.