Heart of the Nation
Canberra is a capital place to learn about Australia's history, writes Danielle Norton.
Canberra is brimming with new and modern hotels, bars and breweries. But that's only one side of a city so steeped in Australia, every corner contains another piece of our nation's heritage. Of course, there's the house on the hill. Two, if you include old Parliament House. But even being at the centre of the nation's politics isn't all there is to know about Canberra. It's an art city. A foodie hangout. A cultural capital. A rural centre. Hard to pack it all in.
Here's our guide to the best of our capital.
Canberra is a favourite for school trips because there are so many opportunities to learn about the legacies of our past. This meticulously planned city, designed by American architect Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin, was built on the lands of the Ngunawal.
Indigenous organisation Thunderstone operates Dhawura Tours which visits sites of cultural significance for the Ngunawal people in and around the city. Thunderstone's experienced Aboriginal guides interpret the landscape, share stories and teach visitors about traditional bush food sources, explaining the importance of flora and fauna for local Indigenous groups.
The National Capital Exhibition on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin explores why the area was chosen for Australia's capital in 1908 and covers the new city's construction. You can see the scale models of the uniquely orchestrated, modern city and an interactive display reveals how it has changed over time. Free tours are conducted daily at 11am.
Nearby, the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) is home to works across the breadth of Australia's artistic history and is a premier destination for international exhibitions. Next year, the gallery will host Botticelli to Van Gogh, a collection of 60 masterpieces from the National Gallery, London, which will be the largest group of the gallery's works to travel outside of the UK. The NGA also holds over 7500 pieces by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists - the largest Australian Indigenous art collection in the world (pictured below).
The Australian War Memorial (pictured above) is a place of national pride and can evoke intense emotional responses from visitors. It honours every one of the many thousands of people who fought wars for the freedom that Australians enjoy today. Visit the halls and gallery spaces that commemorate fallen soldiers on either a guided tour or a self-paced audio tour. Just before five o'clock every afternoon, the Last Post Ceremony celebrates and remembers the story of an individual serviceperson from the list of names on the Roll of Honour.
The current Parliament House was officially opened by the Queen in 1988. Even today, history is being made here as new laws are debated and accepted. Guided tours of the significant spaces of parliament run regularly but must be booked in advance through the website aph.gov.au. When parliament is sitting, members of the public can observe the question time shenanigans from the gallery. From the steps of Parliament House, you can survey the layout of the city in all its symmetrical glory. A similarly satisfying view is available from the Mt Ainslie lookout, which aligns with Anzac Parade, over the lake and across to Old Parliament House.
On Saturdays, historic workers cottage Blundell is open to visitors. Venture back to the times when homes were merely shelters from the elements. The 1860 stone dwelling, one of very few to survive in the region, is an example of typical homes of the era: there was no electricity, gas or sewerage connected.
A 30-minute drive out of town in Tharwa, Lanyon Homestead is a convict-era pastoral property near the Murrumbidgee River. You can visit the homestead, outbuildings and stunning gardens of the property for an insight into the lifestyle of the inhabitants who lived here well before Canberra was established. The property is especially beautiful in spring (which also coincides with Floriade, Canberra's annual flower festival) when the orchards and bulbs burst into bloom.
The Canberra Hotel in Yarralumla was the first hotel to be built in the nation's new capital. It was designed by the Commonwealth's chief architect, John Smith Murdoch, in the 1920s. During the Depression, The Canberra Hotel was one of only two hotels to remain open.
Shut down in the 1970s, the hotel was restored to its former glory in the 1980s, emerging as the five-star Hyatt. These days, the Art Deco hotel is as grand and impressive as ever. The rooms are luxurious with marble bathrooms and deep tubs.
Caphs in Manuka is an indoor/outdoor cafe in a heritage-listed building. Trading since 1926, the oldest cafe venue in town serves all-day breakfast and has options for even the fussiest member of your family.
European-style steakhouse Charcoal was one of the first restaurants to open in Civic's historic Melbourne building in 1962. The restaurant serves modern Australian fare, showcasing an exceptional range of steak cuts from Oakey Angus Reserve, one of Australia's finest producers.
In Kingston, Canberra's oldest suburb, you will find Canberra's oldest pub, the Kingston Hotel. First opened in 1936 after government laws restricting 'drinking only' establishments were lifted, The Kingston is the longest continuously operating pub in the capital. A favourite of many political wheeler-dealers over the years, the pub is a place of celebration for the famous and the general public.
- Restrictions to limit the spread of coronavirus apply to many of Canberra's attractions, so check before you go. Visitors are asked to hand sanitise and social distance. Pre-booking of tours is encouraged.
Take me there
- Drive: If you're coming from north of Canberra take the Hume Highway, then the Federal Highway. As you approach Canberra, look out for turn-offs to the region's vineyards - a perfect pit stop.
- Stay: The Hyatt Hotel Canberra has rooms starting from $268 for a King Room to $1168 for a Diplomatic Suite.
- Cost: Entry to the National Capital Exhibition, the War Memorial, Parliament House and Blundells Cottage are free of charge.
- Explore more: visitcanberra.com.au