Surrounded by rolling hills, vineyards and family farms, Canberra is affectionately known as Australia’s bush capital. While it may be less familiar to international visitors than Sydney or Melbourne, the city is packed with attractions for travelers looking to eat, drink, and explore something a little bit different.
Canberra sits within the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), which was created in 1911, but the city didn’t truly come into its own until the 1950s. Thanks to smart urban planning, it offers a uniquely Australian experience, from renowned national museums and galleries to nature reserves crowded with kangaroos.
Many of the attractions are clustered inside the Parliamentary Triangle on the south side of Lake Burley Griffin, making it an easy day out for visitors of all ages. Discover everything Canberra has to offer with our guide to the capital’s must-see experiences.
Drink a Flat White
Canberra’s coffee culture is legendary, with many locals picking up freshly roasted, barista-made coffee on their way to work each morning. The 2015 World Barista Champion Sasa Sestic calls the city home, working behind the scenes at his cafes, The Cupping Room and ONA Manuka.
Other local players like Barrio Collective and Coffee Lab stay ahead of the curve with innovative blends and house-made milk alternatives. For the authentic Australian coffee experience, order a flat white (similar to a small latte, but with less foam.)
Learn About Australian Democracy
As a parliamentary democracy, Australia takes the inspiration for its government from both England and the U.S. It’s a two-party system in which voting is compulsory, with the federal government sitting right here in Canberra. Visitors can explore both the current Parliament House and Old Parliament House, which now acts as the Museum of Australian Democracy.
The easiest way to visit Parliament House is on a free guided tour, starting at 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 2.:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. daily. The tour visits both chambers of Parliament (on non-sitting days), the Marble Foyer, the Great Hall, Members Hall, and highlights of the Parliament House Art Collection. The Museum of Australian Democracy is also open daily, with a variety of engaging exhibitions on display for a small entrance fee.
Shop at the Weekend Markets
Despite its relatively small population, Canberra punches above its weight when it comes to creativity and community, and you can experience both at the weekly Capital Region Farmers Market and Old Bus Depot Market.
Sample the region’s fresh produce at the Farmers Market every Saturday 7:30am to 11:30am; including Bread Nerds bagels, handmade brownie sandwiches from The Hungry Brown Cow, Gum Tree Pies and dips and olives from Tilba Real Dairy. On Sunday from 10am to 4pm, the capital’s art lovers and fashionistas congregate at the Old Bus Depot in the hip inner south suburb of Kingston. There’s plenty of delicious local food available here, too.
Bike Around Lake Burley Griffin
With dedicated biking lanes and few hills, Canberra is designed to be explored on two wheels. Riding around its sparkling central lake, named after the American architect who won the competition to plan the city, is the perfect way to see the sights and soak up the sunshine without breaking a sweat.
Cyclists can choose between the 10-mile western loop, the 3-mile central loop (also known as the bridge-to-bridge) and the 5.5-mile eastern loop, passing by various cafes, parks, and national institutions. Many hotels have bike hire stations through Share A Bike, which are also open to the general public. You can also take your bike on public transport to get around the city.
Meet the Wildlife
With kangaroos routinely grazing in the backyards and sports fields of the suburbs, Canberra is an Aussie stereotype come true. Just to the south of the city, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve and Namadgi National Park are your best bet to spot koalas, swamp wallabies, eastern grey kangaroos, echidnas, wombats, emus, pygmy possums, and reptiles.
Each park has a visitor’s center where you can pick up maps, register your camping plans, or join ranger-led activities. You can also learn about the history of the indigenous Ngunnawal people and neighboring clans, with archaeological sites showing a presence for at least 21,000 years in the area.
Play With Science at Questacon
Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre, is a wonderland of experiments and experiences for kids of all ages. There are live demonstrations as well as a huge range of interactive exhibits designed to teach science in an inventive way, exploring music, food, and space as well as more traditional concepts like electricity and gravity.
Highlights include the Caged Lightning display, the Earthquake Lab, and the 20-foot Free Fall. Ticket costs are on the more expensive side, with adults paying AU$23 and children AU$17.50, but a visit to Questacon will keep the whole family happy for hours.
Visit the Australian War Memorial
As a newly federated member of the British Commonwealth, Australia’s involvement in both World Wars was formative in the nation’s history. The War Memorial is a fittingly moving tribute to the horrors of Australia's involvement in these and many other conflicts, with permanent exhibitions and galleries as well as the Roll of Honor and the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, located in the Hall of Memory.
Entry to the War Memorial is free. Afterward, take a walk past the monuments on Anzac Parade, finishing up your afternoon on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin.
Explore the Nation’s Art Collection
Canberra is a dream destination for connoisseurs of art and culture. The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) houses a large collection of important pieces by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists like Albert Namatjira and Trevor Nickolls, as well as works by non-Indigenous Australians including Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and Grace Crowley. Make sure to wander through the Sculpture Garden by the lake, too.
Then, head over to the Portrait Gallery to marvel at over 3,500 depictions of the people who have influenced or contributed to Australia’s national identity. Both galleries are open every day and entry is free. However, the Portrait Gallery is temporarily closed for rectification work until August 2019.
Learn About Australia’s History at the National Museum
With its half-circular shape and sweeping red loop sculpture, the National Museum is one of the most distinctive building is in Canberra. Inside, you’ll find intriguing temporary exhibitions and a collection of more than 210,000 objects representing Australia’s ancient and modern history. From the prototype for the bionic ear to Evonne Goolagong Cawley’s tennis racquet to Captain Cook’s navigational instruments, this free museum has something to interest everyone.
Take a Break at the National Botanic Gardens
At the Australian National Botanic Gardens, you’ll be transported from the rainforest to the red center, thanks to their diverse collection of native plants. The gardens also preserve plants threatened in the wild to help protect them against extinction, as well as providing habitat for a range of butterflies, reptiles, and birds.
Free daily guided walks leave from the Visitor Center at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and the Flora Explorer electric mini bus sets off at 10: 30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays.
Meet a Koala at the National Zoo and Aquarium
Visitors can get up close and persona with exotic and native animals at the National Zoo and Aquarium. The adorable dingos, little penguins, tree kangaroos, and baby giraffe are some of the zoo’s most popular attractions, as are the majestic white lions.
What sets the Canberra Zoo apart are its up-close-and-personal encounters, including meeting cheetah cub Solo and his canine friend, Zama. Close encounters can sell out, especially on weekends, so it is recommended to book in advance. General admission is $AU44.50 for adults and AU$23.50 for children, with additional costs for tours and close encounters.
Take in the Views at Telstra Tower
The iconic Telstra Tower was opened on the summit of Black Mountain in 1980 as a radio communication facility. On top of its practical duties, the 640-foot tower serves as Canberra’s best lookout point, with an indoor observation deck and two outdoor viewing platforms offering views across the lake and sprawling city. Admission costs AU$7.50 for adults and AU$3 for kids.
Watch the Sunset from Mount Ainslie
Close to the city center, Mount Ainslie is a local favorite for hiking, and at 2,765 feet, the peak has unparalleled views of the city, iconic monuments, and the surrounding farmland. The 2.5-mile return trail starts from behind the War Memorial off Treloar Crescent, but the lookout can also be reached by car. The neighboring Mount Majura is a slightly higher, more challenging option, with its less-frequented trail offering a better chance to spot local wildlife.
Drink Your Way Around the Capital’s Wineries
As a cool climate wine region, Canberra and the neighboring towns of Gundaroo and Murrumbateman are rapidly gaining a reputation for their exquisite Shiraz, Riesling, Viognier and Tempranillo grapes.
There are over 30 wineries within a half hour drive of the city, including the award-winning Clonakilla (cellar door open ever day), along with Tallagandra Hill (open Saturday and Sunday), and Four Winds Vineyard (open Thursday to Monday), which serve up delicious lunches to accompany the wine tasting.
Eat Brunch in Braddon
Like coffee, brunching is a Canberra tradition. The cafes of Lonsdale Street in the artsy inner north suburb of Braddon are at the center of the city’s food culture, with significant contributions from the Mocan and Green Grout in the NewActon precinct and outposts Stand By Me and Kettle and Tin south of the lake. Order smashed avocado on toast for a healthy start to the day or an egg and bacon roll for a true Aussie brekky.