Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra
Not all travellers make a point of stopping in Canberra, even though it’s Australia”s capitol. It has a reputation for being dull – full of stuffy museums, old people and politicians. That’s not entirely untrue, but it’s not the whole picture.
There are enough museums in Canberra to keep you busy for two or three full days and they aren’t all covered in dust and spider webs. In facty, Canberra has some of the most beautiful and innovative museums that I found in Australia.
In terms of scenery, Lake Burley Griffin is a beautiful place for a picnic or bike ride and City Walk is ideal for afternoon coffee at an outdoor cafe or a little shopping. But the fun doesn’t stop there. Oh no.
Now, granted, during the three days I spent there I had the benefit of my own personal tour guide. Tim isn’t an official Canberra tour guide, (I met him at a friend’s party in Bondi), but he’s lived in the area for a few years, which is more than enough time to know where all the good sights are. He’s a cool guy to hang out with, as long as you don’t mind planning your sightseeing around his cricket schedule.
Getting around Canberra by yourself, assuming you can’t find a spunk of your own to play chauffeur, isn’t too difficult. Many places of interest are within walking distance of the CBD (central business district) and several bus routes cover the surrounding areas. Check the ACTion website or go to a local information center for a map of routes.
Where to Stay
Stay at Tim’s house. He cooks and has a lovely selection of movies. If his guest room isn’t available though, you do have a few other options.
The Canberra YHA is supposedly one of the nicest in the country. It’s not in the most convenient location, but if you have a car or if you don’t mind a short bus ride from downtown it’s doable.
There are several other hostels and a smattering of B&B’s around town. I chose the Victor Lodge because it was recommended in Lonely Planet, but I’m not sure if LP actually saw the place before writing it up. The Lodge is located in the Kingston neighborhood, about a 20-minute walk to Parliament House. It was clean-ish but the rooms are less than comfortable, even for a cheap hostel. It’s just a short walk from the train station though, which is a bonus.
One of the best reasons to go to Canberra is that most of the things you’ll want to see and do there are free or very cheap. That means free places to sit and use a clean bathroom, something every budget traveller can appreciate. Donations are appreciated at some places, like the War Memorial and the National Museum, or you can drop a couple of dollars on postcards at the gift shops.
My first stop was Parliament House. Free tours start every half hour between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and last 50 minutes. If you don’t have the attention span for that then start your own tour outside and walk right up to the top of the building. Yes, it’s built into a hillside and you used to be able to have a picnic or just run and tumble all around it, but the hillside was blocked off as part of the capitol’s anti-terrorist program in 2005.
Stop by the Queen’s Terrace Cafe for a view of, well, trees and grass, since that’s most of what Canberra is, and get some of their yummy fries too.
Walking out of Parliament House you can walk straight ahead to Old Parliament House. There is an admission charge here, so if you aren’t up for more history, skip it and go across the street to the way cooler Aboriginal Tent Embassy. These two shacks have been here since 1972, although the Australian Government has never officially recognized them.
Aboriginal Tent Embassy
The National Gallery is a short walk from here and it’s another freebie. Exhibits range from African tribal art to Monets, Pissaros, Rothkos and Warhols. There’s even a Man Ray! Take that New York!
Around the CBD
For the downtown area of a world capitol, the few blocks of the CBD are fairly dry. There’s a shopping mall (with a really good food court) and a Target, but it’s still a very small town. There aren’t any skyscrapers, no roaming gangs of teenagers and not even a whole lot of graffiti.
Around the mall is City Walk, a pedestrian mall (every Australian city has one) with a series of bookshops, cafes, music stores, pubs, fancy restaurants, skateboarders and plenty of benches. It’s a pleasant place to sit and people watch while you’re sipping a smoothie and waiting for film to be developed.
If you’re tired of walking by now, bus 34 will take you from here downtown and on to the Botanic Gardens, but it only runs every half hour so keep a schedule handy.
From the CBD, bus #3 runs directly to the (very cool and very free) National Museum of Australia. Once there you’re treated to all the air-conditioning you can handle and a short introductory film in a revolving theater. I liked it. It’s a ride, but it’s a show, but you learn stuff too.
The museum was written up in all my guidebooks as being modern and innovative and breathtaking and it lived up to every word. You could spend half an hour just outside the museum, taking in its shape and colors and the huge map of the Northern Territory you can climb and run around on in the courtyard. Inside, the exhibits are big and bold and interactive and there’s so many things to look at and do I hardly knew where to look next. You can sit in a cave-like room and listen to Aboriginal fables and folklore, watch Vegemite commercials from the past 50 years, or study the heart of racehorse Phar Lap, preserved since his mysterious death in 1932. I had no idea horse hearts were so huge.
Australian War Memorial
The Australian War Memorial is a must-see and two of the bus lines go there. It looks simple, almost small from outside, but inside is room after room of artifacts, dioramas, planes, trucks, tanks and information about every major conflict the Australians have had a part in. The courtyard houses an eternal flame along with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and two walls of names of soldiers who died in battle.
My last official act as a tourist was to drive (ok, to look out the window as Tim did the driving, which is good since the whole left-side-of-the-road thing would be a disaster for me) past the row of embassies on Adelaide Avenue. Some look like regular homes or office buildings but others are works of art. The Chinese embassy is highly decorated and well maintained, the U.S. embassy could be a mansion from a southern plantation and the High Commission of Papua New Guinea was built as a Haus Tamberan, or Spirit House. This one is a Tim Tour special, as it so happens he grew up in PNG and speaks Pidgin English. Did you even know it was a real language or that they spoke it there? Liar.
We went in and chatted with the ambassador’s assistant (well, they Pigeoned, I smiled and nodded and thought about doing the Bert and Ernie p-p-pigeon dance) then took a peek at all the masks and instruments and other artifacts on display in the visitor’s center. All beautiful stuff.
Well, it’s Canberra. So if you can find a VCR or DVD player, that’s a pretty good plan for an exciting evening. If you’re still riding high from nights out in Sydney or Mellie then try one of these “hot spots” around town.
In the CBD you’ll find several pubs and bars, an art house movie theater and a few decent restaurants. If you want cheap, the Pancake Parlor is nearby and that’s where Tim the Tour Guide took me on my second night for a meal that put IHOP to shame.
The Monuka area has a variety of restaurants: Thai, Indian, Italian, Australian (roo burgers and lamb’s brains) and another art house theater. It’s an up-and-coming kind of area with lots of young people sitting outside sipping margaritas and martinis, enjoying the last hours of sunlight.
If you want to keep up the sightseeing after the sun goes down, head to Mt. Ainslie. During the day you can see all of the big landmarks, but at night the stars look close enough to touch from the lookout and the roos come out to play.
The Telstra Tower is another lookout point. It’s a crazy alien-esque structure that you can see from most places in town. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it take off on a mission to Mars, straight out of the hillside.
Canberra Quick Links:
Places I Missed, But You Shouldn’t: