Last week I was picking up a cheeky Viognier at my local bottle shop when I noticed that the bloke lining up in front of me was wearing a Canberra Raiders rugby jersey.
“You from Canberra?” I asked. “Oh no,” he replied. “I just liked the colours.”
“I’m from Canberra,” I said.
“I went there once,” he said. “It was closed.”
Oh ha ha.
It’s a widespread attitude, and one that has Aussies telling visitors to the country that the last place they should visit is Canberra. Overseas visitors often compromise by taking a day tour to Canberra from Sydney, dropping into the top sights like Parliament House and the War Memorial. And most of them leave agreeing with Sydneysiders who mock Canberra’s sterility.
|Parliament House in Canberra|
They’ve got a point. Canberra isn’t necessarily worth visiting. Bear with me here: If you’ve only got a day spare, you’re better off spending it at Royal National Park or on the beach. But if you have a few days, Canberra can be a real delight, a combination of slick city class, breath-taking museums, unspoiled bushland and dorky country charm.Canberra is two cities. There’s the city that was built to administer the country, the fly-in, fly-out workplace of politicians and high-ranking public servants, the monuments of the Parliamentary Triangle and the gleaming, expense-account lunch restaurants of Manuka and Kingston.
Then there’s the Canberra where people actually live, the leafy established inner suburbs with their alternative restaurants and friendly bars, the stretches of bushland that break up Canberra’s satellite cities, and the quirky suburban shopping centres, some flourishing, some on the brink of death.
Over the next few days, you’ll be visiting both cities. This itinerary takes in Canberra’s top sights as well as letting you in on a few of the city’s secrets. Thanks to Canberra’s less-than-stellar public transport system, you’ll need a car for some of the far-flung spots.
The National Museum of Australia has been a lightning rod for controversy since it opened in 2001. Previous Prime Minister John Howard didn’t like its ‘black armband’ view of history – too much focus on genocide and guilt, he thought, and not at all something you’d want to take your family to visit. He used his influence to tone down some of the exhibits at the museum, but it still has a non-conventional (and some might say haphazard) take on the country’s history.
Before you head off, drop into one of the museum’s cafes and pick up a few things for a picnic lunch. If it’s a nice day, we’re going down to the river. Out by the New South Wales border on the north-west side of Canberra, Uriarra Crossing is the spot where the Uriarra Road meets the Murrumbidgee River, and in Canberra it’s what passes for a beach. Uriarra Crossing is the stuff of childhood memories – floating down the river on a blow-up mattress, waving flies away from a lunch of charred sausages, having a hit of cricket on the grassy banks.
If you’re super organized you can cook your own barbecue down here – there are basic grills, and piles of wood scattered around the place. Otherwise, slip into your swimming costume in the public toilet block and spend an hour or so mucking about in the river. Then unpack the picnic lunch and try to elbow in on someone else’s game of cricket or football, or just have a nap in some soft grass under the pine trees.
If the weather is a bit chilly for a swim, the Australian National Botanic Gardens is a great spot to visit, with a secluded rainforest gully, towering eucalypts spotted over sweeping lawns and a very nice café.
Head back into the city in the late afternoon, wash off the river water and frock up for a visit to one of Canberra’s secretive suburban restaurants. In the northern suburb of Hawker, Rocksalt sits between a takeaway chicken joint and a butcher shop and still manages to seem both classy and relaxed. Specialising in duck, this modern Australian restaurant also does a great kangaroo fillet and has a wide range of imaginative vegetarian dishes. If you want to learn more about Australian wines, this is a good place to do it – they love to give advice on matching wine and food, and are happy to sell you all kinds of drops by the glass.
|Canberra’s War Memorial|
Today is ‘big ticket items’ day, when you’ll get to check off some of the city’s must-sees. The Australian War Memorial is Australia’s most-visited museum. Not just a memorial to Australia’s war dead, it investigates Australians in overseas conflicts from the 19th century to the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
For me the whole point of the memorial is the dioramas. These models of tiny soldiers in action, from Gallipoli to Korea, somehow do more to help you imagine what it might have been like than any immersive video experience could.
It’s easy to spend a whole morning at the War Memorial, but try to drag yourself away by lunchtime so you can head to Silo Bakery at Kingston for some of the best pastries you’ve ever tasted.
Spend the afternoon at the National Gallery of Australia. There’s always some kind of fancy international exhibition on here, but for free you can visit the Australian galleries and get a great overview of Aboriginal art, weird colonial-era paintings that try to make Australia look like Europe, and the muscular, bleak and exuberant pieces that came out of the 1950s and ’60s. The Children’s Gallery shows themed exhibitions with exercises and activities for kids, making a visit to the gallery less of a boring chore for the littlies.
If it’s a Friday, you’re in luck. Wander from the gallery up to Old Parliament House where, between 5 and 9pm, the ‘Café in the House’ puts on its immensely popular happy hour. If you’ve always wanted to flirt with a public servant, you’ve come to the right place – some would call it a ‘meat market’, but you should think of it as an anthropological exercise.
Any other evening, head back into the city for a couple of post-sightseeing cleansing ales at the Wig & Pen, Canberra’s long-running brew pub. It’s the spot to try a Kiandra Gold Pilsener, Kamberra Kolsch or one of several regular and seasonal beers brewed on site. Finish off your evening with dinner at one of Garema Place’s sidewalk cafes or – if you stay at the Wig for several too many – do the traditional Canberra late-night thing and order chips and gravy from city centre Chicken Gourmet.
If you’re lucky enough to be waking up on a Saturday today, you should get yourself to the Gorman House Markets. Just a short stroll north of the city, these markets – at the city’s arts centre – have acted like a drop-in centre for Canberra’s ‘alternative’ set since the 1980s. Spend an hour or so at the markets and you’ll see a different side of the city to the politicians and public servants Canberra is known for. You can also browse great vintage clothes, antiques, crafts, second-hand books and all kinds of food stalls.
Of course, you can shop on other days as well. At first glance Canberra looks to have been paved solid with chain stores and malls, but a few alternative places have stayed alive in the cracks. Landspeed Records, in Garema Place, does a great line in indie music and sells some vintage clothing on the side. Cowboys & Angels, in Bunda Street, has local and international designers and definitely specializes in quirky. At Craft ACT, near the Canberra Theatre, you can see exhibitions from jewelers, ceramicists and textile artists, with many selling pieces through the centre’s shop, while Mooble, in Bailey’s Arcade, has natural, ethical and organic products, including a damn fine organic gin and hemp clothing that won’t make you look like a hippie.
Canberra is no place to shop all day, though: that’s what Melbourne is for. So pick up a few bits and pieces, have a bite to eat then head south to Namadgi National Park. They don’t call Canberra the bush capital for nothing: getting out among the trees is a highlight of living in or visiting Canberra. The park features native wildlife, the highest mountains in the ACT (which isn’t really saying much, though there are some great views from here), Aboriginal cultural sites and around 20 walking tracks. If you’re a keen walker you can head out to the west of the park for wilderness trails, but even a casual jaunt to Booroomba Rocks to watch the rock climbers or to the historic site at Honeysuckle Creek – where Australian scientists helped direct the first moon landing from a now-dismantled Dish – is a great way to enjoy nature on the city’s fringe.
Dinner tonight is in Dickson, Canberra’s Chinatown to the north of the city. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, but only a fool would go anywhere but the Dickson Asian Noodle House. Try the laksa (a spicy Malaysian coconut milk and noodle soup) and you will understand what taste buds are for. If you still have some energy, slump into a couch at nearby Trinity – one of a growing range of stylish cocktail bars in Canberra – and down a Szechuan beekeeper cocktail for dessert.