Peel away the layers of politics and bureaucracy in Australia’s capital and you’ll find a city that’s radiant, insouciant and quite possibly cooler than its big-sister counterparts, writes Catherine Marshall.
Canberra has long been regarded as a repository for the dry, bureaucratic business of government and all those involved with it. Built for the purposes of politics – American architect Walter Burley Griffin’s blueprint for a new capital was chosen from 137 potential designs in 1912 – the city is unrecognisable today as a municipal backwater. Canberra has grown into itself, expanding, flourishing and softening so that the rigid contours of Burley Griffin’s original design are no longer perceptible.
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The city’s setting all makes sense now: its distance from Sydney and Melbourne (which are bolder, brassier and bossier by far) has afforded it the space to develop its own assured persona, and its pastoral surroundings are the perfect foil for the urban revival taking place within.
Walk the streets of Canberra and you’ll find them awash with a happy, future-focused vibe, a surprising diversity of residents – politicians, artists, lobbyists, chefs, students and journalists – and enough young people to signal a rebirth. This is the new generation of creatives who are excited about what lies ahead and are keen to put their stamp on the city that drives the nation.
See the city from the sky
06:00: It’s an early start (as early as 5am in summer) but the best way to get the measure of this purpose-built city is to meet at the historic Hyatt Hotel Canberra (120 Commonwealth Avenue, Yarralumla) and take a hot-air balloon ride with Balloon Aloft Canberra. See the capital as it rubs the sleep from its eyes: open green spaces, neatly packaged suburbs, Lake Burley Griffin – rippling with the oars of early-morning rowers – and the hilltop centrepiece, Parliament House, which was opened in 1988 as a more spacious replacement for the original building (now the Museum of Australian Democracy). Afterwards, toast the city with a glass of Champagne back at the Hyatt.
Get your caffeine fix – with a twist
09:30: Canberra iseasy to navigate and is best explored by hire car. From Yarralumla, drive over the Commonwealth Avenue bridge into the city (there’smetered parking) and take your pick of the trendy cafés dotting the precinct. You won’t find your usual caffè lattes and cappuccinos at The Cupping Room (1/1-13 University Avenue, Canberra). Instead, choose from seasonal coffee blends produced by award-winning baristas; some with notes of chocolate or dark berries. Then order from the changing menu – smashed avo comes with pomegranate seeds, goat’s cheese, poached eggs on sourdough, bacon, dukkah and lime. And, if you want to know more about the café’s blending methods and ethically sourced beans, join a cupping session(by appointment).
Fall in step with the locals
10:30: It’s a short drive back across the bridge to Lake Burley Griffin foreshore, where many of Canberra’s best-loved attractions – Questacon, the National Library of Australia and Reconciliation Place – are located. You’ll find locals power-walking along the esplanade, soaking up the city’s fresh air and pastoral backdrop. Explore the twists and turns of the foreshore on a prearranged, guided Segway tour (West Kiosk, Queen Elizabeth Terrace, Parkes) or go for a morning walk along the two-kilometre lakeside track between the Kings Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue bridges.
Lose yourself on a gallery tour
11:30: Backtrack towards Kings Avenue to the National Gallery of Australia (Parkes Place, Parkes). There’s plenty to keep you occupied indoors: the world’s largest collection of Australian Indigenous art, Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series and Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. And if the weather’s good, stroll around the outdoor Sculpture Garden situated beside the lake and filled with an astonishing collection that encompasses Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Tiwi funerary poles and Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Sculpture (1976), which erupts in clouds of mist at 12.30pm each day.
Take a gastronomic tour of the nation
13:00: For the quintessential Canberra lunch experience, drive for 15 minutes to Pialligo Estate (18 Kallaroo Road, Pialligo), which has a view of Parliament House from its perch on the banks of the Molonglo River. Once Canberra’s food bowl, today the estate includes an olive grove, vineyard, orchard and smokehouse. Do a pre-booked tour of the market garden then settle in for lunch at Farmhouse Restaurant. The menu’s provenance is not unlike the wideranging origins of the capital city’s inhabitants: there’s octopus from Fremantle, scallops from Mooloolaba, Muscovy duck from the Macedon Ranges and Cone Bay barramundi. Pair those with whatever’s ripening in the garden and a glass of cool-climate wine produced on the estate.
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Shop with the style set
15:00: Drive north-west of Pialligo Estate for 15 minutes to the inner-city suburb of Braddon. You’ll find it buzzing with office workers and window-shoppers meeting over coffee, and crowds enjoying the convivial atmosphere at The Hamlet (16 Lonsdale Street, Braddon). This urban village comprises food trucks (hot dogs, chanchitos and Ethiopian fare), pop-up stores selling homewares and local jewellery and even the services of a barber. The Hamlet is open Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 9pm, and Sunday, noon to 3pm, but some trucks operate outside of these times. Lonsdale Street is also lined with enticing boutiques, vintage shops and homewares stores. Visit Pink Ink Boutique for its eclectic décor and limited-edition designs (Vivienne Westwood, Chan Luu, Megan Park and Ellery). And pop into Designer Op Shop for quality pieces with a history – who owned that Chanel quilted tote and which notable figures dined at that antique table?
Enjoy a sweet surrender
16:00: It’s time for sweet replenishment so duck into the fantastical Ori building (28-30 Lonsdale Street, Braddon) – designed to imitate origami folds and filled with equally stylish shops – and order a dessert or, if the cold doesn’t bother you, gelato at Frugii Dessert Laboratory. John Marshall and his wife, Ed, sell exquisite flavours – including salted butter caramel, black licorice and lemon myrtle – alongside outlandish concoctions requested by customers, such as ice-cream flavoured with the mint-like Indonesian herbal remedy tolak angin.
Observe a rite of remembrance
16:45: From the Ori building it’s a five-minute drive to the Australian War Memorial (Treloar Crescent, Campbell). Get there in time for the daily Last Post Ceremony – attendees must be seated by 4.45pm. The ceremony unfolds beside the Pool of Reflection to the strains of the national anthem and a piper’s lament, allowing visitors to reflect on the military sacrifices that shaped the country. Afterwards, take in the sweeping view down Anzac Parade, across the lake, to Parliament House, which gazes straight back at you from its location on Capital Hill.
Order a lakeside swill
18:00: Head to the revitalised Kingston Foreshore, where there’s a great selection of on-trend bars for a pre-dinner drink. Have a cocktail at Walt & Burley (70/17 Eastlakes Parade, Kingston) while drinking in the view of the city’s placid, tree-rimmed lake.
Hightail it to hip dining
19:00: Come dinnertime, movers and shakers are rubbing shoulders across the city but the place that locals are raving about is NewActon, an inner-city district between the lake and the Australian National University. Take the short drive here from Kingston Foreshore and explore the laneways clustered around the Japanese-inspired Nishi building (25 Edinburgh Avenue, NewActon), a sustainable mixed-use development and home of the outrageously cool Hotel Hotel. The area is a vibrant blend of community gardens, public artwork, bespoke wine bars and cafés showcasing local produce. For a thoroughly sensual dinner, enter the Nishi’s lobby – which is spectacularly hung with 2150 recycled wooden planks –and ascend the grand staircase to Monster kitchen and bar on Hotel Hotel’s first floor. Regional ingredients receive the Asian treatment, resulting in tasty pairings: beef tartare with miso-cured egg yolk, pork neck bao with cucumber kimchi, and eggplant and smoked goat’s curd with katsuobushi.
Cap it off with a cocktail
22:00: If you’re still high on Canberra’s vibe, head into the city centre for a nightcap. There’s live jazz at speakeasy-style Molly and mojitos at Cuban-themed The Highball Express (82 Alinga Street, Canberra). ￼
Images by Kara Rosenlund (except top image)