When you tell people you’re taking the family to Canberra, they invariably give one of two responses: a wary “I haven’t been there since a school excursion in Year 8” or an animated “You must go to Questacon!”
And that’s a great tip. There isn’t a child on earth who wouldn’t like pushing buttons, pulling levers or free-falling down the giant slide at The National Science and Technology Centre, which has been a drawcard since the ’80s (during Covid, it is currently only offering 15-person, 90-minute Questacon Mission to Mars and Questacon Mission to Mars Junior guided tours. Book ahead online no later than the day before your visit).
But the school excursion lament needs an overhaul. A visit to the national capital today doesn’t have to mean lectures about the judiciary – in fact, it doesn’t have to be about visiting the places of power at all.
The truth is, Canberra is geared towards stuff that kids really like. There are wide streets that are easy to cycle on, a huge range of family-friendly food options and things to clamber over, race around or otherwise play with in every precinct.
To an adult’s eyes, the sedate lawns of this carefully designed city can look dreary. But to a child who’s grown up in apartment blocks and knows peak-hour traffic? “This is amazing, Mum,” marvels my tween as his eyes adjust to the wide-open spaces he rarely sees at home.
It doesn’t matter where you stay, as most things are within easy driving or cycling distance. Braddon, NewActon and Manuka put you in the heart of the restaurant and retail hubs. On the south-east edge of Lake Burley Griffin, there’s good eating on the Kingston Foreshore. North of the city is the Australian Institute of Sport (tours of the facility are set to re-open in January 2021); and Gold Creek Village, home to the Canberra Walk-in Aviary and The National Dinosaur Museum (open for one-hour pre-booked tours).
Canberra’s weather may be off-putting – freezing in winter, hot and dry in summer – but local mum of two Kate Black points out that many attractions are indoors. She regularly takes her brood to the National Gallery of Australia and the National Portrait Gallery (both are open with timed ticketing).
If they’ve been cooped up inside, they go to the National Arboretum Canberra to burn off energy at the Pod Playground. “It gets kids off the ground, climbing through acorn-shaped pods,” she says.
Parliament House has free tours (you must book ahead) but once you’ve ticked that off, drive south along Commonwealth Avenue and turn your attention to the many other ways you can make the most of Australia’s kid-friendly capital.
For the kids: The best things to do
Hire a boat
Lake Burley Griffin is the only place you’ll find Danish boating company GoBoat outside Europe. You drive each motorised vessel yourself – no licence needed. When you book a boat, you can also order a grazing platter provided by local eateries – or bring your own – to make a day of it.
Ski the slopes
Corin Forest mountain resort, located in the Tidbinbilla Range, is worth the 50-minute drive out of town. During winter, there’s an easy ski run that’s perfect for beginner skiers, tobogganers and snowboarders, plus a play area for the little ones to build snowmen.
Every weekend and during school holidays in the summer months, the 1.2-kilometre Alpine Slide will take them at breakneck speed through bushland. Hint: if you have a daredevil in the family, splash out on the $50 pass for 10 rides because one just won’t be enough.
Escape the city
Namadgi National Park, just outside the city, features plenty of walking trails – from leisurely strolls to sections of the 650-kilometre Australian Alps Walking Track.
For the family: Where to eat
The colourful cakes and cinnamon donut waffles are likely to be sugar overload for anyone over 15 but this spot (pictured top) is edible magic for kids.
Dickson Dumpling House
Ordering da bao at Dickson Dumpling House (77/2 Cape Street, Dickson; 02 6248 8350) means you only get one steamed barbecue pork bun, which seems miserly until you find out it’s the size of a small child’s head. Definitely shareable.
Capital Brewing Co
There comes a time during every family holiday when parents would sell their left arm for a quiet drink and some adult conversation. If you can’t snag a babysitter, go to Capital Brewing Co. in Fyshwick – Trail Pale Ales for you, Brodburger burgers and hot dogs for everyone and a huge playground to give you some blessed peace.
In the CBD, Japanese restaurant Iori sticks to classic dishes – teriyaki chicken, sushi and tonkatsu – and staff delight in helping kids master the Japanese phrases printed on the chopstick covers.
For the adults: Where to eat and drink
Stop by the chic XO in Narrabundah for lunch or dinner to try share plates from Vietnam (bánh mì), China (gai lan) and Indonesia (nasi goreng), among others.
Sample the snappy list of red, white, rosé, orange and sparkling wines at CBD haunt Bar Rochford, where the stellar menu changes seasonally.
Aubergine in Griffith is the city’s only two-hatted restaurant. Here, the dining room’s moody hues let chef Ben Willis’s four-course mod-Oz set menu shine.
Where to stay
Book the East Apartment and Kids Cubby at East Hotel in Kingston and you’ll have your own space to chill out while the kids are happily occupied with the Xbox 360 and board games in the adjoining room. There’s a kitchen so you can prepare dinner for low-key nights – or use it to pack your snacks before you head out.
This article was originally published in May 2019 and has been updated.