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People stare at a cheetah at Jamala Wildlife Lodge
Photograph: SuppliedJamala Wildlife Lodge

Six uniquely Canberra experiences you have to try for yourself

Whether you want to sleep beside a bear or tackle a renowned gallery from the outside in, we’ve found six experiences that are totally unexpected and quintessentially Canberra

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There’s nothing like a capital city for world class museums, architecture and galleries. But Canberra’s charms go beyond monuments and institutions. From a local creative scene that’s unfurling with increasing speed to businesses taking full advantage of Canberra’s space and scenery.

  • Travel
  • getaways

Canberra’s had a spate of new hotels opening over the past couple of years, but Jamala Wildlife Lodge certainly has the wildest neighbours. The luxury hotel is situated in the National Zoo & Aquarium. Your adventure starts with a quick tour of the leafy seven-acre site that is home to tigers, meerkats, and tree kangaroos, amongst others.

Then comes the main event: the bedroom. Or, to be more specific, just outside it. In uShaka Lodge, your companions on the other side of the glass can include ring-tailed lemurs or hyenas, while guests in the nearby Giraffe Treehouses feed a resident giraffe (nicknamed Hummer) from their balconies. Upping the adventure stakes, if you book into a Jungle Bungalow your neighbour will be either a big cat or a bear. Your animal companion is a surprise until arrival, and most leave happy as each enclosure has a collection of windows looking onto the animal in question.
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  • Things to do
  • Classes and workshops

It’s physical, it’s sweat inducing, and at times, it’s even heartbreaking. But for those who try their hand at it, glassmaking is mesmerising: a fact that visitors to the Canberra Glassworks are fast realising. Happily, as a newcomer to the medium, you won’t have to toil for hours over a hot furnace to get a sense of what’s possible. Every weekend, newbies flock to the Kingston Foreshore location to take a Make Your Own class. While it’s time efficient (you’ll come out with a paperweight in just twenty minutes, or a glass tumbler in forty), these sampler workshops also offer a real taste of the craft in what many in the art world recognise as Australia’s leading glassworks facility.

Beware though: it’s not just the furnaces here that are hot. These courses are popular, so book ahead.
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  • Restaurants
  • Modern Australian

You’d be forgiven for being sceptical: fine dining, a cellar door, orchard and olive grove, award winning food and views to Parliament House, all on one site? As visitors to Canberra’s Pialligo Estate – a 55-acre property on the banks of the Molonglo River – soon find out, it’s no fallacy.

If you’re taking the high-end option and dining in Pialligo Estate’s Farmhouse Restaurant, come with an empty belly: on weekend evenings this involves a six-course degustation. On weekdays and lunchtimes the seasonal focus means a rotating a la carte menu; options include chestnut gnocchi, biodynamic lamb or Kangaroo Island scallops. While the restaurant is nothing to be sneezed at, it’s the offsite smokehouse – relocated after the original was gutted in a fire mid 2016 – that has brought Pialligo Estate its widest acclaim. The smoked salmon, chicken, and duck are all popular, but the company’s artisan bacon has been awarded as the best bacon in Australia the last two years running.  

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  • Shopping
  • Arts and crafts

Walking up the large open flight of stairs off the north west corner of Garema Place in Canberra’s CBD, it’s easy to feel like you’re tapping into a local secret. You’d be right. The glass door opens onto a large, light-filled space with rustic concrete floors and clean timber shelves filled with jewellery, millinery, clothing, ceramics and homewares made within a one hundred kilometre radius of Canberra. You’ve discovered Trove Canberra, a not-for-profit cooperative of nearly two dozen makers and designers. For headwear, check out the work of zero-waste millinery line Sovata. Something for home? The four-strong Sculptural Emanations collective works across a range of media.

For visitors after a non-cheesy souvenir, Trove has that covered too: Carolyn from There Goes a Pig does a screen printed linen tea towel that’s so gorgeous you’ll be hesitant to dry anything with it, lest you muss it up.

  • Art
  • Sculpture and installations

It’s standard right? You go to a world-class gallery and expect all the action to be inside. Not in this case. The smart money at the National Gallery of Australia is on those who also explore outside. Their sculpture collection capitalises on Canberra’s bushy environs, and it’s dotted across the lawns, gardens and parkland surrounding the gallery proper. Warm up outside the main entrance with a visit to James Turrell’s Skyspace, Within without. Disguised underneath a grassy hill, the installation rewards those who venture down the sloping walkway with a series of small waterfalls, aquamarine waters and a quiet inner ‘stupa’, where a viewing chamber that opens to the sky changes colour during sunrise and sunset. Next head to the lake side of the gallery and the official Sculpture Garden, where sculptures are equally as likely sit amongst a stand of eucalypts or poised in a pond as discovered next to a gravel path. For most, the highlight is between 12.30 and 2pm daily, when Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Sculpture creates a mist that wafts over artist Dadang Christanto’s Heads from the North.

  • Health and beauty
  • Spas

Under stress? How about these tried and tested solutions? 1. Hug a tree. 2. Get out amongst nature. 3. Have a massage. Or, if you’re visiting Canberra, you could do all three in the same afternoon, via a visit to Jindii Eco Spa. The spa’s location within the grounds of the Australian National Botanic Gardens means communing with nature is not just easy; it’s part of the package.

Reminders of the bush location are dotted throughout, thanks to native ingredients like lemon myrtle, wild hibiscus, mulga brushwood or Australian oils. In addition to massages, facials and a truly magical pedicure treatment, the spa also holds yoga classes onsite, some occasionally held outdoors, so you can perform sun salutations with the grass between your toes.


Getting there

Thanks to Tigerair, it's easier than ever to enjoy everything Canberra has to offer, from fine dining to wild adventures. From December 8, their great value direct flights will be taking off daily between Melbourne and Canberra. Book one today.

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