Canberra used to be the punchline of jokes: known only for porn, politicians and legal fireworks. Now the fireworks are restricted and there are far more stimulating things happening outside the adult shops than on their shelves. Canberra in the twenty-teens boasts hipper hotels than Sydney, excellent cafés, some of the best galleries and museums in the country, and, of course, the chance to pick up leaked Federal documents from behind the couch at popular public servant boozers. Because some things never do change.
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The best of Canberra
Six uniquely Canberra experiences you have to try for yourself
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.
Versailles: Treasures from the Palace
More than 130 paintings, tapestries, sculptures, furniture and precious objects from the Palace and its royal occupants comprise this major exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. Highlights range from small personal items belongong to Marie-Antoinette, to the 1.5 tonne sculpture 'Latona and her children' that usually sits atop one of the Chateau's main fountains.
Canberra’s cool hotels
Canberra has come along way in the last three years, with cocktail dens, hip restaurants, galleries and cafés opening up right across town. It’s also seen several hotels open or undergo major refurbishments and the result is a town that now has some of the best digs in the land.
The best cafés in Canberra
Local coffee providers are roasting their own brews and supplying specialty coffees to outlets across the region and country. They’re doing excellent things with beans here and as testament to that, Canberra is home to 2015 World Barista Champion Sasa Sestic, the founder of ONA Coffee. Sasa’s knack for making the perfect cup has set the standard for roasting, blending and café culture pretty much anywhere in Australia.
Australian Institute of Sport
In addition to training Australia’s top athletes, the Australian Institute of Sport entertains visitors with guided tours and events across its 65 hectare campus. Tours of the facility last approximately 90 minutes. Swim alongside champions in the Aquatic Centre’s 50m and 25m pools. Lanes are generally available, but checking the timetable online would be useful before planning a visit. Classes for all ages and fitness levels are available at the AIS Swim School. Stop by next door for a workout or yoga class in the Fitness Centre. A drop-in visit will cost $20. The Track and Field Centre is open to the public – visitors can run on the synthetic track for $5. Multiple arenas and theatres make up the venue, many of which can be rented for conferences, galas, graduations or even weddings. Lunch like the pros at the AIS dining hall, or grab a quick lunch at GG Espresso. After your visit, stock up on workout apparel, or grab a souvenir at the AIS Shop in the Sports Visitors Centre in the middle of campus.
Australian War Memorial
Canberra is home to the Australian War Memorial, a museum that commemorates the service and sacrifice of Australian men and women in wartime. Here you can discover the Australian experiences of war and connect with the stories of people and events that shaped Australia. Place a poppy on the Roll of Honour to remember the sacrifice made by Australian servicemen and women, and stay for the moving Last Post closing ceremony.
Museum of Australian Democracy
Australia's beautiful former Parliament House is now the Museum of Australian Democracy. It's here exhibitions are held on topics such as political cartoons, former prime ministers and people power. Guided tours are available four times a day and there are educational public programs.
National Gallery of Australia
Opened in 1982 and renovated in 2010, the gallery houses important Australian, Indigenous, Asian, American and European masterpieces, including Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles’. They have two to three major international blockbuster exhibitions each year, usually ticketed.
National Museum of Australia
It makes perfect sense to learn the story of Australia in its capital. At the National Museum of Australia you will find a vast assortment of Australiana, from the unusually large heart of legendary racehorse Phar Lap to the Holden Prototype No 1. You can also view artefacts from Australia's vast and rich Indigenous culture.
National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery sits near the National Gallery of Australia, but is specifically dedicated to portraiture - painted or photographic. Its first exhibition was in 1994, in its former digs within Old Parliament House. In December 2008 it opened in a new building, designed by architectural firm Johnson Pilton Walker.
National Zoo and Aquarium
The National Zoo and Aquarium sits on seven hectares and is a short drive from the centre of Canberra. General admission grants you access to both facilities. The zoo is home to big cats, native Australian animals, reptiles, bears, giraffes, zebras and many more exotic animals, while within the aquarium are colourful reef fish, sharks and amphibians. The zoo offers three tours. The Family Tour is perfect for young children as it is a safer more relaxed experience, while the Zooventure tour requires participants to be over 12. These cost between $85 and $145. Both allow you to experience animals up close. Walk on the Wildside (WOW) tour is nearly $700 dollars a person but this all-day tour is the ultimate wildlife experience. Feed most animals, from sharks to pandas. Interact with kangaroos, and eat lunch with a giraffe. Meet a Cheetah for $160 between 11am-noon and 2-3pm daily. This experience requires participants to be at least 15 years old. Children from kindergarten through to Year 6 can take a zoocation for $80 a day during school holidays. Bookings available online.
Parliament House, Canberra
While in recent years it has seemed to many observers as a place where party squabbles run roughshod over the national good, the seat of Australia's government is a grand building where visitors can take a fascinating free 40-minute tour five times a day. The thrice-daily in-depth tour is 15 minutes longer and costs $10-$25.
Questacon: The National Science and Technology Centre
Science brings smiles to everyone’s faces at Questacon – the National Science and Technology Centre. Just a short trek from Canberra’s business district, Questacon contains more than 200 exhibits in eight galleries. Kids and adults can experience science through hands-on, interactive displays. Learn about the elements in the Science Garden or see life through eight eyes in the Spiders Gallery. Be sure to catch one of the Spectacular Science Shows. All shows are 30 minutes long, and free with admission. Visit the museum’s website for this week’s shows. Questacon offers an after-hours experience, Q by Night. Admission for a two-hour session is $21.25 and includes a stop in the gift shop, Q shop.