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11 secrets Canberra's been keeping from you

Our nation's capital has been hiding some of its best bits – but we're here to betray the locals and give them all away

Photograph: Adam McGrath

Pssst: did you know Canberra has excellent – truly excellent – restaurants? Add to that award-winning cafés, museums that tell the story of our nation, some fabulous hip hotels and a snowy winter playground and you’ll know where your next weekend mini-break destination is.

Canberra's hidden gems

1

The best coffee in Australia

It may surprise you to learn that Canberra makes the country’s best coffee. But it’s objectively true. Ona Coffee’s founder, Sasa Sestic, won the World Barista Championship in 2015, and his employee Hugh Kelly has won the Australian Barista Championship two years running. Of Ona’s several cafés around Canberra, the bright and airy Cupping Room is our pick. It’s the food that really makes the place. Every dish is nicely balanced: halloumi fingers are crisp on the outside and fluffy inside; pork sausages are given a nice acidic tang thanks to white anchovies; and mixed exotic mushrooms are earthy with a hint of vinegar.

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2

A ski field

Hiding in the Brindabella mountain range is the longest alpine slide in the Southern Hemisphere – Corin Forest Alpine Resort. In summer the mountain recreation area is all about that silver toboggan. You can take the ride solo or two at a time. During the colder months, snow machines make this a guaranteed slope spot for budding skiers and snowboarders – or just those who want to frolic in the snow. Once you’re done sliding or skiing, there’s a café overlooking a little creek to kick back and refuel in – it has an open fire where toasting marshmallows is not only allowed, but encouraged.

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3

Great handmade pasta

Big on flavours and vibe, Canberra’s newest Italian joint may be attached to a hotel, but it’s the locals who keep the place packed. At over 200 seats, Agostinis is bigger than your average ACT haunt, but the restaurant’s three distinct dining spaces – including a plant-filled, heated outdoor terrace – give the venue a sense of proportion. The menu is all about housemade pasta and pizza cooked in a gloriously fire-powered Marana Forni oven. The early seating is packed with families digging into handmade lasagna and ice-cream sandwiches; while the second shift caters to a hipper crowd drawn in by the very nice selections of Canberra region and Italian wine (some is even on tap) and the promise of spaghetti sprinkled with rich, oceanic bottarga.

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4

A bright red money tree

There are a number of secret courtyards hidden inside Parliament House. But there's one in particular we're sure you've seen before. It's spectacular in autumn, thanks to what's known colloquially as 'the Budget tree'. This is the courtyard where politicians often choose to address the press and in late April and early May (budget time) the Maple that resides there turns luminously red. Normally, only those that work in Parliament House can access these gardens, but for one week a year, when the Budget Tree is at its brightest, tourists can gain special access on a 'Colours in the Courtyard' tour. Check the Parliament House website for dates.

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5

The chance to live with a bear

If your Instagram feed has been looking a little lacklustre lately, we have a surefire cure: take a bubble bath in a five-star hotel next to a pair of three-year-old Bengal tiger brothers or a fully grown brown bear. Yes, we’re serious. This is a real, actual thing you can do, and no, not in a Lil’ Wayne clip – at Jamala Wildlife Lodge, inside Canberra’s National Zoo & Aquarium. A stay at the Lodge will help support the Zoo’s conservation efforts and comes with all the behind-the-scenes perks you’d hope for from a sleepover at the zoo, including an afternoon tour, pre-dinner drinks, a three course dinner, full breakfast and the chance to wander through an eerily lit aquarium after-hours.

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6

Fresh water swimming holes

It may surprise you to learn that Canberra has a nude beach. No, it’s not a place where the ocean waves will caress your naked form, but it is a delightfully sandy stretch beside the Murrumbidgee River. In fact, the Murrumbidgee offers some of the nicest freshwater swimming spots within shouting distance of Sydney. Kambah Pool is where you can get your kit completely off without consequence, but if you prefer your river swimming with togs still attached, Casuarina Sands offers gorgeous picnic spots in the foothills of Canberra’s mountainous regions. If you have a puppy in tow, Uriarra Crossing, further north, is a pet-friendly picnic spot, while twitchers will love Tharwa Sandswash, to the south – you’ll be able to hear and spot dozens of species as you float on your lilo.

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7

A major glassmaking centre

Ever wondered where your favourite tankard came from? As you’ll learn from a visit to the Canberra Glassworks the answer is somewhere hot, skillful and totally mesmerising. Fortunately you don’t have to be a pro to give glassworking a crack at this nation-leading facility. The workshop hosts Make Your Own sessions on weekends that allow you to walk away with a paperweight after 20 minutes, or a tumbler after 40. Even if you can’t enrol in a class, the Glassworks will let you drop in on the pros; spend some time on the hotshop viewing platform before you hit up the Glassworks’ gallery spaces to get a better idea of just how complex, and compelling, this ancient craft can be.

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8

Locally made treasures

Walking up the large, open flight of stairs off the northwest 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 an expansive, light-filled space with rustic concrete floors and clean timber shelves filled with jewellery, millinery, clothing, ceramics and homewares. All of it has been made within a 100 kilometre radius of Canberra. You’ve discovered Trove Canberra, a not-for-profit cooperative of nearly two dozen makers and designers.

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9

The tiniest bar you've ever seen

If you want to grab a beer and a very cheap bite, there’s one place to head. Lined with reclaimed plywood, and plonked in the middle of a food truck park called the Hamlet is Hutch: the tiniest bar in Canberra, and possibly Australia. This itsy bitsy joint is licensed to fit just four people inside plus your friendly bartender. You can order up tinnies from Canberra brewers BentSpoke, and they’re also pouring locals Capital Brewing Co’s Evil Eye IPA on tap. Like any good hole-in-the-wall (or in this case, bar-in-a-box), there’s a service window for takeaways too, so you can eat from wherever you want in the Hamlet, like fancy hot dogs from Broddogs, spicy wings and onion rings from Soul Cartel, or a warming bowl of beef pho from What the Pho.

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10

An ultra slick day spa

If you want to sit fluffy-robe-to-fluffy-robe with Canberra’s elite, book yourself into the city’s newest wellness palace Hale inside Barton’s refurbished Brassey Hotel; a facility elegant enough to surpass practically any Sydney day spa. The interiors are contemporary and sparing, and the treatments are topnotch. Think massage-heavy facials using Sothy products, actual massages, all the grooming services you could want and (for pre-and-post treatment) an infrared sauna, steam room, ice shower and gorgeously heated plunge pool. Those after a more active experience should book themselves in for a boxing, pilates or yoga class, or take a training session on the very fancy gear by Technogym. Or you could just put your feet up by the open gas fireplace and read a magazine – whatever works for you.

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11

One of the hippest hotels in the country

Why does Hotel Hotel have a double-barrelled name? Because, they say, it’s “a place for people people”. This premise may be cutesy, but in the four years they’ve been open, this idiosyncratic boutique hotel, with art built into its very foundations, has managed to ingratiate itself into the Canberra community, thanks to an excellent lobby bar, gallery, regular events and yoga classes. Upstairs, the rooms are individually decorated – mostly with refurbished mid-century furniture, brightly coloured blankets and strangely textured walls. This is an intellectual place, perfect for winter, that invites you to linger and contemplate your own existence.

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