8 Activities You Can’t Miss on a Canberra, Australia Getaway

Situated between Australia’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, Canberra’s name is appropriately derived from the indigenous Ngunnawal word for “meeting place.” The Australian capital, which was built as a planned city in the early twentieth century, unfortunately doesn’t get a lot of love as a tourist destination, but I visited in June 2014 and found it to be an immensely interesting spot, and its location makes for a feasible drive from either Sydney or Melbourne or a quick flight from elsewhere in the country.

Australian War Memorial, Canberra

The Australian War Memorial in Canberra

Once you’ve found a great place to stay in Canberra, it’s time to start exploring! The nation’s capital, with a population under 400,000, may be relatively small, but it’s still packed with activities to make every moment of your visit a delight. Here are some of the best experiences to enjoy in Canberra.

Immerse yourself in history at the Old Parliament House

The seat of the Australian Parliament from 1927 to 1988 now houses the Museum of Australian Democracy, well worth a visit when you’re in Canberra. Admission costs just $2 for adults or $1 for children and grants you entry to exhibitions detailing Australia’s political history, prime ministers’ stories, democratic procedures, and more. If you’re visiting from overseas, it’s a great introduction to the Australian government, or if you come from the land down under, you’ll enjoy the refresher while learning more about how the commonwealth runs.

Get up close and personal with Australian government at Parliament

Spoiler alert: Australia’s current Parliament Building, built in the 1980s, isn’t nearly as aesthetically appealing inside as the Old Parliament House, although its external façade is one of the most unique of any world parliament. No matter how well-versed in hashtag auspol you may be, visiting the place where a country’s most important decisions get made is always fascinating. Take a free guided tour, look out over Canberra from the top of the building, and, if you’re lucky, you may even be able to catch Parliament in session.

Australian Parliament, Canberra

Overseeing Parliament

Attend one of Canberra’s fabulous festivals

Canberra hosts a variety of festivals throughout the year, so why not plan your trip around one of these? Floriade, running from mid-September to mid-October each year, celebrates spring with floral displays, food, and concerts. The National Folk Festival in April features over 450 folk music concerts. During the Enlighten Festival each March, the city’s monuments are lit up with architectural projections and host free musical entertainment. And that’s just to name a few!

Get your inner nerd on at Questacon

Questacon, Australia’s national science and technology center, may primarily target children, but whether you’re traveling as a family or you’re just a big kid at heart, this place is a total blast to visit on a trip to Canberra. With more than 200 interactive exhibits ranging from an earthquake simulator to water experiments to an exhilarating free-fall slide. You can spend hours losing yourself in the museum’s exhibits – just try to pry yourself away!

Questacon museum, Canberra, Australia

Questacon’s free-fall slide

Spook yourself on an Old Parliament ghost tour

I got hooked on ghost tours while living in Australia, enjoying tours at Sydney’s Quarantine Station and The Rocks, and later following up with ones in Savannah, Georgia and Edinburgh, Scotland and one at Hollywood’s Paramount Studios just this last Friday. The best of these combine history and frights, so the After Dark Tour – Ghost Hunters at Canberra’s Old Parliament House sounds spectacular – too bad they introduced it after my visit! The torchlight tour shares spooky stories of the Old Parliament House’s past and runs Thursdays at 8.

Sample the best of local beers

Contrary to popular belief, Foster’s is not Australian for beer – most Aussies have never even tasted it or treat it with disdain. The country does produce many fine beers and has an active craft brewing scene, however. Enjoy Canberra’s local offerings by embarking on a beer tour, such as Dave’s Capital 3 in 3 or Canberra Explorer. These will take you to a number of the capital’s best breweries, where you’ll be able to sample their best brewed creations while accompanying those with tasty pub grub. If wine is more your scene, be sure to check out my post on the best spots for wine tasting in Australia.

Honor the nation’s fallen at the Australian War Memorial

This impressive memorial was built in 1941 to honor Australia’s armed forces and consists of a commemorative area, a museum, a research center, and an outdoor sculpture garden. Pay your respects at the Hall of Memory and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before proceeding to the museums, which were honestly some of the most informative history museums I’ve visited anywhere in the world. Visit in the afternoon for the Last Post Ceremony at 4:55pm, which each day shares the story of one of the veterans commemorated on the Roll of Honour. Admission is by donation, and, while visiting the memorial is a somber activity, it’s an educational experience that will stick with you for years.

Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Paying respects at the Australian War Memorial

Admire the artwork at the National Gallery of Australia

The National Gallery of Australia contains the country’s largest collection of art, including eleven galleries and a sculpture garden, and features works from all over the world. For those looking to explore Australia’s indigenous cultures, the museum also contains the greatest selection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in the world. Pay a visit to the Skyspace, a viewing chamber that will affect your perception of the sky, join a scheduled tour, or stop in for a bite at one of the Gallery’s cafés.

Stroll around Lake Burley Griffin

In the heart of Canberra lies Lake Burley Griffin, an artificial body of water with an authentic beauty and serenity. Many of the city’s top tourist attractions, including the aforementioned Questacon and National Gallery of Australia, as well as the National Library, sit on the lake’s shores, so go for a wander on the waterfront paths, admire the six islands, the National Carillon, and the Captain Cook Memorial Jet at its center, or check out the waterfalls and play areas at Commonwealth Park on the lake’s north end. The perfect way to start or end any day in Canberra!

Canberra may not boast the bustling beaches of Sydney, the colorful laneways of Melbourne, or the tropical scenery of North Queensland, but it is quite possibly Australia’s most intellectually interesting city with a quiet, laid-back atmosphere that makes for an amazingly pleasant stay. Enjoy your visit!

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