Hot air balloons often traverse the dawn sky over this compact capital city and the ride is said to be one of the most breathtaking ways to see the young city’s purpose-built skeleton.
In 1911, Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin – an American husband and wife team who had worked for iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago – won the international competition to design Canberra.
Their stunning maps and sketches were composed of a series of large, garden-filled circles and rectangles dotting the capital. Concentric streets surround these, while long avenues traverse them and connect them to similar hubs elsewhere in the landscape. The city plan is a delicious geometric abstraction.
Its main avenue, Commonwealth Ave, is a long axis leading from the grass-covered Capital Hill, over Lake Burley Griffin and into a large central park called City Hill (if you are driving while visiting here and don’t cross the lake accidentally, you have not really experienced Canberra). Many of Australia’s leading institutions – national galleries, museums, theatre, Supreme Court and Parliament and the University – are parallel to this avenue and their architecture, let alone the treasures within, are undoubtedly worth the visit.
However, besides the built environment and cultural offerings, there is a palpable feeling of renewal in Canberra. It is driven by young locals, it is design-conscious, it has a strong urban soul and an innate desire to innovate.
An inherently conservative tribe of civil servants is being replaced by their younger versions expecting the little indulgences they have seen in other capital cities. Café culture is booming (the winner of the 2015 World Barista Championship is here), and there are very distinct, privately developed precincts injecting a sense of fun and cosmopolitan juice into this government town. As we found out, the most visible instigator of this change is Hotel Hotel and the precinct it has created around itself. Yet, there are myriad other players making Canberra a true destination city.
Canberra Insider’s Guide
Eat & Drink
Monster Kitchen: If you are not staying at Hotel Hotel, a meal here is the perfect introduction to this institution’s luscious art and design ethos. Great place to linger over cocktails and graze. Do book.
The Hamlet: Orchestrated by Nik Bulum this urban village includes a hub for food trucks and carts selling international street food.
Parlour Wine Room: Dark, moody, elegant, slightly boisterous and with relaxing couches, the Parlour has an excellent drinks menu and generously sized tapas. The roast bone marrow with Lyonnaise onions and pork crackling is heart-stoppingly good.
Grazing: In Gundaroo, 30km from Canberra, this 1865 pub has been restored and retains a rustic, country feel to its decor. Much of the produce used here is grown on site. Vegetarian friendly.
Galleries & Shops
Craft ACT: Canberra’s craft and design centre is a member-owned advocate and exhibition space for local makers, craftspeople and artists.
National Portrait Gallery: Portraiture in all its various guises, including painting, photography, sculpture and more give a glimpse into the Australian identity. This remarkable gallery was designed by Johnson Pilton Walker.
Kin Gallery: A small shop at the back of The Hamlet specialises in jewellery and design objects by local makers including Alison Jackson and Kelly Austin. It is surrounded by other similar pop-ups.
Drill Hall Gallery: Australian National University’s gallery space offers a variety of contemporary shows, talks, music and more. Great place to catch up-and-coming artists.
National Arboretum: This two year old sprawling garden still has some growing to do, nonetheless you can see the begginings of over 100 “forests of rare, endangered and symbolic trees from around Australia and the world.” The visitor’s centre and children’s playground are impressive.
Parliament of Australia: Most of the grounds are open to the public and the interiors are, at some points jaw-dropping art deco extravaganzas; at other points, quirky 1970s relics.