Our ‘extraordinary’ forgotten city and what to do there

CANBERRA bashing is like a fart joke. An easy laugh, maybe, but no originality.

Sorry Canberra, that I likened you for a moment to a fart, when you're actually one of the most extraordinary cities in Australia. If you don't already know this and are willing to open your mind, and have an adventurous heart, you can have a terrific break there.

Canberra is a physically beautiful and interesting city. It's home to people from all over the world - living, working, studying, politicking - and these people make it a peaceful, cosmopolitan melting pot full of ideas and fascinating things to do (including wearing woollen coats and cool glasses).

I've only got room to scrape the surface of what you should be doing when you're there for a weekend. Below? A weekend's worth. There's much more, as you'll discover, when you go there.

FOR THE FOODIES

Okay, so in the past few years, something super weird has happened to Canberra. It's become hip. And, a lot of this new hipness is because of the food and coffee scene.

With its wood panelled walls, delicious coffee and goodies on the breaky menu, Mochan and Green Grout was one of the first in the new Acton precinct, a hotel and restaurant hub in inner Canberra, right across the road from Lake Burley Griffin, the Australian National University and a three minute walk to the CBD.

Lonsdale Street in Braddon is the latest foodie hotspot. The street, right in Canberra's central business hub, was once packed with auto dealers and mechanics. As in all urban hubs, these enormous spaces have been turned into funky cafes, restaurants and apartments.

The local, not-so-hip, but extremely delicious secret for foodies? The deep-fried eggplant at Happy's Chinese Restaurant Garema Place. Worth the trip down the Federal Highway alone.

FOR THE CULTURAL TYPES

Canberra isn't the place that comes to mind for most Australians when thinking about culture - Melbourne has loudly asserted itself as Australia's cultural capital.

Yet Canberra is the home to Australia's national cultural treasures.

You can get up at sunrise and feel like you're in a glorious spaceship while the light changes in artist James Turrell's Within without outside the National Gallery of Australia. When the gallery opens, you can take in Australia's artistic history from ancient times to the present, without parting with a cent. Entry is free, although there may be a charge for special exhibitions.

Once you've soaked up the incredible NGA, you can pop across the road and look at Australia through the lens of its people at the National Portrait Gallery - you'll find everyone from rock stars to politicians up on its walls, telling our national story. (If you're planning ahead, the Gallery will be closed for six months from April next year for renovations.)

The National Portrait Gallery. Picture: Ray Strange.
The National Portrait Gallery. Picture: Ray Strange.

There's also the National Museum of Australia, full of quirky and interesting ephemera from days gone by (they hold one of Azaria Chamberlain's baby frocks, for example). The National Film and Sound Archive, home of the history of Australian film.

Yet Canberra isn't all art and culture on a national scale. There's a thriving local art, music and theatre scene.

Canberra Theatre has national touring productions at prices more affordable than Sydney, The Street Theatre is committed to new writing from Canberran artists, and the Canberra Contemporary Art Space exhibits local visual artists. Local musicians run Smiths Alternative and on any given night you can find local bands, poetry slams, dance and jazz in a super relaxed atmosphere.

Another special thing to do while in Canberra is pay your respects to the Aussie servicemen and servicewomen who've fought for the country. Every afternoon at the Australian War Memorial you can take part in the Last Post Ceremony, starting at 4.45pm sharp.

The Australian War Memorial where entry is free. Ian Currie
The Australian War Memorial where entry is free. Ian Currie

FOR THE POLITICAL NERDS

Are you one of those people who doesn't do anything on a Sunday morning, because you're watching Insiders on ABC TV? Who throws stuff at the news every night because politicians are making you crazy?

Oh. My. God. Canberra is your heaven.

To ease yourself into Canberra's political scene, start with a drive around the southern Canberra suburbs - Yarralumla, Curtin, Forrest - it's where all the foreign embassies are and it's fascinating. You can figure out which countries care about Australia by their presence, and which countries are a bit hard up (mow your lawn, Greece!).

Then head off to the Parliamentary circle. You can take a tour around the marble and parquetry floored Parliament House, and if you're there on a weekday when Parliament is sitting, pop into Question Time, and Aussie's Café if you're keen to see the pollies in real life.

The real treasure for the political nerd is the Museum of Australian Democracy, or for those of us born before 1988, Old Parliament House. It's completely intact, in all its crusty old glory. It's all cramped offices and spooky hallways. You can sit in the chambers where former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam once held court. You can pretend you're an old school journo taping a bulletin in the tiny press gallery.

Old Parliament House, now the Museum of Australian Democracy. Picture: Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
Old Parliament House, now the Museum of Australian Democracy. Picture: Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

FOR THE OUTDOORSY TYPES

At the base of the Brindabella Mountains, and a two-hour drive to the snow, Canberra is a paradise for bushwalkers, mountain bikers and trail runners.

It's home to the Australian Running Festival, where runners from all over the world enjoy relatively flat routes that twist themselves around Canberra's national institutions and Lake Burley Griffin.

These picturesque courses are easy to navigate, even when the festival isn't on.

Bushwalking in the national capital can be as simple or as difficult as your experience and time dictates. My personal favourite is the short, but steep, walk up Mount Ainslie, where there's the chance of spotting a kangaroo or two. Once you get to the top, the magic really happens and you get to take in the entire city.

Canberra from Mount Ainslie. Picture: Melanie Tait/Instagram.com/melaniejtait)
Canberra from Mount Ainslie. Picture: Melanie Tait/Instagram.com/melaniejtait)

No matter what level of mountain biking you're at, in Canberra you're spoiled for choice. Popping into any bike store in Canberra, you'll find experienced riders who are excited to tell you about the best new tracks. If you want to head straight out for a ride, you can't go past Mount Stromlo, which has been called "the jewel of mountain biking in the Southern Hemisphere".

FOR THE ROMANTIC TYPES

There's nothing like a cold, winter weekend in Canberra. So, how about the perfect romantic weekend where you barely have to walk 100m for the whole time you're in Canberra?

Hotel Hotel, which provides short- and long-term accommodation, is located inside the award-winning Nishi Building. Part of Foxtel's Secret City was filmed there. Inside the hotel there's a terrific cocktail bar and restaurant. A trip downstairs and you'll find yourself at the Palace Electric, Canberra's home of art house cinema.

All within a short walk of the hotel is the delicious modern Italian restaurant Bicicletta and Canberra institution, wine and cocktail bar Parlour.

And, if you feel as though you've indulged too much, just pop over the bridge and do a stroll around the Lake Burley Griffin path - the sparkling lights of Parliament House, National Library of Australia, High Court, National Gallery of Australia, National Portrait Gallery and Questacon all stretched out before you.


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