Mel's Top 10 Places to Visit in Canberra
Once a newcomer to Canberra, but now officially a local of 5 years, I have compiled a list of the top 10 places that you must take the time to visit whilst in the Nation’s Capital:
- Australian War Memorial
My first and foremost recommendation whether you are a historian or have an interest in the war or not I believe it is well worth the day out to visit the Australian War Memorial. You cannot come to Canberra and miss seeing this exceptional display. The collaborations are mind blowing and certainly leave you with something to think about. There is a lot to see so I would recommend allowing at least half a day to a day.
- Anzac Parade
From this location you will be drawn down Anzac Parade. It runs from the War Memorial to Lake Burley Griffith and is easily distinguished by its red gravel central strip flanked by Victorian Blue Gum Eucalyptus trees and by 11 memorials to various campaigns and units of the military forces. You can the best view of this from the summit of Mt Ainslie however it will not be missed whilst exiting the steps of the War Memorial previously mentioned and will lead your eye as far as the old and new houses of Parliament.
- New Parliament House
Which leads me to a next must see which is the new Parliament House and I was only just yesterday driving into the city deep in speculation in regards to the architecture of this and development of this building. To say it is located “atop” Capital Hill is not quite true and in fact it would be more accurate to say it is located within. The building was actually designed by New York based architects who won a design competition which attracted 329 entries from 28 countries.
Once through security, you will immediately be in the grand foyer where you can pick up a free map/brochure. Free guided tours leave from the information desk here so just ask when the next one is scheduled. They take between 30-45 minutes depending on if Parliament is sitting and I highly recommend you take one. After this you can return to longer visit the areas that were of greater interest to you.
The building is one of Canberra’s most visited attractions with about 1 million visits each year. Despite this, I have been there numerous times and never had a feeling that the place was overcrowded. And actually whilst on this matter both my father-in-law and our director Peter Maloney had a hand in the landscaping of this structure leaving their paw print in history.
- Old Parliament House
Not to take away from Old Parliament house and in fact probably could be visited prior to the new, it was only ever intended to be a temporary home the Australian Parliament, albeit a temporary home that lasted 61 years and it would be quite unfair to compare the two buildings.
I would recommend also taking one of the 45 minute guided tours that are offered and listen to the stories of the goings on in this building over its 60 years of existence. I rate these guides to be very informative and high quality. Old Parliament House hosts three eateries, The Ginger Room (high end) and two more modest offerings. You could stop for a refresher and regroup between sights.
- Mt Ainslie Lookout
For another perspective on those four sights I would highly recommend a quick drive or trek, if that’s what you enjoy, to Mt Ainslie Lookout, this is the best place to be for a stunning and view of Canberra at any time of the day.
You can clearly see from the lookout that Canberra is an extensively planned city. It affords an excellent view from the Australian War Memorial, across Lake Burley Griffin and on to the Brindabella mountain ranges in the far background. Great at dawn or dusk but good any time of the day. The lookout marks the northernmost point of a land axis, planned by Walter Burley Griffin, and was named after James Ainslie, a 19th century settler who was the overseer at Duntroon, a large pastoral property in the area. But I must warn you, apart from ample car parking and a viewing platform there are no amenities at the lookout. In terms of getting there you drive, cycle (difficult ride), take a taxi or walk. There is no public transport to the summit.
- Black Mountain Tower
Whilst you are hitting the high points in Canberra I would recommend another favourite lookout being Black Mountain Tower (AKA Telstra Tower). Given the vegetation around the base of the Tower you will see nothing unless you and go up.
The tower itself is a 195m telecommunications tower atop Black Mountain at 812 metres. It got its name from 1832 sketches made by Robert Hoddle under which he wrote ‘Black Hill’ because, at the time it was burnt as a part of local Aboriginals’ land management practices which in modern day are now known as Back burning. Once up the tower the views are excellent. A 360 degree panorama of Canberra and its rural surroundings.
Black Mountain has numerous walking tracks including a summit walk from the beautiful Australian National Botanical Gardens or Frith Road. The tower is also accessible by an infrequent though adequate bus service.
- National Museum of Australia
You really can’t go past a visit to the National Museum of Australia whilst in Canberra, it is one of Australia’s most brilliant and diverse museums. Surprisingly, the architecture of this building is modern and contemporary. Not only the outside but the displays are interactive and interesting.
Diverse collections and exhibits range from 50,000 Before Present upwards to the current day with focus on the Aborigine, the original inhabitants, their beliefs, culture and myths. It covers European settlement of these shores from 1788 to modern day and focuses on the market culture that Australia creates both past and present. In addition to a massive artefact collection, the have a wide range of books, catalogues and journals in their archives.The staff are very friendly, helpful and professional and have a passion for their role within the Museum taking the time to explain to the history of their special fields. This is the place that you can truly learn the history of Australia.
- Australian Museum
You must visit the Mint – It makes cents! Sorry had to throw that in and no, I did not come up with this, the Royal Australian Mint beat me to it.
The Royal Australian Mint produces all of Australia’s coins (The notes are made in Melbourne). In addition to being able to see one of the world’s strongest robots in action but watching the production process behind glass, the Mint has a small, yet very interesting, museum tracing the history of Australians coins over the years.
In addition to producing Australia’s coinage the Mint produces coins for other countries, medals, medallions, tokens and seals for private clients. Downstairs you will find a shop where coins/sets of currently issued coins can be purchased. No free samples sorry.The Mint offers at least a couple of free tours per day though times may vary. Just a small note, the factory doesn’t usually operate over the weekends, though you can still look down onto the floor and machinery.
- Cockington Green
I have to admit being a little sceptical about this one. I first visited Cockington Green when I was about 10 years old whilst on a family holiday to the Territory with my family and even though I have now been living in Canberra going on nearly 6 years it has taken me till just recently, when my dad visited and my son being an appropriate age, to visit again.
Whilst I expected it to be quite dated and worn I was pleasantly surprised by this fantastic collection of top quality miniature representations of famous and not so famous buildings. The maintenance and upkeep of all the exhibits and the gardens of the miniature plants and trees (in proportion to the buildings) and the property in general is an absolute credit to the owners and may I say, what may appear to be a hefty entry fee is actually excellent value for money.
It is recommended a visit even if you don’t have little ones in tow from the gorgeous English village section to the international section which contains dozens of recognisable interactive exhibits.
Certain packages are available as well as 3 in 1 ticket offers with other places to visit. Have a look on their website before visiting to see what’s best for you.
If you do have little ones with you on your visit to Australia’s Capital Territory than you really can’t go past the interactive Science Centre, Questacon. It’s an amazing place for both kids and adults however that little bit more enjoyable watching the wonder on the littlins faces.
Questacon is a very interactive series of displays (some ongoing, but many changing often) designed to make science fund for kids of all ages. As just a few examples, you can experience an earthquake, learn of the science behind fun parks, watch lightning strike, play with music and find out about acoustics or test your latent sporting abilities.
Allow for a good couple of hours for the full experience and time for the little ones to truly get involved. However you should be done before the attention wanes and tiredness kicks in.