Crammed with cultural treasures, Canberra, in the ACT (Australian Capital Territory), is the carefully crafted capital of Australia. It’s no accident that the city lies between Sydney and Melbourne. The site of the capital was chosen as a compromise between these two rival cities in 1908. American architects, Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin, won an international competition for the city’s design, which incorporates vast greenbelts and geometric shapes.
Lake Burley Griffin, in the city center, is Canberra’s sparkling jewel, and many of the city’s top tourist attractions and things to do lie along its shores, including the National Gallery of Australia, Questacon, and the National Library. The parliament buildings, as well as some of the city’s other main attractions, lie within the Parliamentary Triangle, formed by Kings Avenue, Commonwealth Avenue, and Lake Burley Griffin. Canberra is also known for its fantastic festivals, including the famous Floriade, a celebration of the city’s many spring blooms.
1 Australian War Memorial
Inaugurated in the middle of WWII, the massive Byzantine-style monument commemorating Australia’s war fatalities is Canberra’s most poignant attraction. More than just a war memorial, the site combines an excellent museum, archives, art gallery, and library. The Commemorative Courtyard at the entrance to the memorial is a haunting introduction. Inscribed in bronze on the walls of the colonnades are the names of every Australian who has died in war since 1885, and the length of the list is spine chilling.
Beyond the entrance, different galleries retrace the stories of Australia’s armed conflicts from colonial days to the present. The exhibits are constantly evolving, but highlights include the collection of old aircraft and the child-friendly Discovery Zone packed with interactive displays. If possible, you should set aside several hours to appreciate this thought-provoking memorial, and if you’re visiting near the end of the day, try to stay for the Last Post, a moving tribute to the fallen played at 4:55 pm daily. Visiting the memorial is one of the best free things to do in Canberra, and the 90-minute tours are highly recommended.
2 New Parliament House
The final fulfillment of architect Walter Burley Griffin’s vision for Canberra in 1912, New Parliament House is a marvel of modern architecture. The boomerang-shaped structure nestles comfortably into Capital Hill and was designed to replace the Provisional Parliament House at the base of the hill, now known as Old Parliament House. A New York-based architect won an international competition for the design of the new building, and on May 9, 1988, the Queen officially opened Parliament House. The date in May was chosen to commemorate the first meeting of the Federal Parliament in Melbourne in 1901 and the first meeting of Parliament in the Old Parliament House in 1927.
From the expansive grassed walkway, which forms the roof, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of Canberra and see how Parliament forms the central focus of the city’s street layout. Architectural highlights of the building include the two huge circular walls composed of granite, which mirror the curves of the hill; the towering 81-meter flagpole; and the Ceremonial Pool. In the foyer, 48 columns of illuminated greenish-gray marble create the impression of a eucalyptus forest. Throughout the public spaces, exhibits display important documents (the Magna Carta is a highlight) and retrace important events in Australian history. From the gallery running around the first floor, you can gain admission to the public galleries of the green-hued House of Representatives, and the Senate, traditionally dressed in red. A visit during sitting times is a great way to view first-hand how parliament functions and the free guided tours offer fascinating details about the building.
After visiting, you can take the 3.5-kilometer Parliament House Walk to the city center and learn about the Parliamentary Triangle along the way through interpretive signs.
3 Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House
A short walk from the New Parliament House at the base of Capitol Hill, Old Parliament House is now home to the Museum of Australian Democracy. Opened by the Duke of York (later King George VI) in 1927, the building is designed in the “stripped classical” style and was occupied by the Australian Parliament until 1988 when New Parliament House was officially opened. It was formerly called Provisional Parliament House and was only standing in until a permanent structure could be designed and built – a feat finally realized 61 years later.
In the museum, you can learn about past Australian Prime Ministers; sit in the old Prime Minister’s Office, a relatively humble affair; visit the Press Room, and read important historical documents. The chambers of the House of Representatives and the Senate are modeled on the British House of Commons and House of Lords with paneling and furnishings made of Australian woods and wall hangings displaying Australian flora. Parents will appreciate the child-friendly exhibits. After a visit to the building, you stroll among the National Rose Gardens. Free, guided tours help you get the most out of your time here.
4 Lake Burley Griffin
Beautiful Lake Burley Griffin is the centerpiece of Canberra. Named for the city’s architect, this artificial lake was included in his original plan of 1912 but didn’t come to fruition until 1958. Tourists and locals alike come here to bike and stroll along the waterfront paths; picnic along its park-fringed shores; and fish, sail, or paddle the glistening waters. Six islands lie at its center, the largest of which is Aspen Island, home to the National Carillon, a gift from the British government with 55 bronze bells.
Sprinkled around the lake are some of Canberra’s top things to see and do, including the National Gallery, National Library, Questacon, and National Museum. Standing on the shores of the central basin, you can see the Captain Cook Memorial Jet, a 147-meter-high fountain inaugurated in 1970 on the 200th anniversary of Cook’s discovery of Australia. A globe sculpture depicting the path of Cook’s voyages lies on the shores of the lake at Regatta Point. On the north side of the lake, Commonwealth Park contains play areas, paddling pools, waterfalls, an amphitheater, and a path around the park. In spring, the park is the venue for the famous Floriade festival, a celebration of spring when more than a million flowers are in bloom.
5 National Gallery of Australia
On the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, the National Gallery of Australia contains Australia’s largest collection of art. The cubic concrete structure was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in October 1982 and consists of 11 main galleries on three levels as well as a large sculpture garden laid out according to the four seasons. The purchase of the extensive collection began in 1968 and includes works from Australia, Asia, Europe, America, and the Pacific, as well as the largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in the world. Mediums range from oil paintings and watercolors to sculpture, decorative art, drawings, book illustrations, sketchbooks, photographs, films, ceramics, costumes, and textiles. Locals and tourists alike will also enjoy many special exhibitions. After exploring the gallery, you explore the adjoining High Court of Australia, with its fountains, Carrara marble-paved floors, and murals.
6 Question: The National Science and Technology Centre
Between the High Court and the National Library on Lake Burley Griffin, Questacon is an interactive National Science and Technology Centre opened in 1988. Parents and children alike will enjoy the interactive science displays and do-it-yourself experiments designed to delight and inspire. The exhibits seek to promote understanding of the importance of science and technology in everyday life. Science shows, special events, and guest lectures complement the 200 hands-on exhibits. In the Technology Learning Centre, budding innovators can participate in workshops and build and play with technology. Highlights of the permanent exhibits include the H2O-Soak up the Science room with water-related fun, the Free Fall slide, and Earthquake House.
7 National Portrait Gallery of Australia
Near the High Court of Australia and the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery of Australia displays some 400 portraits of the nation’s most influential people. You can easily spend an hour or two coming face to face with Australia’s movers and shakers, brought to life through paintings, photography, and sculpture. Multimedia presentations divulge fascinating details about the lives of the people who helped shape the nation, and special exhibitions provide new things to see. Visiting the gallery is a breeze: parking is free, and the café and bookshop are a great way to top off a tour.
8 National Library of Australia
Opened in 1968, the National Library of Australia is a treasure trove of Australian books, manuscripts, newspapers, historic documents, oral history, music, and pictures. Its most valuable possessions are Captain Cook’s journal (1768-71) and Wills’ diary of his expedition with Burke in 1860-61. Architecturally, the building is a dramatic contrast from the National Gallery and High Court. Built-in the style of a Greek temple, its classical effect is underscored by the lavish use of marble and travertine on the columns and walls, and marble from Greece, Italy, and Australia used in the decoration of the interior.
In the foyer are superb stained glass windows by Leonard French and three Aubusson tapestries woven from Australian wool. The lower floor displays treasures from the library’s collection, and the Exhibitions Gallery hosts special visiting displays, which often require advance booking.
9 Mount Ainslie Lookout
To really appreciate the layout of this carefully planned capital, head to the lookout of 843-meter Mount Ainslie, one of the city’s most popular vantage points. A well-paved walking/biking trail winds for just over two kilometers from the rear of the Australian War Memorial. Along the way, you can pause at the commemorative plaques to learn about historic Australian battles. It’s also possible to drive up to the lookout. Thanks to Walter Burley Griffin’s vision, the lookout aligns perfectly with Anzac Parade, Lake Burley Griffin, Old Parliament House, and, in the background, the sleek lines of New Parliament House. On breezy days, be sure to bring a jacket. Other popular lookout points include Red Hill, to the south of here, and Black Hill, to the west.
10 Australian National Botanic Gardens
About a kilometer west of the city center, the 50-hectare National Botanic Gardens are spread across the slopes of Black Mountain. In the carefully tended collections, you can admire representatives of all the important species of Australian flora. The Rain Forest Gully is particularly impressive. Look for water dragons among the lush foliage.
Other highlights include the Red Centre garden, with its red earth and spinifex grassland, as well as the Children’s Discovery Walk. The gardens are also a haven for birds and butterflies. From the gardens, you can access Black Mountain Nature Park and hike to the summit for glorious city views.
Garden lovers will also enjoy a visit to the National Arboretum Canberra, about a six-minute drive away. This 250-hectare nature area encompasses forests of rare native and exotic trees, the National Bonsai and Penjing collection, a Gallery of Gardens, picnic areas with panoramic viewpoints, and a fantastic children’s playground.
11 National Zoo and Aquarium
Australia’s only combined zoo and aquarium, this privately owned venture is a hit with families and anyone who loves animals. The National Aquarium displays a wide range of marine life, from the tiny denizens of the reefs to huge sharks. In the neighboring zoo, visitors can view all the important species of Australian fauna as well as exotic species as such as lions, tigers, cheetahs, bears, and more. The animal encounters are extremely popular and allow visitors to go behind the scenes and interact with cheetah, giraffes, sun bears, and red pandas, among other creatures. It’s located five minutes from the city center.
12 National Museum of Australia
On a peninsular jutting into Lake Burley Griffin, the National Museum of Australia spotlights the nation’s social history in a contemporary space with beautiful lake views. The building itself is a work of art. Inspired by a jigsaw, it was intended to underscore the interconnected stories that helped shape the nation. A major theme of the exhibits is the cultural history of the Aborigines. Other highlights include exhibits on the Gold Rush, Australian industry, clothing, and migration. Children will also find a few interactive displays to keep them busy.
13 National Carillon
On Aspen Island in Lake Burley Griffin, the white Carillon Tower was a gift from the British government on Canberra’s 50th birthday in 1963. The 50-meter-high tower incorporates three sleek columns clad in opal chip and quartz. Within the towers are 55 bronze bells ranging from seven kilograms to six metric tons. You can bring a picnic and relax on the surrounding lawns. Better still, visit during a recital (Wednesdays and Sundays from 12:30 to 1:20 pm), when the music of the bells wafts across the lake. The tower looks especially beautiful when it’s lit at night.
14 Black Mountain Nature Park
Black Mountain Nature Park, to the west of the city center, is a great wilderness experience to combine with a visit to the adjacent Australian National Botanic Gardens. Walking trails wind through the bushland, where you can see many species of native birds and other wildlife. Black Mountain Tower (formerly the Telstra Tower) provides panoramic views of the city. For a fee, you can zoom to the top and sip coffee at the revolving restaurant while gazing out over the city. At the foot of Black Mountain, the Australian Institute of Sport is the training center for Australia’s top sportsmen and women, with a swimming stadium and tennis center.
15 Royal Australian Mint
The Royal Australian Mint is a great place to spend an hour or so and learn about the heritage of Australia’s currency. All Australian coins are minted here. You can watch the manufacture of coins from a gallery, learn about the history of Australian coins through a video presentation and displays, and mint your own $1 coins. In the foyer of the Mint is a small museum with a souvenir shop. Take advantage of the free tour.