Canberra was our least-favourite stop on the whole trip. We still managed to see some wildlife, enjoy some really good craft beer, and saw some very interesting cultural stuff, but the city itself doesn’t really have the natural attributes conducive to outdoor activities. It’s land-locked with a river running through it. It’s got a couple very hikeable hills and does sport a really good nature reserve, but I only found out about Tidbinbilla on our last day and the hours of operation didn’t line up.
In particular, it’s entirely designed for cars. Sidewalks are sparse and inconsistent, transit is limited and things are very large and spread out, even though it’s a far smaller city than any other we visited. It’s simply impossible to walk in the way it is in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane or Perth. The only time we got on a bus was to take the free hop on / hop off that does the cultural circuit hourly, stopping at a number of government political and arts institutions.
When I was researching our travel, I was forewarned about the need to have a car while there AND that it certainly wasn’t a place to stay too long. Frankly, we could have easily just skipped Canberra and used the nights in other areas. However, we did spend four nights there and this will be a relatively short review of what we did. There were still some very enjoyable parts and two of the best craft tasting rooms from our entire trip. Perhaps, that’s to be expected given how few natural blessings it has when compared with its counterparts.
Flying there from Brisbane was marginally longer than the flight from Sydney to Brisbane, but still not excessive, at about 1:50. We had decided to give ourselves one day without a car and used it to take the cultural bus loop, as I previously said. So, we cabbed to the hotel from the airport, and it was a fairly quick trip. We stayed at the Mercure Canberra, an older but decently updated hotel. Originally, it had been government built housing for workers brought into the area in the 1920s when the Australian states federated the colonies and located their capital in a new state, ACT (Australian Capital Territory).
In no particular order, what follows are our main observations about Canberra.
Roundabouts are everywhere in Australia and I rather enjoyed driving and using them. In my mind they work far better than uncontrolled or 4-way stop intersections, and even better than traffic lights in most cases. Canberra takes roundabouts to an entirely new level. The city is built around a river, with two enormous roundabouts as the major layout for the CBD and cultural districts, separated by the aforementioned river. The entire design is geometric and, on a smaller scale, would be pretty cool. Again, it’s so spread out that getting anywhere is a fairly substantial drive.
The Cultural and Political
The opportunities in Canberra for museums, both cultural and political, are great. Truth is, that’s the main reason we went there. If you’re going to spend several weeks in a country it’s nice to get an idea of where it came from. We spent our first full day taking the free culture loop bus to a few things and then had to do a couple more on separate trips, as there was so much to see and we didn’t get to half of it.
Our cultural stopes included Questacon (Canberra’s answer to Vancouver’s Science World), the National Museum of Australia, the Australian War Memorial, the Old Parliament (preserved as a museum of sorts with some great media and democracy exhibits) and the New Parliament.
National Gallery of Australia
A quick note that reconciliation is a very big thing in Australia. I found the Stolen Generations exhibits to be particularly affecting, with a colonialism approach straight out of the same playbook as was used against Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
Australian War Memorial
I’ll just say that if you ever find yourself in Canberra, the Australian War Memorial is a must-see. The few pics below don’t come close to doing it justice.
All main offices, rooms and chambers have been preserved, and this is a really fascinating place to spend a few hours. There are profiles of every Australian PM and loads of information about reconciliation, British rule and Australia’s colonial past, through the forming of its commonwealth around 1900, the birth of Canberra in 1911, right up to the present day. A lot of Australia reminded me of Canada, socially speaking. The fracking protest on the lawn of the Old Parliament was no exception.
The new parliament building, built in 1988, is a pretty amazing space with a really imposing facade. It actually appears to be built into the ground, with grass covering the two sloping sides of the building. You can even look down the front lawn and see the old parliament building not too far in the distance, per the second photo below. If you look carefully at that photo, you can see the War Memorial much further in the distance with Anzac Parade out front. The buildings were designed with a straight view from one to the other, across Molonglo River.
By the time we got to Canberra, we were beginning to think we’d have a much harder time seeing wildlife than we originally expected. Two weeks in and nary a roo or koala sighting so far. While we didn’t find Tidbinbilla until it was too late, we did some light hiking in Mount Ainslie Reserve (immediately behind our accommodations) and Red Hill Nature Park. The views are very nice and, in the case of the latter, we finally saw our first kangaroos, and actually got reasonably close up to a dad and joey (without disturbing them, of course).
Red Hill, named for the intense red dirt and rocks, was where we finally saw kangaroos. Only a couple, mind you, and we’d see many more later in our trip, but we were still excited. The hike itself was pretty basic, short and straight up some steps and dusty trail. The hill itself has lots of gnarly trees. Where Mount Ainslie was to the northwest of the CBD, Red Hill is south of the cultural district where all the government and arts facilities reside.
At first we were pretty far away when we managed our first pic (above), but a little while later on our way back down, we managed to suddenly come within a probably ten feet of the same male and got a much better pic. That pic (right) was a little surprising for both parties, given how close we managed to be simply walking down the trail and happening upon him.
In the case of Ainslie, we only really saw birds, but you can get a much better idea of what I alluded to above, with the view from behind the war memorial in the foreground, and across the river to the old and new parliaments. All built on a line of sight connected by Anzac Parade, a huge two way boulevard of red rock with several small memorials at regular intervals along each side.
Enjoyed a River Run
I had really hoped to run more regularly during our time in Australia, but was very sadly pretty hit and miss. We walked a ton everywhere, usually managing somewhere between 15-30km per day, so I still got my exercise. I did, however, get at least one run in every city and Canberra was no exception. Since we were only there four days, I guess I should consider this an accomplishment of sorts.
On my Canberra jaunt, I did a somewhat simple route from the motel, taking me past the War Memorial, down part of Anzac Parade and then zigzagging to the water for two bridges and some waterfront on the cultural distric side, the around the CBD roundabout, before heading back up Ainslie to the motel. There may be some similar pics below, to those above.
Visited Another Botanic Garden
Every city in Australia seems to have one, but I’d say Canberra’s is both less spactacular and, in some ways, more interesting than the others we visited. Being landlocked, while it’s less lush, it’s also far more red, as the iron oxide infused earth in Canberra is everywhere. We saw some birds, lizards and had a nice walkabout. The Canberra Botanic Garden is located near Black Mountain (more of a hill really, like all in the area) just below the somewhat famous Telstra Tower.
Found Really Good Craft Beer
Bent Spoke Brewing was right down in the CBD, only a few blocks walk from our accommodations. We went there for beer and pub grub a couple times over the four days we were there. They serve up a delicious variety of stuff, and while the food was pretty typical pub fare, the beer was excellent. The place was really busy from mid-afternoon onward, and I’m pretty sure it was 75% full of government workers (being Australia’s capital, after all). I particularly liked the bent handlebar paddle.
We took a little longer drive on local recommendations to visit Capital Brewing, and were not disappointed. In particular, it had one of the biggest, coolest tasting room vibes I’ve seen. A huge patio, with large indoor areas for adults only and those with little ones, it had a lovely airy feel set amidst industrial warehousing. We ended up walking into a gin distiller on the way out and doing some extra tasting, y’know, just for fun.
As I’m writing this many weeks after our stay in Canberra, I’m only hitting key things based on my photo history. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a bit of stuff worth including. Not sure, but I’m hopeful I’ll make time to write up Melbourne, Great Ocean Road, Perth and our rush home from Bali due to COVID-19.