Mention Canberra and most people think of politics but the Australian capital offers visitors so much more. Whether you enjoy world-class historical attractions like the Australian War Memorial or prefer a little art and culture, this compact destination offers plenty to keep you entertained.
It is easy to spend a great 48 hours here with so many Canberra things to do. Experience the drama of “Striking by Night”, a realistic recreation of a night bombing mission over Berlin at the Australian War Memorial, or head to the historic Hyatt Hotel for a genteel high tea.
Art lovers can hang out with some famous faces at the National Portrait Gallery or create their own work of art at the Canberra Glassworks.
Add a day exploring the Poacher’s Way, one of the most exciting new food and wine trails in Australia, and you’ll soon discover why visiting Canberra is a capital idea. If you visit when parliament isn’t sitting, you can also pick up a five star hotel stay for a steal.
10.00am – National Gallery of Australia
Canberra is a compact city which is good news for visitors as everything is within easy reach. It’s only a 10 minute drive from the airport to the National Gallery of Australia which houses the world’s largest collection of indigenous art.
Each region has its own gallery which makes it easy to appreciate the diversity of the collection and entry is free.
Everything from fearsome masks from the Torres Strait to colourful dot paintings and ethereal watercolours by famous Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira is represented along with hip, contemporary works.
If you prefer the likes of Monet or Cézanne, there’s also an impressive European Art collection.
Public is a posh inner-city pub that’s a great spot for lunch, whatever your budget. Settle down in the bar with a towering steak sandwich and a glass of something cold or enjoy the finer things in life at Public’s upmarket dining room next door.
Service that’s as warm as the pub’s roaring fireplace and an excellent choice of wines by the glass make it tempting to linger.
2.00pm – National Portrait Gallery
They say a picture paints a thousand words and so it is at the National Portrait Gallery. You’ve either got to be famous or infamous to be included in this collection and many of the works have a fascinating story behind them.
My favourite is a tender sketch of a prison guard’s two young daughters, drawn by a convict as a thank you gift for the warden who smuggled in his art supplies. Admission is free except for major exhibitions.
4.00pm – Check into your hotel
Hyatt Hotel Canberra dates back to the 1920s and was once the only building in the nation’s capital with ‘lock up’ facilities. Its elegant suites often accommodated alleged offenders who, not unlike modern day guests, were in no hurry to leave.
Art deco décor evokes the charm of days gone by and service is refined but never stuffy.
This historic hotel is the perfect blend of old and new with an attention to detail designed to impress even the most well-travelled diplomat. Rooms in the original wings have numbers with single digits and are particularly charming.
It’s worth upgrading to the cosy club lounge which offers glimpses of Lake Burley Griffin and an impressive array of delicious snacks (don’t miss the scones with jam and cream).
Keep an eye out for attractive weekend rates when the heads of state, politicians and corporate leaders have gone home.
10.00am – Explore the Poacher’s Way
Canberra’s modern buildings quickly give way to rolling fields and soon our hire car is surrounded by picturesque country scenery. It’s hard to believe we’re less than 20 minutes from the CBD.
Next stop is family-run Shaw Vineyard Estate which has the area’s largest vineyard and is home to an impressive on-site restaurant, Flint in the Vines.
Locals rave about the wood-fired pizza but it’s hard to go past the hearty homestyle meals like local lamb shoulder, roasted to perfection and served with mint salad.
Servings are generous so order accordingly but whatever you do, don’t miss the signature starter dish – a silky wood fired camembert served with quince paste and warmed ciabatta.
After coffee in front of the fire we head to Gundaroo, a charming country town that’s home to Capital Wines, a cellar door cafe with an atmospheric tasting room.
We pick up a bottle from The Ministry Series of wines which feature a different political cartoon on each label. On the way back to our hotel we call into Mount Majura Vineyard for a self-guided gumboot tour through the vineyard.
It’s hard to believe all this country charm is located so close to the nation’s capital.
7.30pm – Italian & Sons
Italian & Sons is a bustling trattoria with a warm, welcoming vibe and some of the best regional cuisine you’ll find outside Italy. Start with a selection of salumi followed by an excellent wood fired pizza or a bowl of house-made pasta.
Food has a seasonal focus and there are plenty of daily specials to keep things interesting (and make it tempting to return the following night to try something different).
10.00am – Canberra Glassworks
Canberra’s oldest public building, the Kingston Powerhouse, has been converted into a funky industrial glassworks showcasing the art of working with glass.
Renowned artists come here from around the world to use the first-class facilities but you don’t need to be an expert to create something beautiful at the Canberra Glassworks.
Visitors can sign up for a 20 minute ‘Off The Street’ program and create a paper weight or even blow a delicate glass balloon.
With the help of a talented artisan, I use a long rod to collect a blob of glass from the furnace then use a steel bench to roll it in frit (fine broken glass) before returning my work to the furnace to melt in the colour.
Using a set of large, pointed tongs to ‘work’ the coloured glass into the same elegant swirls I’ve seen in expensive shop-bought paperweights is surprisingly easy.
4.00pm – High Tea
After all that hard work it’s time for a little genteel relaxation with what is arguably the best high tea in town at the Hyatt Hotel Canberra.
Things are off to a delightful start with a complimentary glass of sparkling but our eyes are drawn to a spectacular multi-tiered table groaning under the weight of glorious gateau, pretty macarons, delicate savouries, petite cakes and myriad other goodies.
We sample delicious treats as a pianist plays the grand piano behind us and the sound of happy diners fills the hotel lobby. High tea at the Hyatt proves to be the perfect end to our stay.
Disclosure: The writer travelled as a guest of Visit Canberra.
Want some tips that save time, money and your sanity when you’re flying or at the airport? Check out our suggestions for how to pass the time at an airport with kids, how to access airline lounges (even if you’re not a member), and how to make the most of a stopover.