Things to Do in Canberra
The idyllic counterpoint to Canberra’s political center, the manmade Lake Burley Griffin stretches over 664 hectares right at the heart of the capital. Formed in 1963 by the damming of the Molonglo River, the lake has since become not only the city’s natural centerpiece, but an important recreational ground.
Cruises along the lake are a fun way for visitors to admire lakeside attractions like Parliament House, the National Museum of Australia and the Captain James Cook Memorial and Water Jet, while other popular activities include kayaking, canoeing, windsurfing, dragon boating and rowing. Miles of parks and recreational areas also line the lakeside and King’s Park, Commonwealth Park, Stirling Park and Weston Park are all favorite local spots, full of walking and biking trails, barbecue and picnic areas, and swimming beaches.
If you have any question about Australia, you will find an answer here. The National Library boasts the largest collection of “Australiana” in the world, and over 10 million pieces of printed material—from books, magazines, photographs, and newspapers—has been preserved by the library system. Read accounts of the earliest explorers as they found this new southern land, or find books on Aboriginal folklore and the evolution of Australian culture. You will also find exhibits and printed material on neighboring Pacific nations, where books provide windows into New Zealand New Guinea in a way no library can. Perhaps most striking are handwritten manuscripts that have defined Australia’s history, from the original journals of Captain Cook to letters from World War I. Exhibits in the library change regularly, and you can easily lose yourself for an hour or a week in the fascinating, historical, and literary windows that line the walls of this palace of knowledge.
In 1770, when Captain James Cook first sighted Australia and landed at Botany Bay, the height of the mast of his ship, Endeavor, was 129 feet. Imagine what he would think today knowing there is a fountain in the Australian capital nearly four times the height of his mast. Sure enough, however, the Captain Cook Memorial Jet has pumps that are strong enough to jettison water over 450 feet in the air. The fountain is located in Lake Burley Griffin off the shores of Commonwealth Park, and a sculpture of a globe on Regatta Point recounts Cook’s journeys to Australia.
The memorial was dedicated in 1970 to mark the 200th anniversary of Cook’s journey, and when the fountain is operating at full power, over six tons of water can be suspended in air before crashing back down to the lake. For visitors more interested in Cook’s journeys than the vertical force of the water, placards next to the large globe sculpture help recount the tales of his adventures. While the memorial itself takes just a short time to visit, it’s a highlight of strolling through Commonwealth Park and a unique tribute to Australia’s past.
The city of Canberra was master-planned by an American designer from Chicago, but you will never recognize the genius of his plan until you see it from the top of Mt. Ainslie. From the lookout point of this 2,700 ft. hill that rises to the north of Canberra, you can finally understand the geometric formations that comprise the modern city. The lakes, hills, avenues, and buildings all seem neatly cradled in the valley’s amphitheater and the view towards the west during sunset hours is the best in all of Canberra.
To reach the famously breathtaking lookout, choose from one of the numerous walking tracks that ascend the side of the mountain. One trail—the Kokoda Track—departs from the back of the Australian War Memorial and has placards that honor Australian soldiers who fought in World War II. Other trails, such as the Mt. Ainslie Walking Trail, weave their way from the base of the mountain up towards the summit lookout, and keep your eyes peeled for small kangaroos as they rustle about in the bush. If, on the other hand, you would prefer to simply see the view without working up a sweat, a road leading to the summit lookout is the easiest way to the top.
Canberra has two parliament houses: the Art Deco 1920s Old Parliament House and Canberra’s focal point, the new 1980s Parliament House.
Dug into the surrounding green flank of Capital Hill, the grassed roof and triangular metal flagpole of Parliament House are a national symbol.
The building’s central foyer is flanked by the House of Representatives on the east and the Senate on the west. Inside, native timbers, marble, mosaics, tapestries and embroidery feature in the spacious and lofty interior.
Take a guided tour, and if Parliament is sitting you can watch the proceedings from the public gallery.
If you have time, visit the imaginatively curated Old Parliament House adjacent. Clattering typewriters, ringing phones and overflowing in-trays re-create the drama and atmosphere of Canberra’s political life in decades gone by.
Want to get a look inside how elite Australian athletes train? Stop by the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra to experience what it’s like to eat, work and sweat like one of the players. One of Australia’s most-loved sites, AIS welcomes more than 200,000 visitors each year.
Take a guided tour for a behind-the-scenes look into the lives of world-class Australian athletes. The 160-acre campus includes top-notch sports facilities, training camps and lodging for some of the most renowned athletes in the world. The AIS Arena hosts well-known events, concerts shows such as Cirque du Soleil — don’t forget to check what’s on! Grab an espresso at the AIS café or pick up a souvenir at the shop, and soak up the sporting atmosphere.
With a huge range of resident critters, from native Australian animals to exotic species, the National Zoo & Aquarium in Canberra has plenty for wildlife lovers to get excited about. In addition to housing Australia’s most extensive collection of big cats, it also has the largest inland saltwater tank in the country.
No trip to Australia’s capital is complete without a visit to the National Carillon. The 164-foot (50 meter) architectural landmark originally gifted to Australia by the British government is touted for its’ unique design. In addition to its’ towering height, the structure is also a musical instrument! Have a picnic beneath the striking tower and listen to chimining of its’ 55 bronze bells each week at free concerts. The sheer height of the tower allows the musical melodies to drift across Lake Burley Griffin all the way to Kings and Commonwealth Parks. Visit at night when the structure is illuminated for an unforgettable view.
Perched on the edge of Lake Jindabyne in the Australian Alps, the Snowy Valley Resort is a popular ski lodge near Kosciuszko National Park, over the border from the Australian Capital Territory in New South Wales.
Snowy Valley Resort is a handy base whether you’re skiing at Perisher Blue or Thredbo, Australia’s top snowfields in the national park.
When the snow melts, Jindabyne changes personality to become a summertime outdoors resort, offering fishing, mountain biking whitewater rafting and horseback riding.
Science is hands-on and cool at Questacon: the National Science and Technology Centre, where educational experiments and displays show kids everything from howtsunamis are made to earthquake experiences.Puppet shows, mind games, a roller coaster simulator and science shows round out the educational entertainment for kids and adults alike at this popular museum.
More Things to Do in Canberra
The National Museum of Australia explores national identity and heritage in a hugely kid-friendly and fun way.
Like a big abstract Australian storybook, the museum’s creative exhibits use controversy and humor to get you thinking about Australia's big picture.
From Indigenous culture to national icons, personal stories and artifacts, this enjoyable museum has a huge range of exhibits.
To get an overview of the collection, watch the free introductory film or take a guided tour.
Take a trip around the world at Cockington Green Gardens in Canberra. The expansive outdoor exhibit transports travelers across the globe with its meticulously crafted miniature buildings representing numerous landmarks. Meander among the serene gardens to the original area, and explore Great Britain — the inspiration for Cockington Green Gardens — complete with a tiny cricket match and mini Stonehenge. Since 1998 the gardens have welcomed international exhibits, so now visitors can also view a tango in Argentina, Hungary’s humble villages, a temple in Indonesia, plus many more.
Peruse the expertly manicured gardens, wander through the hand-cut turf maze, or enjoy a picnic or snack at the on-site café. Younger travelers will especially love the miniature steam train rides.
The National Gallery of Australia has a stunning permanent collection of Australian and international art, and hosts traveling exhibitions.
The permanent collection focuses on four areas: Australian art from colonial to contemporary, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, Asian and Indian art, and art from across the globe.
Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series of paintings are prominently displayed near the entrance to the gallery, and Australian Impressionists such as Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton are also well represented.
Step outside to the sculpture garden to admire works by a range of artists, including Rodin’s Burghers of Calais.
A great city and a great country must first be home to great people. After all, it’s the lives and actions of its exemplary citizens that lay the foundation for greatness, and at Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery, empowering portraits create an historical mosaic of the people who molded Australia.
All art mediums are utilized here, from paintings, drawings, sketches, and photography—even sculpture and film. Portrait subjects are drawn from all corners of modern Australian society, from politicians and athletes to musicians and royalty. More than simply an art gallery, however, portraits are accompanied my multimedia guides and provide detailed background on the iconic figures who are literally staring you in the face. With over 400 portraits on the gallery grounds, and rotating exhibits that richly explore different segments of Australian culture, there is no better place hear the stories and see the faces of Australia’s most inspiring citizens.
The Australian War Memorial is one of Canberra’s most prominent landmarks and home to the National Military Museum. Standing at the head of Anzac Parade and surrounded by Remembrance Nature Park, it’s a moving tribute to the many Australian soldiers that fought and died in wars throughout the years.
Anyone standing in the Parliamentary Triangle will notice the High Court of Australia. A towering building of concrete and glass that rises 130 feet, the court is an award-winning piece of architecture on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. The glass is meant to symbolize transparency in Australia’s judicial process, and visitors are welcome to sit on proceedings whenever court is in session. Many of Australia’s most notable cases have been conducted here in this building, and the laws that govern the entire nation are handed down from these halls.
Three different courtrooms and a public hall are accessible to courthouse visitors, and even during times when court isn’t in session, the public hall can host cultural events or even afternoon concerts. Informative placards highlight events that have shaped the court system’s past, and with the exception of marble that has been imported from Italy, all of the timber and beams in the courthouse are made from Australian wood. Part functioning legal facility and part design attraction, the High Court of Australia is a noble stop when visiting downtown Canberra.
Bringing together plants from around the country, Canberra’s Australian National Botanic Gardens are an inspirational and relaxing destination on the city’s western edge.
Vegetation environments from around the nation have been imaginatively re-created in 90 hectares (223 acres) of former bushland on the lower slopes of Black Mountain.
From the lush rainforest gully to lawns studded with eucalyptus, this is a stunning setting for Australia’s unique flora.
Walkways meander through the various gardens, including an Aboriginal Plant Use walk that explains the plants’ many medicinal and practical uses. Look out for the water dragon lizards sunning themselves by the rock garden pools.
With its sculptures, bike trails, walking paths, and ponds, Commonwealth Park is one of Canberra’s best public gathering places. The park sprawls across the northern shore of Lake Burley Griffin, and makes a convenient place to rest when touring Canberra’s sights. From a shaded bench on the manicured lawn, gaze across the water at the Parliament House and the National Museum of Australia, or simply stroll around the grounds and admire the public art. A park favorite is the impressive memorial that celebrates Captain Cook, wherein at certain times of the day, a water jet explosively erupts from the lake and shoots a geyser of water over 450 feet in the air.
Commonwealth Park is also the venue for the annual Floriade springtime festival, which runs for 30 successive days every September and October. During this time, over a million flowers colorfully bloom in every corner of the park, and the flowerbeds and lakeshore are illuminated by night in a display of music and lights.
Just outside of Canberra, the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex is our link to outer space. Owned by NASA and managed by CSIRO, the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex supports over 45 missions, including the Mars Rovers, Voyager Missions, and the Messenger mission to Mercury. It’s one of three such ground stations in the NASA network, and is integral to the success of NASA’s missions into space.
It’s almost surprising then, that such a highly important complex is open to the public. The Canberra Space Centre is a building within the complex dedicated solely for the pleasure of the public.
Colorful, interactive displays let you see the latest images of our solar system and the galaxy beyond it, see a piece of the moon over 3.8 billion years old and check out models of spacecraft, and parts of the real things. Visitors can also try to imagine eating space food for months on end with a comprehensive display of the foods astronauts eat. A hands-on trip around our Solar System is bound to be a hit with the kids, and the Moon Rock Café is a great place to sit down with a cup of coffee and let the kids run wild, though we promise that adults will find the museum just as interesting.
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