“Canberra is a lot more interesting than people think” so says a friend who recently moved to Australia’s capital city. As I look up from my delicious cup of single origin coffee to the adjoining barbershop, a well dressed, suspiciously hipster mustached man is getting a trim while the songs of Bon Iver play in the background, and I have to agree; this is not the Canberra I was expecting.
In fact, I would have expected Barbers Ink, a café and barber combo, to be at home in cultural capitals like Melbourne’s Fitzroy or Sydney’s Newtown. To find something this interesting located in the heart of Canberra, within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet of all places, was very unexpected. This was far from the boring Canberra everyone had been warning me about.
Located a little over one-hours flight from Melbourne and only three hours drive from Sydney, Canberra is often unfairly overlooked as a travel destination. Café’s offering delicious all day brunch, top-notch bars and restaurants, possibly the most unique and incredible hotel experience in Australia and some of the countries best art galleries make this a weekend destination of note. Here is out guide to the perfect weekend (or cheeky mid-week break) in Canberra.
Start your day off right with a great coffee. The Cupping Room has built a reputation as one of the best caffeine hits you can get in the Capital. With an impressive brunch menu to match, this is a perfect introduction to the Capital’s food scene.
After fuelling up for the day it’s time to visit one of Australia’s largest collections of international and local art at The National Gallery of Australia. With an immense 160,000+ piece collection, you could easily spend all day here. All the big names in the art world are represented such as Monet, Warhol, Diego Rivera, Hockney, Glover, Boyd, Picasso, Rothko and Pollock to name just a handful. We highly recommend taking some time and experiencing James Turrell’s Skyspace before a quiet stroll in the lovely sculpture garden.
If you are not overwhelmed by art, cross the road and visit The National Portrait Gallery to see some of the most notable Australians depicted by some of our Nation’s top artists. You could equally stay here for hours so plan your time accordingly. The free tours of both galleries run frequently and guides can help plan your visits to make the most of whatever time you have available.
Next up it’s time to see something you wouldn’t expect Canberra to have – a pride of African lions! The National Zoo and Aquarium is located an easy 15 minutes drive from Canberra. As a modern, privately owned, family run zoo you can expect to find most of the enclosure sizes to be far larger than found in urban zoos. They are also an active participant in the worldwide conservation and breading programs essential for saving many endangered species. Expect to say hello to various monkeys, lions, tigers, sun bears, cheetahs, giraffe, meerkats, sharks and plenty of Australian native animals.
If you can’t get enough of these animals, you can also stay the night at the incredible hotel within the zoo called Jamala Wildlife Lodge. It’s a once in a lifetime experience where you can feed giraffe from your tree house hotel room or have dinner with lions up close and personal. You can read further about the Jamala Wildlife Lodge experience in our review here.
That evening you should treat yourself to one of Canberra’s excellent dinner options. Most places of note are within easy walking distance of each other so if the mood is right, you could wine and dine all over Canberra without much hassle.
For a swanky Italian meal we suggest visiting Capital Bar & Grill located within the art themed (and very cool) QT Hotel Canberra. From the moment you arrive at QT you will notice this is not your standard hotel chain. Bright, politically themed artwork lines the walls and designer furniture is strewn across the lobby. If you look closely, the custom printed wallpaper is a piece of artwork in itself, featuring kaleidoscopes of Australian politicians.
We suggest sipping on one of Capital Bar & Grill’s signature cocktails such as a barrel aged negroni or choosing from the extensive imported and domestic wine menu. It’s easy to indulge here with a very extensive menu featuring everything from classic pastas to top quality grilled meats.
Try the Australian black truffle mac and five cheese and the juicy steak sandwich with red peppercorn sauce and rooftop grown rocket. It would be a crime not to treat yourself to one of the many appetising desserts – the ‘Kubrick Era’ was particularly impressive, arriving as a white chocolate dome which vanished to reveal fresh blueberries and a spearmint sorbet when liquid dark chocolate was poured onto it.
If you want to look your best, you can even get a wet shave or beard trim, with a complementary glass of whisky, at the barbershop next door.
Rise and shine, it’s time to keep exploring. After a quick jog along the banks of Lake Burley Griffin, drop into Local Press Café for a strong coffee and one of the many delicious (and Instagram worthy) breakfasts on their menu.
It wouldn’t be a complete Canberra experience without seeing the Australian Parliament House. Even if you are not politically minded, the iconic building, which opened in 1988, is a stunning site to visit. Entry to the grass covered building is free and offers a fantastic view of Canberra from their second level café and balcony. You are welcome to wander the hallways and visit the House of Representatives and Senate however for a more informative trip there are free, regular tours that will take you to places usually reserved for the many working politicians within the building.
As the weekend winds to an end, it is time to celebrate your time in Canberra with a glass of locally sourced wine and some delicious bites at Monster Kitchen. Located inside the stunningly designed Hotel Hotel, Monster has an impressive wine list and even more impressive décor. With a focus on local and seasonal produce, the menu is designed with sharing in mind. Monster feels like you are dining within a museum or gallery, with many unique works of art lining the walls. With this arty backdrop in mind and a great glass of red wine in hand, it’s a great time to reflect on Canberra as a cultural city in the making. Now is definitely the time to visit, you might just be surprised by what you find.
Tomas Zagoda is a filmmaker, writer, coffee addict and tall person who does not play basketball. You can follow him @TomasZagoda.