Having not visited Canberra since a primary school trip way back in 2002 and with very few firm memories of the place, I didn’t really know what to expect from our capital city. But after two days spent soaking up some of the political, national and social history, it’s fair to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the visit, even more so than I had imagined.
With a population of just under 400,000, Canberra’s size makes it highly appealing for a short break. Staying in the city centre, you notice in particular the peace of the streets on the weekend days. When the office workers vanish and quiet reigns, you experience something unavailable in larger cities such as Sydney or Melbourne. But even on weekdays, the buzz is a far more calm and manageable one compared with the hubbub of the bigger cities. It’s not just the size of Canberra that’s appealing as a visitor. There’s a wealth of captivating activities – and most are free or only require a donation.
The Australian War Memorial (AWM) is one of the major drawcards for those visiting Canberra. Completed in 1941, during the Second World War, the AWM was conceived by historian Charles Bean as a place to commemorate and remember those who served Australia in the First World War (WWI). Since then it has come to commemorate all the wars in which Australians have fought. The exhibitions, which cover WWI through to more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, contain photos, maps, relics and more, and are incredibly informative. You could spend a full day here; the few hours I spent barely touched the surface.
Perhaps the most moving aspect of the AWM is the daily Last Post Ceremony, which takes place at 4.55pm. Conducted in the outdoor Hall of Memory, the Roll of Honour, with the names of over 100,000 Australians who have died in service, surrounds those attending the ceremony. Each day, a different name from the list is remembered, with the individual’s story told at the ceremony. The AWM building itself is stunning, with its high green dome and the Pool of Reflection at its centre. The view from just outside the main entrance is something else too, thanks to its location on top of the hill – you can see all the way down Anzac Parade, across the water, to the two Parliament Houses.
Since 2009 the Museum of Australian Democracy has been housed in Old Parliament House. A magnificent building from the 1920s, this is the destination for all things to do with Commonwealth Government and the 29 Prime Ministers who have led our nation. As with the AWM, there is a huge amount of content in the various exhibitions and many different rooms to see. Taking a seat in either the old House of Representatives or Senate Chamber, it’s quite surreal to imagine all the politicians who once filled these houses, debating issues and proposing bills, between 1927 and 1988.
The relaxed pace of Canberra was a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of our other larger capital cities. Designed with the environment in mind from day one by Walter Burley Griffin, Canberra offers an incredibly clean, green experience for those fortunate enough to visit. The combination of many low-cost or free attractions and the wide availability of reasonably priced accommodation ensure that your tourist dollar will go a long way.
Some other free (or gold coin donation) activities in Canberra include the Australian National Botanic Gardens, the National Library of Australia, the National Museum of Australia, the National Gallery of Australia and the National Portrait Gallery.
Pâtissez has two locations in Canberra, with one just a short stroll from Quest Apartments. Offering high-quality coffee and innovative modern café fare, Pâtissez is a great choice for breakfast or lunch in the capital.
Located upstairs in the 1927 Melbourne Building – one of the oldest in Canberra – Quest Apartments is superbly placed for exploring the city. A studio room for two people costs from $169 per night.
The Australian War Memorial is open daily 10am–5pm (except Christmas Day). Entry cost is a gold coin donation.
The Museum of Australian Democracy is open daily 9am–5pm (except Christmas Day). Entry costs are $2 for adults and $1 for concessions.