It’s a little surprising perhaps that the land of sun-kissed Aussies ‘girt by sea’, decided to build their nation’s capital inland. After federation in 1901, and a decade of bickering between Melbourne and Sydney, they chose a treeless paddock 150 kilometres from the coast as the seat of government. But the ‘Bush Capital’ was more than a compromise between two quarrelsome states, it was a nascent country’s vision to create the greatest city in the world; a city with wow-factor; a city with a uniquely Australian flavour.
Ironically, Canberra was designed by an American architect, Walter Burley Griffin. He won an international competition in 1912 to design the city and famously said of his vision:
“I have planned an ideal city – a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future. I have planned a city that is not like any other in the world. I have planned it not in a way that I expected any government authorities in the world would accept.”
But accept it they did, and despite two world wars and a global depression, bush-fringed Canberra flourished in the newly created city-state of the Australian Capital Territory.
Today, Canberra is an orderly place of grand boulevards, manicured lawns and harmonious buildings. Not surprisingly, many of the 360,000 inhabitants are diplomats and overseas workers, which adds an international flavour to the mix. The local epicurean delights are as exotic as they are varied. And if you’re not partial to dining in chic city cafes and gourmet eateries, there’s a host of other pastimes to indulge in: boating, in-line skating and biking, sophisticated shopping, or daytrips to the local award winning wineries. And if you’re an outdoorsy type, there’s a real wilderness right on the doorstep. Whatever you’re hankering for, Canberra has something to whet your appetite.
Canberra is unusual in that it is totally purpose-built. In addition to the reassuring symmetry and orderliness that can only come from a planned city, Canberra is designed to reflect a nation. Like a classic bespoke suit, it fits perfectly. It looks and feels Aussie. Mainly low-rise buildings meld into the bush; outback dust is quenched by 33 million cubic metres of Lake Burley Griffin water. It’s a stunning contrast of nature and urban planning.
Aerial shot of the Parliament House construction site
Touch down at Canberra’s International Airport and all roads seem to lead to Parliament House. At $1.1 billion, it’s Australia’s most expensive building and considerably more than the $220 million budget allocated for the project. This whopping construction, home to Australia’s Federal Parliament, is half-submerged with a partially-lawned roof to preserve the aesthetics of the site.
It’s a striking, ‘must see’ attraction and best done early in the morning before weary afternoon yawns set in and the tourists descend in abundance (it has over one million visitors each year). Once you’ve cleared security, you’re welcome to wander through the building at your leisure using the visitor guide available from the Information Desk, or you can join one of the guided tours which begin every half-hour between 9.00 a.m. and 4.00 p.m. Don’t worry about bringing a watch, there are more than 2,400 clocks; and while we’re talking stats, there are 4,700 rooms, 3,000 original artworks and 23 hectares of gardens.
The Magna Carter
Browse the Prime Ministers’ portraits and the House of Representatives and Senate Chambers and check out one of only four surviving 1297 issues of the Magna Carta.
Before leaving, take the elevator to the roof to see the 81-metre high stainless steel flagpole and double-decker-sized Aussie flag. There’s a magnificent view from up there, so it’s a great place to plan the rest of your day. Then it’s back down, past the 90,000 piece forecourt mosaic and on to Old Parliament House.
Old Parliament House
After tramping through the carpeted expanse of Parliament House, it’s hard to imagine Australia’s Federal Parliament fitting into this much smaller, heritage-listed art-deco building, but it was home for more than 60 years. These days you’re much more likely to see portraits hanging around than politicians; the National Portrait gallery is housed within. This charming building hosts many impressive exhibitions and has a more homely feel than its big brother up the road, so it’s great for kids to get a feel for politics. Check out the Prime Minister’s office or get dressed up in period costume; it’s a place to really let your imagination run wild.
The National Museum Of Australia
Next stop, the National Museum of Australia. This award-winning museum tells the story of Australia in a series of interactive exhibitions. Forget dusty glass cases and ‘Don’t Touch’ signs, this museum is hands on, not hands off. And put your wallet away too; entry is free. The unusual design of the building represents knotted ropes, symbolising the bringing together of Australians’ stories. The museum is situated in Acton on the foreshore of Lake Burley Griffin next to the Australian National University. Look out for the colloquial Aussie phrases worked into the building in Braille, like ‘She’ll be right’ and ‘mate’.
If Canberra’s museums and galleries represent the history and culture of our nation, the Australian War Memorial symbolises our spirit. The cross-shaped building at the foot of Mount Ainslie was completed in 1941. It represents the sacrifice of more than 102,000 Australian servicemen and women killed since 1885. From the Gallipoli landing vessel riddled with bullet holes, to an extensive collection of art, relics and photographs, the memorial is a poignant reminder of the cost of our national security.
So there you have it, Canberra – a welcoming place offering a sense of freedom and peace – a retreat for lovers of food, wine and nature – a handsome package of all things ‘national’ garnished with cosmopolitan distractions to tempt the most discerning palette.