Australian Capital Territory Travel Guide

Capital of the nation and seat of the Australian Parliament, Canberra is one of the few completely designed cities in Australia. With plenty of gardens, monuments, significant government buildings, Canberra is an ideal holiday location for people who enjoy relaxed sightseeing and impressive buildings.

History of Canberra

By the late 1800s both Sydney and Melbourne were established cities, capitals of independent colonies and both believed they deserved to be the capital of the new nation of Australia. When Australia became independent in 1901 it had to have a capital city, so to avoid further argument it was decided a whole new city would be built in the middle of the other two.

In 1911 a competition was held and architects from around the world submitted their plans for the new capital of Australia (not a bad entry on the resume you must admit). An American named Walter Burley Griffin (also known for inventing the carport) won the prize and declared:

"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. I have planned an ideal city - a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future."

Walter had designed a beautiful layout based on groups of circular hilltop centres, with roads radiating around them. Running through the centre of the town was the Molonglo River with parliament house as the focal point up on the main hill in the south of the town. He'd planned roundabouts everywhere, designing the city in a way to allow people easy motor car access, a concept no one had ever thought of before.

Construction on Canberra began and was quickly interrupted by World War I. The Government lost interest in some of the finer points of Walter's design because it had to funnel funds into making bombs and feeding a large army on the other side of the world. Walter was agitated by this and the Government became agitated with his agitation, slowing everything down. In the end Parliament House wasn't even opened until 1988, about 70 years late.

What's Canberra like now?

As the first city to be designed with cars in mind there are plenty of circles, round a bouts and spread out. While this is really handy and cuts down on traffic it can get confusing. Make sure you have a map book or sat-nav if you're planning on driving to get around. There are of course tours of the city and plenty of public transport, so you can always sit back and let someone who knows the city better do all the navigating.

In the past there weren't many pubs and clubs to visit and the few there were, were spread out, leaving the city rather calm and empty by 10pm. Today Canberra has a rather lively nightlife with plenty of bars, nightclubs, restaurants and trendy bars.

By day the city is full of sweeping views and elaborate monuments. From the War Memorial you can see the strict designing that positions Parliament House in a perfectly clear line of site from the steps of the memorial.

When to go

Canberra can get surprisingly fresh in winter; in fact it can get downright icy. There are plenty of indoor things to do though so this doesn't make too much of a difference. While it can get rather hot in summer, the nights can still drop right down again so make sure you bring warm clothes no matter what time of year you're there.

Getting To Canberra

Canberra is about a two hour drive southwest of Sydney along the Hume Highway. Follow the signs, you can't miss it. You can also fly in from Sydney, Melbourne and most other capital cities.

Things to do in Canberra

There are plenty of things to do in Canberra during the day. You can visit:

  • Parliament House: So full of marble and rare wood, it took 70 years for the government to save up the money to build it. It's actually quite nice. You can watch Parliament in session but unless you're really up to date on Australian politics the sessions can seem pretty dull.
  • Australian War Memorial: Easily the finest museum in Australia, and one of the best in the world, tracing Australia's contributions in armed conflict since the Victorian era. Full of tanks, planes, guns, dioramas and all sorts of other stuff to keep boys, and big boys (and obliging girls) amused for many hours. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier is particularly touching.
  • The National Museum of Australia: Explore Australia's land, nation and people in this super-modern, super interesting museum. The building itself is a masterpiece.
  • The National Gallery of Australia: Try not to look surprised when you see that Australia actually has quite and artistic history.
  • The National Library: Lots of free displays, yet strangely few actual books.
  • Questacon, The National Science and Technology Centre is a huge interactive science museum. It's a big kid heaven.

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