With so much political activity, Canberra’s long had a reputation as being boring. But in the last decade or so, the capital city’s been refuting that. Many of its restaurants have earned Australian Good Food Guide’s Chef Hats and, in 2018, the city ranked third on Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel list.
But what’s the best way to experience it if you only have 48 hours? I recently did just that, feeling like I walked away with a good grasp of what’s so great about the city. Ahead, I’m sharing everything I did in Canberra, coming from Sydney and staying over a weekend.
Canberra is a 3-hour and 15-minute drive from Sydney or a 2.5-hour drive from NSW South Coast. If you’re coming from Sydney, a popular stop along the way is the Southern Highlands town of Bowral, where you might want to window-shop or pick up a coffee at one of its many cafés.
Once you’ve arrived in Canberra, check in to your hotel. I stayed at Ovolo Nishi, a moody, quirky boutique hotel with a buzzing lobby. The hotel has one of the most interesting facades you’ll ever see, looking straight out of a Dr Seuss book.
Canberra has a range of accommodation, though, with options to suit every budget. On previous trips to the capital, I’ve stayed at QT Canberra and Jamala Wildlife Lodge in a room set right against an aquarium and where I dined next to the lion enclosure.
After breakfast at Ovolo Nishi or one of the city’s many cafés like The Cupping Room, Rye Café or Muse, start your day exploring the area by foot. Incredibly, about 70% of the ACT is designated nature park, which means Canberra has plenty of parklands. Do as the locals do and hit the 5km Bridge to Bridge loop walk, which goes from Commonwealth Bridge to Kings Avenue Bridge, around Lake Burley Griffin.
Canberra holds several annual festivals, so if you’ve timed your visit right, you can visit these after your walk. Festivals include Floriade, a celebration of flowers, taking place at Commonwealth Park around September and October. Others are Enlighten Illuminations, Canberra’s version of Vivid Sydney, on around March, and Canberra Balloon Spectacular, also in March.
Next to Lake Burley Griffin at Commonwealth Park is Walter Café, and you can lunch here indoors or outdoors on the deck looking out at the water. The lunch menu, from 12pm, features small and large plates, the likes of confit duck salad, gnochetti pasta and sirloin steak.
After lunch, you might want to get out on the lake, which you can easily do by renting an electric GoBoat to drive yourself, no boat license required. The company has two docks: Queen Elizabeth Terrace and Kingston Foreshore. Bring your own snacks and non-alcoholic drinks to tuck into as you boat past Old Parliament House.
For dinner, head to Eightysix North, a restaurant that turned the restaurant scene in the city when it opened a decade ago. It’s known for serving fine dining-level dishes – plenty of raw food — in a relaxed environment.
If your first day was mostly spent outdoors, spend your second mostly indoors, discovering Canberra’s museums. You might want to start your day at Haig Park Markets, which runs from 8:30am – 2pm every Sunday in Braddon. At the markets, sample fresh produce, charcuterie and artisan products from farmers and food markers, or pick up some flowers to take home.
Inner-city suburb Braddon is filled with cafés, restaurants and homewares shops, so if that’s what you’re into, leave enough time after the markets for browsing. You’ll find some of the best shops along Lonsdale Street.
After visiting Haig Park Markets and exploring Braddon, head to the National Gallery of Australia for an afternoon of art appreciation. Outside the museum, James Turrell’s Skyscape piece is a great photo opp. The museum houses over 155,000 works of art, created by more than 15,000 artists.
If you’re still in the mood for art, walk over to the National Portrait Gallery, next door to the National Gallery of Australia. Here, you can gain a greater understanding of Australia’s identity and history through portraits and the stories displayed next to them. Subjects in the portraits shown include Nick Cave, Heath Ledger and Queen Elizabeth II.
If you aren’t heading back home after this, consider Monster Kitchen and Bar for dinner. Though it’s vegetarian, with the dishes so flavour-packed, you won’t even notice there’s no meat. The restaurant strives to serve food that’s seasonal and responsibly grown, with plenty of fermented and pickled options.