By Experience Oz

Top 10 things to do in Canberra

Thick of winter— but the outlook’s always sunny when you’re travelling. Hit the road this July and spend some time with a few Australian greats.

Australia's capital, Canberra, is something of a mystery for most people visiting Australia from abroad – many of whom assume that Sydney is the capital - and even for locals who may have never made the journey there themselves. Featuring a modern, extremely well-planned layout, some quality examples of architecture and abundant greenery spread throughout, Canberra has a pleasantly natural feel with extremely clean air compared to the majority of larger Aussie capitals.

Most commonly known as the home of Australia's government, Canberra is much more than just a political hotspot; it's home of somehow the best exhibitions of culture in the country, with a large emphasis on art, history and even wildlife that have played a role in shaping Australia to what it is today. It's also situated in quite a beautiful location – nestled between the peak of Mount Ainslie and the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, it's got a calm, country feeling despite being the hub where all the country's major decisions are made.

But if you're a first-time visitor to Canberra, how do you prioritise which spots to visit? To lend a hand, we've put together our recommended list of the Top 10 Things to do in Canberra below.

10. Visit the Parliament Houses (Old and New)

Location: New Parliament House - Parliament Dr, Canberra; Old Parliament House - 618 King George Terrace, Canberra

While they’re perhaps the most “token” possible experience to do while visiting Canberra, that doesn’t make paying a visit to Parliament while you’re there any less essential, with both the Old and New versions each offering something different. More than just a seat of government, New Parliament house is an impressive feat of architecture in and of itself, and it serves as a good starting point for your Canberra exploration with its rooftop lookout that provides some great panoramic views out over the city and beyond. It’s a very uniquely designed building that still feels modern despite being constructed a fair few years ago now, and most will want to grab themselves a picture in front of the building with the Aussie flag billowing proudly in the background.

Stepping inside, and it’s clear that no expense has been spared here (much to the chagrin of some taxpayers, we’re sure) - the interior is elaborate and features plenty of marble and elaborately carved panels with portraits of past political and social figures dotting the walls at regular intervals. It’s a facility that blends Australian history with art and impressive decor to become one of Canberra’s main attractions, and the public are given an almost-uncommonly wide degree of access to its various areas be it the aforementioned roof, the main foyer (which houses a historic original copy of the Magna Carta), as well as the chambers of both the upper and lower houses.

Free guided tours of New Parliament House are held at three different sessions throughout the day - 10:00am, 1:00pm and 3:00pm, respectively - run by enthusiastic tour guides who can provide you with a further level of curation and insight to the various historical features, rooms and documents which highlight various parts of Australia’s history. It’s also got surprisingly good parking available to the public, so you’ll typically be able to find yourself a spot under the building itself on all but the busiest occasions.

Old Parliament House, meanwhile - which was the seat of government from 1927 through to 1988 - is a regal building in its own right, and now has been converted largely to serve as the home of the Museum of Australian Democracy: a showcase of the past, present and future of Australian legislation as well as a charming example of old-world interior design. While a small $2 entry fee is required to get in, it’s a small price to pay when you can visit the offices of former ministers, sit in their seats and play the role of an old-time politician for a few hours.

Regardless of whether or not you have any particular interest in politics, both buildings are such significant national icons with their own impressive quirks that you’d be a fool to make a trip to Canberra and not bother to visit at least once, making them both predictable yet justified items on this list.

9. Canberra Railway Museum

Location: Geijera Pl, Kingston

This large and historic collection of locomotives is lesser-known but a highly interesting look back at one of the staple past methods of transportation that helped our country grow. The Canberra Railway Museum is home to the country’s first working train (the oldest in Australia of which, named “Loco 1210” dates back to 1878) and boasts a collection of carriages and locomotives that is surprisingly comprehensive. It’s likewise always a hit with younger kids - there just seems to be something about trains that puts a smile on little ones’ faces - and there’s the option to take a ride on a heritage-listed steam train to boot. At the low price of $5 you get a ride from the Canberra Railway Museum to Fyshwick, with all proceeds going towards the restoration of current and future locomotives.

Situated in a disused railyard, trains of all kinds and models are everywhere; as guests are allowed to climb the trains and get amongst both carriages and cockpits, it allows a degree of interactivity that most museums can’t match (and is a major reason for its popularity with kids). There are also various passenger cars, freight vehicles, sleeping cars and all sorts of other kinds of transportation-based memorabilia that can make for a day of discovery that doesn’t require one to be a train fanatic to appreciate.

It’s a facility that combines being educational and fun for the kids with reasonably priced, and as it’s not one of the typical “major” tourist attractions in and around the city, the Canberra Railway Museum makes for a great choice for busier times of year (think school holidays) to avoid places that tend to be more crowded. Full of odds and ends that serve as reminders of the Age of Rail, it’s well worth your time and its easily accessible location on the south-east side of the city make getting to the museum a breeze.

8. Mount Majura Vineyard

Location: 314 Majura Rd, Majura

While areas around Australia such as the Barossa, Yarra and Hunter Valleys are no doubt the first that spring to mind when conjuring up images of “Aussie wine country”, don’t sleep on the ACT - it’s got an expansive rural area of countryside that’s host to around 140 individual vineyards and over 30 wineries where it’s possible to sample a drop or three of the “good stuff”. Perhaps the best of these is the Mount Majura Vineyard, an award-winning locale which is situated on the slopes of Mt Majura on a unique section of red soil, and easily accessibly via a roughly 15 minute drive from the Canberra CBD. The vineyard boasts both a pleasant outlook, famously hospitable hosts and some of the best Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Rieslings in the region and it’s also got history behind it, being the first official vineyard in the ACT when vines were planted back in 1988.

The facility boasts a laid-back, unpretentious vibe atypical of many other wineries, with the friendly hosts only too happy to provide detailed, interesting information about each of the featured wines that cover all aspects of the taste spectrum. Mount Majura Vineyard also offer visitors the chance to take part in a self-guided tour through the vineyards (nicknamed the Gumboot Tour) that follows a trail which outlines the history and layout of the site, wine production and grape growing, and culminates in a panoramic view overlooking the vineyard.

While it’s still not a massive facility, Mount Majura Vineyard has expanded significantly since its inception and now offers an additional array of wines both white and red, which when combined with their patented seated wine tastings make for one of the more accessible and comprehensive - while still reasonably-priced - wine tasting experiences in the ACT. Couple these with an array of fresh produce and food offerings - including truffles, rich cheeses and more - and you’ve got a spot in Canberra that offers a true delight for the palate that is sure to appeal to both the wine aficionado and average traveller alike.

7. Cockington Green

Location: 11 Gold Creek Road, Nicholls, Canberra

One of the more unique and charming attractions that Canberra has to offer, Cockington Green is a lovingly-crafted, miniature recreation of what started as only an English village yet which has expanded to feature an entire international themed area. The level of detail and care put into the creation of this miniature village is incredible and easy to appreciate; if it wasn’t for the small scale it would be hard to discern the difference between some of the models and the real thing! Attention to detail is the name of the game at Cockington Green, as there’s plenty of little, easy-to-miss things going on outside of the more obvious main exhibits; characters planning secret meetings behind buildings, domestic disputes, animals running amok and more are all awaiting for the eagle eye to discover - all of which are done with a subtle sense of humour.

It’s a truly delightful spot to visit for those who are bringing the kids along, perhaps at its best during sunny days but retaining an aura of magic during drizzle; the facility even provides free umbrellas for guests to use should they happen to have their visit occur during rainy weather. The exhibits at Cockington Green are far from static, as well - there’s plenty of motion and activity going on here, with the likes of windmills, miniature trains, gardens that light up and even a ridable steam train that can take you on an enchanting little ride through the gardens and various displays.

Each of the sections - the facility is divided into the two main “Original” and “International” displays - offer their own highlights, with mini-Stonehenge and the mini-game of cricket being a favourite of the Original area, while the castles of the International area are simply incredible in their construction and faithfulness to the real thing. The gardens of Cockington Green themselves also deserve a worthy tip of the cap, as they are immaculately groomed and maintained and feature postcard-perfect grass along with an array of dazzling floral displays and smaller shrubs which emulate the likeness of full-sized trees with their layout alongside the exhibits.

An enchanting experience for young and old, Cockington Green simply oozes charm and should be on any Canberra itinerary.

6. Go Hot Air Ballooning with Balloon Aloft

Location: Commonwealth Avenue, Yarralumla

Each morning, Canberra’s famously clear skies can be seen dotted with splashes of colour suspended in the air as the silhouettes of hot air balloons make their tranquil paths high above the ground. Hot air ballooning is something of an institution in Canberra, highlighted by its annual “Canberra Balloon Spectacular” event that occurs annually - one of the world’s top ballooning events that features dozens of hot air balloons of all shapes and sizes filling the skies with their bright and vivid colours. It’s only fitting, then, that many people who visit Canberra look to take part in their own ballooning adventure with local ballooning company Balloon Aloft - and award-winning tour company who aim to provide visitors with the most memorable possible tour of Canberra from above.

It’s truly a unique take on the typical “city tour” experience, with the ballooning guides not only being able to provide you with outstanding views of the city and its many landmarks, but plenty of commentary and background on the area and its history is part of the package as well. Seeing the sun rise over Canberra while passing through the incredibly serene air is an experience that’s both picturesque and slightly eerie; it’s literally dead-quiet once you reach a level far enough the ground, and taking in the blend of historical and modern architecture along the the abundant greenery gives a true idea of just how nice the city looks as a whole. Be sure to bring your camera along for the ride, as the views available from roughly 3000 feet above the earth are hard to match!

The smooth surfaces of Lake Burley Griffin, green peak of Black Mountain and the surrounding tablelands all give you a true sense of their scale when viewed from the air, creating a sense of wonder (and making us feel ever so slightly more insignificant), and the whole experience is capped off with a landing and enjoying a tasty glass of champagne (with optional extra breakfast) back at the Park Hyatt Hotel. Hot air ballooning is a worthwhile “bucket list” item regardless of where you’re choosing to experience it in Australia, but Canberra doesn’t have its reputation as an unofficial “ballooning capital” for nothing - so it’s more than a worthy enough of a destination to take the plunge if you’ve never been ballooning before.

5. Questacon

Location: King Edward Terrace, Canberra

Many facilities make the bold claim of being “both educational and fun” - while usually being an absolute snore-fest - but Questacon (a.k.a the National Science and Technology Centre) is a place that can truly live up to the hype. Featuring an emphasis on interactivity and encouraging active involvement from all ages, Questacon actually DOES make learning fun with an extensive array of exhibits (over 200 in total) that showcase everything from the human body to the origin of electricity to the solar system and everything else in between on the science-y scale. The facility itself is set out over a series of numbered rooms divided up by theme and laid out over several levels, along with regular shows that take place throughout the day and go into further details about the scientific aspects of each exhibit in a way that both adults and kids can understand.

A simple way to enjoy Questacon is to start at the top floor and then work your way down; as there’s an extensive array of regular exhibits on offer, it can take some time to make it from one level to the next, so you’ll want to end up closer to the exit once you’ve had enough. These regular offerings are augmented by temporary displays that showcase various parts of the scientific and natural worlds, so even if you’ve visited before there will likely be something new to absorb and take in.

For those adults who are looking to satisfy their own curiousity without having to deal with the large number of kids running around, Questacon also offers special “adults only” nights at a great discount (priced at $10 as opposed to the typical $30), so if you’re visiting during a time period where this is an option it’s highly advisable to go then as you’ll not only have a bit more peace and quiet, but fewer visitor numbers typically means more hands-on time with the interactive exhibits.

The substantial amount of things to see and do on offer mean it’s possible to spend multiple hours at Questacon and still not see and do everything, so if you’re looking for an entertaining and stimulating way to pass half a day during your visit to Canberra, Questacon is well worth the monetary investment. It’s a truly unique attraction in Australia, as well - where else can you experience a realistic simulation of an earthquake, a real lightning strike up close, play hockey versus a robot, and any number of other quirky activities that all have a solid scientific foundation behind them? Questacon is the only answer, and if you’ve got kids along for the ride, it’s simply a must-visit.

4. National Zoo and Aquarium

Location: 999 Lady Denman Dr, Weston Creek, Canberra

For animal and wildlife-based entertainment, there’s nowhere in the ACT that can compare to the National Zoo and Aquarium - the only such combined facility in Australia - that’s set on a relatively compact 7 hectare stretch of land and brimming with both native and exotic animals from both land and sea. It’s a facility that is both clean, comprehensive and well-maintained, and the animals’ cages are generously spacious as opposed to some other facilities where you can’t help but feel sorry for them being closed in. The zoo has a layout that makes an organic use of the landscape rather than bulldozing its what to cram in as much as possible; lions and snow leopards are on an appropriately natural hillside location, while the cheetahs, giraffes and other animals also have plenty of room to roam rather than looking confined and depressed.

The diverse array of animals on offer is always continually growing, and the zoo continues to be renovated and expanded to increase the scale of offerings worthy of such a facility in our nation’s capital - recent years have seen the addition of the likes of tigers, meerkats, monkeys and various other characters of the wildlife kingdom while still retaining its original intimate feel. Despite being privately owned, it also feels remarkably lest “touristy” than a number of alternative similar zoos and wildlife facilities as well - while there’s the obvious gift shop, commercialism isn’t crammed down your throat, lending the zoo a more natural atmosphere that one would likely want when attempting to immerse themselves in the world of wildlife.

The zoo also offers a range of bookable interactive animal experiences where guests can get up close with the likes of cheetahs and also tours that will allow you to feed white lions and giraffes which - while they come at an extra cost - are well worth the cost of admission and add a more dynamic layer to the typical “passive viewing” experience. These also feature in-depth explanations from the passionate guides about not only the animals but the zoo itself, so you’ll come away with a higher level of appreciation for the facility and its weird and wonderful inhabitants. The facility’s aquarium component meanwhile adds another dynamic to the attraction; while it’s not massive, it features some rare species of marine life that can’t be found at most other larger facilities around Australia, as well as the more “typical” offerings such as sharks, fish and coral of the Great Barrier Reef, and amphibious life such as frogs and reptiles.

The National Zoo and Aquarium is situated along the waterfront where the Molonglo River runs into Lake Burley Griffin and can be reached via a short 10 minute drive to the west of the city centre, and is accessible by both car and bus, making the proposition of getting a dose of animal action both quick and easy. While the price may seem steep, considering it’s basically combining two attractions in one, when the price of admission to both a zoo and an aquarium is factored in it’s more than reasonable and provides a solid 6 hours of entertainment while in Canberra.

3. The National Portrait Gallery

Location: King Edward Terrace, Canberra

Scoring extra points for uniqueness, the National Portrait Gallery is exactly what it name implies - a gallery full of portraits of significant individuals from Australian history - but is far more interesting than that may initially seem. You don’t have to be a history buff to appreciate its offerings, and if you’ve got even a shred of Aussie patriotism (or are visiting from abroad and looking to learn about Aussie culture) then it’s a place that can keep you occupied for hours. Each and every portrait in the gallery is curated in detail, and the portraits themselves are produced in a variety of styles - not only different kind of painted art, but photography, sculptures and busts as well. It’s truly one of the only A to Z collections of “who’s who” in Aussie history in the country, and the figures range from old-world politicians to modern-day celebrities.

In terms of famous names, there are few Aussies who are noteworthy that aren’t featured here in some form; everybody from Mel Gibson to Ned Kelly to Dame Edna Everage can be found adorning the walls or the floors of the gallery, with each part of the facility separated out into distinct rooms following particular historical periods rather than genre of their fame or achievement. All aspects of the Aussie cultural spectrum are covered in some form - pop culture, sports, politics, exploration and more are here in some degree, and like many of the other spots on this list, the gallery offers opportunities for learning as well as standard sightseeing and is the ideal place to duck into if the weather takes a turn for the worse.

The compact size of the NPG make it easy enough to explore without getting worn out or tired, and it’s a good generator of conversation points and discussion between adults and their kids. While the gallery now resides in its own purpose-built building, it was originally contained in Old Parliament House (mentioned above), so if you’re confused trying to find it by reading dated information on the Internet or older guidebooks, this will likely be why. Lastly, perhaps the most impressive feature of the National Portrait Gallery is that entry (except for temporary exhibitions) is entirely FREE (as is parking) - so if you’re looking for kill several hours while coming away more “Australian” than when you first entered, it’s a proverbial no-brainer as one of the top things to do in Canberra.

2. The National Gallery of Australia

Location: Parkes Place, Canberra

A completely different kind of gallery to the above, the National Gallery of Australia is a truly expansive attraction that takes history one step further and features a staggering array of historical and cultural artistic artifacts spanning a great chunk of human history and geographical regions ranging from Australia to the Pacific and the Asian continent. With a collection of over 160,000 individual pieces on display, the quantity of things to see and do here can be almost overwhelming; large, open spaces are nonetheless packed with world-class items on permanent display with even more if temporary exhibitions are included. The Gallery is divided up into five main sections - Australian Art, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander, European & American, Asian and the Pacific are all covered in their own wing, while unique individual pieces - notably Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles” famed work from the 1950’s, among many others - feature prominently with an impressive degree of curation.

The gallery is laid out over three levels, starting with an open, cathedral-esque layout at the entrance that continues on into the Asian section on the ground floor and out into the charming Sculpture Garden. It’s a large facility that can take some time to navigate, and it’s easy to spend a full day - or multiple days - here if art is a particular passion. There’s also a surprisingly good cafe inside that makes for a reasonably-priced spot to grab lunch and rest tired legs before pressing onwards. Kids are also catered for via specially-designed brochures that act as a simulated “treasure hunt”, tasking them to find certain pieces or art located at regular intervals around the gallery - a crafty means of keeping them entertained.

Tours of the National Gallery of Australia are available in two “flavours” - there are regularly-scheduled, free tours conducted by knowledgeable and passionate staff members, while there’s also a hireable audio guide available for a small fee which you can equip and then follow the narration around from one exhibit to the next; this can actually be preferable in some cases to the guided tours as during busier periods the size of groups means views of the featured exhibits may be obscured.

Professionally managed, well laid out, comprehensive and encompassing all ends of the world’s art spectrum, the NGA is arguably Australia’s best gallery - and also offers general entry FREE of charge.

1. Australian War Memorial

Location: Treloar Cres, Canberra

If there’s a singular word to describe our #1 entry on this list, “humbling” would likely be it. The Australian War Memorial is one of the most significant buildings in Australia that serves as some combination of attraction, museum, archive and tribute all rolled into one, and its size and contents combine to make it an experience that can be as harrowing as it is informative and enjoyable. Fittingly located at the bottom of ANZAC Parade, it’s simply a must for every Australian citizen to visit once in their lives, and serves as a fitting memorial to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in the name of our country. The Memorial features a staggering array of moving displays depicting conflicts dating to Australia’s colonial period way back in 1788 and covering the likes of World War 1 and 2, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and more modern conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan as well as more general overviews of military history and way of life.

Each war is covered in painstakingly elaborate detail, with stories, weaponry, photos and videos documenting the trials and tribulations of all involved. There are even military vehicles ranging from light aircraft to cannons which can be found in various sections of the memorial and which help add even more of a touch of realism to the proceedings. Scale maps show geographical layouts of where conflicts occurred and where significant battles and events took place, with the World War 1 Gallipoli feature being a particular highlight. Perhaps the most unintentionally impactful feature of the memorial is the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier located in the memorial’s mosaic-lined and stained-glass-featured Hall of Memory that represents all of the nameless heroes in each branch of the armed services who have lost their lives in wars throughout the world - and one does not need to be a religious person to feel such an atmosphere here.

The building itself is likewise impressive, with its large, stone construction feeling larger in scale that it probably truly is, while also providing a great outlook over Canberra to Old Parliament House and beyond. At such a serious facility, it also may seem that bringing kids along may be an unspoken no-no, however the memorial has its own dedicated Kids Discovery Zone that aims to educate them to some degree about the war while also allowing them to clamber on and sit in the likes of a Vietnam War-era helicopter, a World War 1 style trench, and even a small submarine!

While some may find the experience of visiting the Australian War Memorial inherently solemn and even depressing, its pure meaningfulness can’t be denied - and there’s simply so much here to keep the senses occupied and brain interested for all ages that there’s a good reason it ranks at the pointy end of our list of the top things to do in Canberra.

In addition, if you’re looking for more things to do in Canberra, be sure to check out our main region page for a full list of tours, activities, attractions and more.

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