How to Plan a Self-guided Tour of Canberra

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As a resident of NSW Australia, guest contributor Leslie Connor from Empty Nesters Travel Insights, knows quite a bit about exploring all that Australia has to offer. She’s already told us how to plan a fun road trip from Sydney to Melbourne, and shared tips for exploring beautiful Sydney and Melbourne. But, today, she’s taken us off the beaten path on a self-guided tour of Canberra, a vibrant city know as the country’s “bush capital”.

How to Plan a Self-guided Tour of Canberra

Our “bush capital” of Canberra is often overlooked in favor of Sydney or Melbourne. Surrounded by National Parks and the Brindebella ranges, the Australian Capital Territory is really like a big country town. We’ve lived in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. If we had to return to live in a city, Canberra would definitely be our choice. If you visit, make sure to explore the beautiful natural surroundings, enjoy local festivals and theater performances, learn about our history, or experience some great culinary delights while exploring the cool climate wineries. Check out a few of our favorite things to do and see in this beautiful city:

Where to stay in Canberra

When we stay in Canberra we usually stay in the Crowne Plaza Hotel. This is right on Glebe Park, perfect for a late afternoon or early morning stroll or jog and within easy walking distance of the city center. We have also enjoyed staying in some of the many B & B’s in the north of the city.

When to Visit

Weather wise, Canberra is a city of stark contrasts. During summer the heat can reach up to 40C (104F) and in winter temperatures regularly drop to -7C (19F). Our favorite times to visit Canberra are either from September to November, when the trees are blossoming in a colorful display after their winter hibernation. Or between March to April, when the deciduous trees are putting on their golden fall display. However you will discover plenty to enjoy in Canberra at any time of year.

Canberra Transportation

Canberra is three to four hours from Sydney by either car, train or bus. It is an easy flight from most major centers. Once in the city, Canberra has an excellent bus system to get around the city. There is also a free “Cultural Loop” Bus, which operates between 9am and 5pm, taking you to some of the major attractions in Canberra.

Active Travel in Canberra

Over half of the Australian Capital Territory is set aside as a nature reserve, so there is plenty of opportunity for active boomers to enjoy Canberra’s beautiful natural surroundings.

Take a ride up to Black Mountain and enjoy one of the marked walks through the local bushland. This is a natural habitat for over 500 species of birds, reptiles and insects. While you are there, take a ride to the top of the Telstra tower. At nearly 200 meters tall, you have panoramic views over the region.

Mount Ainslie lookout is also a popular bush walking and picnic spot, offering great views over Canberra and the Brindabella mountains beyond.

Mount Stromlo Observatory was destroyed by bushfire in 2003, but the site still provides an excellent picnic spot with views over the Brindabella ranges. Explore one of the many marked hiking and cycling trails. Heritage walking tours are also offered periodically.

Looking for more active travel options in Australia? Check out our tips for hiking the Great Ocean Walk, which runs along the southern coastline of Victoria.

Visit the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve or the Namadgi National Park and meet some of our native fauna in their natural habitat. Choose from hundreds of kilometers of marked walking trails, or take a guided tour with one of the park rangers.

Explore Lake Burley Griffin

a lake surrounded by greenery
Make sure to take some time to relax and explore beautiful Lake Burley Griffin.

Man made Lake Burley Griffin is the centerpiece of Canberra. It is surrounded by leafy park lands, which make the perfect setting for a picnic. Active boomers can enjoy a stroll along the 40 kilometers of walkways around the Lake, taking in the natural scenery along the way. Why not hire a bike and cycle,? In summer you can enjoy a paddle boat around the lake.

In the middle of the lake you will see the 50 meter tall Carillon on Aspen Island. A gift to the people of the ACT from the British as a 50th anniversary present, regular recitals are held on the island where you can hear the chime of the 55 brass bells.

Also look out for the Captain James Cook Memorial Fountain, which operates between 11am and 2pm daily, spouting over 100 meters high.

Why not take take a scenic lake cruise and enjoy Canberra from the water? More adventurous boomers might want to take a sunrise hot air balloon ride over Lake Burley Griffin for an unforgettable view of the bush capital.

Stroll through Canberra’s Parks and Gardens

In the Australian National Botanical Gardens, you can enjoy free guided tours of the native plant collections.The gardens offer “explorer tours” on a small bus, as well as a number of interesting events held throughout the year.

Commonwealth Park is the perfect lakeside park in which to relax and enjoy the changing seasonal views. Stroll around the lake and enjoy the sculptures. In spring Commonwealth Park comes alive with “Floriade”, a spectacular exhibition  of plants, shrubs, floral displays and all things garden. Entry to the displays are free, and a range of entertainment and workshops are  also available.

upclose shot of multi-colored flowers
Commonwealth Park comes alive with the Floriade Festival in Spring.

Multi-generational Travel in Canberra

If you’re on a multi-generational trip, Gold Creek Village in the north of Canberra is a destination in itself. The village has a range of old fashioned shops where you will find arts and crafts, handmade toys, furniture and clothes and the hub of the town- the boiled lolly shop.

There are many galleries and attractions, as well as the George Harcourt Inn, which is the perfect place to relax by the fire after a day’s sightseeing. Adjacent Federation square holds a range of cafe’s and retail outlets.

In Gold Creek Village you will find Cockington Green,an extensive display of miniature buildings and villages from over 30 countries. A visit to these gardens has always been one of our family’s favorite activities. Stroll around the immaculate gardens and enjoy a mini steam train around the village. Next door you will find the National Dinosaur Museum. Here you will find lifelike models of prehistoric creatures, as well as displays of local fossils and minerals.

Also in Gold Creek is the Walk in Aviary, with over 400 birds from 50 different species. Kids will also love the Canberra Reptile Zoo where you can get up close to some of Australia’s slipperiest creatures, with a collection of snakes, geckos and pythons.

Explore Canberra’s History

No visit to Canberra is a complete without seeing Parliament House. But did you know we have two? Looking from the Australian War Memorial down Anzac Parade, you will look over Old Parliament House, to the current Parliament House on Capital Hill with it’s now iconic flagpole flying high over Canberra.

white sign saying old parliament house
Make sure to take a tour of Canberra’s Parliament Houses. Theres’s two!

Old Parliament House was the center of Australian Democracy from 1927 to 1988. Today you can wander through the extensive rose gardens and visit the Museum of Australian Democracy. Guided tours are available.

white buildinjg with circular reflecting pool in front
The new Parliament house is a bit more contemporary.

On Capital Hill you can visit Parliament House. Take a free guided tour including the impressive art collection and a display of historic documents.

At the Royal Australian Mint in Deakin you can not only learn the history of Australia’s currency, you can also view coins being made and strike a coin yourself.

Australian War Memorial

long plaza leading to large building in the background
Anzac Parade, looking from the Australian War Memorial to Parliament House.

Visit the Australian War Memorial in Campbell. Here you will find contemplative commemorative spaces as well as an extensive war museum with historic artifacts and documents which tell the stories which shaped Australia. The Anzac Parade Commemorative walkway leading from the War Memorial is a Canberra landmark. The red gravel drive leading towards Parliament House is lined with memorials to the ANZACS who have fought and died in war.

large concrete building with arches leading to dome
The Australian War Memorial should definitely be on your tour!

Unique Canberra Sites

A unique feature of Canberra is over 80 embassies on Embassy Drive in the suburb of Yarralumla. Take a leisurely drive and spot the architecture representing each of the various countries.

Blundells Cottage in Parkes is an 1860’s workers cottage which gives an insight into the lives of some of the regions’ earliest European residents. The displays cover the early colonial period until the area was proclaimed as the nation’s capital in 1913. The cottage is open from March until December each year and is closed during the hot summer months.

Learn about Australian sporting history with a visit to the Australian Institute of Sport in Bruce. Enjoy a dip in the heated pool where some of our swimming greats have trained, or take a 90 minute guided tour, including the Sportex collection of memorabilia.

Canberra Art Galleries and Museums

Many of Australia’s most important museum and art collections are conveniently located on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in Parkes.

You will find more than just books in The Australian National Library in Parkes. In the Treasures Gallery you will find artifacts from the life of poet, Henry Lawson, sporting memorabilia and other items of national interest. The collection holds maps, photos, diaries, paintings and artifacts which tell Australia’s story.

The Australian National Gallery in Parkes houses the famous “Blue Poles” by Jackson Pollock and Sidney Nolan’s “Ned Kelly” series among its collection. Half hourly tours of the gallery are available. Also in Parkes you will find the National Portrait Gallery, with it’s fascinating collection of portraiture of over 400 people who have shaped Australian history. Free guided tours are available at 11.30am daily.

Questacon,  the National Science and Technology Centre is also in Parkes. The center has eight interactive exhibitions and over 200 hands-on experiences which provide a fun and educational day if you happen to strike a cold Canberra day.

At the Australian National Museum in Acton you can enjoy exploring the free exhibitions chronicling the history of Australia and it’s people. Relax by the lakeside and enjoy a coffee or a light meal once you are finished.

In the heart of the city, you’ll find the Canberra Museum (not to be confused with the National Museum), where you can explore the history of the Canberra region.

Also in Acton, you can enjoy free exhibitions from some of Australia’s up and coming artists at the Australian National University School of  Arts Gallery on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 12 to 5pm.

Take in a Show

The Canberra Theatre Centre hosts a range of comedy, drama musical and dance performances from some of the best Australian and international ensembles. Additionally, the Canberra Street Theatre nearby hosts a number of contemporary performances on two stages, and the Australian National University School of Music holds regular concerts by some of Australia’s best up and coming performers.

Markets and Shopping

Exhibition Park in the North hosts the Farmers’ Markets every Saturday morning from 7.30am. Be there early to pick up the best local produce. This is also the venue for ongoing exhibitions and events, including the Royal Canberra Show.

The Bus Depot Markets in Kingston is open every Sunday. Located in an old industrial warehouse, you can browse through hundreds of stalls for jewellery, clothes, arts and crafts as well as the best local food and produce. Next door to the markets is the Canberra Glassworks where you can enjoy contemporary glass art, view exhibitions, glassmaking and even enjoy a hands-on workshop.

Canberra has numerous shopping complexes where you can satisfy your need for some retail therapy. We would usually visit either the Canberra Centre in the CBD, Belconnen Mall to the north or Woden Plaza to the south.

Food and Drink in Canberra 

Whether you are looking for fine dining, or a relaxed lunch beside Lake Burley Griffin there is a wide range of cuisine on offer. Around Dickson in the inner north, you can browse through the small Chinatown and choose from a range of ethnic restaurants. Here you will also find a number of pubs and the Dickson Tradies club where you can get a good value bistro or counter meal. In the center of Canberra, you will find King O’Malley’s Irish pub, with great atmosphere and value bistro meals. Braddon, in the city center is also where you will find many memorable culinary experiences.

In the south, you will find Manuka and Kingston, where you will be spoilt for choice in cafes and restaurants. Even in the cold winter months, the outdoor dining areas pull down the patio blinds and bring out the heaters. This means you can enjoy a great meal in a cafe environment. In summer, the Kingston foreshore is the perfect place to enjoy a meal by the lake.

Canberra is the heart of the cool climate wine region. Why not head out to one of the many vineyards to sample the local produce and enjoy a meal at one of the many award winning restaurants? There are many wineries and breweries to visit within a half hour drive of Canberra, with a number of wine tasting tours available.

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