24 hours in: Canberra

April 07, 2018
Urban Adventures

Coming to Canberra for a short visit and want to make the most of your time? The main thing to know is that Canberra has an amazing bike path network, and cycling is often the quickest, most convenient and hands-down most fun way to get around! On two wheels, you can easily reach the local attractions and cafe strips clustered around Canberra’s central Lake Burley Griffin. There is so much to do in Canberra, so here is our pick of the what and when.

Early morning (7am – 9am)

If your time in Canberra is short and you just want to focus on seeing the big attractions, then brekky (that’s Aussie for ‘breakfast’) on the terrace at the Bookplate café at the lakeside National Library is the place to start. You’ll get the best early-morning views over the lake and great coffee!

There are plenty of regular buses that go past the library, and parking if you have a car. After brekky you can stroll around the lake to the art galleries or across the road to Questacon.

If you have more time for the whole “bush capital” experience of Canberra, then it is better to do the outdoor exploring in the morning when it’s cooler and less windy. Your best option is to have brekky at the Bookplate café, check out one of the nearby attractions, then take a stroll around the botanic gardens and the National Museum of Australia.

travellers on bikes in a garden

Stroll through the Botanic Gardens | Photo by Canberra Urban Adventures

Morning (9am – 12pm)

Close to the city centre, under the flanks of Black Mountain (the one with the big Telstra tower on top), is a unique Aussie gem: the Australian National Botanic Gardens. The gardens is THE place to see the vast variety which makes up the nature of Australia — from red desert to cool rainforest and a lot more, including a cool new treehouse in the paperbark forest. In the mornings, the abundant colourful birdlife will be in full song, and you may catch a kangaroo or two still grazing at the eucalypt lawns (before their siesta) while the water dragons are warming up on the rock ledges by the waterfall. If your caffeine levels begin to fall, there is the great little Pollen Café in amongst all this nature for a coffee, or maybe lunch. The bookshop at the Visitor Centre is one of the best in Canberra for all things Australian. Getting there is either a short 5- to 10-minute taxi trip from most hotels, or a 30 minute walk from the city centre through the Australian National University.

To experience the bush capital with views of its majestic mountain setting, you could also head to the National Arboretum Canberra. The architecturally stunning hilltop arboretum Village Centre is replete with cafes, visitor displays and gift shop and there are plenty of interesting short walks with amazing views over Canberra. It takes about 20 minutes to get there on the Route 81 Tourist loop bus service but the service only runs five times per day, so plan your time carefully.

Lunch (12pm – 2pm)

If you have not succumbed to the charms of nature in the bush capital and stayed for lunch at the botanic gardens or the arboretum, then switch gears and experience the cosmopolitan cafe culture of Canberra. Head over to the lakeside Kingston Foreshore, and, if it’s fine local food, a fresh juice or yummy smoothie you seek, then the Local Press Café is where to land. (It’s about half way along the cafe strip.) You are spoilt for choice here from Asian food to gourmet burgers and a liberal number of watering holes to quench the thirst. If you have the time, the nearby Canberra Glassworks is worth a look to see the local artisans at work. There is a frequent bus service to Kingston, but being the flatter end of Canberra with a quiet lakeside cycle path, it’s also a good option to get there by bicycle. It’s only 20-30 minutes by electric bike around the lakeside bike path from the botanic gardens to Kingston.

pedestrians walking along the waterfront

For plenty of food options, head to the Kingston Foreshore | Photo by Canberra Urban Adventures

Afternoon (2pm – 6pm)

Most people visit Canberra to see the big attractions: Parliament House, the galleries and national museums. After lunch it’s probably starting to get a bit warm or windy outside, so this is a good time to head inside and explore some of these big places.

Clustered around the heart of Canberra (next to the start/finish point for the electric bike tours) are four to choose from: the Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery of Australia, the science and technology museum called Questacon, and the Museum of Australian Democracy, housed in our old Parliament House. Further up atop Capital Hill, at the apex of the triangle in the Parliamentary zone, is the Australian Parliament House.

The Portrait Gallery, with its focus on people, is a very popular place with the locals and Questacon has some cool hands-on things to try and experience. Like getting into a jumpsuit to let yourself fall gently and experience how the laws of physics can do you no harm. Up at Parliament House you can join a free 40-minute guided tour of the building, and if the politicians are in town, book yourself a free ticket in the public gallery to see the leaders of the country slugging it out during Question Time at 2pm.

Make sure you leave enough time to get around to the other side of the lake and visit the amazing well before it closes at 5pm. Without a bike, it’s a 10-15 minute taxi ride to get there. (The bus is just too complicated!) The colourful lakeside museum building itself is worth a look, with its bulging windows, rainbow serpent entrance spiral and red Uluru line. This is no ordinary museum and it really does live up to its billing as the place where our Australian stories come alive. It is the best place in the country to learn about the First Nations people, their ancient and continuing culture, and how successive waves of immigration have shaped the nation we call Australia.

Next, check out the National Museum of Australia, where you’ll need a good two hours to explore just some of the expansive galleries and immersive displays. If you arrive mid afternoon in need of a drink, the lakeside museum cafe is a very cool place to kick back and watch life on the lake. And why just look at the gorgeous lake when you can be part of it — on a cruisy and safe pedal kayak?

travellers on bikes under a red structure at the Canberra museum

The National Museum is where Australian stories come alive | Photo by Canberra Urban Adventures

Dinner and evening (6pm onwards)

If you planned ahead, you could find a local performance to your liking at the Street Theatre not far from the city centre or a movie at the Palace Cinema in the chic New Acton precinct.

Otherwise, if you’re looking for the hip and creative end of the food and drink experience in Canberra then stroll just 5-10 minutes north of the city centre into Lonsdale Street, Braddon and take your pick from the sublime and the quirky — from Bent Spoke craft brewery to wholesome Elemental fare, from Grease Monkey gourmet burgers to Hopscotch fine food, and a smattering of bars with unique cocktails in between. If you can’t find an interesting place to chill out and give the taste buds a tease here, you are just not looking. Check the whole range of choices at In The City Canberra and also the Whats On guide for which of these places is offering a local music gig or two.

For the classic Australian pub experience with some decent dependable local fare, then King O’Malleys amidst the city life of Garema Place (the pedestrian mall in the city centre) is a popular place with locals.