From kangaroos to national landmarks and a floral wonderland, Vicky Smith finds much to love in Australia's capital
Gigantic paws, angular hind legs, thick muscular tails - watching a mob of kangaroos grazing in the wild for the first time, I was struck by the power of these strapping creatures. Bounding across promotional posters and even gracing Australia’s coat of arms, ’roos are a familiar Aussie icon, yet seeing them in the flesh was still a wondrous thrill.
This encounter took place at Tidbinbilla, just 45 minutes’ drive from the centre of Canberra, and wasn’t the only highlight we experienced at the nature reserve, known for both its Ngunnawal Aboriginal heritage and diverse wildlife. Guided by friendly ranger Scott Ryan, we glimpsed everything from the quicksilver flash of a platypus to elusive long-nosed potoroos (little marsupials that Ryan affectionally called “pots”) and a rare musk duck that shone iridescent purple in the sun. My favourite residents of all? Predictably the koalas, tree-dwelling fluffballs that take the cute factor to another level.
Tidbinbilla hosts long-established and reintroduced populations across an enormous range of habitats, and the koalas were among the latter. As Ryan told us, scratching one lovingly on its woolly rump, “they’re part of our conservation efforts to re-establish threatened species locally.” We were standing by the breeding enclosure, based within the wider Eucalypt Forest area into which koalas are released and sadly needed since they’re listed as endangered. Taking a photo of the sleepy trio curled up in the branches ahead, I sincerely hoped that such initiatives paid off.
Rounding off our Tidbinbilla trip with a short drive through open grasslands and dense clumps of forest, we failed to spot the koalas’ (mainly nocturnal) wombat relative but did sight a wallaby and two laughing kookaburras, those “merry kings of the bushes” famed for their cackling-like call. Did you know these endearing stocky birds are actually tree kingfishers? I didn’t until I looked them up later - fascinating.
Having such a nature reserve on its doorstep is one of Canberra’s myriad surprises. Tourists often ignore Australia’s capital, nestled between popular Sydney and Melbourne, but they shouldn’t. Not only does it have a first-class festival calendar but you’ll also find a glut of national museums and major attractions, many unusually free to enter. And while it can get windy around Lake Burley Griffin, the city’s beloved centrepiece, there’s a serene air that makes strolling around a pleasure. It’s a green pioneer, too, named the world’s most sustainable city by Uswitch in 2021.
Handily, you can easily combine Canberra with Sydney; it’s just three hours’ drive via the lovely Southern Highlands, and there’s also a scenic train. We stopped at Berrima, one of Australia’s best-preserved 1830s towns and chock-full of listed buildings, well worth a visit.
I’d been determined to feature some lesser-known destinations in our Australian itinerary, and our three days in Canberra proved me right. Not being an oenophile, I gave the North and its wineries a miss, instead enjoying some of the city-region’s other charms: from wider South neighbourhoods like Yarralumla, with its architectural hotchpotch of diplomatic missions, to the Inner South with its National Triangle of cultural institutions and leafy suburbs like Manuka.
We stayed in Canberra’s Inner North, just across Lake Burley Griffin, in a spacious apartment at Avenue Hotel. Though I’d have liked more sustainability measures, including recycling information in the rooms, I did appreciate the daily Green Card option: allowing guests to forgo housekeeping and get a $10 voucher for the hotel restaurant in exchange. Having amassed several vouchers by our last evening, we tucked into a heavily discounted (and delicious) fish and chips feeling very smug.
The hotel boasts a great location in Braddon, which, as well as being right next to the city centre, has become a destination in its own right. Hipster strongholds - think Scandi coffee shops and vegan bakeries - jostle with indie stores and buzzy burger joints, while murals and galleries add an arty pop. Braddon’s nerve centre, Lonsdale Street, is especially atmospheric at night: when oversized neon bulbs light up the trees and packed-out restaurants fill the air with pungent cooking smells, from Pan-Asian to pizza.
Other Inner North districts include Acton, home to treasures like Australia’s National Botanic Gardens and National Museum plus the city centre. This spans one of Canberra’s leading shopping and dining areas to Commonwealth Park, a beautiful lakeside recreation space that hosts various events throughout the year.
Handily, we happened to be in Canberra during one of its most celebrated festivals, Floriade. This spring extravaganza sees a rainbow of flower displays and a busy activity calendar, with daytime entry largely free.
We began our Floriade foray with a stroll by Lake Burley Griffin, where flocks of rose-breasted cockatoos grazed amid pesky rabbits and dragonflies flickered like jewels above the water. Little waves whipped irritably against the shore but the sun was shining, as it often does in Canberra, and a balmy breeze announced the arrival of spring.
Entering Commonwealth Park, we were greeted with a Deco-style painted spiegeltent, inside which clever horticultural displays evoked fantasy figures like Narnia’s White Witch. Grabbing a hot chocolate from a drinks van opposite, we continued through the park - enjoying a floral wonderland of a million blooms - before having a peek at the interesting National Capital Exhibition (a permanent attraction unrelated to Floriade) and catching a free festival shuttle back towards our hotel. An afternoon very well spent.
On our first evening in Australia’s capital, we’d eaten at a city-centre restaurant called Such and Such, where the dishes were as colourful as the trendy retro interior: think pierogi stuffed with oxtail, orange and ginger or hazelnut ice cream with malt mousse and boozy prunes. Yet despite this, I was perturbed by the monochrome beyond; Canberra has a lot of grey buildings. And was it me or did the centre seem a bit lifeless?
Fast forward to our final day and, while it’s not my cup of char, I could appreciate Canberra’s distinctive aesthetic: one that characterises many of its landmarks, and which no doubt gets lovers of brutalism all of a flutter. As for my thinking that the city centre seemed lifeless, it turns out that was misguided too; especially around the city’s big mall, we discovered all the buzz of Braddon and a new slew of offbeat art besides - my favourite being a giant magpie eating a chip.
Canberra reinforced my belief that it’s often worth pushing past the usual itineraries, and past your initial judgements. Give it a chance, you’ll have a capital time indeed.
Main image: Aboriginal Memorial at the National Gallery of Australia, courtesy of VisitCanberra
Canberra has its own airport but many visitors will likely visit from Sydney, to which there are regular one-stop flights from UK cities such as London and Manchester. Popular options include a three-hour drive or taking the scenic train, a leisurely four and a half hours via the Southern Highlands.
Vicky stayed at Avenue Hotel on Northbourne Avenue, in the hip central suburb of Braddon. Its unfussy but tasteful five-star lodgings span a range of rooms, suites and apartments (one- and two-bedroom), some with great views over to landmarks like Telstra Tower. Facilities range from a 24-hour gym to stylish steakhouse Marble & Grain.
For more information on Canberra, see visitcanberra.com.au.