Canberra tends to get a bad rap, particularly from Aussies. The region was chosen as the site for the capital in 1909. This choice was made predominantly to avoid upsetting Melbourne or Sydney. The city was therefore planned pretty much from scratch and the building of the capital you see today started properly in 1913. Planned cities across the world are often accused of being sterile. A good example of this is Milton Keynes in the U.K. As the seat of parliament, it also draws flack as being full of politicians and bureaucrats. However, on work visits here, Andy thought that the criticism wasn’t entirely fair, so we felt that we owed Canberra a fair crack of the whip.
Towns within the city
We had booked an AirBnB in O’Connor, a suburb in Canberra’s inner north. We found it to be a great base and liked the fact the Canberra has been designed with suburbs having a centre of their own. This meant we were just around the corner from shops, café’s and a great pub, The Duxton. If there isn’t a particular service you need in your suburb, you’re likely to find it in a neighbouring suburb, a short distance away.
We were staying on the ground floor of Bridget’s place. We had our own bedroom and bathroom and shared an open plan lounge, kitchen and dining room on the middle floor of the three storey townhouse. The house was 5 minutes from a bus stop with regular services into the city so we parked OTIS, bought some ‘MyWay’ Cards and used public transport for the 5 days we were there.
If you’ve not yet used AirBnB, follow this link to get a $55 discount on your first booking.
Feel The Power
Our first day in Canberra saw us heading to the seat of power, Federal Parliament House. Andy had been here for several work functions but Jane hadn’t visited before. We enjoyed looking around the Northern Territory Parliament in Darwin as you can read in ‘Why We Disagree with Bill Bryson’. We were therefore looking forward to seeing behind the scenes.
After Federation in 1901, the Australian Parliament met in Melbourne in the State Parliament in Victoria. Canberra was chosen as the Federal Capital in 1909, and it was not until 1927 that the first Parliament House opened. That building, now known as Old Parliament House was on our agenda for the day, but our first destination was the current seat of Parliament.
Parliament House is an imposing building at the top of Capital Hill, which can be seen from all over Canberra. It was opened in 1988 in the year of the bicentenary of the First Fleet arriving. After passing through the security checks we took the elevator up to the roof. You have great views from here, particularly across to The Australian War Memorial.
The sloping roof extends down to the ground and is mostly covered in grass. Until recently you could walk (or roll) down it. This was a favourite stop for school parties. It was actually part of the philosophy of the design that the people could be on top of the politicians. Sadly, in the last year, the opportunity to roll down the grass been prohibited due to security concerns. We thought this is a real shame, particularly given the meaning behind it. We were sure that this move would make really no difference to a committed terror plot and smacked more of bureaucracy than anything else. Lets hope the decision gets reversed.
We joined a free behind the scenes tour which occurs regularly every day. It wasn’t a sitting week so we got a good look around the House of Representatives and the Senate. We learnt that the colours in the two houses use the same tradition as the British Parliament; green in the lower house and red in the upper. However, they are given an Aussie slant. The green in the House of Reps is lighter towards the top to reflect the forest canopy. The red in the Senate is darker at the bottom to mirror the colour of red Australian soil.
Another item that piqued our interest was a comprehensive lego model of Parliament House. It is very accurate but has a number of unexpected details which you can try and find. These include Batman in one of the offices and a tourist dropping a hotdog from the public gallery. There was also some schoolchildren rolling down the grass, which as we’ve noted above, you can no longer do.
Before leaving, we had a good look at the official portraits of all of Australian Prime Ministers. This included one of Andrew Fisher, the only politician from the region we lived in, Wide Bay, to become Prime Minister.
We continued our exploration of everything parliamentary by walking down the hill to Old Parliament House. The Duke of York opened the building in 1927 just before he became King George VI. The building was called Provisional Parliament House as it was only intended to last 50 years. It ended up staying in use for 61 years and now houses the Museum of Australian Democracy.
An exhibition of political cartoons was on display when we visited and they were interesting and very funny. We got another free behind the scenes tour and had a look in both houses. It was interesting to see the contrast, the aged leather felt much more like a gentleman’s club than the clean lines of the new Parliament. In fact, when the first women MPs were elected they had to partition off one of the toilets to create facilities for both sexes. This partitioned toilet is still there. It was appropriate therefore, that another exhibition at the Museum celebrated the role women parliamentarians have played in Australia’s story.
One of our favourite parts of the building was the Prime Minister’s suite of offices. They were set up to recreate how they looked when Bob Hawke was Prime Minister in the 1980s. They were very unassuming, no grander than the executive offices in Bundaberg Regional Council.
There were more portraits here, Canberra based artist Alison Alder had reinterpreted the first eight Australian Prime Ministers. We therefore got to see a rather different representation of Andrew Fisher.
Getting Our Art On
After enjoying the portraits of Prime Ministers at New and Old Parliament Houses, it was apt that we visited the National Portrait Gallery later in the week. We’d actually had this as one of our must-dos in Canberra. The collection began with the work of philanthropists Gordon & Marilyn Darling in the late 1980s. They were inspired by the portrait galleries in Washington and London and felt that Australia would benefit from one of its own. The Howard government in 1997 allocated funds for the National Portrait Collection which was initially housed at Old Parliament House. The current gallery opened in 2008.
In what was becoming a theme for our Canberra visit we started with a free tour of the different galleries. This gave us a good taste for the portraits but did feel a bit like a test. When our guide asked which pictures we liked they then wanted to explore what we liked about them and how they made us feel. We didn’t mind, it stretched the grey matter a bit and encouraged us to pay attention to the art. It also gave Andy the opportunity to make stuff up.
The gallery is much more than a collection of pictures of people. The breadth of people represented, across many years, and in differing styles really left you with a feeling for the national character of Australia. We’d recommend that it is put high on your agenda if you’re visiting Canberra.
The next building along from the National Portrait Gallery is the National Gallery of Australia. After being super impressed by the portraits we were prepared for the afternoon to be a bit of an anti-climax. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
As is typical of Aussie understatement, we didn’t really know much about the National Gallery. We couldn’t, however, believe how impressive the collection was, there was art from Monet, Dali, Picasso amongst many others. We had no idea work by these artists was on display in Canberra. There were also superb exhibitions of Asian and indigenous art at the gallery.
When we were there, an exhibition of American Masters was underway. The centrepiece was Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. This painting is fabulous. There was an uproar when it was bought by the gallery in the 1970s for over a million dollars. Special permission had to be given by the Prime Minister and the papers thought it an outrage. As it is now considered to be worth somewhere between 100 and 350 million dollars, it was a fairly astute financial transaction. What was amazing to us was you could walk right up to it or sit and look at it without being mobbed by crowds. Compare this to some other galleries such as the Louvre in Paris.
Apart from Blue Poles, there were other classic pieces of American Art on display. This included work by Andy Warhol, Eva Hesse and Robert Mapplethorpe. A truly outstanding exhibition finishing off a wonderful day getting our art on.
Remembering the Sacrifice
We were greeted at the Australian War Memorial by a sea of 62,000 poppies handmade by volunteers. Every poppy represents an Australian life lost in World War 1. The ‘Honour Their Spirit’ exhibition ran for five weeks until Rembrance Day, November 11 2018 commemorating a century since Armistice Day. We were privileged to visit during the exhibition.
The galleries at the Memorial are almost overwhelming. The amount of information covers all of the conflicts that Australia has been involved in and is therefore immense. However, the stories of individual soldiers and other members of the defence force make it more personal. True to form, we joined a free tour that brought those stories to life. We continued on to look around some of the galleries on our own. This included the tomb of the unknown soldier which was a beautiful but very poignant tribute to the victims of war. The cloisters pictured in the photo on the right below were also very moving. Every member of the Australian Defence Force who has been lost is listed on the walls.
Unfortunately, a fire alarm disrupted our time at the memorial. We were evacuated and as it was already mid afternoon there wasn’t really time for us to go back in. We spent several hours there and only saw a fraction of the memorial. You could probably go once a week for many months and still not see it all. We feel that we will come back to Canberra and we will definitely be back to learn some more at The Australian War Memorial.
Eating & Drinking
We took advantage of being in a city and ate out a few times. We were pleased to find some top quality coffee. In fact, at The Cupping Room, we had the best coffee since we’d been in Darwin a couple of months earlier. For brews of another variety we also explored some of Canberra’s growing craft beer culture. Of particular note was BentSpoke Brew pub which had a couple of hand pulled beers amongst its impressive range. We also had a nice pub meal at The Duxton, around the corner from our AirBnB. We met up here with our friend Shane, who used to work with Jane in Bundaberg.
At Blu Ginger we had one of the best curries we’ve had in Australia. We were joined by more friends, Liz and Geoff who live near Canberra. They’ve just finished a three month travel adventure which they chronicled in ‘The Adventures of Tanglefoot and Tumbleweed’. Blu Ginger is one of their favourite restaurants and it certainly lived up to their recommendation. We shared several dishes between us and had a great evening catching up as we enjoyed the superb food.
Another food stop was at a Canberra favourite, modern Asian restaurant, Akiba. We had the ‘feed me’ menu which wasn’t cheap at $49 per person but turned out to be great value. We shared 7 courses including kingfish sashimi and beef short rib. All were superb and we could see why the restaurant was so busy.
We have published a post on what it costs us to travel in Australia; Money, It’s a Gas. Our basic philosophy is to save money by doing things like camping and cooking for ourselves so we can have a treat when the opportunity presents itself. The food and drink scene in Canberra impressed us, so we made the most of it during our visit.
So did we like Canberra?
You bet we did, and if you’ve read the rest of this post you’re probably not surprised by that. We didn’t find it soulless or boring. We learnt a lot in the Parliamentary Triangle and the National War Memorial, were blown away by the art collections and enjoyed great food and drink. Although it is a planned city, we’d argue it must have been quite a good plan. We liked where we stayed in O’Connor and thought the city centre had a nice feel about it as well. Canberra turned out to be another of those places that aren’t on every tourist’s radar but really should be.