Some capital cities almost define the country they represent. What would France be without Paris, Italy without its Eternal City or England without London?
Canberra, on the other hand, is so obscure many overseas visitors have never heard of it. The unloved offspring of a disagreement between Sydney and Melbourne is a meticulously designed made-to-order metropolis that suffers from some of the same flaws that other purpose-built capitals possess: an over-supply of bureaucrats and students, and a slight under-supply of urban chic.
But a closer look at the capital reveals that Canberra’s quirks are, in fact, a fitting testament to Australia’s history and culture. Unlike Washington, DC, with its imposing neo-classical edifices, Canberra’s public buildings are all understated modernism. Parliament House is built under a hill, which perhaps hints at Australians’ distaste for political pomp and circumstance, while Canberra’s connection to the striking natural surrounds has lent it the moniker of Bush Capital.
Despite its dry exterior, Canberra has long boasted a bohemian heart, and these days, the town has more than enough to offer in the fancy cocktails department to keep one well fuelled between visits to its major sights. When Parliament is in session Canberra’s bars and restaurants fill with politicians, staffers, journalists and hacks of various stripes, lending the place a unique whiff of power and ambition.
Here’s a quick guide of how to make a couple of days in Canberra worth the detour off the highway between Sydney and Melbourne:
Plan to visit during a sitting week and attend Question Time at Parliament House (weekdays at 2pm) – the only show in town for politics junkies. While you’re there, take a guided tour of the unique building and learn what makes Australia’s political heart tick. Afterwards, head to the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House to put it all in context. During the warmer months, Old Parly hosts cocktails on the lawn, complete with DJs and serious young political movers and shakers.
The National Gallery of Australia offers one of the region’s best collections of Asian art along with its rich collections of Australian art – the 200-odd years of Western painting and sculpture as well as fascinating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander works. Next door is the National Portrait Gallery, which is like a walk through Australia’s family album as well as a fascinating survey of the history of portraiture. Afternoon tea is close by at the historic Hyatt Hotel, where waitresses in white lace aprons serve endless cakes and sandwiches in a 1920s setting.
When night falls, book a table at Italian and Sons for a casual inner-city pizza or pasta (the ingredients are incredibly fresh and the cooking top-notch). Alternatively, try Ottoman Cuisine, a long-standing favourite on Canberra’s fine dining scene (and a good place to spot political heavyweights).
Start the day on a slow note with brunch at Silo in Kingston or, if the line for delectable pastries is too long to handle, try Manuka’s Urban Pantry. Once you’re fed, it’s time for some more 'cultcha'.
The National Museum of Australia takes a wry approach to explaining Australia’s identity, so that visitors can come up with their own theories as they meander past displays of everything from possum-skin cloaks to a Hills Hoist clothesline. The nearby National Film and Sound Archive boasts a delightful courtyard cafe, a cinema showing art-house films and a tiny 1920s theatrette that has old home videos, newsreel, ads and other archive on a loop, offering a nostalgia-fest both moving and hilarious.
For those keen to explore the great outdoors, the National Botanic Gardens are filled with lovely walks, and the nearby Namadgi National Park is packed with grey kangaroos and some worthwhile Aboriginal rock art. If you’ve got wheels, the region’s excellent wineries can easily fill a lazy afternoon (head to canberrawines.com.au for more information).
And don’t leave Canberra without visiting the moving War Memorial - stay for closing time, when the Last Post is played to honour the fallen.
For more information on things to see and do in Canberra, as well as a list of festivals and special events see visitcanberra.com.au. Exhibitions of note for 2012 include the National Gallery of Australia’s current show of Italian renaissance painting and the National Library of Australia’s manuscript show featuring the scribbles of everyone from Napoleon to Kafka. On March 21, 2012, The National Museum of Australia opens its Silk Road exhibition - previously seen at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, and in July the museum’s hall will begin to fill with large objects from its collection, including historic cars and a remarkable 1930s Tinker’s wagon.