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Your Quick Guide on What to do in Canberra – In just one day!
Canberra, often mistaken as just another small city in Australia competing with Sydney and Melbourne for glory. What so many tourists that visit Australia still don’t realise is that Canberra is actual the capital. Yes, that’s right Canberra is capital like London and Paris are to England and France. Canberra was actually invented to be the Capital of Australia because nobody could agree whether Sydney or Melbourne should hold the title. I imagine like myself that people ask questions like well where is it, how will I know what to do in Canberra, is it worth visiting during your time in Australia? I asked these questions to myself too! (I used to think Sydney was the capital of Australia until we started planning our move out here – guilty!)
To me, Canberra was a little bit of a mystery. Knowing it’s the capital but not really knowing much about the city we decided there is only one way to find out! We recently took a quick trip to Canberra to see what it was all about. It was quick as we only spent one full day in the city but we felt that’s all you need! In this post on what to do in Canberra, I’ll guide you through how to make the most of the city even if you only have one day to visit!
First, Where is Canberra?
Before you decide what to do in Canberra is pretty important to know where this city is and how you’re going to get there. Canberra actually has its own state! Nestled in-between New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria (VIC), Canberra sites in the Australian Capital Terrority otherwise known at the ACT. It uses the same time zone at NSW and VIC making it around a 3-4 hour drive from Sydney. If you’re driving from Melbourne then you’ve got a long road ahead (almost 7 hours), so probably to pencil Canberra in as part of a stop off on a big trip, rather than a day out.
When choosing the best time to visit Canberra October-January seem to be the most popular months, probably because of the weather! Canberra does get cold in winter, we visited in March (not even winter yet) and it experienced lows of 7 degrees – when you’re used to highs of 20 it hurts! In the summer months, Canberra can have sunny days up to 30 degrees. You’ll find the capital can get a lot of rainfall so pack a jacket just in case!
Second, How to get to Canberra
Planning how to get there is also a good idea before deciding what to do in Canberra. Being the capital city Canberra has good transport links with the rest of the country so fairly easy to get too. We opted to drive from Sydney because we were at the start if a road trip but you can easily fly or get a greyhound/other coaching company.
Driving from Sydney
The drive from Sydney – Canberra is really straight forward. In fact, the most difficult part is actually getting out of Sydney! I’ll let you into a little secret here, it took us well over 4 hours to reach Canberra because it took us that long to get out of Sydney. That may or may not have been due to me missing the turn off for the tunnel and due to an abroad amount of tram work and dodgy GPS we drove around a LOT of circles in the city until we reached a way out. But once we managed to find that great open road the rest was a total breeze!
It’s basically one straight road down to Canberra from Sydney. You’ll take the M1 out of Sydney and stay on the M31 Federal Highway for the next 212 KM following it all the way to Canberra. I’ll link a map below with the driving route.
Top Tip: About an hour before hitting Canberra you’ll reach Lake George also known as Weereewa Lookout. The lookout is literally at the side of the highway so you don’t need to detour but it is worth stopping at. Lake George used to reach road level but hasn’t been full for some years now. When we pulled over it was bone dry but we did get a little surprise when out at the view. Because we reached the lookout at 4 PM the kangaroos were just starting to come out to play! It was amazing to see these creatures in their natural habitat bouncing around.
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What to Do in Canberra
Enough of the boring, but very important, bits here are my recommendations on how to spend a relaxed day in Canberra. When you’re deciding what to do in Canberra it kind of depends on your hobbies, interests and what you enjoy! Canberra is full of history in the form of museums, if you’ve got a politics buff on board then they’ll be right at home or if you just like wandering around and enjoying a new city then you’ll be happy too! I guess I like a little bit of everything when exploring a new city, I enjoy finding local independent coffee shops and going to museums to learn a little more about that destination. We also love being outside so I’m always looking for any hikes or walks around the area. In Canberra, we mixed all three together for a great day.
What to Do in Canberra – Morning
Australian War Memorial
Canberra is home to the Australian War Memorial located just off Adelaide Parade, approximately 10 minutes drive from Canberra CBD. When thinking about what to do in Canberra I would highly recommend this memorial. Dave and I both enjoy our history. In fact, once upon a time, Dave wanted to join the army himself so he loves learning more and more about our previous war history. The museum offers reams of knowledge and pays a huge tribute to soldiers, medics and civilians affected by war, past and present.
The museum is huge and spreads over three floors. If you know you’ll want to explore it all then you probably need at least 3 hours to really make the most of it. We spent about two and a half hours here and did rush around the end. The memorial offers free tours which operate every day lasting 1.5 hours, also helpful if on a tight schedule.
You can find out more information on the memorial itself here and all the facilities inside. Entry is free but they do accept donations. I have to give some time to speak about the grounds and building which is beautiful. The architecture of this building is amazing and so symmetrical (like most of Canberra!) With spotless gardens full of statues and tributes to those who fought for Australian and New Zealand. Parking is free for four hours (March 2019) and you can find a cafe called Poppys on site. We didn’t get anything from the cafe but it was packed to the brim on this particular wet and windy morning – always a good sign!
The Houses of Parliament
Once you’ve finished up at the memorial why not head down the road to do The Houses of Parliament. After paying for tours in London I was thrilled to find out that the tours/walking around by yourself in Canberra are free! Parliament is open every day except for Christmas Day and you can check the schedule online here to see if anything is on that particular day. You can also watch question time at The Houses of Parliament which starts at 2 pm on the selected days. Book this online or when you arrive, note you must be seated by 1:30 pm so don’t turn up too late. Take some time to admire the views around the building and notice just how well thought out the building of Canberra really was. The red-bricked area on Adelaide Parade reminds of the walk up to Buckingham Palace.
What to Do in Canberra – Lunch
Feeling a little peckish? My favourite part of exploring any new city is finding gorgeous coffee shops and cafes for a little snack! We do try to stay on a budget when we are travelling but I always keep aside a little extra cash for treats like this! In Canberra, we found a beautiful independent coffee shop called The Coffee Lab. Located in the heart of the CBD this quirky cafe come restaurant offers a great menu full of relatively healthy meals, snacks and not to mention cakes! We arrived at around 12 pm so opted to have a full lunch here and we weren’t disappointed!
Dave opted for a breakfast burger consisting of bacon, eggs, hot sauce and of course cheese in a soft brioche bun. It may sound simple but the flavours were mouth watering good! I went for a more snack like lunch with grilled halloumi avec homemade chilli chutney it was divine! Dave tells me the coffee was good and I can vouch for the chai latte being awesome too! Definitely worth a stop-off! There’s plenty of parking opposite the cafe but it does get full but the streets in the immediate area all offer ticketed parking.
What to Do in Canberra – Afternoon/Evening
Lake Burley Griffin
Running through the centre of Canberra is Lake Burley Griffin. This lake was man made back in 1963 and is one of Canberra’s most stunning places for a stroll. The shoreline runs a vast 40 km so is perfect for walkers and cyclists no matter how far you intend to go! There’s lots of fun to be had on the lake from kayaking, fishing or even paddle boarding! The lake is lined with cafes and restaurants if you prefer staying dry! You can read a little more about the lake here…
Visit Mount Ainslie
This was by far my favourite part of Canberra, Mount Ainslie sits tall over the city offering stunning views of Canberra before your eyes. You can either drive or walk up to the top for these scenic views of the city below. The mountain is steep so wear comfortable shoes and take plenty of water if you do opt to walk! We did drive because we arrived in Canberra pretty late and didn’t want to miss the sunset. If you get a good day the sunset will be spectacular, hands down one of the best sunsets I’ve seen in Australia!
As the sun goes to bed for the day the city glistens under the golden tones of the sky, wildlife surrounds you, kangaroos hopping and parakeets swooping. Watch the capital of Australia fall asleep around you. You’ll also be able to see what I mean when I talk about Canberra being so symmetric! When deciding what to do in Canberra then Mount Ainslie, preferably for sunset, has to be at the top of your list!
You can park for free at the top or if you do opt to walk you can park for free in the Australian War Memorial car park. Again, Mount Ainslie is quite central at the top of Adelaide Parade just up the road from The Houses of Parliament.
Where to Stay in Canberra
Wondering where to stay when visiting Canberra? If you’re camping or in a motor home or some sort then I can recommend a great campsite! I can’t really comment on any other accommodation as we were only here for one day! I do find that booking accommodation on booking.com always saves me money when compared with other travel sites! Use the search box below to find some accommodation. As for the campsite we stayed at Exhibition Park. Canberra’s show-grounds where there’s always something going on from shows to markets. At the rear of the show-grounds is a campsite where they offer powered and unpowered sites at a reasonable price. We paid $35 for a powered site which one of the cheaper sites we’ve stayed at this time around (March 2019).
You’ll find all the basic facilities you need here including, toilets which were clean, showers, laundry and a camp kitchen! The reception is open daily from 8 am – around 4 pm. The guys who run the site are very laid back! We knew we were going to be later than 4 pm so we just called and he said to just find a site and pay in the morning – easy! But I will let you into a funny story…
Imagine two brits in their rental camper van excited to be on the road again. We just enjoyed a beautiful sunset and were high on life. We arrived at the campsite a little confused as to where to park our camper van. There were so many motor homes taking up power cables! Anyway, we find a site right at the end, plug in, make dinner and praise the campsite on its facilities. As we are just getting ready for bed a couple come and tell us that we are in the wrong campsite!!! Yep, we had placed ourselves amongst the market stall owners getting ready for a big show the next morning – starting at 6 am! That would’ve veep one embarrassing wake up call! We found the campsite a good 5 minted away at the other side of the grounds! So if you do stay here note that the campsite is around the back, not the grass section where you can see the main road!
You can have a little look at the website for Exhibition Park here as it is shut for some shows depending on the time of year!
So, should you visit Canberra when you’re exploring Australia?
Absolutely! Canberra is the capital city of Australia so it would be kind of rude not too! It’s a great city with friendly locals and a nice easy going feel about it! We only spent a day here and felt like we’d seen a good chunk of the city. You could spend longer but if you’ve only got a day then it’s definitely doable! It’s also easy on a budget too as most of museums and memorials are free! If you’ve been to Canberra and have anything else to share then make sure you leave a comment below! Make sure you save this post if you did enjoy it, some of your friends might like it too!