Free things to do in Canberra, Australia
Don’t believe everything you hear about Canberra, Australia’s national capital. “It’s boring,” people might tell you. “It has no soul. It’s not worth the time. Yawn.”
Well, I’m here to tell you that they’re wrong! Canberra has not just become a vibrant city in its own right, but it’s also home to some of the most interesting national institutions.
The reason Canberra has long had a reputation as a ‘boring’ city is because of the way it came into being. Until 1901, Australia was not a country but a collection of states that operated relatively autonomously. When those states came together to create a new nation, a capital city was needed. Both Sydney and Melbourne wanted the title so, to resolve the dispute, an entirely new city was created between the two. Canberra.
Sydney people will tell you that Canberra doesn’t have the natural beauty that they have. Melbourne people will tell you that Canberra doesn’t have the culture they have. Perhaps originally, almost a century ago, there was some truth in the arguments because the city was brand new. But not anymore.
So, the first thing to know is that there is a lot to do. The second thing is that a lot of it is free! The most important of the national buildings and collections have no entrance fee at all, which means you can visit Canberra quite cheaply.
I swing through the city as part of my road trip from Melbourne to Sydney. Although the detour takes me away from the coast for the final day, it’s well worth it. Why not, if you’re driving between Australia’s two largest cities, also stop to see its capital. I only have about 24 hours, though, so I want to make the most of it. The plan is to not spend a cent on attractions.
It turns out you can do a lot in a day! A lot of the places you’ll want to see are close together, so that makes it easier too.
To help you plan your day in Canberra, I have put together a sample itinerary. Most of these things can be done in any order, but this is the most efficient way to put together your stay.
Suggested time: 0930 – 1000
Why not start at the top of Canberra – Mount Ainslie. A short drive up to the peak gives you great views across the city. There’s a large carpark so you should be able to find a space.
Take note of the layout of Canberra, which was planned with a lot of detail. The top of Mount Ainslie forms part of a central axis that goes straight through the middle of Parliament House. Two main avenues come off at angles from Parliament House to form a triangle, in which most of the main national buildings are housed. You’ll also get a sense of how green the city is and how much the height of development is restricted in the suburbs.
Australian War Memorial
Suggested time: 1000 – 1100
At the bottom of Mount Ainslie, you’ll find the Australian War Memorial. It’s a shrine to those who have lost their lives fighting for their country around the world. However, for visitors, there’s much more to it than that. The memorial is home to an incredible museum that tells the story of Australia through the sacrifice of its citizens.
Inside the museum you’ll find aircraft, a tank, and even a Japanese midget submarine that made it into Sydney Harbour during the Second World War. There are great artworks, videos and interactive displays that make the exhibits interesting for every age group. There is some limited free parking on the street behind the War Memorial.
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Suggested time: 1100 – 1230
The National Gallery holds the best collection of Australian art in the country. From indigenous works, to colonial masterpieces and contemporary art, it showcases the history of culture in the country. A highlight is the Sidney Nolan group of Ned Kelly paintings.
There’s a new large gallery space for the Australian art that is well-designed with lots to see. There’s also a good selection of international works that have been collected over the years, including the famous Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock.
You could easily spend a day in the gallery but give yourself about an hour and a half to walk through and get a good sense of it all. There is very limited free parking on some of the streets around the gallery, otherwise you’ll need to pay by the hour on the street or in the gallery’s own car park. You do get two hours for free at the nearby Parliament House car park, though.
[button size=’big_large’ text=’You can find out more information here about the National Gallery of Australia’ icon=” icon_size=” icon_color=” link=’http://nga.gov.au/’ target=’_blank’ color=” background_color=” border_color=” font_style=” font_weight=” text_align=’center’]
National Portrait Gallery
Suggested time: 1230 – 1330
Next to the National Gallery is the National Portrait Gallery, a collection of art dedicated to profiles of people. It’s a relatively new institution but has a great selection of works. One of the best things about visiting is that you can learn a lot about Australia through the people who are featured here. There are actors, politicians, scientists, pioneers, sports stars, and business leaders.
You can see most of the works in less than an hour and it’s just a few minutes walk from the National Gallery (past the impressive High Court building).
[button size=’big_large’ text=’More detail here about visiting the National Portrait Gallery’ icon=” icon_size=” icon_color=” link=’http://www.portrait.gov.au/’ target=’_blank’ color=” background_color=” border_color=” font_style=” font_weight=” text_align=’center’]
Suggested time: 1330 – 1500 (including tour at 1400)
I think the highlight of a trip to Canberra is a visit to Parliament House. You get extraordinary access to the inside of the building and I don’t think there are many parliaments in the world where you would be able to wander through the main areas on your own. The building is designed so beautifully and you’ll notice things like the main entrance hall resembling a forest gum trees. You can go into the viewing galleries for both houses of parliament (including when the politicians are there – although you may have to wait then). Also make sure you go up to the roof which has a grassed area. The symbolism is that the people are always more important than their representatives.
There’s a decent restaurant here if you’re in need of a bite to eat. Also, I would recommend one of the five free tours each day, which go for about 40 minutes (details on the website). The main underground car park at the front of the building is free for the first two hours, which should be enough time to see everything inside.
[button size=’big_large’ text=’Click here for information about visiting Parliament House in Canberra’ icon=” icon_size=” icon_color=” link=’http://www.aph.gov.au/visit_parliament’ target=’_blank’ color=” background_color=” border_color=” font_style=” font_weight=” text_align=’center’]
Suggested time: 1500 – 1600
The National Museum is outside the Parliamentary Triangle so you’ll need to drive across Lake Burley Griffin (did you know the lake is artificial and was created when the city was being planned?). The museum has an interesting collection of items that show the history of Australia. There’s quite a large emphasis on the indigenous culture but also on the early colonial years and then some of the key moments and trends that defined the country.
Since the new building opened in 2001 and the exhibitions were expanded, the museum has attracted controversy over its thematic choices. I personally find it rather ‘traditional’ and don’t think it represents modern Australia that well. But everyone has their own opinion. It’s definitely worth seeing and you can make up your own mind.
The main car park has hourly fees but there are a few free spaces on the service road along the lake.
[button size=’big_large’ text=’You can find out more information here about the National Museum’ icon=” icon_size=” icon_color=” link=’http://www.nma.gov.au/’ target=’_blank’ color=” background_color=” border_color=” font_style=” font_weight=” text_align=’center’]
Suggested time: 1600 – 1700
The final place I’m going to suggest may sound a little strange – it’s the National Arboretum. What is an arboretum? Well, it’s basically a zoo for trees.
The arboretum has 94 forests within its grounds with more than 44,000 trees from 100 countries. The species of trees have been specially chosen because they are symbolic, rare or endangered. As well as the forests, there is an interesting visitors centre and a smaller discovery garden.
The National Arboretum was only opened in 2013 so many of the forests are a little disappointing because the trees are still young. But there’s still enough to see – and it will only get better each year. It’s a lovely spot to have a walk and get a different view of the city. It’s also a nice spot for a coffee or some afternoon tea (although the cafe closes at 4pm).
Parking is free at the arboretum after 4pm, so if you do this as your final stop you won’t need to worry about that.
[button size=’big_large’ text=’More detail here about the National Arboretum’ icon=” icon_size=” icon_color=” link=’http://www.nationalarboretum.act.gov.au/’ target=’_blank’ color=” background_color=” border_color=” font_style=” font_weight=” text_align=’center’]
As I said earlier, it is possible to see all of these places in a single day and, if you choose to do that, you’ll leave the capital full of experiences and new Australian knowledge. But don’t be afraid to stay overnight and spread out your visit over a couple of days. All of these institutions deserve a bit more time than you’ll be able to give them in single day.
Hotel: Not surprisingly, there are a lot of hotels in Canberra and many of them are aimed at the business traveller. Nonetheless, you can find something to meet any budget and style. Some nice options are the very trendy Little National Hotel, the more historical Hotel Kurrajong or the upmarket Peppers Gallery Hotel.
Campervan: In Canberra, Alivio Tourist Park is conveniently located to the centre of town with easy access to all of the main sights. It has drive through spots for campervans, modern amenities, and a restaurant on the site.
[button size=’big_large’ text=’This was a stop on my Melbourne to Sydney road trip. See my detailed guide here!’ icon=” icon_size=” icon_color=” link=’http://ttt.rtwlabs.net/2016/03/melbourne-sydney-road-trip-guide/’ target=’_blank’ color=” background_color=” border_color=” font_style=” font_weight=” text_align=’center’]
Time Travel Turtle was supported by Tourism Victoria but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.