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canberra backpackers

Before travelling to Australia chances are you won’t have heard much about Canberra. Whilst travelling in Australia chances are you won’t have heard much about Canberra (unless you watch the news!). This is because most Australians haven’t been to Canberra nor are they planning on doing so. Well more fool them I say. Whilst working in Eden in NSW we found ourselves with an unexpected long weekend so thought we’d see what the capital of this vast country had to offer. Surprisingly quite a lot!

Let me first start out by saying that Canberra is never going to be able to compete with the adventure adrenalin activities and trips of the East coast, the natural wonders of the West or even the stark remote beauty of all the places in-between, but that doesn’t matter. All these other places are still there ready to be explored, you can skydive all over, there’s tonnes of whale watching trips scattered along all the coastlines, Wet ‘N’ Wild will still be there waiting for you, however there is only one Canberra.

Surprisingly for a capital city we found it very cheap. There were plenty of free things to do, a thriving and reasonably priced cafe/coffee shop scene, some great eateries, wonderful unique and quirky shops, and, to our shock, a healthy amount of bustling bars filled to the brim with all walks of life, not just the government stiffs in suits we were unconsciously expecting to find.

So what can I do in Canberra you say, other than stuff my face, shop and drink till the cows come home, well we were only there for a few days and there’s plenty more on offer but we managed to cram in all sorts.

Our first stop was the Museum of Australia, a freebie unexpectedly! As the name suggests it covers all things Australian from the earliest histories right up until contemporary events. It could easily take you a full two days to see and read everything they have to offer. The best way to attack it, unless you want to give it a full two days of course, is to sort of skim through some of the things that perhaps don’t interest you/you’ve seen before in other places and concentrate on the more intriguing and quirky parts. The natural history section is very compelling and the chance to take your picture in a huge digger bucket is not to be sniffed at either, you’ll be astonished at the size, especially when you realise it’s not even the biggest the mines have to offer. There’s plenty more little gems of interest in there but I don’t want to give the game away, especially as everyone tends to be drawn to different things for different reasons.

The government buildings were another free stop on the way. You may recognise them if you watch the news ever over here, but what you might not realise is that you can walk on the roof of the houses of parliament and that they are grassed over so it’s a surreal stroll through a kind of posh lawn with Canberra spread out all around you. Great views in fact and it helps you to get your bearings of the city from up there. Inside the building there are some interesting pieces of art dotted about and you can take a free tour at intervals throughout the day. All the past prime ministers are looking down on your from their appointed oil painted spots, including the one they lost – did you realise that Australia actually genuinely ‘lost’ a prime minister when he went for a walk one day along a beach somewhere and just vanished!?!? Read Bill Bryson’s ‘Down Under’ it’s worth it for that tale alone!

You are also able to go into the houses of parliament and the senate. This is quite a thrill actually because chances are you won’t be in there with many people because as previously mentioned, not a lot of people come to Canberra, and being able to lurk about in the halls of power is quite the rush. Then of course you can be the smug one to pipe up when you next watch the news (and you’ll probably make a point of doing so purely for this occasion) ‘Oh yes I’ve been there, sat over there in fact and had a good gander!’

National & Portrait Gallery

Our next free stops were also in the cultural sphere, we took in the National Gallery and the Portrait Gallery. With regards to the Portrait Gallery I’m afraid to say that it didn’t really do it for me, mainly because I didn’t have a clue who I was looking at and we were a bit gallery’d out by the time we finished with the National Gallery next door but it’s still worth a visit. The National Gallery however was something else. I love a good gallery, my boyfriend not so much, however even he was impressed with it. it’s stuffed full of famous masterpieces you’ll have seen on posters or fridge magnets the world over, names of artists long since forgotten from secondary school art lessons but come rushing back to you at a glance, and most importantly, they seem to have a frequently changing exhibition section which allows something for everyone. Even my boyfriend could easily pick his top 10 things in there. Pollock anyone? Monet or Picasso ring any bells?

It’s not all indoor action at the capital either. The botanic gardens were easily the best I’ve been to in the whole country and we’ve seen a lot. They have a very impressive ‘red center’ garden and the rest of it was stunning too, with plants and gardens from all over the country, you could easily lose yourself in there for a good few hours. In fact we even watched a film in there. They regularly host an open air cinema in the gardens and it’s a very spectacular setting to settle down to. There was even a pizza bar and refreshment cart set up for those who hadn’t brought their own picnic and the local coffee shop was out in full force distributing free hot drinks to anyone that wanted one. Bliss!

Canberra is a fully man made city and fairly modern at that therefore it was designed with ease of passage for the trusty bike. Bikes are everywhere in Canberra, think a sort of thinly populated and less drugged version of Amsterdam, plus they even have the water. There’s lakes with bike routes you can take around them as well as watery goings on actually on the lake for kayakers or even waterskiiers we noticed. There are quite the wealth of walking routes if you really want to stretch your legs and your dollars whilst loitering about the capital.

National War Memorial

And now I bring you to our final and favourite thing to do in Canberra. You must visit the national war memorial. It simply is amazing. Not knowing what to expect we rocked up to find it a cross between a memorial, museum and interactive film show. The First World War part was being refurbished whilst we were there but if the rest of the place is anything to go by it will be spectacular now. I won’t describe it all in detail, otherwise why would you bother going, however the video show with the planes was brilliant, the current conflict in Afghanistan is covered in a sensitive and evocative manner and if there is one thing that you absolutely must do it is to stay until they close. We weren’t sure what was going on as, to be honest, we hadn’t actually given ourselves enough time to explore and were ushered out at closing time into the memorial part upstairs outside. Thinking we has overstayed and had to be shunted out the back door or something you can imagine our surprise when we emerged blinking into the sun to be surrounded by people and faced with an army bugler. What followed was simply amazing. Again I don’t wish to spoil it for you but the ceremony is performed at the end of every day and was one of the most moving things we’ve encountered since our arrival down under. You just have to go and see it.

So yes, as I started this blog I finish it with the same sentiments: Canberra – cut it some slack. It’s definitely worth visiting and during a discussion with some Italian backpackers whilst working in Tasmania it provoked possibly the best quote I have ever heard, certainly when you remember it was said by a man from Naples…

“I agree, you must go to Canberra…I mean to visit a country and not go to the capital, it’s like….um, ah…..oh yes, it’s like having spaghetti with no tomato sauce”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Clare Readman /

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