One of the world’s youngest capital cities has deep historical roots.
WORDS Shaney Hudson
Canberra might be one of the world’s youngest capital cities, but it has a surprising cultural depth. The geographic compromise of grumbling politicians, this unassuming regional area was chosen as a halfway point between Sydney and Melbourne, a place where the newly federated nation could get down to the business of running the country.
While it may have been designed to be a political hub, today Canberra, located on Ngunnawal country, is much more. Along with a thriving food and wine scene and spectacular outdoor activities, the capital has also become the country’s historic heart. It is home to 12 significant national galleries, museums, libraries and memorials that help share the story of this country, making it the perfect place for anyone wanting to learn more about Australia’s history.
Early risers can start the day with a brisk walk around Lake Burley Griffin, where kangaroos graze on the riverbanks, a gentle mist of water is carried by the wind from the Captain Cook Memorial Jet, and the trilling of the 57 bronze bells inside the lakeside National Carillon reminds you it’s time to start your day.
Begin your exploration of Canberra’s heart at the Museum of Democracy at Old Parliament House, where parliament was held from 1927 to 1988. Head up the stairs where Gough Whitlam gave his iconic 1975 dismissal speech to explore the Senate Chamber, Lower House, and ministerial offices. Inside, there is a series of fantastic oral histories detailing political intrigue and excellent exhibitions examining the necessity of press freedom.
From Old Parliament House, head to the National Gallery, which is home to the world’s largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artwork. Recently relocated to the centre of the gallery, The Aboriginal Memorial is one of the National Gallery’s most significant artworks. The artwork consists of 200 painted hollow log coffins, set up in the shape of the Glyde River estuary in Arnhem Land. Commissioned in 1987 for the Australian Bicentenary celebrations in 1988, the work is a significant artistic and political response to 200 years of occupation.
If you’ve worked up an appetite, head to the former Hotel Canberra, now known as the Hyatt Hotel Canberra. The hotel, built in 1924, was the first in Canberra and is architecturally significant because of its art deco features and interconnected pavilions, which housed visiting politicians and the occasional prisoner awaiting trial. Today, the best way to look inside is to book a sitting for the famous High Tea in the heritage-listed Tea Lounge.
The highlight of any history-lover’s time in Canberra will be the Australian War Memorial. Before you enter, stand on its front steps and look southwest; you’ll find an unbroken, direct line of sight to Parliament House; an intentional quirk of city planning and a geographic reminder to both the public and those in government of the consequences of war.
A visit is best saved for the afternoon, so you can attend the free, ticketed Last Post ceremony, which begins at 4.45pm each day. The memorial is currently undergoing extensive renovations; inside the building, the First and Second World War galleries, Hall of Valour and Aircraft Hall are open, while the commemorative area featuring the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier and Roll of Honour, both outside, are still accessible.
Rock yourself to sleep on the way to the nation’s capital with the Great Southern. The three-day Adelaide to Brisbane rail journey travels up the Eastern States, including stops in Canberra for a Parliament House lunch, the Grampians, and Coffs Harbour. The Great Southern departs Adelaide every Friday in Dec 2023. Starting from $2,235 per person, book your journey below.
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