Describe an Australian city with innovative chefs, world class cafe culture and impeccable inner-city infrastructure and most people will assume you are talking about Melbourne. Focus instead on the city’s boundary-pushing art scene, highly educated creative class and abundant green space and many will think of Hobart.
When you reveal that you are, in fact, describing Canberra, you may be met by looks of disbelief. Even five years ago, the idea of talking up the Australian capital’s creative life and culinary achievements may have been laughable. But a great deal has changed.
Yes, Canberra is still a sedate place that can feel half-empty when parliament is not sitting. Explore its emerging precincts, though, and you’ll discover Australia’s next great cultural centre taking shape.
Canberra is a spread-out city, so hiring a car is advisable. But there are also excellent bike paths that connect many of the central attractions. Our advice? Combine driving and cycling for the best of both worlds.
3pm: Views from Red Hill
Canberra is, first and foremost, a planned city, comprising not one but four major population centres. The central valley – where you will probably spend most of your time – is home to all the recognisable landmarks, such as the old and new parliament houses and the man-made Lake Burley Griffin.
You can get a good sense of the central valley’s layout from atop touristy Mount Ainslie, but for a different perspective, scale Red Hill, a scrub-covered mound after which one of the city’s most affluent suburbs is named. From this locals-only vantage point, you can take in views of the central valley to the north and the suburban Woden valley to the south, giving you a sense of Canberra’s sheer scale.
6pm: Dinner at A. Baker
No single development has done more to invigorate Canberra’s urban life than New Acton, a cluster of buildings sandwiched between the Australian National University and Lake Burley Griffin. In addition to two hotels, a cinema and an art gallery, this micro-neighbourhood is home to several of Canberra’s best new eateries, each of which combines sophisticated food with casual cafe service.
A. Baker is the largest and most popular of the lot – it’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and, as the name suggests, bakes its own bread and pastries. Arrive early to snag an outdoor table, then order a selection of small plates to share, including the moreish Victorian buffalo mozzarella with charred kale, smoked walnuts and black garlic.
8pm: Drinks at Monster Bar, Hotel Hotel
The opening of Hotel Hotel at New Acton in late 2013 did more than bolster Canberra’s accommodation offering – it also provided a sorely needed meeting place for the city’s professionals, artists and academics.
Monster Bar, which dominates the hotel’s sprawling lobby, confidently treads the line between refined and relaxed, focusing just as much on locally roasted coffee as it does on locally sourced wine.
It’s incredibly popular with Canberrans, and the noise level tends to rise as the night progresses (Monster is open until 1am, seven nights a week). But there are plenty of quiet nooks, including some booth-like seating in a separate room dubbed The Saloon. The kitchen serves snacks, such as churros and hand cut chips with house made tomato sauce, until closing time.
Those unwilling (or unable) to move after an evening spent imbibing can recharge in one of Hotel Hotel’s 68 quiet rooms, each of which is slightly different but all of which feature local art, salvaged oak beds and, in the bathrooms, Aesop toiletries and overhead rain showers.
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8am: Exercise alongside Lake Burley Griffin
Active locals rise early on weekends to make the most of Canberra’s crisp mornings, which are perfect for exercising. Head to the shores of Lake Burley Griffin for a leisurely walk or an invigorating jog along its well-maintained pathways, or hire a bike from Goodspeed Bicycles in New Acton and complete a circuit of the lake (it should take about two hours).
Feeling adventurous? You can rent a kayak or paddle-boat from Lake Burley Griffin Boat Hire and explore the lake’s outer reaches, where abundant wildlife – including a large mob of tame kangaroos at Weston Park – can be spotted along the forested shores.
11am: Brunch at Silo Bakery + Café
Years before Canberra started taking its food seriously, Silo was pumping out robust sourdough loaves and exquisite chocolate tarts for residents of the well-to-do parliamentary neighbourhood of Kingston.
Nowadays, there are plenty of purveyors of gluten-rich goodies in Canberra, yet Silo still manages to trump the competition with its focused selection of breads and pastries. The recently overhauled cafe space is a charming place for brunch, offering interesting dishes such as a breakfast cheese platter and a vegan salad served with cashew hummus.
But the bakery items remain the real stars. Everyone has their favourite, but most will agree that the custard-filled almond croissant is an enduring classic.
1.30pm: Art appreciation at Drill Hall Gallery
In 48 hours, you won’t have time to visit all of Canberra’s major cultural institutions, so focus instead on smaller art venues such as the Drill Hall Gallery, which is run by the Australian National University. The compact space is the permanent home of Sidney Nolan’s Riverbend series, hailed as the Australian answer to Monet’s waterlily cycle.
It also hosts consistently engaging temporary exhibitions, primarily of Australian work (a highlight in 2014 was a retrospective of entrants to the Dobell Drawing Prize). This under-the-radar place is often practically empty, even on weekends, which adds to its appeal – you’ll be free to appreciate the art in your own time, on your own terms.
3pm: Sipping and shopping in Braddon
If one commercial strip sums up the cultural changes taking place in Canberra, it is Lonsdale Street in Braddon, just north of the CBD. Here you’ll find boundary-pushing restaurants, quirky independent retail, home-brewed beer and lots of coffee.
Although 20- and 30-somethings dominate the scene, there’s plenty in Braddon for all ages, from toddler boutique Lellow Kids to Canberra bookselling institution Electric Shadows, which relocated here a few years ago.
Begin with a coffee from Lonsdale St Eatery before strolling the strip. Want to buy some flowers? Pop in to Moxom & Whitney to check out the creative arrangements, and be sure to pick up an organic vegan treat from Sweet Bones bakery before they close at 4pm.
5.30pm: Wining and dining at Italian & Sons
This veteran of Lonsdale Street (it opened six years ago) is slightly more polished than many of its neighbours, but don’t mistake sophistication for stuffiness: the crowd at Italian & Sons still knows how to have a good time. On a recent Saturday evening, diners included Canberra arts luminaries, athletes from the Australian Institute of Sport and two nervous students on a first date, all of whom lingered well into the night.
Kick off your evening out the back of the restaurant in the just-opened wine bar. There’s an old-school Italian feel to the place, with brass fixtures and a marble countertop, and a classy drinks list that focuses on imported Italian wines, barrel-aged Negroni and classic cocktails.
Then migrate to the restaurant proper for a feast of unfussy regional dishes such as pizza diavolo with salami and chilli or maccheroni al’ ragu made with suckling lamb shoulder. Be sure to order at least one serve of the popular wood-baked tomato, eggplant and basil parmigiana.
9am: Coffee at The Cupping Room
Although Canberra’s coffee scene is still in its infancy, the quality is already on par with what’s available in Melbourne and Sydney. The Cupping Room is one of the finest examples of local caffeine culture: it offers several espresso blends but just one type of “milk-based espresso drink” – meaning those in search of coffee adulterated with chocolate or other additives will need to look elsewhere.
Also on offer are filter coffees and a menu of king-sized breakfast dishes, including ham-hock fritters and French toast.
11am: Sculpture at the National Gallery of Australia
By all means, take a quick tour of the gallery itself (the works by Pollock, Bacon and Hockney are stellar, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collection is, understandably, the best in the world), but save some time for the secluded sculpture garden, which most visitors skip over.
Here you’ll find 26 works, both traditional and abstract, plus well-tended greenery and cute little benches with views out over the lake. The highlights are Fujiko Nakaya’s meditative fog sculpture, which operates between 12pm and 2pm daily, and James Turrell’s hypnotic Within Without, which invites you to lie down inside a viewing chamber and watch the sky through a hole in the roof.
Visit your local Flight Centre or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Canberra.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Dan Stapleton from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.