The Best Things to Do in Canberra, Australia

With historical attractions, open green spaces and wine tasting aplenty, Canberra is an ideal destination to explore
With historical attractions, open green spaces and wine tasting aplenty, Canberra is an ideal destination to explore | © Taras Vyshnya / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Susanna Smith
5 October 2020

Boasting an enviable list of historical and cultural attractions, a thriving wine and dining scene and an abundance of wide-open green space, Australia’s capital is an ideal destination to explore over a couple of days. From walking the trails at the Tidbinbilla Wildlife Reserve to cruising Lake Burley Griffin, here are the top things to do in Canberra.

Explore political history at the Museum of Australian Democracy

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Old Parliament House in Canberra, now the Museum of Australian Democracy.
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Housed in the historic Old Parliament House, the seat of the Australian Government from 1927 until 1988, the Museum of Australian Democracy takes you on a fascinating journey through Australia’s political past. Meet Australia’s Prime Ministers and learn about the roots of democracy and local protest movements before visiting the old Senate and House of Representatives chambers, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Parliamentary Library. Find out about the role the media plays in democracy, and see if you can tell the truth at the Truth, Power and the Free Press permanent exhibition. If you have a talent for writing or drawing, spend some time getting creative in the Zine Lounge.

Taste a local drop or two in the Canberra wine region

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Located just half an hour from the city, Canberra’s wine region is home to 140 vineyards with more than 30 cellar doors welcoming visitors to taste their wares. Its accessibility makes it a great way to spend a lazy afternoon or even a slow weekend. The region produces cool climate wines like sangiovese, riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot, shiraz, tempranillo and rare varieties such as grüner veltliner. It is centred on the towns of Murrumbateman, Gundaroo, Hall and Lake George. You can do a self-drive tour of the region or book a place on a wine tour and let a local guide show you around.

Visit the Aboriginal Tent Embassy

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Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of the Old Parliament House.  Canberra, Australian Capital Territory (ACT), Australia. Image shot 04/2011. Exact date unknown.
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The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was erected as a protest camp on the lawns of Parliament House in 1972, and it remains a constant reminder of indigenous dispossession. The tent embassy continues to be a focal point for protests and marches on the Australian Parliament and was listed on the Australian Heritage Commission’s National Estate in 1995. It is the only site recognised nationally for the political struggle of Australia’s Aboriginal people. Take time to visit the embassy to find out about Australia’s first people, and experience the Sacred Fire for Peace and Justice, which has been burning since 1998 to provide spiritual healing and inspiration.

Explore nature and culture at Tidbinbilla Wildlife Reserve

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The Tidbinbilla Wildlife Reserve is a site of historical and ongoing significance to the Ngunnawal people, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region. The reserve features 20 marked walking trails that range from 15-minute strolls to all-day bushwalks through wetlands, forest and sub-alpine habitats that are home to wildlife such as koalas and emus. An easy walk that explores the area’s Aboriginal heritage is the Birrigai Time Trail, which takes in the Birrigai Rock Shelter site, an ancient site of Aboriginal habitation. You can find out more about the natural and cultural history of the site by taking one of the guided ranger tours from the visitor centre. Tours focus on Aboriginal culture and heritage, Australian plant and animal habitats, wetlands and waterbirds, and fire ecology.

Cruise Lake Burley Griffin

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© Will Steeley / Alamy Stock Photo
A great way to get to know the city is to explore this ornamental lake created by the damming of the Molonglo River in 1963 on a cruise. Named after American architect Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin, who won the international competition to design Canberra, Lake Burley Griffin is an iconic part of Canberra life, and a guided cruise on the lake will help you to familiarise yourself with the layout of the city and recognise Canberra’s many landmarks while enjoying the stunning scenery. If you’d prefer to actually participate in water sports, you can have a go at rowing, sailing, kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding on the lake.

See the faces of Australia at the National Portrait Gallery

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The National Portrait Gallery tells the story of Australia through the portraits of the people who have shaped the country. Starting with early wax cameos of indigenous Australians and moving through colonial portraits of the nation’s early families and on to modern portraits, like Howard Arkley’s DayGlo portrait of Nick Cave. The National Portrait Gallery also hosts regular ticketed visiting exhibitions, events and educational courses and hosts a number of prestigious art prizes.

Watch history unfold at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia

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The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia holds over three million items that preserve Australia’s history for future generations through film, TV, radio, video, sound, aural history and more. Visit the curated collections that look at Australian history and culture through different media or go behind the scenes of some of the nation’s most beloved films, TV programmes and performers. You can also attend one or more of the daily screenings that delve into Australian history and world cinema classics or explore one of the regular travelling exhibitions that are hosted by the archives. Staff members are also happy to help you with any research you may want to undertake.

Visit the National Gallery of Australia

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Pears sculpture by George Baldessin at the National Gallery of Australia. Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia. Image shot 04/2011. Exact date unknown.
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The enormous National Gallery of Australia is home to the nation’s local and international art collection. One of the highlights of a visit is the large collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, including the stunning Aboriginal Memorial, which is featured in the lobby. Dubbed the “Forest of Souls”, it was created by 43 artists from Arnhem Land using 200 hollowed-out log coffins to symbolise 200 years of European settlement in 1988. Other prominent works in the collection include one of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, Salvador Dalí’s Lobster Telephone, Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings and Andy Warhol’s Elvis print. There are also large collections of Asian and Pacific art, and the gallery hosts several ticketed blockbuster touring exhibitions every year.

Explore the world in miniature at Cockington Green Gardens

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If you’re a fan of all things small, the quaint Cockington Green Gardens are a great place to find your inner child. The display winds its way through manicured gardens filled with miniature scenes depicting British village life: think street scenes, village churches, a cricket pitch and a football match, all handcrafted by Cockington Green’s owner. The ever-evolving international display takes you to places across the globe, from an Australian gold mining town to the Lahore Gate of the Red Fort in India and Peru’s Machu Picchu. Visit the Rose Room next to the café to view the latest indoor exhibition.

These recommendations were updated on October 5, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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