Culture

Canberra Went & Got Cool While No One Was Looking

The perfect weekend in the capital.

“Is this your first time in Canberra?” my taxi driver asks. “Er, no, actually, I came here for grade six camp,” I respond. “Camp,” he echoes, “Ah yes! So you’ve done Questacon, the War Memorial, and probably Parliament too. Well you should know, a lot has changed over the past few years.” “Really?” I say. “Oh yeah, Canberra’s a sleepy city, slowly waking up.”

That got me. Canberra’s a sleepy city, slowly waking up; a throw-away comment made right as I was exiting the car. I kept thinking about it. Really, how much could have changed in 15 years? I mean sure, I’d changed quite a bit – I wasn’t wearing my school uniform and being shushed through question time at Parliament this time. I’d grown up to become a somewhat functioning adult, and apparently, so too had Canberra. Our capital city went and got cool while no-one was looking.

A photo posted by VisitCanberra (@visitcanberra) on


The nitty-gritty

Canberra, like New Zealand’s own capital Wellington, is a small but powerful city that has created quite the splash in recent years. Two years ago Canberra was named ‘The Best Place In The World To Live’ by the OECD, which led the New York Times to publish a piece called ‘Want an easy life? Try Canberra, Australia’. Then came the epic freakshakes, some new art hotels and a zoo that lets you sleep alongside the animals. Canberra’s slowly but surely proving to the rest of the country that, despite its small size, it packs a powerful punch.

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The OG freakshake from Pâtissez.

Now think: what’s a sure-fire way to any self-respecting Aussie’s heart? It’s gotta be good food, good culture and good coffee, right? And how do you find such things? Well, you follow the hipsters, of course.


The suburb that’s changing it all

Walking down Lonsdale Street in Braddon, I’m struck by familiarity. There’s coffee roasters brewing street-side, cafes serving bespoke toasties and milkshakes and more than one bike store. For an inner city Melburnite, it feels like I’ve hit the hipster jackpot.

It’s here you’ll find Braddon’s shining glory, The Hamlet – a food truck park that wouldn’t look out of place in Sydney or Melbourne. Everything from pie, pizza, schnitzel, kebabs, pasta, hot dogs and decadent doughnuts are on the menu; take your pick and enjoy it in The Hamlet’s colourful outdoor seating area. It’s safe to say Braddon is what’s driving the coolness of Canberra to new heights. The area is undergoing swift development with new apartments and shops opening, which will surely bring a little more Brunswick-style hustle to this wholesome looking thoroughfare.

Lonsdale Street Roasters is the resident hot spot; you can get delicious hand-made breads and pastries from the bustling Autolyse or settle in for a cruisy brekkie at the paleo-friendly Elemental. If you’re in the mood for carbs though, hit up The Elk and Pea for their signature breakfast bagel which brings a little bit of NYC to the capital.


Speaking of food…

Canberra – a foodie haven? You better believe it. This place is positively overflowing with delicious good options. Head to Capital Bar & Grill at QT Canberra for a classy supper, nibble on sizzling Asian street food at the ultra hip Akiba or head back out to Braddon and Eighty Six for a flavour-balanced nightcap.

The beating heart of Canberra’s food scene is The Forage, a seasonal street food party. Held four times a year in the car park of Little National, this afternoon feast showcases the very best food, wine and produce from some of Canberra’s best cafes, food trucks, wineries and bakeries. Bringing together good fare and good music in a delightful setting (that includes hay bales to sit on), it’s a must-do for market-loving foodie.

Newsflash: not only is the capital home to a very cute, very elegant winery right near the airport, this place actually produces the best bacon in the country. No seriously.

The Pialligo Estate‘s on-site Farmhouse Restaurant serves up an award-winning dry cured and smoked shortcut rasher that’s woody, sweet and deliciously thick. Settle in for a long lunch on a sunny weekend and look out unto the Estate’s huge fruit orchards while noshing down on Smokehouse Platter (which includes delicious smoked meats, marinated vegetables and onion confit). You won’t ever want to leave.

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Photo: left; Rebecca Russo, right; Pialligo Estate


Go for a ride to the gallery

Like Melbourne, Canberra is one flat city, which means it’s perfect to bike ride around. The city is blissfully easy to navigate, with its notorious roundabouts (seriously, there are so many) providing smooth passage.

Follow the path alongside Lake Burley Griffin, stop for a few snaps along the waterfront, and make your way down to the National Gallery. Boasting one of the most eclectic art collections in the country, the seasonal exhibitions are always something extra special. Stop over at gallery’s impressive Sculpture Garden too, and revel in the ~art~ of it all. It’s pretty spectacular.


See things from above

If you’re keen on getting a different perspective, Canberra Helicopters offer a one-hour ride across the city that’ll help you achieve Bronwyn Bishop-level chill.  Exhibit A:

Just living my/Bronwyn Bishop’s best life 🚁   A photo posted by REBECCA RUSSO (@beckrusso) on

Your ride will take you to dizzying heights over Parliament House, Lake Burley Griffin and the surprisingly tall mountains that circle this small city.

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Planning on staying the night?

Book a room at the quirky QT Canberra. With slick interiors, decadent dining and complimentary bike hire, QT sure know how to treat a girl right.

The best part is it’s all done with a distinct ‘capital’ theme; there’s a decal of the current political cabinet in the lobby (the staff inform me they’ve had to change it four times in two years) and a number of kitschy posters, paintings and pictures of famous political faces adorning the walls. There’s Gough Whitlam on my room key, Fidel Castro on the way to the bar and peculiar faces appearing on the wallpaper (I’ll let you discover that one for yourself).

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It’s brashy, cool and delightfully fun.


Now it’s time for a cocktail

If you play your cards right, you might even get an invite to the elusive top-floor QT Lounge. The bar is invite only, and rumour has it all your fave pollies like to hang out here when they have a night off. Located on the top floor of the hotel, the QT Lounge offers a killer view of the city surrounds.

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There are a number of discreet alcoves and darkened corners, perfect for some private pow wows; accompany your chats with a few cocktails from the extensive bar menu. If you know what’s good for you, give the Ghost of Mary cocktail a go: pancetta and jalapeño-infused vodka, tomato consommé, celery bitters, American bacon salt and a picked chilli asparagus to nibble on.

Settle in the for evening and raise a glass to the beating heart of Canberra; it may be small but it really is the whole package.

The writer stayed as a guest of QT Canberra.

(Lead image: Pâtssez/Facebook)