Who would have thought it: Once the most unloved and dowdy city in the country, Canberra has been reborn, writes Anthony Dennis.
They are the three words that no travel writer, until very recently, ever thought could sincerely emerge from his or her keyboard – "Canberra is cool". But something strange, momentous even, has taken place in the national capital. After a century of being Australia's least-loved city, and being unfavourably compared to even its New Zealand counterpart, Wellington, Canberra has been making capital out of cool, and winning unexpected new fans.
A flurry of fashionable new independent hotels, including Hotel Hotel, QT Canberra, East and Realm and others have opened in recent years as well as a host of new highly-rated restaurants and bars, all of which could happily reside in Sydney or Melbourne. Many of them are in or around some of the most outstanding new urban precincts in the country. Suddenly, it's not so hard to compile a list, such as this one, of 10 cool things about Canberra.
01 CODE FOR COOL
The Code, a new six-part Australian-made ABC television drama series, has visually redefined Canberra with its sweeping aerial shots of the capital's sleek Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, the National Library, Lake Burley Griffin and Parliament House. "For many years my visual library of Canberra had come from, you know, that year 6 visit to Old Parliament House," Shelley Birse, The Code's scriptwriter, told The Canberra Times recently. "[But] coming back and looking at it anew, it blew me away as such a beautiful, sophisticated international city with a lot going on beneath the surface." How long before someone devises The Code tour of Canberra? See visitcanberra.com.au.
02 STAYING POWER
If there has been a single game-changer in the perceptions of Canberra it has to be the 68-room Hotel Hotel (catchphrase: "a hotel for people people"). Hipster heaven, it's the product of brothers Nectar and Johnathan Efkarpidis and almost 60 artisans, designers and craftsmen and women. Its near comically dark rooms and nook-like public spaces will not suit every would-be guest's tastes but, based on its obsessive attention to detail, it makes every other supposedly cool hotel in the country look, well, a bit vacant (Read our review). But it's not the only hip hotel in Canberra, a city which is finally carving its own riskier design sense, these days. Nearby, QT Canberra, the old Lakeside Hotel from the 1970s dismissal days, has a lot of overdue fun with the pollies, right down to parking valet cards featuring Sir John Kerr and others (Review). And then there's Peppers Gallery Hotel (formerly The Diamant) located in a rambling complex of former buildings which date back to the days of the original Parliament House when it was used as accommodation for VIPs. See hotel-hotel.com.au; qtcanberra.com.au; peppers.com.au.
03 ACTON UP
This is not just Canberra's best piece of urban redevelopment, but one of the finest in the country. You can spend a whole weekend hanging around the NewActon precinct (a location for The Code), eschewing all of the capital's more predictable attractions. Home to the aforementioned Hotel Hotel, it also hosts some of Canberra's best restaurants, bars and cafes as well as an art-house cinema complex. Next door is the beautiful bush campus of the Australian University of Australia (ANU) with the imposing Black Mountain as its backdrop, as well as the Academy of Sciences (aka Igloo Embassy and Shine Dome) one of Canberra's most amazing and underrated buildings. See newacton.com.au.
Even if it was located in bigger brothers Sydney and Melbourne, Canberra's Kingston Foreshore precinct would be impressive.Anthony Dennis
04 HIP HIP HOORAY
Canberra, long the civic equivalent of a neat freak, a city whose authorities until recent times even banned front-yard fences, has never been one for grunge, unless you count the porn emporiums of Fyshwick. But just a few minutes' walk from the city centre is the hip Lonsdale Street, Braddon, where you'll encounter an eclectic mix of boutiques, pop-up stores, cool cafes, bars, bakeries and restaurants, interspersed with car-yards. It ain't Surry Hills, but it's a start. Be warned that locating a parking space can be as tricky as a finding a Federal pollie in Canberra in the depths of winter. See visitcanberra.com.au.
05 TAKE A LEAF
One of the capital's lesser known and newest attractions is the National Arboretum. It's not just the 250-hectare site - which has literally emerged from the ashes of Canberra's catastrophic bushfires of 2003 - with its 100 fledgling forests (to mark 100 years of Canberra) that impresses. It's the spectacular, armadillo-like visitors' (or village) centre affording stunning views of the capital. Inside, with a dramatic domed ceiling of massive curved timber beams, it could double as a designer airport terminal. Elsewhere, on the edge of another hill is The Pavilion, a convention space that resembles a single shell plucked from the Sydney Opera House and transplanted in the hills of the bush capital. See nationalarboretum.act.gov.au.
06 BY THE SCRIPT
When Dorothea Mackellar wrote My Country little did she know that her most immortal words, "Wide brown land" and actual handwriting script would one day be transformed into an arresting sculpture overlooking the capital that wasn't founded until five years after she penned the poem. The sculpture sits atop a hill on the National Arboretum estate. Don't get too close as you need to place yourself a distance from the words in order to recognise them. And in another feature of the arboretum, don't miss the stunning National Bonsai and Penjing Collection of Australia, the country's largest. See nationalarboretum.act.gov.au
07 KINGSTON FOR A DAY
Even if it was located in bigger brothers Sydney and Melbourne, Canberra's Kingston Foreshore precinct would be impressive. Rising on the banks of Lake Burley Griffin, Kingston Foreshore, an ambitious apartment and lifestyle development, is challenging NewActon as Canberra's hippest haven. C Dine and Bar was the first of many restaurants to make their home here, and has since been joined by Morks, Rum Bar, La Rustica, Local Press and gastro pub, Walt & Burley and Remedy by the city's kings of caffeine, Lonsdale Street Roasters. See lda.act.gov.au/kingston/
08 MISSION CREEP
Canberra is the only capital in the world to have encouraged foreign nations to build their embassies in their own national architectural style. It was a folly that has left the suburb of Yarralumla, where most of the missions are situated, a bit of a diplomatic Disneyland. But trust the Finns to deliver their own interpretation with their award-winning embassy at 12 Darwin Avenue, Yarralumla. The design for the glass-encased chancery building was inspired by a Finnish wartime coastal vessel. Nearby is the Japanese Embassy, at 112 Empire Circuit, Yarralumla, another building that's been lauded for its tasteful and restrained architecture. A self-guided driving tour of Canberra's embassies and high commissions can be downloaded at nationalcapital.gov.au
09 FOOD CAPITAL
Due to its size, it's never going to challenge Sydney or Melbourne in culinary clout but Canberra certainly punches above its weight. Newcomer Monster Kitchen and Bar, located in the lobby of the Hotel Hotel, is the latest darling of the capital dining set with its inventive share-plate-based menu. Nine restaurants - Aubergine, Capitol Bar & Grill (at QT Canberra), Courgette, eightysix, Italian & Sons, Malamay, Ottoman Cuisine, Temporada and Water's Edge – receive one or two hats in the 2015 edition of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. And don't miss an array of achingly hips cafes including A.Baker and Mocan & Green Grout, both at NewActon and both of which also open for dinner. See visitcanberra.com.au.
10 ART BEAT
Think of art and Canberra and we tend to think of the blockbuster exhibitions at the National Gallery of Australia. But there is also the Canberra Museum and Gallery and Craft ACT. The capital has a thriving arts scene with many local galleries including the Canberra Contemporary Art Space, ANCA Galleries, M16 Art Space, Beaver Galleries, the ANU School of Art programs and many other commercial galleries offering local and international art for sale. Inside the Nishi Building, which houses Hotel Hotel, you'll also find the Nishi Gallery, a "blank space" for artists and curators to display all types of visual art. And, at the restored Canberra Glassworks (formerly the historic Kingston Powerhouse) you can team glass-blowing with burgers at the hip Brodburger, a glass-encased burger joint where the massive house specialities demand to be shared. See visitcanberra.com.au.
The writer was a guest of Visit Canberra. Canberra's annual Floriade festival continues until October 12. See visitcanberra.com.au.