Canberra things do to: Maximise your time in our capital

Am I there yet? I'm asking because I've been driving along a bush-bordered highway and am now at a roundabout – and with that, Canberra announces you've arrived. Most capital cities go big with monumental arches or architecture borrowed from classical Greece. But Canberra? None of that, thanks.

It's also the most Australian of all our capitals, encompassing much that makes Australia great and unique. Native flora drapes the city in dusty olive-green, during magpie nesting season the winged terrorists dent heads, and eastern grey kangaroos descend to graze on suburban lawns whenever drought sears the surrounding hills.

Canberra might be low-rise but it sprawls. From Gungahlin in the north to Conder in the south is 40 kilometres by road. For a city of 400,000, that's a lot of real estate. However, the bits you really want to see don't extend much farther than within coo-ee of Lake Burley Griffin.

Begin at the Canberra and Region Visitors Centre, which sits on a hump overlooking the lake. The view takes in most of what you want to see – the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Parliament House beneath its four-legged flagpole, and the ochre ribbon above the National Museum that arcs into the sky.

Feeling adventurous? Abandon your vehicle for an e-scooter – the orange and purple two-wheelers are everywhere. A to B doesn't get any easier, and there is nowhere better to experience the wind-in-your-helmet delight of e-scootering than the city's smooth and perfectly formed cycleways. 

From the visitor centre, I whiz over Commonwealth Avenue Bridge and along the shady corridor fronting the National Library, the lovely old Parliament House and the National Gallery, then under Kings Avenue Bridge and along the lake to Kingston Foreshore for coffee with the cool folks on the waterfront.  

I'm booked in to the Midnight Hotel, which is delightfully sleek and has a decent-sized lap pool – it's just a skip away from Lonsdale Street in Braddon. Once a less than lovely strip where you went to buy a car or have it fixed, Lonsdale Street has morphed into Canberra's favourite eat street, home to sushi joints, a sourdough baker, coffee roasters, burger-and-pizza bars and gelaterias. 

Canberra has always had a slightly weird fine-dining culture, with some of its best restaurants plonked in suburban shopping centres or apartment complexes. So it is with Lanterne Rooms, located opposite ASIO and just down the road from the Australian Signals Directorate. 

No surprise, then, that Lanterne Rooms is understated – the low murmur of conversation blends with a cool jazz soundtrack – and full. House specialty is Nyonya cuisine, a fusion food born from Chinese, Malay, Thai, Indian and even Portuguese parents. 


There's a chef's tasting menu, but my waiter tells me this is too much for one. Instead, we devise a throttled-back version. I wasn't going to include the tom yum prawns with a salad of shaved melon and apple, but the look on my waiter's face says otherwise. Standouts are the tofu with mushroom in a soy broth, the prawn and pork xiao long bao dumplings, the eggplant, and sesame-seeded tofu that's lightly crusted on the outside, silky within. 

Next morning, I visit the Australian National Botanic Gardens. Intending to walk the 1.4-kilometre Main Path, I set off along the rim of a rainforest gully. Tree ferns drip, giant leaves glisten, the tops of manna gums dissolve in a soft-focus mist. I'm quickly off the trail but happy as a bandicoot, with a lavishly oxygenated brain by the time I'm back at the parking lot.

Canberra's National Gallery bags many of the blockbuster art shows that come Australia's way. At the moment it's Botticelli to Van Gogh (until June 14), a roll-call of masterpieces from The National Gallery, London. The exhibition's icon is undoubtedly Vincent van Gogh's luminous 1888 Sunflowers. The canvas glows – "like it's backlit," says the guide who shows me around – its pulsing, golden light only made possible by the addition of chrome yellow to painters' palettes in the 19th century. 

In counterpoint to the all-male show, the gallery is also showing Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now (until May 9). 

This is one of the most comprehensive all-women shows ever seen at an Australian public gallery. By women, about women. Doesn't get any more timely than that. 

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale April 25.  To read more from Sunday Life, visit The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.