Surprised by Canberra's inclusion in Lonely Planet's top 10 cities? You shouldn't be

It started with the Freakshake.

Before those decadent inventions graced social media, few thought Canberra was cool. A couple of travel writers had tried to convince the world otherwise with articles along the lines of "10 reasons why Canberra isn't boring", but they weren't fooling anyone.

This was the domain of school excursions and family holidays. We non-native Canberrans were dragged to the city as teenagers, having failed to convince teachers or parents to take us to the Gold Coast instead. We posed for group photos outside Parliament House, tried to stay quiet during a visit to the Australian War Memorial and were let loose in Questacon.

Canberra Times Winter photocomp (2016) - Dylan Valentine Address: 5 Avery Place Fraser ACT 2615 Phone number: 0439394929 Photo information: DSC_0540: Photo title - The early bird gets the worm Description - Got up nice and early to watch the sunrise at the National Arboretum in Canberra. The temperature and the fog meant I had the whole place to myself and as the sun rose above the fog a magpie flew over and sat atop the birds head giving me a great shot. Date taken - 14/06/2016 DSC_0646: Photo title - The house that Romaldo built Description - Witnessing the first rays of light hit Parliament House and the fog rise off Lake Burley Griffin from the top of Red Hill was a great way to start a chilly Canberra day. Date taken - 16/06/2016

Who visited Parliament House on a school trip? Photo: Dylan Valentine

When we grew up we took city breaks to Melbourne or Sydney, spent our summers in Europe or on the beach in Thailand or Bali. But holiday in Canberra? The only thing worse would have been to move here.

Criticism of Canberra is as relentless as it is unimaginative. Even after Australians stopped bagging Tasmania - which happened about 2011 when David Walsh opened MONA and made Hobart cool - the national capital stayed in the firing line.

"It's too cold." "It's too hot." "There's nothing to do."

Then the Freakshake popped up on Instagram and everyone learnt there was more to the capital than public servants and politicians. People wanted to know more.

Sunday Date: November 13 2015 The Canberra Times Photo: Elesa Kurtz Co-owner of Patissez, Anna Petridis launches their Freakshake 2.0 Freaky Blue Balls,BanoFreak, FruityFreak, Cookies n Freaks and Freakin Nutz

The Freakshakes that let people know there was more to Canberra than politicians. Photo: Elesa Kurtz


Canberra's changing reputation has been a slow burn, but third spot on Lonely Planet's Top 10 Cities list will get things moving. The city is attracting record numbers of domestic and international visitors. That growth suggests Lonely Planet has confirmed what a lot of people had already worked out: Canberra isn't as bad as everyone says it is. Could it even be on the way to being cool?

Lonely Planet has a knack for identifying under-the-radar destinations, which can invite criticism. Newcastle made the list in 2011. Darwin in 2012, then Hobart in 2013. Tasmania later scored the fourth best region to visit in 2015. At the time, few people considered these places must-sees. Now, they each make worthy detours off the usual itinerary, particularly for international travellers.

Full disclosure: I moved to Canberra for work and before that hadn't visited since a family holiday in the 1990s. I've travelled to some of the world's most celebrated cities. I've also deviated from the beaten track enough to add some perspective. Canberra was never on my radar as a holiday destination, although I'm not alone there. Until recently, the only person I knew keen on visiting was a five-year-old who loves museums and dinosaurs.

Canberra has the highest quality of living worldwide according to yet another number one ranking.

Canberra, known as the Bush Capital, is surprisingly sophisticated. Photo: Franklin Wang

As a relative newcomer, I still throw on my tourist hat and explore. It only takes a few hours to learn there's more to the city than its national pomp and staid institutions.

The Bush Capital is surprisingly sophisticated. Canberra's hiding cafes and restaurants of the calibre you'd expect in Melbourne or Sydney. Hipsters will find their people in Braddon. Culture fiends head to Parkes. Outdoor lovers will be by the lake or up a mountain.

The luxe hotels enticed me into a staycation. The events - think the Hot Air Balloon Spectacular, Night Noodle Markets, Enlighten Canberra, and yes, Floriade - reveal a depth of creativity and initiative. And since I've been assured liking Parliament House doesn't make me a nerd, I've discovered it's got enough there to justify three visits this year.

Canberra Times Spring photocomp (2016) -Malcolm Lawrence 5 Sheehy Street Evatt Act 0487922380

The Canberra Balloon Spectacular is worth the early starts. Photo: Malcolm Lawrence

Canberra's a small city (driving more than 20 minutes is considered a bit of a trek) so tourists can afford to be lazy when it comes to planning. When people visit cities such as Melbourne or Sydney, they know what to expect and the pressure's on to see it all. In Canberra, the pace is slower. There's the obvious attractions, but less risk of succumbing to the 'fear of missing out'.

However it's hard to praise Canberra's tourist appeal without acknowledging that it has some work to do. Making the most of the capital almost certainly requires a car and the nine-to-five atmosphere of a public service-driven city has its frustrations.

Canberra probably isn't quite 'there', but it's on its way. And now everybody knows about it.

Megan Dingwall is a senior producer at The Canberra Times and can be found on Twitter.