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It is thought that the area of what is nowadays Australia's Capital Territory was used by Australia's indigenous inhabitants as a meeting place. It is possible that the Aborigines held corroborees there to mark the migration of the bogong moth, which was hunted and eaten.

Europeans first settled the region in 1824, when Joshua Moore bought the first land grant at the foot of Black Mountain. By 1845 a settlement had emerged near the mountain, with St John's Church and the nearby school at its center.

In 1901, the continent's colonies were federated into Australian states and seven years later, the town was established as the nation's capital, with the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) surrounding it. The town was chosen for its diplomatic location between arch rivals Sydney and Melbourne and it was named Canberra in 1913. The name Canberra derives from an Aboriginal term that is believed to mean 'meeting place'. The American architect Walter Burley Griffin won the international competition to design the city. Development proceeded in at a slow pace. Parliament was first convened in the capital in 1927, but it was not until after WWII that Canberra started to take its place as Australia's national capital.

In order to speed up development and establish Canberra as the seat of government, the Menzies Government created the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) in 1957. Bridges were built over a hypothetical lake. The actual lake followed a year later. The Mint was constructed, as well as the National Library, the Botanic Gardens and the Carillon. Office space was provided in the form of the civic center. In the same building, shops and theatres were established.

During the 1960's; the public service became Canberra's major industry. Government departments moved from all over Australia to Canberra, in their wake followed by thousands of families. Canberra was a planned city and the NCDC oversaw the development. The commission set up 'satellite towns' to the north and south of Canberra. Woden, to the south was established first, followed by Belconnen, Tuggeranong, in the 1970's and Gunghalin, in the 1980's. Canberra's population grew from 50,000 in 1960 to 100,000 in 1967 and by the end of the 20th century it had soared to more than 300,000.

The ACT had been under the jurisdiction of the Federal Government since Federation. In 1978, the inhabitants of Canberra voted no to self-government, but in 1988, the Federal Government passed four bills to make the Territory self-governing anyway and a year later, the first Legislative Assembly was elected. During the first years of self-government, power changed hands between the ALP and Liberal Party fairly regularly and saw performances by the paradoxical No Self Government Party, the Residents Rally and the ACT Greens. In 1995, the electoral system was changed and the Liberal Party has remained in power since then.

Despite self-government, Canberra is heavily dependent on Australia's national government. Most of the city's economy exists solely because of the national public service. When the national government makes cutbacks, Canberra's economy suffers; as public servants stop spending money.

Canberra is a fascinating 20th-century creation, even though it is still struggling to establish itself as the focus of Australia's national history, pride and identity. Many Australians say that Canberra has no 'soul', but if you spend a while in the capital, you will find out that it is a fantastic place that is not easily forgotten. In the center of town is the artificial Lake Burley Griffin. On its northern shore are numerous shops and businesses, as well as the university and the suburbs of Reid, Braddon, Turner and Acton. The National Gallery and the Parliament House are to the south of the lake, in an area known as the Parliamentary Triangle. In its vicinity are the suburbs of Parkes, Barton, Forrest, Deakin and Yarralumla, where the prime minister and governor-general have their residence. The lake is encircled by bike tracks. Canberra's suburbs are separated from the city center by swathes of native bush land. If you like to be close to the wilderness and not too far from a decent café latté, Canberra is the place to go. The city is also an excellent place to stay if you want to visit the nearby Snowy Mountains, or the south coast of New South Wales.

Canberra and its surrounding suburbs sit in the northeast of the ACT, which stretches 80 km (50 miles) from north to south and is about 30 km (19 miles) wide. The ACT is landlocked within the mountainous country of southeastern New South Wales and most of its southern part is occupied by the Namadgi National Park.

When to Go

The best time to visit Canberra is in autumn, from March to May. During that time, Canberra is absolutely gorgeous. The days are sunny and crisp, the trees are changing and everything looks lovely. Every year in March, the city's birthday is celebrated during the Canberra Festival, which involves lots of music, food, a mardi gras, displays, a raft race and a parade. The huge National Folk Festival is also celebrated in March.

From June to August is winter in Canberra. During that period it can be freezing cold in the region. Some mornings you will step outside and feel like you lungs will freeze when breathing. During the winter, the sky is usually clear and the weather sunny, but it is cold.

Spring is from September to November. It is wetter and windier than the rest of the year, but the popular Floriade Festival brightens things up. During the floriade, Commonwealth Park is filled with colorful flowers.

The summer, from December to February is unpleasantly hot. Around New Year is celebrated with the Street Machine Summer Nats, which includes drinking and wet t-shirt competitions.

Places of interest

Parliament House

Parliament House is one of Canberra's most visited sights. It is usually referred to as New Parliament House to distinguish it from its old predecessor. The marble lined building was opened in 1988 and stands at the apex of the Parliamentary Triangle. It is built into the hill and its roof is lined with grass to make it blend in. Unfortunately, the grass is imported lawn mix and requires enormous quantities of water and weed killer to keep it green and glowing. The interior of Parliament House is quite impressive. Each of the major sections is lined with Australian timbers and there are more than 3000 art works bought or commissioned from Australian artists.

You can freely access the public parts of the building, including the House of Representatives and the Senate. If something important is debated, you will have to make an appointment though. On the days, when there are no sittings, free guided tours of the building are available.

The Old Parliament House stands further down the hill, closer to the lake. It was the seat of the government from 1927 to 1988. Tours of the modest building are available and you are free to explore its pleasant grounds. The building is home to the National Portrait Gallery.

National Gallery of Australia

Also on the southern side of the lake is Canberra's National Gallery. It sits on the shore of the lake and houses Australia's best art collection. The Australian exhibit shows everything from traditional Aboriginal art through to 20th century works by Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker. You can see Aboriginal works, such as bark paintings from Arnhem Land, pukumani burial poles from the Tiwi people and printed fabrics from central Australia. The gallery has a large collection of foreign art as well. Many traveling exhibitions are shown in Canberra as well.

The National Gallery includes paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, furniture, ceramics, fashion, textiles and silverware. Free lectures are often given and there are several pleasant restaurants on the grounds.


Questacon is a 'hands on' science museum. It is housed in a remarkable white building, not far from the National Gallery. The center is divided into five galleries and has more than 200 devices, where you can experience earthquakes, the thongaphone and the 'can you bowl faster than Alan Donald' display. The center is designed for kids, but unselfconscious adults won't have any trouble entertaining themselves for an hour or two. It is meant to be educational, but it's also great fun.

Australian War Memorial

The huge Australian War Memorial is actually a museum of Australia's war history. The memorial was conceived in 1925, but it was not opened until 1941. The museum houses a large collection of pictures, dioramas, relics and exhibitions, as well as numerous old aircraft. There are also several miniature battle scenes.

The focus of the memorial is the Hall of Memory, which features a beautiful interior. It has marvelous stained-glass windows and a dome made of six million Italian mosaic pieces. In 1993, the Unknown Australian Soldier was brought here from a WWI battlefield. The 'reflecting pool' leads to the hall, while its walls are inscribed with the names of Australia's war dead.

Australian National Botanic Gardens

Australia's beautiful National Botanic Gardens sit on a 50 hectare (123 acre) plot on the lower slopes of Black Mountain, behind the Australian National University. The gardens are devoted to Australian flora and there are educational walks, including one among plants used by Aborigines. A misting system keeps the rainforest area in a green condition in Canberra's dry climate. The eucalypt lawn has 600 species of this ubiquitous Australian tree. Guided walks are available and you can have a rest in the pleasant Kookaburra Cafe.

Lake Burley Griffin

The lake features several places of interest around its 35 km shore. The Captain Cook Memorial Water Jet flings a six-ton column of water 140 m into the air. The National Capital Exhibition is at Regatta Point. It has interesting free displays that show the expansion of the capital. Blundell's Farmhouse is a reminder of the area's early farming history. On Aspen Island is the 53-bell Carillon tower.

Around Canberra

Vantage points

There are several vantage points from which you get a good overview of Canberra's planned design. From Kings Avenue you have a good view of both parliament houses, the lake and the war memorial. Black Mountain rises to 812 m and is topped by the 195m-high Telecom Telecommunications Tower, which has a revolving restaurant and an excellent view. Other nearby mountains that offer good views over Canberra include Red Hill (722 m) and Mount Pleasant (665 m). Mount Ainslie (840 m) is close to the city and offers particularly fine views.

Namadgi National Park

The Namadgi National Park takes up all the parts Australia's Capital Territory that are not part of Canberra. The park is connected to the Kosciuszko National Park in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales.There are seven peaks over 1600 m (5248 feet) in the Namadgi National Park and the area has some of Australia's most challenging bush walking possibilities. One of the park's most popular spots is Booroomba Rocks, which consists of huge granite boulders. Sometimes there's enough snow in Namadgi for cross-country skiing.

There are various picnic sites and two campsites in the park and you are not allowed to camp outside these. The park has a visitor information center, but you can also get brochures from the visitor information center in Canberra. Tours to the park are available in Canberra, but you can also go there with your own vehicle. Namadgi National Park is on the road south from Tharwa to Adaminaby.

Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve

The Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve is 45 km (28 miles) southwest of Canberra. It boasts countless walking tracks, but most visitors come there to feed the semi-tame kangaroos and emus, or to scan the trees for koalas that don't even live there. The visitors' center has some excellent displays on native fauna and flora. Tidbinbilla is a nice place to take the kids for a picnic, or to have a short walk.

The Tidbinbilla Tracking Station is north of the nature reserve. It is also known as the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. It is a joint US-Australian system to track satellites and spacecraft. It has a visitors center, where you can see displays of spacecraft and tracking technology and entrance is free.

Corin Forest is south of Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. It includes a 1 km (0.6 miles) long bobsled run and, in case there's not enough snow, they have a snow-making machine.

Tidbinbilla can only be reached if you have a car.


Ginninderra is about 11 km (7 miles) northwest of Canberra. Its centerpiece is Ginninderra Village, which is a collection of buildings from colonial times, most of which have been converted into cafés, tea houses, Australiana galleries, wood-turning workshops and souvenir shops.

Cockington Green is an expensive English-style village, complete with cricket streakers and a working steam train. The National Dinosaur Museum, just outside of Cockington Green, houses a private collection with replica skeletons of 10 dinosaurs as well as many real bones and fossils. The entrance fee is high, but it is quite interesting.

An ACTION bus runs from Belconnen past Ginninderra Village on its way to Gunghalin.


The Lanyon Homestead has been beautifully restored. It sits beside the river near Tharwa, about 30 km (19 miles) south of Canberra. Convicts built the early stone cottage on the site. The grand homestead was completed in 1859. Lanyon is a National Trust homestead. It gives a good impression of what life in the region was like, before the existence of Canberra. The Nolan Gallery in the homestead houses some of Australian painter Sydney Nolan's most famous works. There is a nice Devonshire teahouse at Lanyon.

Other activities

Canberra is an excellent place for cycling. The city offers some great bicycle routes. Inline skating is also popular. The artificial Lake Burley Griffin is used for water sports, including canoeing and sailing catamarans. Paddle boats and surf skis are for hire. It is not recommended to swim in the lake. Various locations along the Murrumbidgee and Cotter rivers are better for that. They include Uriarra Crossing, Casuarina Sands, Kambah Pool, the Cotter Dam, Pine Island, Point Hut Crossing and Gibraltar Falls. The Murrumbidgee River is also excellent for canoeing and white-water rafting.

One of Canberra's most popular activities is bush walking and there are several particularly good tracks in the region. You can walk 7 km (4 miles) along the Murrumbidgee River from Kambah Pool to Pine Island, or to Casuarina Sands, which is about 21 km (13 miles). There are also marked trails in the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. Other popular activities include balloon and airplane flights to get a birds-eye view of the city. Cruises on the Murrumbidgee River and on Lake Burley Griffin are also available. During some winters, there is enough snow for cross-country skiing in Namadgi National Park, although snow machines make artificial snow at Corin Forest as soon as it's cold enough. You can also make the four-hours trip to the New South Wales snowfields.


Canberra's airport is about 7 km (4 miles) east of the city, but most flights that arrive there are domestic. Canberra has air connections with all capital cities in Australia, but if you want to visit Canberra from abroad, you will have to fly to Sydney or Melbourne and fly to the capital from there. You can get a shuttle minibus from the airport to the Jolimont Center in town, as well as to various hotels. A cab will cost a little more, but there is not too much price difference.

At the Jolimont Center, which is in the center of Civic, you can get interstate buses to Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne, where buses to most other cities in Australia are available. You can also catch buses to the south coast, the snowfields and other towns throughout New South Wales. The ACTION (Australian Capital Territory Internal Omnibus Network) bus provides public transportation within the city, but services are sparse and on Sundays after 10 PM, you can practically forget about it.

The railway station is in Kingston, on the southern side of Lake Burley Griffin. Trains run to Sydney, but a combined bus-train trip to Melbourne is also possible.

The Hume Highway that connects Melbourne and Sydney, runs about 50 km (30 miles) north of Canberra. You can drive to Goulburn or to Yass to get to the highway, depending which way you're heading, north or south. The Monaro highway south of Canberra will take you to Cooma, the snowfields and the coast.

The best way to explore Canberra is by bike. The city has an excellent system of cycling paths, which allow you to avoid the motorized traffic almost everywhere.

Accommodation and food

There are countless cheap places to stay in Canberra, because numerous government-run hostels were built to house Canberra's public servants, but they are mainly housed in residential areas. The state hotels are now privately run as guesthouses and hotels. Most of them are located in Civic, north of the city center.

Most shops and restaurants are in Civic and Manuka, south of the lake. There are several cafés throughout the inner suburbs, but Civic and Manuka are the best places to go. Civic is the center of Canberra's nightlife. Each satellite town has its own charming shopping mall.

Canberra is 305 km (190 miles) from Sydney by road.


Miscellaneous Information

Latitude:    35 18 S
Longitude: 149 11 E
Elevation:  575 m (1886 ft.)

Population: 330,000
Cost-of-living compared to Washington D.C.: n/a

Hours from UTC: 10
Daylight savings time: Late October through late March

City phone code: 02
Country phone code: 61

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