There are so many things to do for families in Canberra, despite its reputation to the contrary

Australia’s capital Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory, is highly underrated as a tourist destination. To start with, most overseas travellers don’t even know it is the country’s capital, and would struggle to find it on a map. For Australians, getting there is not simple or cheap, and it is generally not on the way to somewhere. But if you make the effort, there are some high-quality attractions in Australia’s largest inland city.

Canberra was not on our bucket list, though we knew it had many great things to offer making for a worthwhile visit. So when we were driving from Melbourne to Sydney in October 2018, it was an easy decision to make a detour and drop into Canberra for a few days. As you will read, a few days was nowhere near enough time to fully explore this unique city.

Family in Canberra
the Family posing at Parliament House

We had booked into an Airbnb house in Canberra’s northern suburbs. Although it was on the outer edge of Canberra, being a relatively small city it’s not hard to get around, and wherever you stay you won’t be too far from anything. We weren’t fussed about the location – but what we did like about the place was the heated floor and heated towel rails – just what was needed for chilly Canberra.

National Library of Australia
Canberra is home to many interesting buildings on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, like the National Library of Australia

We lived and worked in Canberra many years ago, before kids (BK). The first thing we wanted to do was drive past our old house and neighbourhood. Not much has changed in O’Connor, an older part of town (though nothing is really old in Canberra which was only founded in 1913), however, now there’s a new tram line running down Northbourne Ave, the main street heading north out of town, growing it into a more modern city.

Floriade Fields of Flowers
Fields of colourful flowers at Canberra’s Floriade Festival

We were really lucky that our stopover coincided with the annual springtime Floriade Festival, a highlight of the year for many Canberrans, and a festival that brings many tourists to the city. It was the first weekend of the festival and a nice sunny day, so we headed there early to avoid the crowds. It was so bright and colourful, with all the amazing flowers, but the kids will probably mostly remember the water zorb ride!

Family selfie with tulips at Floriade.

After lunch we headed to the Australian War Memorial, .which is a quality museum, with free entry and some awesome but educational displays to see. We made a beeline for the dioramas, which did a great job of bringing the stories of different battles to life.

War Memorial Diarama

The interactive display of bombers was also a hit with the kids. Unfortunately we only came across the discovery zone with hands-on activities for kids at the end of our visit.

We stayed for the emotive last post ceremony which is held at the end of each day, telling the story of one brave soul that day. We could have spent many more hours here, there’s so much to do.

Australian War Memorial
In the courtyard of the Australian War Memorial. Someone’s had enough.

Early the next day we drove up Mt Ainslee to the lookout, which provides great views overlooking the structured streets of Canberra and Lake Burley Griffin. It’s a great way to appreciate the city planning, and not a bad idea to visit here first, to get an overview of all the places you will be visiting.

Mt Ainslie Lookout
The lookout at Mt Ainslie

On the shore of Lake Burley Griffin is the National Gallery of Australia. It is another great free gallery, excellent international and Australian artwork, though we were more impressed with the National Portrait Gallery, a short walk further along the lakeside. Here the art is a bit more quirky, modern, but the kids don’t really know many of the people who are featured.

Australian National Gallery
Admiring an Andy Warhol artwork at the National Gallery. He doesn’t even like soup.
[see our top-10 list of Australian Galleries]

We still had time for an afternoon visit to Cockington Green, full of miniature English villages, plus an international section of displays of buildings from around the world. The kids definitely loved this place!

Cockington Green Canberra
Feeling tall at Cockington Green

On our third day in Canberra, we had to confront the elephant in the room. We are not into politics, but that is the core of what Canberra is about, so we could not avoid visits to both Parliament houses, old and new. They are both worth a visit to admire the buildings and soak up some more history, and thankfully both had lots of activities for kids (the benefit of visiting during the school holidays).

New Parliament House
New Parliament House

At New Parliament House we signed up for the free guided tour, which included the chambers, but we missed out on any drama as parliament was not sitting at the time. Impressive architecture, artwork, and a 1297 copy of Magna Carta is on display.

Houses of Parliament
In the red Senate chamber at the New Parliament House

Within Old Parliament House is the Museum Of Democracy where you can learn all about our governments past, plus there is a kids area called Play Up! A super fun, interactive area allowing them to dress up, play and get involved to learn about history. For just $5 for families, it is great value.

Inside Senate chamber of the old parliament house

Something new since we were last in Canberra is the National Arboretum Canberra. This botanical garden devoted to trees is situated high on a hill, built after the area was burned out from the devastating bushfires in 2003. The cafe was busy as it was cold and windy outside, not unusual for Canberra. The hilly slope outside was appealing to the kids, but the weather stopped them from rolling around. The highlight was The National Bonsai and Penjing Collection. The Big Acorns Pod Playground also looked great but it was too cold to hang around for a play.

Bonsai Exhibition
Bonsai Exhibition at the National Arboretum

What we needed was a nice welcoming warm place for some refreshments, and one of our old hangouts, the Old Canberra Inn, was just perfect for that. We stayed for a meal, the place is much more upmarket now compared to when we spent late nights here hanging from the rafters.

Old Canberra Inn
Old man at the Old Canberra Inn

To finish off our visit to Canberra, on the final morning we took the kids to the amazing science museum Questacon. Full of interesting science exhibits which they always love. We had to drag the kids away, as we needed to continue our journey from Melbourne, and drive the three hours further to Sydney.

Questacon Science Display
A Science museum is always a winner with our kids

Wow, what a busy few days. We covered a lot of ground, including visiting some old friends. There were other places we would have liked to have visited but did not have enough time.

If you are considering a holiday in Canberra, we highly recommend it. Maybe go for a few more days than us though, there is so much more you could do. In addition to what we saw, here are some other places to possibly check out too.

  • National Museum of Australia
  • National Zoo and Aquarium
  • National Dinosaur Museum
  • Australian Institute of Sport
  • Australian National Botanic Gardens
  • Black Mountain Telstra Tower
  • CSIRO Discovery Centre
  • Canberra Glassworks
  • Royal Australian Mint

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