No, Sydney is not the capital of Australia. And no, it isn’t Melbourne either. This title goes to Canberra (there’s another point in your next pub quiz), located a third of the way south of Sydney. When it comes to visiting this city, opinions differ a lot. Many (both Aussie and tourists) say it is not worth it, whereas others say you must not miss it. Which side is right depends on what you are interested in. For us, we could not leave the Australian capital lying on the wayside.
Borne out of the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne about hosting the government construction (of the old parliament building) did not begin until 1913. Due to the first world war (and other issues) the government did not move there until 1927. The entire city was layed out and designed by an American archictect bureau and it still feels artificial today. All cities we have visited so far feel like they have grown and developed over time; sometimes in a bizarre mismatch of styles, but still retain some feel from earlier eras. Canberra (at least the centre) lacks all of this.
As another premiere, we based ourselves in the very centrally located YHA, not far from the bus station and next to a big shopping area. We made the mistake of booking late because we waited of outstanding Couchsurfing requests and ended up in a ten bed dorm. To our surprise the hostel was home to more students, professionals and long-term guests than actual travellers. This leads us to the first problem of Canberra: the lack of cheap (travellers) accommodation. Our issue with long-stay guests is that they don’t care about the accommodation as much as backpackers. This manifested itself in heaps of stuff in the rooms, a dirty kitchen and not much socialising between people. The facilities were good (including a sauna and pool), but the management and cleaning were sub-standard. This was also the first hostel we have been to in a very long time that did not have a free luggage storage for guests. Instead we were told to rent lockers for up to $7 per day!
On our first day we dived right in and walked across the Molonglo river towards capital hill with the impressive parliament building on top. It replaced the old parliament home in 1988 and is considered permanent (the first one was always planned to be temporary). On our way we felt a bit like exploring a ghost town because there was so little traffic and hardly any people. We made it just in time for the 11am tour. Together with the other visitors we visited the King’s hall, the house of representatives and the senate. It was interesting to see the differences and similarities of the Australian and the British way of proceedings. They even copied the colours of the British chambers (green for the lower and red for the upper house). The first floor also housed an exhibition explaining all the political procedures and roles as well as the original of the famous Barunga statement. This statement is a petition, writen/painted by aboriginal tribes in the Northern Territories, that was handed over to the prime minister in 1967, demanding the recognition of their heritage, equality, the rights of self-governance and the right of preserving the aboriginal culture.
Another highlight was the painting of the opening of the first Australian parliament by His Royal Highness Duke of York in Melbourne in 1901, aptly named the big picture.
After learning all about the current state of affairs we headed down the hill to visit the old houses of parliament (now protected by UNESCO). Again we were lucky as we made it on to a tour led by a former employee who told us many stories, but sadly we did not understand them all due to not being Aussies. We preferred the old atmosphere, but would not have liked to work there in the end with up to 3,000 other people. It was strange to learn that it took them over 10 years after the first women were elected into parliament to install a toilet for them. Until then they had to use the ordinary staff facilities.
Strolling through the park, we made our way to the National Gallery of Australia. We are not normally interested in arts, but this museum featured a big permanent exhibition of Aboriginal art. It featured a variety of paintings with oil and earthen colours on canvas and bark as well as carvings. Most of it was traditional, telling stories about the land, animals and tribal culture. Some artist were very open and took in new and modern influences such as roadkill (of animals) or deforestation as well as contemporary themes.
We left out the modern exhibitions but stopped briefly in a room with virtual reality (VR) experiences en route to the café.
Outside the museum and leading along the river were lines of flags of countries with embassies in Canberra and we had a fun game of guessing their names. After all this enjoyment, we did not realize that we had left our bag behind in the gallery until it was too late for that day.
After all the politics and miles of wandering we deserved a treat and so we headed straight for the basement of our hostel. It was a bit of a let down to find that the pool and spa were not heated but the sauna made up for it.
On our second day we went to visit the national botanic garden. The arrangement was nice and they had some lovely fern valleys but in winter it was not really very impressive.
After picking up our bag from the gallery we crossed the river and headed to another famous sight of Canberra: the war memorial. Described to us as THE must-see it did not disappoint. The two-winged memorial rests at the top end of ANZAC Avenue in direct line if sight with the parliament building. The first wing was entirely dedicated to Australia’s role in the first world war. The exhibition focussed on the Gallipoli campaign as well as a few battles along the western front. It is a very visual display and models of battles are used in combination with sounds to immerse the visitor into the scene.
In the back lies the Hall of Rememberance which also leads to the aircraft hall. The former features boards telling the stories of soldiers fighting for Australia and sometimes even giving their lives for their country. These very personal stories covered the entire time from WWI right up to the present day and were quite intriguing. They made what so far felt more like a museum feel more like a place to remember. Opposite the central courtyard with its pool is the more modern wing with exhibition about WWII. Since it was already late we had to rush this section and only made it halfway through before staff announced closing time. That was a bit of a pitty because it was actually a very good museum (all of it; not just this section). This also meant missing out the sections about more recent actions. We were also overwhelmed by the amount of information about the displayed items and stories. People told us you can spend a whole day there and we could believe that completely.
Having to leave the exhibition for closing time also came with the unexpected opportunity to join the last post ceremony in the central courtyard. After the national anthem a leutenant of the airforce read out the story of a private who fought and died on the western front. A bagpiper played while children from schools from all states layed down wreaths. A group of soldiers payed their respects while a bugel played the last post signal. It was a very moving ceremony; even for us as tourists.
We had set aside our last day in Canberra for the National Museum of Australia. This turned out to be a wise decision in multiple ways. Firstly, because the YHA does not offer free luggage storage and makes guests pay for a locker (otherwise bags were removed and held for ransom). Totally disagreeing with this practise we took our backpacks to the museum, where they looked after them for free. Secondly, because of the size and wealth of the museum. The four (permanent) exhibitions open at the time of visit covered Aboriginies, journeys of Australians, nature and the development of the country in the last 200 years. The temporary exhibition was in the process of getting changed. We really liked how changes to the country and issues were always pinned to a location or person as example. The museum was very interesting and informative. We learned a lot about the colonisation of the continent and its development as well as problems.
Best of all (like all the other museums in Canberra) it was completely free.
Not keen on returning to our hostel we spent the last bit of the afternoon in the museum café with some delicious cake.
After one last dinner in the messy kitchen we headed to the station for our night bus to Melbourne.
We really enjoyed Canberra. Despite the lack of the atmosphere of a grown city it was a very worthwhile stay. The museums and the houses of parliament (old and new) were interesting. Obviously not everybody is interested in Australian politics or arts, but getting a feel for both is certainly worth it. Canberra has a big range of things to see and we still had points left on our list. Three days is about right in our opinion depending on how interested you are in museum. It is easy to plan in a day for each of the big museums which would mean more time, but three days is a good start.