It might be time to reconsider your attitude to Canberra and embark on an ideal weekend getaway, writes travel editor Winsor Dobbin.
We have a tendency to look down our noses at our national capital. It’s a bit wet, very cold, a bit dull and it is full of politicians.
But while you can’t do much about the weather, Canberra can actually be both vibrant and fascinating. And most weekends those politicians head home.
Nowadays, Canberra is home to funky restaurants, artisan food producers, museums and galleries that are full of interest, as well as several cool hotels like Hotel Hotel and QT Canberra. Even better, it is surrounded by several vineyard regions producing outstanding boutique wines.
Where to stay
QT Canberra is the latest incarnation of a building that is steeped in Australian political history. This quirky designer hotel celebrates its history and rebirth through bold design, a mix of hip artworks, and bespoke furniture.
Located in the emerging cultural precinct of New Acton, the former Lakeside Hotel property has been home to many a handshake deal and long lunch. Today, the Capitol Bar & Grill offers a range of fine wine, and bistro classics.
There is an on-trend members-only rooftop lounge (try to talk your way in), Lucky’s speakeasy bar, and an old-school barber’s shop for anyone in need of a cut-throat shave.
Look out for the artworks decorating the lobby area and the little in-room twists in the style of hotel design icons like Mama Shelter, Luna 2 in Bali and other QT properties.
The rooms are stylish with air conditioning, a mini bar, a flat-screen TV and private balcony. They each offer a telephone, ironing facilities and an alarm clock – and Canberra’s attractions, including Australian National University and Australian Academy of Science, are easily accessible on foot.
There is complimentary wireless internet access, on-site parking and a ‘QT Old Fashioned’ cocktail-making station.
QT Canberra, 1 London Circuit, Canberra
(02) 6247 6244
Where to eat
Dining in Canberra can come with a delightful Italian accent – whether at Bacaro Wine Bar, Italian and Sons trattoria or upmarket Mezzalira, all owned by long-time Canberra residents the Trimboli family, who have hospitality in their blood.
Bacaro, tucked away in the back room of Italian and Sons on Lonsdale Street in busy, buzzy Braddon, is the place to go for a pre-dinner glass of wine – the wine list is exclusively Italian with the exception of a selection from local icon winery Clonakilla. Grab some flatbreads or olives and plan the night ahead over a glass of anything from a natural wine to a top-class nebbiolo.
Next door, Italian and Sons serves classic Italian dishes in a riotously fun atmosphere. It is often packed to rafters with a relaxed crowd enjoying pizzas, pastas and other favourites served by well-informed and fun staff.
Dining out is rarely this much fun. Think a great selection of antipasti and authentic charcuterie, well-priced pizzas (the simpler the better) and a dish of the day ranging from suckling goat to Northern Rivers veal. It is the ideal spot for a loud get together with a group of friends.
Mezzalira, owned by the same family, is a little more formal, with excellent food but more of a date-night vibe. It has the same impressive attention to detail, though. Choose daily specials from the blackboard, sample starters like sardine fillets with pine nuts, currants and chardonnay vinegar, or mains like wood-fired Berkshire suckling pig.
Pasta choices include pappardelle with smoked duck breast or risotto with scampi, broad beans and mascaropone. And there is an enticing wine list with several good choices, both Italian and Australian, by the glass. The Trimbolis also run neighbourhood pizzeria Da Rosario – another popular hangout.
Other good Canberra dining choices include long-time stand outs Aubergine, Courgette, Chairman and Yip and Ottoman Cuisine, along with newer party animals Eightysix, Akira, XO and Benchmark.
What to do
The National Museum of Australia is a “must do” destination at any time of the year, offering a fascinating insight into Australia’s social history. So, too, is the Capital Region Farmers Market, held every Saturday morning.
Canberra’s many museums and galleries include Parliament House (with free guided tours that begin every 30 minutes), the Australian War Memorial, The National Library, the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. Questacon, the national science and technology centre, is particularly popular with younger visitors, as is Zootopia.
Winter and spring are festival seasons in the nation’s capital. The Canberra Writers Festival will return on August 25–27 with a jam-packed program of authors and works spanning genres. The Truffle Festival similarly runs through to August with a range of events and tastings.
Opera aficionados, symphony orchestra enthusiasts and chamber choir fans will be spoiled for choice as a series of galas and performances take place in locations including the High Court of Australia, National Gallery of Australia and Llewellyn Hall at The Australian National University.
NAIDOC Week, beginning on July 29, celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the National Library of Australia. Meanwhile, Floriade, Australia’s “Celebration of Spring,” is a world-class floral exhibition worth seeing. More than a million blooms go into the show, which stretches from mid-September to mid-October and features horticultural workshops, music, local artistry and events that include the spectacular Floriade NightFest.
For full details on local events and activities see www.visitcanberra.com.au.
The Canberra region is dotted with about 40 fine wineries – many of which are actually in New South Wales – including three that rank among the best in the country: Clonakilla, Helm and Lark Hill.
Clonakilla, where Tim Kirk is the winemaker, helped spearhead the popularity of the shiraz-viognier blend and has a lovely cellar door overlooking the vines at Murrumbateman, while regional pioneer Ken Helm is regarded as one of the best riesling makers in the country. Helm’s rustic cellar door is a former school hall once used for Temperance Union meetings, and wines are also now made by his daughter Stephanie.
Lark Hill, which specialises in biodynamic and organic wines, is overseen by 2017 Young Gun of the Year Chris Carpenter.
If you time for your visit to coincide with the October long weekend, you can enjoy all the colour and diversion of the Murrumbateman Moving Feast, a low-key but very enjoyable food and wine festival, and sample all the wines from the Murrumbateman Cool Climate Wine Show.
On the Lake George side of town, Lerida Estate’s Cafe Lerida is a popular lunchtime spot, and the winery makes excellent pinot noir and pinot gris. Also look out for Mount Majura and Shaw Family Vineyard.