When it comes to weekend getaways, Canberra is a fantastic option. Whether it’s a drive down from Sydney or Wollongong, or a flight from elsewhere around the country, it’s easy to reach and there are heaps of things to do in Canberra.
In recent years, the city has gone from being a ‘big bush town’ to a hub of culture, with fine dining, art galleries, live music venues, and boutique shopping.
But, of course, it is still defined by being Australia’s capital – and that’s not a bad thing. It means some of the most important national institutions are based here and many of them are free. So, if you’re looking for free things to do in Canberra, you are spoilt for choice.
I want to share some ideas for free things to do in Canberra but, first, a quick disclaimer…
The list I have put together focuses mainly on the famous landmarks and national institutions. There are also lots of things to do in Canberra for free that are a bit more local. I will be writing more about that soon (and feel free to send me your suggestions!)
A short drive up to Mount Ainslie gives you great views across the city.
Why not start at the top of Canberra – Mount Ainslie. It’s just a short drive to the top and there’s a large carpark so you should be able to find a space.
The views are fantastic and I love that you can get a clear idea of the layout of Canberra, which was planned with a lot of detail.
The top of Mount Ainslie forms part of a central axis that goes straight through the middle of Parliament House. Two main avenues come off at angles from Parliament House to form a triangle, in which most of the main national buildings are housed.
You’ll also get a sense of how green the city is and how much the height of development is restricted in the suburbs, which protects that relaxed atmosphere.
Australian War Memorial
More than just a memorial, you’ll also find a fascinating museum.
At the bottom of Mount Ainslie, you’ll find the Australian War Memorial. It’s a shrine to those who have lost their lives fighting for their country around the world.
However, for visitors, there’s much more to it than that. The memorial is home to an incredible museum that tells the story of Australia through the sacrifice of its citizens.
Inside the museum you’ll find aircraft, a tank, and even a Japanese midget submarine that made it into Sydney Harbour during the Second World War. There are great artworks, videos and interactive displays that make the exhibits interesting for every age group.
There is some limited free parking on the street behind the War Memorial.
One of the best collections of local and international art in Australia.
The National Gallery holds the best collection of Australian art in the country. From indigenous works, to colonial masterpieces and contemporary art, it showcases the history of culture in the country. A highlight is the Sidney Nolan group of Ned Kelly paintings.
There’s a new large gallery space for the Australian art that is well-designed with lots to see. There’s also a good selection of international works that have been collected over the years, including the famous Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock.
You could easily spend a day in the gallery but give yourself about an hour and a half to walk through and get a good sense of it all. There is very limited free parking on some of the streets around the gallery, otherwise you’ll need to pay by the hour on the street or in the gallery’s own car park.
You do get two hours for free at the nearby Parliament House car park, though.
National Portrait Gallery
Each piece of art at the National Portrait Gallery has a story to tell.
Next to the National Gallery is the National Portrait Gallery, a collection of art dedicated to profiles of people. It’s a relatively new institution but has a great selection of works.
One of the best things about visiting is that you can learn a lot about Australia through the people who are featured here. There are actors, politicians, scientists, pioneers, sports stars, and business leaders.
You can see most of the works in less than an hour and it’s just a few minutes walk from the National Gallery (past the impressive High Court building).
At the heart of Australia’s democracy, the architecture is full of symbolism.
I think the highlight of a trip to Canberra is a visit to Parliament House. You get extraordinary access to the inside of the building and I don’t think there are many parliaments in the world where you would be able to wander through the main areas on your own.
The building is designed so beautifully and you’ll notice things like the main entrance hall resembling a forest gum trees.
You can go into the viewing galleries for both houses of parliament (including when the politicians are there – although you may have to wait then)
Also make sure you go up to the roof which has a grassed area. The symbolism is that the people are always more important than their representatives.
There’s a decent restaurant here if you’re in need of a bite to eat. Also, I would recommend one of the five free tours each day, which go for about 40 minutes (details on the website). The main underground car park at the front of the building is free for the first two hours, which should be enough time to see everything inside.
A collection that captures the things that make us unique.
The National Museum is outside the Parliamentary Triangle so you’ll need to drive across Lake Burley Griffin (did you know the lake is artificial and was created when the city was being planned?).
The museum has an interesting collection of items that show the history of Australia. There’s quite a large emphasis on the indigenous culture but also on the early colonial years and then some of the key moments and trends that defined the country.
Since the new building opened in 2001 and the exhibitions were expanded, the museum has attracted controversy over its thematic choices. I personally find it rather ‘traditional’ and don’t think it represents modern Australia that well. But everyone has their own opinion.
It’s definitely worth seeing and you can make up your own mind.
The main car park has hourly fees but there are a few free spaces on the service road along the lake.
A lovely idea that will gradually grow into itself.
The final place I’m going to suggest may sound a little strange – it’s the National Arboretum. What is an arboretum? Well, it’s basically a zoo for trees.
The arboretum has 94 forests within its grounds with more than 44,000 trees from 100 countries. The species of trees have been specially chosen because they are symbolic, rare or endangered. As well as the forests, there is an interesting visitors centre and a smaller discovery garden.
The National Arboretum was only opened in 2013 so many of the forests are a little disappointing because the trees are still young. But there’s still enough to see – and it will only get better each year.
It’s a lovely spot to have a walk and get a different view of the city. It’s also a nice spot for a coffee or some afternoon tea (although the cafe closes at 4pm).
Parking is free at the arboretum after 4pm, so if you do this as your final stop you won’t need to worry about that.
If you’re planning a trip to Canberra, it’s worth noting that it is possible to see all of these places in a single day.
If you choose to do that, you’ll leave the capital full of experiences and new Australian knowledge. But don’t be afraid to stay overnight and spread out your visit over a couple of days.
All of these institutions deserve a bit more time than you’ll be able to give them in single day. Plus, there’s everything else that Canberra has to offer – of which I will have much more soon!