“I have planned an ideal city,” declared Sir Walter Burley Griffin in 1912 when he won the chance to design the new Australian capital, Canberra. Little more than a century on, one of the world’s most-planned cities also puts the “fun” in functional. Alive with green spaces and native wildlife, impressive restaurants, bars and world-class galleries, COVID-safe Canberra holds its own when compared to other culture capitals and is just a breezy three-hour drive from Sydney. Vote one to this pretty and charming city.
An advantage of a Sydney-Canberra road trip is the seamless detour to the criminally underrated Southern Highlands wine region. Cherry Tree Hill Wines is a quick turn off the Hume Highway and home to one of NSW’s best Rieslings, with a picturesque cellar door to nibble on cheese, local pies or spring vegetable ravioli while you work your way through the tastings. Lerida Estate is just 30 minutes from Canberra and has a splendid cellar door of cool climate drops including pinot noir, shiraz and chardonnay.
Sydney and Melbourne regularly battle over, well, just about everything, including which city makes the best coffee. But in the middle, Canberra has become the quiet achiever for the bean counters keeping score. Lonsdale St Roasters and The Cupping Room are among the best.
Inside the Melbourne Building in Civic, you could be forgiven for thinking the wooden door leading to speakeasy cocktail bar Molly will spit you out in the heart of Fitzroy or Flinders Lane. But this cosy and snugly down-to-earth space, with dozens of whiskeys to choose from to warm your throat on a cold capital evening, is testament that Canberra is no longer simply the “meeting point” of the brasher Sydney or Melbourne. Its delicious and delightful spirit is all its own.
Socially distanced sittings of Parliament mean plenty of accommodation bargains. But if you want to splurge, there is no better choice than the Park Hyatt Canberra. No detail or luxurious touch is skimped on here. The rooms are large, with sweeping bay windows looking out onto manicured gardens, plush king beds and soaking bathtubs. On Saturday afternoon, relax into one of their overstuffed chairs in the plush lobby area with a champagne and picture-perfect afternoon tea stands delivered straight to the table.
Barton’s Kurrajong Hotel is a great base, within easy distance to the parliamentary triangle and the main attractions. It was the preferred residence of Prime Minister Ben Chifley in the 1940s and today maintains a charming and bygone-era feel across its 150 heritage rooms and terraces.
If the Kurrajong and Hyatt evoke Canberra’s years as a pretty-yet-quaint outpost, glamorous QT announces the city’s arrival as a cool destination. The boutique hotel is right in the heart of NewActon, surrounded by buzzy restaurant-cum-bars.
As the name indicates, rooms in The Little National Hotel can be on the petite side but it’s a favourite with fly-in, fly-out MPs and staffers for a reason. The owners know how to master the basics that every holiday (and policy) maker looks for: a comfortable bed to sink into and a top-notch shower (a must as morning temperatures in Canberra can still hover in the single digits in spring). Pull up the blinds in the morning and let the crisp sunshine streaming over the sheets be a treat for your well-rested eyes.
Restaurant and wine bar Rebel Rebel packs plenty of flavour into its industrial space in trendy NewActon, on the edge of the city centre. It is rare for garlic bread to be the standout dish of a meal but reserve judgment until you try their charred ciabatta lathered with a punchy Piedmontese spread of anchovy and dark garlic, and scattered with a few wild garlic flower petals. Other highlights include kingfish cured with blood orange and fennel, and dusted with dried olive (pictured), washed down perfectly with one of their signature negronis. If you miss out on a table for dinner, this deliciously all-purpose venue is also open for lunch every day, as well as weekend breakfast.
Morning Glory is another must in NewActon. You might ask, “What’s the story with their breakfast pasta?” but it is well worth the early morning carb kick. Options include carbonara tossed with 65C egg yolk and pork cheek, or the equally decadent tomato-drenched gnocchi with chorizo, manchego and topped with a runny fried egg.
Aubergine is regularly voted the best restaurant in Canberra. Menus change frequently but the dedication to balancing salty, sharp and delicate ingredients is evergreen. As an example: an umami journey through a five-course set menu that begins with a parmesan fritter paired with cured pork neck, into velvety wagyu flank with burnt onion, and ending with a refreshing black sesame, coconut and mandarin dessert, ideal after such an array of rich dishes.
Italian and Sons is a local favourite, a prime spot for parliamentarians to refuel ahead of a testy question time session and the benchmark for Italian dining in the city. Tuck into hand-rolled pici with wild boar ragu or squid ink cavatelli but don’t forget to save room for the tiramisu.