Canberra, the nation’s capital, was once considered Australia’s least exciting city, outshone by its sparkling socialite siblings, Sydney and Melbourne. Much maligned, Canberra was lambasted as being devoid of soul and not much more than a holding pen for bureaucrats and politicians. But while the rest of Australia was distracted by its own shiny reflection, and the melodramatic antics of Parliament, Canberra quietly got on with becoming cool.
So much so that the Australian capital has been named the best place in the world to live by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) multiple times – the moderators clearly under the influence of the city’s great coffee, culture and cuisine.
Canberra now boasts some of Australia’s edgiest designer hotels, groundbreaking art exhibitions and theatrical performances, without doubt, the best museum collection in the country, and more hipsters inhabiting its urban sprawl than politicos.
So what portal did all these hip and groovy things suddenly spring out of? Personally, I would hazard a guess that it’s located somewhere in the vicinity of Braddon.
Just a few minutes’ walk from the city centre, Braddon is the epicentre of Canberra’s cool. The former industrial area boasts an ever-changing shopping and foodie precinct with pop-up designer stores, ultra-cool op shops and on-trend designer fashion and homeware stores. At the heart of this hipster haven is Lonsdale Street, where along with the quirky stores, you’ll find incredible on-trend cafes and a restaurant scene that has so inspired the locals that it appears to have spawned and spread throughout the city.
Canberra’s food scene is making people sit up and take notice with cool-climate vineyards, bespoke microbreweries, edgy restaurants and bars, along with enclaves of effortlessly cool pop-up eateries and kale-obsessed cafés that would warm the heart of even the ardently hip.
In Braddon itself, you’ll find coffee roasters doing their brewing and cafes serving up sensational seasonal food with a twist. There are designer burgers at Grease Monkey, the famous ‘freakshakes™’ (ridiculously overloaded pretzel-clad milkshakes) at Patissez, Central American-style snacks and share plates at Elk & Pea, and paleo offerings at Elemental. And if you’ve worked up a thirst you’ll find everything from bespoke beers and ciders at the BentSpoke Brewing Co. to masterful martinis at Knightsbridge Penthouse.
But Braddon doesn’t have the monopoly on chic eats in Canberra. The ultra-cool NewActon precinct, alongside Lake Burley Griffin, is another innovative cultural precinct. At its heart is the award-winning pineapple-shaped Nishi building and quite possibly the hippest hotel in Australia, Ovolo Nishi. It is within its funky fold that you’ll find Monster Kitchen & Bar which is captivating Canberran tastebuds with its inventive share-plate-based menu and outstanding wine list. Močan & Green Grout is another of the precinct’s standouts serving up shared dishes inspired by world cooking traditions.
The Capitol Bar and Grill at QT Canberra is the place for a stylish supper. And A.Baker is an unusual combination of artisan bakery and wine bar that is always popular with the locals. Parlour Wine Room, Lucky’s Speakeasy and underground Black Market are also excellent spots to begin or end your evening.
Elsewhere in Canberra there is Akiba, a buzzy pop-Asian venue in Civic, that is the place to see and be seen. We also love Morks, an edgy, modern Thai restaurant that has acquired a cult-like following and the Euro-French fabulousness of Pulp Kitchen at Ainslie. Then there are the long time dining darlings including my personal favourites, Chairman & Yip, now in Barton, and the recently refurbished, two-hatted Aubergine, which just improves with age.
A little underground and quietly funky, Canberra is a young city that has brushed off its staid reputation to become the nation’s arty new cool kid, populated by people from all over the country who not only know much about art but most definitely know what they like.
The National Gallery of Australia boasts the world’s largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artworks on display as well as blockbuster international exhibitions that are enough reason to justify a visit on their own. The Canberra Museum and Gallery is home to the Foundation Collection of Sir Sidney Nolan’s paintings. From Nick Cave to Ned Kelly, the National Portrait Gallery’s collection of portraits of the great, good, and not so good Australians who have shaped the nation is another captivating space for art lovers.
But a thriving local arts scene means there’s also an abundance of contemporary culture and artistic expression on display. Some of the best galleries are Beaver Galleries, ANCA Gallery, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, M16 Artspace, and Nishi Gallery, each boasting exhibitions of world-class art and design. You’ll also find some impressive works by the city’s talented street artists in the city and in Braddon laneways and back alleys.
Canberra’s art scene transcends its galleries and is also renowned for its live arts events. When it comes to performing arts, the Canberra Theatre Centre is the capital’s creative hub, with a busy schedule of world-class local and international performances staged in the centre’s theatre, playhouse seating and studio. And if you’re looking for edgier contemporary performances, head to The Street Theatre for bold theatrical works.
Nowhere in Australia has embraced the trend for chic and unique design hotels quite like Canberra, with the National Capital boasting some of the hippest digs in the land.
Quite possibly Australia’s coolest digs, Ovolo Nishi is hipster heaven. Located in the heart of NewActon in the much-vaunted Nishi building, a structure winning design awards and praise worldwide for its eco-architecture and green design. The 68-room hotel is extraordinary, and every nook is packed with antiques and unique art.
This is a hotel that is all about design. Think concrete, corkboard, clay rendered walls and low lighting, cohabiting with comfortable soft furnishings, carefully curated artworks and surreal salvaged objects to create a warm and welcoming space.
Not far from Ovolo Nishi, you’ll find the too cool for school QT Canberra. With its artful décor, private rooftop members’ lounge, hidden bar and irreverent attitude, it’s a big hit with Canberra’s it crowd. Spacious rooms are kitted out in designer style with free WiFi, Malin+Goetz amenities, a Nespresso machine to keep you caffeinated for those all-important back-room deals, along with all the mod cons a savvy wheeler and dealer could desire. There is even a gentleman’s barbershop, where fashionably hirsute gentlemen can coif their manly beards and dapper ‘dos.
East Hotel, within easy reach of the city’s most fashionable neighbourhoods, is another slick boutique hotel, with funky art-driven décor and a welcoming European vibe. The atrium-style lobby is a thing of funky beauty with its fleet of pushbikes for guests, media bench and jars of old school lollies. Rooms are loaded up with the latest technology and the hotel even manages to make travelling with kids appear hip, with its two-bedroom apartments that interconnect with a ‘kids cubby’ complete with bunk beds, an Xbox 360 and beanbags. When it’s time to dine, join the throngs at the hotel’s hip new restaurant, Agostinis, with its pink neon, leopard print and sublime North Italian cuisine, or pop into neighbouring Joe’s Bar for rosé on tap.
Canberra’s wildest accommodation has to be Jamala Wildlife Lodge. Here, you can sleep with a cheetah or bathe alongside a bear in one of five ultra-luxurious African-themed bungalows that front enclosures at Canberra’s National Zoo and Aquarium. If you like your accommodation with bite, Ushaka Lodge offers seven luxurious rooms, a shark tank and a private pool and spa. And if it’s loftier heights of luxury you seek, one of the giraffe treehouses, where guests can feed Giraffes direct from their balcony, should do the trick. Don’t miss the excellent African-inspired fine dining in The Cave, where you’ll dine alongside lions, safely separated by glass, of course.
Qantas offers regular flights to Canberra from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide and it is just a 3.5-hour drive from Sydney or eight hours from Melbourne. qantas.com.au
Find out more: visitcanberra.com.au
Photography by various establishments.