Anyone who has stayed in a hostel has experienced the textbook conversation between two backpackers meeting for the first time. It starts with eye contact, progresses to exchanging names and on occasion, even a handshake. And then it progresses to where you come from. Sometimes it stays simple, and I can get away with a simple “Australia”, and the conversation moves on. And sometimes it doesn’t. Now and again I will be asked which part of Australia I come from and I will proudly say I’m from Canberra. And that’s when the fun begins.
People not from Australia will usually respond with “Ok, I don’t know where that is…”, to which I will usually say “Oh, it’s the capital of Australia” and savour the sheepish looks of people who always assumed it was Sydney. However, my favourite responses come from fellow Aussies. I was going through the motions of a two-backpackers-meeting-for-the-first-time conversation with another traveler in a hostel kitchen in The Philippines and, having given the magic answer, I heard an exclamation coming from the fridge behind me. “Canberra?!” said the face peering out of me from behind the door, having only tuned in to the conversation at that moment and making no effort to hide their surprise or disbelief. “Yeah” I said, “Why is that so hard to believe?”. Another notable response was the person who referred to their overnight trip to my city as a school student as the most boring few days of their lives. Sadly enough, this attitude all too common here in Australia among young people who have let a few days of politician spotting at age twelve shape their opinion of our capital. So I’m here to dispel some of those rumours and tell you a bit about the real Canberra, its people and its attractions, which have far more to offer than the rest of the country seems to think.
Firstly, people do live here! And they aren’t all politicians or government employees! Canberra is fast becoming a student town with a vibrant and interesting youth culture. The rise of several universities and higher education institutions has drawn millennials from a variety of backgrounds, states and countries to Canberra in their thousands to provide what has probably been the most vital step away from Canberra’s image as a stuffy, public service town. The last few years have seen the rise of Braddon and New Acton as eating and drinking hot spots (by our standards at least), boasting trendy bars, cafes and restaurants catering to a younger crowd. While popular street food spots like the Westside shipping container village (Vale) and The Hamlet seem to be in a constant state of flux, their success seems to indicate that Canberrans are definitely not the wet blankets we are often made out to be. The culture of the capital is rapidly changing with the addition of young students and workers, and the town is being a more lively and interesting place because of them.
Being Australia’s capital, Canberra is home to several arts and culture institutions which provide more than enough reasons to visit. The National Gallery of Australia and National Portrait Gallery are a great place to start for Australian and international art, as well as well known masterpieces like Monet’s Waterlilies. The High Court of Australia is worth a brief look for the stunning architecture and the National War Memorial provides a sobering collection of art and memorabilia from major conflicts. Despite the confusing combination of giant-sized braille, clashing colours and Luna Park-esque decorations, the National Museum of Australia is definitely highlight. As the bizarrely pleasing exterior would suggest, this is not a typical dusty, dreary museum. As you would expect, it does focus on Australia and it’s history, but presents different cultural and societal viewpoints and nearly every exhibit is interactive. Add that to regularly changing temporary exhibits and its a captivating place to spend a day.
If nature is your thing, Canberra is also a great place to be. We are conveniently placed between the snow fields and the beach, making either an easy day trip. If you don’t want to venture far though, there are plenty of national parks and reserves in the area. There are great spots for picnics, camping, hiking, and wildlife watching an hour or less from the centre of town. How many cities can boast that? There are even great walking spots close to the centre itself, with Mt. Ainslie and the National Arboretum providing stunning views of local and national landmarks. The ever popular Bridge to Bridge walk is a great way to get to know one of the city’s main attractions, Lake Burley Griffin, or even having a wander around the Australian National University (ANU) campus can be a great way to unwind. Choose a sunny day in Autumn or Spring and the seasonal colours will be more than enough reason to take a stroll.
So that’s my home town, and as you can tell, I’m very proud of it. So Australians, next time you’re shooting your mouths off about how boring Canberra is, why not come and visit? Go to a gallery, drink an amazing coffee or delicious cocktail and go for a hike! This place has changed a lot since that one time you went in grade six. And for non-Australians hearing about my city for the first time, I’m giving you the same advice. You never know, you might just fall in love.