What if you could combine the vibrancy of a city with the rugged charm of a rustic town, and the orderliness of one of the best places in the world to live? Turns out you could, as Canberra, a city built in the heart of the Australian outback, proves.
Canberra, the national capital of Australia, is emerging as a bona fide holiday hotspot for those seeking greener vacation pastures Down Under. Here, you will find an established centre of culture complete with museums and galleries, and a thriving culinary scene that celebrates great food and wine.
The country’s wild side is also easy to get to. Nestled between mountain ranges, Canberra can be a base to explore the pristine region, where unrestrained wilderness and abundant wildlife beckon.
And all these are within easy reach, thanks to Singapore Airlines’ new Capital Express service between Singapore and Canberra. The national carrier is the first airline to operate regularly scheduled international services to and from Canberra, and travellers can look forward to four weekly flights.
Here are six must-dos when you get there.
1. Go up, up, and gently away
Lift your vacation to dizzying heights with a sunrise hot-air balloon ride that lets you take in the city from your basket. Feel the breeze in your hair as celebrated monuments below you give way to nature reserves, green corridors, lakes, rivers, bushland, hills, and mountains.
Canberra is the only city in the world that does not place restrictions on hot-air balloons flying above key landmarks, such as the city’s impressive Parliament House.
For even more dazzling sights, visit Canberra in March, when ballooners from all over the world descend on the city for the Canberra Balloon Spectacular (free entry). Over nine mornings, colourful hot-air balloons take to the sky en masse from the grounds of Old Parliament House, and glide over the city’s most iconic attractions.
2. Be where the wild things are
In outdoorsy Canberra, opt for luxury accommodation with pedigree at the National Zoo & Aquarium’s Jamala Wildlife Lodge, the first of its kind in Australia. The lodge’s 18 glass-panelled bungalows, set in open animal enclosures, offer guests full immersion into nature.
Feed a giraffe from your balcony, or wake to tigers at your bedside, separated just by a glass wall. Who has time for creature comforts when you can have close encounters with big cats, giraffes, lemurs and hyenas "in" your living room? Also worth your time: Nature programmes such as behind-the-scene tours that help you and your family appreciate the zoo’s wildlife conservation efforts.
3. Get an award-winning caffeine fix
Here’s a good reason to make a stop at Canberra’s central business district (or Civic, as the locals call it): Seriously good coffee at The Cupping Room, the holy grail of the city’s coffee scene and a great perk up for visitors.
Drink in the meaning of what "cupping" in the cafe’s name really means, which is java speak for the formal, multi-step process of tasting, judging and comparing coffee. The Cupping Room has perfected this art, thanks to its barista Sasa Sestic. Mr Sestic is the winner of the 2015 World Barista Championship.
Then, there is the food — delicious, fresh and Instagram-worthy. Certainly worth braving the queue for.
4. Dine Australian
Food is a source of local pride in this burgeoning culinary destination, and exploring Canberra through its recipes, dishes and wines is one of life’s biggest joys.
If you are planning to feast your way through the city’s edible riches, start at the 28-hectare Pialligo Estate Farmhouse on the banks of the scenic Molonglo River. Located minutes away by car from the airport and parliamentary district, the fertile grounds of this bucolic food-and-wine sanctuary has been farmed since the 1820s. Today, it comprises gems such as an olive grove, vineyard, orchard and market garden.
The Pialligo Smokehouse, in particular, is the jewel in the estate’s crown. Its dry-cured and smoked shortcut rashers picked up the Australia’s Best Artisan Bacon prize at the Australian Bacon Awards in 2014 and 2015. Taste them at the Pialligo Estate’s Farmhouse Restaurant, another celebrated establishment on the estate.
Food enthusiasts come for the restaurant’s award-winning paddock-to-plate fare, which showcases Pialligo’s rustic flavours and produce, as well as for the opportunity to dine with sweeping views of the verdant landscape.
5. Answer the call of Canberra's wine region
And where there is great food, you can be sure that there is great wine. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the hunt for shiraz viognier, riesling or other local varietals because a day trip to Canberra’s famed wine district will let you sip on the pleasures of the city.
The premium wine growing region, a 35-minute drive from the city, is home to rolling hills, vineyards and over 30 boutique cellar doors — the Aussie winemakers’ term for tasting rooms — that are perfect for sampling the region’s wonderful wines.
Wine-region attractions, such as the area’s excellent restaurants, also call to visitors. A noteworthy one is Poachers Pantry in the Murrumbateman area. This iconic establishment offers a chance for an unforgettable brunch in the countryside, complete with tasting wines, smoked meats and charcuterie from the Poachers Pantry smokehouse.
6. Be acquainted with the national icons
Australia’s capital of cool promises new cultural highlights every week, and visiting Canberra’s numerous national attractions is an easy way to soak up the country’s heritage.
Start your cultural excursion at the National Gallery of Australia (free entry), where you can see the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection and pieces from Australia’s most celebrated artists all in one day.
Gain an understanding of Australian history and the price the country has paid for peace at the Australian War Memorial (free entry), a Byzantine Revival-style monument that pays tribute to the nation’s fallen troops.
Another must-see: The National Museum of Australia (free entry), which showcases the richness of Australia’s heritage and culture. Its impressive collections present a remarkably detailed story of Australia — from its indigenous past to the conversations that drive the country today.