Canberra: More Than Just a Capital
Australia’s capital is often overlooked by visitors to this magical land down under. Although Canberra doesn’t have the huge tourist attractions that Australia’s other major cities offer, there is plenty to see and do in the country’s capital. The relaxed atmosphere of the smaller city provides a refreshing alternative to the energetic vibe of Sydney, which is only three hours away by car.
There aren’t too many countries in the world that have created their own capital city, and Canberra’s history is only part of its charm. Canberra is situated between Melbourne and Sydney, the two cities that competed to be the country’s capital. When the site for Canberra was chosen in 1908, the rivalry came to an end. And what a lovely site it is – Canberra celebrates the outdoors. Very little of the capital resembles a city in the traditional sense; the city surrounds beautiful Lake Burley Griffin and greenery is more prominent than tall, gray buildings.
National Museum of Australia
Our first stop is the National Museum of Australia. A fascinating look into the country’s history and contemporary life, the museum deserves several hours. What I liked about this museum is that it goes beyond simple displays. There are some excellent exhibitions, including a skin of the extinct Tasmanian Thylacine Tiger. But the museum’s highlights are the stories it tells.
We sit in the Visions Theater while it spins around showing us various videos of modern Australians talking about their land, its people and history. Some of it is quite moving; other quotes make us laugh out loud. The Eternity exhibition delves into both well known and unfamiliar stories that have shaped Australia into the country it is today. Ordinary citizens, as well as the country’s more famous residents, have the chance to tell their stories here.
Before I visited Canberra, I had never stepped foot inside the Parliament buildings of any country. In Canberra, two Parliament buildings still stand; the original (Old Parliament House) and the current Parliament House, opened in 1988. We start with a tour of Old Parliament House, and although Australia is a fairly young country, its heritage shines through. A small building, guided tours take only around half an hour, and the stories the guide tells are almost more interesting that the building itself.
As we walk through the Prime Minister’s Office, the guide explains that while Chifley was in office in the late 1940’s, he’d often get calls for a butcher, whose phone number differed from his by only one digit. Instead of telling the callers they had the wrong number, he’d take down their orders and have it called in to the butcher.
The guide takes us to the red Senate room and the green House of Representatives room, and we’re left to explore on our own. The best part of the visit is undoubtedly the dress up room. And no, this is not just for children. Adult sized clothes from days gone by line the closets and beg to be worn. I put on a silver dress and hat set from the fifties and am surprised when my grandmother stares back at me from the mirror. My partner smartens himself up in a sailor’s uniform.
After leaving Old Parliament House, we cross the road to have a peek at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. The area was set up in the early 1970’s in response to the government’s rejection of Aboriginal land rights. It reminds me of pictures I’ve seen of hippies in the 1960’s. Brightly colored signs offer their protestations, a fire burns unattended and trailers and lawn chairs are scattered about.
After visiting the past, it’s time to return to the present. Eventually Old Parliament House became too crowded and plans for a new building began. Parliament House, opened in 1988, stands proudly at the top of the hill behind the original building. Built into the hilltop to preserve the original site, its roof is covered in grass. Its flat, modern façade and futuristic metal flagpole leave no doubt as to which of the two is the newer building. Inside, the differences are even more apparent. The entryway is a shiny collection of greenish marble columns, and our feet squeak on the black, white and gray marble floor.
We join another tour, highly recommended here as otherwise you won’t know what you are looking at. We start in the Great Hall and admire the 20 meter eucalypt forest tapestry that covers one of its walls. When we enter the red Senate room, I’m surprised to see definite pink undertones. We’re told that the color is derived from the eucalyptus leaf. What we don’t notice until it’s pointed out to us is that the exit signs are also red. A special bill had to be passed in order for the matching signs to be approved. The green House of Representatives is decorated in a lighter, more modern green as well. On our way out of the building, the guide points out tiny fossils encased in the marble floors. It’s a spectacular building.
Lake Burley Griffin
A trip to Canberra wouldn’t be complete without a cruise on the lake. Boats leave from Acton Ferry Terminal in Acton Park at frequent intervals. We get a different view of the Parliament buildings and The Australian War Memorial from the water. We shield ourselves from the impressive spray of the Captain Cook Memorial Water Jet and take in the aquatic life that makes the lake come alive.
We stayed at the Rex Hotel www.canberrarexhotel.com.au. The hotel is ideally situated on Northbourne Avenue near the city center. The Rex is also only a short walk from Dickson, one of the city’s premier eating locations. For more information about Canberra, visit www.australianexplorer.com/canberra.