How to Explore Canberra Like a Local When You've Already Seen the Touristy Sights
There's more to the capital than museums, memorials and monuments.
HOW TO EXPLORE CANBERRA LIKE A LOCAL WHEN YOU'VE ALREADY SEEN THE TOURISTY SIGHTS
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There's more to the capital than museums, memorials and monuments.
Like most major cities, there are some well-known must-dos when you visit Canberra for the first time. The Australian War Memorial? Check. The National Gallery of Australia? Obviously. A paddleboat on Lake Burley Griffin? Of course. But once all those major attractions are ticked off the list, what's next?
Well, there is more to Canberra than meets the eye. The capital is teeming with hidden gems — think social enterprise cafes, farmers markets and teeny tiny galleries — that locals love to frequent on their days off. And now you can, too. Make the most of your next Canberra adventure with this list of lesser-known spots.
Please stay up to date with the latest ACT Government health advice regarding COVID-19.
If you were to write a list of spaces you’d never expect to find an art gallery, a laundry would probably make the cut. But in the leafy suburb of Watson, that’s exactly what you’ll find. The Gallery of Small Things is the smallest dedicated art space in Canberra, clocking in at just six square metres.
That, however, does not limit its potential to support local and international artists across a variety of mediums. The gallery, led by director Anne Masters, houses exhibitions of (mostly small-scale) ceramics, textiles, paintings, jewellery and print media and also offers workshops for emerging artists, focusing on growing their careers in the industry.
Image: Mel Hill
While we’re talking miniatures, it’s impossible to disregard Cockington Green Gardens. This detailed miniature village is housed in one of the most impeccably kept gardens in the region. The picturesque foliage surrounds a series of tiny buildings, including a castle, revolving windmill and the creme-de-la-creme of dolls houses. There’s definitely something to delight all kids, both big and little.
Also not to be missed is a ride on the miniature train through the gardens — a motorised version of an old-fashioned steam train that winds its way through the idyllic scenery.
Between 2017 and 2020, social enterprise Cafe Stepping Stone was considered one of the best brunch spots in the Colombian city of Cartagena. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Aussie owners Vanessa Brettell and Hannah Costello were forced to close up shop and return home. In July 2020, the duo reopened Cafe Stepping Stone on home turf within the grounds of Strathnairn Arts. Here, Cafe Stepping Stone continues its social mission by working with Canberra Refugee Support, Ginninderry’s SPARK program and other organisations to employ female refugees of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
The Holt cafe aims to be as sustainable as possible by sourcing locally grown produce for its 100-percent vegetarian menu — it’s aiming to source 80 percent of ingredients from within a 450-kilometre radius by 2022. Stop by to feast on something from the ever-changing menu — think chipotle tofu tacos, a green reuben, potato masala toastie and house-made caradomom carrot cake. There is also a delightful selection of coffees, teas, kombucha and fresh juices.
Okay, we admit the National Arboretum may not exactly be a well-kept local secret. The 250-hectare site has long been known as a living museum for rare trees. However, within this immense, sprawling mosaic of natural wonders, there are many different features and exhibitions well worth taking a wander through.
Of particular interest is the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection. It features a wide range of beautiful Japanese miniature trees that are carefully maintained alongside a dry river bed and rocks to resemble mountains. It’s a place of peace, tranquility and beauty.
A singular dining experience in Canberra, a spot in Pilot’s 22-seat dining room is one of the most sought-after in the capital. The focus here is getting back to the basics — and then levelling them up. Menus change quite regularly and are never posted online so as to add to the mystique of the restaurant, though you can often get a sneak peek at a dish or two on Instagram.
Our pick for the ultimate Pilot experience is the seven-course degustation for $130 per person. Expect a wide range of textures and flavours that dance the line between nostalgia and experimentation. There is a wine and spirits list available but, since you’ve come all this way, you may as well sign up for the full pairing for an additional $90 per person. Bookings are essential due to the limited capacity and most dietary requirements can be catered for with 24 hours notice.
Image: Lean Timms
Set within the leafy surroundings of Canberra’s charming Haig Park, this bustling farmers market operates every Sunday from 9am–2pm. Here, it’s all about championing regional farmers and suppliers, who provide high-quality fresh produce at reasonable prices.
The stalls cover a wide range of products including baked goods, sweet treats, fresh fruit and veg and much more. You can also browse a range of arts and crafts by locals makers, while enjoying performances and live music. Swing by to pick up some great local produce while contributing to a supportive and encouraging community.
Just 45 minutes from Canberra’s CBD is the stunning Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. With over 100 hectares of varying habitats, Tidbinbilla plays an important role in conservation and houses all manner of native wildlife, including wallabies, emus, koalas and platypuses.
There are many ways to spend your time in the reserve, from strolling the 2.1-kilometre Sanctuary pathway through wetlands to conquering one of the 22 different walking trails. Our recommendation would be the Koala Path, a short 700-metre loop that’ll guarantee ample sights of the iconic fuzzy, grey tree-dwellers. A great option for kids due to its relatively short distance and easy-to-spot creatures, the Koala Path is practical and easy to finish on any trip to the sanctuary.
Described on its website as “a meeting place for the lowbrow art community”, this Braddon store stocks all manner of products with a left-of-centre edge. The general vibe is streetwear with a strong focus on skate and graffiti culture. Stop by to browse clothing, jewellery, accessories, art supplies, books, zines and toys from smaller independent brands like MTN Australia, Salty Reign and Grass Fires.
If you’re a fledgling designer or just want something super specific, there is a custom screen printing service on-site, too, with no minimum runs.
Taking its name from a traditional method of hand-moulding pottery over open flames, this stylish little joint led by Head Chef Hao Chen is known for its innovative Japanese fare.
You have the option to dine from the extensive a la carte menu that’s divided by style. Start with otoro tartare with salmon roe, lumpfish caviar and shortbread tartlet and six-hour braised wagyu brisket with saikyo miso cream. The popcorn shrimp tempura with yuzu, chilli and garlic mayo is a must-order, as is Alaskan black cod with saikyo miso and pickled cauliflower. If you want to leave the decision-making up to the experts (you’re on holidays, after all), there are three set menus on offer, including an express lunch option that gets you six courses for just $45 per person.
Discover more experiences to have in Canberra at VisitCanberra and start planning your next city break.
Top image: Raku Dining