Australia / Travel

Canberra: The Strangest Capital City in the World

Last year I wrote a post called São Paulo: The Concrete Jungle With Nothing to Do. Well we hadn’t been to Canberra at that point, and Canberra is ten times worse. Canberra is Australia’s capital, it has the national parliament, several national museums and galleries and it is still a damp squib. We managed to fill a day going to several of these museums, which were interesting enough when we were inside, but then we were only left disappointed again when we walked back outside into the bitter winter air and realised we were still in Canberra.

You can’t get around without a car, as everything is really spread out. Usually in cities if it’s a bit of a hike we just suck it up, as there’s bound to be something interesting to see on the way. In Canberra, there is not. There are large expanses of nothingness in between the few tourist attractions. Canberra sometimes looks quite pleasant in photos as there’s a lot of green space, which is good in a city, but there’s so much space in Canberra that it makes it very difficult to get around. It has huge four lane motorway-type roads running through the middle and pavements with no people on. It’s a city that’s been clinically designed and planned with the expectation that one day people will realise it’s the place to be and they’ll finally need the huge roads to accommodate all the new Canberrans (although I think they should be called Canberries). Maybe in 10 years time it’ll be really different, but at the moment it’s a city populated solely by politicians and civil servants, and school children on their compulsory trip to the capital.

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We managed to pack in all the main attractions (that we could find) into one and a half days, and then by that point I was ready to leave. On the day we arrived, once we’d found our hostel and dumped our bags, we decided to visit the Australian War Memorial. It was very moving and the adjoining museum was really well done and gave us a new, Australian perspective on the World Wars. We stayed until closing time to catch the Last Post, the daily memorial service where school children lay wreaths and bugles and bagpipes are played. It’s impressive that the ceremony happens every day, and the place was pretty full. Once it had finished, and we were all frozen to the bone, we headed back to the hostel to have dinner and plan our next day’s activities.

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The next day was our only full day in Canberra, so we thought we’d make the most of it. We visited the National Portrait Gallery, the Australia Museum, the National Parliament building, walked down a road of a variety of embassies (Papua New Guinea and China have gone all out with their buildings, probably the most interesting buildings in the whole of Canberra!) and a fleeting visit to the National Gallery (which had a mini Angel of the North outside). The National Portrait Gallery was my particular favourite, not only did it have portraits of famous Australians that I knew, like Nick Cave, but it also had an excellent portrait of the year exhibition on. The parliament building was very bizarre, and because we were there during election time, all the politicians were spread around the country campaigning, so the building was also strangely empty, like the rest of the city in fact. I sent a photo of the building to my family and my cousin described it as ‘sinister’ and my Mum thought it looked like a ‘villains desert hideaway’ – so it wasn’t just me that thought it was weird!

We’d had a jam packed few days in Canberra, but I think any longer and we wouldn’t have had anything else to do. There were hardly any cafes or restaurants or shops, or anything with any character, in fact. I’m glad we visited Canberra, even if it is just because it’s one of the weirdest places I’ve ever been. However, I won’t be rushing back any time soon, in case you hadn’t already guessed.

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