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If you’re looking for a cultural weekend trip in Australia, you’ll find plenty of interesting things to do in Canberra, the capital of Australia.
Located between Sydney and Melbourne, Canberra makes a great drive stop on a Sydney to Melbourne road trip, or a top weekend getaway from either city.
This 3-day Canberra itinerary can be enjoyed by foot or car and includes the top places to visit in Canberra. Read on to plan your visit, or watch my YouTube video below.
Day 1 Morning Itinerary: National Museum of Australia
If you’re hoping to visit some interesting museums in Canberra, make sure you pencil in the National Museum of Australia. It’s one of my top recommended places to see in Canberra.
It’s a flat and easy 30-minute walk to the National Museum of Australia on the Acton Peninsula from Canberra city; most of it is along the edge of Lake Burley Griffin, so quite scenic.
The National Museum is huge and extremely well laid out, with clear themes and lots to read and look at. I’d allow at least two hours inside if this sounds like your sort of thing.
I didn’t think I was a museum person, but there was so much information about the European settlers and Australian wildlife, as well as Australia’s indigenous people and the stolen generation, that I found it fascinating and very moving.
The building is a work of art in itself, and there’s also a nice cafe if you want to stay for lunch. If you’ve packed a picnic you can sit and eat outside in the Garden of Australian Dreams.
Day 1 Afternoon Itinerary: Canberra Botanic Gardens
Canberra Botanic Gardens are also located on the western side of Canberra city centre, so you can walk from the National Museum of Australia to the botanic gardens in the same day.
Here you’ll find the world’s most diverse collection of Australian plants, with over 6,000 different species growing.
You can pick up a map from the visitor centre on arrival, and also visit the lovely Pollen Café if you need a refresher. The meals are on the pricier side (around $17 upwards for breakfast), but the food is lovely.
There are lots of different sections at Canberra Botanic Gardens, including eucalypt lawns, a rainforest gully, and the very vibrant Red Centre Garden. I’d give yourself at least an hour to explore.
Optional Extra Canberra Attraction: Hike up Black Mountain to Telstra Tower
Behind the Red Centre Garden is a walking track leading up Canberra’s Black Mountain (you’ll see the signs) which takes you all the way to Telstra Tower.
I didn’t realise this walk existed until I arrived, but even though I had a cold and felt a bit rubbish, I decided to drag myself up to the top since I’d walked all that way already!
The sign says it takes 1 hour 10 minutes to get to Telstra Tower from the gate, but it only took me 30 minutes there and 20 minutes back down. And I walked very slowly and stopped a lot to take photos!
It is all uphill, but only the last five or ten minutes is particularly steep. I wouldn’t fancy doing it in the summer heat, but it wasn’t too hard in winter.
It costs $7.50 to go inside Telstra Tower and up to the viewing platform, but it’s well worth it as the 360-degree views of Canberra and the surrounding countryside are amazing!
You can’t actually see much from the base of the tower as trees obscure the view, so if you’re going to hike up there you may as well go inside.
Day 2 Morning Itinerary: Australian War Memorial & Canberra Museum and Gallery
One of the top free things to do in Canberra is visit the Australian War Memorial, which was built to commemorate the sacrifice of Australian people who’d died at war.
The Australian War Memorial is only a 20-minute walk from Canberra city centre. It’s worth taking a wander down Anzac Parade too, which has lots of war monuments dotted along the edges, as well as views all the way to Parliament House.
Once again, Canberra delivered so much more than I was expecting! The Australian War Memorial is a beautiful building, and much bigger than I’d anticipated. It really is one of the best places to go in Canberra.
Inside the Australian War Memorial, you can circle around the Pool of Reflection and the Eternal Flame in the Commemorative Courtyard, as well as stroll along the poppy-laden Roll of Honour, where the names of over 102,000 Australians who died at war have been inscribed in bronze on the wall.
My favourite area was the peaceful Hall of Memory, which holds the tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier. The mosaic walls, domed ceiling and stained-glass windows are absolutely beautiful.
I had no idea the Australian War Memorial also has quite a large museum inside! The are interesting exhibitions covering Australia’s involvement in each major conflict.
If you want to look around properly I’d allow two hours at the Australian War Memorial. The large Poppy Café next to it is also lovely if you want to stay for lunch or a coffee.
Optional Extra Canberra Activity: Hike up to Mount Ainslie Summit
I didn’t have time for this, but you can do a 4km-return hike up to Mount Ainslie summit from the Australian War Memorial. Here you’ll find one of the best lookouts in Canberra, with views across to Parliament House and beyond.
Day 2 Afternoon Itinerary: Canberra Museum & Gallery
Back in the city, Canberra Museum and Gallery is a small space on the corner of London Circle and City Square that takes about half an hour to look around.
There was an amazing exhibition on called Unfinished Business when I visited, by a Sydney-based artist called Belinda Mason. It tells the stories of 30 people with disabilities from Torres Strait Islander and Australian Aboriginal communities.
You can’t tell from the picture below, but the lenticular backlit photographs actually look 3D and are really amazing to see up close.
Day 3 Morning Itinerary: Parliamentary Triangle: Parliament House, Portrait Gallery & National Gallery
If you look on a map of Canberra you’ll see the huge State Circle and Capital Circle just south of Lake Burley Griffin. In the centre of these lies Australian Parliament House.
If you’re wondering what to see in Canberra in one day, I’d add Parliament House to your day trip itinerary. It’s one of the most well known Canberra attractions.
The area directly northeast of Parliament House, bound by Commonwealth Avenue and King Avenue, is Parliamentary Triangle, (aka Parliament Zone), where you’ll find lots of interesting Canberra attractions including two art galleries.
I’d allow at least two hours in this area, or more if you want to visit Questacon or go on a Segway tour. Here are some of the things to see in Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle:
Australian Parliament House
It takes about 40 minutes to walk to Australian Parliament House from Canberra city centre. This modern-looking building is free to enter, and contains lots of information boards explaining the structure of Australian parliament and how bills are passed etc.
You can even watch Parliament in action from the public galleries in the House of Representatives and the Senate if you visit at the right time!
There’s also a café with a large terrace, and a viewing area on the roof. Most of the roof was closed for restructuring when I visited in 2018 though.
The National Science and Technology Centre, Questacon, is also located in Parliamentary Triangle. I hadn’t actually heard of this place until I passed it on the way back, but it looks like a fun way to learn about science, particularly if you have children!
Entry prices are $23 for adults, $17.50 for concessions and children between 4-16, $70 for a family of 2 adults and 3 children, and free for kids under 4.
Old Parliament House
Old Parliament House is a big, grand white building with surrounding gardens. You’ll pass it if you’re walking to Parliament House from the city. You can explore inside for a $2 donation.
National Gallery of Australia
I’d allow about an hour in Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia if you’re an art lover. It’s free to enter and has many different exhibitions on.
National Portrait Gallery
The nearby National Portrait Gallery is also free to enter, with lots of different styles of paintings to enjoy.
National Library of Australia
There are also events, guided tours and exhibitions on at the National Library of Australia, which you’ll pass before crossing the river on your way back to the city
Guided Segway Tour of Canberra
I saw lots of people on guided segway tours of Canberra with Seg Glide Ride around Parliament Zone. It looked like a fun way to explore Canberra!
Day 3 Afternoon Itinerary: Explore Canberra City Centre
If you’re looking for things to do in Canberra city centre, you’ll find plenty of shops and cafes to peruse. Head to Bunda St to look around The Canberra Centre shopping mall, which also has a Dendy Cinema inside if you fancy watching a movie.
For coffee or lunch in Canberra city, Dobinsons on Bunda St is reasonably priced and has a lovely colourful outdoor area.
Further Things to Do in Canberra
If you have more time in ACT, here are some alternative things to do in Canberra that I didn’t have time for.
- You could head down to the Royal Australian Mint and explore the sole supplier of Australia’s circulating coinage.
- To get back to nature, the Canberra National Arboretum in Weston Creek has 94 forests of rare, endangered and symbolic trees from Australia and around the world.
- With dedicated cycle lanes on its main roads as well as around Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra is a very bike-friendly city. Check out the Visit Canberra website for more details on bike hire and routes.
To find the best deals on accommodation in Canberra, have a browse on Canberra accommodation on Hotels Combined. They compare prices across the major hotel comparison sites to ensure you find the best price. Here are some of your options.
Jamala Wildlife Lodge (Canberra Zoo Hotel)
The most unique accommodation in Canberra has to be the Jamala Wildlife Lodge! These luxury lodges at the National Zoo and Aquarium include lavish king-size beds, bespoke African fixtures and decor plus premium amenities. The room rate includes all food and drinks and exclusive tours.
You can choose from three types of lodge:
- suites and rooms with a shark tank, pool, spa and gardens;
- treehouses overlooking the Molonglo River with giraffes, deer and alpaca directly outside;
- jungle bungalows looking straight out onto a variety of animal enclosures.
Crowne Plaza Canberra
With an outdoor pool, onsite gym and sauna, the 4.5* Crowne Plaza Canberra has plenty of facilities to keep you occupied when you’re not out exploring Canberra’s attractions.
The hotel is situated in the heart of Canberra, just 3km from Parliament House and the Australian War Memorial, and has an onsite restaurant and bar and even Tesla electric car charging points.
Pacific Suites Canberra
If you prefer more amenities than a hotel room has to offer, Pacific Suites Canberra has self-contained apartments, each with a full kitchen, laundry and a lounge and dining area.
You can walk to bars and restaurants in Canberra CBD from Pacific Suites, and the complex also has a pool and fitness centre.
Canberra City YHA
I stayed at Canberra City YHA, which I’d highly recommend if you’re looking for budget accommodation in Canberra. It’s centrally located and has great facilities; even a small indoor pool, spa and sauna!
Canberra YHA also has TV rooms, sofas, a decent kitchen, café, bar (yet no noise from it) and recycling bins inside the dorms, which I’ve never come across before!
The roof terrace would be great in summer. And they hold barbecues once a week so you can socialise, as well as other daily activities.
How to Get to Canberra from Sydney
Canberra is just close enough to Sydney to make it worth visiting for three or four days. The drive time from Melbourne to Canberra takes over six hours though, so it’s a bit far to go unless you’re flying or planning a longer trip.
Sydney to Canberra By Car
The distance from Sydney to Canberra is 287km along the M31, which takes about three hours to drive. Check out my guide on what to do in the Southern Highlands if you want to stop off in one of the cute country towns along the way.
If you’re on a Melbourne to Sydney road trip, you could take the inland route via Canberra instead of the coastal route, or cut up from the coast halfway along your journey. Particularly if you have a wet week ahead and can’t do much at the seaside towns.
Sydney to Canberra by Train
I travelled from Sydney to Canberra by train, as I fancied a break from driving.
A direct train from Sydney to Canberra takes just over four hours, and costs around $28 economy, or $40 first class at most times of day.
The trip has to be booked in advance on NSW TrainLink, as once the seats are all allocated they don’t sell anymore tickets (unlike in the UK where they will cram people on standing up and charge about four times this price!).
The train was full when I tried to book one day in advance, so I used my Opal card to get from Sydney to Moss Vale, which only cost about $6, and stayed in an Airbnb overnight. Then Moss Vale to Canberra the following morning took 2 hours 20 minutes and cost $15.
I couldn’t believe how great the facilities were on the train!
While it looked a bit dated inside, it had air-con, reclining seats, foot rests, fold-down tables, curtains, brochures with a bio of the staff and destination guides, net pockets for your stuff, a buffet serving hot meals and a huge amount of leg room!
Rather than ask to see your ticket the attendant comes around with a register and ticks you off! The scenery was lovely too. The picture above is a bit blurry, but there are actually about 50 kangaroos bounding across the grass!
The train station in Canberra is around 6km outside of the city, which is a bit of a pain. To get the bus to the city cross Mildura Road directly opposite the station and catch the number 80. This cost me $4.90 in cash, but it does only run once an hour.
Note that Canberra weather is very different to the weather in Sydney! While the summers are hot, the winters are much colder. It was about 13 degrees in the day when I visited in July, and often dropped below zero at night.
It was extremely sunny though, so walking around was a constant cycle of whipping off my hat, gloves and coat in the sun because I felt boiling, then quickly putting them back on again when the wind blew or it was shady!
It’s also extremely dry in Canberra, although there is a severe drought at the moment. The grass was totally brown and frazzled, and even the leaves on the trees looked dead. I’ll admit I was struck with an overwhelming urge to leave on the first day, as the grey buildings and lack of greenery looked so depressing compared to Sydney!
Canberra did grow on me though; there’s so much cultural stuff to do, and it looks quite pretty from up in the mountains. I met some great people in the YHA too.
That’s it for my recommended things to do in Canberra, Australia’s capital city. Have a great time exploring Oz, and let me know in the comments what you thought of Canberra and if you have any further recommendations!
Lisa Bull, founder of Dreaming of Down Under, has been living in Australia as a British expat since 2015. After travelling to every state and territory in Australia and living in Perth, Brisbane and Sydney, Lisa knows from first-hand experience the best destinations to visit in Australia and the best budget travel tips. Her guides on this blog have been read by over 700k readers and helped thousands of people achieve their dream of living in or travelling Australia.