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With mountains, rivers, lakes and bushland all within its compact boundaries, it’s easy to see how the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) came to be known as Australia’s ‘Bush Capital’. At the territory’s heart sits the cosmopolitan city of Canberra, a well-planned, leafy city with enough cultural cachet to match Australia’s larger metropolises, alongside the laid-back feel of a regional centre. Sightseeing opportunities abound within the city limits – including several world-class museums – but there’s also plenty to see and do in the wider ACT as well. Whether it’s bushwalking and kangaroo-spotting in the nearby wildernesses of Namadgi National Park and Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, sipping superb shiraz at one of the many local wineries, or window-shopping in the quaint towns of Hall or Bungendore, you’ll find plenty to occupy yourself among the hills and plains of this quintessential Australian region.
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This Australian national art collection is showcased in an impressive purpose-built gallery within the parliamentary precinct. You can justifiably bypass the ticketed exhibitions as almost every big name you could think of from Australian and international art, past and present, is represented in the permanent collection. Famous works include Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock, one of Monet's Waterlilies, a Hockney Diver, several of Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly paintings, Salvador Dali's Lobster Telephone, an Andy Warhol Elvis print and a triptych by Francis Bacon.
On the lower slopes of Black Mountain, these sprawling gardens showcase Australian floral diversity over 35 hectares of cultivated garden and 50 hectares of remnant bushland. Various themed routes are marked out, with the best introduction being the main path (45 minutes return), which takes in the eucalypt lawn, rock garden, rainforest gully and Sydney Region garden. A 3.2km bushland nature trail leads to the garden's higher reaches. On weekends and summer school holidays, you can take the Flora Explorer (adult/child $8/5, 45 minutes) at 10.30am or 1.30pm.
Occupying a flash, purpose-built building, this wonderful gallery is a striking representation of Australia's shifting self-image and a must-see for art and history lovers. From wax cameos of Indigenous Australians to colonial portraits of the nation's founding families, to Howard Arkley's DayGlo portrait of musician Nick Cave and a host of modern Australian icons portrayed in various mediums, the gallery is an inspiring account of a nation's many faces. Only around 10% of the collection of more than 3500 works is on display at any one time, so there's always something different to see. New portraits of contemporary Australian figures are also commissioned every year.
Every morning you'll see politicians running off the night before around this majestic lake and perhaps a few journos hot on their trail. This constructed lake was created in 1963 when the 33m-high Scrivener Dam was erected on the Molonglo River. It's lined with important institutions and monuments, including the National Carillon and Captain Cook Memorial Water Jet. You can cycle the entire 28km perimeter in two hours or walk it in seven. Alternatively, you can make a smaller 'loop' by making use of the two bridges – the popular central loop is 5km and can be walked in one to 1½ hours.
Namadgi is the Ngunnawal word for the mountains southwest of Canberra, and this national park includes eight of those peaks higher than 1700m. It offers good bushwalking, mountain biking, fishing and horse riding, along with the opportunity to view Aboriginal rock art. Make camping bookings online (per person $6 to $10) or at the visitor centre, 2km south of Tharwa.
Canberra's glorious art-deco war memorial is a highlight in a city filled with interesting architecture. Built to commemorate 'the war to end all wars', it opened its doors in 1941 when the next world war was already well underway. Each section depicts Australia's involvement in significant conflicts, including telling displays on recent battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. Attached to the memorial is a large, exceptionally well-designed museum devoted to the nation's military history. Try to time your visit for the Last Post and accompanying ceremony each day just before closing.
Built in 1988, Australia's national parliament building is a graceful and deeply symbolic piece of architecture. Sitting atop Capital Hill, the building is crossed by two axes, north–south and east–west, representing the historical progression and legislative progression of Australian democracy. There's plenty to see inside, whether the politicians are haranguing each other in the chambers or not.
Less than an hour’s drive from Canberra, this nature park is a key habitat for some of Australia’s best-known animals: kangaroos, koalas and emus. A predator-protected sanctuary is your best chance to spot these critters in the wild. The breeding program at the park also includes the rare brush-tailed rock wallaby and the colourful corroboree tree frog. The visitor centre offers walks and self-guided exploration.
As well as telling Australia's national story, this museum hosts blockbuster touring exhibitions (admission prices vary), which often outpoint the permanent collection by some margin. Highlights include the Gallery of First Australians, which explains the history and traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the Garden of Australian Dreams, an interactive outdoor exhibition. One way to get the best out of the museum is to take a one-hour guided tour (adult/child $15/10, 10am, 1pm and 3pm daily). The views from the cafe and the surrounding grassy banks are very pleasant.
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