Fun, Free, and Almost Free Things to do in Canberra

Fun things to do in Canberra, really? Australia’s capital city is full of surprises, for many international visitors the fact that Canberra and not Sydney is the capital is the first surprise but the real surprise is how much there is to see and do here.

Most Aussie kids visit Canberra on a school excursion when they are 12 years old and never go back, and that’s a shame. While the city might not be that much fun when you are being dragged around on a school trip it has a whole different appeal as an adult.

The Ngunnawal word Kanberra means “meeting place” a perfect name for a capital

Charles lived in Canberra for a while and I have visited more than 30 times in the last decade. Over that time we have watched it change, a lot! From world-class museum collections to a vibrant food and wine scene, the city hosts a range of great events and we usually leave having not completed our to-do list.

We hope this list of our favourite things to do in Canberra will encourage you to give the city a second (or first) chance and planning a weekend visit soon.

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Getting the lay of the land

National Capital Exhibition

The National Capital Exhibition tells the story of Canberra, how the city came to be, its design and its designers Walter Burley Griffin and his partner, Marion. The star of the show here is the scale model of the city that lights up as it explains the thinking behind their work.

National Capital exhibition Canberra
Scale model of Canberra National Capital

If this is your first time in Canberra, a quick visit before you head off exploring the sites can really make a difference in how you navigate the city. A few minutes of getting the lay of the land to orientate you to Canberra’s circular design is likely to mean you feel a little less confused as you take yet another roundabout!

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Explore Lake Burley Griffith

This man-made lake forms the central point of the city. It’s lovely to walk around and a great spot to sit with a book or a picnic lunch.

A walk around the lake is one of the best free things to do in Canberra
Spring by Lake Burley Griffith is hard to beat
  • Bridge to Bridge walk – a 5km waterfront walk from Commonwealth Bridge to Kings Ave Bridge
  • Australians of the Year Walk – There is one plaque for every Australian of the year since the award started in 1961. The path begins at the western end of the lake near Commonwealth Avenue Bridge.
  • Captain Cook Memorial Jet – sprays water 152m into the air. It operates daily from 11am-2pm.
  • National Carillon – 57 bronze bells that when played can be heard across the lake

You can also take a cruise if you prefer to conserve your energy.

Canberra Carillon on the lake
National Carillon features 55 bronze bells that frequently play music.

Do the Embassy Drive

International embassies in Canberra have a tradition of building their premises in an architectural style that reflects their culture.

A self-drive tour of the Yarralumla diplomatic estate is an easy way to tick them off. The drive takes in over 40 properties and will take you close to an hour. Alternatively, hunt down one that is special to you or choose one of the best known.

China and the USA are large and imposing much like their political presence but the Spirit House from Papua New Guinea and the Japanese embassies built in the traditional styles are favourites.

The Key Sites

Reconciliation Place

Pay respects to Australia’s First National people, particularly the local Ngunnawal at Reconciliation Place. Opening in 2002 the area was built to demonstrate the importance of understanding the shared history of indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

Fire and Water by Judy Watson Canberra
Fire and Water (2007) by Judy Watson

You will find the 17 artworks spread along a 1.1km walk between the National Library and the High Court.

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Telstra Tower – A view from above

Not free, but at $7.50 Telstra Tower is the cheapest observation tower we have visited. Sitting 195 meters above the city on the summit of Black Mountain the tower is a great way to keep your bearings as it’s visible from most locations across the city.

Telstra Tower Canberra
Telstra Tower on Black Mountain – Credit Bidgee / CC BY-SA

The 360-degree views are impressive and if you can time your visit for sunset you can watch the city light up for the evening.

Local tip: You can walk via a track in the National Botanic Garden and back in about 40 minutes.

Google map reference for Telstra Tower

Australian War Memorial

If you have not been to the Australian War Memorial I implore you to add a stop, even if you are not a history buff this museum is so well done and the subject matter presented in a thoughtful, respectful way, it warrants a visit to pay your respects.

Australian War Memorial Canberra Chopper
The collection includes choppers and planes.

Be led on a journey through Australia’s involvement in conflicts from the Boer War to Afghanistan. The collection includes scale models of well know battle scenes, light and sound shows, personal memorabilia of service people and their families and many uniforms, weapons and medals.

Join a free, volunteer-led tour at the Memorial. They offer three versions from a quick overview to a detailed investigation of the collection. Self-guided audio tours are also available. Be sure to finish your visit with a stroll allow the walls of Remembrance and a viewing of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Australian War Memorial Canberra
Commemorative Area looking to the Hall of Memory

We suggest attending in the afternoon so you can end your visit witnessing the very moving Last Post ceremony that begins at 4:45pm each day.

Local tip: After this head up to watch the sunset from Mount Ainslie on the hill behind the memorial if you fancy a challenge take the 2km Mount Ainslie Kokoda summit trail to get to the top. 

Those with a strong interest in military history might also like to stretch their legs on the 2.5km Anzac Memorial walk. Followed by the Military Memorial Drive that takes in 23 stops.

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Parliament House

Architecturally Parliament House is up there with the Opera House for me for inspiring architecture. They have managed to design this enormous building with no less than 4700 rooms in such a way that it fits into the natural environment without overwhelming it.

Parliament House Canberra
Cipollino marble from Italy and Atlantide Rosa marble from Portugal resemble the gum trees of the Australian bush

You can take a free 90-minute tour, and get a quick lesson in how our democracy works, coupled with the design highlights of the building. Alternatively, choose to wander at your own pace on a self-guided tour.

At 2 pm each day when parliament is sitting head to the public gallery. You can watch question time and enjoy the circus as our representatives debate the hot issues of the day.

Before you leave make sure you take in the view of the city from the rooftop terrace where you are essentially standing on the top of the hill the building sits in.

The design of Parliament House is based on the shape of two boomerangs.

Local tip: Check out the world’s largest tapestry in the Great Hall.

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National Museum of Australia

Overseas visitors can get a crash course in Aussie culture in an hour-long visit to this fabulous museum. Locals will find it a fun walk down memory lane. The exhibits are really well constructed and explore past, present and future Australia.

Australian National Museum

Local tip: Don’t miss the view of the Carillon and Lake Burley Griffith from the grounds.

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National Gallery of Australia

With a large indigenous collection in a purpose build space, this is one of the better places to learn about Aboriginal Art.

aussie flag work NGA Canberra
National Gallery Of Australia

The gardens surrounding the gallery are home to 26 sculptures, including a Rodin, and it’s a lovely spot to sit and contemplate.

Sidney Nolan’s iconic Ned Kelly series should be on your radar. Another important piece of our cultural history, Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles” currently said to be worth more than $350 million, Its purchase in 1973 caused a huge fuss.

Rodin NGA Garden Canberra
Rodin in the NGA Garden

Local tip: Try to visit the Sculpture Garden sometime between 12.30 pm and 2 pm when the mist of Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculpture magically transforms the garden.

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National Portrait Gallery

Ever wondered what Captain Cook looked like? Well, along with a likeness of the man who “discovered” Australia over 350 other portraits of the people who have shaped our country.

Located almost next door to the National Gallery this collection of interesting, famous and infamous Australian faces is one of my favourite galleries in the country.

MIdnight Oil National Portrait Gallery Canberra
Midnight Oil at the National Portrait Gallery

Local tip: The cafe here is really good, with a range of vegan options.

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Australian Institute of Sport

Sports lovers will enjoy a tour here, led by an athlete who is training here. The tour includes the main facilities and lots of details about training regimes, what the athletes eat and what a life in training is all about. There are four tours each day.

Australian Institute of Sport 2019
Tours leave from the Visitor Centre – Credit: Adigautam5 / CC BY-SA

After your tour, visit the Sportex exhibit space where you can test your athletic skills, try your hand as a professional with simulations for cycling, rowing, skiing and soccer. There is also a display of Olympics memorabilia.

This is one of the most expensive things on our list (approx $20 for adults) but we included it because we think it’s great value for money and you are supporting our future athletes.

Local tip: The shop here is a great place to grab an Aussie sporting souvenir.

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Royal Australian Mint

Learn how coins are made on a short 30-minute tour (offered 3 times a day) or you can mint your own legal $1 commemorative coin.

For 2020 the main exhibition is on the history of Gold in Australia. Entry and tours are free.

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National Film & Sound Archive

If you want to learn more about the film and television industry in Australia then a stop here might be a good addition. Over 3 million items document the sights and sounds of our history.

Recent exhibitions including one on the History of Gaming have been a big hit. Check their website to see what is currently on offer.

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Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex

This complex is run by the CSIRO on behalf of NASA, it provides support for the USA’s space missions. Along with three telecommunication dishes the centre offers a small but interesting museum, cafe and a children’s playground.

The museum collection includes an actual piece of the moon bought back by the Apollo mission, astronauts uniforms, and a replica of a Mars rover.

You will also find the original dish that transmitted the live video of the landing on the moon to the world. The dish moved here from Honeysuckle Creek. Entry is free, and tours are self-guided.

The Deep Space Centre is home to the largest antenna complex in the southern hemisphere.

Local tip: Combine your visit with a stop at nearby Tidbinbilla Nature reserve – you are bound to see a Kangaroo or two.

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Exploring the Canberra outdoors

Australian National Botanical Gardens

Gardens have become a lot more popular in the age of Instagram and this one is no different. Highlights include the Red Centre Garden, especially if you have not had the chance to visit Uluru yet.

Australian National Botanic Garden Red Centre Garden 2 1
The Red Centre Garden – Credit: Adigautam5 / CC BY-SA

The self-guided Aboriginal Plant Use Trail, an easy 1.6km walk explains how the local Ngunnawal people use native plants of the area.

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National Arboretum

The National Arboretum is home to 44,000 trees and plenty of open space to enjoy. Walk, run, ride or even drive around this enormous site and enjoy the numerous forest plantings, with some really unique plant species. See how many of the quirky sculptures you can find or head to one of the lookouts for spectacular views of the Canberra landscape.

Nest III Sculpture Canberra
Richard Moffatt’s Nest III on Dairy Farmers Hill

Two of our favourite spots were Dairy Farmers Hill, one of the finest viewpoints of the Canberra landscape you will find. We also loved walking through the Himalayan cedar forest, lovely for a nice romantic stroll.

Head to the Visitors Centre for a map and a coffee when you arrive. It also has one of the best gift shops of all the major sites in the city. The nearby Pod Playground would be a must for families, it was being enjoyed by kids of all ages on our recent visit.

Entry is free.

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Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve

Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve is home to 22 marked walking trails that range in commitment from 15 minutes to a whole day! Along the way meet the locals, koalas, emus and kangaroos. The rangers run an impressive activity program.

Entry is only $13.50 per car (less for concessions)

Splurge – Spend $150 pp on an excellent full-day tour at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve with Dharwra Aboriginal Cultural Tours.

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Mount Ainslie

Our personal favourite lookout in Canberra is Mount Ainslie, behind the War Memorial. When I used to run group tours to Canberra back in the 1990s, we always ended up here with champagne watching the sunset.

Afternoon light at Mount Ainslie Lookout Canberra
Afternoon light from Mount Ainslie Lookout

From here it feels like the city is set out at your feet and you can get an idea of the grand design Walter Burley Griffith had all those years ago.

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If you would prefer to see as much as you can in one day then these tours are both great choices.

Got a question? Head over to our Australia Travel Tips Facebook Group and ask a local.

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3 thoughts on “Fun, Free, and Almost Free Things to do in Canberra”

  1. This post brought back soooo many memories! Canberra is my Aussie hometown. I grew up there and still have family there. I’ve been to almost all these places listed – yes, some on school excursions like the mint. My BIL worked at Parliament House and gave me a tour soon after it opened, also my aunt was Speaker of the House for many years so I’ve eaten in the members dining room. Anyway enough of that. For me, one of the very best things about Canberra is the wildlife – kangaroos, wallabies, water dragons, echidna, and many species of parrots – all seen within the city. Great post. Homesick again 🙁

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