Canberra: 10 cultural and historical gems

By Amy Middleton 19 July 2011
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For something different, take a cultural and historical tour around our nation’s capital.

MYTH WILL HAVE YOU believe that it was founded on a political agenda: creating a national capital that would be an equal distance between Sydney and Melbourne. But there is much more to Canberra than politics – from ancient fossils to a vibrant art scene and indigenous sacred places – and there is more than enough to keep any traveller busy. Here are our top 10 picks for cultural and historical places to visit:

1. ANCIENT HISTORY: Woolshed Creek Geological Monument
A timeline of Canberra’s history would logically begin at Woolshed Creek, where visitors can see 420-million-year-old fossils still intact. It was here, 5km out of the city centre, that the first Silurian fossils in Australia were discovered in the 1840s. The brachiopods visible within sedimentary grey mudstone hark back to a time when the region was submerged under shallow sea.

2. INDIGENOUS HERITAGE: Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve and Namadgi National Park

Namadgi is an Aboriginal word for the mountains southwest of Canberra. The national park contains some 400 known Aboriginal sites, including evidence that the area was inhabited during the last ice age, 20,000 years ago. Indigenous history can be absorbed in a number of Canberra’s museums, but the rock art, campsites and ceremonial stone arrangements glimpsed on a mapped walk through Namadgi offer a visceral experience of Aboriginal culture.

Mt Ginni in Namadgi National Park (Credit: Wikicommons)

3. EUROPEAN SETTLEMENT: Orroral Homestead, Namadgi
Orroral campground is a 15-minute drive from the visitor centre at Namadgi, and a good base for walking trails. A medium-level walk starts at the campground and leads through bushland and pastures to the Orroral Homestead (pictured at the top of the page). The preserved house, with its classic balcony, is one of the area’s oldest relics of early settler life, probably dating back to the 1860s. Take a picnic, and be prepared for the close company of dozens of brazen eastern grey ‘roos.

4. TOWN PLANNING: Mt Ainslie, Canberra

The story of our capital city is an Australian folklore favourite: the Sydney-Melbourne rivalry; the capital marked at a geographical compromise; and the international competition held to design the city of Canberra. The precision of the planning, by US architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, is best appreciated from the Mt Ainslie lookout. The summit, 842m above sea level, is reached by a well-trodden walking/cycling path of around 2.5km. The vista is rewarding, particularly at dusk, and showcases the impeccable lines that join Canberra’s landmarks.

5. FEDERATION: Parliament House

Connected by Anzac Parade, the old and new parliament houses are Canberra’s monuments to the Australian government. At (new) Parliament House, an angular building with a grass-covered roof, visitors can join daily guided tours through galleries lined with portraits of our past leaders, or view proceedings in the House of Representatives and the Senate, when in session. Old Parliament House, home to federal parliament until 1988, includes the Museum of Australian Democracy.

Parliament House in Canberra (Credit: Getty Images)

6. WAR TIME: The Australian War Memorial and the National Arboretum
The Australian War Memorial is unbeatable for historical homage to Australians during wartime. But for something a little different, visit the National Arboretum, where the Australian soldiers lost during the Boer War were recently commemorated by the plantation of 1000 cedar trees. The garden, northwest of the city centre, holds open days on the second Sunday of each month.

7. INDIGENOUS POLITICS: Tent Embassy, Old Parliament House

The tradition of the Tent Embassy began when four Aboriginal people took to the lawns of Old Parliament House in a stand for indigenous land rights on 26 January, 1972. The embassy remains a symbol for Aboriginal sovereignty and other political issues. At any moment, it can appear as a burnt-out shanty town, a quiet meeting place, or a boiling ground for political activism.

8. INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: The embassies of Canberra

For a more contemporary version of Australia, a drive through the suburbs of Deakin, Yarralumla and surrounds reveals scores of nations represented in Australia’s capital. Many of the embassies and high commissions are gathered here, within close proximity, and most are aesthetic wonders, displaying subtle architectural traits of their home countries.

9. ART & CULTURE: The National Gallery of Australia

Indigenous galleries, state-specific bush landscapes and the Sculpture Garden make the National Gallery one of the best showcases of the country’s artistic and cultural history. A recent installation by internationally renowned artist James Turrell even presents a new perspective of the southern sky.

10. RECENT HISTORY: The National Museum of Australia

Australian culture and history is exemplified by the National Museum on Acton Peninsula. The museum’s varied collections facilitate a timeline from indigenous history and convict antiquities right through to the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The museum’s exhibitions often pose questions of ethics, history and adversity. It’s effectively a display case for the nation of Australia.