August 8, 2017
There's something about being in a city that simultaneously has everything and nothing to prove.
What we mean by this is whereas Sydney, bless its heart, constantly feels the pressure to compete as a major player as one of the world’s biggest cities (‘our fireworks are the biggest!’, ‘our restaurants are the swankiest!’, ‘our zoo has the best view!’), Canberra benefits from hiding a little away from the limelight.
Things might be on a smaller scale but by Lord they seem to happen better. And while Sydney will always have our hearts, there’s a little somethin’ somethin’ about how Canberra runs things that sparks our curiosity.
Here’s what we mean…
Major cities such as Sydney have had to evolve and stretch to accommodate its population, resulting in a hodge-podge of suburbs connected by zagging roadways and frustrating traffic.
Getting to and from one end of the city to another can become more of a migration than quick visit. It’s not uncommon for worn-out locals to spot the Harbour Bridge and think “oh right, I forgot, this town is really beautiful.”
However, driving into Canberra, especially from the South Coast, is a journey to be cherished. Kings Highway winds through Budawang and Bimberamala National Parks and weaves through tall Blue Gum Eucalyptus forests and soaring escarpment views that peek through the gaps in the trees.
As you get closer to the city the forest gives way to burned-yellow fields dotted with fluffy white sheep that lazily graze beside giant grey incongruent boulders, possibly leftovers from some millennia-old explosion when the Earth was still carving itself up.
Canberra was famously city-planned to a meticulous degree (as recently as 1912 by Walter and Marion Griffin). Everything from the mosaic of road grids that connect the suburbs, right down to the lake that skirts the National Gallery of Australia were committee considered.
This obviously makes it incredibly easy to get around. This is a place where a traffic jam consists of waiting 30 seconds for your turn at a roundabout and you can get from one end of the city to the other in around 11 minutes — we timed it.
The overall effect of this is every jaunt across town becomes as much about the journey as the destination.
Seriously, this place is home to beautiful highway scenery that acts as the perfect backdrop to your favourite driving playlist.
Whereas Sydney boasts a choice of suburbs that bring their own brand of spice to the city (Newtown for vegetarian, Marrickville for Vietnamese etc), Canberra’s distilled its myriad cultures into easy-access ‘hoods, such as Braddon.
What used to be a rough and tumble haven for industrial warehouses and car lovers throwing burnouts on the weekend, this is now a chic hood where new developments are happening every day and in the meantime you have The Hamlet, a community of shipping containers and food-trucks where you can slurp on a pho soup, hog down a gourmet hot dog or cue up a spicy quesadilla.
Canberrans know that there’s little to be gained from trying to replicate the big city buzz of Sydney and Melbourne. So rather than trying to do everything, they simply take pleasure in doing a few select things very very well.
And luckily for travellers, Canberra’s obsession du jour is all about food, wine and the arts.
Opened 2 years ago, this micro-winery turned eatery has taken great efforts to slip itself into the landscape, dotting mini-huts around the immaculately kept orchards, herb gardens and historic trees. It seems assessing the dusty landscape and putting your own spin on it is what the city does best.
Meanwhile Ovolo Nishi and the entire NewActon district invokes the spirit of modern Canberra. A celebration of nature and human creativity, this streamlined art hotel makes you feel like you’re splitting time living inside the brain of a Salvador Dali or giant cosy cigar box made of lemongrass and Hinoki wood.
Every respectable hotel needs an eatery but that’s as close as Ovolo Nishi gets to tradition. Monster Kitchen and Bar is as ambitious as it is quirky, acting as a lounge/restaurant hybrid that serves up local ingredients in ingenious ways.
In keeping with Ovolo Nishi's penchant for Japanese flavours, there’s plenty of nori and katsuobushi on the menu but it’s been infused with influences from the middle east and fresher than fresh local produce.
Canberrans know that first-time visitors arrive not quite sure what to expect so it can feel like the favourite local pastime is blowing everyone’s collective minds with how modern and ahead of the curve the city truly is.
For instance... Internet is everywhere.
Much like sharks, who can sniff out a molecule of blood in the open seas, we consider ourselves the ultimate Wi-Fi sleuths when we’re on the road. If it means standing on our car roof, holding our phones in the air, so be it.
So you can imagine how refreshing it is to visit a place that understands and places a value on the power of community connectivity.
Canberra does not mess around when it comes to connectivity. Here you can literally feel the CBRfree Wi-Fi drifting through the air, providing superfast (by Australian standards) information to anyone who wants it.
It’s a mammoth initiative but nothing says 21st century city like being able to Instagram your breakfast in-real time without needing to awkwardly ask the waiter for the Wi-Fi code.
Welcome to the future!
Funnily enough, despite being the literal home of Australian politics and legislation, the people of Canberra boast the kind of civic freedoms that Sydney-siders can only dream about.
Especially when it comes to the controversial lock-out laws (which restricts patrons from entering a venue after 1.30am).
While the draconian hand of the NSW government has slammed down hard and fast on Sydney’s legendary nightlife culture, the ACT opted for a more velvet gloved approach to managing nightlife crowds.
Smaller bars had their licence-fees lowered and the amount of red tape reduced to encourage new cafes and eateries to pop up and inject even more
What this means that if you’re a partygoer you can frolic from Monster Kitchen and Bar for dinner to cocktails at Knightsbridge Penthouse for cocktails, dance your head off at Academy and then kick on until the morning at Treehouse.
No questions asked (except maybe, “don’t you have work tomorrow?”)
Not too shabby for a city surrounded by cows and sheep.
Looking for just a straight up guide on what to do when you get to Canberra? Read Canberra: A Weekend Guide for the Curious and the Dubious.
Humans are multifaceted and sometimes you might need the tonic of wildness, other times you just want to lay in a hotel bathtub. Citizens of the World (COTW) AKA Meghan & Dominic Loneragan covers both. The COTW travel experiences are unique, authentic and beyond the traditional tourist tracks... but aren't afraid of a little R&R in between.