Last updated: January 16, 2022
We have listed the top 15 things to do in Canberra and surrounds, from world class museums and monuments, to scenic lookouts and gardens.
When it comes to exploring Australia, Canberra usually isn’t at the top of the bucket list. Even when it is a destination (and not just a stopover to the snow), it’s often a box-ticking exercise. Capital of Australia? Done. Parliament house? Done. Get lost on a giant roundabout? Done.
But if you can park your doubts for a second, you may find that Canberra has a few surprises up its sleeve. The museums and monuments that you saw as a kid on your designated school trip may come to life now that you are a little older and wiser.
There are also lots of new spots around the block that show a touch of vibrancy and edge to this city. By the end of your visit, you might even begin to see Canberra as a metropolis, and not just a big old country town.
Top 15 Canberra Attractions and Activities
In no particular order, here is our top 15 things to see and do in Canberra and surrounds.
1. Australian War Memorial
Topping this list of Canberra tourist attractions is the Australian War Memorial, both a museum and a national memorial to commemorate the sacrifice of those Australians who have died in war or on operational service.
The upper level is home to the Roll of Honour, which records the names of all the Australian soldiers who sacrificed their lives defending our country in conflicts worldwide.
The Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier represents all those unnamed people who have given their lives in war, and is a moving place to take a moment and reflect.
The lower levels are where the actual museum is located. Here you will be taken on an immersive journey into Australia’s involvement in war, from World War I all the way to today’s conflicts. You will be impressed by the sheer size of the collection, and the stories you will find along the way.
Official website with visitor information: Australian War Memorial.
2. Parliament House
A visit to Canberra isn’t complete without a visit to Parliament House. Take a guided tour through Australia’s halls of power, including the House of Representatives and the Senate Chamber.
With an educated guide beside you, you will learn about our political system, how important laws are passed, and other fascinating stories from our political history. The building itself is a striking piece of architecture, and you can learn about the vision behind the design and the vast collection of artworks that adorn its walls.
Official website with visitor information: Parliament House.
3. National Zoo & Aquarium
Conveniently packaged together in the same location, the National Zoo & Aquarium Canberra is a stone’s throw from the city centre.
There are over 200 animals on site, and a great variety of hands-on experiences you can choose from. Depending on the amount of time you have, you can spend a quick 15 minutes with your favourite animal, or join an all-day tour alongside a zookeeper, visiting enclosures and feeding animals from cute meerkats to big bears.
If you feel like going all out, spend a night or two at the Jamala Wildlife Lodge. A luxury safari experience in the heart of Canberra, you can get up close and personal with some of the zoo’s most exotic creatures. Feed a curious giraffe off the balcony of your suite, or lock eyes through the glass with a lion as you sip chardonnay from your king-size bed.
Official website with visitor information: National Zoo & Aquarium.
4. The Royal Australian Mint
If you love seeing how things are made, then it makes “cents” that you would enjoy the Royal Australian Mint. Puns aside, it is genuinely an interesting place to visit, and a fully functional factory where all Australian currency is made.
Here you will learn about the history of the Australian dollar. From the first settlers and the gold rush, all the way to pioneering the making of polymer banknotes, Australia’s currency has a colourful history.
From above the factory floor, you can see coins being made in real-time, from the making of the dies, to the final coins being packed ready for circulation. If you are really lucky you might get to see Titan Robot in action too.
On your way out via the gift shop, don’t forget to pick up something for your collection, or print your very own dollar coin!
Official website with visitor information: The Royal Australian Mint.
5. Mount Ainslie Lookout
The Mount Ainslie Lookout is an excellent starting point when you first arrive in Australia’s capital Canberra.
Drive up to the top and get your first real look at the city, looking straight down Anzac Parade from the Australian War Memorial to the Old Parliament House.
From up there you will get a real feel for the original vision for the city, as imagined by architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marie Mahony Griffin who won the first competition to design the bush capital.
There are walking tracks all over Mount Ainslie, and mountain biking tracks too if you are feeling really adventurous. One of the main tracks will take you all the way down to the Australian War Memorial, and is a nice steep hike on the way back up if you feel like a good workout.
Official website with visitor information: Mount Ainslie Lookout.
6. National Museum of Australia
From a distance, the National Museum of Australia could easily be mistaken for an art gallery or a theme park. With its striking facade, the entire museum looks like a giant artwork, with a big roller-coaster in the middle.
The exhibitions are regularly updated, but the overall theme is about capturing highlights and key points in history that have helped to create the Australian identity that exists today. From Captain Cook to the Holden car, from Broome to Bundaberg, the exhibitions in the National Museum cast a broad net across Australian culture.
If you are looking for a museum with an inclusive view of Australian history, this one is hard to beat. There is a strong focus on the experience of Indigenous Australians, from the first arrival of European settlers to the present day. Integrated into the architecture of the museum itself are numerous indigenous artworks that are highly interactive.
When you are done exploring the museum, we recommend taking a coffee break at the museum cafe, with an outdoor courtyard and views stretching out over Lake Burley Griffin.
Official website with visitor information: National Museum of Australia.
7. Old Parliament House
Old Parliament House was the home of the federal parliament in Australia from 1927 all the way up to 1988, before they transitioned to the current Parliament House.
Back in its hey-day, it was a small nearly self-sufficient village, with its own post office, barber, bars, and a dining room. Today it is home to the Museum of Australian Democracy, as it is considered the birthplace for many of Australia’s modern democratic policies.
The building was designed by the first Commonwealth Government Architect, John Smith Murdoch, and most of the original chambers for the House of Representatives and the Senate have been kept in pristine condition.
If you want to take a deep dive into Australia’s political history, this is a great place to visit. Its detailed and fascinating exhibitions reveal how we achieved many of the democratic freedoms we take for granted today.
Official website with visitor information: Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.
8. National Gallery of Australia
The National Gallery of Australia is a world-class art gallery. It regularly features large international exhibitions, with artworks from galleries such as the National Gallery in London. Its facilities have played host to artworks from many iconic artists, such as Matisse, Picasso, and Monet.
Its permanent collection combines renowned Australian artists and international stars, such as Yayoi Kusama.
Other unique places you will encounter on your visit include the Sculpture Garden, the Fern Garden, and the James Turrell Skyspace. These are all part of the permanent landscape of the gallery.
Official website with visitor information: National Gallery of Australia.
If you have a curious mind or know someone who never stops asking questions, Questacon is a fun place to indulge your inner geek.
There are over 200 science exhibits designed for all ages, including shows and interactive experiments.
Unlike a lot of other science museums, Questacon is designed to be really engaging for kids, and where every exhibit is designed to have fun first and learn along the way.
Located in the heart of the museum district in front of Old Parliament House, this is a must-see tourist attraction if you are visiting Canberra with the kids.
Official website with visitor information: Questacon.
10. Australian National Botanic Gardens
The Australian National Botanic Gardens make a great day out for the whole family. Nestled at the foot of Black Mountain, you will find over 4,300 species of plants here in the gardens. There are six main walking tracks through the area, which claims to have the most diverse range of Australian native plants in the world.
The Visitor Centre should be your first stop, and it is the start of the main path through the gardens. There are free one-hour tours with a volunteer guide at 11am and 2pm daily if you would like the company, otherwise, it is a very easy place to navigate by yourself.
The range of spaces means you can never get bored. Some highlights we recommend are the refreshing valley of the Rainforest Gully, the waterfall in the Rock Garden, and the bright colours of the Red Centre Garden. If you are feeling very adventurous, you can even take the Summit Walk up to Telstra Tower at the top of Black Mountain.
After all that exploring you will need a bite to eat and a place to relax. Luckily right next to the car park you will find a cafe, and even a spa if you are keen for a massage. Don’t forget to stop by the bookshop too to pick up a gift on your way home.
Official website with visitor information: Australian National Botanic Gardens.
11. National Library of Australia
The National Library is an imposing building, and it’s one of the easiest to spot in the parliamentary district where most of Canberra’s museums are located. But once you get a bit closer, you will find it is a nice tranquil spot to learn more about our nation’s history.
The historical collections in the library are vast and diverse, from the diaries of Banjo Patterson to the Sydney Olympic Torch. You will find the best highlights from the library’s permanent collection in the Treasures Gallery.
Take a library tour to get the full experience. You will learn about the art and the architecture of the building and get to see behind the scenes at the more curious collections and the library team hard at work.
The Exhibition Gallery is where you will see the latest temporary exhibitions, ranging from photography, art, and historical curiosities from Australia and around the world.
Official website with visitor information: National Library of Australia.
12. National Arboretum Canberra
The National Arboretum is an unusual and fascinating tourist attraction.
It is unique to Canberra because it was included in the initial city plans by Walter Burley Griffin and Marie Mahoney Griffin. But after 7 years dealing with the local government, they gave up and many features of their original design never came to life.
Generations later, the creative couple’s vision for the city is slowly coming back to life, and the Arboretum is an engaging piece of the puzzle. It is essentially a park with various types of trees planted in orderly spots, like a scientific collection of plants on a big scale. Planted on a hillside with scenic terraces overlooking Lake Burley Griffin, you can see the cityscape from the various lookouts.
If you are up for a walk, you can stroll over to the Margaret Whitlam Pavilion for a different view of the city. Or you can go up the hill to the Dairy Farmers Hill Lookout, where you can look down on the sweeping Forest of Remembrance on the opposite side.
Official website with visitor information: National Arboretum Canberra.
13. Lake Burley Griffin
Did you know that Lake Burley Griffin is a completely man-made lake? It’s a centrepiece of the city, but it was part of the original design. It creates a refreshing sea change in the middle of the bush capital, and many of the major museums are located along its foreshore, including the National Museum of Australia, the National Gallery, Questacon, and various others.
There is plenty to do on and around the lake, including easy walking and cycling paths. A popular route is the 5 km “bridge to bridge” walk, between Commonwealth Bridge and Kings Avenue Bridge. There are various spots where you can go kayaking, rowing, or stand-up paddling if being on the water is more your thing.
One of the most remarkable sights in Lake Burley Griffin is the Captain Cook Memorial Jet, a powerful water fountain that sends water more than 150 metres into the air. The water is pumped from the lake, and is spit into the air with an exit velocity of 260 km per hour.
Another unique highlight along Lake Burley Griffin is the National Carillon. From the outside, this looks like another of the many monuments you will find around Canberra, but it’s actually a musical instrument. It was a gift from the British Government to the people of Australia to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the nation’s capital.
Official website with visitor information: Lake Burley Griffin.
14. National Portrait Gallery
If the National Gallery didn’t have quite enough art to satisfy you, take a short walk down the street past the High Court of Australia to find the National Portrait Gallery.
The idea of a national collection of portraits was originally suggested by the famous Australian painter Tom Roberts in the early 20th century. He encouraged the government to keep a “painted record” of prominent figures in Australian culture at the time.
But it wasn’t until 1992 that the first major portrait collection was exhibited and toured Australia, inspired by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. Several years later in 1999 a permanent collection was established in a section of Old Parliament House, until finally in 2008 the standalone gallery building was opened to the public.
Here you can experience portraiture in every shape and style, from painting to photography and sculpture. From famous faces to the everyday subjects, portraits capture our imagination and the human experience in a way that is unique to this specific artform.
Official website with visitor information: National Portrait Gallery.
15. Telstra Tower
Telstra tower is a bit of a retro icon of Canberra, but it has some of the best panoramic views of the city. Built on Black Mountain, Canberra’s other big summit, it was built in the 1980s as a fully functional telecommunications tower, but also as a tourist attraction.
The Tower includes a 360-degree viewing platform, a cafe, and conference rooms for hire. And while most people just come for the views, the tower still contributes to Canberra’s growing communications network.
Black Mountain has plenty of other areas to explore besides the tower too. There are various walking tracks throughout Black Mountain Nature Reserve, including one that will take you all the way from Telstra Tower back down to the Botanic Gardens.
You can check out Black Mountain Lookout on the way up or down, where you can see different sides of the city from multiple viewing platforms.
Please note that the Telstra Tower was closed off to the public in 2021 with currently no concrete plans for a reopening.
I live in Canberra (which is why I follow Sydney Uncovered, because we go there a lot), and your 15 things to do in Canberra are the main things I would rate highly too, for both visitors and residents. If you want to do a supplement I can tell you some low key but very Canberra things, that might be really nice for Sydney city kids, like where you can always find kangaroos in groups of 20-60, munching the grass and sitting about scratching themselves any time of the day or week and only about 3 kms from Civic, and 1 km from The Lodge. Things that are so easy to access in a city of 500k rather than 4m people. Canberra’s plentiful parks and bushland within the city has been an absolute pleasure and godsend for so many of us during the restrictions.
So glad you liked, and agreed with, our list of Canberra highlights, Margaret. And thanks so much for sharing valuable insider tips. The more ideas and tips from locals, the better!