Many Australians cringe when it comes to Canberra. Vast, soulless boulevards, bland expanses of concrete formed into cavernous government buildings, and a complete dearth of character all spring to mind – not to mention troupes of diplomats pushing paper around as a raison d’être. Ask others and they will recall countless school trips to the city’s institutions; Parliament House, the Australia War Memorial, the High Court, Telstra Tower, Lake Burley Griffin, the Questacon. However just a few weeks ago the national capital celebrated its 100th birthday, and the young, pretty-if-austere lady that is Canberra seems to finally be coming of age. Don’t get us wrong – it still has quite some way to go before its cafe scene rivals that of a major metropolitan city like Melbourne or Sydney. But this trip was a weekend filled without the sights and attractions, and instead full of coffee, food, drives, shops and the high life. A true weekend away – a weekend about nothing.
Canberra was originally designed to fill a space halfway between rivals Melbourne and Sydney, however owing to the topographical realities of the Great Dividing Range, Canberra is in fact significantly closer to the harbour city than it is the bayside city. We left Melbourne late in the afternoon, with the intention of reaching Canberra before midnight. Unfortunately, due to heavy traffic on the Hume Highway, we were delayed and as a result we were still on the outskirts of Melbourne at 6pm. After another six hours along the Hume Highway, we turned off on to the Barton Highway at Yass to make our final drive into the nation’s capital. The city was still busy, being the night before a long weekend, with party-goers spilling out of the CBD onto Northbourne Avenue. We met some friends who we would stay with for the weekend, but there are plenty of hotels and a couple of budget options in the city centre to suit all budgets.
The next morning, we woke and took a drive around the city. The city is clean and pristine, not in a creepy, whiter-than-white way, but as a postcard-like gleaming autumn morning. Despite the cool night owing to Canberra’s altitude, the day becomes warm quickly, and we drove towards the excellent Fyshwick Fresh Food Market which serves as an outlet for all things gourmet (and a few things not). The Middle Eastern section is especially tempting, with our friend picking up a paper bag of warm, salted macadamia nuts. Meanwhile, I perused a Mediterranean produce delicatessen, brimming with all sorts of cheese, olives and oils. A greengrocer in the corner appears to be bursting at the seams with fruit and vegetables of a vivid spectrum. A small Asian supermarket contains all sorts of goodies, including an array of sinful sweeter-than-sweet lollies imported from the USA. There, for the first time since my childhood, I found a box of the toothache-inducing Wonka’s Runts (like oversized Nerds). Further around the horseshoe-shaped market is a seafood stall, butchery, and a coffee shop decorated with edible European products for sale. As we left, I thought to myself that the Fyshwick market is the type of place where real shopping is done – where seasonal, and quality goods are in abundance, and shopping lists make way for the joy of impulse purchasing.
The next day we woke early to enjoy breakfast at the impressive Urban Pantry in the posh, green suburb of Manuka. The inventive breakfast offerings at Urban Pantry include cinnamon toast with whipped coconut butter and maple, sweetcorn and zucchini fritters with rocket, or avocado, tomato salsa and sour cream. I opted for the buckwheat pancakes topped with spinach, smoked salmon, dill and crème fraîche; the resulting dish was a wholesome, meal perfectly balanced with salt, savoury and richness. Urban Pantry is one of several places in Canberra which are bringing a whole new level of cool to the capital’s cafe culture. I was impressed by the indoor-outdoor industrial-chic setting, not least of all for the relaxed ambiance which was a great way to wake up. On the way out, I spotted a blueberry, lemon and ricotta muffin which I couldn’t say no to – I packed it for later. We then made tracks into the compact city centre for some shopping in the expanded Canberra Centre, complete with several big name outlets. After our retail outing, we were breezing back to our lodging along one of Canberra’s leafy and traffic-free lakeside parkways, when it hit me – the sun had been shining nearly the whole time we had been in the city. In fact, Canberra enjoys more hours of sunshine on average than either Sydney or the Gold Coast, both famed for their climates.
That night we ate at a no-muss no-fuss Malaysian Chinese spot in Manuka, not far from Urban Pantry, called Timmy’s Kitchen. The tiny dining room, boxed in on three sides by glass walls, was abuzz with the aromas of delicious curries and noodle and rice dishes. We ordered the nyonya curry chicken from the specials menu, sizzling prawns with snow peas, and Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce, along with a special fried rice with salted fish. All dishes could be shared. The nyonya curry was the last dish to be served, and was rich, spicy and boldly fragrant. The next morning it was time to leave and make the long trip back along the Great Dividing Range to Melbourne. Our last meal was to be at Me and Mrs Jones, which appears to be closely affiliated with, if not owned by Urban Pantry. There, we tucked into ‘Smashing Persian’, a zingy composition of sourdough bread topped with poached eggs and Persian feta smashed together with avocado. To top it all off was the indulgent cafe mocha, which I had missed at Urban Pantry the day before, but is made the same way in both places – with real melted chocolate to stir in. Simply heaven.
Many people reading this must be wondering what the point was – to go somewhere and not see any of the sights, just eat, sleep and leave. However there is something special, celebratory about doing that in a place which you thought you knew, but really didn’t. Of course, there are the museums to be seen (including the National Museum, which comes highly recommended), but chances are you would have seen them before. Canberra is only a couple of hours from Sydney, and an easy long weekend from Melbourne. The climate is agreeable, traffic remarkably light, the scenery pretty and the food options diverse. Whenever I spend long enough away from Canberra, I also become dismissive of Australia’s sleepy capital city. And then I remember it’s probably time I made another trip there to challenge that opinion
When to go
Autumn in Canberra is brilliant, and spring sees the flower festival Floriade, but any time of year will do. Summers can get hot however, while winters are chilly.
Advice and warnings
Despite Canberra is a very safe city, although it is easy to get lost on the roads owing to the circle-and-hexagon city layout. GPS and a great amount of awareness is highly recommended. Security procedures apply when approaching some government buildings.
Check the British Foreign Office for more comprehensive warnings.
Pakistanis and Indians need a visa to enter Australia. Pakistanis must pay PKR 11,700, and applications take 4 to 6 weeks to process. From India, applications cost INR 6600 and take at least 15 working days. Contact your nearest Australian diplomatic mission for details (Islamabad, New Delhi).
Getting there and around
From Sydney, Canberra is a three hour drive along the dual-carriageway Hume Highway, then Federal Highway.
From Melbourne, Canberra is a seven hour drive along the dual-carriageway Hume Highway, then the single-carriageway Barton Highway. Alternatively, Virgin Australia fly several times daily for around $260 return.
From Lahore, Emirates and fly to Sydney from PKR 149,777 return. From Sydney, Emirates’ partner airline Qantas has frequent connections to Canberra. Enquire at an Emirates office about package options.
From Chennai, Singapore Airlines and its partner Virgin Australia fly to Canberra via Singapore and Sydney. Flights cost from INR 75,626 return