Canberra is a city of considered architecture and green parks, alongside wild and free patches of native vegetation. Its population is similarly varied –neat politicians and business-folk clustered with the young and creative. It makes for an interesting cultural duality: the old and new, traditional and rogue. Here are some of the places traversing the divide.
A mainstay of the newly vibrant NewActon precinct on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin, this incredibly dapper 68-room hotel is the culmination of 30-odd design teams working together. Every aspect of Hotel Hotel has been considered. Restored twentieth-century and artisan-made furniture, linen robes, in-room Aesop products; water glasses handmade from re-purposed wine bottles and mini bars stocked with local beer, wine and cider are just a few of its pleasant surprises.
Similar to its striking geometric foyer, the hotel’s rooms are colourful and textural, filled with original artworks and well-considered comforts such as electronic block-out blinds.
Downstairs, Monster Kitchen and Bar serves locally sourced, seasonally focused food from 6.30am to 1am. If you can muster the will to leave your room, access to NewActon-made Goodspeed bicycles and regular yoga classes is on the house.
Even if you’re not staying there, the cultural pocket housing Hotel Hotel is worth visiting in its own right. NewActon is ideal for gallery-browsing, sitting in the garden, and eating more than your fair-share of great local food.
Everything about the newly fashioned precinct is beautifully designed. It’s based on the grounds of a late-1920s temporary housing facility, which was built for newly arrived employees of the capital. These buildings – some of the oldest in Canberra –remain, alongside more contemporary spaces to accommodate a mix of businesses, services, government and entertainment.
The built-up elements are hedged by three community gardens full of olive, citrus and stonefruit trees, impressive veggie patches and sprawling old oak trees. There’s also lawn space and park benches which make it a natural gathering spot for locals and tourists alike.
Canberra is full of galleries worth your time, and Nishi Gallery is one of the newest. The Kendall Lane venue hosts around 17 exhibitions per year, showing mostly Canberra-based artists with the occasional interstate attraction. On the food front, there’s bakery bistro A. Baker (with a hidden bar in the basement); homemade pizza-and-pasta restaurant Bicicletta; Max Brenner for the sweet of tooth; and Parlour Wine Room for the evening. Palace Electric cinema is based at the back of Hotel Hotel, and the precinct regularly plays host to food, film and art festivals.
Bisonhome is a Canberra-based ceramic homewares brand, opened in 1997 by creative director Brian Tunks. Influenced by his background in archaeology and ancient history, Tunks makes simple, pared-back pieces that have become familiar on the tables of many Canberra cafes and restaurants.
“Canberran's have encouraged and followed me through Bison’s changes from a small pottery to a design company with global reach,” says Tunks. “I like to think our place in this city serves as a mirror for how we see our own emerging cultural identity.”
Tunks’ flagship store was established in 2002, where he was making everything by hand up until 2012. He’s since begun outsourcing the making of the products, but remains heavily involved in the design and prototyping processes, working with artisans in Indonesia, Thailand, India and the Philippines to trial shapes, colours and finishes.
Rather than releasing along with the seasons, Bisonhome maintains a staple range of signature shapes in hues of soft-grey and milk, with the occasional new collection a variation on Bison’s much-loved existing collection.
The store on Beltana Road, Pialligo, is close to the airport and surrounded by orchards, garden centres, cafes and a winery – a peaceful glimpse of ‘old Canberra’ jostling with the new.
“Canberra has evolved rapidly over the past few years but I can trace that back probably about a decade,” says Tunks. “We are seeing the emergence of a 'capital identity' – a city with people proud of the architecture, design, food, culture and retail offerings that accompany that change.”
Set within the heritage-listed walls of the Kingston Powerhouse, Canberra Glassworks is the only cultural centre in the country dedicated to glassmaking. For artists or dabblers, it’s a place to rent equipment or even nab a fellowship or studio residency.
You can walk around the viewing deck watching artists blow their creations into shape, or perhaps catch an experimental trial of fitting glass-lettering with neon lights. You can also try your own hand at making paperweights or tumblers in one of the short workshops. Longer courses are available and visiting professionals often teach specialised sessions.
For the architecturally minded visitor, it’s also a chance to experience the oldest public building in Canberra. The unofficial art tour of Canberra continues here too, with a couple of outdoor sculptures, and an internal gallery, which hosts exhibitions for glass artists.
National Gallery of Australia
It’s possible you’ve been tempted to make a trip to Canberra in the past, specifically for one of the NGA’s blockbuster exhibitions. Last year, it was the James Turrell retrospective; this year, it’s Versailles: Treasures from the Palace. Opening December 9, it’s the first time the paintings, tapestries, furniture and objects of the palace will travel outside of France.
Drawcard exhibitions aside, the NGA is a worthy spot to while away the hours. Among its permanent exhibitions is the world’s largest collection of Indigenous Australian art. The first floor is dedicated entirely to Australian, Aboriginal and Islander artworks; divided into eras, demonstrating the progression of storytelling and circumstance throughout time.
The second floor has international artworks including pieces by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Roy Lichtenstein and David Hockney. Contemporary works can be found on the lower ground level, while the outdoors has an impressive sculpture garden featuring works by the likes of Auguste Rodin and James Turrell. If you time your visit between 12.30pm and 2pm, you’ll stumble into the mystical environment of Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculpture, which adapts to nature’s patterns each day.
The gallery also hosts regular musical performances, children’s programs, talks and workshops, and the National Portrait Gallery is next-door should you feel eager to absorb more impressive works.
Lonsdale Street Traders
When Lonsdale Street Traders opened in 2013, it was set in a disused tyre warehouse. The raw character of the building’s ageing shell drew in a range of small, independent retailers and designers filling pop-up shops with vegan sweets and handmade clothing. These days, the market has a slicker feel, as the old warehouse was replaced with the six-storey, origami-like architecture of the Ori building.
A few of the original pop-ups remain in the arcade. Longstanding clothing boutique itrip iskip is there, along with homewares and gift stores Handsomepretty and Hive. Rebel Muse stocks clothing by mid- to high-end Australian labels, and has recently opened footwear boutique Peachy Keen.
At Groomed, gents can gander at dapper clothing and accessories before settling in for a cut and shave. Timber & Tailor stocks homewares, jewellery, furniture, skincare and linen from independent Australian makers, while Braddon Tailors designs made-to-measure garments for men and women. Should you need a treat to recharge, Canberra’s Willy Wonka-esqe gelateria Frugii Dessert Laboratory is also based inside, or you can pop next-door to Barrio Coffee Collective for your post-shop caffeine fix.