I love Canberra. I lived there for a few years with my daughters, was part of the Human Brochure (101 humans) that Visit Canberra ran in 2014 and I discovered so many wonderful things about our capital city. It has changed so much over the past few years, the food, culture, fashion and nightlife all picked up. It’s definitely not the same as it was when I was going to high school there.
Canberra is one of those cities that once you know how to get around, it’s easy. Unfortunately, the public transport is not great so it is best to have a car. Yes, it is the city of roundabouts, but if you use them correctly, traffic flows well and you get used to it.
As a family, there is a lot to see and do for free or pretty cheap, plus most attractions consider a family to be 2 adults and 3 kids so bonus points there for larger families! Here are 10 free things to do in Canberra, followed by our top picks for paid attractions (as chosen by myself and my kids), plus some tips to save money on a trip to Canberra. Be aware, there is a parking fee for most venues now.
1.) Australian War Memorial
The Australian War Memorial has had a major overhaul and is simply incredible. It has many interactive exhibits, features portraits that are video as well as paintings has free tours and every evening there is a ceremony at dusk which will move you to tears.
Specifically for kids there is the discovery zone.
“The Discovery Zone features five environments inspired by Australia’s military history:
- a trench on the Western Front in France from the First World War
- the Australian home front during the Second World War
- an Iroquois helicopter hovering in a field in Vietnam
- an Oberon Class submarine, searching for enemy targets
- a peacekeeping mission in a war-ravaged community”
Children can climb, jump, crawl, touch and explore in all areas of the Discovery Zone. It looks, feels and even smells different to the Memorial’s other galleries. Come and experience it for yourself.
Hands-on education like this cements the experience, the history and lessons in kids minds.
Australian War Memorial
2.) The Arboretum
The Arboretum has numerous walks containing rare trees, but aside from the trees, there is a pod playground kids love, amazing views, a bonsai pavilion and discovery garden.
National Arboretum, Canberra. Photo by Travis Longmore.
3.) National Museum
The National Museum of Australia is a social history museum, meaning it focuses on the land, nation and people of Australia particularly that of Indigenous cultures and early European settlement.
Kspace is a recent addition which allows kids to create their own time travelling robot then blast off to explore a mystery location in Australia’s past. It’s a fun, educational interactive game for kids.
4.) Australian Botanic Gardens
Gorgeous gardens showing various natural habitats and even includes a red desert garden area. When designing, creating and expanding the botanical gardens, a lot of care has been taken to ensure anything brought in (such as rocks in the red desert area) are sourced sustainably. In fact, those rocks came from a quarry close to Canberra.
5.) Parliament House
Learn about our government, past and present, view an extensive art collection, witness question time and experience what our government does.
Cost: Free including their daily tours which take 40 minutes
6.) Canberra Deep Space Network
Want to know more about how Australia is involved with NASA and all thing space related? “You can take in magnificent views of the largest antenna complex in the southern hemisphere, see a piece of the Moon that’s over 3.8 billion years old, check out the latest images from across the Solar System and beyond, check out spacecraft models, plus flown space hardware and memorabilia. Discover the foods that astronauts eat on the space shuttle and space station, watch a movie on the history and future of space exploration, take a hands-on trip around the Solar System or across the galaxy, or just sit back and relax in the Moon Rock Café.” (as quoted on their site.)
7.) National Film and Sound Archive
With over 2.16million preserved works, various screenings and events, the National Film and Sound Archive has something for everyone.
8.) Lake Burley Griffin
With the National Carillion (a gift from the British containing 55 bronze bells), Blundells Cottage, Captain Cook Memorial Jet (only operates between 2pm and 4pm) and the National Capital Exhibit, there is a lot to see and do around Lake Burley Griffin. Plus it’s here you will find Boundless, Canberra’s all abilities playground which is amazing!
National Carillion, Canberra. Photo by Travis Longmore.
9.) The Royal Australian Mint
Learn about our currency, past and present, see money being made or make your own (there is a cost to make your own), go on a free guided tour, complete The Mint Treasure Hunt and see real robots in action at the Royal Australian Mint.
Cost: Free, although it is $3 to make a $1 coin.
Other places of interest that cost (and how to get them cheaper!)
Questacon is a hands-on, interactive science and technology centre with something for everyone. You can see lightning strike, touch virtually everything, take a selfie in the blue tunnel, do a freefall drop and learn so much while having fun. If you have young kids there is a section called mini Q which is popular.
Cost is $70 for a family of 5 (2A and 3C) for one visit or an annual pass for a family of 5 is $160 which has a lot of bonuses. Or free if you are a member of certain other museums.
To save money sign up to be a member of Museum Victoria for $79 and you get access to Questacon and the National Museum in Canberra, Melbourne Museum, Immigration Museum and Scienceworks in Melbourne, the Australian Museum, Australian National Maritime Museum and Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Discovery Science and Technology Centre in Bendigo, Science Centre in Brisbane and the one in Wollongong, SciTech Discovery in Perth, South Australian Museum in Adelaide and Science Alive in Christchurch NZ plus you get discounts on a bunch of other attractions in Melbourne.
2.) Merry Go Round in Petrie Plaza, Civic
A gorgeous Merry Go Round built in 1914, you can ride with your kids and experience a Merry Go Round rarely seen anymore. Situated in the heart of Civic, if you are shopping at the Canberra Centre it’s easy to get to plus you can then explore some of the statues, artwork and fountains in the centre of Canberra.
Cost: $3 per person and adults can ride too!
Tidbinbilla is a wonderful nature reserve with kangaroos, koalas, platypus, potoroos, wallaroos, possums, wombats, echidnas, emus, lyrebirds as well as many other birds and reptiles. It has various endangered species such as Northern Corroboree Frog, the Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby and Eastern Bettong, and is not only enjoyale, but also an educational experience for kids.
Cost: $11.50 for a car of up to 8, less for seniors and concession card holders.
CSIRO Discovery Centre
Offering a unique look at the CSIRO and Science in Australia, past and present, the CSIRO Discovery Centre is a popular attraction and must see for all budding scientists.
Cost: $30 per family of 5
See Canberra from all directions from Telstra Tower. Telstra tower lights up at night with different colours corresponding with things such as when local teams play (green for the Raiders, blue for the Brumbies, orange for GWS), there are two viewing platforms, a lower level and upper level, you can view from inside or out, it’s up to you.
Cost: $17 for a family of four
My kids love it the many tiny villages, exceptional sculptures and the mini train ride involved with Cockington Green. The family who established Cockington Green have put an incredible amount of time and effort into recreating villages in England, developing an International section with buildings from around the world, creating a hedge maze and ensuring a fun experience for all.
Cost: $56 for a family
Old Parliament House
Within Old Parliament House is the Museum Of Democracy where you can learn all about our governments past, plus in August 2014 they launched Play up! A super fun, interactive area for kids allowing them to dress up, play and get involved to learn about history.
Cost: $5 for families
The National Dinosaur Museum has a small collection of 23 complete skeletons and 300 fossils. To be honest, my kids find the outside and the shop to be more entertaining than the museum itself. On the lawns are a variety of dinosaur statues kids can touch and have a photo with (not climb!) plus to walk inside you go through a dinosaur’s mouth.
Cost: $45 for a family of four
National Zoo and Aquarium
With keeper talks, roaming peacocks, a combined zoo and aquarium experience, plus daily features such as dingo walks (where you can pat the dingos being walked around the zoo), penguin feed and other animal feeds it’s a fairly hands-on experience.
You can opt to get even closer to the animals by either staying on a lodge on site (which we haven’t done) or having a full on feed the animals tour where you feed the lions, tigers and other big animals.
Cost: $110 for a family of four
Canberra Walk In Aviary
Get up close and personal with over 500 birds from 60 different species. Upon admission, you are given a small plate of food to feed the birds. Some birds will fly right up and feed from your plate, right in your hands!
Cost: $38 for a family of 4
The Australian Institute of Sport allows you to go behind the scenes of where our elite athletes’ train, compare yourself to their records and challenge yourself throughout the tour.
Depending on the time you visit, Canberra has many festivals and events such as Enlighten (a light festival), Floriade (flower festival), Balloon Spectacular (hot air balloon festival), SkyFire (fireworks show set to music by a local radio station) and many more. Check what’s on when you visit.
How to save more money on your trip
– When we travel we tend to stay with friends and family or book with AirBnB as it’s usually much cheaper than the hotels.
– Get discounts on attractions through Groupon or buy an Entertainment Book from a local charity.
– Plan your trip. Many attractions are close to each other so if you plan well, you won’t need to drive back and forth. For example, Cockington Green, The Dinosaur Museum and the aviary are all located next to each other (along with Gold Creek Village and Canberra Reptile Park); Telstra Tower, the Botanical Gardens and CSIRO discovery Centre are in the same area and only an 8minute drive to the War Memorial; Parliament House, Old Parliament House and Questacon are walking distance from each other.
Canberra is a gorgeous city to visit with much more going for it than people expect. When is the last time you visited?