Yes Canberra. If you automatically think, “BORING!”, chances are you’ve never even been to Canberra, or the last time you were here was for a school excursion in the ’90s.
I was born and raised in Sydney, so I know what it’s like to look down your nose at little old CBR. But I moved here in 2010 and never left because Canberra is actually pretty awesome, especially for families. And if you don’t believe me, why don’t you come and take a look.
Here’s what I’d recommend to anyone popping in to the capital for a weekend escape.
Kick your day off with coffee from the world’s best barista
Parents of small children will want to start their day with a hot, strong, delicious coffee. Get yourself to The Cupping Room because they don’t just serve you coffee, they heal you with coffee, with coffee scented hands in a coffee coloured wonderland run by the greatest coffee man in the world. No, seriously. Owner, Sasa Sestic was crowned the 2015 World Barista Champion. For real.
Now that you’re ready to face the world, gather your tribe and head up to the National Arboretum. Fun fact: arboretum means ‘tree museum’ which is basically a forest filled with dozens of native and rare, exotic tree species.
Not only will you get the best bird’s eye view of Canberra but the Arboretum has one of the coolest playgrounds you’ll ever see. Kids enter a magical world where they’re tiny elves, clambering through giant acorns, making music in banksia pods and sliding down spiders webs. It’s otherworldly. Just make sure you rug up because when you’re playing among the clouds, you’ll cop a breeze that comes straight off the Snowies. Brrr.
When you come down off the mountain, you need to head to Questacon because no child can come to Canberra without free-falling down a six-metre slide, rocking out in a simulated earthquake or playing air hockey with a robot. It might seem like a Canberra cliché to go to Questacon but sometimes clichés exist for a reason. YOU CAN’T MISS IT.
There’s so much hands-on fun your kids won’t even realise they’re learning anything. There’s even a special area for the tiniest baby scientists, so everyone can get involved.
Lunch at Brodburger
Canberra has some of the best fine dining restaurants in the country but let’s be honest, your kids don’t care about that. They want burgers. Well, they’re in for a treat because we’ve also got the best burgers in the country. It’s a fact. Brodburger used to be a quirky food truck in a car park but they eventually had to make themselves a permanent fixture because Canberrans demanded it. It’s now co-located with the Canberra Glassworks in Kingston, just a few metres from the Old Bus Depot Markets (Sundays only). Try a beef burger with brie cheese. Please. The portions are massive, so tiny tummies might only need half.
After lunch, head north to Canberra’s cutest attraction by far, Cockington Green Gardens; a whimsical village of miniature houses, castles, landmarks and cities that kids will adore.
If you have a choo-choo fanatic in the family, make sure you pay extra to catch the mini steam train that circles the international display.
Warning: this can be a stressful afternoon if you own a toddler who’s likely to ignore the “do not touch the display” signs and go all Godzilla through the teeny English Village and swing from the top of the miniature Macchu Pichu. Even if it’s really, ridiculously funny.
If you have spare time, you might want to cross the road and check out the National Dinosaur Museum. It’s a quaint little place with lots to delight the true dino-fanatic. Make sure you take a guided tour to get the most out of the experience. Big and little kids will love the huge dinosaurs grazing in the front garden.
Dinner on Lonsdale Street
Take the family to Lonsdale Street in Braddon for dinner. It’s where all the cool kids eat. You’ll find everything from high end (read: not kid friendly) to cheap as chips and there’s always a party atmosphere at night.
OR – if it’s a beautiful day, you could head to the Canberra Southern Cross Yacht Club and have fish and chips on the grass by the water. Kids can run and scream and you don’t need to worry about them dropping food on the floor because the seagulls will take care of that. Yes, we have seagulls in Canberra. I can’t explain.
Canberra has finally learnt to make use of its waterfront and the recently developed Kingston Foreshore has plenty to offer, from hipster crates and mason jars to wingback chairs and crystal glasses. Wander along the lake and you’ll find the perfect spot to fill your bellies for the big day ahead.
Although the city has loads to offer, embrace being in the ‘bush capital’ and head down to Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve to get up close and personal with some bush babies. Kangaroos might not seem that exciting to you anymore, but kids love to see them jumping along. You could take a hike through the nature reserve and play a game of ‘spot the koala’. You might even catch a glimpse of a platypus, which is officially Australia’s cutest animal. According to me.
Tidbinbilla is a 40-minute drive south of Canberra so pack a picnic and take the whole morning to enjoy. Insider tip: Leave the apples at home unless you’re fully prepared to battle an emu. Those big-beaked freaks go nuts for apples and if they see one, they’ll run straight at you. It’s all fun and games until somebody wets their pants.
Head back to the city and take your pick of fun things to finish up the weekend
- If you have little ones, you could take them to the interactive PlayUp space at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House (my favourite building in Canberra).
- Older kids will love Kspace at the National Museum of Australia where kids design a time travelling robot and blast to a mystery location in Australia’s past.
- The Australian War Memorial has a great, hands-on display for kids and the Canberra Museum and Gallery has a special activity table and reading nook for little people. The War Memorial is Australia’s most popular tourist attraction. Yep, out of everything in the country, this is the number one – and it’s for a reason. It’s amazing.
- The whole family could take a Segway tour around the lake or risk getting wet and hire some stand-up paddle boards.
- Grab a freakshake from Patissez Cafe, ride the iconic Civic Merry-Go-Round or play mini golf at Yarralumla Play Station.
- If you’re here over summer, you could try out Big Splash Water Park or head to Dickson Aquatic Centre which has a fantastic splash park for kids. CISAC in Belconnen has a great indoor waterslide for cooler days.
- The Royal Australian Mint might sound like an odd choice but watching those coins roll off the belt is strangely hypnotic and kids will see Triton the dancing robot pouring all that sweet, sweet cash into massive drums. It’s a fun way to spend an hour or two.
If you have a bit more time on your hands, there are some activities, a bit further out that you won’t want to miss.
- Tidbinbilla Space Station – NASA’s Deep Space Communication Complex for all the aspiring astronauts out there who’d love to learn about Australia’s involvement in the exploration of space. It’s about a 45 minute drive from the city.
- Corin Forest – if you’re in Canberra during winter and you don’t want to drive the extra two hours to the snowfields in the Snowy Mountains, you can have a mini-snow experience at Corin Forest. Kids can ride their toboggans on the snow play field and beginner skiers can try their skills on the baby ski slopes. If you’re here after snow season, you can head out there to try the Alpine slide.
Where to stay
Now, I’m going on the recommendations of other people here because I’m a local which means I’ve never had a need to stay at a hotel. BUT there are a few places with great reputations for being extra family friendly.
This name pops up every time I ask for accommodation recommendations. You can book an apartment with an interconnecting room called a ‘Kids Cubby’ which is fitted out with a set of bunk beds, a kids’ play table, dining table, play rug and bean bags with an Xbox loaded with games. It has its own ensuite and kitchen nook and a DOOR you can shut, for some peace and quiet in your adult apartment. Sounds like a winner to me.
If you prefer a bit more space and a proper kitchen and laundry, Airbnb is always a good bet. I’ve been told this Airbnb in Red Hill (#swanky) is the pick of the bunch because it’s owned and run by a Canberra mum who’s gone out of her way to make it kid friendly with toys and games for little people and extra measures to make sure all dangerous bits are hidden or protected. Gotta love the mum touch.
A reader recommended this one to me because she stayed there and said it has heaps to do for kids. This is a fab budget option and from experience, a holiday park can be ideal for kids because you’re never worried about them touching things or making a mess.
Other dining options
Now, I did say Canberra is family friendly and I firmly believe this. HOWEVER, there are PLENTY of missed opportunities for family friendly dining. If there are any entrepreneurs out there looking for a business – think about a truly family friendly restaurant in Canberra. Canberra has more restaurants and cafes than any city could ever need – except when it comes to feeding kids. We are severely lacking and kids gotta eat! And I don’t just mean ‘tolerant of children’ – I mean actively encouraging kids to come and eat in your establishment. All the little extras that make families come back time and time and time again. Like play equipment, toys, colouring, space to run etc. THINK ABOUT IT PLEASE.
Don’t get me wrong, you and your kids will be welcome wherever you go, but very few will really knock your socks off with their consideration for what kids want.
The pick of the very small bunch would be: Little Oink in Cook, The Knox Made in Watson, Fox and Bow in Farrer, Tulips Cafe in Piallago, The Hellenic Club in Woden and The Southern Cross Club in Jamison.
So, there it is! There’s an awful lot to do and you’ll leave with that slightly embarrassed feeling when you realise you’ve been bagging out Canberra for so long that you’re now going to have to admit to everyone you know that it’s actually amazing and you’d love to go back again. Don’t worry, it happens to everyone.