A couple of years ago, on the way back to Sydney from hiking Mt Kosciuszko, I stopped off for a few hours in Canberra city’s northern fringe neighbourhood of Braddon. Colourful design shops, a food truck yard, a plant-hanging, white-tiled coffee roastery overflowing with a less-pretentious hipster crowd than I was used to. I flicked through a guide to Noted, a writers’ festival “with an explicit commitment to emerging and experimental writing from diverse backgrounds”, which had been on the weekend before. What is this? The capital come cool? In the past I’d seen Canberra through the lens of school excursions to Parliament House (and the wide-eyed Science fun of Questacon – I couldn’t deny it that). But this was like the concrete had cracked and out had grown poppies. I was itching to come back and see if they had spread through town.
So I did. Inspired by an eco design hotel, and a weekend where a lights festival and a hot air ballooning one meet, we packed up the car and steered southwest out of Sydney. A detour via the small town gem Some Cafe in Collector was the perfect pit stop, and after another quick halt at the eerily dry Lake George, we continued on our way into the nation’s capital.
Lake George, just on the outskirts of Canberra (but technically in New South Wales) is mainly dry. This is due to evaporation, as the Lake does not stream into any other bodies of water. It was named Weereewa by the Ngunnawal people (and evidence suggests they were active here 60,000 years ago) and then named Lake George by Governor Macquarie in 1820 after the then King of England. It is thought to be over a million years old.
Bike spin around Lake Burley Griffin
After checking into the wondrous Hotel Hotel, we took advantage of their free fixie bikes and pedaled off for a lap around Lake Burley Griffith. We took the Central Loop, also known as the ‘Bridge to Bridge’ track, which is 4.9kms and swings past some of the iconic Canberra sites, like the Parliamentary Triangle (feat. the National Portrait Gallery, National Library of Australia and the Old Parliament House to name a few), which was getting busy due to the Enlighten Festival.
Seeing this buzz inspired us to get a move on so we could get back to try out the delights (culinary and artistic) of the event, but not before stopping to have a lakeside chill and refreshment.
The Enlighten Festival is to Canberra what Vivid is to Sydney – a festival of lights, performances, exhibitions and installations, and some mighty fine food at the on-site Night Noodle Markets. The Parliamentary Triangle area became a bit of a fantasy-land, with the installation Cloud on arrival made up of 6,000 ‘re-purposed and incandescent light bulbs with pull chain switches’, an illuminated LED butterflies display called On the Wings of Freedom, as well as roaming performance artists like those representing three Fallen Angels and umbrella-clad Cloud Men circling the precinct.
Canberra’s iconic buildings like Questacon, the National Portrait Gallery (where there was a neat photo installation that projected a rotation of images of visitors onto the gallery facade – pretty popular with the selfie generation), The National Library of Australia and more had lit images moving across them to the delight of onlookers. We also witnessed the circus fire spectacular and tucked into some tasty treats from the Night Noodle Markets, which was similar food stalls to the recent Chinese New Year Lunar Markets – so, basically we went straight for the yakisoba again! Next year’s Enlighten Canberra is set for 2-11 March, so put it in the diary now.
Breakfast: Močan & Green Grout
A short stroll from Hotel Hotel, this cafe can be summed up by its opposing qualities – top notch food and really shit service. One waiter pointed us towards a four seat table, another grumbled at us for heading to a four seat table, they forgot our coffee order as well, but overall treated us with general disdain. On the other hand, the baked eggs, chargrilled eggplant, harissa and Meredith chevre ($17) dish was breakfast perfection and the Welsh rarebit with a fried egg ($12) also quite monumentally pleased the tastebuds, so the whole wait staff let-down was a shame.
Telstra Tower, Black Mountain
Not usually one to include telecommunications buildings on my list of must-see locations, I still don’t hesitate to recommend winding up Black Mountain for some of the best views of Canberra and the surrounding countryside. Blessed with a mild, sunny day (and the loan of a friend’s season pass into the vicinity – it’s usually only $7.50 for an adult though), we ascended the 195.2m needle to the viewing platform and were gifted a panoramic outlook over the Australian Capital Territory.
Dinner at Akiba, Civic
I pretty much want Japanese food most days, so when a local friend recommended Akiba, he had me at ‘Ja…’ (which is “yes” somewhere, amiright)?!
As much as I love my Japanese beers, I also adore tasty liquids with yuzu and plum wine and sake, so opted for a ‘Geisha’s Kiss’ of plum wine, sake and a hint of rose. We also sampled the ‘Akipop’ of blueberry and lime and made it ‘BOOM’ with the addition of Kakubin Whisky. This just made the fat bill from our indulgent ordering a little easier to swallow later. While I complained about the service in this post at Močan & Green Grout, I am here to tell you that Akiba had some of the best service I’ve experienced in some time – our lovely server had the warmth and honesty of a friend and even cheekily sat with us to explain the dishes, genuinely keen to help us find the dishes to suit our mood and Phil’s vegetarianism.
We ate sweetcorn pancake with chilli caramel and togarashi, agedashi fried tofu, miso dengaku eggplant (one of my faves!), and roast carrot with miso, yuzu and sesame. All. So. Delicious. We were basically lucky to get a seat – the greatness of this place does not go unnoticed, so large groups of happy Canberrites (?) spilled out onto the sidewalk benches.
Canberra Balloon Spectacular
The timing of this trip to our capital can be reduced to a desire to witness a sky full of floating, colourful, canvas balloons, all bobbing in unison on the horizon. So, we woke before dawn on our first morning (and believe me, it was not easy drawing down the comfy covers of our dreamy Hotel Hotel bed), jumped on the complimentary fixie bikes, and pedaled through the chilly Canberra pre-dawn to the lawn of Parliament House.
What we weren’t expecting was how many curious folk came for this first morning of the Canberra Balloon Spectacular as well. There were excited families with kids watching intently as the huge canvasses were being laid on the lawn. And then as some gas tanks were fired up, making the whooshing sound of a heavy air pressure escape, the crowd darted between the different balloons, trying to glimpse the one that was being inflated first or the fastest or to catch the dialogue of a hot air balloon pilot explaining what was actually going on to expand such a huge contraption. It was fascinating to watch.
Quite few of the balloons were used for commercial flights, many were personally owned, which I found surprising. The balloons were supposed to be airborne from between 6:15am and 7am, but it became apparent that lots were inflating without any taking off. We were alerted eventually that there was too much fog, and as many of the balloons had already fired off lots of their gas tanks, they wouldn’t be able to make their flights even if it cleared now. We unfortunately weren’t able to witness a sky full of eclectic, drifting hot air balloons, but decided that we still had a great morning just witnessing what was still a strange, spectacular event. It’s on again 10-18 March 2018.
Riding off into the misty morning, we could see over Lake Burley Griffin that there was indeed not much to see in the fog (apart from a few hardy paddleboarders!).
Lonsdale Street and around, BRADDON
You guysssss, there’s a cafe on Lonsdale street that has on their menu a half serve of smashed avocado on sourdough and a half serve of muesli with yogurt and fruit, which basically diminishes your every weekend breakfast indecision woes. Thank you Eighty/Twenty! With good coffee, a corner vantage on what is probs the coolest street in Canberra, as well as interior trimmings of slick black subway tiles and bright brass lights, this place is winning all the good brunch vibes. Go there.
SHOP: Canberra is not just the capital in terms of politics, it also houses many of the country’s best galleries, and as such has a dynamic culture of art and design which translates to its shops as well. The ORI building on Lonsdale Street is especially worth a visit for some arty and fashion treasures. Try the “curated colour” of Handsomepretty or pick up some unique clothing from stores like my personal fave Itrip Iskip or designer labels from Rebel Muse.
FRUGII DESSERT LABORATORY: This is now a Canberra institution and one you shouldn’t miss. Did you hear me? I said go and eat that ice cream and enjoy it! Even if you have a food intolerance or are vegan or whatever, go to Frugii, go!
You can while away a day in Lonsdale street and around pretty easy. Just off the main drag on Mort Street you will find BentSpoke Brewing Co., whose beers had been introduced to us by a friend back home mere weeks before our trip there. According to Skymie, it’s the dogs bollocks, which he assures me means something positive. The owner is really into bikes, so the taps all have bike parts and the beers have names like Crankshaft IPA, Sprocket, Pedal Pale Ale and Tour de Brugge or local themes like Barley Griffin, Braddon Bitter or Brindabella Cider (after the surrounding mountain ranges). And here’s a tip THE SMOKED MAC ‘N’ CHEESE BALLS ARE LIFE-CHANGING!!
If you wanted more from Braddon (really? Greedy much?), there’s also a little pop-up style creatives/market/food truck and container village called The Hamlet – also on Lonsdale Street. Choose from American hot dogs, Indian street food, pizza, and more. We opted for a light snack of samosas and went and hung out in The Hutch – a graffiti-clad container bar serving local beers on tap or in bottles perched on makeshift skateboard shelves (which is co-owned by a friend of ours, so don’t miss it, yo)!
STAY: Hotel, Hotel
Another very specific reason we came to Canberra was for a stay in Hotel Hotel, which has been on my little (OK, not at all little) bucket list of sleeping establishments since it opened. It’s situated in the New Acton Nishi precinct, and you can read more about it soon as I have a post planned all about the hotel. In short? I love this hotel!
Read the full Hotel Hotel post here.
Thanks to the fine team at Visit Canberra for some great recommendations of places to visit and interview subjects for my upcoming Canberra Special on Bondi Beach Radio, and to Hotel Hotel for an upgrade, lovely service and an overall stellar stay.