Top things to do on a long layover: Canberra

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In our second article of this series, we look into what there is to see and do on a long layover in the Australian capital. As it turns out, Canberra has a lot more to offer than meets the eye

Canberra is much overshadowed by the likes of Sydney and Melbourne, as well as a handful of other cities in Australia still with bigger populations. Indeed, almost all the flights that depart from and arrive at Canberra Airport are domestic (Qatar Airways is set to resume its route to Doha within the next couple of months, and even that’ll stop in Melbourne first), and it’s a place where people tend to find themselves in limbo when traveling from one end of the country to the other.

Interior of baggage claim hall at Canberra Airport — ShutterstockCanberra Airport is quiet, easy to navigate, but a bit too basic to entertain you on a long layover — Shutterstock

Our booking data tells us that the average layover duration in Canberra is just over 11 hours. Sure, an 11-hour layover might even be fun at an airport like Los Angeles, London Heathrow, or Tokyo Haneda, but Canberra? The terminal is small, relatively basic, and yet, very close to the city center. It’s an airport that practically forces you to head out exploring yonder, kind of like a mother trying to get her teenage goth out of their black bedroom on a sunny day.

So, it stands to reason that this time, we’re going to tell you about the best and cheapest things to do on a long layover in Canberra. But first, we’ll give you some practical tips on the airport, public transport, and where to store your luggage for the day. Hack the system with us, and make your layover into a bonus trip!

Canberra Airport

As we say, Canberra Airport is small; you’re unlikely to get lost (and if you do, when you actually make it into the city, we’d advise making sure that your Maps app works and perhaps tying yourself to your travel companion). But just for ease of navigation — if you want to grab something to eat or hire a car, for instance — you can find what you’re looking for with these handy maps of the upper and lower decks of the terminal.

Before you take off on your mini adventure, be aware that you should be back at the airport around two hours before your next flight if it’s a domestic one, or around three hours in advance of your flight if it’s, well, going to Qatar. In the grand scheme of passenger congestion, Canberra Airport rarely gets very busy, so you shouldn’t be held up for long at security.

Conveniently, the airport shuttle bus stop is located right outside the arrivals hall.

Local transport

The quickest, easiest, and cheapest way to get from the airport into the city is on the R3 (R standing for “rapid”) shuttle bus. It goes every 15 minutes or every 30 minutes at the weekend, seven days a week including public holidays. The last stop on the bus route is in the suburbs on the other side of Canberra, so be sure to get off at the City Interchange just three stops into the journey. The ride should take no longer than 20 minutes.

You can find a Transport Canberra ticket machine in the airport’s arrivals hall, where you can buy an all-day bus and tram pass for just $9.60 (about €6.50). While the city is compact and fairly walkable, when you’re constrained by time, you might find you’ll be able to see a lot more when you can freely hop on and off public transport.

Luggage storage

Inside The Village hostel building on Akuna Street, there’s a bag drop service called Baggage Storage by Smarte Carte, and you don’t have to be a guest at the hostel to use it. Here, you can safely store your luggage in a locker at very reasonable rates. The lockers are accessible 24 hours a day, so whenever you need to head back to the airport, rest assured that you’ll be able to collect your bags easily. Plus, it’s really close to the City Interchange, where you’ll (probably) be leaving and getting on the airport shuttle bus.

All sorted? Now for the fun stuff!…

Take advantage of the free attractions

Being the capital of Australia, a lot of the places of interest in Canberra are of national importance in one way or another, and emanate grandeur appropriately. Yet a lot of them don’t cost a penny — result! There’s no way you could get around all of them on your layover, but here are just the best few.

New Parliament House and Old Parliament House

New Parliament House in Canberra — ShutterstockNew Parliament House — Shutterstock

First off, try the Parliament Houses. New Parliament House is the literal center of the city atop Capital Hill, and the political center of the country. Old Parliament House sits at the foot of the hill and is now home to the Museum of Australian Democracy. Walk up to the New House for a panoramic view of Canberra that’ll cement your understanding of how the layout of the city completely revolves around the hill. Walk down to the Old House for a deep insight into the foundations of the Australian government. And we’re just getting started, here.

Australian War Memorial

Man walking by the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial — ShutterstockA staggering 102,000 names are on the Roll of Honour — Shutterstock

The Australian War Memorial is a beautiful Byzantine-style construction that serves as a poignant reminder of the Australian fatalities from wars in which the nation was involved. It also has an excellent military museum, and every day at 16:55, just before closing time, there’s a Last Post ceremony during which the story of one of the fallen is read. There are over 102,000 names inscribed on the Roll of Honour, meaning that by the time all of the stories are read, it’ll be the year 2295.

National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery in Canberra — ShutterstockHead here for some fun artistic representations of famous figures — Shutterstock

If art galleries are your thing, you shouldn’t miss the National Portrait Gallery, which contains some 400 portraits in all styles of prominent Australian figures from the past and present. From Princess Mary of Denmark to Nicole Kidman, and from Captain James Cook to Dame Edna Everage, they’re all here.

National Archives of Australia

This government body showcases pieces of Australian societal history in frequent exhibitions. It holds two permanent exhibitions, one of which focuses on the development of the Australian Constitution; the other on some of life’s big questions such as “Do lesbians have more fun?”. Both of them are named in English and in the local Aboriginal language of Ngunnawal, a respectful nod to Australia’s Indigenous communities that are well-documented in the archives.

National Museum of Australia

Last but certainly not least, the National Museum of Australia was deemed the top tourist attraction in Canberra by Lonely Planet’s 2022 book Ultimate Australia Travel List. The exhibits here focus on the juxtaposing aspects of Indigenous cultures and European settlement, as well as the natural world, and until March 2023, brightly-colored artifacts. The museum sits on Acton Peninsula which juts out into Lake Burley Griffin, affording some wonderful waterfront views. Speaking of which…

Stroll through Commonwealth Park

Captain Cook Memorial Jet at Commonwealth Park in Canberra — ShutterstockThe Captain Cook Memorial Jet can reach a height of 150 meters — Shutterstock

Once you feel like you’ve learned all you can about Australian cultural heritage, wind down at Commonwealth Park. This large, landscaped green space is right in the city center on the north bank of the lake. It’s dotted with sculptures and monuments, and even features waterfalls, an amphitheater and a kind of man-made geyser honoring Captain Cook. The towering jet operates every day from 11:00 to 14:00, as long as it’s not too windy.

Explore the Jerrabomberra Wetlands

Meanwhile, on the far eastern side of the lake, you’ll find the Jerrabomberra Wetlands nature reserve. This is a great place to go if you want to take yourself off the sidewalk and into nature for a little while, and if you’re interested in biodiversity — you can spot a huge variety of native fauna here, including birds, fish, frogs, turtles, and platypuses. There are three walking trails through the site, which, unless you’re a particularly competent conservationist, we recommend you stick to.

Go ghost hunting

Old black-and-white photograph of the Australian Institue of Anatomy — State Records NSW, No restrictions, via Wikimedia CommonsFormerly the Australian Institute of Anatomy, the National Film and Sound Archive is one of Canberra’s most renowned haunted buildings — State Records NSW, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the more offbeat things that Canberra is known for is its haunted buildings. Take the Hotel Kurrajong, for example. Just a stone’s throw away from Capital Hill, these four-star lodgings are supposedly home to the ghost of former prime minister Ben Chifley, who suffered a fatal heart attack in one of the rooms in 1951. People claim to have seen him wandering the corridors and standing on the balconies, pointing towards the Parliament Houses.

The National Film and Sound Archive is another one. The building was previously the Australian Institute of Anatomy, at the time of which there was a morgue in the basement. Many have recounted eerie experiences in this very basement, such as being pinned to the wall by an invisible force and sighting a childlike figure behind a grate. If you have a layover that extends into the evening, you might get the opportunity to take a ghost tour of this paranormal pit.

Blundells Cottage in the daytime — ShutterstockIt might not look so spooky in the daytime, but Blundells Cottage is thought to be very much possessed — Shutterstock

And if this isn’t enough to get your heart pounding and your eyes widening, Blundells Cottage, just a few hundred meters down from Commonwealth Park, might just do so. It’s a heritage-listed building that’s over 150 years old, once home to a handful of families before being turned into a living museum in the middle of the 20th century. (“Living” being the operative word…)

The resident spirit is said to be that of Flora Blundell, who set herself on fire in 1917 when ironing a garment one day. Visitors to the creepy dwelling report a smell of burning flesh, objects that appear to move by themselves, and at night, the hazy shadow of Flora herself. People also say that if you happen to be wearing a necklace when you’re there (as she was), you feel her presence much more strongly.

Okay, it’s not for everyone, but if you are fascinated by the supernatural, this is an activity that could make for the most memorable layover of your life!

Check out trendy Braddon

Back down to earth now, and Braddon (or “Civic” as the locals call it) is Canberra’s most densely populated suburb with its past in the automotive industry. Today, you can’t move for its cool boutiques, hip restaurants and happening bars. No wonder it’s one of the most sought-after areas of the city to live in, and something you’ll almost certainly appreciate about it is that the coffee is supposed to be the best in Canberra. Have a wander around the independent shops to uncover some quirky treasure, and stop by an artisan café for your caffeine fix just in time for your next flight.

Eat for cheap

Like other Australian cities, Canberra is full of fantastically flavorsome bites, and the Asian cuisines on offer are particularly authentic. Indulge your inner foodie and keep your wallet content with any of these options. Happy days.

Master Bao

Bowl of Malaysian laksa — ShutterstockChoose from laksa, nasi goreng and much more at Master Bao — Shutterstock

121 Marcus Clarke Street, Canberra ACT 2601

Authentic Malaysian and Chinese food in the city center

Tikka Take

 

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6/21 Genge Street, Canberra ACT 2601

A huge selection of bites and dishes inspired by cuisines across India

Pizza Gusto

23 Lonsdale Street, Braddon ACT 2612

Quality pizza cooked fresh over a wood fire

Civic Asian Noodle House

Pad Thai — ShutterstockThe Asian food scene in Canberra is incredible — Shutterstock

49 Northbourne Ave, Canberra ACT 2601

Reasonably-priced dishes from an extensive pan-Asian menu

The Fish Shack

87/105 Petrie Plaza, Canberra ACT 2601

Fast-food fish joint with vegan and gluten-free options

Miss Van’s

 

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Shop 4/113/119 Marcus Clarke Street, Canberra ACT 2601

Southeast Asian fusion with a particular focus on Vietnamese cuisine

Messina

21 Lonsdale Street, Braddon ACT 2612

Gelato parlor with a huge selection of flavors; dubbed the best ice cream in Canberra

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