Australia is blessed to have a plethora of amazing destinations that every visitor should want to add to their itinerary. Whether it’s the beautiful cities of Sydney or Melbourne, or perhaps the iconic Gold Coast or Uluru in the heart of the Outback. But there is one destination that we think frequently falls under the radar and lays in the shadow of many of its more infamous urban counterparts – the capital city itself, Canberra. Whether you are visiting Australia for a week long adventure or perhaps just spending a few days, if you are planning a trip to Sydney or Melbourne, you should certainly consider adding Canberra to this itinerary. We want to focus this post on how to enjoy an amazing day trip from Sydney to Canberra but it’s certainly feasible to enjoy a two-day getaway if you are visiting from Melbourne.
Canberra is rarely the first place that people think about visiting and given it’s relatively neutral location in between the powerhouse cities of Sydney and Melbourne, this is one of the reasons why it was chosen as Australia’s capital city. After spending the day in the capital, we can 100% attest that this beautiful city is one that deserves to be on everyone’s radar and for those of you that love city life but want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the larger cities, Canberra is certainly a place you will fall in love with. There are not many capital cities around the world that have such a relaxing feel to them but Canberra is definitely one of those!
Let’s take a look at how you can make the most of a day trip from Sydney and why your next trip to Oz should include a visit to Australia’s historic capital.
Sydney to Canberra Day Trip
For the adventurous folks, a day trip from Sydney to the capital will be an experience you won’t want to miss out on. A 3-hour drive each way may seem a little daunting for many but after experiencing this for ourselves, we can confirm that this is well worth the effort given the amazing encounters you can have not only in Canberra but on the drive to and from the capital city.
The drive itself is relatively straightforward but depending on how much time you have will likely determine which route you want to take in either direction as there are a couple of more scenic alternatives that you may want to consider. Here are a couple of options, featuring the most direct route which we followed between Sydney and Canberra and an alternative picturesque return drive, albeit quite a bit longer in terms of duration.
Quickest Route – M31 to M23
- Distance – 286 km (177 miles)
- Duration – 3 hours 11 minutes
- Click here to open this route in Google Maps
The quickest route between these two cities is undoubtedly along the highways of M31 and M23 – the majority of the drive will be along M31 until you hop over to the M23 in Yarra for the final 78km.
Scenic Route via Wollongong
- Distance – 341 km (211 miles)
- Duration – 4 hours 30 minutes
- Click here to open this route in Google Maps
There are a few alternative scenic routes that you can take if you have enough time to enjoy your return journey to Sydney. If possible, be sure to take in the gorgeous Grand Pacific Drive along the East coast between Wollongong and Sydney (and further south depending on where you choose to start your route along the coast).
Best Things to Do in Canberra in 24 Hours
Spending only one day in any city across the world is going to be a challenging experience. Our number one tip is don’t try to do everything! When you realize that you will only be able to see a few highlights across the city, this will make your visit more rewarding because you won’t be rushing around trying to capture the best of everything. Canberra is certainly a city that is no different so after a 3-hour drive from Sydney, you will need to have the rest of your day planned out in order to maximize your time.
Canberra is a city full of history, gorgeous architecture and unique cultural experiences that makes this city standalone from it’s Australian counterparts. There are certainly a number of things to do here and they include the following:
- Parliament House
- Lake Burley Griffin
- Australian War Memorial
- National Gallery of Australia
- Telstra Tower
- Anzac Parade
These are just a few of the highlight attractions and are by no means an exhaustive list. There are several self-guided walking tours in and around the city that you can enjoy and we strongly recommend taking either the Lake Burley Griffin or Anzac Parade tours. We opted for Lake Burley Griffin but you cannot go wrong with either. The Anzac Parade is a shorter alternative (only 2.5 km and will likely take around 1.5 to 2 hours to complete) and offers a collection of memorial dedicated to commemorating Australian and New Zealand soldiers that have lost their lives in wars across the world.
History of Canberra
With so many cool things to do in Canberra, it can understandably be difficult to decide where to start. Given that we traveled three hours from Sydney to escape the horrendous bushfires that the area was experiencing, we wanted to spend as much time outdoors and there is no better place to start than Lake Burley Griffin in the heart of the city.
Head to the Canberra and Region Visitors Centre overlooking Lake Burley Griffin before starting your self-guided tour to learn all about the history surrounding the city and you will soon realize why we recommend this awesome tour for first-time visitors to Canberra. The lake is named after Walter Burley Griffin who was a Chicago architect that designed the city of Canberra and utilized this location as a focal point for the geometric design of the city.
I have planned a city that is not like any other in the world…. I have planned an ideal city—a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future.Walter Burley Griffin
The history of Canberra dates back to only 1911 making this a relatively new city in comparison to many of the other iconic cities across Australia. When Burley Griffin was invited to design the city, he created a design that had a lake in the center. As you begin your self-guided tour of the lake, you will learn more about the architect, the city of Canberra and all of the historic events that have helped shaped this modern metropolis that is proud to be the capital of Australia.
Lake Burley Griffin Self-Guided Tour
Walk outside of the Visitor Center and decide which direction you want to start – if you opt to complete the full 5km loop, it really doesn’t matter because you will enjoy crossing the lake on two separate occasions. Here is a full list of the attractions and landmarks you can experience on this tour.
- National Capital Exhibition
- Walter Burley Griffin Terrazzo
- RG Menzies Walk
- Captain James Cook Memorial
- Captain Cook Memorial Jet
- Canadian Flagpole
- Commonwealth Park
- Citizenship Place
- RG Menzies Statue
- Site of Murray’s Bakery
- Pioneer Women Memorial
- Sybil Howy Irving Memorial
- A Commemorative Oak
- Rond Terraces
- Gallipoli Reach
- National Emergency Services Memorial
- Blundells Cottage
- Indian Ocean Tsunami Memorial
- Merchant Navy Memorial
- HMAS Canberra Memorial
- National Carillon
- National Police Memorial
- National Workers Memorial
- Boundless Playground
- Kings Avenue Bridge
- Bowen Place Crossing
- Sculpture Garden
- Reconciliation Place
- Commonwealth Place
- International Flag Display
- Peace Park
- Australians of the Year Walk
- Commonwealth Avenue Bridge
- Japanese Cherry Trees
Plenty of memorials, tributes and architectural masterpieces on display throughout this part of Canberra and you could certainly spend at least a half day exploring all of these attractions. We would recommend allocating at least 2-3 hours which is a great way to spend the late morning and early afternoon before heading to enjoy a late lunch in one of Canberra’s eclectic restaurants. For those of you that perhaps want to experience Lake Burley Griffin a little quicker, let’s take a look at some of the highlight attractions from the above.
Captain James Cook Memorial (and Jet)
Perhaps the most iconic landmark is Lake Burley Griffin itself along with the towering hydraulic jet stream that sends water over 150 meters into the air at 260kms per hour. As you start you walk around the lake and peer across the expanse of water, be sure to take a moment to admire the stream of water that epitomizes the many stunning engineering feats across the city. Back on land, a terrestrial globe commemorates Captain James Cook’s landing on the eastern coast of Australia over 250 years ago in 1770 and was dedicated as such on the bicentennial anniversary in 1970 by Queen Elizabeth II.
Details of Cook’s voyages can be seen inscribed on the handrail and for the avid travelers visiting Canberra, this will surely be a favorite landmark as you appreciate the historic journey that was made by Cook to reach the Australian coastline, given that he started in Plymouth, England back in 1768!
Commonwealth Avenue Bridge
Did you know that a part of London’s iconic Waterloo Bridge can be found on the north shore of the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge? That’s right, when this was demolished in 1936, several stones were donated to the Australian Government and they can now be seen on one of Canberra’s iconic bridges that may not have the same popularity as the British counterpart but it’s certainly a historic landmark that dates back to its original construction in 1928 (original design but the current version was actually opened in November 1963).
A plaque commemorating the stones has the following inscription, signifying how the close relations between the UK and Australia have continued to flourish.
Stones such as these from the bridge were presented to Australia and other parts of the British world to further historic links in the British Commonwealth of Nations.
As you walk across the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, take a moment to take in the spectacular views across the lake (in both directions) along with admiring the CBD of Canberra to your left and the many landmarks that await on the southern shoreline of Lake Burley Griffin. You will also catch a first glimpse of Canberra’s spectacular Parliament House, located on Capital Hill at the tip of Parliament Drive along with the gorgeous National Library of Australia.
Australians of the Year Walk
Ok, are you ready to walk along Australia’s equivalent to the Hollywood Walk of Fame? How many iconic Australian’s do you know? From sports stars such as Cathy Freeman and Shane Warne to celebrities like Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, there are certainly plenty to lay claim to having a spot on the Australians of the Year walkway.
The first award was given in 1960 and there is a commemorative plaque for each individual that was selected as the Australian of the Year. Take some time to see how many names you recognize, there will likely be several along with a few obscure ones that will be interesting to read their stories and realize why they deserved to be recognized as such.
International Flag Display
Canberra is home to one of the largest collections of international flags representing the diplomatic presence within the city. With over 100 flags on display, you can likely find your home country along with a variety of others that truly provide a reflection of how diverse Canberra has become over recent decades and can truly be called a multi-cultural metropolis.
This collection was originally opened in 1999 but recently in 2018 was transformed into the cultural attraction we see today. In addition to over 100 countries being represented, the flags of the European Union and United Nations can be seen, again emphasizing the importance of Australia having closed relations with nations across the globe.
After crossing Kings Avenue Bridge on your return across Lake Burley Griffin, you will see the towering National Carillon, a bell tower that was a gift from the British Government to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Canberra. If you are fortunate to visit on a Wednesday or Sunday lunch time at 12:30PM, you will hear these iconic bells playing but regardless, it’s still an impressive sight.
A collection of memorials are grouped together along the shoreline after you leave the National Carillon and rather than focusing on any particular memorial, it’s certainly worth noting that all of these have a unique story associated with them.
Whether you are intrigued to learn more about the National Police Memorial (to commemorate the service and sacrifice of Australian police officers) or perhaps pay your respect to those lost in the tragic Indian Ocean Tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, there are several plaques and monuments that are grouped close together as you walk around the lake.
One of the most unique landmarks around Lake Burley Griffin is Blundells Cottage, a former home of workers on the Duntroon Estate that dates back to 1860. For over 100 years, this cottage was occupied by three tenants: the Ginns, the Blundells, and the Oldfields. If you have time during your visit to Canberra, head over to the Duntroon Dairy, the oldest standing building on this particular estate.
Today, visitors can enjoy a tour of Blundells Cottage between 10AM and 2PM on Saturdays but even walking around the grounds and exterior of the property is an enlightening experience as you reflect on what life was like in the late 19th century before Canberra was transformed into Australia’s capital and the modern city we see today.
Where to Eat in Canberra
As we established, Canberra is undoubtedly a diverse city and this is reflected by the variety of cuisine options available. Whether you are looking to sample fine dining or simply find a quick bite to eat, Canberra has something for everyone. We always love sampling coffee shops across the globe and close to where we parked at the Canberra Centre, we stumbled across The Coffee Club which we later found out has several locations across Australia (it was “local” for us rather than a standard Starbucks chain).
From decadent pastries to your favorite handcrafted espresso beverage, there are plenty of options if you are just looking for a late morning or afternoon snack. But for those that want to enjoy breakfast or lunch, there is a full menu offering sandwiches, salads, burgers and more. This was one of our favorite finds because there is a gorgeous outdoor patio area where you can relax and enjoy your coffee, while either planning your day or reminiscing on what you experienced throughout Canberra.
If you are looking to enjoy something with a little more substance, Courgette Restaurant is a short walk from Canberra Centre and offers European inspired fine dining options. Alternatively, Raku Japanese Restaurant or Akiba are both great options for those wanting to sample the Australian capital’s Asian dining scene.
Canberra to Sydney – Grand Pacific Drive
Planning your itinerary around Canberra can be challenging, especially when we encourage you to try and allocate enough time on your return to Sydney to enjoy the spectacular Grand Pacific Drive. For those of you that have driven the Great Ocean Road close to Melbourne, this is a similarly breathtaking experience.
If you don’t have enough time on this trip, don’t worry because it’s well worth taking another day trip from Sydney to experience Wollongong and the amazing sights along this stretch of coastline. But for those of you that choose to follow what we experienced, you can still enjoy some of the best attractions along this drive before darkness sets in.
Having spent the majority of the day inland exploring the urban beauty of Canberra, when we first caught a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean we realized this part of Australia is a perfect area to enjoy a vacation given the close proximity of iconic cities and beautiful coastline. Our first stop saw us visit the coastal town of Kiama, infamously known in New South Wales as being the home of the iconic Kiama Blowhole.
This geological phenomenon attracts over 600,000 visitors every year and certainly for good reason. Be prepared to have those annoying flies buzzing around your face but if you are able to ignore those, the breathtaking sight of the Pacific Ocean shooting up through the blowhole is an experience you won’t want to miss.
Sea Cliff Bridge
The coastal drive from Kiama to Wollongong and through the Northern Illawarra region of New South Wales culminates in perhaps the pièce de résistance of the Grand Pacific Drive – the Sea Cliff Bridge. A towering cantilever bridge links the coastal towns of Coalcliff and Clifton and opened in 2005.
The scenic walkway is surrounded by rocky cliffs but offers awe-inspiring views overlooking the bridge and out into the Pacific Ocean. For those of you that prefer to stay on flat ground, park your vehicle before the start of the bridge and take a short stroll along the pedestrian walkway that crosses the Sea Cliff Bridge.
A day trip from Sydney to Canberra is primarily about exploring the unheralded Australian capital. However, the beauty of this trip is that there are several other experiences you can enjoy, such as the Grand Pacific Drive, if you allocate enough time. Regardless, visitors to Sydney (and Melbourne) should consider adding some time to their itinerary to pay a visit to Canberra as there are plenty of reasons to justify at least a one day trip.
The relaxing vibe of Canberra is something you don’t usually associate with a major city but it’s a refreshing experience and certainly taking a self-guided walking tour of Lake Burley Griffin will give you a real insight into the beauty of Australia’s capital. Have you visited Canberra? Would you consider adding Canberra to your Australian vacation?