Canberra may not seem a sexy or exciting family holiday destination in Australia but that’s makes it so brilliant for travel with kids. Canberra with kids is safe, easy to get around, there are enough museums and tourist attractions to occupy you yet it never feels rushed, crowded or difficult. Plus as a capital city Canberra is well landscaped, simple to navigate and full of beautiful views over the lake, Parliament House and its other significant government buildings. Versus Sydney or Melbourne Canberra is definitely smaller and less vibrant, but it makes for incredibly straightforward and, therefore, family friendly holidays.
The Destination: Canberra With Kids
Canberra is a very nice mixture of government landmarks, national museums and galleries and public parks and space. This means even if you are traveling on a budget, there are plenty of things to see and do which are all educational and interesting.
[For more travel tips on traveling on a budget with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
While there may not be any big ticket tourist attractions here, a trip to Canberra is essential to really understand Australia’s history and its plans for the future. Ignore what the locals will tell you about Canberra being boring; if you or your children have an interest in politics, democracy, government or even town planning as well as art, culture and science, Canberra with kids has plenty to offer that is far more accessible and less stressful to visit that the other bigger cities.
The Attractions in Canberra With Kids
A trip to Australia’s capital city of course requires the obligatory stop into Parliament House with kids. From all over the city you will catch glimpses of this iconic and stately building so it definitely makes sense to devote at least an hour to exploring its interior.
It is certainly more interesting to visit when Parliament is actually sitting and you can witness democracy in action from the viewing gallery; when Parliament is not in session the atmosphere can seem a little dull. Overall this is an attraction that works better for school aged children with an interest in politics and current affairs. There are free tours you can join but, if you think your kids might not last the distance, visitors are able to just wander about themselves at their own pace.
There are multiple museums for kids in Canberra. Perhaps one of the most fun for children is Questacon – The National Science and Technology Centre.
There are plenty of interactive and enjoyable activities for kids of all ages here that explore concepts such as gravity, chemistry and optical illusions. You will need to budget at least half a day if you want to have a shot at all the different displays including the famous 6-metre drop Free Fall slide, to play air hockey against a robot and to witness the caged lightening show.
For toddler and preschoolers there is also a separate enclosed play area with lots of role play, playground and water play activities. If you are in Canberra with kids and the weather is bad, it’s worth paying the entrance fee just to enter this section for tiny tots who need entertaining.
Also worth a stop is the National Dinosaur Museum. Inside there is a walking display of actual fossils with lots of learning stations about the different dinosaur eras and geographic movements (if you have very small kids this is definitely more educational than entertaining).
Outside is the fun part for the little ones and operates like a playground for toddlers and pre-schoolers with giant dinosaurs all over the front yard.
The National Museum of Australia is an eclectic mix of history, urban development and popular culture displays that are accessible for every age group. This is quite a tactile experience so there are always things to touch, watch, read or listen to around the display floor. While the Kspace dedicated kids area is closed for renovation the museum has created a Museum Trail Blazer to keep children engaged. The new Kspace is due to open mid 2015.
The Australian War Memorial is an impressive and very thoughtfully created space that pays tribute to Australian war veterans. Due to it’s subject, it is really only suitable for kids mature enough to cope with the topic. But for those who do go there are canons, dioramas, military vehicles and lots of displays to look at. There is dedicated kids area where the children can experience what it's like to sit in a simulated helicopter, submarine or be inside a mud trench. There is also plenty of space in the grounds outside for running around while looking at tanks and other vehicles.
School kids might also enjoy checking out the Royal Australian Mint on days when the minting machines are operational. This is can be a fun way to learn about counterfeiting, the process of coin design and the history of Australia’s indpendence as a nation through it’s currency.
Australia is a sports mad country and much of this is to do with the calibre of atheles being consistently trained to professional level every year. The training of elite atheles is the job of the famed Australian Institute of Sport which holds daily 90-minute tours of the grounds.
If you’re in Canberra with kids, the city has a number of free playgrounds the most impressive of which is the Pod Playground at the National Arboretum. In terms of design this is quite a spectacular playground and well worth even just a drive by as it offers views overlooking the entire city.
Because it is at the top of the hill it can get quite windy so dress appropriately, especially if the weather is cool. There is a separate section for toddlers and then a much bigger (and very high) climbing structure for older children.
Or take a few minutes out from shopping in the city centre and take the kids for a ride on the historical wooden carousel at Petrie Plaza. This charming old merry-go-round is perfect for little ones.
Family Friendly Restaurants in Canberra With Kids
Like all Australian cities, most places are very family friendly in Canberra and it’s not difficult to find a café serving food kids and adults will be happy with. Many cafes and restaurants also offer free colouring in kits for children as well.
Tulips Café is a real hit with the locals in the daytime as it is set in a pretty nursery with an enclosed playground. Around the corner is the humorously named The Spit Shack which serves locally produced spit roast pork and lamb sandwich rolls perfect for taking away on a picnic.
For an easy pub-style meal check out the Mawson Club which has an indoor playground right inside the Citrus Café. You will need to be a member to enter the building but the cost of membership is quite minimal. Hellenic Club has a similar set up of indoor playground with gaming consoles. At Canberra Southern Cross Club there is an actual amusement arcade for kids that include free face painting on Friday evenings.
[Which is healthier, chicken nuggets or pizza? For travel tips on finding healthy food for kids on family holidays, see the suitcases&strollers interview with a nutritionist here.]
Family Friendly Accommodation in Canberra With Kids
Since the city plays host to many visiting politicans and dignitaries, there are many family friendly accommodation options in Canberra with kids. One of the most practical is to opt for a serviced apartment compelte with kitchen and laundry facilities.
Quest Canberra is very conveniently located right in downtown Canberra with lots of access to cafes and restaurants.
Clifton Suites are not right in the city but they are extremely close and come with a swimming pool to entertain the children on hot days.
Alternatively opt for a special treat by spending the night at Jamala Wildlife Lodge, a unique and memorable experience where kids get to sleep the night inside the Canberra zoo. This is an activity that requires you to devote at least 24 hours to the zoo but, if your children love animals, it is definitely worthwhile.
The Practicalities of Canberra With Kids
Canberra is very easy to navigate but it is quite spread out so you will likely need a car to get around. If you are doing a road trip with kids and driving between Sydney and Melbourne (or vica versa), Canberra is a little out of the way but makes for an interesting stopover if you have a few extra days to spare.
[For more travel tips on driving from Melbourne to Sydney, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]