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Have we been wrong about Canberra all these years? Lonely Planet isn’t that convincing

Updated October 25, 2017 17:39:28

What if Canberra became fabulous and the rest of the country didn’t notice? What if the negative impressions formed when we were forced to meet our local MPs during that mandatory Year 6 visit to Parliament were wrong?

Well, that’s precisely what no less than the Lonely Planet guide reckons has happened.

Yes, it’s Canberra’s moment of recognition for something besides being the nation’s most notorious compromise after the NBN.

A few years after recognising NSW’s oft-overlooked second city of Newcastle’s transformation to an artsy, hipster enclave of relaxed cool, the LP team has returned to lavish praise on NSW’s third-biggest city.

Canberra takes third position in the list behind Seville, the Spanish city that tourists ignore because it’s not Madrid or Barcelona, and Detroit, a place which it will be news to just about everyone isn’t still a decaying hell-scape.

In other words, this is a list of cities that nobody currently visits. I hadn’t even heard of several of the cities on the list (Matera? Guanajuato?) and they’ve included San Juan, Puerto Rico despite the hurricane. In other words, it’s an incredibly contrarian list.

But even though it was clearly drawn up by the kind of people who bore us at dinner parties by raving about places we’ll never visit or want to, Canberrans are understandably delighted by the fact that Lonely Planet has ranked them above such tourist Meccas as Antwerp, Oslo and Kaohsiung.

But before we all swallow our pride and, for the very first time in our lives, visit Canberra by choice, let’s look at the list of reasons for LP’s accolade, shall we?

‘Packs a big punch for such a small city’

That’s a pretty big qualifier, making Canberra sound like the little engine that could, in keeping with its extremely little railway station.

And sure, Canberra is incredible — for a city that’s a 10th the size of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

It’s a thriving metropolis, compared to, say, Dubbo. But is it must-visit in 2018? Let’s look closer.

‘National treasures are found round almost every corner’

This is undoubtedly true, because despite its size, Canberra is packed with national-level institutions — more galleries and museums than any child could stand being dragged around, and if you’re especially nerdy or a negligent dual citizen, there’s also the High Court.

Being a confirmed dork, I’ve always loved visiting these places, and the NGA is one of my favourite public buildings in the country.

And of course it should be noted that its oversize institutions are all courtesy of our tax dollars, including the Parliament, which was, at the time of construction, the most expensive building in the world.

Our politicians were typically generous to themselves when they built three parliaments (including the ACT’s) within the city’s first 100 years.

But does this mean Canberra’s institutions are better than other Australian cities’?

Of course not. If I was advising an overseas visitor where to go for an amazing museum experience, I’d send them up the Derwent to MONA.

I will note though, because it still irritates me whenever I visit Melbourne, that Canberra’s National Gallery is an awful lot more “national” than Victoria’s.

‘Exciting new boutique precincts have emerged, bulging with gastronomic highlights and cultural must-dos’

If you read further, you’ll learn that this basically means that you can get good coffee in Braddon. LP is also into locavore dining and sampling wine from the local vineyards, just like several dozen other Australian regions.

As for the “cultural must-dos”, I couldn’t find much on their list beyond the folk festival and Floriade. (They’ve got a writer’s festival now, but doesn’t everyone?)

LP’s editors are fans of the emerging regions like NewActon (note the lack of space), which is almost as dorkily Canberran a name as “Civic” — I haven’t been there, so I’ll take their word for it.

But LP’s list of Canberra’s best sights is almost exactly the same stuff we visited in school — the NGA, Portrait Gallery, Parliament, War Memorial, Questacon — and the Carillon, which I’m still not entirely sure why my Year Six class visited in 1988.

‘This is the first year that Canberra will host a Test cricket match at the picturesque Manuka Oval’

Yep, Australia takes on Sri Lanka in 2018, and that’s a genuine reason to visit — unless you’re from Hobart, in which case you’re bitter that Canberra stole your Test.

It seems churlish to note that this hardly makes Canberra a must-visit destination as opposed to any of the cities that get Tests every year, so I wouldn’t dream of pointing it out.

‘The Australian War Memorial will take centre stage as it hosts the 100th anniversary of the WWI Armistice’

I don’t want to belittle the great job the War Memorial does each and every year.

But as it’s hosted several compelling centenaries recently, including Gallipoli, this feels a little bit like they were already running out of reasons why one must visit Canberra in 2018 after, um, the second one.

‘Significantly, Canberra is establishing a permanent Reconciliation Day’

And the third and final reason to visit in 2018 is a day off for non-visitors — from next year the state’s public holiday calendar includes Reconciliation Day “to symbolise commitment to tolerance between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians”.

Sure, it’s a nice idea, especially as it replaces the incredibly ephemeral “Family and Community Day”, which sounded like a day designed by, well, public servants, but it’s as yet unclear what there will be for visitors to do in Canberra on this day.

‘Criminally overlooked Canberra…’

Now, c’mon. I know that they have to come up with new places to visit every year, but every Australian is forced to visit Canberra at some point, so we aren’t exactly overlooking it.

Canberra is grand boulevards leading to roundabouts which accidentally return you back onto the exact same boulevard you just drove down — Burley Griffins designed it that way so visitors couldn’t escape.

Sure, it’s leafy, and packed with major institutions, but if you go hunting for buzz or soul in Canberra, the closest you’ll find is a rabid Kingston bar during a sitting week.

I’m fonder of Canberra than most — I find it genuinely pleasant, I love the modernist architecture and the “bush capital” vibe, and unlike almost everyone, I’m actually interested in politics.

I understand why people enjoy living there, and especially raising kids in Australia’s only city designed for bikes.

Last time I went, I was pleasantly surprised to find a bunch of new, cool bars serving craft beer and great cocktails, and terrific eateries of the sort you now find in every other Australian city or major town.

But anyone who heads to Canberra next year expecting it to be vastly different from the place we toured by bus at the age of 11— or even transformed the way that Newcastle has been in recent years — risks being as frustrated as an out-of-town motorist who can’t figure out where the roundabout exit is.

Dominic Knight is a founder of The Chaser, and his forthcoming book Strayapedia contains an extremely unkind history of Canberra.

Topics: tourism, travel-and-tourism, lifestyle-and-leisure, canberra-2600, act, australia

First posted October 25, 2017 16:52:44

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