Canberra. More Portlandia than you might think.

More to Canberra than the election …

imageAurora Kerr 

I’ve just spent a fabulous weekend in Canberra. The surprise was that for a couple of days I swear it felt like a tiny slice of Portland, Oregon.

Portland is a great city and currently getting a lot of attention, much hyped by (tv show and youtube sensation) Portlandia.

I was in Portland a few months ago with my partner and two Canadian friends. Our friends are pretty obsessed with the place. It’s close by for them, and it is indeed funky. We biked, wandered, gaped, drank great coffee and local wine with like-minded socially conscious types. We felt like we were in Melbourne, except Portland has lovely old industrial American architecture and bridges and a beautiful snow capped mountain in the background.

What I didn’t know at the time is how much Canberra would remind me of Portland. Well maybe just a slice of Portland. Without the big distances to cover. Like Melbourne, Portland is very spread out, and only bikeable if you’re keen. But in Canberra, we parked our car as soon as we arrived and never once used it again. Everywhere we wanted to go was an easy walk or even easier bike ride away. That gets a big tick from me.

canberraWe spent two days exploring the south and north banks of the Lake Burley Griffin. South has a great neighbourhood called Kingston. A number of cool cafes and pretty much all of the galleries and museums are dotted along the bike track around the lake. Silos Bakery and Me and Mrs Jones are my pick, but there’s plenty of choice. Me and Mrs Jones is pure Portland. An industrial space with fantastic warehouse inspired decor. Gorgeous American mining lights, bizarrely sourced in Europe, create a terrific atmosphere. Great staff, great food, great wine list. We discovered nearby very popular (always a queue) Silos Bakery a few years ago. It’s the perfect place to stock up on an incredible range of bread and cheese en route to the snow.

Whilst resting our legs in Me and Mrs Jones we noticed a dynamic assortment of people sharing our huge table amicably. The retired couple beside us argued animatedly about offshore processing of asylum seekers. They clutched an assortment of highbrow papers and journals and welcomed all to the conversation that is on everyone’s lips right now.

This was definitely a point of difference with Portland (though we had a similar conversation with our extraordinary airbnb hosts there). Our only gripe with Portland was that the cafes were overrun with plugged-in geeks. Seems everyone had earphones plugged into their laptops and were busy working. It completely killed the atmosphere and made us stand out like sore thumbs, having such an animated time. It sure looked strange too. Mainly bearded, cool looking men (like you find talking coffee siphons in Melbourne). But completely silent.

Anyway, back to Canberra. Fuelled up we headed to what Canberra is famous for – museums and art galleries. There’s plenty to choose from. The National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery, Museum of Australian Democracy, National Museum of Australia and more. And in the middle of it all Parliament House and the Tent Embassy. We decided to skip question time and the debate around the hideous and inhumane ‘new’ ‘pacific solution’ and opted instead for the Portrait Gallery and its latest tribute to Paul Kelly. Highlight for both of us was the incredible portrait of actor Deborah Mailman. It’s painted on thick hessian yet has a luminosity and texture that defies its base. It’s beautiful. It was NAIDOC week and we really enjoyed the indigenous installations and collaborations. Especially from “little things big things grow”.

If you’ve got little ones in tow, Canberra really is a great child friendly city. It was also the school holidays and we saw plenty of kids having heaps of fun on the very safe and easy bike paths around the lake and into the burbs. The pick with kids would be the National Museum and the Questacon. However before both of these were built, I have very fond memories of visiting embassies with my dad on the way to the snow and dreaming about seeing the world.

image-5We stayed in a new area springing up on the north side of the lake, New Acton. It’s getting better by the minute. Cool boutique chain 8hotel’s lovely Diamant started the fun a few years ago now (and tragically lost their gorgeous bar Parlour Room to a terrible fire). The hotel is so Canberra. Conservative treasury -like facade with a really quirky and unique interior. Every room is different, some with wallpapered ceilings and bold, dark colours, fabulous art and no boring beige walls or dumb art in sight. The lobby is spectacular and very welcoming with a crackling fire and warm cozy bar. This small hotel chain is our version of the industrial and uber cool, yet affordable Ace Hotels of the US. Yep, the best one is in Portland.

Another new design hotel is just about to open across the road, Hotel Hotel. It too certainly gives the conservative Pollie reputation of Canberra a run for its money. I can’t help thinking about the lack of style in the background of all those bachelor pads that Annabel Crabb has been visiting in her TV series Kitchen Cabinet. I don’t think I’ll ever forget Joe Hockey’s Bart Simpson bedroom. We seem to be in a different city all together!

Saving the best for last, the best find in this neighbourhood, and indeed in our whole weekend, is local cafe Mocan and Green Grout. It is the kind of neighbourhood place you dream about. Super friendly, stylish and seasonal, and so Portlandia that it even sells its own, very cool bike frames. And just outside there’s herbs growing for the cafe and interesting sculptures and art in a lovely public space with barely a car, but plenty of bikes. We are told the area hosts regular outdoor movies and pop up parties.

All of this in Canberra. I might just move there yet. It sure needs some more women to destroy the joint.


Diamant Hotel  

Hotel Hotel (opening soon)

Eat Drink

Mocan and Green Grout

Silos Bakery 

Me and Mrs Jones



National Portrait Gallery 

National Gallery 

Museum of Australian Democracy 

National Museum of Australia 


Palace Electric Cinema

New Acton what’s on …

If you are headed to Portland check my Pacific Northwest post on this site for tips.

Aurora Kerr – On the Road 
Aurora is a traveller first, then feminist, writer, therapist, holiday retreat owner (  nature lover, recycled design lover and adventurer, who lives in Jervis Bay on the beautiful south coast of Australia. She has a suitcase, always packed, at the front door ( also helpful for bushfires!)
Life Balance = Travel. Nature. Nurture.