Of all the capital cities in Australia, perhaps none is as divisive as Canberra—and this may come as no surprise given that Canberra owes its very existence to divisiveness. Following Australia’s Federation in 1901, delegates from the rival cities of Melbourne and Sydney were drawn into a bitter quarrel concerning which of the two-state capitals should become the seat of Australia’s new federal government.
The disagreement proved to be irreconcilable, so a compromise was made: Melbourne would function as the temporary home of the federal parliament, while, in New South Wales, construction would begin on a permanent capital city just as soon as government surveyors agreed upon an appropriate location halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. This didn’t take very long, but Canberra was not the first choice.
Instead, in 1903, a Federal Royal Commission named the town of Dalgety as the capital and even formalised their decision with an Act of Parliament. Thus, it’s easy to imagine an alternative timeline in which Dalgety is the most politically influential place in Australia. In this timeline, however, delegates from NSW immediately protested that Dalgety was too far from Sydney, and far too close to Melbourne, an unforgivable affront. A new Act was passed, Canberra was promoted from the second choice to first, and poor Dalgety, which was officially the nation’s capital-to-be for just four years, resumed its former obscurity, entering the 21st century with a population of 205.
So much for Canberra’s contentious beginnings: since the first peg was hammered into the ground in 1913, it’s grown by leaps and bounds. Today, Canberra is recognised as a culturally significant Australian city that’s home to Australia’s most important public institutions, from the Parliament itself to the High Court of Australia, the Royal Australian Mint, and more. According to the OECD, Canberra is also the best city in the world to live. In this guide, we’ll cover everything you should know before moving to Canberra to start your graduate career.
If you graduated from an Australian high school, then the chances are that you’ve already heard, a million times or more, the story of how Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, two American architects, won the ‘Federal Capital Design Competition’ with a plan for Canberra that emphasised concentric circles and other geometric patterns.
As a result, if you view a map of Canberra today, you’ll see a network of streets reminiscent of a lace doily, or an elaborate crop circle formation. It can look intimidating, but the good news is that, once you get the hang of Canberra’s layout, travelling around the city is a cinch. In fact, the biggest obstacle isn’t the streets that Walter Burley Griffin designed: it’s the artificial lake named after him.
It’s no surprise to learn that Australia’s capital city is home to the ‘national’ version of almost every cultural institution: there’s the National Gallery of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Library of Australia, the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Museum of Australia, the National Zoo and Aquarium, the National Dinosaur Museum and much more.
Of all the public service employees in Australia, some 38 per cent live and work in Canberra: a much higher proportion than any other capital city (NSW comes in second with 19 per cent). In fact, the public service accounts for 42 per cent of the ACT’s total workforce (including people employed in ACT government positions). The simple (and obvious) reason for this is that Canberra is home to the headquarters of most of the federal government departments. This makes Canberra a great place to be if you’re hoping to launch your own career in the public service.
That Australia’s new capital should be equidistant from both Sydney and Melbourne was a chief concern of the Royal Commission that eventually selected Canberra. In doing so, they gave Sydney a distinct advantage, for the capital of NSW, is only 280 kilometres from Canberra, which is 660 kilometres from Melbourne. Fortunately, Canberra is connected to its neighbouring capitals by inter-city highways. So, if you need a break from life in Canberra, it’ll take about three and a half hours to drive to Sydney, and eight hours to drive to Melbourne. Alternatively, you can fly to either city in just over an hour.
Canberra has an oceanic climate, with warm, dry summers that peak in January, which has a pleasant average high temperature of 28°C. By contrast, Canberra’s winters can be bitterly cold, with frequent frosts and an average high temperature of 12°C (this often drops below zero during the night). For newcomers to Canberra—especially those accustomed to the balmier winters of Australia’s other capitals—the cold weather can come as a shock. So, thank goodness there’s already a guide on how to cope…
In early 2018, Canberra was ranked as the third-most-expensive place in Australia to rent accommodation. While rental prices have fluctuated slightly since then, housing affordability remains a major issue in Canberra, especially for individuals with below-average incomes.
If you’re a beach fanatic, then Canberra might be a frustrating place to be during summer. It’ll take you about two and a half hours to drive from Canberra to the beaches of Shoalhaven, Eurobodalla, and other parts of the NSW South Coast. It’s worth the journey: you’ll be rewarded with some of the most beautiful beaches in Australia. But a five-hour round trip to see the ocean is still quite a trek. And while you can swim in Lake Burley Griffin, you should definitely check the water quality first.
Jokes about Canberra are about as old as Canberra itself. In fact, Canberra bashing is something of national past time. If you’ve somehow so far avoided jokes about Canberra, then brace yourself because, once you start living there, the jokes will be unavoidable. That is, at least, until Australians from other capital cities abandon their guiding principle: if you’ve got nothing good to say, then you should definitely say it about Canberra.
As of June 2018, Canberra is equal first (with Sydney) for having the most expensive rent in Australia, with the average median rent for a house at $550 and the average median rent for a unit at $450. The long-term decline of housing affordability has become a major concern for advocacy groups and the ACT government.
However, it’s worth noting that, according to the 2016 census, Canberra has the second-highest (after Darwin) median weekly household income ($2,087), resulting in a manageable rental price to income ratio for many Canberra residents. As a result, while rental prices have grown consistently in Canberra over the past five years, housing unaffordability has disproportionately affected tenants in lower-income brackets, with rent remaining ‘acceptable’ (i.e. below 33% of weekly income) for most individuals earning more than $65,000 per year.
According to the price aggregation website Numbeo, a meal at an inexpensive restaurant in Adelaide costs $20; one litre of milk is $1.37; a loaf of bread is $2.59; an adult movie ticket is $15; a month of basic utilities is $157; a monthly gym membership is $56; and one kilogram of apples is $4.14.’ You can also use the Cost of Living Calculator to get a better sense of how much it will cost to have the type of lifestyle you want in Canberra.
The ACT Government’s ‘Canberra Your Future’ website has an indispensable guide to the different areas of Canberra, including information on the demographics, dwelling types, median age, and major facilities of each suburb. You can also explore Canberra using a helpful interactive map, which makes it easier to get your bearings while learning more about the differences between, say, Acton and Melba.
Research has shown that where you live can have a marked impact on measures of satisfaction, well-being, and mental health. The effects are seen when one switches cities or suburbs, and can even reflect how close one lives to the main road or busy intersection.
As a result, experts advise people to consider their options carefully before relocating. To give yourself the best chance of being satisfied with your address, you should choose a suburb where your income is at least as high as the median income; minimise the length of your commute; aim, if appropriate, to put off moving again for as long as possible; consider how a new address will impact the accessibility of parks, gardens and other restorative natural environments; and, whenever possible, choose locations where you will be able to embed yourself more easily in a social network (for example, by living close to other young professionals), supportive communities, and people with similar interests or cultural concerns.
Of course, moving house brings with it a large number of practical considerations, many of which will be unique to you and your interests. The following questions are intended to provide some clarity as you research your options and navigate the inevitable compromises of rental life:
There are a variety of tools that you can use to look for accommodation and flatmates in Canberra, some of which are free with basic features (like Gumtree) and others of which charge a fee. Some of the more popular options include:
If you’re on Facebook, it can also be helpful to check whether or not there are any groups for individuals looking to rent or share in different regions of Canberra. You can also find further recommendations in the ‘Finding Somewhere to Live’ fact sheet published by the Tenants’ Union of the ACT.
About half of all workers in the Australian Capital Territory are employed in the public service by both federal and municipal government bodies. However, while the public service is the dominant industry in Canberra, just over half of all employees work in the private sector at one of the ACT’s 25,000 businesses, which range in size from small tech startups to significant multinational companies. Outside of the public service, Canberra’s major industries include building, construction, and trade; information and communications technology; sports, recreation, and the arts; professional services; education; and tourism.
Fortunately, several reports published in 2018 have concurred that the labour market in Canberra is growing apace, creating new jobs across a range of industries. For example, the Commsec ‘State of the States’ report, published in January, found that employment had increased by 4.6 per cent in Canberra during 2017, well above the national average. Similarly, the Deloitte Access Economics Business Outlook Report for the first quarter of 2018 found that the ACT had the fastest growth of any state or territory during the preceding financial year.
When it comes to graduates specifically, the outlook is increasingly positive across the nation, with ‘71.8% of bachelor degree graduates finding full-time employment after graduating in 2017, up from the recent low of 68.1% in 2014’. The most recent Graduate Outcomes Survey (published by the Social Research Centre) confirms that, in 2017, ‘71.8 per cent of undergraduates were in full-time employment four months after completing their degree’.
Naturally, the job market in Canberra is particularly promising for those who wish to work in the public sector. There are graduate intake programs at many of the federal government’s major departments, with some of the country’s most sought-after positions found in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and The Treasury. You can learn more about graduate positions in the public service by referring to the resources on the GradAustralia website.
Canberra offers the highest salaries in Australia, with an average weekly household income that’s $300 higher than the national median pay. This holds true for graduates too, who earn highly competitive entry-level salaries while also enjoying (in the public service) enviable working conditions, including generous annual leave, salary-packaging benefits, and various concessions.
The following average salaries are taken from the 2018 Hays Salary Guide, which itself draws on a survey of 3,000 businesses in Australia and New Zealand that together employ some 2.3 million people. We’ve included a representative sample of salaries for popular graduate occupations: if your career isn’t listed, consult the GradAustralia website for more information. Note that the average salaries below exclude superannuation.
For such a small city, Canberra offers a surprisingly diverse array of shopping destinations for casual grocery buyers and seasoned shopaholics alike. Its main shopping mall is Canberra Centre, in the CBD, which houses department stores (David Jones, Myer, and Big W), homeware stores like Muji, and about 260 specialty retailers. Nearby, you’ll find the Canberra Outlet Centre(in Fyshwick) and an IKEA (in Pialligo). Canberra is also home to various markets, including the Canberra Fashion Market and the Belconnen Fresh Food Markets. You can find a regularly updated guide to Canberra’s markets on the Visit Canberra website.
Canberra’s local food scene is characterised by diverse cuisines and thriving cafe culture. There’s a Chinatown in Dickson, a range of fine dining establishments in the city, and a cluster of popular cafes in the trendy suburbs of Kingston and Manuka. The ‘Out in Canberra’ website offers an interactive map of restaurants, cafes, and bars in Canberra, and regularly publishes guides for the newcomer or the adventurous local. Want to know where to find the tastiest noodles in Canberra, or the best bakeries, or the weirdest desserts? They’ve got you covered.
As mentioned above, Canberra is home to many of Australia’s preeminent museums and galleries, including the Australian National Botanic Gardens, the Australian War Memorial, the National Dinosaur Museum, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, the National Museum of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Gallery of Australia. Most of these institutions are located on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, and (hooray!) most of them are free.
Special mention must, of course, go to Questacon (the National Science and Technology Centre), which almost every Australian who’s ever gone on a primary school trip to Canberra must still agree is the best thing there. For a comprehensive list of museums and galleries in Canberra, see the Visit Canberra guide.
‘But is anything on in Canberra?’, the non-Canberrans will scoff. You will soon be able to correct them: yes, in fact, there is a lot going on in Canberra, from markets and theatre performances to live music gigs and stand-up comedy nights. Better still, it’s easy to find out what’s happening using one of the popular websites that focus exclusively on Canberra’s cultural life. These include:
This site is particularly helpful for finding social events, such as local trivia competitions and movie screenings, and also for staying abreast of new developments in Canberra’s nightlife, food, and entertainment scenes.
VisitCanberra is regularly updated with information about local festivals, performances, holidays, exhibitions, and cultural events.
Run by the ACT government, this site focuses mainly on local community events, permanent attractions, and niche guides such as ‘The Weirdest artefacts you’ll find in Canberra’ (spoiler: the top place goes to Phar Lap’s grossly enlarged heart, which is weird enough, sure, but you should definitely be able to find something weirder).
Canberra is known as the city where everybody knows everybody: a fact confirmed by a local guide who writes that ‘[it’s] a bit of an exaggeration but there's a lot less than six degrees separating people in "Australia's Meeting Place". Consider that before making a spanner of yourself at a party or on a date.’
As a result, Canberra has a strong sense of community, making it easy for newcomers to get involved and start developing a rich social life. You can find a list of community groups on the Canberra Your Future website, and a guide to local social events on the OutInCanberra website. Alternatively, here are some other things you can try:
Canberra is designed to be easily navigated (after a short learning curve) and has earned a reputation for being a ‘20 minute city’ in which nothing is too far away. The two primary forms of transport in the capital are cars and buses. If you own a car, it’s a good idea to read up on the ACT Road Rules Handbook and then check out VisitCanberra’s guide to getting around in a personal vehicle.
Public transport in Canberra is provided by the Action Buses and a limited light rail network. You can view route maps and plan your trip using the Transport Canberra website. If you plan to use public transport, it’ll be easiest to get a MyCard, which allows you to tap on and tap off when using buses or trams.
Of course, if you really want to live like a Canberra local, then cycling or walking are by far the best ways to get around: it’s fun, great for your fitness, and well supported by Canberra’s extensive network of dedicated pedestrian footpaths and cycleways. You can plan your ride, view cycleway maps, and even find some popular route suggestions on the relevant Transport Canberra webpage.
After moving to Canberra, you’ll need to change your enrolment address and also, if necessary, update your driver’s license registration. If you require legal advice, you can access free support through Legal Aid ACT (which runs the Youth Law Centre) or contact a community legal centre for assistance.
Need help opening a new bank account? Managing your superannuation? Making a budget? Check out this list of free financial literacy courses, access free advice via the national debt helpline, or use the ASIC Money Smart tool to find a trusted financial counsellor in your area.
Moving cities can be hard—you’ll have to adapt to a new job, new accommodation, and a new environment, all while building a social network far from the one you left behind. If you require support through the transition, or as a result of other life events, don’t hesitate to avail yourself of free (or affordable) resources dedicated to mental health. These include Lifeline, headspace, and various local organisations. For information on other health services, including hospitals and bulk-billing general practitioners, visit the Access Canberra health page.