Australia may be a relatively small nation by global standards, but it punches well above its weight in terms of world-class museums, galleries and cultural must-sees. The dreaded ‘cultural cringe’ of the 1900s has been replaced with a tangible sense of pride in our artistic endeavours and a swag of world-class museums and galleries that would keep any culture vulture busy for a lifetime. With that in mind, here’s a bucket list of the country’s cultural institutions that every Aussie should tick off at least once. For more inspiration, head to Cultural Attractions of Australia – an industry collective of 22 incredible experiences that was launched in early 2019.
Remember to book your accommodation for each attraction at ChoiceHotels.com.
1. National Gallery of Australia
The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra holds the country’s national art collection, and as such, it deserves to be first port of call on your Aussie cultural odyssey. The gallery controls a vast collection of some 160,000 pieces – a fraction of which is on display at any one time (so you can return time and time again and always find something new to enjoy). Jackson Pollock’s controversial Blue Poles – for which the Whitlam government paid a what-was-then-seen-as-a-scandalous $1.3 million in 1973 (now estimated to be worth $350 million) – is always high on the list of the gallery’s most popular works, as is Sidney Nolan’s mid-20th century Ned Kelly series.
2. Australian War Memorial
No list of Australia’s premier cultural institutions would be complete without including the emotive Australian War Memorial in Canberra, which documents the involvement and loss of the country‘s service personnel in armed conflicts as far back as the 1880s. There’s a huge amount of detail to take in here, and again, you can return time and time again and be touched by a different story of an Australian who made the ultimate sacrifice. The memorial is comprised of a commemorative shrine (which houses the Hall of Memory and its Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier), museum and archive.
3. Australian Parliament House
Australia’s Parliament House might not immediately spring to mind as a cultural institution, but our seat of democracy actually holds an extensive collection of art and historic objects. Some of the most popular pieces include Tom Roberts’ The Big Picture, which depicts the first-ever sitting of the Australian Parliament in 1901 in Melbourne, and The Great Hall Tapestry, which was designed by Arthur Boyd to bring the essence of the Australian bush into the House’s Great Hall. Parliament House itself is a work of art. The building was designed by New York architects Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp and opened back in 1988. Take a guided tour and see key pieces from the art collection along the way.
Need a place to stay? Quality Hotel Dickson Canberra is located just a few minutes’ drive from the Australian War Memorial and the National Gallery of Australia.
4. Sydney Opera House
The Sydney Opera House, which almost seems to float on Sydney Harbour, is a potent and enduring symbol of Australia’s cultural heritage. It’s also the country’s spiritual home of the performing arts. From Opera Australia performances, to cabaret, contemporary dance, musical theatre and Indigenous-devised works, the Opera House’s annual programme is incredibly diverse and offers something for literally everyone. Even if you can’t catch a performance, take some time to do the official guided tour. It shares the story of the building’s design and construction led by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, who was ultimately dismissed from the project and never returned to Sydney to see what is now one of the world’s most famous buildings.
5. National Gallery of Victoria
There are two parts to the fabulous National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) – NGV International, which houses the gallery’s incredible global collection, and The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, which displays the gallery’s Australian works. They have separate locations and both are must-sees. The NGV’s 75,000 works span multiple centuries, styles, mediums and genres, and in addition to the permanent collection, there’s an extensive programme of special events and touring exhibitions on offer. It can all be a bit bewildering for the first-time visitor, so zero in on just a handful of highlights on one of the gallery’s excellent free daily tours. There are four tours a day at each site. No booking is required; just turn up.
6. Melbourne Cricket Ground
Just across the city in Yarra Park sits an entirely different cultural attraction – the mighty Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) – the hallowed heart of Australian sport. The ‘G’ is home to the National Sports Museum, which houses a collection of around 3,500 pieces of sporting memorabilia. Combine entry to the museum with a tour of the ground itself. Steeped in history and tradition, the MCG came into being in 1853 and has been the home of Australian football since 1859. On the tour you’ll go behind the scenes and see parts of the ground that are off limits to the general public.
7. WA Maritime Museum
Australia’s modern history is inextricably tied to that of global seafaring and the historic port city of Fremantle – located just a 30-minute drive south of the Western Australia capital Perth – is home to the excellent WA Maritime Museum. The museum has a number of galleries and attractions that present an incredible homage to life at sea. Learn about the conditions faced by colonial sailors, see the Welcome Walls – 400 panels etched with the names of migrants who arrived in Australia by sea, and do a tour of the HMAS Ovens submarine. The museum is also home to the Australia II yacht, which thrilled the entire nation by winning the America’s Cup in 1983.
8. Port Arthur Historic Site
Many of those bound for Australia by sea in the late 18th and early to mid 19th centuries were destined for penal settlements like Port Arthur on Tasmania’s remote Tasman Peninsula. Today the World Heritage-listed Port Arthur Historic Site is one of Australia’s most intact records of convict life. More than 12,000 convicts passed through Port Arthur during its 50-years in operation. Today there are around 30 surviving buildings to explore, including the fascinating and fully restored Separate Prison, where repeat offenders did time in solitary confinement.
Need a place to stay? Book your accommodation at Comfort Hotel Foreshore and enjoy access to local attractions including 7D Cinema Tasmania and Adventure Island Tours.
9. Sovereign Hill
Victoria’s Gold Rush of the 1850s literally transformed the face of Australia. It attracted migrants from across the globe and turned Melbourne into a city of incredible wealth and prestige. It also gave rise to key regional centres like Ballarat — the scene of the famous Eureka Rebellion in 1854. Learn more at Sovereign Hill – a living outdoor museum and gold rush township recreation, where exhibits are brought to life by costumed characters. Visit period shops, hotels, schools, a theatre, and of course — gold diggings. You’ll even have the opportunity to pan for gold yourself and perhaps strike it lucky!
Need a place to stay? Comfort Inn & Suites City Views in Ballarat is located less than ten minutes’ walk from the entrance to Sovereign Hill.
10. National Anzac Centre
The state-of-the-art National Anzac Centre in the Western Australian city of Albany opened in 2014. It looks out over the serene waters of King George Sound – where 41,000 men and women left Australia by ship for the battlefields of World War I. The centre uses an incredible mix of multimedia, interactive technology and historical objects to bring individual stories to life. No-one leaves here without being touched by the experience. Leave enough time to explore the surrounding heritage precinct.
Need a place to stay? Albany’s Quality Hotel Banksia Gardens is just a short drive from the National Anzac Centre. Amenities at the hotel include a complimentary breakfast and WiFi.
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has previously had the opportunity to travel the world as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten.