If you’ve been considering a visit to Canberra, the mild month of March might just be the perfect time to book it in when the annual Enlighten Festival lights up the city—literally.
Held over 17 days from 26 February, Enlighten is one great big birthday bash with a string of major events, and my absolute favourite time of the year to be at home in all the fun. Culture lovers, foodies, photographers, party goers —take note cos you can take part too.
This year it’s going to look and feel a bit different as the city marries holding a festival during a pandemic, even in a country that’s managed to avoid its worst ravages, but that’s where Canberra’s wide open spaces come into their own. There’s a lot more scheduling, smaller numbers, necessary registrations, and cleaning in between sessions, and sadly this year the Night Noodle Markets won’t be present to reduce numbers. But in good news, all of our other favourites will be making an appearance.
First up are the Enlighten Illuminations (26 Feb – 8 March), when the Parliamentary Triangle lights up in a dazzling display of coloured illuminations and the area comes alive each evening with live music and roving entertainment, with its own street food alley and a chilled out beer garden. Always a great vibe.
Various cultural institutions around town get into the act as well and put on a range of interesting events, including the Botanic Gardens, the zoo and the mint. Details are still emerging.
Because of COVID, things will be a little different this year and while most of the events are still free to get in to, bookings are required, including attending the Enlighten Alley or the beer garden. It’s to manage numbers and help tracking people, just in case of you know what. Head to the official website to book in a time slot.
Top tip for visitors: If you’re visiting Canberra, make sure you download the CheckInCbr app on your phone when you get here, if you haven’t done so already, to make check- ins super easy and save you entering in details every time you go somewhere new. One app will get you in just about everywhere.
To make the festival even more dazzling, then we add in a hot air balloon festival into the mix. Why not? The nine-day Canberra Balloon Spectacular (6-14th March) has been happening in Canberra now for over 30 years and it truly is a sight to behold. It’s the only event of the year that has me getting up in the dark to head down to the lawns in front of Old Parliament House to watch the balloons fire up and inflate in the rising dawn before they drift off across the lake and the city or to some other spot to catch the floating flotilla. You have to book in here this year as well.
It’s fairly spectacular, which I guess is why it’s called the Balloon Spectacular. Morning light, the Canberra landscape, all those coloured balloons—it’s pretty much a photographer’s dream so take along your camera or phone or both. If you’re keen to get some good photos of the event, I’ve got you covered with my aptly titled Tips for photographing the Canberra Balloon Spectacular.
The famed (infamous?) and very well-endowed Skywhale is hitting the Canberra skies again, this time in the company of her recently-announced-to-the-public-partner, Skywhalepapa, who takes charge of their clutch of whale babies in a paternal show of modern masculinity. Have you heard about these whales? They’re massive art creations by Patricia Piccinini in the form of hot air balloons and part of the Every Heart Sings art project. The new family launched together in February next to the National Gallery and there’s another two scheduled flights over Canberra planned for 8 March and 3 April 2021 before they take off across Australian skies as part of a National Gallery touring exhibition through 2021 and 2022. Maybe they’re coming to a town near you.
As the National Gallery writes: “Centred around the two balloons, the Skywhales: Every heart sings project spans music and song to knitting and baking. The story of the skywhale family is told in Patricia Piccinini’s new children’s book Every Heart Sings, while an exhibition in the Tim Fairfax Learning Gallery brings together studio drawings, 3D models and an interview with the artist to look at the development the skywhales. An accompanying online learning resource for primary students look at concepts of love, care and responsibility in relation to ourselves, families, and other living beings. Musician Jess Green (AKA Pheno) has created a song, We are the Skywhales, keen knitters can make their own skywhales from a pattern developed by a local Canberra knitter, and Three Mills Bakery have produced a limited edition skywhales croissant for the three Canberra flight events.
More than just hot air balloons! They even have their own song. You can find out more about the whales and the art project, as well as how to book on one of their two remaining flights in Canberra here. Love them or hate them, it’s great to meet them in person (or whale).
Don’t forget, balloon flying is always weather dependent so it pays to check whether they’re flying before you head down. I’ve previously written up some tips about how to get the best out of the event which are all still good advice. You’re welcome.
As if that wasn’t enough, then the festival is combined with Canberra’s annual film event, Lights! Canberra! Action! Each year Canberra film makers are given a theme to explore (this year it’s hope) and a list of ten different items to incorporate into a film which then have to create and edit in just ten days. The event culminates with the screening of the finalists’ films at an open air cinema on 5 March at Stage 88. Again it’s free but you have to register. Just like Cannes, sort of. (Edit: the tickets got snapped up in a flash but in good news, a second batch has been released today, that’s 23 Feb at time of typing, so get in quick if you’re super keen. If you miss those as well, perhaps watch out for cancellations?)
Music lovers can then have a relaxed evening out under the stars with a Symphony in the Park experience where classics are given a new twist in the hands of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. This year they’re combining with the BABBA group and celebrating the music of ABBA. Orchestral backing and ABBA music—yes! Just quietly, I have to say I love ABBA! And you know the drill—free but you have to register. (Edit again: Looks like this was super popular and tickets are sold out here too. Again, perhaps watch out for cancellations as you may be lucky.)
One last thing. The whole thing finishes with a flourish with an all day party on 8 March to celebrate Canberra Day and the founding of the city, 108 years ago. Hell, we even made it a public holiday. No doubt there will be music and good times, and in the morning Skywhale and Skywhale Papa will be making an appearance at the balloons. You need to book in for that as well, and you might be able to book a ride in the balloon. There’s more info about the whale balloons and their two coming planned flights here.
So in short, it’s a really fabulous time to be in Canberra.
But do you want to know the really sad news? I’m not even going to be here myself for most of it to partake. It’s seriously my favourite few weeks of the year to be at home when I rip through at least one memory card in my camera and I’ll miss the balloons. A little bit devo about it actually. I know it will be back again next time, but not with ABBA. Ugh!
For the rest of you though, soak it up!