Poor old Canberra. It takes a terrible pasting from the rest of Australia. When I told friends in Sydney that I was spending a long weekend in the national capital, the response was simply: why? Most Australians regard Canberra as dull, poorly designed and soulless, inhabited by the grey men and women of government, who toil in its drab office buildings and live in far-flung suburbs. I was determined to lay aside such well-worn stereotypes, however, and explore with an open mind. It is, after all, packed with interesting things to do. There are galleries, museums and monuments on every corner. The National Gallery of Australia, for instance, is crammed with more than 100,000 works of art. Then there are the National Museum, the National Library, and a science museum called Questacon. I spent three hours in the Australian War Memorial, which houses a large museum, as well as a shrine to the nation's war dead. There were sound and light displays, thoughtful exhibits and vintage aircraft suspended from the ceiling, including an enormous Lancaster bomber. I hired a bike and cycled around Lake Burley Griffin, which divides Canberra in two and was named after the American architect who won an international competition to design the city in 1912. I wandered around Parliament House, possibly the only legislature in the world with a lawn for a roof. All of this was interesting enough. But I gradually became aware of something missing: people. There was hardly anyone on the streets. Nobody walks in Canberra - the distances between places are too great, and there are few pavements. The lack of pedestrians gives the place an empty, rather melancholy air. The lack of ambience stems from Canberra's origins as a planned city. Sydney and Melbourne were such bitter rivals that they could not agree on which should be made Australia's capital in the years following federation in 1901. Instead, it was decided to build a new metropolis in remote farming country in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains. Canberra gradually took shape, but it has never managed to endear itself to Australians. The city's tourism tagline is 'See Yourself in Canberra'. More appropriate, I thought, would be: 'Canberra, you'll have the place to yourself.' The American travel writer Bill Bryson was driven to similar musings when he visited the city for his book Down Under. Deeply unimpressed, he came up with 'Canberra - why wait for death?' I thought that was unnecessarily cruel when I first read it. After last weekend, I am not so sure.