Nine-year-old old Layla Brady has a twirl in front of Moulin Rouge  at the opening day of the Toulouse Lautrec exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia.

Nine-year-old old Layla Brady has a twirl in front of Moulin Rouge at the opening day of the Toulouse Lautrec exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. Photo: Colleen Petch

Maybe you didn't feel like going down the coast this week - or it was too late to book by the time you got round to it. Flights home or interstate are too expensive at this time of year. Or maybe you drew the short straw at work and you've got to come in during the Christmas break.

But the yearly exodus from Canberra has its upside. This week is probably the best time to plunge into culture. Everyone else has bundled their children, dogs and bric-a-brac into the car and headed out of town.

The galleries and institutions are quiet, blissfully cool and airconditioned in the summer heat. The lines are shorter to the summer blockbusters and there's room to breathe in the exhibition rooms. Should you choose to spend a contemplative quarter of an hour in front of Blue Poles, you'll be unmolested and uninterrupted by noisy, bored school groups. You can even get a parking spot without having to cage-fight a public servant first.

Transported by Richard Morecroft, on display at the Bungendore Woodworks.

Transported by Richard Morecroft, on display at the Bungendore Woodworks.

All the national galleries close on Christmas Day itself but otherwise stay open through the break and into the New Year.

The National Gallery of Australia

If there's ever going to be a "best" time to see the Toulouse-Lautrec summer exhibition it's now. Book a ticket and wander through a priceless collection of posters, portraits and nudes from the little master of Montmartre. It's still worth getting in early - tickets are "timed" and entry is at half-hour intervals.

An 1820s Coach, part of 'Big', an exhibition of large items at the National Museum of Australia.

An 1820s Coach, part of "Big", an exhibition of large items at the National Museum of Australia. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Browse the French-themed exhibition shop. The gallery's program of extra events also runs through Christmas week. Have lunch in the Sculpture Garden restaurant, or Parisian-style high tea at 3pm. Elsewhere in the gallery, take in Carol Jerrems' photographs of Australian lives and a show on abstract expressionism that'll help put Jackson Pollock into perspective.

The National Portrait Gallery

Highlights include the Diamond Jubilee portrait of the Queen and a bold exhibit of modern portraiture from China. The gallery's collection of portraits by Ingvar Kenne feature a waif-like Lee Lin Chin in a draped lace dress and bare feet, a thoughtful Baz Luhrmann on a movie set and Angus Young in front of the Sydney Opera House, fag balanced between his lips.

The National Library of Australia

The library's reading rooms are closed from Christmas to January 2. But the Treasures Gallery is open every day except Christmas. The gallery includes an esoteric mix of rare Australiana that ranges from Captain Cook's journal to Fatso, the Fat-Arsed Wombat, who had a starring and much loved turn on Roy and HG's The Dream at the Sydney Olympics. But the best part of the library is Bookplate, its much-lauded cafe on the terrace, which is closed Christmas and Boxing Day but open every day after. Wander over from the National Gallery after drinking in Toulouse-Lautrec and have a hearty lunch or a slice of cake and a cup of tea overlooking the lake.

The Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.

The must-see show is Behind the Lines, the annual exhibition of the best of Australia's political cartoonists, which includes work by Canberra Times cartoonist David Pope. Also showing is Art is a Weapon, which explores how the legend of the Eureka Stockade has been used by political groups and artists to spread their message. Central to the exhibition is a portfolio that includes linocuts produced by a collective of Melbourne artists in 1954 to commemorate the centenary of the stockade itself.

The National Museum of Australia

The National Museum's Big Things exhibition plays on the child in us that loves trucks, trains and planes. Elsewhere the museum's conservators take centre stage as they prepare artwork, photo albums and costumes for an upcoming exhibition.

Watch them work at the Museum Workshop exhibition and talk to them about their job. The museum has also opened its light, airy cafe on the waterfront.

Bungendore Woodworks

This woodwork gallery doesn't just showcase designer and handcrafted furniture.

It also features photographs taken by SBS presenter Richard Morecroft, whose richly coloured shots of landscape, street scenes and the environment are juxtaposed against Tanya Stubbles' timber installations.

CREATIVE SHOP

While retail giants like the Canberra Centre and the Westfield centres are open nearly continuously, pumping out mass-market bargains, Braddon's burgeoning Lonsdale strip is still a good place to pick up a couple of last-minute gifts or post-Christmas hipster toys.

Most of the shops in the Lonsdale Street Traders complex are open until Christmas Day. But itrip iskip, a staple of Canberra's design scene, is among a few that will open after Christmas. Drop past from December 27 through to the new year to browse beaded dresses, patterned shirts and unusual jewellery. Lifeline's trendy vintage shop Hipsley Lane is also open after Christmas -- their Hipsley Lane-branded floral tea dresses are particularly covetable. Down the road Pink Ink is open from December 27 with designer clothes.