As I step out of the lift, I’m almost run over by a yellow utility vehicle driving past at high speed. Why is there a road inside a building? It may be unusual, but this is no ordinary building. I’m inside Canberra’s Parliament House, and I’ve gone beyond the public areas most people are allowed to see.

Down in the basement, a labyrinth of more than 1100 rooms connected by roads with names like Flinders Lane and Pitt Street is teeming with industrial vehicles. Pipes – including tubes for a pneumatic mail system – run along the ceiling and signs point the way to various underground departments.

I’ve only been given access because I’m on a special tour called More Than Politics. It’s a private behind-the-scenes experience that doesn’t just take you beyond the usual barricades, but also introduces you to the people who really run Parliament House.

The tours are part of a program called Signature Experiences, which are special visits offered by 17 of Australia’s top sites, known as the Cultural Attractions of Australia. You can do a behind-the-scenes tour of Parliament House, explore Sovereign Hill in Ballarat by lamplight after everyone’s left, and get exclusive access to the art collection at Fremantle Prison.

In a courtyard on the House of Representatives side, just outside Anthony Albanese’s office, I meet Paul Janssens, the assistant director of landscape services. As we walk he reveals the garden’s secrets, like an optical illusion that causes the paved paths to disappear and how they bring in specific predatory insects instead of using pesticides to deal with bugs.

“It’s a cheaper alternative, it’s much more environmentally friendly and I think it’s a nice story to tell because it’s Parliament leading by example,” says Mr Janssens.

Experts like Paul Janssens lead me through different sections. That’s how I end up spending 30 minutes with David Thomas, who was once the chief architect for the Joint House Department overseeing the building. He talks me through all the little details and the symbolism hidden in the architecture.

There are the wooden floors that make noise so you can’t sneak up on anybody, windows strategically placed to demonstrate the transparency of democracy, and a small pool of water right in the middle of the building which prevents anyone from standing at the centre of government. At each place we stop, Mr Thomas points out the recurring themes of squares and circles – the square representing the opposition of the House of Representatives and the circle the resolution of the Senate (supposedly).

“For instance, we’ll see that as we go into the chamber, there’s a circular skylight over the Senate, and a square one over the Reps,” he explains.

The proud parliament buildings.

It’s not a sitting week when I visit, so one of the guides is able to sneak me into the Members and Guests Dining Room, an exclusive restaurant where politicians huddle around tables and plan leadership spills (I assume). There are darker and more private areas within the dining room that even guests can’t normally access, but the main area is brightly lit by floor-to-ceiling glass looking north onto a paved terrace with doors that security, watching with cameras, open for us remotely.

When the politicians are here, Parliament House hums with activity, and one person with his finger in a lot of pies (literally) is the building’s executive chef, David Learmonth. He can often be overseeing meals for thousands at a time, from dining room dinners for MPs to meetings in offices, right up to official functions with visiting dignitaries.

I meet Chef Learmonth in the kitchen where he has cooked for prime ministers and presidents. Today he’s whipping up a small souffle for me as we chat, but I ask him whether he gets nervous serving a foreign head of state.

“We treat everybody as equals, but we get nervous with the volume and the intensity,” he says. “We shock ourselves sometimes with what we’re capable of doing.”

While he chats and cooks, I sip a cocktail featuring a gin made specially for Parliament House, which is usually reserved for diplomats and other VIPs. But I guess, today, I am the VIP here, right?

Anyone can book this tour but ahead of your visit, the Parliament House team will contact you to ask about your interests and tailor the time accordingly. I’m told one visitor was so interested in furniture that he spent most of his tour in the carpentry department, chatting about the building’s chairs and tables.

And, while you’re in Canberra, at the National Museum of Australia, champion racehorse Phar Lap’s heart is one of the most popular items on display. If I didn’t have Laura Cook showing me around, I would probably just look at it for a moment and then wander on to the next exhibit.

Ms Cook isn’t usually a guide; she is one of the museum’s curators. On the private Big Histories experience she gets to the heart of the stories behind items, revealing how they were acquired, why they were chosen and even how they’re conserved.

“It’s very fragile tissue in formaldehyde,” says Ms Cook as she points at the enormous organ that once powered Phar Lap’s success. “So, all this showcase has vibration mitigation measures built into it so people banging on the glass or even walking past don’t vibrate the liquid it’s suspended in.”

Ms Cook takes me to a painting that I might have otherwise walked past, Uta Uta Tjangala’s Yumari, a seminal work of contemporary Indigenous art. It turns out I’ve actually been carrying some of it around for years, printed as a background in my Australian passport. And she also shows me one of her favourite pieces – the first Holden prototype from 1946.

“There were some small minor modifications, but every FX Holden that came off the production line two years later is essentially the same as this car, so it’s an amazing part of Australian history,” she explains.

Ms Cook tells me the museum has acquired one of the (if not ‘the’) last Holdens to ever be made in Australia, and it’s currently at a storage shed in Mitchell, north of the city. You can see it on another exclusive tour the museum offers, called Out to the Shed, which takes you through more of the collection that’s not on display (only about four per cent is ever visible at the main museum site).

More cultural attractions

NSW: Propose to your loved one on stage at the Sydney Opera House as part of a live performance. ($2499 for two people)

QLD: Sit in the cockpit and walk across the wings of a Boeing 747 as part of an exclusive tour at the Qantas Founders Museum. ($195 per person)

SA: Climb across the roof of the Adelaide Oval on match day and watch the game for about 30 minutes. ($235 per person)

TAS: Have a private dinner at MONA with founder David Walsh, as part of a luxury package including a private jet to Tasmania. ($50,000 per person)

VIC: Hold a group dinner with live music in front of a masterpiece at the National Gallery of Victoria. ($39,000 for 8 people)

A peak into what a private dinner at the MONA looks like.

Take me there

Fly: FlyPelican and Link Airways have direct flights from Newcastle to Canberra.

Drive: Canberra is 2.5 hours’ drive from Wollongong and three hours from Sydney.

Price: The More Than Politics tour is $250 per person for a private 4.5-hour experience.

Stay: East Hotel has modern rooms in Kingston, not far from Parliament House.

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