Despite being Australia’s third-largest city, Brisbane was long maligned as a “big country town” – a place lacking any cosmopolitan vibe, where stifling conservative politics and drowsy suburbs were the order of the day. However, after hosting the Commonwealth Games in 1982 and World Expo in 1988, the city came out of its shell.
Soon enough, even proud Sydneysiders and Melburnians were packing their bags and relocating to the Queensland capital. It’s a lifestyle choice: Brisbane (known colloquially as Brissie or BrisVegas) is, quite simply, a sunnier, more laid-back place. More importantly, it now shares much of the big-city sophistication of its southern rivals. Here’s what you can get up to on your next visit.
Ride the CityCat. Okay, it’s not quite the Star Ferry in Hong Kong, but it’s still the best visual introduction to Brisbane. The fast ferry service takes you on a one-hour trip along the city’s meandering river, for just a few dollars.
Like every bridge climb in the world, the Story Bridge Adventure Climb comes with compulsory ugly grey jumpsuits, but it’s worth it for the panoramas, especially during the dawn, twilight and night climbs. If climbing is your thing, by the way, you can rock climb and abseil off the Kangaroo Point Cliffs, with one of Brisbane’s best city views as a backdrop.
Bypass the central business district and instead make a beeline for the interesting inner-city suburbs of New Farm, Fortitude Valley, Red Hill, West End and Paddington. Getting around isn’t the easiest: Brisbane is a bumpy, sprawling city with no subway, and while the buses are cheapish and spotless, schedules can be infrequent. Best to slip on some comfy shoes and go by shanks’ pony; there are plenty of Uber drivers around should you get tired.
4. Arts Culture? In Brisbane?
You bet. Brisbane’s arts scene gets more vibrant every year. The Gallery of Modern Art (“GoMA”, opened 2006). GoMa is the largest gallery of modern and contemporary art in Australia, brilliantly located on the riverbank across from the CBD. Smaller suburban spaces like Milani Gallery in Woolloongabba and the Edwina Corlette Gallery in New Farm are always fascinating. The live music scene is vibrant, too, with many bands going on to achieve international success, among them The Saints, The Go-Betweens, Powderfinger, and (somehow) Savage Garden. There’s even a commemorative walkway in the coastal suburb of Redcliffe that honours the Bee Gees, who lived there as teenagers. (One for trivia buffs: they attended Humpybong State School!)
Don’t miss seeing one of Queensland’s Brisbane-based sporting teams in action. The locals barrack very loudly for the Broncos (rugby league), the Bulls (cricket), the Lions (Australian Rules Football), the Reds (rugby union) and the Roar (soccer). Since they’re such a parochial bunch, you could liven things up by donning a shirt or a scarf with the opposition’s colours. Drinking heavily at sporting events is de rigueur, by the way, and “streaking” is encouraged by everyone except the constabulary.
Thanks to the pleasant climate all-year-around, alfresco dining is popular in Brisbane, whether it’s Chinese food in The Valley, Italian at New Farm, Vietnamese at Darra, fresh seafood at Manly, or a breakfast of “smashed avo on toast” just about anywhere. Many old pubs have hugely popular beer gardens serving enormous steaks cooked to perfection. There’s fine dining, too: Gauge, Esquire, E’cco, Urbane and Gerard’s Bistro are just five of the venues that are hailed for their award-winning contemporary cuisine.
Kangaroos, koalas, wallabies and wombats: you can cuddle them all at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. This is a much better idea than trying to do it in the wild, for as cute as Australia’s native fauna might look, they are savage beasts – just ask the 59-year-old farmer from Victoria who was hospitalised by a wombat a few years back.
The best surf beaches near Brisbane are found on the Gold Coast (one hour south) and the Sunshine Coast (90 minutes north). A slightly longer drive will lead you to famed Byron Bay (south) and Noosa (north), two of Australia’s most picturesque beach towns, and worth a few nights’ stay. Moreton Bay, just east of Brisbane, offers historic tours and marine adventures, while Springbrook National Park is a cool rainforest retreat.
Craft markets, farmers’ markets, organic markets, flea markets, computer markets, wellness markets, antique markets; Brisbane loves a market. Among the best are the Powerhouse markets (next to the river in leafy New Farm Park), the West End markets (with a great community feel), Northey Street organic market (amazing produce) and the Eat Street Markets (a portside cluster of 180 shipping containers turned into food stalls).
The saying goes that the people of Brisbane don’t give a XXXX about anything but beer. It’s not far from the truth. Aside from sampling an amber ale in one of the city’s many historic pubs (try The Regatta, The Breakfast Creek Hotel or The Wickham), you can visit the brewery where Brisbane’s own XXXX (“Fourex”) beer is made; the A$32 tour price (S$33) includes a few samples. Even better, get on the craft beer bandwagon and seek out the city’s excellent young brewers; Newstead and Green Beacon are two to keep an eye out for.
Five books to read before you go
Zigzag Street by Nick Earls
The Mayne Inheritance by Rosamond Siemon
Johnno by David Malouf
Dying for Cake by Louise Limerick
The Dirty Beat by Venero Armanno
When to go
Anytime, really. Summer (November to March) is the best beach weather but the city can get uncomfortably hot. The coldest months are July and August, though it never gets much below 10 degrees Celsius, and the pay-off is that the skies can be spectacularly blue.
Several airlines fly direct to Brisbane from Singapore (7.5 hours).
Interested in visiting Australia? See our Australia and New Zealand section for more stories like this!
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