Despite being Australia’s third-largest city, Brisbane was maligned for many years as being little more than a “big country town” – a place lacking any kind of cosmopolitan vibe, where conservative politics and drowsy suburbs were the order of the day.
Ten things to do
Ride the CityCat. Okay, so it’s not quite the Star Ferry in Hong Kong, but this is 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.
For a further visual overview before exploring the streets, take the Story Bridge Adventure Climb. Like every bridge climb in the world, this one 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 cheap and gleaming, schedules can be infrequent. Best to slip on some comfy shoes and go by shanks’ pony.
Culture? In Brisbane? You bet. Brisbane’s arts scene is as vibrant as anywhere in the country. The Gallery of Modern Art (“GoMA”, opened 2006) is the largest gallery of modern and contemporary art in Australia, brilliantly located on the riverbank across from the CBD. Suburban spaces like Milani Gallery in Woolloongabba or the slew of galleries along Brunswick Street are always fascinating. The live music scene is vibrant, too, with many bands having gone on to achieve international success, among them The Saints, The Go-Betweens, Powderfinger, and – somehow – Savage Garden.
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 meat pie anywhere. Many old pubs have hugely popular beer gardens serving enormous steaks cooked to perfection. There’s fine dining, too: E’cco, Alchemy, Anise, Restaurant Two and Aria are five venues hailed for their award-winning contemporary cuisine. (For sample menus, Google the restaurant name plus “Brisbane”.)
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 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.
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 earlier this year.
Craft markets, farmers’ markets, organic markets, flea markets, computer markets, wellness markets, antique markets. Don’t come anywhere near Brisbane if you don’t like a market. Among the best are the Rocklea markets (spot the chefs buying their produce), the Powerhouse markets (next to the river in leafy New Farm Park), the West End markets (with a great community vibe) and the Valley markets (knick-knacks and alternative fashions).
The saying goes that the people of Brisbane don’t give a XXXX about anything but beer. And 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, The Normanby or The Plough Inn), you can visit the brewery where Brisbane’s favourite beer, XXXX, is made. If you’re on a tight budget, be aware that the A$22 tour price (S$26) does include four glasses of beer, so it pays for itself.
Don’t bother with …
The Queen Street Mall. Brisbane’s premier shopping street is nice if you’re from rural Australia and you’ve come into The Big Smoke for the day. But coming from Singapore and comparing it with Orchard Road, it’ll feel about as retail-friendly as a back-alley in Geylang.
What’s in a name?
I’m afraid there’s nothing particularly exciting about the origin of the city’s name. It comes from the title of its river, which in turn was named after Sir Thomas Brisbane, Governor of New South Wales from 1821 to 1825. Yawn. A pity the authorities didn’t name the place after Sir Thomas’s colleague, Queensland’s special commissioner of 1819, John Thomas Bigge: that would have been much more fun – even a bit rude, when you think about it.
Five reasonably famous Brisbanites … Brisbanians … um, people from Brisbane.
• Kevin Rudd, recently deposed as Prime Minister of Australia
• The Bee Gees
• Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin
• Charles Kingsford-Smith (first man to fly across the Pacific)
• Loads of sporting personalities (take your pick from Allan Border, John Eales, Samantha Stosur, Craig Moore, Kieren Perkins, Darren Lockyer and Robbie McEwen)
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
Any time, really. Summer (November to March) is the best beach weather but the city can get uncomfortably hot – it’s a drier heat than in Singapore. 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.
A number of airlines fly direct from Singapore to Brisbane for around S$1,000 return. Flying time averages seven hours. Car rental is available from Brisbane International Airport from $40 a day and can easily be booked online.
Like this? Read more at our travel section.