It’s curious, but Australia’s most laid-back city divides opinion. In one corner, you’ve got those who dismiss Brisbane as little more than an urban gateway to Queensland’s more alluring tropical destinations, while in the other, there are the enthusiasts who point to its sun-drenched climate, outdoor way of life and a thriving nightlife.
Architecturally, the city is certainly distinct. Sprawled along the Brisbane River and its tributaries, the riverfront is shadowed by a hotchpotch of questionable high-rise developments, while the suburbs are filled with traditional tin-roof houses wrapped in breezy verandahs known as Queenslanders. On the outskirts, the landscape is decidedly green, giving way to the wineries and sprawling properties of the Scenic Rim — a region of forested national parks.
For international visitors, most of the action happens in the city’s CBD, spilling over into South Bank, where you’ll find Brisbane’s major galleries, museums and parklands. Nearby lies the inner city enclave of West End, while further up the river you’ll find the newly gentrified, but suitably grungy precincts of Newstead and Teneriffe, followed by posh hubs Ascot and Hamilton.
Come nightfall, most revellers head to the previously seedy, but now hip pubs, bars and restaurants of Fortitude Valley. Closer to the CBD, Caxton Street is popular with university students keen for a pint, while Burnett Lane, tucked behind Queen Street Mall, is the current darling of the trendy set thanks to a string of new openings.
Brisbane hasn’t yet been fully hit by the lockout laws that have curtailed nightlife in other East Coast cities. Instead, the bars have flourished, fuelling an exceptional live music scene. The city has long been an incubator for Australian indie bands, and you can’t spend a night on the town without catching live tunes.
Come the weekend, Brisbane’s appeal lies in the quirky smaller events visitors passing through often miss: a pizza box art show one weekend, a food truck music festival the next, or a jailbreak-themed movie and inmate-led tour at a heritage listed jail.
The best thing of Brisbane, however, is its people. There’s an ease with which the city conducts itself, a friendliness more notable here than elsewhere in Australia. While Sydney and Melbourne bicker about which is best, Brisbane kicks back with a beer, stretches in the sun and enjoys the good life.
See & do
South Bank: Stretching along the river opposite the CBD, South Bank is effectively the city’s lifestyle and cultural hub, home to the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Queensland Museum and Sciencentre. Alongside the Brisbane Wheel and the city’s Brisbane sign, there are parklands and a lagoon-style swimming spot open to the public, while during weekends there’s free live music at the riverfront amphitheatre.
Helicopter Tours: Pterodactyl Helicopters’ tailor-made tours of the Scenic Rim get you out of the city and up into the air. Best described as a flying pub-crawl, guests touch down in the back paddocks of family-owned wineries and nearby country pubs, sampling the local produce, wine and beer, before taking off again for a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding mountains.
Brisbane Greeters Tours: Departing at 10am daily, Brisbane’s free Brisbane Greeters tours offer a surprisingly comprehensive overview on the best of the city. Run by volunteer guides, tours are often tailored to their specific interests or knowledge, and it’s this personal perspective that make these intimate, six-person tours work. Bookings essential.
Story Bridge Adventure Climb: Brisbane’s Story Bridge has been the city’s postcard-perfect backdrop for years, but since 2005 it has also forged a new identity as a giant adult’s jungle gym, offering adventure climbs and abseiling tours for those keen enough to conquer their fear of heights. Sunset climbs offer the best views.
Lone Pine Sanctuary: Tick a few boxes on your animal encounters list by heading to Lone Pine Sanctuary, a 90-year-old Brisbane institution. Best reached via a river cruise from the CBD, visitors can feed kangaroos or cuddle a koala.
James Street: Located in Fortitude Valley, this meticulously landscaped shopping hub offers the crème de la crème of Australian brands. Broken up by a liberal scattering of al fresco cafes and homeware stores, it features designers such as Zimmerman, Camilla, Scanlan Theodore and Sass & Bide, as well as Brisbane activewear giant Lorna Jane.
Brisbane Arcade: Heritage-listed Brisbane Arcade is the perfect antidote to the same-same retail outlets occupying Queen Street Mall. Along with browsing the bridal boutiques, speciality jewellers and one of the city’s best-loved tea salons, keep an eye out for the resident ghost, rumoured to wander from shop to shop.
Ubermen: Raising the bar for men’s fashion is homegrown label Ubermen
— it opened in the CBD in 2014 and has since gained something of a cult following. Popular for its free stylist service, it also offers accessories and lifestyle products.
Eat Street Markets: Arguably Brisbane’s best food experience, offering everything from freshly shucked oysters to Vietnamese cuisine, with craft ales, live music, expansive chill-out areas and a bustling crowd.
Nodo: Nodo exemplifies the best of Australian cafe culture: a menu that covers everything from baked doughnuts to healthy green bowls, along with the critical ingredient any respectable Australian cafe needs: good coffee.
Esquire: Serving up modern Australian fine dining with the obligatory sweeping views of the Brisbane River, Esquire offers a daily changing market menu, with dishes ranging from lamb with black cardamom to anchovies and basil.
The Triffid: Owned by a member of one of Brisbane’s most successful bands, Powderfinger, The Triffid is the kind of venue musicians and fans dream of, with a container-park beer garden outside and an intimate performance space located inside an old World War Two aircraft hangar.
Lefty’s Old Time Music Hall: With ornate chandeliers, red velvet drapes, and taxidermy lining the walls, Lefty’s Old Time Music Hall doesn’t hold back on the kitsch or cool, with a hidden mermaid-themed bar inside and a regular billing of live honky-tonk, bluegrass and country music.
Riverbar: A favourite with the after-work crowd, Riverbar specialises in al fresco sunset drinks with sweeping views. Expect tasty shared plates, great beers and lazy cocktails. Its convenient CBD location near the Eagle Street Pier ferry terminal doesn’t hurt either.
Ibis Styles Elizabeth Street: Offering good value for money and decent views of the Brisbane River, this Ibis has bright, functional rooms in a central location and includes free continental breakfast.
Heal House: Located in Newstead, Heal House is one for the architectural buffs keen to live like a local in a large suburban Queenslander, with breakfast served on the verandah and a choice of three rooms with en suites for guests.
Hotel Inchcolm: With one of the best minibars you’ll ever see (including thankfully, a kettle), the Hotel Inchcolm offers visitors sophisticated art deco cool without sacrificing comfort. Don’t miss dining in its award-winning modern Australian restaurant, Thomson’s Reserve.
Like a local
The Blu Art Xinja: Brisbane’s answer to Banksy has left his blue mark all over Brisbane — but you have to know where to look. Locals have made a game of trying to spot the guerilla street artist’s work as it pops up — and before it’s taken down. The best example of ‘blue art’ is in Burnett Lane.
Newstead Brewing Co: The global craft beer phenomenon continues in Brisbane (a place where the climate thankfully warrants the thirst). To sample the city’s best, aficionados should head to the Newstead Brewing Co, popular for their lazy afternoon Sunday sessions.
Mount Coot-tha: Four miles from the CBD, Mount Coot-tha is known to international visitors as a lookout point offering the best views of Brisbane — but to locals it’s more popular for the walking tracks and bike trails through the surrounding bush land.
Getting there & around
Emirates codesharing with Qantas have connections from Newcastle, Manchester Birmingham and London to Brisbane (via Dubai). Singapore Airlines fly from Manchester and London to Brisbane via Singapore. Etihad Airways has connections via Abu Dhabi from London, Manchester and Edinburgh.
Brisbane Airtrain links Brisbane Airport and the CBD in 23 minutes. Tickets cost
Trains, buses and ferries connect the city. Customers require a prepaid Go Card, available from local railway stations. Two free buses, the City Loop and Spring Hill Loop, run between 7am to 6pm weekdays. A free (but horribly congested) Cityhopper ferry service travels between North Quay and New Farm. translink.com.au
Brisbane’s bike share scheme, CityCycle, has more than 150 pit stops with the first half-hour’s hire free; a week’s hire costs A$11 (£6.60). Riders must pre-register online.
Queensland & the Great Barrier Reef (Lonely Planet). RRP: £15.99
How to do it
Travelbag has a seven-night package with three nights in Brisbane and four nights on the Gold Coast, including flights, from £899 per person, based on two people sharing.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)