Brisbane, Queensland’s rapidly growing capital city, caught the world’s attention during World Expo 88, commemorating Australia’s bicentennial. Since then, the city’s South Bank cultural attractions, creative use of its riverfront and proximity to some of Australia’s best beaches have drawn an ever-increasing number of visitors and new residents. The Gold Coast and Surfers Paradise are just an hour away, and the Sunshine Coast is two hours to the north. However, the extreme south end of the Great Barrier Reef begins 230 miles north of the city, so it’s not an option for a day out.
Brisbane, a fast-growing city of 2.1 million people, is located some 600 miles north of Sydney and has a semitropical climate. It sits astride the navigable Brisbane River and faces the island-studded Moreton Bay. No other city quite makes such good use of its river as a travel artery, and visitors will find the CityCat ferries and other local boat services an ideal way to reach the most popular museums, botanical gardens, wildlife parks, historic neighborhoods, lively shopping precincts and riverfront plazas with their variety of restaurants and cafes. Within the city limits, both riverbanks have footpaths that stretch for many miles.
For those who would like to spend an independent day in the city center, nearly everything is within walking distance, and conveniently placed bridges and small cross-river launches link both sides.
Brisbane City Hall, built in 1930, was once the city’s tallest building. Now, when you take the elevator up 300 feet into the clock tower (which strikes loudly on the hour), you have views of even taller buildings, the river and several parks. On the ground floor, the Museum of Brisbane uses photos and maps to show how the city developed, exhibits paintings of Brisbane through history and screens videos of local citizens talking about their lives. Admission to the museum and clock tower is free.
Newstead House, the city’s oldest surviving house (it dates back to 1846), is set in a park overlooking the Brisbane River. During World War II, the U.S. Army occupied the house, and Brisbane saw one million U.S. troops pass through the city during the Pacific War. There is a modest admission charge.
RiverWalk extends for 13 miles along the Brisbane River’s north bank — from the University of Queensland at St. Lucia downriver to Teneriffe and well beyond the city center. Walk one way, and take the CityCat in the other direction from any of a dozen landings. The best walking sections skirt the restaurants and cafes in the city center, passing into the botanical gardens and onto wooden walkways through a mangrove swamp, where the adjacent urban skyline disappears from sight and mind. A shorter walk extends a few miles along the South Bank, opposite the city center.
The South Bank, across the Brisbane River, took on its present attractive look during World Expo 88. The area includes riverside walks, shops, parklands, a sandy beach and pool, weekend markets and the Queensland Cultural Centre. There is a sense of complete freedom to be able to walk in and out of these museums at will and without turnstile barriers and security checks. In the Cultural Centre, the Queensland Art Gallery is a spacious, light-filled, water-dappled repository of European masters, Australian artists and Aboriginal art. The Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, next door, exhibits contemporary art by Australians, Aborigines, Asians and South Pacific islanders. Two cinemas show regular film programs. The Queensland Museum exhibits natural history, artifacts from World Wars I and II, a hanging aircraft, a beautiful Orient Line ship model and dinosaur exhibits for kids. The State Library often has free exhibits. You can cross to the South Bank by ferry or via several bridges, two built exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists.
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, located along the Brisbane River at Fig Tree Pocket, is a 20-minute taxi ride or 30 minutes by bus from the city center. However, the most enjoyable way to arrive is by boat; try a scenic 90-minute sail with Mirimar Cruises (with commentary), a 2.5-hour stay at the sanctuary and a relaxing 90-minute return. (You can book this experience on Viator.) Most people come to see the koalas, and more than 100 are on view. You can cuddle one while having your picture taken (for a fee), and dozens queue up for the opportunity. Lone Pine also houses many only-in-Australia creatures. You can buy food to feed the kangaroos and wallabies, and you can observe emus, wombats, bats, skinks, baby crocodiles, black-headed pythons and turtles.
Brisbane Botanic Gardens Mount Coot-tha, in Toowong, is just four miles from the city via bus or car. The 128-acre garden is set below Mount Coot-tha, with many rain forest plants that are seen nowhere else. Also featured are the Tropical Display Dome, a cactus house, an elaborate Japanese garden, a lake and walking trails. One trail climbs to the top of Mount Coot-tha for a view of Brisbane and Moreton Bay beyond. Admission is free, as are the one-hour guided tours.
Thanks to Brisbane’s location on the Queensland Coast, seafood is abundant and fresh. Favorite choices are wild barramundi, clams, mussels, mud crabs and Moreton Bay bugs (crustaceans with a strong flavor). Favorite dishes, direct from the Outback, include farm-raised kangaroo and, of course, steak. Queensland is farm country, so expect plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit. With the recent influx of immigrants from around the world, many ethnic cuisines — especially Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Indonesian — are now available in Brisbane.
Australian wines are varied and excellent; they range from inexpensive to some of the best in the world. On Australian menus, entrees or small plates are first courses or appetizers, and main courses or big plates are just that. The price of food includes the tax, and at informal restaurants and cafes, gratuities are not expected. In the better restaurants, 10 percent is generous.
In Brisbane, a good destination for lunch is Riverside, a CityCat stop adjacent to the city center. It has numerous restaurants on tiered levels, most of which face the Brisbane River. Some have outdoor cafe seating.
The Coffee Club, which has several locations in the city center, is an inexpensive choice for light meals. You order your battered fish and seasoned chips, lemon pepper calamari, or filet burger with a salad garnish at a counter, and it will be delivered to your table. For river views, stop by the Eagle Street Pier location.
Watt Restaurant & Bar is located at the Brisbane Powerhouse. This popular location, directly on the Brisbane River, used to house the power plant that ran Brisbane’s trams. It’s now a multi-use arts center and restaurant complex. Watt is on the ground floor facing the river with both indoor and outdoor seating. Small plates feature braised duck spring rolls and pulled pork taquitos, while large plates include pork belly, Moreton Bay bug linguine, and risotto with asparagus and mint. Take the CityCat to New Farm Park and walk five minutes downstream along the riverside to the restaurant.
The Summit, located at the Mt. Coot-tha Lookout in Toowong, is a contemporary Australian restaurant, housed in a rambling bungalow with modern additions and outstanding views of Brisbane and Moreton Bay. Try seared deep-sea scallops, grilled saltwater barramundi, fillet of Hereford beef or spinach and goat cheese frittata.
Zafron on Brunswick, located in the New Farm neighborhood, earns rave reviews for its unique Persian/Mediterranean dishes. The signature menu offering, Caspian chicken, features a chicken fillet topped with pomegranate nectar, roasted pinenuts and creamy saffron sauce. Other options include slow-cooked lamb stew, cherry rice with Persian meatballs and vegetarian tagine.
Shopping in Brisbane
Popular souvenirs to bring home from Brisbane include unique Aboriginal arts and crafts such as paintings, sculptures and decorative accessories. In addition, trays, coasters, mugs and tea towels that display Australia’s unique animals — kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, wombats, cassowary birds and emus — are very popular buys.
Queen Street, a pedestrian mall stretching several blocks, and the Myer Centre are Brisbane’s main shopping venues, with fast food courts among the shops and covered outdoor restaurants in the mall passage. Often, outdoor concerts and musical events take place there, and the locale teems with all ages during late shopping hours on Friday and Saturday.
For more funky and unique finds, check out the Valley Markets, located in Fortitude Valley, where you’ll find a mix of contemporary arts and crafts, vintage fashion and retro accessories. The markets are open on weekends.
If you’re hunting for antiques, collectibles, fine art, home goods and unique apparel, head for Paddington, where cottages have been converted into charming boutiques. There are plenty of bistros and cafes where you can grab a drink or a bite between shops.
— written by Theodore W. Scull