Once overshadowed by Sydney and Melbourne, Brisbane is finally enjoying its day in the sun. Queensland’s capital now has world-class museums and galleries to rival Melbs, and exciting hotels and restaurants to give the Harbour City a run for its money. Plus there are the Great Barrier Reef, Glass House Mountains, a string of laid-back beach towns, sub-tropical isles and miles of protected forest (with rare koalas) right on its doorstep.
Spend a few days wandering Brissie’s cultural riverside precinct and diverse urban villages before heading out to the Hinterland and Sunshine Coast to discover more of what Australia’s most laid-back state has in store.
What to do
Roll down the river
Hop on (and off) the city ferries that ply the Brisbane River to explore the myriad neighbourhoods along its banks.
The leafy New Farm district is home to the Brisbane Powerhouse, a former power station repurposed as one of the city’s most dynamic arts spaces, hosting concerts, plays, exhibitions and events.
West End offers vintage shopping, live music venues and cool cafes and restaurants.
Meanwhile, South Bank is Brisbane’s cultural and entertainment hub, featuring the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), Streets Beach (Australia’s only inner-city, man-made beach), and the 60m-high Wheel of Brisbane. Entry is A$21 (£11).
Uncover Brisbane’s indigenous history and heritage with the Aboriginal guides from BlackCard Cultural Tours. Explore the art exhibitions and installations of the South Bank, follow a bush tucker trail along the Riverwalk to learn about native plants and fruits, and listen to mesmerising didgeridoo performances and Dreamtime tales about the world’s oldest civilisation. Daily tours start from A$55 (£30).
Fly sky high
For an out-of-this-world experience, float in a hot air balloon 4,000ft above southeast Queensland’s spectacular Scenic Rim. It’s a 4am pick-up time and lift-off takes place an hour outside the city, but the views are worth it, with forests and farmlands, and mountains stretching beyond. Coming back down to earth ain’t so bad either, with breakfast and bubbles at O’Reilly’s Canungra Valley Vineyards. Flights from A$280 (£151) per adult.
Get up-close with a koala
Just seven miles from the city, Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is the world’s first and largest refuge for Australia’s loveable, tuft-eared tree-huggers. With the wild population sadly in decline, Lone Pine’s Brisbane Koala Science Institute runs research and conservation programmes to help protect the species, while visitors can enjoy up-close encounters with the koalas, plus kangaroos, wallabies and other native species. Open 9am-5pm daily; day pass entry A$34.20 (£18).
Hit the road
Friendly, laid-back beach towns stretch north of Brisbane along Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, attracting surfers and sailors, holidaymakers and hip kids. Hire a Maui campervan from Brisbane for a road trip in true Aussie style, stopping to hit the white-sand beaches, al fresco restaurants and hiking trails up the coast. Well-equipped campsites offer reasonably priced stays along the route to cosmopolitan Noosa, 90 miles north, where beautiful bays, boutique shops and stylish, shore-side restaurants await. Maui campervan rentals start from A$100 (£54). (Indicative pricing only, varies by travel date, subject to change.)
Where to stay
If you like your hotels super-sparkly with a good splash of bling, choose the new Emporium Hotel on the city’s South Bank. Ultra-modern suites, some with spa baths, have Bose audio and HD mirror-finish TVs, plus a pillow menu for guaranteed beauty sleeps. For the ultimate Insta-prize, head to the rooftop infinity pool where palm trees, sunshine and skyline views await. Doubles from A$299 (£161), room only.
For a cool, urban vibe, check-in to TRYP in Fortitude Valley. Brisbane’s street art hotel is a feast for the eyes with striking, unique works from internationally renowned artists, including Numskull and Rone. Choose a private spa room to watch TV in the balcony hot tub while sinking a beer as the city comes alive below. Doubles from A$170 (£92), room only.
Had your fill of the city? Head to the Sunshine Coast Hinterland for some R&R amid its rolling hills and artsy country towns. Spicers Tamarind Retreat’s stylishly understated villas provide chilled seclusion, set in lush gardens near the village of Maleny. Doubles from A$400 (£216).
Where to eat
Australia is known for its epic breakfasts, and Brisbane has cafes in every corner serving up some of the country’s best. Harveys Bar + Bistro on James Street in Fortitude Valley is an institution, delivering rostis, pancakes, tortillas and fruit bowls, plus zingy morning libations to kickstart your day.
Lunch in style under a shady tree, with a selection of elegant treats from the Vintage Picnic Company. The magic is woven before you arrive: woollen blankets and pretty cushions spread; a table laid with china, silver and glass; wicker baskets filled with sandwiches, canapés and cakes; and bubbles chilling on ice. Simply choose the location, select your tunes on the retro stereo and enjoy. Three-course picnics for two from A$275 (£148).
You’ll find great food, entertainment, DJs, movies and more at Eat Street Northshore, with more than 70 vendors serving cuisine from around the world. Shipping containers, food carts and stalls offer everything from Japanese pizza to Peruvian paella, while bands play in the warehouses and bars of the riverside site. Take the CityCat to Northshore Hamilton ferry terminal. Open Friday and Saturday, 4pm-10pm, and Sunday, noon-8pm; entry A$3 (£1.60).
Where to drink
Brisbane’s craft beer scene is booming and there’s an exciting new kid on the block in the shape of Felons Brewing Co. It serves up pale ale, lager and cider in an industrial warehouse at the heritage-listed Howard Smith Wharves, a new drinking and dining destination below the city’s Story Bridge.
Fortitude Valley’s bars are buzzing at night. Start with a search for the orange door on Ann Street, the portal to Saville Row, a dark and mysterious drinking den with decadent decor and a cocktail list to match. Then head along the road to the Eleven Rooftop Bar for al fresco brews and DJ sets, plus sweeping 270-degree views of Brisbane’s sparkling skyline.
Survive the morning after with a cup of Australia’s legendary coffee. Now an international chain, Di Bella Coffee started here in the Brisbane suburb of Bowen Hills. But one of the best coffee joints is Blackstar, a boutique roaster in West End, the bohemian district south of the river.
Where to shop
Stylish and relaxed, James Street is the perfect place for fashionistas who like to mash up a shopping trip with a stroll and a graze. Straddling New Farm and Fortitude Valley, smart boutiques sit next to equally chic bars and cafes – power up mid-shop with a juice from Pineapple Express.
For a more serious shopping session, Queen Street Mall in Brisbane’s central business district (CBD) has over 700 stores, including major retail chains like Zara, Uniqlo and H&M, while QueensPlaza is home to high-end designer brands of the Vuitton, Dior and Chanel kind. The nearby Wintergarden bursts with boutiques and restaurants, and the historic Brisbane Arcade is the place to find locally designed clothing and jewellery.
Take the CityCat to Bulimba, where Oxford Street offers an interesting mix of clothing boutiques, homeware and gift shops, second-hand stores and great cafes. There’s a lovely park at its centre, too.
Spanning the Brisbane River, the city’s iconic Story Bridge connects Fortitude Valley with Kangaroo Point. Spectacularly illuminated at night, the bridge offers an Adventure Climb for those with a head for heights, day climbs A$129 (£70),and is the star of Brisbane Festival’s annual Riverfire pyrotechnic display.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
Should I tip?
While not obligatory, tips are always appreciated, but check that a service charge hasn’t already been added to any bills.
What’s the time difference?
10 hours ahead of the UK.
Average flight time from the UK?
Around 22 hours, with one stop. Singapore Airlines operates four daily flights from London Heathrow, and five flights weekly from Manchester, to Singapore, connecting to Brisbane, from £745 return.
Brisbane has great public transport, with free buses circling the inner city every 10 minutes between 7am and 6pm weekdays, and a free CityHopper ferry travelling between North Quay and New Farm. The CityCat, SpeedyCat and CityFerry services are also a great way to see the sights (tickets can be purchased on board), or join the locals walking and cycling along the Brisbane Riverwalk.
At 287m above sea level, the Brisbane Lookout at Mt Coot-tha offers fantastic views of the city, stretching to Moreton Bay beyond.
While most visitors enjoy Brisbane’s balmy nights with a stroll along the South Bank, take your own more secluded skip through the twinkling Fairy Garden on the City Botanic Gardens side of the Goodwill Bridge.
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