Founded in 1824 on the banks of the wide, meandering Brisbane River, the
former penal colony of Brisbane was for many years regarded as just a big
country town. Many beautiful timber Queenslander homes, built in the 1800s,
still dot the riverbanks and inner suburbs, and in spring the city's numerous
parks erupt in a riot of colorful jacaranda, poinciana, and bougainvillea
blossoms. Today the Queensland capital is one of Australia's most up-and-coming
cities: glittering high-rises mark its polished business center, slick fashion
boutiques and restaurants abound, and numerous outdoor attractions beckon. In
summer, temperatures here are broilingly hot and days are often humid, a
reminder that this city is part of a subtropical region. Wear SPF 30-plus
sunscreen and a broad-brimmed hat outdoors, even on overcast days.
Brisbane's inner suburbs, a 5- to 10-minute drive or 15- to 20-minute walk from the city center, have a mix of intriguing eateries and quiet accommodations. Fortitude Valley combines Chinatown with a cosmopolitan mix of clubs, cafés, and boutiques. Spring Hill has several high-quality hotels, and Paddington, New Farm, Petrie Terrace, West End, and Woolloongabba are full of an eclectic mix of restaurants and bars. Brisbane is also a convenient base for trips to the Sunshine and Gold coasts, the mountainous hinterlands, and the Moreton Bay islands.
Brisbane's city-center landmarks—a mix of Victorian, Edwardian, and slick contemporary architecture—are best explored on foot. Most lie within the triangle formed by Ann Street and the bends of the Brisbane River. Streets running toward the river are named after female British royalty; those parallel to the river after male royalty. The well-tended South Bank precinct has riverfront parklands and cultural centers, alfresco cafés, and weekend markets. Upriver, the quiet, leafy suburb of Fig Tree Pocket is home to Australia's best-known koala sanctuary.
In the past decade Brisbane has transformed from a culinary backwater into a city full of inventive dining options. Top chefs have decamped to Brisbane's best eateries, and are busy putting put a fresh subtropical spin on Modern Australian, pan-Asian, and Mediterranean cuisine.
Imaginative dishes capitalize on abundant regional produce: fine fresh seafood—notably the local delicacy, the Moreton Bay bug (a sweet-fleshed crustacean)—premium steak, Darling Downs lamb, cheeses, macadamia nuts, avocadoes, olives, and fruit, matched with fine regional wines.
Most of the city's hip cafés and smart fine dining establishments are clustered in West End, Fortitude Valley, New Farm, Teneriffe, and Petrie Terrace; you'll also find some excellent eateries in the city center and the riverfront South Bank precinct, and a smattering around the suburbs, particularly Rosalie, Paddington, Milton, and Ascot. For terrific fresh seafood, head for Brisbane's bay-side suburbs, such as Manly, Redcliffe, and Sandgate.
Typically, dining ambience is relaxed, seating is alfresco, and well-mannered children are welcomed.
Twenty years ago Brisbane's accommodation options consisted of a few big hotels and some welcoming but nondescript motels and B&Bs. These days the inner-city area bristles with luxury hotels and smart serviced-apartment complexes. There are also a few excellent boutique hotels, some cut-above B&Bs, and modern backpacker hotels giving pricier digs a run for their money. Many have good-value packages and seasonal and last-minute specials. Jump online for the best deals.
The Saturday edition of the Courier–Mail newspaper lists live gigs and concerts, ballet, opera, theater, jazz, and other events in its Life section, while Friday's CM2 insert offers a comprehensive entertainment guide for the weekend ahead. The Weekend Edition has suburb-by-suburb listings of Brisbane's best cafés, restaurants, shopping, and nightlife spots, as well as weekly updates on new events and establishments around the city.
Heritage-listed Brisbane Arcade, circa 1923, joins Queen Street Mall and Adelaide Street and houses designer boutiques, jewelry shops, and upscale gift, art, and antiques stores.
Rowes Arcade is a rebuilt 1920s ballroom-banquet hall now housing boutique clothing stores.
Historic MacArthur Central, the WWII headquarters of US General Douglas MacArthur, houses boutiques and specialty shops, a food court, and a museum. Located at the bottom of the Queen Street Mall, the streets surrounding the centre also feature a range of high-end fashion boutiques that include Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Tiffany & Co. The MacArthur Museum is open to the public Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday 10 am–3 pm.
Queen Street Mall
Fun and lively Queen Street Mall, considered the best downtown shopping area, attracts around 26 million visitors a year. Nearly a third of a mile long, the mall incorporates five major shopping centers, including the Myer Centre, Wintergarden, and QueensPlaza, as well as two large department stores, Myer and David Jones, and four arcades: historic Tattersall's Arcade and MacArthur Central, Heritage-listed Brisbane Arcade, and Broadway on the Mall, all housing designer boutiques and a range of specialty stores. On weekends, free entertainment and performances can often be found on the Mall's two open stages.
Elizabeth Arcade is home to distinctive boutiques showcasing up-and-coming and established designers.
Opened in 1868, this splendid, stone-clad, French Renaissance building with a Mount Isa copper roof earned its colonial designer a meager 200-guinea (A$440) fee. A legislative annex was added in the late 1970s. The interior is fitted with polished timber, brass, and frosted and engraved glass. There are free half-hour tours on weekday afternoons, depending on demand. High Tea is offered in the elegant Strangers' Dining Room from 10:30 am to noon the first Friday of every month (A$41 per person). The adjacent, kid-friendly City Botanic Gardens have native and exotic plants and theme areas, including the Bamboo Grove and Weeping Fig Avenue, along with sculptures, ponds, and an on-site cafe.
Queensland Cultural Centre
This sunny riverside hub is literally the cultural center of Brisbane, with a variety of world-class facilities nestled together amongst landscaped lawns and cafés. The world famous Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) with its everchanging exhibitions and events is a must-visit, while a short stroll away the equally impressive Queensland Art Gallery, Queensland Museum, and Sciencentre offer attractions for both young and old. Meanwhile, you can't miss the green walls of the architecturally renowned State Library of Queensland (the giant scrabble board on Level 1 is always worth a visit), and across the road, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) bustles with concerts and stage shows. There's also a host of restaurants, cafés, shops selling quality gifts, art posters, books and cards, a ticketing agent (within QPAC), public-access computer terminals, and various interesting public spaces. Green Cabs (modern rickshaws) are a fun and unique way to get around and sightsee. From the Cultural Centre forecourt, they'll ferry passengers anywhere between West End and Fortitude Valley.
South Bank Parklands
One of the most appealing urban parks in Australia, this massive complex includes parklands, shops, a maritime museum, walking and cycling paths, a sprawling man-made beach and luxurious lagoons, a carved-wood pagoda, and excellent city views. The weekend Collective Markets (running until 9 pm on Saturday evenings) bristle with handmade goods, live entertainers, buskers, artists and emerging designers, and almost every week you'll find a new festival or event coloring the Cultural Forecourt. Nearby Grey Street is lined with trendy shops and cafés, as well as contemporary international restaurants, bars, and an on-site cinema. The Wheel of Brisbane, a giant Ferris wheel at the northern entrance of South Bank, is also a must for travelers wanting a spectactular view of the city for A$15 per person. South Bank Parklands stretches along the riverbank south of Queensland Cultural Centre.
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary
Founded in 1927, Queensland's most famous fauna park is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's first and largest koala sanctuary. The attractions for most people are the koalas themselves (130 in all!), although emus, wombats, crocs, bats, platypuses, and lorikeets also reside here. You can hand-feed baby kangaroos in the free-range 'roo and wallaby enclosure, have a snake wrapped around you, or cuddle a koala and have your photo taken with one. There's also a thrice-daily sheepdog show and regular barn animal and bird feedings.
oma Street Parkland
The world's largest subtropical garden within a city is a gentle mix of forest paths and structured plantings surrounding a fish-stocked lake. Highlights include the Lilly Pilly Garden, with native evergreen rain-forest plants, interesting children's play areas, and the friendly resident birds and lizards. A range of public art pieces are also dotted throughout the park. Pack a picnic, take advantage of the free grills, or stop for lunch at on-site café Melange. Free hour-long guided garden tours begin daily at 10 and 2, or on weekends hop on the Parkland Explorer, a trackless train that gives guests a full tour of the gardens for a gold coin donation. There are also specialist art, heritage, curator's, or sensory tours (pre-book these) and brochures for self-guided walks available online or from Colin Campbell Place.
Old Windmill & Observatory
This 1824 construction is the oldest remaining convict-built structure in Brisbane, dubbed the "Tower of Torture" by convicts forced to power a treadmill to crush the colony's grain on windless days. When fire razed part of the city in 1864 the windmill survived, later repurposed as an observatory. Stripped of its blades, the tower now resembles a lighthouse.
The Commissariat Store
Convict-built in 1829 on the site of the city's original timber wharf, this was Brisbane's first stone building. It has served variously as a customs house, storehouse, and immigrants' shelter, and is currently the headquarters of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland. The RGSQ library and museum, open to visitors, hold exhibitions, historical documents, manuscripts, and artifacts dating back to Brisbane's early colonial days. Group tours of the museum are welcome.