When people think of visiting Australia’s cities, Brisbane is not usually high up on the list. Sydney is one of the most recognisable cities in the world, and Melbourne is known for its coffee culture and laid back vibes with street art and trams and beautiful buildings. Even Byron Bay, the hippie retreat not far from Brisbane, is more highly regarded than the nearby city. And Cairns offers all you need for an adrenaline-filled water-based trip.
That’s not to say that Brisbane isn’t worth a visit, however. Living here at the moment, I’d say it’s a far more “liveable” city than Sydney. It’s got more to it than Byron and Cairns. And it may not have the character of Melbourne, but as a growing city I’d say the sub-tropical metropolis is just getting better and better.
So I want to dispel the myths that Brisbane is a boring city. Here are ten things you can do on your visit to the sunniest city in Australia.
1. South Bank
South Bank is far and away my number one place to see in Brisbane. It’s laid back, it’s pretty, and it’s got a man-made beach and lagoon. What more could you want?
This picture is the quietest I’ve seen it – apart from my mate walking across my picture! ;) Normally the whole beach is packed with sunbathers and swimmers.
There’s also a free pick-your-own-herbs garden (I think this is a GREAT idea!), a Nepalese pagoda left standing after the World Expo 1988 (all other world exhibitions were dismantled straight away), and the Brisbane wheel offering views over the city – at $17.50 I think it’s a little steep for what it is, but you can find great deals on websites like Groupon.
Take a wander down the street behind the lagoon and indulge in a seriously delicious hot chocolate or milkshake from Max Brenner. Look out for the guy on a bike above the street.
2. Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary
A lot of people ask me if Lone Pine is worth the visit. And I say YES, it is! You get to hold koalas and feed kangaroos! You get to watch feeding sessions for platypuses and tasmanian devils. You can even hold a python.
Lone Pine tickets are $34 but if you book with Base Central hostel’s travel desk, you can get them for $28.
I posted a full review of Lone Pine here, so check it out for loads more info!
3. Queen Street
Queen Street is the main shopping plaza in Brisbane, and it reminds me a lot of Glasgow in Scotland. The whole pedestrianised precinct is essentially lined with shopping centres, and Wintergarden’s striking contemporary appearance (pictured above, though you can’t really see the butterflies) gives the street a lot of its character.
4. King George Square / City Hall
Formerly Albert Square, it was renamed King George Square after his death and revamped in 2009. Sitting just off Queen Street, is a great place to relax and people-watch. Shadowed by the impressive city hall, it also has the pretty Albert Street Uniting Church looking over it.
The City Hall offers free tours, or you can go in yourself to visit the Brisbane museum for an insight into the history of the city. (the Queensland museum is also across the river by South Bank and is worth a visit but it’s not unmissable)
Oh, and don’t forget to take a picture with the kangaroos, forged from scrap metal by designer Stephen Walker.
5. Fortitude Valley nightlife
If you’re looking for a good night out, look no further than “The Valley”. There are plenty of districts around Brisbane that offer good cocktail bars (Caxton Street) and hipster watering holes (West End), but the most central and exciting area for a fleeting visit to Brissy is Fortitude Valley, especially if you want to get away from the backpacker haunt of Down Under bar (in the basement of Base Central hostel).
The whole of Brunswick Street is dotted with bars and pubs – Retro’s offers some cheesy nights out, Taps is a cool place where you pour your own drinks, or check out the grungy Ric’s Bar where bands are known to drink when they play gigs in the city. A hidden (literally) gem is Greaser bar – an alternative pub plonked down a little alleyway just off the main Brunswick mall.
My favourite nightclub is Prohibition – a club themed as a secret underground bar in the 1920’s/30’s when alcohol was banned in the States. Though the main area is a fairly regular nightclub with an awesome mix of chandeliers and contemporary lights above the dance floor, there are two “chill out” rooms themed as 1930’s living rooms. There is usually a guy playing an acoustic set, and the on-site bar means you don’t even have to interrupt the session with dance music. The toilets, too, are very swanky with full-on salons in the girls bathrooms. It feels like you’re backstage in an old-fashioned Broadway or cabaret show.
6. Parks: Botanical Gardens and Roma Street Parklands
I LOVE the Botanical gardens in Brisbane! A retreat from the city, it’s just a bridge away from South Bank and still close to the city centre. Check out the ponds near the Albert Street entrance for sightings of water dragons – super awesome lizards that chill out in the sun and water all day.
We later visited the lesser-known Roma Street Parklands, which is split into an open park area and a garden which again is FULL of lizards. I could spend all day with these critters! There’s a little train that takes you around the whole parkland throughout the day (the last one is around 4pm) and volunteers on hand to tell you all about the plants and animals.
(picture credit: official Riverlife website)
I haven’t taken part in this myself yet, but Riverlife is an adventure centre that you wouldn’t expect in a city like Brisbane. With the company you can kayak down the river (watch out for bull sharks!), try your hand at stand-up paddle boarding, or have a go at rock climbing and abseiling.
8. Mount Coot-Tha
A trip up the “mountain” (more of a hill) offers a stunning view of the city. On a clear day (which let’s face it, is most days here), you can see Moreton and Stradbroke Islands in the distance. Catch a bus right up to the viewpoint, and just before the final stop there are trail walks, botanical gardens, and a planetarium.
Get there on the 471 bus – it’s a bit of a rollercoaster ride!
9. St. John’s Cathedral
I walked past this striking cathedral to work every day until we moved to a new place. Not really on the sightseeing radar, but very central along Ann Street; I really like this building. I’m not sure what it is about it, but the patchwork marble-like brickwork makes it striking every time I go past.
10. Use it as a base
Some say that the best thing about Brisbane is leaving it. While I think this is somewhat harsh on the rapidly growing city, I do think Brisbane is in a perfect location for exploring other places.
An hour to the north, you have the Sunshine coast which includes Australia Zoo, Noosa, Rainbow Beach and the largest sand island in the world, Fraser Island – a must-visit on the backpacker trail.
An hour to the south, you’ve got the Gold Coast – Surfer’s Paradise (pictured above), theme parks, Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, Tamborine Mountain and further along you’ll hit the hippie paradises (paradi?) Nimbin and Byron Bay (about two hours away).
And to the east, there’s Moreton Island, where you can feed wild dolphins at the Tangalooma Resort, and Stradbroke which is renowned for whale watching and also a popular place among Australians for camping.
Other things to do?
And I certainly haven’t covered everything.
You can jump on the FREE CityHopper ferry to get around the river stops. Just look out for the red and white boats – remember you have to pay for the blue CityCat boats but they are included on your GoCard if you have one. It’s probably the best way to get a good look at the city.
Brisbane has some fantastic food markets including Eat Street, regular foodie events around South Bank, and my personal favourite: the West End markets on a Friday and Saturday night! Your worldwide dining experience is surrounded by great live music, and being kind of “over-saturated” by markets on this trip, I was taken aback by how good the atmosphere is!
There’s also the chance to climb the Story Bridge, however my honest opinion? Why do this when you can spend a bit more to climb an iconic bridge in Sydney? Story Bridge is worth a view at night though – it’s lit up a different colour every evening, and the Wilson lookout point behind it provides a great view of the city. If you happen to be around at the end of September, Brisbane marks the end of its annual arts festival with a huge Riverfire fest, with one of the biggest firework displays I’ve ever seen. (pictured above)
In the city centre, the former Treasury building has rather ironically been converted into a huge casino. Unsurprisingly, it’s hugely popular with gambling-loving Australians and now tourists alike.
If you want more chill-out park areas, there’s the even-more-central-than-South-Bank Anzac Square. With its Greek-style pavilion commemorating those who fought in WW1, this whole square is dedicated to the Anzacs.
And if beer is your thing, check out the famous XXXX brewery for one of Australia’s favourite beers. It might not be the best beer in the world (what Australian lager is?) but it gives an insight into how it’s made and you get to do some beer tastings! What more does a backpacker need?