Brisbane, the state capital of Queensland boasts a mild, sub-tropical climate and channels the laid-back attitude that Australians are known for. Caught between tourist destinations, the Gold Coast and the Great Barrier Reef, Brisbane is often overlooked as a destination in its own right. So what is there for a visitor to do in Brisbane and its surrounds? Plenty.
You could be excused for thinking of Brisbane, as the poorer little sister of Sydney and Melbourne. Certainly, when I was growing up there, Brisbane culture began with rugby league and ended with XXXX Beer. The River City, as Brisbane is known, has long been considered an oversized country town.
However, I’m happy to report that since getting reacquainted with Brisbane, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much it’s grown up. Trendy neighbourhood cafes have sprung up among suburban Queenslander homes, cultural events abound, green spaces have bloomed, public art has multiplied and the cityscape has evolved. If you’re looking to experience what Aussie life is all about and wondering what to do in Brisbane – follow this list.
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Ride the City Cat
What better way to explore The River City than via the River itself? The Brisbane River. In fact, the City Cat (catamaran and ferry service) will link you up with a number of the attractions and activities listed below. Two of my favourite stops are New Farm Park for the historic Brisbane Powerhouse and Bulimba with its Oxford Street cafes and restaurants. See timetables for the City Cat and other public transport services here.
Note: Traveller’s on a budget should know that the City Hopper Ferry is free, however, it covers a shorter route than the City Cats and is quite a bit slower.
Get up close to the wildlife
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary isn’t just koalas, you can see many of Australia’s native species including kangaroos, dingos, wombats and echidnas. You can even get a photo cuddling a koala, holding a raptor, or if you dare, a snake! If you’re thinking “tourist alert” trust me, there is no child that grew up within 100km of this place that didn’t go there as a mandatory school excursion – locals cuddle koalas too.
Climb the Story Bridge
Take in stunning views of the city as you climb the heritage-listed Story Bridge. It’s not the Sydney Harbour Bridge but it was designed by Queensland native and engineer John Bradfield, who was responsible for overseeing the design and construction of the Sydney icon.
If a Story Bridge Climb is not in your budget, you can always walk the Bridge – see my recommended round-trip walking route in Scenic Circuits: Round-Trip Walks in Brisbane.
Rock Climb at Kangaroo Point
Climb and/or abseil the rhyolite cliff faces of Kangaroo Point, right across the Brisbane River from the CBD. There are various operators such as River Life who can help you with this venture. If you prefer something more passive, the boardwalk in Kangaroo Point Cliffs Park (at the base of the Cliffs) is a nice stroll with various public art installations. While the park that runs along the top of the Cliffs provides scenic close-up views of the Brisbane skyline, another great picnic spot to add to the following.
Picnic in the green spaces
Pack a picnic and discover Brisbane’s premier green spaces such as the Botanic Gardens or Roma Street Parklands. I spent many a break between university lectures sitting in the shade of a tree in the City Botanic Gardens – it is a lovely place to while away some spare time tucked in a meander of the Brisbane River. The Garden Club offers a packed picnic basket service if you don’t feel like making your own.
The Brisbane Botanic Gardens at Mount Coot-tha is a more expansive park just a short drive from the city. The Gardens offer free guided or self-guided walks through its themed spaces. The Australian Plant Communities section highlights native flora, forms a large portion of the Gardens and is my recommendation for international visitors.
Meanwhile, Roma Street Parkland is blossoming very nicely at the northwestern edge of the CBD. The Parklands have two childrens’ playgrounds and offer free one-hour guided walks twice per day.
Take in the view at Mount Coot-tha
If you have a car, make your way out to the summit of Mount Coot-tha for the best views of Brisbane at the lookout and restaurant. Catch a sunset from the Mountain and watch the city transition from day tonight. If you feel like the exercise, hike from JC Slaughter Falls to the peak – see here for details and more Brisbane walks.
Catch a match
There’s no way to avoid it, sport is ingrained in Aussie culture especially in South East Queensland where the weather is outdoor-friendly most of the year. Therefore, if you want to really get a local experience, then a sporting match is an essential itinerary item. Check the latest events at Suncorp Stadium for soccer, rugby league and rugby union match dates. While The Gabba (short for “Woolloongabba” the name of the suburb where it is located) is the place to see AFL (Australian Football League) and cricket.
Explore South Bank Parklands
South Bank, a short walk across the River from Brisbane’s CBD, is a great place for dining, getting active and delving into arts and culture. The 17 hectares of public space include gardens, a free artificial beach for swimming, walking and cycling paths, numerous restaurants and cafes, as well as the Performing Arts Centre, Maritime Museum, Museum and Sciencentre, and the Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA).
Tour the XXXX Brewery
For a taste of the iconic Queensland brew and its 135-year history, tour the historic XXXX Brewery in inner-city Brisbane. Note, all are welcome to tour the gorgeous art deco brewery but only those of legal drinking age, 18 years in Australia, can partake in the beer tasting.
Where to eat and drink in Brisbane
The Barracks, as the name would suggest, is a revived police barracks of yesteryear. The complex is built around three heritage-listed buildings – a stable, barracks and radio communications centre. The Barracks is home to a cinema along with upscale restaurants and retail.
The Barracks is situated at the top of Caxton Street where you will find plenty of locals eating and drinking, especially when there is a sporting match at Suncorp Stadium.
Boundary Street, West End is full of hip cafes and quirky boutiques. If you are having trouble choosing among the many places to eat, I highly recommend my favourite Greek restaurant in Brisbane – Little Greek Taverna and brunch at the Gunshop Cafe. Over the weekend, you can also visit the Boundary Street Markets for arts and crafts, food and vintage fashion. The Brisbane Vegan Markets also take place the last Sunday of every month.
The aforementioned Oxford Street, Bulimba is another suburban dining hotspot not far from the city.
Park Road, Milton is home to a popular strip of cafes around the corner from the XXXX Brewery. Please ignore the obnoxious Eiffel Tour replica that stands above the Italian restaurant La Dolce Vita.
Eat, drink and be entertained in the bustling market-style dining of Eat Street Friday through Sunday. Eat Street Northshore provides a global feast Riverside, in a compound appropriately constructed of old shipping containers. There is a $2.50 entry fee for those 13+ and parking is free.
Fortitude Valley is the place to find a party and is popular with the local LGBTQ community.
Day Trips from Brisbane
There are various attractions accessible as a day trips from Brisbane such as:
- Visit Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo and explore the surrounding Glass House Mountains
- Escape to the Gold Coast’s world-renowned beaches or theme parks.
- Hike or wine taste your way through the Gold Coast’s mountainous hinterland.
- Cruise across Moreton Bay to Tangalooma Resort, Moreton Island for swimming, snorkelling and dolphin feeding.
Events to schedule for (or avoid)
A few yearly events draw more than average crowds and make accommodation prices more expensive. Depending on your tastes, you may want to time your visit for one of these or stay away.
- Paniyiri – Greek festival which takes place in the West End area, annually around late May.
- BSAF – Brisbane Street Art Festival is another May celebration.
- Ekka – More formally known as the Royal Brisbane Show, it is Queensland’s biggest yearly event, which takes place in August.
- Riverfire – Yearly cultural festival centring around the Brisbane River in September.
Getting to Brisbane
Find the best value flights to Brisbane Airport (BNE) with Skyscanner. From the Airport, you can rent a car, Uber, take a private transfer or jump on the Airtrain service into the city.
Brisbane’s cruise terminal at Portside Wharf is located on the north side of the city. There is also a new, international cruise terminal being constructed at the Brisbane River mouth due for completion soon. Initial itineraries centre on South Pacific, New Zealand, North Queensland and Papua New Guinea.
With its subtropical climate, Brisbane is the perfect city for active travellers and outdoors enthusiasts. There are so many opportunities to be out in nature both inside and outside the city while getting a good dose of Aussie culture. If you’re looking for a budget-friendly alternative to Sydney or Melbourne or a less tourist-beaten path, Brisbane may just fit the bill.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,