“You can skip Brisbane”, is something I often hear other tour guides telling visitors to Sydney or Melbourne. That’s such a cop-out! I was born and bred in “Brisvegas”, and it rocks to a different beat than the flashier southern capitals.
Yes, I live in Sydney now, so obviously I’m not entirely loyal son of the city, but I still think Brisbane is great, and one day I’ll get back there for good. Until then, I’m going to live vicariously through you, dear reader, and share with you my top 10 things to do and places to visit.
Before I get into our list, the first thing to know is that Brisbane is not a “destination” city, unlike Sydney or Melbourne.
In Sydney, you have to visit the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and Bondi Beach, while in Melbourne, Federation Square, Hosier Lane and the Great Ocean Road are all must-dos. With Brisbane, I always say that it is more of an “atmosphere” city, somewhere you can go to relax, soak up the friendly vibes of the locals and chill out (as much as you can, given the humidity).
1. Visit Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary
There’s one thing that you have to do while in Brisbane, and that is… visit Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and cuddle a koala! Due to some inconsistent laws with the other states, Queensland is one of the only states in Australia where you can still physically hold a koala. Because koalas sleep something like 16 to 20 hours a day, it can be kind of stressful for them to be woken up to be held by a groping tourist, so most states have long since banned this kind of behaviour.
But not Queensland! Our koalas are made of tougher stuff, and are wide awake and ready for your coo-cooing and over-the-top selfies. Okay, that was a joke. The truth is that Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary has over 130 koalas and very strict policies in place to make sure that the koala’s welfare is never at risk (you can read more about their policies here).
Holding a koala at Lone Pine only costs $25, so it is one of the cheapest places I know of to do this “Aussie bucket list” activity. As this activity is subject to availability, you can only purchase it when you are at the sanctuary. You can book your entry ticket in advance though, and if you book via Klook you’ll get a special discounted price of $28 for an adult or $19 for a child.
Lone Pine is not just about koalas. It’s home to over 70 species of Australian native wildlife, so you can also see platypus, kangaroos, Tasmanian Devils, dingoes, wombats, the Southern Cassowary, echidnas, wombats, emus, freshwater crocodiles and loads of Australian birdlife.
Give yourself a few hours to see everything, or make a day of it with a ferry ride there and back. This is my favourite way to visit Lone Pine. Catch the “Miramar” ferry from the Cultural Centre Public Pontoon at 10:00 am and cruise up the Brisbane River. You’ll have a full 3 hours at Lone Pine, before returning to South Bank at 3:30 pm. Alternatively, you can drive there from the city in about 20 minutes, or catch the 430 or 445 buses from Brisbane’s CBD (they take around 50 minutes). Lone Pine can get busy on weekends and during school holidays, so try to plan your visit around those times.
2. Cruise the “Brown Snake” (Brisbane River)
Like most other capital cities in Australia, Brisbane is based around a river. However, unlike Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart, Brisbane developed up-stream from the coastline, along the wide and windy estuary that the traditional owners, the Jagera and Turrbul people, called “Meanjin” (place shaped like a spike). Given Brisbane River is a tidal estuary, it has a rather brownish muddy look to it, so many locals refer to it as the “Brown Snake”. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful wide river and while you’re in Brisbane, it is well worth seeing it up close.
Plus, who doesn’t like something FREE? You can catch a red “CityHopper” ferry which stops at 8 different locations along the river, and hop on and off wherever you care. This is the most frequent ferry service and is loved by regular commuters. And it won’t even cost you a cent!
If the CityHopper is too slow for you, then grab your “GoCard” (the public transport card used in Brisbane) and jump on a “CityCat” ferry which is the fastest way to see the Brisbane River. These ferries will take you to the ocean cruise terminal downstream at Portside, or as far upstream as the sandstone buildings of the University of Queensland campus at St Lucia.
If you ride downstream to New Farm you’ll find a part of Brisbane that used to be industrial and was home to many woolstores during Brisbane’s early history. If you want to learn more about Queensland’s wool industry and hear how this area has changed over time, join this Airbnb Experience with local storyteller Ben.
Nowadays, New Farm is popular amongst young inner-city types, with uber-chic stores, restaurants and apartments. Pop by long-standing New Farm Deli & Cafe for a coffee, a tasty sandwich and some authentic Italian produce including cured meats and cheese. If you’re in New Farm on a Saturday, make sure to visit the Powerhouse Farmers Markets (open 6:00 am to 12:00 pm).
From New Farm, join the locals and stroll 25 minutes along the river walkway into the CBD on a floating pedestrian and cycling boardwalk, all the way into the heart of the city and beyond. This is an excellent spot for budding photographers – you’ll get some great photo opportunities along the way, especially at sunset.
3. Eat, drink and explore in West End
For a short period of my childhood, I grew up in West End, a hippie-ish neighbourhood less than 2 kilometres from the CBD. Whenever I’m back in Brisbane this is my favourite area to hang out. There’s just so many great cafes, bars and stores along the main street, Boundary Street, so here are just a handful of places you should check out.
For food and coffee, my current fave is West End Coffee House, a chilled-out cafe which serves up tasty Thai-inspired breaky options. Other top cafes include The Burrow, Blackstar Coffee Roasters and The Gunshop Cafe.
West End is also home to a couple of microbreweries, Brisbane Brewing Co and The Catchment Brewing Co, which are just a few doors apart. And right in between is The Bearded Lady, a live music bar and always one of the last places still busy on a Friday and Saturday night. For more of a “date bar” option, take a 2-minute walk around the corner to The End Bar.
I’m a sucker for a good bookshop, and West End serves up double the fun with both “Avid Reader Bookshop” (new books) and “Bent Books” (second-hand books) on Boundary Street, again just 2 minutes apart.
If you’re in West End on a Saturday, don’t miss The Davies Park Market, on from 6:00 am till 2:00 pm, on the corner of Montague Road and Jane Street. These markets are about 10 minutes walk from West End’s main streets. Grab a tasty breakfast or lunch from one of the many awesome food vendors and sit under the big Moreton Bay fig trees, while listening to some talented John Butler-wannabe musicians and watching the rowing crews train on the River.
4. Park yourself at the South Bank Parklands and get cultural at the Cultural Centre
Right opposite Brisbane’s CBD is the South Bank Parklands. The main attraction here is a man-made beach, but there’s also riverside walkways, a mini-rainforest, a giant Ferris wheel, a Nepalese “peace pagoda” and a foodie paradise within the 17 hectares of the South Bank Parklands.
If it is a sunny day (and it often is in Brisbane), bring your swimmers and jump in the water at Streets Beach. Yes, you can have a true “beach experience”, all the while looking back across the river to the highrises of Brisbane CBD. Although I don’t recommend you put your head underwater…lots of little kiddies swim here (they put the “p” in “pool”).
South Bank is right next to Brisbane’s Arts Precinct, which is centrally located between two major inner-city bridges – the Victoria Bridge and the Kurilpa Bridge. From the CBD, this is a short and an easy walk. Here you will find the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), the Queensland Museum (including the Sciencentre), the State Library, the Conservatorium of Music, and the Performing Arts Centre, which encompasses theatres for ballet, music and drama. The Convention Centre is here too, so there’s more than enough to entertain thespians, children, and anyone for a day or evening, without needing to walk too far.
5. Find hidden gems and street art in Brisbane’s CBD
The heart of Brisbane City is an easy place to navigate, thanks to the English habit of naming streets after their royalty. Running parallel to each other in the north-south direction are streets named after the girls (Ann, Adelaide, Queen, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Margaret and Alice), while east-west are the boys’ streets (William, George, Albert and Edward).
Nowadays, in the CBD, Charlotte and Elizabeth Streets, particularly between George and Albert Street, are home to wonderful Asian eateries of all price ranges. Check out at Roti Place at 42 Charlotte Street, which does modern Malaysian style food and is clean and efficient.
Whenever I’m in the city, I like to visit Archives Fine Books, a labyrinth-like second-hand bookshop, also on Charlotte Street. You could spend days here looking for a rare book! And when you need to grab a coffee, John Mills Himself is an excellent cafe by day, bar by night that is literally next door (and out the back – follow the signs).
For some street art with your coffee, wander over to Burnett Lane. Like Fish Lane (see before), this back alley has been done-up in the last few years and hosts a bunch of cool cafes and bars. For more on checking out street art in Brisbane, read this guide from the official Queensland tourism blog.
6. Take a trip to Moreton or North Stradbroke Islands
Many people assume that there are beaches in Brisbane, given that it is on the east coast. That’s not quite the case, but just to the east of Brisbane is Moreton Bay, home to over 350 islands. This is where you’ll find loads of sandy beaches! Some of these islands are even connected to Brisbane by bridges, such as Bribie Island, where my family used to always go on holiday (to this day, Easter holidays still mean beach time on Bribie Island to me).
There’s also North Stradbroke and Moreton Islands, the second and third largest sand islands in the world, which are easily accessible as day trips from Brisbane. Or, you can book many standards of accommodation on the islands, from glamping through to luxury units and resorts, should you want to stay overnight. And you may quickly discover that staying overnight is a pretty good idea, given the range of activities on offer – snorkelling, scuba-diving, parasailing, kayaking, swimming, surfing, dune sliding, whale watching, dolphin-feeding, fishing and more!
If you only have a few days in Brisbane, I recommend choosing to visit just one of either Moreton Island or North Stradbroke Island (or “Straddie” as locals call it). Straddie is closer, with a water taxi taking just 25 minutes from Cleveland and costing around $16 return. If you’re planning on driving on the island, a vehicle ferry takes around 45 minutes and will cost between $60 to $100 or so one way, depending on how many passengers you have. For Moreton Island, the Micat ferry from the mouth of the Brisbane River takes 90 minutes and costs about $28 each way for a passenger, and a fair bit more if you’re bringing a 4WD (and you’ll want to book well in advance, especially if you’re going on a weekend).
There’s also some excellent day and overnight tours that you can join. For North Stradbroke Island, I recommend jumping on a tour with Timmy from Shakas Adventure Tours. He runs both day trips and overnight adventures to Straddie, mostly on the weekends. You’ll see loads of wildlife, including koalas, kangaroos, goannas, turtles, dolphins, manta rays, whales (during migration season from June to October) and more. You’ll also visit all the best parts of Straddie, including the epic North Gorge, Myora Springs and Brown Lake.
For Moreton Island, I recommend going with Australian Sunset Safaris. Their tours depart from either Brisbane (early morning start) or Gold Coast (ridiculously early morning start). Their “Get Wrecked” day trip is, as the name suggests, full of action. You’ll go snorkelling at the famous Tangalooma Shipwrecks, have a spot of kayaking in “transparent kayaks” and visit “The Desert” for some sand-boarding fun. You’ll also see plenty of wildlife on this trip, with snorkelers and kayakers often seeing turtles, dolphins, coral and thousands of beautiful reef fish.
7. Get active at the Kangaroo Point cliffs
With a climate that rarely sees daytime temperatures falling below mid-teens, nor rising above the mid-30s in high summer, it’s no wonder Brisbanites enjoy their outdoors.
The best place to sample a range of outdoor activities is at the Kangaroo Point cliffs, right opposite Brisbane’s CBD and Story Bridge. Here you can go kayaking, try some outdoor rock climbing or come down the cliffs backwards with a guided abseiling experience.
Not far from here, you can conquer Brisbane’s iconic Story Bridge. One of only three bridge climbs in the world, the Story Bridge Adventure Climb is a great way to see Brisbane from above, while learning about the colourful history of Brisbane. You can choose from a dawn climb, a day climb, a twilight climb or a night climb, all at significantly cheaper prices than Sydney’s Bridge Climb. Book your spot here.
If you’re after something slightly more relaxed, then along most of the snaking Brisbane River you have excellent running and cycle paths. My favourite route is to start at South Bank’s Goodwill Bridge, running over the bridge, looping through the Gardens Point Botanic Gardens and then running along the Bicentennial Bikeway to Victoria Bridge, coming back along the Clem Jones Promenade to your starting point. This is a relatively flat 5-kilometre run, although you’ll want to do it either very early in the day or close to sunset – the humidity in Brisbane can really be a killer!
8. Check out some new dining precincts
Every time I go back to Brisbane to visit my parents, they’re so keen to show me all the new restaurants and cafes that have opened up. And recently, they’ve had their work cut out for themselves!
The newest precinct is the “Howard Smith Wharves”, which is located right underneath the Story Bridge and opened in late 2018. The talk of Brisbane at the moment, “HSW” (we love our acronyms) includes a bunch of fancy new restaurants, a brewery, a luxury “art hotel” and plenty of outdoor grassy space to look out at the Brisbane River. If you pop by on the weekend, they have live tunes, food, drinks and lawn games on from 4:00 pm until 10:00 pm. There’s also a free weekly yoga class (BYO yoga mat) every Saturday morning or for something a bit different, try “beer yoga” on a Monday at 5:30 pm. Sip a beer while doing Downward Dog? Sign me up!
Another area that I’m really excited about is Fish Lane, opposite the Queensland Museum. My dad used to work in some dreary offices right next to this lane and I never thought twice about it, but now it has completely changed. Now considered “Brisbane’s coolest laneway”, this narrow back lane is home to about a dozen restaurants, some cool bars and heaps of street art and art installations. For a detailed guide, check out Visit Brisbane’s guide to Fish Lane here.
I’m yet to check most of the restaurants on Fish Lane out, but I have visited Saccharomyces Beer Cafe a couple of times and they seem to have a great rotating mix of craft beers, and some fun events. For instance, “The World’s Least Shit Trivia” is on every Wednesday night, and they host regular comedy nights and tap takeovers. If you like this place, you’ll probably love Netherworld in Fortitude Valley (or just “the Valley” as it is known by all).
Just a little bit further down Fish Lane is Wandering Cooks, Brisbane’s first incubator for food entrepreneurs. With an ever-changing list of food businesses operating out of here, you never know exactly what you’re going to get – but you can guarantee it will be good!
9. Watch a game of rugby league and drink some XXXX Beer
I literally can’t think of anything that screams Brisbane more than going to a game of rugby league at the spiritual home of rugby league, Suncorp Stadium (previously known as Lang Park). Rugby league is one of Australia’s four professional football codes, along with Rugby Union, Australian Football and Soccer (Football).
Queensland is a rugby league state, with 3 professional teams and a strong representative team that plays New South Wales in the annual 3-match State of Origin series. The rugby league season runs from early March until the end of September. You can buy tickets to a game on the official NRL website here, or just show up on the day. While you’re at Suncorp Stadium, pay your respects to the Wally Lewis statue out front – “The King” is one of Queensland’s favourite sons and an “Immortal” of Rugby League.
About 2 blocks from the stadium in nearby Milton is the XXXX Brewery. In Queensland, the most common beer you will see is a golden coloured can with four red X’s on it, we call this “XXXX Gold” (pronounced “four-ex”, not “X-X-X-X”). In other states, they call this “piss”. To be fair, most Aussies wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a XXXX Gold, a VB and a Tooheys New in a blind taste test, but these rivalries go way back.
You can take a 90-minute tour of the XXXX factory and learn how the beer is made, and try some samples at the end. Book your tour here. Fun fact: in Australian slang, a “Milton Mango” refers to a can of XXXX.
10. Watch the sunset from Mt Coot-tha or Mt Gravatt
To round us off, and a stellar way to finish a big day in Brisbane, head to either Mt Coot-tha or Mt Gravatt to take in some excellent sunset views of the city. Mt Coot-tha is about a 25-minute drive from downtown Brisbane, or you can catch bus number 471 from Adelaide Street to Brisbane Lookout at the top of Mt Coot-tha. For Mt Gravatt, you can get a bus to Griffith University on the “Busway”, or get a bus that will stop on Klump Road or Logan Road, then it is a bit of a walk uphill to the Mt Gravatt Lookout.
My parents still live quite close to Mt Gravatt and have recently spotted koalas a couple of times when going on their morning or late afternoon walks. If you’re hoping to see a koala, they are more active around dawn and sunset, so keep your eyes peeled – you may get really lucky and see one just ambling along, but more likely they’ll be sleeping up in a tree.