This subtropical city is too sophisticated to be considered off the beaten track, but Brisbane is not overrun with hordes of tourists either. As the third largest city in Australia, it has all the amenities of a major city, but manages to stay relaxed. The Brisbane River snakes back and forth through the city which helps geographically define the numerous neighborhoods, each with its own vibe, specialty shops, and international cuisine.
Start with the central business district (CBD) with its famous Queen Street Mall where you can shop for luxury brands; peruse vintage shops; eat Moreton Bay bugs at an outdoor restaurant, and discreetly people watch. Be sure to tour the Museum of Brisbane in City Hall. When we visited, it had a multimedia exhibit about historical and current Brisbane. The display was the best gender-balanced art exhibit that we have seen. Really. And it has art for all your senses, even the sense of smell. We loved the dynamic videos of residents talking about the city. The exhibit was fascinating and educational. Please note that the exhibits periodically change. From the museum, buy tickets to tour inside the historic clock tower which is part of the building. The clock is cool and the views from the tower, breathtaking.
Public transit permits easy access for visitors and residents to move from one neighborhood to another, and even into adjacent regions. Be sure to get a GO Card to travel on any TransLink train, bus, ferry, and tram. You can get the card at some of the many newsstands. We loved the CityCat water taxi that cruises upstream and down, stopping on schedule at designated ferry docks. The absolute best deal in town is riding the water taxi from one end of the route to the other for about AU$7. By the way, there is a handy app that lets you enter your location and destination to determine how best to use public transit to get to your destination. You can also stop in at the Visitors Center on the Queen Street Mall to get briefed on public transit, and seek helpful advice about activities and must-see sites. Brisbane is very hilly; and because the city does not get snow or ice, the roads run straight up the steep hills and straight down, giving visitors giddy thrills. Taking buses up these steep hills may be your best option. Photo credit: ABC news
Across the river from the CBD is the South Bank’s Cultural Precinct comprised of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, and museums. The performing arts centre is a terrific place to see world class ballet, opera, and theater. Nearby the Queensland Museum houses science and nature exhibits that change from time to time. A few years ago, the museum provided exhibits on indigenous peoples of Australia and displays about Australian geography and geology. Both exhibits were valuable orientation for visitors. During our latest visit, however, the exhibits focused on dinosaurs, a popular choice if traveling with children.
Adjacent to the museum are the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) and the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), both are part of the same organization and both have distinctive architecture. The QAG and GOMA’s nice variety of art is worth spending an hour or two; our favorite was the indigenous art collection in the QAG. When exiting the museums be sure to walk along the river on the pedestrian and bike path to the South Bank Parkland. Just as you enter the parkland, you can ride the Wheel of Brisbane, the ferris wheel that is about 60m (197 feet) high, perfect for photos of the city. Each of the air-conditioned capsules holds approximately six passengers, and the ride lasts for about 10 minutes. We liked the informative recorded narration piped into the capsule telling us about the city’s features. Some think the ride is best at night to see the cityscape lights, but we chose to ride in daylight. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Continue strolling south along the pedestrian way, or rent a bike to explore the South Bank. We were there on a day when artisans had erected tents to sell their wares–from handmade pottery, jewelry, and hats to oil paintings, yoga leggings, and sweets. The South Bank attracts tourists–lots of tourists–and they all squeezed into the numerous nearby restaurants and shops.
One of our favorite neighborhoods is the West End. It has a Bohemian laid-back feel. The adjective most used for this area is quirky. Along Boundary Street, for example, you can eat at a wide variety of ethnic restaurants; browse through new and used book shops; find deals at thrift stores or select a special outfit at a high-end women’s clothing store; shop at a major supermarket; and sip coffee or tea at a variety of cafés, including a gluten-free café. Really, anything you need as a traveler from Band-Aids and food to additional clothing can be had in the West End. We found lodging via Airbnb next to the Brisbane River and near the West End shops. The neighborhood is between the University of Queensland and the Performing Arts Centre.
Another not-to-be-missed neighborhood is Fortitude Valley. This is known as the largest shopping area in the city with some upscale restaurants. Alternatively, you can sample reasonably priced Asian food at the numerous restaurants in the adjacent Chinatown. Fortitude Valley also includes numerous bars and adult entertainment.
We loved strolling through the Brisbane Botanic Gardens Mt. Coot-tha in Toowong. We took the CityCat to the Toowong dock and Uber to the gardens. Exotic birds whistled and cawed from subtropical trees that towered over the trails that wend through a jungle in one area and forests in others. The Japanese Garden was the picture of peaceful beauty. After visiting the gardens, we recommend going to the lookout on top of Mt. Coot-tha for a panoramic view of Brisbane and the surrounding area. There is a bus that stops at the gardens on its way to the top. Alternatively, take an Uber to the top. Both the gardens and the lookout are popular wedding sites. You can bushwalk (hike) on trails nearby.
If you have extra time to explore around the region, we suggest going northeast from Brisbane for a couple of days to explore the Sunshine Coast.
Noosa Heads is a charming, upscale resort community with pretty shops and seafood restaurants. The wide beach was filled with sunbathers, families playing in the sand, and surfers paddling out to catch waves. By good fortune we were there for the annual Surf Life Saving Queensland (SLSQ) competition comprised of numerous volunteer surf life saving clubs demonstrating their speed and skills to rescue “victims” in the ocean. For a good view of the area, go up to the lookout point at Noosa Heads National Park. The town was our base for sightseeing in the area.
Eumundi is the site of one of the premier artisan markets in the region, and is about 20km west of Noosa Heads. The philosophy of the market is we make it, bake it, grow it, sew it.
About 12km south of Eumundi is Yandina, the home of the Ginger Factory (world’s largest!). This popular destination includes a ginger processing plant, shops, amusement rides, and a large restaurant.
The tour of the ginger processing operation was definitely worth the ticket price. We learned how ginger is grown, shipped, and processed into a variety of products. At the end, we sampled many ginger dishes and became huge fans of ginger root. Photo Credit: Vision Times
Sunshine Coast Hinterland
Our airbnb hosts suggested a route for our drive back to Brisbane to see some of the subtropical forests and farmland in the high hill country of the Sunshine Coast Hinterland.
We headed southwest through the small village of Mapleton in the Blackall Range to lovely Montville with its antiques and chocolate shops; it’s a good place to stop, walk around, shop for souvenirs, and sip a cup of coffee. Then on to the Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve near Maleny for one of the best views of the volcanic peaks of the Glass House Mountains rising from the misty valleys.
Gold Coast and Hinterland
Alternatively, take a couple of days to travel southeast from Brisbane to the Gold Coast, a very popular area known for towers of condominiums, shopping, surfboarding, and sunbathing on its famous beaches. Driving west from the coast takes you to the Gold Coast Hinterland, where you can tour Springbrook National Park, walk to waterfalls, a natural bridge, and lookouts on trails through groves of prehistoric trees. Sometimes it seemed like we were walking on trails through Jurassic Park jungles.
If you only have one day, drive from Brisbane to Mt. Tamborine National Park. There are several separate sections of the park. We hiked in the Knoll section through a subtropical jungle along Sandy Creek to view Cameron Falls and the escarpment with views of Brisbane. North Tamborine, the charming little town near the national park, is a good place to eat lunch.
We thought it was a good idea to spend about 18 hours flying to Brisbane, rent a car, and drive to the Sunshine Coast to recover from jetlag while resting on the beach. We didn’t consider the challenge of driving on the opposite side of the road and maneuvering around traffic rotaries in a foreign country all while being mentally exhausted. Thanks to kind Australian drivers we arrived safely, but with frayed nerves.
As in other large cities of the world, robberies and assaults are common. Be aware of pickpockets and thieves, especially in tourist areas, trains, and train stations. In bars and clubs avoid drink spiking by getting your own drinks from the bar tender and keep hold of your own drink, especially when with socializing with people you do not know. Keep in mind that drunk women are easy targets, so drink responsibly.
There are terrific things to see and do in Brisbane and the surrounding area. One of our favorites, however, was watching and listening to the exotic-to-us birds both from the deck of our apartment and walking around the city and countryside. Next to our apartment was a vacant lot with tall trees that were the home to kookaburras, mocking birds, lurakeets, etc. The squawks, whistles, and caws from these birds filled our ears reminding us at all times that we were in Australia.
The best, though, came at sunset when the flying foxes (mega bats) with their 1m (3.3 feet) wingspan flew across the river from their roost in Toowamba to glide past us on their nightly search for food. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Happy travels to you!