Brisbane is an outdoorsy city year-round. While denizens of the southern metropolises cower inside during the winter months, daytime temperatures in Queensland’s capital rarely dip below 20°C.
There’s plenty of fun to be found that’s outdoors and free, from exceptional markets to lush tropical gardens. But if it does rain, don’t despair, Brisbane has you covered with a plethora of fine, free museums, galleries and indoor activities.
Dabble in the arts at the Cultural Precinct
Packed full of free attractions, the sprawling Queensland Cultural Centre complex directly across the river from the city, includes the Queensland Arts Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (or QAGOMA, as they’re known together), State Library, Queensland Performing Art Centre and Queensland Museum.
The galleries and concert halls all feature ticketed events, but there are truckloads of gratis options – local exhibitions, talks and music performances – and the sheer scale of the complex means it’s a great place to spend a couple of hours simply soaking in the atmosphere.
Most have an excellent and free kids program, particularly during school holidays. You can also catch free rare and classic cinema, offbeat Aussie movies and recent silent-film restorations at QAGOMA’s Australian Cinemateque.
Swim and chill in the Central Business District
South Bank, next to the cultural precinct, is the riverside real estate opposite Brisbane’s city centre. Here you can take in a band while watching the sun set, frolic at the cute (if crowded) Streets Beach, or window shop at boutiques along Little Stanley Street. The Aquativity interactive water-play park is specially designed for kids, or you can take home free samples from the harvest cart at the Epicurious Garden and meet the green-thumbed volunteers.
Dive into free pools and wild swimming holes
Alongside city-centre Streets Beach, Brisbane has plenty of pools and swimming holes where you can cool down for free. Try Orion Lagoon or Enoggera Dam for swimming spots that are great for kids, or go wild swimming at Rocky Hole, Kondalilla Falls or Albany Creek.
Gallery hop on campus
QAGOMA’s never-ending line-up of major exhibitions has had a side effect: squeezing out smaller, more specialist art shows. Brisbane’s universities have taken up the slack. The Queensland University of Technology’s Art Museum, the Griffith University Art Museum and University of Queensland all host impressive, always-free exhibitions, as well as boasting their own collections. If nothing else, this is a good excuse to investigate each of the campuses – particularly Queensland University’s snazzy St Lucia digs.
Explore Brissie culture in the Museum of Brisbane
This colourful, award-winning museum dives into Brisbane fashion, music and architecture, sometimes teasing out the contortions of colonialism, and sometimes enjoying a laugh at tropical kitsch. You can also jump in the beautiful 1930s cage elevator, the oldest working manual lift in Australia, to take the free trip to the top of the City Hall’s elegant clocktower. This was the tallest building in the city until the 1960s, and "trip up the tower" is a fond memory for anyone who grew up in Brisbane. Each of the four opal clock faces is 5m wide and the minute hands are 3m long.
Hit the river on the CityHopper
This is the best way to travel on the Brisbane River. The free of charge CityHopper ferry covers a significant stretch of the waterway from Sydney Street in New Farm all the way to North Quay in the city, with a new terminal at Howard Smith Wharves opening in December 2021. Ferries run daily on the half hour between 5.30am and midnight, later on Friday and Saturday nights. Most of the services have rooftop seating available, adding to the fun. Don’t expect it to go anywhere very fast, but then that’s not really the point.
People watch at the Davies Park Markets
Referred to as the West End Markets, every Saturday morning Davies Park is turned over to all manner of pushers and peddlers. It’s the best market of its type in Brisbane, presented in the welcoming shade of a row of giant fig trees. If nothing else, it’s a great opportunity to people watch on the main stomping ground of the infamously alternative West End locals.
Get a look over Brisbane
Brisbane is much more varied in its elevation than either Melbourne or Sydney. It means brilliant views of the city are just 15 minutes away at this terrific lookout on top of Mt Coot-Tha. An excellent spot to get your bearings early on in your stay, it has a view that stretches from the north towards the bay and airport right around to the sprawling suburbs south of the river. There’s a cafe and restaurant on hand, in case you want to make a night of it, or take a picnic to the Mt Coot-tha Botanic Gardens. Sculpted along the lower ridges of the city’s inland bookend are species upon species of flora collected from across the globe. Don’t be afraid to climb the hill to the gardens’ often overlooked rear precinct. And don’t be afraid of the water dragons.
Ponder the Pillars street-art project
The stunning Pillars Projects is a collection of 10m-tall artworks gracing the pillars of the Merivale Bridge by leading Australian street artists. Artists include Fintan Magee, Travis Vinson, Clarie Foxton, Mik Shida and Guido Van Helton, with new commissions being added every year. Other street-art hotspots include Fortitude Valley, New Farm and the Brisbane Powerhouse (inside and out).
Walk or cycle the Riverwalk
Destroyed in Brisbane’s 2011 floods, the Brisbane Riverwalk reopened sturdier than ever but with the same wowser views. It sits over the river on a suspended pathway across from the eastern side of Kangaroo Point, zigzagging its way from the Story Bridge right around to New Farm Park. The path makes a unique circuit for the city’s fitness geeks, but wanderers are still welcome, with plenty of places to stop and take in the scenery opposite.
Get together for a barbecue at Kangaroo Point
One of the best free things to do in Brisbane at night is across the river, on top of the long defunct porphyry stone quarry now used by the city’s numerous rock climbing schools. By all means sit on the wall with a picnic, but you’re better off securing one of the many barbecues placed along the top of the cliffs. Either way, the sunsets over the city are enchanting affairs and the atmosphere lifts further when the skyscrapers blink to life, casting their lights across the Brisbane River as it stills after rush hour. Watch out for passing joggers.
Drive the Nerang–Murwillumbah Road
Heading south along the multi-lane M1 to the Queensland–New South Wales border is a bore, but a road trip via the Nerang–Murwillumbah Rd is a lovely day out. The road is being upgraded, but narrow country lanes still gradually climb through vertiginous mountain landscapes and deeply scooped valleys. It’s heady stuff, with plenty of opportunity to stop for coffee or just to gawk at the view. Drive back to the city via the inland Mount Lindesay Highway if you want to keep those country vibes rolling.
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