It seems odd that Brisbane, Australia’s third-largest city and Queensland's capital, could be described as ‘undiscovered’. But as the 2.2 million residents attest, this is precisely the case. Sydney has the beaches, the iconic architecture, the celebrity chefs; Melbourne has the coffee, the culture, the big-ticket sports events – but Brisbane? Who knows anything much about Brisbane?

Brisbane sign, South Bank, Brisbane
Sunny, friendly, welcoming Brisbane is worth at least two days of everybody's time © patjo / Shutterstock

Folded around the bends of its eponymous river, the city is a patchwork of neighbourhoods, each with a distinct topography and cultural verve. With a bit of legwork and 48 hours up your sleeve (though you’ll more likely be wearing a T-shirt in these semi-tropical latitudes), you’ll soon coerce the ‘River City’ into revealing its secrets. Walk, jump on a train and catch a ferry: following our itinerary will give you a snapshot of Brizzy's best bits.

Day one: from big business to beers by the river

The CBD (Central Business District) is, clue in the name, where Brisbane does business. On a long triangular peninsula sloping down to the river, the oldest part of the city does high-rise as well as anyone, with lots of office and residential blocks vying for tallest building accolade, and plenty of swanky new hotels offering rooms with views. Fuel-up with breakfast and a coffee at hipster Brew or the upmarket Eagle Street Pier complex, check out City Hall (where the Rolling Stones played their first-ever Australian gig) and the Museum of Brisbane inside, then follow the joggers into the refined City Botanic Gardens on the peninsula’s point.

City Botanic Gardens, Brisbane
Relax in the City Botanic Gardens after checking out the CBD © berm_teerawat / Shutterstock

From here, hoof it across the Goodwill Bridge to South Bank (technically west of the CBD), Brisbane's cultural epicentre. The Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Queensland Art Gallery, Queensland Museum and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre are all part of the Queensland Cultural Precinct. Between these bastions and the river are the South Bank Parklands. A planned district but no less appealing for that, its bougainvillea-draped paths and cafes with views across to the CBD make for a pleasant post-museum spot of relaxation.

When the sun goes down, Fortitude Valley (aka the Valley) wakes up. It’s not so much a valley as a series of gentle hillsides, but either way, it’s a great place to party among the many pubs, bars and clubs. Wobbling punters are sustained by noodles and dumplings from Brisbane’s Chinatown, a parade of neon-lit eateries along Duncan Street. For an art fix, the Institute of Modern Art is GOMA’s naughty little brother: subversive, risqué and always engaging.

For alternatives to the grungy main strip of the Valley, stroll over to tree-lined James Street. An upmarket parade of designer boutiques, restaurants, an arthouse cinema and the superb James Street Market, it's recently had the stylish Calile hotel added to its appeal. A clash of Brutalist concrete with Palm Springs cool circa 1965, it's an elegant place to spend the night. Before you finish your first day in Brizzy though, have a beery nightcap at one the city's major redevelopments, Howard Smith Wharves, tucked under the Story Bridge. Felons Brewing Co was the first part of the project to open, a huge bastion of craft beer where you can delight in its home brews and excellent food – if you can pull yourself away from the stunning river and city views.

Felons Brewing Co, Brisbane
Sip a beer under the bridge and enjoy the view at Felons Brewing Co © Clifton Wilkinson / Lonely Planet

Day two: cool neighbourhoods and perfect panoramas

Kick off day two in New Farm, right next to Fortitude Valley but leafier and more suburban. Occupying a peninsula parallel to the CBD, it’s an affluent and refined neighbourhood, with a sizable gay population and more fab eateries than you have time for, around the main artery Brunswick Street. Don’t miss the Brisbane Powerhouse, a once-derelict power station turned cultural hub, hosting comedy, theatre, live tunes, and a couple of cool bars. Next to it, waterfront New Farm Park has a farmers market, rose garden, bandstand with regular Sunday music and a ferry stop from where you can hop a boat to take you to your next destination, West End.

Brisbane Powerhouse
Colorful, cultural Brisbane Powerhouse is a popular hangout in New Farm © Clifton Wilkinson / Lonely Planet

Brisbane’s funky, bohemian heartland, West End is where punks, skaters, junkies, musos and artists swarm around Boundary Street and Vulture Street conjuring up a bookish, caffeinated vibe. This is the place to catch earnest singer-songwriters, sip craft beers, source a secondhand book or rummage for vintage gear. Brisbane’s big Greek community is also centred here. Sniff out Archive Beer Boutique for a tempting array of meaty stouts and hoppy IPAs (check out the bar made from books), and, if it's a Friday or Saturday, stroll nearby Boundary Street Markets with their eclectic mix of buskers, street food, massage tables and pop-up retro fashion stalls. After all this you can’t beat some fish and chips from Sea Fuel.

From West End taxi or ride-share across the river again and up in the world, literally and figuratively, with a visit to Paddington. Rolling up steep Given Terrace, this is the place to browse the boutiques and antiques shops or grab a coffee. Roasting on site and with helpful coffee-nerd staff, Merlo Torrefazione is an outlet of Merlo Coffee, a Brisbane bean-roaster that’s got the local caffeine scene cornered.

And finally, what better way to finish off your two-day adventure in Brisbane than with a birds-eye view of the city you've just been exploring. Panoramas don't come better than the one offered by Mt Coot-tha, a 287-metre-high hill sitting in parkland west of Paddington. You can car or bus it up here (or even walk through the woods) with your reward being the whole of Brisbane laid out before you, and the Pacific Ocean beyond. You can even raise a toast to your 48 fun-filled hours with a drink in the Summit Restaurant.

View from Mt Coot-tha
Fresh air and fabulous views across the city from Mt Coot-tha © Alizada Studios / Getty Images

Getting Around

Trains and buses will get you round the city easily enough. Walking or cycling is a pleasant way to get from A to B if the weather's not too hot: bridges over the river are handily placed, and straight-line distances are often deceptively short, once you've got used to the confusing configurations of the river. The Brisbane Riverwalk, a path for pedestrians and cyclists suspended above part the river, is a particularly scenic option for a wander. But the best way to traverse Brisbane is on the river: take a ferry, some of them are even free, cruising from pier to pier with the breeze in your hair, appreciating just how lucky Brisbanites (and now you) are to be able to enjoy such an attractive city.

Clifton travelled to Brisbane with support from Tourism Events Queensland and Singapore Airlines. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

This article was first published in October 2014 by Charles Rawlings-Way.

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