Brisbane, Australia's third largest city, has shed its country town image for a more cosmopolitan edge, intriguing Aussies and travellers alike. In plain sight, the Queensland capital is blossoming into a destination rife with culture, chic hotels, world-class developments and a 'one to watch' foodie scene, commanding serious respect (at last) from its big sister cities Melbourne and Sydney.
If Brisbane isn’t already on your Australia must-see list, these five compelling reasons might prompt you to take a trip.
1. The burgeoning Brizzy food scene
While Sydney and Melbourne’s restaurants have dominated ‘Best of Australia’ rankings, Brisbane’s growing culinary flex has forced these lists to start making room. The current culinary heat map leads to Fortitude Valley; chefs from around the country are flocking here to showcase flavours beyond the standard Australasian fare. Neighbourhood restaurants of note include Joy, a nationally-acclaimed 10-seater supper club-style restaurant dishing Nordic and Japanese plates, and Hellenika, a scenester restaurant-bar and Gold Coast outpost serving a fresh, no-fuss assortment of Greek classics like spanakopita, grilled octopus and cypriot meatballs. While white-hot Za Za Ta blends Middle Eastern flavors with bold new twists – the fried goat’s cheese pretzel with Iberico jamon and yolk aioli being the star starter – in an eccentric parlour-style space.
Across the river in the South Bank area is where Brisbane’s perennial favourites reside. The Gallery of Modern Art’s light-filled GOMA Restaurant offers exquisite, artfully-arranged plates like Moolooba king prawn with quince and macadamia-laced nam prik (spicy Thai chili sauce) complemented with a Queensland-focused wine list. Stokehouse Q affords handsome river and city views as diners tuck into European/Mediterranean-inspired selections like bolognese-style carrot cavatelli and lamb loin with smoked eggplant and fig.
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2. Street art & culture
Melbourne ought to take notice of the city up north, as Brisbane is quickly nipping at its heel as Australia’s place to be for excellent street art and culture. From the funky laneways in Fortitude Valley to the grand variety of murals and mixed-media artwork lining CBD’s Burnett Street (look out for the guerilla-style blue wooden sculptures from Blu Art Xinja, touted as Brisbane’s Banksy), the public art trend is giving Brisbane’s formerly hum-drum cityscape a welcomed facelift.
The Brisbane Street Art Festival has grown from a modest movement in 2016 into a two-week long program in May 2020 featuring live ‘art battles,’ cycling tours and special exhibitions by street art luminaries.
The culture-rich South Bank hosts the Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), Australia’s largest public gallery of modern art. Here, local art heroes – including indigenous talent – might share gallery space with works by Anish Kapoor and Damien Hirst. Other gems in the Queensland Cultural Centre’s portfolio include Queensland Art Gallery and its permanent collections, Queensland Museum and Sciencentre (top choice for children), and the green-coloured architectural marvel that is State Library of Queensland.
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3. Revitalised riverfront
Brisbane’s geography has always been defined by the serpentine Brisbane River, and recent waterfront developments have given locals and tourists reason to congregate closer. The once-derelict Howard Smith Wharves, for instance, has been newly transformed into an entertainment district with walk/jog-friendly promenades, live entertainment and scenic dining spots like al fresco favourite Mr Percival’s.
There’s also a popular brewery, Felons Brewing Co., which offers complimentary ‘Beer Yoga’ on a grassy lawn overlooking the waterway and skyline. Originating from the Howard Smith Wharves area is The Brisbane Riverwalk, a half-mile long path floating above the river leading to the New Farm neighbourhood, and conveniently split with walking and bicycle lanes.
4. Gateway to the Sunshine Coast
To the south of Brisbane lies ‘Australia’s playground,’ the Gold Coast, but to the north is the lesser-known, back-to-nature adventure of the Sunshine Coast. Less than an hour and a half away from Brizzy by car, this is the ultimate day trip to get out of the city and experience everything from the Great Sandy National Park (featuring the eponymous 40 Mile Beach) to its subtropical hinterland with views of the Glass House Mountains, an eroded volcano complex. Combining this natural wonderland with your trip to urban Brisbane is the perfect way to get the best of both worlds.
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5. Hot new hotels
Exploring all of this means you’ll need some cushy digs to really relax in. In just two years, Brisbane’s hotel reputation has gone from dull to dazzling after a fresh injection of smart boutique beds. At the forefront of this renaissance is Fortitude Valley’s The Calile, coined Australia’s first ‘urban resort,’ and is the epicentre of James Street precinct’s fashionable quarters. The Palm Springs-inspired hotel is a geometric wonderland of brutalist design and marbled curves, with 175 pastel-coloured rooms facing the city hills or onto the sparkling outdoor pool.
Another Fortitude Valley hot spot is Ovolo the Valley, an irreverent, feel-good hotel enlivened by neon-flashy decor and a cracking 80’s soundtrack in the communal spaces and rooftop pool. It’s perhaps the most generous hotel in town, too: guest freebies include happy hour drinks, a ‘freemium’ breakfast, in-room minibar (with adult beverages!), a bag of sweet treats and self-service laundry.
Lining the Brisbane River and dramatically tucked beneath the Story Bridge is The Fantauzzo - Art Series, a sultry gallery-with-rooms named after Melbourne-based artist Vincent Fantauzzo. Vincent’s hyper-realistic portraits are interspersed throughout the 166 rooms and hallways; the hotel’s most visually appealing asset, arguably, are the widescreen views of Brisbane’s skyline from the trendy rooftop bar, Fiume, and adjacent guests-only pool.
Travis Levius travelled to Brisbane with the support of Tourism and Events Queensland. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.