Folded around the bends of the Brisbane River, the inner city is a patchwork of neighborhoods, 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: moving between the following five ‘hoods will give you a snapshot of Brisbane’s best assets.
City & South Bank
This is where Brisbane does business. On a long triangular peninsula sloping down to the river, Brisbane does high-rise as well as anyone. The tallest tower – a black and silver spike of 80-plus floors on Herschel St – is home to Meriton Apartments bunk down in style with serious views.
But who wants to be inside when the Queensland sun is shining? Fuel-up with breakfast and a coffee at hipster Brew or the upmarket Eagle Street Pier complex, then follow the lunchtime joggers into the refined City Botanic Gardens on the peninsula’s point.
From here, hoof it across the Goodwill Bridge to South Bank (technically west of the CBD), where Brisbane gets its culture on. 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. They’re undeniably contrived (‘Hey look – a massive air-conditioned Ferris wheel and an artificial beach!’), but the bougainvillea-hung walkways and attendant cafes here make a shady afternoon diversion.
Back downtown, don’t miss City Hall where the Rolling Stones played their first-ever Australian gig; and an evening drink at Super Whatnot, a crafty little bar on Burnett Lane at the fore of Brisbane’s emerging laneway culture.
When the sun goes down, Fortitude 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! Take the train from Brisbane Central and prime yourself for pubs, bars, clubs and rock rooms going hell-for-leather all night. Wobbling punters are sustained by noodles and dumplings from Brisbane’s Chinatown, a parade of neon-lit eateries along Duncan Street.
The vibe here is trashy – skimpy dresses collide with testosterone-fuelled rugby hordes – but it’s easy to sidestep the mainstream and discover some quirks. For a cocktail try the kookily adorned Alfred & Constance; for some late-night Asian carbs, swing by Kwan Brothers and check out their funky factory fit-out. The endearing/enduring Zoo is our pick for live music; and even if you’re not a clubber, stick your head into Cloudland and ogle the interior design fantasia.
Also worth a look is James Street, a sassy enclave of boutiques, wine bars, cafes, an arthouse cinema and the superb James Street Market. Duck through the hypercoloured produce racks to the sushi bar at the back for a sashimi hit. For an art fix, the Institute of Modern Art is GOMA’s naughty little brother: subversive, risqué and always engaging.
On day two, kick off day two in New Farm – right next to Fortitude Valley but several rungs higher on the class ladder. It’s an affluent and refined 'burb, with a sizable gay population and more fab eateries than you have time for. Occupying a parallel peninsula to the CBD, New Farm tracks down Brunswick St to the river. There are myriad cafes and restaurants here: Thai, Italian, Chinese, Tibetan, American BBQ, French, Mod Oz… And if you’re looking for a budget bed, Bowen Terrace is one of Brisbane’s best hostels –– a renovated old Queenslander with buckets of charm.
Don’t miss the Brisbane Powerhouse, a once-derelict power station turned cultural hub, hosting comedy, theatre, live tunes, outdoor cinema, a farmers market and a couple of cool bars.
Jump on the CityCat ferry from New Farm and cruise to the West End, Brisbane’s funky, bohemian heartland. Goths, punks, skaters, homeless guys, junkies, musos, artists…They swarm around Boundary Street and Vulture Street like lost literati, 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 (they were here before the goths).
Sniff out some jazz at Lock ‘n’ Load then repair to the Archive Beer Boutique for a dangerous array of meaty porters and hoppy IPAs (check out the bar made from books!). On Friday nights and weekends, the Boundary Street Markets (www.boundarystreetmarkets.com.au) deliver buskers, street food, massage tables, pop-up retro fashion stalls and yet more live music at the Motor Room. After all this you can’t beat some cod-and-chips from the stalwart George’s Seafood, best consumed with river views in Orleigh Park.
Lofty in both attitude and altitude, Paddington rolls up steep Given Terrace across the river from the West End. Tour the iconic XXXX Brewery if you’re feeling beery, but most folks are here to browse the boutiques and antiques shops or grab a coffee. Roasting on site and with fabulous coffee-nerd staff, Merlo Torrefazione is an outlet of Merlo Coffee, a Brisbane bean-roaster that’s got the local caffeine scene cornered. There are couple of excellent mid-range accommodation options here too: nouveau-hippie Casabella Apartment and corporate Latrobe Apartment.
The bendy river makes getting around Brisbane confusing. If you’re driving, a GPS will be your best friend. But if you’re on foot, things are much easier: bridges over the river are handily placed, and straight-line distances from A-to-B are often deceptively short (things just get long-winded when you get in a vehicle). But the best way to traverse Brisbane is to play by the river’s rules: hop on a ferry (some of them free; www.translink.com.au) and jag from pier to peninsula with the breeze at your hair.
Charles Rawlings-Way and Meg Worby are freelance writers based in the Adelaide Hills. Smitten by Brisbane gorgeous old timber houses, meandering river and hip bars, they travel to ‘Australia’s New World City’ with disturbing regularity. Follow Charles on Twitter @crawlingsway.