Brisbane seems to get a bad rap from Australians who aren’t from the city. While Sydney and Melbourne make the headlines and vie for top spot as Australia’s cultural capital, the capital of Queensland is more often the butt of jokes. This is Brisney or BrisVegas (Disney and Las Vegas puns on the nearby Gold Coast theme parks and casinos), home to banana benders (Queensland is famous for banana plantations).
It may just be sour grapes, but this might also explain why so many travel writers agree that Brisbane is probably Australia’s most underrated city. Maybe it was the jet lag, or maybe it was the friendly people, fabulous food and relaxed atmosphere, but I really enjoyed my few days in this buzzing town.
Brisbane’s defining feature is the Brisbane River, and much of the city’s life seems to revolve around it. Looping gracefully through the city it creates a natural boundary between the business district and the fashionable suburbs of Spring Hill and Fortitude Valley in the north; and the South Bank cultural hub, which rubs shoulders with the up-and-coming bohemian West End, to the south.
The park along the South Bank is beautiful and well worth a few hours of strolling. It reminded me of its namesake in London, lively and energetic, with lots of bars and restaurants. It even has a ferris wheel that does a good impersonation of the London Eye. Unlike London though, Brisbane’s South Bank has an urban beach complete with swimmers and sunbathers.
Brisbane gets around 300 days of sunshine a year, which explains why so much of the city’s life is lived outdoors. Walk along the river from the South Bank to Captain Burke Park and the Story Bridge, and you’ll pass dozens of joggers, cyclists and strollers; on the river, sail boats and kayakers float past. No wonder it’s regarded as one of the world’s most liveable cities.
More than just liveable, it’s genuinely enjoyable. There’s a lively arts scene – the Gallery of Modern Art on the South Bank is excellent – a lot of live music, fabulous restaurants, and a thriving microbrewery culture as an addition to a vibrant nightlife. Add to that some fine parks – don’t miss the Botanic Gardens – and a couple of excellent universities, and it’s hardly a surprise that it’s Australia’s fastest growing city.
Originally founded as Edenglassie (a hybrid of Edinburgh and Glasgow in honour of its early Scottish settlers) in 1824, Brisbane began life like much else in Australia, as a penal colony. It was renamed for the governor of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Brisbane, in 1834, and quickly grew in importance and wealth once the penal colony was closed in 1839. It soon became the region’s major port and centre of commerce.
Brisbane still retains a lot of heritage buildings from this early European period. There are plenty of stone buildings mingling with the glass skyscrapers in the downtown area. Elsewhere, distinctive wooden buildings on stilts known as “Queenslanders” with wide verandahs to catch the breeze, can be spotted along the river and around the central districts. It makes for a dynamic architectural mix on a par with Brisbane’s cultural mix.