Exploring Brisbane: A Trip to Australia’s River City

The city of Brisbane offers a bevy of sights and experiences for the adventurous traveller

Credit: Diane Selkirk

Brisbane, in Queensland Australia, has come a long way since the ’80s

If your perception of Australia dates back to the mid-80s when Paul Hogan and Foster’s beer were the iconic images from down under, Brisbane will change your perspective

With modern cities like Brisbane – which boasts a thriving food scene, an enviable park system and festivals that run the gamut from wacky cockroach races to the cool Tropfest short film festival – Australia has more to offer than ever.

My first glimpse of Brisbane was not at all what I had expected, which was, I’ll admit it, a beer-washed landscape complete with swaggering drovers, dusty kangaroos and broken down utes.

Instead, the glitzy skyline was just the first clue that Brisbane has morphed into a modern metropolis that sees it ranking with some of the most stylish cities in the world. It’s fascinating to consider that much of what makes Brisbane distinctive is relatively new, with many of the bridges, walkways, parks and buildings being recent additions.

The city’s namesake, the serpentine Brisbane River, winds and divides the city and its suburbs, creating unique pocket neighbourhoods and interesting commuting challenges. The meandering river also invites exploration: over the course of a few days, my family and I traversed the waterway through the city then up to a vantage point at Mt Coot-tha, taking in sights and activities along the way.

On the Move in Brisbane

Unlike many cities, where getting around is more of a necessary evil than an event, we discovered Brisbane has several preferable transport options. The simplest way to explore is by foot, and with pretty parks and pathways lining the river, numerous pedestrian bridges and bubblers (drinking fountains) every few blocks (it gets hot in the city), we found we could easily see the sights in the compact downtown centre and the adjacent neighbourhoods of South Bank and Fortitude Valley without much effort.

For longer distances, Brisbane’s excellent City Cycle program (where for $2 a day, or $11 a week, you have the use of bikes all over the city) offers the perfect way to explore further afield. And if you want take a plunge into public transit the three-part system (bus, trains and ferries) makes it easy to navigate beyond the city core. Or you could just take an affordable river cruise up or down stream on the City Cat.

The Story Bridge of Brisbane

The way the river winds and entwines makes it easy to lose your bearings (where are mountains to orient you when you need them?) But what Brisbane lacks in mountains it makes up for in bridges, and the historic Story Bridge offers the perfect vantage for sorting out exactly where places like New Farm Park or the Kangaroo Point Cliffs are in relation to downtown.

Brisbane is the perfect family destination. (Image: Diane Selkirk)

Anyone can cross the bridge, but when my husband Evan and I had a chance to climb the bridge with Story Bridge Adventure Climb, we jumped at the chance. One of only three bridge climbs in the world, the trek to the 80-metre summit was quite easy (though looking through the see-through walkway made my knees shake) and it turned out to be the perfect place to catch the last of the sunset and learn a bit more about Brisbane’s history.

South Bank Parklands

From the top of the bridge I could just catch a glimpse of our next day’s destination: South Bank Parklands. Built for the 1988 World’s Fair, the parklands are a favourite hangout for families (thanks to a fantastic water park and pool, as well as picnic areas that boast a few of Brisbane’s incredibly cool free electric BBQs) and the area is also home to several theatres and museums.

We then headed to GoMA, Queensland’s Museum of Modern Art. What attracted us was the Children’s Art Centre, which focuses on exhibits that appeal to kids. Our daughter Maia was intrigued by artist Yayoi Kusama’s obliteration room, where visitors are invited to participate in the artistic process by applying dots to a white room. After making it through our sheets of stickers we moved on to the drawing room where we practiced our skills with various still-life arrangements.

Brisbane features some of the world’s most exotic wildlife. (Image: Diane Selkirk)

Brisbane Botanic Gardens

Dominated by glass and steel towers, it’s easy to forget that Brisbane’s humid subtropical climate also supports lush forests that come complete with creatures with names that conjure up childhood songs. But in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens (and the ‘back-up’ gardens which were built on Mt Coot-tha after the 1974 flood) we wandered through forests of eucalyptus, Moreton Bay Fig and Red Gum and listened to kookaburra’s laughing and watched rainbow lorikeets at play.

We learned even more about Australia’s fantastical native animals at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, which is home to more than 130 koalas as well as kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes, wombats and Tasmanian devils. Maia was thrilled with her chance to cuddle a koala, while I loved having a kangaroo nibble food from my hand.

We never did run into a drover or come across a broken down ute as we explored Brisbane; instead we discovered a city that seems to be designed with exploring in mind.