There’s an old joke that does a pretty good job of describing Brisbane compared to Australia’s other major capital cities. It goes something like this. In Melbourne, people ask where you went to school. In Sydney, they ask what suburb you live in. But in Brisbane they say, ‘Come and have a beer mate!’
Brisbane has always had a big country town demeanour, which of course has its plusses and minuses. Growing up here in the 1970s, it felt like I was drowning in its laconic torpor with not much more going on than the horse races and cricket on muggy weekend afternoons. Fast forward forty years and Brisbane is now marketing itself as Australia’s New World City and there are plenty of cultural and culinary adventures in store.
Things started to change in 1982 with Brisbane hosting the Commonwealth Games and with the opening of Queensland Art Gallery’s architecturally-acclaimed Modernist building. This was the first stage of the Queensland Cultural Centre along the South Bank of the meandering Brisbane River. The city revved up further as host of World Expo 1988 whose greatest legacy were the South Bank Parklands with a free man-made swimming area complete with palms and sand, a bougainvillea arbour, the Wheel of Brisbane, the Queensland Conservatorium and many restaurants and cafes now on the former Expo site.
The Queensland Art Gallery’s second building, the massive Gallery of Modern Art, opened in 2006 just a few hundred meters from the original gallery. It is the largest modern art gallery in Australia with Australia’s largest purpose-built Cinematique.
During this brave new re-imagining of my old home town, I sometimes despaired that Brisbane was turning its back on some of its most endearing qualities, such as its airy, wooden Queenslander-style houses with their wide encircling verandas, in the rush to be as glitzy and “big city” as Sydney and Melbourne down south.
Thankfully, the city has recently started embracing its architectural heritage with designer stores, cafes and even hotels now housed in some of those charming wooden buildings on stilts. And you can’t beat Brisbane’s balmy sub-tropical climate that is tailor made for an alfresco lifestyle.
I recently revisited Brisbane to take in the full measure of its latest cultural, shopping and foodie haunts. Here are some suggestions.
Brisbane’s Cultural Highlights:
Be sure and visit the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) and Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA). GOMA is firmly on the world art map with its flagship contemporary art event, the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art which is the world’s only major exhibition series to focus exclusively on the contemporary art of Asia, the Pacific and Australia.
Other cultural venues well worth visiting in the South Bank Precinct are the Queensland Museum, The Queensland Performing Arts Centre and the State Library of Queensland.
The Brisbane Powerhouse is an edgy multi-purpose arts and cultural hub offering an array of performing arts, visual arts, festivals and free community events in a former coal power station that once powered Brisbane’s long-gone trams. Located alongside the Brisbane River next to pretty New Farm Park, it also has a cafe and bar and hosts the wildly popular Jan Powers Farmers markets on the second and fourth Saturday mornings.
Brisbane’s gardens, parklands and streets are a treasure trove of public art from historic sculptures to contemporary installations. A terrific way to discover them is on a free Brisbane Greeters Tour. Other tours include a contemporary design tour as well as an historic pubs tour, where you can enjoy the best of ‘old style’ Brisie.
The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Art in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley (the city’s youthful music and bar centre) offers cabaret, circus, dance, music, vaudeville, burlesque, theatre, poetry and contemporary performance as well as an art gallery and artists’ studios.
Not far from here are the Philip Bacon Galleries, which is one of Australia’s leading commercial art galleries. It represents many of Australia’s major artists including Charles Blackman, Robert Dickerson, Donald Friend, Jeffrey Smart, Tim Storrier, and the estates of Margaret Olley and Fred Williams.
Brisbane’s Shopping Highlights:
Brisbane’s CBD has all the luxury global brands as well as iconic Australian labels but if you are after up and coming young local designers check out the Young Designers Market held on the first Sunday of the month at Little Stanley Street in South Bank. This is the place to trawl for trans-seasonal threads, tropical underwear, colourful tote bags from recycled materials, designer jewelry and organic baby clothes.
The inner city neighborhood of Paddington, with its cafes, groovy local design boutiques and vintage shops tucked into heritage protected wooden cottages and Queenslander-style houses, offers a perfect blend of shopping and local architecture. The airy Paddington Antique Centre is the place to start where you’ll discover a wide range of pre-loved gems at over 50 different antiques stalls in what was once the Plaza Theatre. Other must-visit vintage stores include Adornments and Retro Metro while Blake and Taylor offers a cornucopia of enticingly displayed new and recycled furniture and home-wares. Interesting one-off fashions can be found at terrific boutiques such as Dogstar, La La Latrobe, Petrol, Maiocchi, and Sacha Drake while even big name brand Witchery is found in a classic old Queensland house.
All this shopping is sure to build up an appetite and thankfully there are some fabulous cafes and restaurants at hand. The Hamptons Home Living Café is the perfect spot to start the day, with breakfast on the back veranda offering panoramic views over Brisbane. Then there’s Black Cat Books and Café for the literary minded, Anouk, a pretty little shopfront café, and the Kettle and Tin, with its all-day dining menu and designer cocktails. For those after the quintessential French bistro meal, go no further than Montrachet.
New Farm is another design hub where you will find up-and-coming fashion boutiques, shoe and jewellery designers and art galleries. James Street is where you’ll flagship Australian designers such as sass & bide, Easton Pearson and Scanlan + Theodore, but there are many more on-trend boutiques such as Frockshop and Ash to Gold hidden in laneways.
Brisbane’s Foodie Haunts
Located as it is near the estuary of Brisbane River at the entrance to Moreton Bay and surrounded by the rich alluvial soils of a flood plain, Brisbane has easy access to a host of sub-tropical fruit and produce as well as delectable seafood and meats.
To get the full measure of the city’s rich epicurean and cultural diversity meander through the Saturday morning West End markets which stretch out under a canopy of giant fig trees alongside the Brisbane River. Here you can gather a picnic feast of local pineapples, mangoes and avocadoes, plump red tomatoes, Gympie cheese and butter, olives, local prawns and Moreton Bay bugs (which are a type of lobster), cane juice, organic honey, and lady finger bananas. There is also an entire diaspora of prepared treats from Middle-Eastern felafel to Vietnamese sticky rice cakes, New Guinea coffee and even a good old Aussie sausage sizzle.
While you’re in the neighborhood, be sure and make time for an inspired brunch at the Gun Shop Café, which you guessed it, is housed in a former gun shop that is now a laid back but intensely popular café. Try the macadamia muesli, dried apricot and apple, fresh passion fruit and bush honey yogurt and a local prawn omelette with wakame seaweed salad, kewpie mayonnaise, and a soy ponzu sauce.
Moving right along to dinner, if you had only one meal in Brisbane you must go to Esquire, located in a sleek dining room overlooking the Story Bridge. Brisbane boy and owner/chef, Ryan Squires, has worked at Per Se in New York, El Bulli in Spain and Noma in Copenhagen but he has really come into his own in his hometown. This cool, calm space evokes a Scandinavian aesthetic, even the crockery is an organic blend of Scandinavian and Japanese style. Diners have a choice of a five or nine course degustation menu with changes daily according to what’s fresh in the markets. Highlights include bonito, avocado and ginger; scarlet shrimp, shitake and horseradish; lamb, cavolo nero and anchovy; and for dessert Campari, orange, curds and whey.
Other must-visit restaurants include Urbane featuring minimalist cutting-edge cuisine, Euro offering a buzzy brasserie and The Laneway specializing in creative cocktails, an eclectic wine list and boutique beers. Another quirky new spot is Alfred and Constance which offers an eclectic range of eating and dining options in a pair of Queenslander cottages.
Brisbane also has its fair share of classic Aussie pubs. The Regatta Hotel is a stunningly refurbished old Queensland pub with lacy wrought-iron verandas overlooking the Brisbane River. In the basement (accessed by a back entry) is the Walrus Club, an atmospheric Speakeasy style bar with a rabbit warren of rooms, which sports a serious rum collection from around the world. The Breakfast Creek Hotel is one of Australia’s best loved pubs. Built in 1889, it is the perfect place for premium quality steaks and ‘beer off the wood’ in its historic tropical beer garden or Spanish garden steakhouse. There is also a new breed of bars, such as Super What Not and Scratch, which offer a fine selection of craft beers.
Finally, if you would like to not only shop, eat and drink but also sleep in Queensland style, stay at Spicer’s Hotel Balfour. This dusky modern boutique hotel with a terrific rooftop bar is located in a re-incarnated wooden Queenslander house in New Farm.
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