A Local's Guide to Brisbane: Top Things to See & Do

Most travelers have Melbourne, Sydney and Cairns on their itineraries, but forget all about Brisbane. Here's why the Queensland capital should be on your list, too.

Photo © iStock/F4R

A trip to Australia would be incomplete without checking out some of Queensland's best attractions – Fraser Island, the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, and the beaches of the Gold Coast – but what about Brisbane?

Must Do in Brisbane

If art and culture interest you, be sure to spend a few hours browsing the Queensland Gallery of Art to see the local and international artwork, and the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), which houses left-of-field exhibits and modern works. 

Head along the riverfront at South Bank, 17 hectares of parklands,  under a canopy of purple bougainvillea, and find somewhere to grab a bite to eat. Brisbane doesn't have beaches, instead, there is a man-made beach on the river bank – it's a great place to cool off in summer.

Take a stroll around Roma Street Parkland with its cafes, restaurants, gardens, bbqs and historic monuments, it's a great place to chill out in the heart of the city. 

South Bank Gardens, Brisbane. Photo credit: iStock

Eat Like a Local in Brisbane

Brisbane is packed with local cafes and restaurants. For travelers on a budget, this can become overwhelming. Here are a few of my favorites:

Cafés

Rik's Café in Fortitude Valley is the best value for breakfast. Situated in the Brunswick Street Mall, at this long-time icon of the Valley Mall for the price of a coffee, you can get a great egg, sausage and bacon breakfast. 

Burgers

Ben's Burgers offer American-style hamburgers, fries and shakes in a down-to-earth setting. With candied bacon (bacon cooked with brown sugar, it's very sweet) is on the menu, you know it's going to be good. They won't take anything off the burgers available on the menu, but you can ask for extras to be added. It's open till late, and you can find Ben's Burgers at 5 Winn Street, Fortitude Valley.

Markets

Eat Street Northshore is a market made up of shipping containers, converted into mini food stalls. Whether you like Mexican, Italian or Greek, Eat Street Northshore has it all. There are also plenty of dessert stalls to satisfy a sweet tooth. 

Try American funnel cakes, served with lashings of strawberries and ice cream. To get there, take the Cat to Brett's Wharf, upon exiting the terminal turn right and walk eight minutes along the river, onto Macarthur Ave. If you're driving, travel along Kingsford Smith Drive, turn onto Remora Road. At the end of Remora Road turn left onto Macarthur Ave. Opens at 4pm – get there early, as crowds swell around 7pm.

Restaurants

Red Hook is a New York-inspired eatery and bar restaurant hidden on Creek Street, with weekly specials for budget hunters. Wings Wednesday offers up 2.2lbs (1kg) of buffalo wings for AU $13, and Taco Truck Tuesday serves up cheap tacos after 5pm. 

It's a little hard find via Creek Street, as it's located around the back on Gresham Lane. It's much easier to find if you approach from Elizabeth Street.

Night markets in Brisbane. Photo credit: iStock/Shanenk

Brisbane Nightlife

Brooklyn Standard

Tucked away in Eagle Lane, Brooklyn Standard is an American-themed underground bar in Spring Hill. With plenty of seating and live music, it's a great bar with a lively atmosphere. The venue attracts an older crowd of over 30s, and has a more laid-back vibe than most other nightclubs.

Sonny's House of Blues

With pool competitions during the week, jazz sessions and a chilled-out vibe, Sonny's House of Blues is a cool little hideout in the inner city in Rowe's Lane (near Commonwealth Bank), and is a great central place to go for a bite to eat. Open from Tuesday to Saturday from 4pm, it has a cheap menu.

Lefty's Old Time Music Hall

Catch a bus down to 15 Caxton Street to the quirkiest bar in Brisbane, the western-themed Lefty's Old Time Music.  is where you can enjoy a Po'Boy or Southern Fried Chicken Tenders, flanked by stuffed deer heads and candles while being serenaded by some good, old-fashioned country music. 

The Valley

Fortitude Valley is the place to go for a party, with quirky venues like Wooly Mammoth, The Zoo, Black Bear Lodge, and Press Club. Most of the venues have a $10– $15 cover charge after 10pm – so get there early to pay less, and get a stamp for re-entry. Or, head over to the classy Cloudland for free entry all night. With the cost of drinks setting you back $10- $15 a hit.

Keep in mind most venues have a 3am lockout. Never leave the club alone, stay in a group – as Fortitude Valley has a history of being a little rough after dark.

Brisbane Markets

Brisbane locals love their weekend markets. A great place to grab something to eat at a reasonable price, and browse local handicrafts.

There are a number of marketplaces in the inner city area, but it's best to get up early, as most markets are only open from 6am to 12pm.

The pick of the bunch in the inner city is the Kelvin Grove Markets, on Saturdays from 6am–1pm. Catch a 345 bus from Roma Street station to the University at Kelvin Grove (two stops) and walk down the hill for fresh breakfast ideas, live music and fresh fruit. The Vietnamese coffee stand makes iced coffee for a morning pick-me-up. Fresh bread and bagels are also available for a snack, as you stroll the University precinct.

At sunset, make your way over to Boundary Street for the West End night markets. International food stalls fill the car park area, where you can take a seat on an old couch by the fire. The Motor Room hosts local up-and-coming artists, and is licensed – perfect for a cold beer. Open from 4pm–10pm Friday and Saturday nights, the markets are a short walk from South Brisbane train station.

If it's just local handicrafts that you're looking for, on Saturdays and Sundays until 4pm Southbank plays host to a local craft market. Pick up some earrings or a handmade clothing. There are plenty of places to eat, from fast food to restaurants.

For something a little different, the Suitcase Rummage at the Treasury Casino square on Queen Street is a flea market with a difference. Everyone is selling out of suitcases. Second-hand clothes, craft items, and jewelry are among the things you can rummage for between 12–5pm, only the first and third Sunday of each month.

Adventure Experiences In and Around Brisbane

Brisbane isn't far from beautiful pockets of rainforest and national parks. Don't start your journey north to Cairns or south to Sydney before checking out these destinations. 

Hiking in Lamington National Park

Jump on the Pacific Motorway and head south to Lamington National Park. Here, you can walk through tree canopies at O'Reilly's, hand-feed native birds, and climb a native fig tree to the observation deck 98ft (30m) above the ground. The observation deck is only small, fitting three or four people at a time, and looking down at the rainforest below with its cavalcade of color is breathtaking.

If you enjoy bushwalking (hiking), there are a number of easy tracks nearby, the Border Track being the longest. It's pretty flat most of the way and follows the border between New South Wales and Queensland along the top of the McPherson Range. Linking Binna Burra to O'Reilly's, the track is 14mi (23km) and can be completed in seven to eight hours. Before you go, layer on the mosquito repellant, and watch out for leeches.

Lamington National Park. Photo credit: iStock

Whilst you won't see any koalas on your hike, you may be lucky enough to see the very rare Lamington Spiny Crayfish, a beautiful blue crayfish found only in this part of the world. If you see one on the trail, keep your distance, as they can get a little aggressive.

Glow Worm Caves, Natural Bridge

One of the most interesting natural wonders in the Gold Coast Hinterland is the glow worm caves at Natural Bridge. Arrive at 7pm to avoid crowds, as the worms are only visible at night. Take a torch and a light jacket, as there's no light at all and being in a rainforest, you will get chilly at night.

it's a half mile walk into the cave, which has a waterfall rushing into it, so wear grippy footwear to avoid slipping inside. Turn off your torch as you descend the stairs into the cave, as the light can damage the worms. When you enter, the galaxy of blue, luminescent worms will capture your imagination.

City Adventure

Looking for a bit of a thrill? Dead down to Riverlife in Kangaroo Point. They provide a variety of sporting equipment for hire, so if you want to paddle board or kayak the river you can. Or for the more adventurous, abseiling the cliffs might be for you. Most of the adventure tours offered by Riverlife run in the afternoons and are reasonably priced, under AU $100.

Getting Around Brisbane

Take the Sky Rail from the airport into the city for the most economical and enjoyable ride. Get off at Brisbane Central Station.

The city of Brisbane is powered by three types of public transport:

  • Ferry's traverse up and down the river,
  • Trains take you to the outer suburbs,
  • Buses go everywhere else in between.

GoCard is TransLink's electronic ticket to convenient travel, and can be used in Brisbane, Ipswich, Sunshine Coast, and Gold Coast regions. Find the nearest Newsagent or train station to purchase a GoCard. It'll set you back AU $10, but that cost covers the card and credit for your first few rides.

Touch on and touch off on any transport, and check the screen to see your balance. Top-ups can be made at any bus or major train station, as well as 7/11 convenience stores. Before you leave Queensland, return to the place you purchased the card for a refund on any remaining balance.

Download the Translink app for all information. On weekends there are late night buses, however, they run to limited locations, so plan ahead. Keep in mind Brisbane city transport might shut down after 10pm, making a taxi or Uber your only other option.

Be aware that after midnight some taxis will try to charge a “late night surcharge” – which is not legal. So ask about this before agreeing to a ride, and make sure the driver has the meter on. Cabs accept credit cards.

In Brisbane CBD the speed limit has dropped to 24mi/hour (40km/hour). If you happen to drive and find yourself with a traffic infringement or citation, call Department of Transport and Main Roads on 13 23 80 for advice on how to pay.

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