Having grown rapidly to more than two million residents in recent years, BRISBANE is by far the largest city in Queensland, its fortunes booming. However, despite having many of the trappings of a business and trade centre – urban sprawl, high-rise buildings, slow-moving traffic, crowded streets – there’s little of the pushiness that usually accompanies them. To urbanites used to a more aggressive approach, the atmosphere is slow, but to others the languid pace is a welcome change and reflects relaxed rather than regressive attitudes.

Home to a glut of good cafés, gourmet restaurants and music venues, the city is focused around the meandering loops of the Brisbane River, with the triangular wedge of the business centre on the north bank surrounded by community-orientated suburbs. At the city’s heart are the busy, upmarket commercial and administrative precincts around Queen Street and George Street, an area of glass towers, cafés and century-old sandstone facades that extends southeast to the lush Botanic Gardens tucked into the bend of the river. Radiating north, the polish gives way to less conservative shops, accommodation and restaurants around Spring Hill, Fortitude Valley and New Farm, and the aspiring suburbs of Petrie Terrace and Paddington. Houses in these areas are popular with Brisbane’s aspiring professional class, and while office buildings and one-way streets are beginning to encroach, there’s also an older character reflected in the many high-set, wooden-balconied and tin-roofed Queenslander houses still standing – some lovingly restored to original condition.

To the west of the city is a blaze of riverside homes at Milton and Toowong, beyond which lies Mount Coot-tha. Across the river, the major landmarks are the South Bank Cultural Centre and South Bank Parklands, which curve round to Kangaroo Point, the city’s activity heartlands, crowned by the Story Bridge. Beyond them are the bohemian, bustling streets of South Brisbane and the West End, which tend to feel infinitely more relaxed than their northern counterparts.

Brisbane is a fairly easy place to find casual, short-term employment, and the healthy, unpredictable social scene tempts many travellers to spend longer here than they had planned. As for exploring further afield, you’ll find empty beaches and surf on North Stradbroke Island and dolphins around Moreton Island – both easy to reach from the city.

Brief history

In 1823, responding to political pressure to shift the “worst type of felons” away from Sydney, the New South Wales government sent Surveyor General John Oxley north to find a suitable site for a new prison colony. Sailing into Moreton Bay, he was shown a previously unknown river by three shipwrecked convicts who had been living with Aborigines. He explored it briefly, named it “Brisbane” after the governor, and the next year established a convict settlement at Redcliffe on the coast. This was immediately abandoned in favour of better anchorage further upstream, and by the end of 1824 today’s city centre had become the site of Brisbane Town.

Twenty years on, a land shortage down south persuaded the government to move out the convicts and free up the Moreton Bay area to settlers. Immigrants on government-assisted passages poured in and Brisbane began to shape up as a busy port – an unattractive, awkward town of rutted streets and wooden shacks. As the largest regional settlement of the times, Brisbane was the obvious choice as capital of the new state of Queensland on its formation in 1859, though the city’s first substantial buildings were constructed only in the late 1860s, after fire had destroyed the original centre and state bankruptcy was averted by Queensland’s first gold strikes at Gympie. Even so, development was slow and uneven: new townships were founded around the centre at Fortitude Valley, Kangaroo Point and Breakfast Creek, gradually merging into a city.

After World War II, when General Douglas MacArthur used Brisbane as his headquarters to coordinate attacks on Japanese forces based throughout the Pacific, Brisbane stagnated, earning a reputation as a dull, underdeveloped backwater – not least thanks to the Bjelke-Petersen regime.

Since his time, escalating development has impressed upon the city’s skyline and for the past decade Brisbane – Australia’s third most populous city – has boasted the country’s highest internal migration figures and a quarter of the national population growth. This has resulted in booming house prices and a snazzy redevelopment of the dilapidated Brisbane River foreshore into upmarket apartments and an influx of top-notch celebrity-endorsed restaurants along with a scattering of bars.