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.
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.
John Oxley recorded that the Brisbane Aborigines were friendly; in the early days, they even rounded up and returned runaways from the settlement. In his orders to Oxley on how to deal with the indigenous peoples, Governor Brisbane admitted, though in a roundabout way, that the land belonged to them: “All uncivilized people have wants … when treated justly they acquire many comforts by their union with the more civilized. This justifies our occupation of their lands.”
But future governors were not so liberal, and things had soured long before the first squatters moved into the Brisbane area and began leaving out “gifts” of poisoned flour and calling in the Native Mounted Police to disperse local Aborigines – a euphemism for exterminating them. In the later part of the nineteenth century, survivors from these early days were dispossessed by the Protection Act (in force until the 1970s), which saw them rounded up and relocated onto special reserves away from traditional lands.
A trace of Brisbane’s Aboriginal past is found at the Nudgee Bora Ring about 12km north of the centre at Nudgee Waterhole Reserve, at the junction of Nudgee and Childs roads. Last used in 1860, two low mounds where boys were initiated form little more than an icon today, and you’ll probably feel that it’s not worth the trip. More rewarding are the several Aboriginal walking trails at Mount Coot-tha; the City Hall information desk has leaflets on these which explain traditional uses of the area.
As Australia’s fastest-growing city, Brisbane has a shortage of inner-city accommodation, with hostels bursting with travelling casual workers, and the luxury boutique apartments often rented long-term by the expanding business and law fraternity. You should book at least a week ahead, longer if your visit will coincide with the Brisbane Cup horse race in June, the Royal Queensland Show (the “Ekka”) in August, or the week-long Brisbane Festival in September. Prices at high-end places may drop at weekends and during December and January, due to the scarcity of business customers and competition from the Gold Coast.
Brisbane Festival September brisbanefestival.com.au. World-class arts festival with music, theatre, comedy, dance, opera and circus events held across the city.
Brisbane Writers Festival September bwf.org.au. Four days of talks, readings, workshops and fringe events.
Fête de la Musique June fetedelamusiquebrisbane.com.au. Free outdoor performances across the city to commemorate World Music Day.
Northern Exposure October brisbears.org.au. Seven days of gay-friendly events.
Pride Festival September gayprideaustralia.com.au. Month-long celebration of Gay Pride.
Queensland Music Festival July qmf.org.au. Biennial state-wide musical events.
Supafest April supafest.com.au. Australia’s largest urban music festival.
The sluggish, meandering Brisbane River is, at four hundred million years old, one of the world’s most ancient waterways. It flows from above Lake Wivenhoe – 55km inland – past farmland, into quiet suburbs and through the city before emptying 150km downstream into Moreton Bay. Once an essential trade and transport link with the rest of Australia and the world, it now seems to do little but separate the main part of the city from South Brisbane; though it’s superficially active around the city centre, with ferries and dredgers keeping it navigable, most of the old wharves and shipyards now lie derelict or buried under parkland.
If the locals seem to have forgotten the river, it has a habit of reasserting its presence through flooding. In February 1893 cyclonic rains swelled the flow through downtown Brisbane, carrying off Victoria Bridge and scores of buildings: eyewitness accounts stated that “debris of all descriptions – whole houses, trees, cattle and homes – went floating past”. This has since been repeated many times, notably in January 1974 when rains from Cyclone Wanda completely swamped the centre, swelling the river to a width of 3km at one stage. Despite reminders of this in brass plaques marking the depths of the worst floods at Naldham House Polo Club, the construction of the Lake Wivenhoe dam, completed in 1984, gave property developers (and their insurers) the confidence to build some of Brisbane’s poshest homes beside the river, notably at Yeronga, Graceville and Chelmer, southwest of the centre. However, the dam couldn’t contain the sheer volume of rain that fell in January 2011 and the river burst its banks once again, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage. Disastrous though this was, renovation work proceeded speedily and most buildings and services had reopened within a few weeks.
Brisbane’s foodie credentials have been improving at quite a rate in recent years. Fortitude Valley has a dense grouping of Asian restaurants (and a fashionable café society) while South Brisbane’s Boundary Street has more of a European flavour. The counter meals offered by many downtown hotels (especially during the week) are the cheapest route to a full stomach – aim for lunch at around noon and dinner between 5 and 6pm – or try one of the scores of cafés and food courts in the centre (Post Office Square’s a good one) catering to office workers.
Brisbane’s gays and lesbians revel in a loud and energetic scene that gets better every year. In September the Pride Collective hosts the annual Pride Festival (brisbanepridefestival.com.au), a varied month-long event with a street march, fair, art exhibitions, a film festival, sports events and general exhibitionism, kicking off with the Pride Festival Opening Gala. Other events to look out for include Northern Exposure in October, organized by Brisbears (brisbears.org.au).
The gay scene is largely clustered around the suburbs of Spring Hill, Fortitude Valley, New Valley, New Farm and Paddington. For up-to-the-moment information, listen to the Queer Radio slot on 4ZZZ 102.1FM, read the fortnightly issue of Qnews (qnews.com.au) or Queensland Pride from gay nightclubs, street distributors and some coffee shops. Nightlife focuses on The Wickham Hotel, Sportsman Hotel and The Beat. Bent Books is the longest-established gay bookshop in Brisbane.
Brisbane is a hotbed of musical talent: bands and artists such as Savage Garden, Powderfinger, Keith Urban, The Grates and Yves Klein Blue all hail from here. While there are plenty of central places to fire up with a few drinks on Friday and Saturday nights, the big push is out to Fortitude Valley’s bars and clubs. Live music venues are very fluid and tend to open and close in the blink of an eye; places listed below should be here to stay, but check with music stores such as Rocking Horse, or have a browse through Scene mag (scenemagazine.com.au) or Time Out Brisbane (au.timeout.com/Brisbane) for up-to-the minute reviews and listings. There’s no standard charge for club entry, and many places offer free nights and deals.