May 19, 2024

Why Australia’s third city has become a first class destination

Why Australia’s third city has become a first class destination

If Australia’s three largest cities were Destiny’s Child, Brisbane would be Michelle. Most travelers flock to Sydney (Beyoncé) and then migrate south to Melbourne (Kelly).

For years the capital of Queensland has been the big smoke everyone forgets they forgot.

But that’s all changing. Lately, center stage belongs to “Brisvegas” — a sarcastic sobriquet derived from the fact Brisbane has long been considered the antithesis of Sin City.

Last month, after a two-year hiatus, Qantas resumed its nonstop service from LAX following Australia’s hardcore, multi-year shutdown.

And that’s not all: Next year, “Brissie” (the more PC moniker for the city of 2.2 million) will welcome the FIFA Women’s World Cup. In 2032, it will host the Summer Olympics.

Somehow, the backcountry settlement that began as a British penal colony is becoming a world-class destination.

Traditionally, the land where modern-day Brisbane straddles the Brisbane River (aka, “the Brown Snake”), was home to the Turrbal and Jagera peoples.

An aerial view of Brisbane and its bridges.
Bridge-happy Brisbane sits on its eponymous river, lovingly nicknamed “the Brown Snake.”
Richard Greenwood

Therefore, every visit should start with a stop at the Indigenous-owned and operated Birrunga Gallery.

Here, the boomerangs are as bona fide as the didgeridoos.

Next, follow in Queen Elizabeth’s footsteps and hug a koala at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. It’s the world’s first and largest koala sanctuary (and one of very few that lets you cuddle the curious-looking creatures). Afraid of bears (even though koalas are actually just marsupials)? Hand feed the sanctuary’s mob of ‘roos and emus.

People with a koala at the sanctuary.
The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary charms with its huggable denizens.

End the evening with a breath-taking — quite literally — show at Brisbane’s Underground Opera.

The company was founded by an entrepreneurial miner inspired by his experience with subterranean acoustics.

Forget a fancy opera house; performances take place beneath city streets in Brisbane’s old water reservoir.

If heights excite you, summit Brisbane’s landmark Stairmaster.

Exterior of a couple by Brisbane's Ferris wheel.
The relaxed atmosphere of Brisbane is luring relocating Australians and tourists alike with attractions like its Ferris wheel.
Tourism Australia

The Sydney Harbour Bridge may be featured in “Mission: Impossible II,” but the Story Bridge claims to be the world’s only bridge climb with abseiling. If ascending 1,088 steps and rappelling down sounds too anticlimactic, add the escape room element by signing up for Mission: SkyBeam. While climbing the bridge you’re tasked with helping the Australian Intelligence Agency find an EMP set to cause mass destruction. No pressure.

For more 360-degree views of the subtropical city, slide into an air-conditioned gondola on the Channel 7 Wheel of Brisbane, situated across the river from the central business district (CBD).

Between its historic shopping arcades and the Queen Street Mall — the former site of Brisbane’s convict barracks and bloody flogging triangle — the CBD features more than 1,000 shops. To really get the lay of the land, book a free walkabout with Brisbane Greeters. Tours are led by proud locals willing to reveal their favorite spots at the risk of them being ruined by tourists.

That said, Spice Central Kitchen and Bar, ranked No. 1 on TripAdvisor out of 4,055 restaurants in Brisbane, is no secret. Menu items you can’t get elsewhere include Mooloolaba tiger prawns, Australian pork leg seasoned with skid ink and gingerbread ice cream.

To try Brisbane’s signature Moreton Bay bugs — basically flat-headed lobsters — check out the Lodge. Opened this month, it features a 250-bottle wine list curated by Cameron Douglas, New Zealand’s only master somm.

The controversial Karen’s Diner — where the customer is always wrong — is another new addition to Brisbane’s burgeoning food scene. This offensive, interactive dining experience promises the world’s worst service. Order the “Basic Karen” burger or Karen’s answer to Macca’s (McDonald’s) Big Mac: the “I Want to See the Manager.” If your name is Karen, and you have ID to prove it, use it to score a free drink.

Interior of Cyrstalbrook's rooftop bar.
The new five-star, six-story Crystalbrook Vincent hotel has a rooftop bar called Fiume.
Cyrstalbrook Collection

For Brisbane’s newest five-star accommodations, look no further than Crystalbrook Vincent (from $176). The walls of this six-story hotel are covered with more than 500 prints by Vincent Fantauzzo, the Australian artist famous for his portraits of the late Aussie great, Heath Ledger.

For Brissie’s best rooftop real estate, head to Hotel X (from $184). Since opening in December, its rooftop pool and Mediterranean bar, Iris, has been where locals come to strip down to their budgie smugglers and bathers for an arvo (afternoon) of sun, fun and coldies (beer).

In 2023, Brisbane’s new Queen’s Wharf development will welcome five new luxury hotels including a Ritz-Carlton and the city’s first six-star hotel.

Getting around greater Brisbane is easy thanks to the river ferries. Since 2019, the city has doubled its fleet of 170-passenger double-decker CityCats, with two more CityCats debuting later this year. Passage on the smaller, 60-passenger KittyCats — servicing the inner city — is always free.

Getting to Brisbane, however, proves to be more challenging.

Since you’re flying halfway around the world, why not take advantage of the fact Brisbane is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef? It’s also just an hour’s drive from Australia’s sunny Gold Coast and its even sunnier Sunshine Coast.

Or just stay in Brisbane the whole time. It may never be Australia’s Beyoncé, but the oft-overlooked Michelle is becoming a destination in itself.