Popular activities and things to do in Brisbane
Growing up in Brisbane, there was never a time where the city felt worldly or cosmopolitan. We used to celebrate birthdays at J.C. Slaughter Falls or even the Karalee Country Club, but much has changed. Having spent five years in Sydney and now almost two years in Hong Kong, there’s certainly a sense that there’s something happening when I return to my old stomping ground. It’s not a full-blown transformation, but more a subtle coming of age.
The streets aren’t as quiet, and it seems like the restaurants, bars and even the shops stay open a little longer than they used to. And whereby once Brisbane was the awkward cousin of the larger, attention-grabbing southern neighbours, Sydney and Melbourne, the dining, social and cultural scene that has burgeoned is a sure step up from the modest town that hosted World Expo 88.
Calling Brisbane a new “world city” is a tad ambitious, at least for now, but it cannot be argued that it has become a place to eat, drink, shop, watch and – dare I say it – stay. No longer just a gateway to the Gold or Sunshine Coasts, Brisbane has evolved into a city with its own identity and a vibrant, vital beat.
Here’s a list of must-dos, must-sees and absolute must-eats from my home city. There are so many things to do in Brisbane that a weekend may not be long enough to fit it all in.
Eat & Drink
One of the best things to do in Brisbane is to eat out at the countless world class cafes & Restaurants. In Brisbane you’ll find everything from no fuss, breezy cafes to elevated fine dining, Brisbane is now a smorgasbord of choice. There’s no shortage of breakfast options. Whether you’re in Fortitude Valley, New Farm, Teneriffe or Woolloongabba, you cannot help but discover breakfast treasures at Campos Long Island, Pablo, Little Loco and Kin+Co.
James Street is one of Brisbane’s busiest dining, shopping and social precincts. For coffee, drag yourself from bed and head to Bellissimo, around the corner on Wandoo Street, or to Campos coffee on the corner of Ann and Wandoo. Both have won an intimidating number of awards and Bellissimo is known to serve one of the best Italian dark roasts in the whole of the land. Head to Botanica on Chester Street for a quick grab-and-go snack (definitely try the cupcakes), but if you’re closer to the CBD, grab a hit of caffeine at Coffee Anthology – the yardstick for speciality coffee – or try John Mills Himself, a tiny café space in an old, subterranean print shop.
If it’s lunch you’re after, make your way across to South Brisbane and along the completely rejuvenated Fish Lane in South Bank, nearby the Brisbane River. The refurbished buildings now house some of the city’s best food and bev including the renowned Julius and also Ol’ School, whose fish and chips I’d wager are some of Brissie’s best. Otherwise, veer off the straight and narrow with a visit to Hello Please, which serves up Vietnamese street eats very digestible prices.
If you’re looking for a little bit of art to go with your meal, look no further than the Gallery of Modern Art. Situated within throwing distance of Asia and the Pacific’s best art collection, GOMA Restaurant serves up boldly flavoured seasonal cuisine, including Mooloolaba freshest cuttlefish and toothfish and a wine list sourced from all around Queensland.
For a serve of something totally different, seek out Joy. With only 10 seats, this nook serves up an intensely personal dining experience, feeling like more of a chef’s table than a whole restaurant. The two chefs, who also happen to own and live above the shop, get to work in a galley-style kitchen, tweezers and tongs in hand, sharing Joy with diners as they plate up immediately in front of them. In keeping with the quirkiness and focus on craft at this venue, the drinks list favours the artisanal with the likes of brown-rice sake of their signature Ephemera’s negroamaro.
If socialising before dinner is your thing, head back across town to Howard Smith Wharves for drinks. Opening for business in November and wedged next to a cliff face underneath the Story Bridge, it’s a dramatic spot for afternoon bevvies overlooking the Brisbane river at Felons or a cocktail at Mr Percival’s. Nearby is Honto, the new, dark and much-celebrated Japanese restaurant, while Brisbane favourites E’cco, Gerard’s Bistro, Beccofino and Montrachet are a short stroll away. All are a short cab ride away while Ristorante Tartufu, which is located in the Emporium precinct next to Brisbane’s hottest new Israeli inspired bar and restaurant, ZA ZA TA. This crazy-popular Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurant is a soulful blend of centuries-old flavours with a distinctly modern twist and the plantation rum and artisanal cocktails, inspired by the vibrant Tel Aviv bar scene, are delectable.
Just as tempting is Restaurant Dan Arnold. Applying French techniques to local ingredients, the Dan Arnold menu captures a style of fine dining that was meant to be long gone by 2020. The lack of pageantry starts with a minimalist fit-out. Such an understatement keeps the focus on the food, with a rotating set menu and veritable smorgasbord of amuse bouches and optional cheese boards. The pick of the lot has got to be the slow-roasted quail with black garlic purée and leek. Let the staff match the food from their list of Australian and French wines just to wash it all down.
After dinner, head to the dark and moody Snack Man for cocktails and a global wine list, otherwise walk across Ann Street to Gerard’s Bistro for table-service drinks and laid-back rap music under the fairy lights. If that’s not what you fancy, wander back up the hill into Fortitude Valley, venturing closer to Brunswick Street Mall, to Savile Row – a tiny speakeasy with over 730 bottles on the back bar – arguably the Brisbane’s best boozer right now. Alternatively, you can turn things up a notch and dance the night away at Barbara, with its heaving sound system, or the iconic Bowery Bar which is back on Ann Street.
If you’re looking for a little more showtime in your visit to Brisbane, venture to Red Hill Cinemas.
In 2002, when the Red Hill Skate Arena burnt down, it reduced decades of Brisbane history to ashes. The venue had been a destination for fun-loving locals since the 1920s when it opened as Pop’s Picture Palace, showcasing films until the 1960s. It was then converted to Teen City, a youth club that hosts iconic global music acts like the Bee Gees. In 1965 it became Red Hill Skate Arena, with many Brisbanites frequenting the skate hall until its eventual demise.
Last year, the venue reopened as a new theatre complex, featuring four premium cinemas with plush, leather reclining seats, each seating 70 patrons, with food and drinks delivered to their seats. Each cinema has 4k projection and the latest in Dolby surround-sound.
In a city where cultural preservation and historical significance is rarely preserved, no other site has recycled materials and employed and environmental innovation quite like Red Hill Cinemas. The design has utilised elements of the existing structure in new ways – the plant stand above the candy bar is made from a ladder that was once used to reach the projection booth at Pop’s Picture Palace and timber from the original structure makes up part of the theatre’s ceiling.
The recycled canvas chairs located in the foyer were sourced online from a cinema in Gayndah, and the timber flooring is recycled from the lanes of a bowling alley. Outside, Red Hill Cinemas’ façade is decorated with a mix of original graffiti which has been kept intact, while some of the artists have been invited back to add to their works and new ones.
For years Brisbane’s had a sense of been there, done that!. Essentially, you’ve ticked it all off if you’ve been there once. But that was the 90s. This is NOW! So get out your notepad and jot these ideas down.
Ever heard the phrase ‘dance like no one’s watching?’ That’s the ultimate objective of No Lights, No Lycra in West End. As you could probably guess, participants dance in a dark room with their friends, neighbours and absolute randoms, listening to sick tunes and letting their inhibitions loose (try out some moves you’ve always been too shy to try in public). Strangely therapeutic and ridiculously fun, this one a must-do for anyone wanting to try something new.
For those looking for the ultimate nostalgia hit, wheel one over to one of Brisbane’s two drive-in cinemas. The Yatala Drive-In Theatre has been frequented for years, but the better kept secret is the Tivoli Drive-In. Operating only on Saturday nights, with a fully serviced cafe on site to cater to those hunger pangs, dive in to the latest new releases the old fashioned way!
It’s not every day that you can hand feed a wild bottlenose dolphin. But at the Tangalooma Island Resort jetty, it’s an everyday occurrence. Every night at dusk, pods of bottlenose dolphins greet locals and tourists, looking to get their dinner fix. It’s something that’s incredibly rare around the world, and something that’s truly unique to the Queensland coastline. If you head over to North Stradbroke Island in the summer, head to the Manta Ray bommie dive site. There you’ll come face-to-face with Manta Rays, leopard, guitar and bamboo sharks, lionfish, turtles and octopus.
If you’re more of a land faring creature, looking to explore the modern comforts of fashion, then James Street is your go-to destination. With globally renowned designers including Calexico, Scanlan & Theodore, Gorman, Zimmermann, Gail Sorronda, Bassike, Love Stories, Venroy, and Natasha Schweitzer, this snazzy retail hub was made for long days of shopping and gossip. Be sure to check out Queenstreet, the main street of Brisbane including the Queenstreet Mall. There are simply countless places to shop around Brisbane for all you shopaholics!
The only place to stay when experiencing it all, is at Ovolo Hotels. With your choice of Ovolo Inchcolm or Ovolo The Valley, we have two excellent inns that add a splash to the Brisbane hotel scene. Both are minutes away from James Street, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, QAGOMA and the CBD. Both come with all The Perks, when booked direct, and both will be the centre of a Brisbane experience, a long time in the making. They’re at the centre of the action, with all the amenities to make a memorable holiday.
The fact is that there’s plenty to do, see and hear in Brisbane. You just need to know where to look.
So what are you waiting for? Discover the grown up Brisbane for yourself.