I only spent a few days in Queensland’s biggest city, but I quickly learned what to check out from my local couchsurfing host and an array of friends who grew up in the city or went to university there.
After spending 8 months between Melbourne and Sydney, Brisbane felt like a country town disguised as a big city. I should’ve known with what I had heard about the city previously that it was bound to be a quirky and charming place.
Although for some tourists wanting the big name attractions, Brisbane doesn’t have the appeal that Melbourne or Sydney does, the relaxed and down to earth vibe more than made up for it. I can see why so many people choose to call Brisbane home, it’s a very livable and sustainable city that has a uni town feel.
After getting settled into my couchsurfing accommodation, I chose my time carefully in order to see what Brisbane had to offer. I spent time with my hosts riding bikes, eating homemade food, and even going to a Hare Krishna class. I became enthralled with the amount of choice there was for healthy and organic cafes around the city. I explored the city on my own and made a trip to the outskirts for some koala and kangaroo love.
Although I still haven’t been to London, with the amount of bridges and the big ferris wheel highlighting the waterfront, Brisbane reminded me of what London looks like in the pictures, of course, on a smaller scale. A lot of my English friends have pointed out the resemblance as well. There is a whole lot of British influence in Australia in general though, so it’s not all that surprising.
If you only have a few days, or just want a general overview of Brisbane, here is my guide for some key spots to check out!
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary
I was so excited to finally hold a Koala (it’s illegal in NSW and Victoria, but not in Queensland), that I woke up early my first full day in Brisbane and rushed to find the bus stop in the city that would take me to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, on the outskirts of the city.
In my haste, I forgot to check if the bus was actually running on a Sunday. To my dismay it wasn’t. I woke up early again the next day, checked the bus schedule ahead of time, and was well on my way to seeing some koalas up close and personal.
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is one of the coolest animal-themed parks I’ve been to. It didn’t make me especially sad like zoos do, because the sanctuary is a place that helps injured or lost koalas, and the employees do a good job of showing how much they care for the animals, and also how knowledgeable they are on each individual animal’s wants and needs.
There was pretty much every classic Australian animal to be found: dingoes, koalas, poisonous snakes galore, kangaroos, wallabies, platypuses, and countless others. It was a huge complex, and most of the animals had a large area of land to roam, not a small cage to live in.
One aspect I especially liked about Lone Pine was the hands on approach you’re able to have with the animals. I held a baby chick in the barnyard area, fed kangaroos (small ones included!), said hello to an emu, heard countless talks by the trainers about the life of these animals, and held a koala called Major as the crowning moment of my day.
I spent a good half day there, and was impressed with how easy it was to get to and from the sanctuary with public transport.
West End is the artsy, coffee shop and book loving suburb of Brisbane, with countless healthy cafes and eateries to choose from, and even some delicious Mexican food to be had. Shoutout to the Beach Burrito Company!
I met a few festival friends in West End on my last full day in Brisbane for hummus wraps, coffee, and a much needed catch up. It’s also the neighborhood where I went to the Hare Krishna class, rode bikes, and immersed myself in too many second hand bookstores to count. And, it’s where I wrote Random Musings Over an Iced Lemon Croissant in a cute little cafe.
Similar to Fitzroy in Melbourne or Newtown in Sydney, West End is considered the trendy and cool place to hang out in Brisbane. Although I didn’t go out in West End for dinner, my couchsurfing hosts were far too good of cooks, I heard it is the place to go out for date nights and to sample the edgiest and most delicious restaurants in the city. It’s a place for the foodies.
Free City Hopper Ferry
There is a free ferry in Brisbane! I know, I was pretty excited when I heard about it too. The Free City Hopper Ferry, not to be confused with the CityCat Ferry (like I did), is a ferry that hits all the hot spots around the Brisbane waterfront, along the Brisbane River.
It’s perfect if you want to get to key tourist destinations like the Cultural Precinct, the Story Bridge, or the Botanical Garden. And it’s also good if you just want to take a river cruise for free and see all that Brisbane has to offer in one peaceful ride. It gives you a good feel for the layout of the city as well.
When I took my river cruise, it was pouring down rain but still humid, so it was quite cool cruising along the river (with a cover) in the rain.
Cities with free museums are the best, and lucky for me, Brisbane had a large amount to choose from. To make it even easier, most of them are grouped together in the Cultural Precinct and theatre district, and there’s even a huge ferris wheel to keep you entertained.
I mainly spent my time in the Queensland Museum, and briefly poked my head into the Queensland Art Gallery. The Queensland museum is modern, clean, and interactive. It was one of the best museums I found in Australia. My favorite exhibit in particular was all about the ocean, conservation, and which sea creatures live in The Great Barrier Reef. It made me excited for my upcoming diving trip in the Whitsundays a few days later.
I couldn’t believe that such an educational and awesome museum was free, it’s not quite as common around California, but it’s just another aspect I love about Australia, that the majority of museums are free.
UQ and the Botanical Gardens
University of Queensland is the main university in Brisbane, and it’s a beautiful campus to explore alongside the Botanical Gardens. It’s probably just my inner geek coming out, but I really love walking around college campuses. It makes me want to go to a lecture, read in the garden, and expand my mind in countless areas. It makes me realize that I’m probably not done with my education, universities still give me so much joy.
The Botanical Gardens, although nowhere near as big as the ones in Melbourne or Sydney, was still a lovely place to spend a nice day in the sunshine. The gardens are quaint, green, and best of all spotlessly clean. It’s literally right in the city, so at some parts you can see the skyscrapers on the outskirts, truly an urban oasis.
The Waterfront at Dusk
What I really love about Brisbane is how aesthetically pleasing the waterfront is, which is mainly due to the numerous different styled bridges that go across the river. The bridges light up as night takes over, and they bring the waterfront to life as the sun fades away in the distance.
Countless joggers litter the waterfront, getting in their exercise after a long work day. The bikers avoid hitting a crowd of pedestrians as they whiz by in a hurry. Lovers hold hands and take their time walking towards the next bridge. The lone traveler takes pictures of the architecture and captures the sunset hitting the water just right.
I don’t know exactly what it is, but the Brisbane waterfront feels pretty magical at dusk.
Walking across the Story Bridge
I love walking across bridges. From the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, to countless others I’ve crossed throughout my journeys, I for some reason find myself in a philosophical mood when I’m on a bridge.
I think my fondness comes from the tendency of impressive views from a bridge standpoint, and the Brisbane Story Bridge did not disappoint. If it’s a sunny day in Brisbane, and you want to walk around the city, I would highly recommend including the Story Bridge in your explorations.
On a good day, the skyscrapers reflect perfectly in the water, and you’re able to see one of the best cityscapes I’ve witnessed in the many cities I’ve visited.
Rock Climbing at Kangaroo Point Cliffs
My couchsurfing host, an avid adventure junkie and outdoorsy type, talked about taking me rock climbing a Kangaroo Point Cliffs with another one of his friends. Unfortunately, we ran out of time before my departure date, but I still managed to walk by the rock climbers and watch them scrambling up the cliffs on one of my days of getting lost in the city.
The city council has made it a rock climbing mecca by putting up concrete bollards at various spots along the cliffs, which can be used for abseilling or top rope climbing. You can either take classes to learn how to rock climb, go with a friend, or it seemed a popular activity for a family outing on a nice day.
Situated along the water and looking out across the Botanical Gardens, it’s a great place to rock climb and simply enjoy being outdoors and active.
Watching the Sunrise at Mt. Coot-tha Lookout
I was bummed that I missed out on a sunrise at Mt. Coot-tha. As clear evidence from Take a Moment to Enjoy it, I have a fondness for sunsets and sunrises, and I heard it was an amazing view and lookout to watch the sun come up.
Aaron, my couchsurfing host, and I planned to wake up extra early before he had to be at work on my last day in Brisbane. The sky looked gloomy as we took off in the dark morning, but we still held out false hope that it might clear up. He had never seen the sunrise from the lookout either, so he was keen as well. Instead of clearing up, torrential rain started pouring down, and we had to accept defeat.
In any case, I would recommend it to anyone due to how many good things I’ve heard about the beauty of the spot on a good day.
Having a drink in Fortitude Valley
Although I didn’t get to enjoy a night out in Fortitude Valley (my couchsurfing host was located on the opposite side of the city), a few of my Sydney friends who were originally from Brisbane, told me about the Valley, and how it’s a good place to have a proper night out in Brisbane.
There’s also a pretty sweet Chinatown and outside mall in this area, so it’s worth checking out whether it’s night or day.
Whereas you might find more of the young professionals/student hipster vibe in West End, Fortitude Valley is a bit of a younger crowd. It’s where a lot of the uni students go for a night out on the town, but also where good live music is to be found, as well as clubs.
Getting Lost Walking Around the City
One aspect I really love about Brisbane is the walkable nature of the city. It’s fairly compact, especially compared to the other two Aussie cities I called home, and the public transit is fast, clean, and reliable.
I spent some time getting lost around the city, and I was able to see the majority of the main suburbs in half a day just on foot. I love to walk places, and capture what’s going on in the outside world at my own pace. Walkable cities are a major attribute for me. Brisbane is great for this because it’s also a very pretty city.
One of the coolest things I found when walking around the city was the man-made beach and lagoon along the waterfront. Nestled inside the South Bank Parklands, it’s the perfect place to spend a hot day if you don’t have the time to get out of the city. And yes, it’s as rad as it sounds, there’s even a lifeguard on duty.
However you choose to spend your time in Brisbane, you can’t go wrong with the amount of free activities and sights at your disposal. And, if you’re ever in doubt about what to see, ask a friendly local, there are plenty around.
Have you ever been to Brisbane? Is there anything major you think I left out?