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Brisbane has become increasingly sophisticated yet still manages to retain its laid back charm. As someone who grew up here, it’s been amazing to watch the city change over the years and see how many Brisbane things to do and see are available now. Whether you’re heading to Brisbane for the day or staying a little longer, there are plenty of great reasons to visit Brisbane such as fantastic Brisbane restaurants, world-class museums, excellent Brisbane hotels to stay at plus hidden secrets only locals (like me) know about. Bustling ferries ply the waters of the Brisbane River, the beach is less than an hour away — or five minutes if you go to South Bank — and the weather lends itself to outdoor pursuits. Here is the ultimate guide to Brisbane, packed with insider tips from locals who love their home town.

Brisbane transport tips

Getting to and from Brisbane airport

Brisbane Airport is located 16 km north-east of the CBD with separate international and domestic terminals, both of which are serviced by a host of major carriers. The easiest way to reach the city from here is by Airtrain or you can take a taxi, shuttle bus or an Uber.

Brisbane public transport

You will need a go card or seeQ cardto travel on TransLink trains, buses and CityCat ferries. The seeQ card is especially for visitors and includes travel for three or five consecutive calendar days and two Airtrain journeys. Whoever said ‘you don’t get something for nothing’ has obviously never tried getting around Brisbane for free. Whether you would prefer to walk, ride or take Brisbane public transport, it’s easy to see most of the top sights in the Queensland capital’s CBD without spending a cent. Look for the bright red City Loop bus stops around the CBD and jump on a free Brisbane City Loop bus which includes popular stops such as the Botanic Gardens, Queen Street Mall, City Hall, Central Station, and Eagle Street Pier (where you can board the free CityHopper service).

If you would like to check out the historic windmill at Spring Hill, save your legs and jump on the Spring Hill Loop bus which operates on a continuous service between the CBD and Spring Hill from yellow signposted bus stops. You can hop on a jaunty red CityHopper ferry which offers a free multi-stop cross river service along the Brisbane River. It’s a great way to get around town and enjoy a scenic river cruise at the same time. For the best views, slap on some sunscreen and head upstairs to the top deck.

Free_fun_in_Brisbane
Jump on the free CityHopper ferry and see Brisbane for free

You don’t need to own a bike to enjoy riding around Brisbane – it is easy to rent one through CityCycle, Brisbane’s bike hire program. If your ride takes less than 30 minutes, the trip is free!  Simply register at the CityCycle website, collect a bike from one of the city hire stations and return it to any station when you’re done. Brisbane’s CBD is almost entirely flat and locals are more than willing to help with directions if you get lost. It’s a great city for walking, especially in spring when purple jacaranda trees bloom throughout the city. Even better, this doesn’t cost you a cent.

Guide to the best Brisbane hotels

Brisbane city hotels

Carved into the cliff directly under the Story Bridge and taking centre stage at Brisbane’s Howard Smith Wharves precinct, Crystalbrook Vincent art hotel really is a work of art. The Fantauzzo has 166 guest rooms ranging from standard studio suites to luxurious two bedroom riverfront apartments. After almost 30 years, the soaring Harry Seidler-designed atrium at the Hilton Brisbane still has an undeniable wow factor. This hotel enjoys a prime location on the Queen Street Mall and has been regularly and thoughtfully refurbished to keep it looking fabulous. The Westin Brisbane has a resort style pool complete with swim up bar and one of the best spas in Brisbane. It is popular with business travellers who ensure the hotel is up to speed on all the key service areas which matter to everyone, not just those travelling for work.

Westin Pool with swim up bar
Westin Brisbane pool with swim up bar

The Adina Apartment Hotel Brisbane has a historical feel thanks to its location in a Queensland Government Savings Bank building dating back to the 1920s. Old-world design touches such as double-height timber-panelled walls, ornate ceilings and marble design details add a touch of glamour. The Brisbane Marriott Hotel is looking better than ever after a $20 million renovation and has moved with the times without losing any of its original grace and charm. It has a riverside location and is famous for its Friday and Saturday night seafood buffet.

Sofitel Brisbane has plenty of French flair and is easy to get to from the airport thanks to its location right above Central Station. Club category rooms and the top suites have access to a plush executive lounge on the top floor of the hotel which is the largest of its kind in Australia. W Brisbane has the sparkle of an ABBA costume, the tropical fun of a Hawaiian shirt, the classiness of James Bond, and the good time vibe you get staying with a trendy mate who knows how to have fun. It’s definitely not your typical CBD hotel. Alex Perry Hotel & Apartments is a swish inner-city apartment hotel with designer good looks and a refreshing lack of pretentiousness. There is no inhouse restaurant but you’re surrounding by some of Brisbane’s best dining.

Some of the world’s biggest pop stars, celebrities and comedians were regular guests at Royal on the Park when it opened in 1969. This iconic Brisbane hotel has large rooms overlooking the river and Botanic Gardens and offers great value accommodation in a lovely location. If you prefer a hotel that is more funky that fusty, Capri by Fraser Brisbane certainly fits the bill. Packed with colourful design details, high-tech living spaces and practical facilities for regular travellers, it cuts through the conformity of a standard hotel experience.

Capri by Fraser lobby

Mercure Brisbane is one of those rare hotels which caters equally well to business travellers and holiday makers. Even better, you don’t need a big expense account or huge holiday budget to stay there. The historic Ovolo Inchcolm has just 50 rooms, including Brisbane’s first loft-style hotel suites, and is extremely boutique with a focus on personal service.  This hotel is more than somewhere to eat, drink and sleep, it also provides a fascinating glimpse into Brisbane’s past.

Salon de Co Bar at the Ovolo Inchcolm

NEXT Hotel Brisbane is billed as one of the most technologically advanced hotels in Australia, with computer terminals in the lobby which allow you to check-in and check-out at the touch of a button and an in-room Samsung Galaxy phone to control the air-conditioning, lights and television. Even travellers on a modest budget can afford to stay at Ibis Styles Elizabeth Street, a pleasant surprise given the hotel’s coveted location at the top of Elizabeth Street, right next to the Myer Centre. It’s worth paying extra for one of the rooms overlooking South Bank as the view is superb.

Hotels in Fortitude Valley & New Farm

The Calile Hotel is the epitome of Miami-styled retro cool with a combination of fresh pastel colors, soft-toned marbles and architectural arches straight out of a stylish 60s design guide. Its James Street location fits hand-in-glove with the area’s fashion boutiques, eateries and galleries.

The Calile Pool Deck
The Calile Pool Deck

Sage Hotel James Street has a contemporary feel with a focus on local designers that carries through from the reception area, where staff wear uniforms by Kit & Ace and jewellery from Dinosaur Designs, to the 93 rooms which range from Standard to Superior, Superior Twin and Deluxe. Ovolo The Valley is fresh, funky, and fun with cutting edge commissioned artworks, luxe rooms, and a swimming pool, gym, sauna and standard Ovolo Hotels complimentary inclusions such as continental breakfast, high speed Wi-Fi, in-room mini bar, and happy hour drinks.

Ovolo The Valley lobby
Ovolo The Valley

Hotels in Paddington & Spring Hill

The Johnson is an art hotel located in the inner-city suburb of Spring Hill which means it’s close to both the CBD and trendy Fortitude Valley, but far enough away to avoid the constant traffic and city noise. Travelling to both locations involves a 20-minute walk or a bus, taxi or Uber ride. Gambaro Hotel is the epitome of urban chic with subdued yet stylish decor in muted grays and blacks, complemented by striking original art works. It is a sexy hotel with a masculine edge which seems fitting given its proximity to Suncorp Stadium, one of Brisbane’s most famous sporting venues.

Gambaro Hotel

Best Brisbane restaurants

Brisbane has a dazzling array of restaurants, cafes, and dining spots, many of which capitalise on Queensland’s love of outdoor dining. Whether you’re looking for delicious restaurants, Brisbane’s best sweet treats, the best Brisbane coffee or Brisbane’s best burgers, you’ll find it in this guide. Dine at celebrity chef Luke Nguyen’s restaurant Fat Noodle, eat at Motorwagen Cafe & Restaurant alongside high-end cars, or dine at the affordable Mercure Restaurant & Bar with its great view of South Bank. E’cco Bistro remains one of Brisbane’s best and most famous restaurants.

Ceviche with ginger, grapefruit, radish and pink peppercorns

Best Brisbane bars

Baedecker

Celebrate the golden age of travel at Baedecker wine bar which pays homage to pioneering circa 1800s travel guide publisher Karl Baedeker. Decked out with vintage suitcases, travel trunks and eclectic antiques, the bar’s artfully curated drinks list offers trip around the globe. Don’t leave without finding the bookcase which revolves to reveal a secret room.

Cru Bar + Cellar

A window seat provides the ultimate people-watching perch at this inner-city bar filled with ‘beautiful people’ who come to air kiss and be seen while working their way through Asian-inspired share plates. The extensive and impressive wine list at Cru Bar + Cellar, which includes premium half bottles, myriad magnums and over 80 by-the-glass options, adds yet another reason to visit.

Hang out at Cru Bar + Cellar

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Green Beacon Brewing Co.

Rub shoulders with the locals at this lively warehouse which incapsulates Brisbane’s vibrant heart. Sample boutique beers from the Green Beacon Brewing Co. brewhouse, snack on straight-from-the-trawler seafood and enjoy the vibe at this bustling venue which was awarded Champion Small Brewery at the 2017 Australian International Beer Awards. Green Beacon isn’t fancy but that is part of its charm.

Brisbane things to do

It doesn’t matter whether you’re wearing sneakers or stilettos, Brisbane’s offers including plenty of shopping opportunities. You could do some Brisbane designer shopping in New Farm, Paddington or the CBD or drop into Brisbane’s best markets. There are also plenty of things to do along the Brisbane River and loads of galleries and other things to explore at South Bank. Outlying city suburbs like West End, Paddington and Fortitude Valley are also full of surprises and provide a different look at Brisbane. Brisbane is also home to some fabulous museums and galleries which are free to enter and enjoy. There are lots of other free Brisbane things to do too. If you’re after an energetic Brisbane activity, you could climb the Story Bridge or go on a kayaking tour along the Brisbane River.

Check out the markets at South Bank

Best day trips from Brisbane

You can also take a day trip from Brisbane and discover regional produce, vineyards and wineries, cute boutiques and stunning views, all just a few hours’ drive from Brisbane city. If you are here in the cooler months, there are plenty of cosy Brisbane winter getaways. Moreton Island is easy to reach via a 45 minute ferry trip and offers plenty of things to do, including lots of high energy fun like sand tobogganing. You can also hand feed wild dolphins and go snorkelling at Moreton Island, one of the world’s three largest sand islands.

Sand tobogganing on Moreton Island

Wine lovers can take a trip to Stanthorpe and the Granite Belt or you could visit Stradbroke Island, another sand island within easy reach of Brisbane. For a luxurious long weekend, you could stay at Maleny or Montville and do a cooking class or go bush walking. The Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast are also ideal for a day trip and can be reached via public transport. You’ll have to drive or take a long distance coach to Noosa but it’s definitely worth the trip.

Disclosure: The writers have always lived in Brisbane and enjoy sharing their favourite local discoveries with readers of The Travel Temple.

The Travel Temple also has travel guides for Bundaberg, Cairns, Rockhampton, Mackay, and Hervey Bay.

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Dr Tiana Templeman is an award-winning food and travel journalist, travel author and media industry academic. She is the creator of The Travel Temple, writes for Australian and international media outlets and appears on radio talking about where to go, what to see and travel industry trends.