In Depth

Why Brisbane is Australia’s most underrated city

More than just a jumping-off point for Queensland’s other delights, ‘BrisVegas’ is on the rise

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Brisbane is Australia’s Cinderella. It doesn’t have a harbour to rival Sydney, nor its beaches. It doesn’t ooze Melbourne’s sophisticated cool either. To most Brits, it’s where Neighbours’ characters live out their post-Ramsay Street exile.

Many travellers – en route to the gaudy glitter of Surfers Paradise perhaps, or heading north for the ease of the Sunshine Coast – see Brisbane as a jumping-off point for Queensland’s other delights. They’re missing a trick.

No longer an overgrown country town, Queensland’s capital has embraced the sly dig implied by its nickname and proves there’s plenty to celebrate about “BrisVegas”.

The city nestles beneath a spur of the Great Dividing Range and sprawls along the great sinuous loops of the river that gives it its name. But its laidback sub-tropical charm hides a wealth of world-class dining, art, culture and shopping.

Brisbane’s hotel options are world-class too, and include the boutique luxury of the Emporium, on South Bank; the Westin, close to the Botanic Gardens; the Calile, offering upscale cool on the hippest fringe of Fortitude Valley; and then there’s W Hotel chain’s only Australian property.

After the near-24-hour trip from Europe, The W, on North Quay, is a welcome stop for the jet-lagged. The hotel only recently opened its doors and oozes The W stable’s trademark edginess.

The interiors are playful, as you’d expect from The W, but cone with a cheeky Queensland twist. Instead of a lobby, the welcome desk sits in a living room-cum-cocktail bar, with a resident DJ who knows how and when to funk it up. Indigenous art and tide markings based on the river’s flood lines weave along the corridors.

Rooms are large, airy and well thought-out, featuring the high-end details that set The W collection apart. The enormous bed, plump with pillows, crisp linen and a giant budgerigar cushion might be calling your name, but resist the temptation. Sink instead into your room’s deep standalone bath-tub – a modern take on the outback’s corrugated iron rain water tanks – and soak your jetlag away. 

If you can tear yourself away from the floor-to-ceiling view across the river and to the range beyond, you’ll find an outpost of Sydney’s legendary Three Blue Ducks restaurant perched on The W’s third floor. Open from 6am until late, angle for a table on the terrace. The Ducks’ Brisbane menu sticks to the paddock-toplate ethos for which its Sydney and Byron Bay siblings are renowned, while incorporating Queensland specialties. Don’t pass up the spanner crab or Brisbane’s best-kept crustacean secret, Moreton Bay bugs. Served with XO butter, they’re lip-and-finger-smackingly good.

From The W, it’s a short walk across the river to the South Bank cultural precinct. From the Victoria Bridge, take a right turn for the Queensland Museum, Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), State Library and Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). All are worth visiting, even just for a flat white at one of the cafes. At the very least, spend a little time at QAG and GoMA. As well as impressive permanent collections, the galleries are home to pieces by some of Australia’s most outstanding Indigenous artists. GoMA also hosts the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, showcasing the region’s most exciting and thought-provoking new art. GoMA’s great for kids too – its innovative children’s programme is enormously good fun, whether you’re young or not.

From GoMA, a wander further south to West End gives you a glimpse of “old” Brisbane, as well as its bohemian underground. Wooden workers’ cottages sit on stilts along the suburb’s twisting, hilly, jacaranda-lined streets, verandas angled to catch the breeze off the river. In the summer, watch where you step: the footpaths are littered with half-eaten mangoes abandoned by resident possums and flying foxes.

This area became home to Brisbane’s large Greek community after the Second World War, and despite creeping gentrification the main shopping streets are still dotted with family-run delis, greengrocers and excellent restaurants. In the 1970s, Vietnamese immigrants also found a welcome in West End. Huong’s BYO, on Vulture Street, still serves one of the city’s best bowls of pho. The coconut buns from the family’s bakery, underneath the restaurant, are second to none.

These days, West End is a chilled corner of an increasingly frenetic inner city, boasting a clutch of splendid cafes. Blackstar on Thomas Street roasts its own beans - buy some to bring home - while The Gunshop Café on Mollison Street is famous for its breakfasts. Then try The Burrow on Russell Street, which offers everything from local coffee to excellent craft beer from early until late; or Lokal + Co, on O’Connell Street, bringing a little Scandinavian cool to a hot, sticky afternoon.

Pop into Avid Reader, on Boundary Street, to browse its cleverly curated selection of books, and then to Jet Black Cat Music, on Vulture Street, to pick up a new release or two from one of the city’s local musicians. Brisbane has rich musical history – from the Bee Gees to the Go-Betweens, the Saints to Savage Garden – you’re sure to find a tune you’ll love.

For north side inner-city chic, head to James Street, a a short hop from West End on one of the regular City Cat ferries that ply the river. Get off at New Farm Park and check out what’s on at the Powerhouse arts centre before strolling through back towards the city centre to James Street, which lies just behind the pulsing pubs, clubs and live music venues of Fortitude Valley. 

While it has its own share of good cafes – try Harvey’s, Spoon Deli Café, or Bellissimo, all perfect for people-watching – it’s shopping that’s the real draw here. James Street is Brisbane’s fashion hub. Whether you’re looking for Scanlan Theodore’s understated elegance, something funky from Sass & Bide, Basile’s low-key staples or prefer to choose from Wolfe and Ordnance’s selection of up-and-coming designers, the stylish are well catered for. Make sure to visit Gail Sorronda’s boutique - Dolce & Gabbana founders Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana feature her darkly and monochromatically romantic designs in their Spiga2 store in Milan.

Molten showcases quirky, eclectic jewellery, in contrast to the bolder work at Andronis across the street. Parfumier Libertine also has an outlet on James Street, as does cult favourite Dinosaur Designs and skin care supremos Aesop.

For a cultural stop-off, Bim Bam Gallery, one of Queensland’s leading indigenous art galleries, can be found in a small pop-up on Robertson Street, catty corner from the ultra-cool Calile Hotel. 

The Calile itself is well worth a visit. Seek, minimalist and sub-tropically hip, its rooms are a clean expanse of white brick and porphyry with subtle brass and leather touches, a pared-back riff on mid-century Palm Beach resort chic.

While the Calile’s bar menu is spare, there’s no such restraint upstairs at Hellenika. The restaurant, by the hotel pool, is one of the state’s best Greek restaurants. The menu offers all the classics you’d expect, in generous portions too, but holds some delicious surprises as well - the Corfu Bianco with John Dory is superb.

Stroll back to the city centre along the boardwalk hugging the river. At Howard Smith Wharves, nestled under Brisbane’s iconic Story Bridge, you’ll find the Four Felons Brewery. The Felons, named for the convicts who discovered the Brisbane River, has – ironically enough – set up shop in the former home of the city’s water police.  The Felons’ four fine beers – a pale ale, IPA, lager and mid-strength - are brewed on site. If you don’t fancy a pot, there’s a crisp cider made from Queensland apples and Champagne yeast. Wood-fired pizza and sharing plates are available all day if you’re still peckish. There’s a play area for the kids, and fish and chips from a small shop in the boatyard.

Try to nab a seat on the veranda for a perfect postcard view of Brisbane. The river is framed by the sheer cliffs of Kangaroo Point and the Botanic Gardens’ lush mangroves. The steady hum of traffic across the Story Bridge above is punctuated by bursts of bird song and the slow, gentle slap of the water against the boardwalk’s pontoons. At dusk, the lights from the city’s skyscrapers sparkle and play in the river.

Viva BrisVegas.

Getting there

I travelled courtesy of Singapore Airlines from London Heathrow. Singapore Airlines operates four flights daily from LHR to Singapore and five weekly flights from Manchester to Singapore to connect with onward flights to Brisbane. Standard fares to Brisbane from London start from £770pp; £745pp from Manchester. Singapore Airlines operates more than 150 weekly flights to Australia from Changi Airport, including Cairns, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Should you wish to break your journey, Singapore Airlines offers a number of stopover options.

Where to stay

The W, 81 North Quay, Brisbane. Ph +61 7 3556 8888. Prices start from A$359 (incl taxes) for the Wonderful room, the hotel's lead-in category. Visit Wbrisbane.com

The Calile, 48 James Street, Fortitude Valley, ph + 61-7-36075888. Prices start from A$254 (incl taxes) for the Essential room. Visit Thecalilehotel.com

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