When I was a child, Brisbane was rarely considered to be a holiday destination in itself, but merely a way to access the rest of the state. Not as important as Sydney, not as hip as Melbourne, and not as sophisticated as Adelaide.
Well, hasn’t Brisbane shown us! Over the years, Queensland’s capital has reinvented itself, and it’s now one of the coolest and fastest growing capitals in Australia.
With beautiful public spaces along the river, trendy dining areas, world-class galleries, and easy access to nature – there really are plenty of things to do in Brisbane these days.
And if you think there’s a good offering now, the city is only going to get better as it prepares to host the Summer Olympics in 2032.
For domestic travellers, Brisbane offers a perfect little city break, where pleasant weather provides the backdrop for a weekend of great eating and drinking, with a bit of culture and a fun activity or two in between.
For international visitors, Brisbane is no longer just a quick transit on the way to the more famous tourist destinations in Queensland, and it would be worth reconsidering those direct flights to Cairns or the Whitsundays, for instance.
But now it’s got more than enough to justify a couple of days on the way through, offering one of the best examples of Australian city life, with “all the fun without the fuss” (tagline copyright Michael Turtle!).
[callout link=”https://travelaustraliatoday.com/qld/brisbane-to-cairns-road-trip/” link_text=”You might also want to consider this Brisbane to Cairns road trip!”]
Whether it’s relaxing along the river, holding a koala at Lone Pine, checking out the galleries, catching some live music, or popping over to Moreton Island, there’s no shortages of things to do in Brisbane when you’re here.
To help you plan your visit, I’ve put together my recommendations for what to do in Brisbane, covering the big attractions and some of the more local experiences.
When it comes to attractions in Brisbane, there aren’t really the same level of icons you find in other Australian cities (no Opera House or MCG, for instance).
But there are still a few landmarks here that stand out from the rest, and are among the most popular things to do in Brisbane. For first-time visitors, they’re definitely worth considering.
The Story Bridge is Brisbane’s answer to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Opened in 1940, it is the longest cantilever bridge in Australia and connects Fortitude Valley to Kangaroo Point (and goes right over the top of the popular Howard Smith Wharves).
You’ll likely see the Story Bridge at some point during your time in the city, and its recognisable heritage-listed shape makes for some great photos with the city in the background.
But to get up close and personal, one of the best things to do in Brisbane is to actually climb the Story Bridge! It’s not nearly as expensive as Sydney (yay!) and you’ll get amazing views. You can book the climb here.
The huge South Bank precinct along the edge of the Brisbane River is full of things to see and do, and most first-time visitors will end up here at some point. I’ll mention a few of the museums here in the next section, so for now let’s just focus on the parklands.
The 14 hectares of open space along the riverbank are known as the South Bank Parklands and it’s a wonderful area to hang out for a bit. There are interesting flora displays (including examples of rainforest that you’ll normally only find further north) and the Epicurious Garden growing herbs and other local produce.
On a hot day, the area known as Streets Beach may be just what you need. It’s a large lagoon where you can go swimming for free, plus there are a couple of other free pools attached to it.
And South Bank is also where you’ll find the Wheel of Brisbane, the large ferris wheel that will take you 60 metres above the ground for some spectacular views of Brisbane.
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary
About 20 minutes drive from the centre of Brisbane, the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is one of the most treasured things to do in Brisbane, and is an iconic Australia experience particularly popular with families and international tourists.
As the name suggests, the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary was founded to protect koalas that were becoming threatened in the wild. The sanctuary opened in 1927 with just two koalas and has expanded to more than 130 these days.
The sanctuary has also grown to also hold more than 80 other species of Australian animals, including kangaroos, wombats, platypus, echidnas, Tasmanian devils, and more. It can take a few hours to walk around and see them all, watch a couple of the shows, and learn about the conservation work going on here.
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is also one of the few places in Australia where you can cuddle a koala (the only states where it’s allowed are Queensland, South Australia, and Western Australia).
If you’re interested in visiting, you can book your tickets to the sanctuary here. Because it’s a bit out of town, you might also want to consider this river cruise that takes you there from the city centre and includes entry.
As I just mentioned, South Bank is home to more than just the parklands. This is also where you’ll find some of Brisbane’s best museums and cultural institutions.
To explore this aspect of the city, check out a couple of the South Bank spots, and then look a bit further for some more niche museums.
There’s a good reason GOMA is one of the most popular things to do in Brisbane. The Gallery of Modern Art is spread across several levels, with free exhibitions of its permanent collection, and a series of special blockbuster exhibitions throughout the year.
While the collection includes pieces from across the world, there’s a focus on Queensland (naturally), on broader Australian art with an emphasis on Indigenous artists, as well as Asian and Pacific pieces.
On any visit to Brisbane, it’s worth popping in to see the free exhibitions, plus have a look at what the current special exhibition is at GOMA to see if that’s also of interest.
Queensland Art Gallery
Although I’m separating GOMA and the Queensland Art Gallery because they are two separate buildings, they are officially called QAGOMA together and often act as one institution (and are just a couple of minutes’ walk from each other).
The Queensland Art Gallery still has a modern feel to it, but it also includes a lot more classic works from Australia and around the world. It’s a much bigger space and show more of the 20,000 works that are in the galleries’ collection.
The Australian pieces are often placed together to tell stories about the Queensland story, from pre-colonial times through to today, while the international collection includes studies of topics like Dutch still lifes, British portraits, and East Asian porcelain.
In the same cultural precinct as the two art galleries is the Queensland Museum. It covers natural and cultural history, although I think this particular building has more of a focus on the natural side of things (the Queensland Museum also runs some other museums that are more historical).
It’s a large space spread across several levels with exhibitions about dinosaurs, the Great Barrier Reef, minerals, and other Australian animals.
Although the collection would be of interest to anyone, families will find it particularly interesting (especially on a rainy day). The Queensland Museum is also free, so it’s easy to pop in while you’re seeing the art galleries.
Museum of Brisbane
Found within Brisbane City Hall, the Museum of Brisbane is a fantastic spot that I would recommend for anyone who wants to learn a bit more about the city. As the name suggests, it’s focused on telling Brisbane’s story – but that comes in lots of different forms.
The permanent exhibitions show the changing face of Brisbane through photographs, artefacts, and artwork. And the temporary exhibitions take a deeper dive into topics like architecture, cultural trends, and prominent residents.
One of my favourite exhibitions at the Museum of Brisbane a few years ago was about the city’s music scene, which has launched some of Australia’s biggest bands and singers.
Even more museums
Aside from these big institutions, there are a bunch of smaller museums in Brisbane that you may be interested in. Here are a few highlights:
- Queensland Police Museum: As well as telling the history of the police department, the Queensland Police Museum has exhibitions about some of the state’s most infamous cases.
- Army Museum: House within the historic Victoria Barracks, the Army Museum is partly about the heritage of the buildings and partly about the galleries telling the military history of the region.
- Abbey Museum: In the very north of Brisbane, the Abbey Museum has a collection of international historical items from prehistoric hunters, through the Ancient World, medieval times, and the Industrial Revolution.
- Queensland Telecommunications Museum: Probably most appropriate just for enthusiasts, the Queensland Telecommunications Museum is a collection of items going back more than a century, including telephone exchanges, Morse code sets and TELEX machines.
Along the river
Snaking through the city, the Brisbane River defines much of the city – from how you get around, to what you do.
I’ve already talked about South Bank, but it’s no surprise that many of the other highlights for people visiting Brisbane will also be found along the banks of the river.
Howard Smith Wharves
This hospitality precinct, opened in 2018, is set within old industrial heritage buildings beneath the Story Bridge. After decades of the space being under-utilised, it’s now become one of the coolest and most popular parts of Brisbane.
Howard Smith Wharves has more than a dozen restaurants, bars, and event spaces, with a range of styles and budgets. There’s high-end dining, and then there’s the casual (and my favourite) Felons Brewing, with lots of local beers and good pub meals.
The vista across the water makes this a great spot for a drink as the sun goes down, but the area also lights up at night and it’s busy well into the evening.
City Botanic Gardens
Nestled right next to the CBD is the City Botanic Gardens, Brisbane’s original parklands. While it’s not a massive area, there are lots of things to see within it, including sculptures, ornamental ponds, and a bamboo grove.
There are regular guided tours of the gardens run by volunteers, which offer an insight into the botany and the heritage of the gardens. And you’ll also find Old Government House on the edge.
There are also two other botanic gardens in Brisbane which may be of interest. There’s the Sherwood Arboretum, and then the main Brisbane Botanic Garden at Mt Coot-tha, which has lots of different attractions across its 56 hectares, including exotic plant collections and a new Bonsai House.
Along much of the Brisbane River, on both sides, are fantastic walking (and usually also cycling) paths that will take you past beautiful vistas – from skylines of skyscrapers, to quieter bushland.
Many of them connect to each other, so you can go for kilometres in one direction, cross a bridge, and come back on the other side. It’s perfect in the early morning or late afternoon, when you’ll notice lots of locals out for their exercise.
Some popular paths are the Brisbane Riverwalk at New Farm, which goes over the water; the trail along Kangaroo Point; and the Indooroopilly Riverwalk with its viewing platforms.
If you don’t feel like walking, you might like to take a tour with Green Cabs. These pedicabs will let you kick back in a carriage while the driver pulls you along on their bike.
Kangaroo Point Cliffs
Speaking Kangaroo Point, the cliffs here, opposite the City Botanic Gardens, host a few fun Brisbane activities.
Of course, you can just sit in the park at the top of the cliffs, perhaps with a picnic, and enjoy the views. But the more adventurous might want to try abseiling down the cliffs – a pretty special spot to do it!
If you don’t like the idea of going down, then head up! There’s also the opportunity to go rock climbing at the cliffs. And in the evening, there’s a really cool twilight rock climb, where you’ll be able to see Brisbane’s lights starting to turn on.
On the River
You don’t have to just admire the river from a distance. Get out on the water to get a different angle on Brisbane.
When it comes to the river, one of the best Brisbane experiences is to take a sightseeing cruise.
Floating past landmarks like Kangaroo Point Cliffs, New Farm Park, and the Story Bridge, there’s guided commentary so you’ll learn a lot about what you’re seeing.
Most cruises take about 90 minutes, although there’s a lunch one that’s longer and includes the meal.
Heading out on this sunset cruise will give you some stunning light for the trip along the river. During the day, there are these different options:
If you prefer to be the captain, head down the river and pick up a Go Boat. These small boats can fit eight people and the speed is limited (to about 7 km/h) so you don’t need a license to drive them.
Once you’re on the river, you can go wherever you want (although, again, the electric motors mean you can’t go fast) and exploring is part of the fun. But another cool aspect is that you can bring your own food and drink and turn it into a picnic!
Go Boat can get busy on weekends and holidays, so you should book in advance. Oh, and be prepared to dodge a few ferries along the way!
You can also head out on the water in a kayak, and it’s a wonderful way to explore the river and see some of the inner-city sights at your own pace.
The main kayak rental I would recommend is at Kangaroo Point Cliffs, which means it’s easy to go under the Story Bridge and even make it all the way along to South Bank for some pretty impressive views!
The easiest option is to book this two-hour kayak rental. If you would feel more comfortable with a local, there’s this guided kayak tour. And there’s even a kayak tour at twilight where you’ll see Brisbane illuminated!
Food and drink
Brisbane’s restaurant scene has just got better and better in recent years, ranging from healthy local cafes to fine dining from some of the country’s top chefs.
Many of the best places to eat in Brisbane are around the CBD and Fortitude Valley, while there are also great spots in South Brisbane, Bulimba, Newstead, and… to be honest… most popular areas!
There are also some fun food and drink experiences that I would recommend, which are among the best things to do in Brisbane.
Eat Street Northshore
If you’re in Brisbane on the weekend, consider grabbing a bite at Eat Street Northshore, located on the edge of the river in the suburb of Hamilton.
More than 50 food stalls have been transformed into food stalls in this abandoned docking site, serving a huge range of cuisine from pizza to dumplings, snails to sliders, and even the popular cheesecake sundaes.
There are bars spread out through East Street Northshore and live music most the of the time, so it’s a fun place to kick back and relax for a bit.
Sometimes it can be hard to know where to start in a new city when there are so many dining options to choose from. Where are the best spots? What are the local specialities?
It’s why I often like to take a food tour to get to know the scene from a local (and usually pick up a whole bunch of other interesting information along the way).
One of the best food tours in Brisbane is this one run by a local team who can also cover trips down to the Gold Coast and Byron Bay.
Or there are a few other options here that will show you some of the best food and drink in Brisbane and the surrounding regions.
Brisbane’s craft beer scen has exploded in recent years (thankfully not literally) and there are now heaps of local breweries to visit, many of them offering food and partnering with food trucks so you can make a session out of it (or pop between a few of them).
If you want to know where to start, there’s a good concentration of craft breweries around Newstead, on the other side of Fortitude Valley. Check out the Newstead Brewing Co, Green Beacon, and Range Brewing (which create a neighbourhood nicknamed the ‘Beermuda Triangle’).
Another great way to discover the breweries is with a Brisbane beer tour, where you’ll learn about the different places and possibly even meet the brewers. I would recommend this excellent afternoon tour, or there’s also a full-day option that includes lunch.
Make your own gin
Maybe gin is more your thing? Well, the good news is there’s a fantastic experience in town, just for you!
The Brisbane Distillery obviously makes gin and you can head along to its stylish bar to try some of is products. But, even better, you can make your own gin here too!
Over the course of a two-hour class, you’ll learn about the key properties of gin, choose a collection of botanicals (from a selection of more than 180!), and then distill them into your own gin with the equipment provided.
At the end of gin school, you’ll have your own bottle (with personalised label) that you can take home with you and share with your friends. Oh, and you’ll get to try plenty of the professional stuff along the way!
In a moment, I’ll share some suggestions for my favourite day trips from Brisbane. But first I wanted to make special mention of the two large islands just off the coast of Brisbane that are particularly good for day trips and are a real highlight of Brisbane.
Tangalooma Island Resort
The first is Moreton Island – and the easiest and most popular way to visit is to go to Tangalmooma Island Resort, which is so iconic that people often think the whole island is called Tangalooma!
In fact, Tangalooma Island Resort is located in the middle of the island’s western side and takes up only a small percentage of Moreton Island (it’s still quite expansive – it’s just that the island is huge!).
The reason I would recommend Tangalooma Island Resort is that there’s a fantastic variety of things to do here, including snorkelling over the wrecks, ATV quad biking in the sand dunes, dolphin feeding, and a scenic helicopter ride.
You can head out for a day trip from Brisbane that also includes the ferry ride and a lunch voucher. There are lots of packages that include different activities, so have a look at the options here.
It’s also worth mentioning that you can stay overnight at Tangalooma, which is a fun way to get a bit of a Queensland island experience without heading further up the coast. Have a look at where to stay in Tangalooma here.
Other Moreton Island trips
If you’re interested in seeing other parts of the island, you don’t have to go to Tangalooma Island Resort. It is possible to take your own car (or boat) across to the island, but it needs to be a proper 4WD vehicle.
To travel independently as a walk-on or with a vehicle, the best options is the MICAT ferry. To be honest, though, unless you’re planning to spend a couple of nights there, I don’t think it’s worth the hassle and expense of taking your car across just for the day.
In most cases, it’s going to be easier for day-trippers to take one of the tours to Moreton Island. If you mainly want transport and will decide your own activities when you arrive, there’s this Ferry & Adventure Day Pass.
Or there are some other good day trip options here:
North Stradbroke Island
While Moreton Island gets more attention, North Stradbroke Island (just to its south) also has plenty to offer. In fact, many locals prefer it because there’s a bit more infrastructure and it’s easier to get around independently.
North Stradbroke (or ‘Straddie’ as it’s known) has long golden beaches with clear water for swimming and snorkelling, there are hiking trails along the coast and into the green bushland, lots of wildlife to encounter, local markets and cafes, and some heritage sites.
If you want to maximise your time, I would suggest taking this day trip that includes a good variety of experiences.
To arrange it yourself, I would recommend catching the ferry across, and then using the day ticket for the bus to get to some of the places you’re interested in (it’s not too regular, so don’t try to pack too much in).
Although there are plenty of things to do in Brisbane, it’s also a great base to head out to a few of these popular areas in South East Queensland.
Steve Irwin made Australia Zoo famous, and his family has continued his legacy here since his death, even often personally hosting animal shows.
The highlight at the ‘Home of the Crocodile Hunter’ is still the crocodiles, which are the stars of the show in the 5000-seat Crocoseum stadium. As well as the Australian animals, there’s an African habitat where animals roam in large plains, a special area for the herd of Sumatran elephants, and the Tiger Temple that is supposed to resemble Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.
Australia Zoo is about 90 minutes’ drive from the centre of Brisbane and is easy to reach if you have a car. If not, you can take this hotel transfer that includes your entry ticket to the zoo.
Just a bit further on from Australia Zoo is the Sunshine Coast, a beautiful stretch of stunning beaches and lush hinterland. With no beaches in Brisbane, this is a popular destination on those hot summer days.
There are plenty of beaches to choose from for a swim and, for a day trip, the southern ones will be most convenient. Noosa, in the north, is the trendiest but may be a bit far.
In the hinterland, there are icons like the Big Pineapple, as well as lots of cute little villages to explore like Maleny and Montville.
The possibilities are endless up here, which is why I’ve put together this guide for the best things to do on the Sunshine Coast.
The other popular coastal day trip from Brisbane is the Gold Coast, to the south, where there’s also a glorious string of beaches that’ll hit the spot on a hot day.
The Gold Coast is more developed, with lots of restaurants and other tourist attractions along the coast. One of my favourite spots if the art gallery, HOTA, which has a refreshingly modern approach to its exhibitions.
The Gold Coast is also where you’ll find the region’s theme parks, which are certainly a good way to entertain the kids (and the young at heart). If this is going to be a focus, you’ll save money with this three-day theme park pass.
For other ideas on how to spend your time, I’ve got more suggestions on the best things to do on the Gold Coast.
And, finally, often people only associate rainforests with Far North Queensland, but there are also some pockets around here. And actually, the Gondwana Rainforests near the Gold Coast have been listed as a World Heritage Site!
There are a few different spots you can visit, each about two hours’ drive from Brisbane. At each of them, there are some great hiking trails that’ll take you through the lush greenery of these ancient landscapes that once covered much of the continent.
If you don’t have a car or don’t feel like driving, there are some great tours that’ll take all the stress out of the day trip for you:
If you’re going independently, the best areas to head to are Binna Burra or O’Reilly in Lamington National Park, or to Springbrook National Park. You can also do a stop at Mount Tamborine along the way.