Brisbane has become increasingly sophisticated over the years yet the Queensland capital still retains its laidback charm. Bustling ferries ply the waters of the Brisbane River and the weather lends itself to outdoor pursuits. If you love the beach, this is the ideal jumping-off point for the Gold Coast and Surfers Paradise which are just an hour away, and the Sunshine Coast, which is two hours to the north. However, the extreme south end of the Great Barrier Reef begins 370kms (about 230 miles) north of the city, so this is not an option for a day out.
The city makes good use of its river as a travel artery and visitors will find the CityCat ferries and other local boat services an ideal and affordable way to reach the most popular museums, botanical gardens, wildlife parks, historic neighbourhoods, lively shopping precincts and riverfront plazas with their variety of restaurants and cafes. Both riverbanks have picturesque walkways that venture far beyond the city limits.
For those who would like to spend the day exploring the city centre, nearly everything is within walking distance, and conveniently placed bridges and small cross-river ferries link both sides. Jaunty red ferries plying the city reaches of the river are free to ride. If you get lost, ask one of the friendly locals for directions.
Portside Wharf includes an attractive local shopping centre, several bars and restaurants, conference facilities and a cruise ship viewing deck. There is also a CityCat terminal nearby. One of Queensland's most famous historic pubs, the Breakfast Creek Hotel, is also within walking distance. The multi-user freight terminal at the Port of Brisbane is bleak, unattractive and a long way from the city.
Brisbane City Hall (King George Square), built in 1930, was once the city's tallest building. Now, when you ride the elevator 100 metres (328 feet) up into the clock tower (which strikes loudly on the hour), you have views of even taller buildings, the river and several parks. On the third floor, the Museum of Brisbane uses photos and maps to show how the city developed, exhibits paintings of Brisbane through history and screens videos of local citizens talking about their lives. Admission to the museum and clock tower is free, but collect your ticket for the clock tower on arrival as slots for the historic lift ride fill quickly.
Brisbane Greeters are enthusiastic local volunteers who are passionate about their city and can't wait to share it with you (for free). Choose from a 'Greeter's Choice' tour where the Greeter introduces you to 'their Brisbane' or book a tour based around topics such as public art, culture, architecture or Aboriginal heritage. Tours are free but must be booked online at least seven days in advance (for more information see www.visitbrisbane.com.au).
RiverWalk extends for 20kms (more than 12 miles) along the Brisbane River's north bank -- from the University of Queensland at St. Lucia downriver to Teneriffe and well beyond the city centre. The best walking sections skirt the restaurants and cafes in the city centre, passing into the botanical gardens and onto wooden walkways through a mangrove swamp, where the adjacent urban skyline disappears from sight and mind. From here you can walk across the Goodwill Bridge to South Bank.
South Bank includes riverside walks, shops, parklands, a sandy beach and pool, weekend markets and the Queensland Cultural Centre. In the Cultural Centre, the Queensland Art Gallery is a spacious, light-filled, water-dappled repository of European masters, Australian artists and Aboriginal art. Next door the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, or GoMA as it is affectionately known, exhibits contemporary art by Australians, Aborigines, Asians and South Pacific islanders. If you are travelling with children, there is an excellent hands-on art space downstairs.
The Queensland Museum exhibits natural history, artefacts from World Wars I and II, a hanging aircraft, a beautiful Orient Line ship model and dinosaur exhibits for kids. Admission is free to all museums, except the Queensland Museum's Sciencentre and travelling exhibits.
Cycling is another enjoyable activity with a choice of picturesque riverside trails, most of which are completely flat. You don't need to own a bike to enjoy riding around South Bank and beyond -- it is easy to rent one through CityCycle, Brisbane's bike hire program, from $2 a day. Simply register at the CityCycle website, collect a yellow bike from one of the many hire stations around the city and return it to any station when you're done. (Find out more at www.citycycle.com.au).
Queen Street, a pedestrian mall stretching several blocks, is the main shopping area, with fast food courts among the shops and covered outdoor restaurants in the mall. You will also find a well-stocked visitor information centre here.
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, located along the Brisbane River at Fig Tree Pocket, is a 20-minute taxi ride or 30 minutes by hourly bus 430 from the city centre. However, the most enjoyable way to arrive is by boat; try a scenic 90-minute sail with Mirimar Cruises (with commentary), a two-hour stay at the sanctuary and a relaxing 90-minute return. Most people come to see the koalas, and more than 100 are on view. You can cuddle one while having your picture taken (for a fee), and dozens queue up for the opportunity. Lone Pine also houses many only-in-Australia creatures. You can buy food to feed the kangaroos and wallabies, and you can observe emus, wombats, bats, skinks, baby crocodiles, black-headed pythons and turtles. Scheduled events include sheepdog and bird-of-prey shows, the latter featuring hawk owls and giant sea eagles swooping over the heads of seated visitors. (Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Brisbane Botanic Gardens Mount Coot-tha, Toowong, is just 6kms (less than 4 miles) from the city via Bus 471. The 56 hectare garden is set below Mount Coot-tha, with many rainforest plants that are seen nowhere else. Also featured are the Tropical Dome, a cactus house, an elaborate Japanese garden, a lake and walking trails. Admission is free, as are the one-hour guided tours. (Open daily 8 a.m. to 5 or 5:30 p.m., in winter and summer respectively.)
From Portside Wharf: Cruise lines will likely offer shuttle bus transportation to the city centre. In addition, those that dock at Portside have the option of using the CityCat, a Brisbane city-operated fast ferry that leaves on a regular schedule every 15 minutes from Bretts Wharf -- a 10-minute walk downstream from the ship. Transit time to the city centre is 30 to 45 minutes, depending on your destination, and the fares that you pay onboard are the same as they are for the local transit bus.
Sightseeing from the ferry's forward or aft deck is a delight, and the route passes commercial, residential and cultural districts, travelling through the city as far upstream as the University of Queensland at St. Lucia. A complete round trip takes about two hours and 20 minutes, and the service is heavily used by visitors and local residents. A single ticket lasts two hours and includes transfers to buses. An all-day ticket is also available, cheaper after rush hours and on weekends.
From the Freight Terminal: There is no public transportation. The options are taxis, cruise line shuttles or excursion transportation. While the shuttle might seem expensive, it is the most affordable option if your ship docks here.
On Foot: City centre streets are named after female British royalty (Adelaide, Elizabeth, Mary and the like) in the east-west direction, and after males (Albert, Edward, George) in the north-south direction. A heritage walking tour guide takes you past some three-dozen notable structures, including the old customs house, former port office, naval offices, immigration depot, Parliament House and the Queensland Club.
With Brisbane's location on the Queensland coast, seafood is abundant and fresh. Favourite choices are wild barramundi (reef fish), clams, mussels, mud crabs and Moreton Bay bugs (crustaceans with a strong flavour). A traditional burger, which usually comes with beetroot and a fried egg, is an affordable must-try dish. With the recent influx of immigrants from around the world, many ethnic cuisines -- especially Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Indonesian -- are readily available in Brisbane.
Australian wines are varied and excellent; they range from inexpensive to some of the best in the world. When looking at Australian menus, entrees or small plates means first courses or appetizers, and main courses or big plates are just that. In Australia, the price of food includes the tax, and at informal restaurants and cafes, gratuities are not expected. In the better restaurants, tipping is becoming common practice but remains discretionary.
In Brisbane, a good destination for lunch is South Bank with its dazzling selection of restaurants and cafes, many of which capitalise on Queensland's love of outdoor dining. South Bank Surf Club, overlooking the famous swimming lagoon, gives an inner-city twist to the traditional Aussie surf club. It is a great spot for a drink and a bite to eat on a sunny afternoon.
Alongside the river there is River Quay, a collection of sleek dining options ranging from Champagne breakfasts at Cove Bar + Dining to rustic Italian share plates at Popolo and the steakhouse sophistication of Stokehouse Q.
In the city, Riverside -- a CityCat stop adjacent to the city centre -- has numerous restaurants on tiered levels, most of which face the Brisbane River. Try Groove Train with its old-school video consoles in the corner -- think PacMan and Galaga -- and cool tunes wafting towards the Story Bridge. This casual restaurant is a good choice for breakfast, lunch or dinner and prices are surprisingly reasonable, especially given the stunning water views.
Other dining options include cutting-edge Japanese cuisine at Sake Restaurant & Bar, super-size schnitzel at the Bavarian Bier Cafe and Jellyfish Restaurant, a contemporary riverside diner specialising in Queensland's famous seafood. See if you can find the painted flood line decorating the windows -- it's the only visible reminder of the dramatic flood that swept through the city in 2011.
Cruise ships dock at two different riverfront locations, depending on the heights of their funnels or signal masts. Ships that can clear the Gateway Motorway Bridge, downriver from the city centre, dock at the Brisbane Cruise Terminal, Portside Wharf. Those that are too lofty tie up farther downstream at a freight terminal.
The Australian sun is very powerful, and it's essential to liberally apply sun block on beach days and when spending a lot of time outdoors. Wear a hat, too.
The local currency is the Australian dollar. The largest coin denominations are the tiny, gold-colour two-dollar pieces and the larger, gold-colour one-dollar pieces. (We know that seems backward, so pay extra attention when counting your change.) Check oanada.com or xe.com for the latest exchange rates. The smallest currency is a silver five-cent piece so all prices are rounded to the nearest five-cent increment unless you are paying by credit card. ATMs are located throughout the city and in main shopping areas, such as the Queen Street Mall.
The language is English with an Australian accent. The locals pronounce the city "Briz-bun" or simply say "Brizzie."
Aboriginal arts and crafts are unique souvenirs to bring home in the form of paintings, sculptures and decorative accessories. In addition, items like trays, coasters, mugs and tea towels that display Australia's unique animals -- kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, wombats, cassowary birds and emus -- are popular buys. GoMA and the Queensland Art Gallery both have attractive gift shops featuring unique Australian souvenirs and gifts.
--By Tiana Templeman, Cruise Critic contributor