“They’re all uptight and drive too fast.”
I chuckle inwardly. It’s Saturday night in Fortitude Valley, where Brisbane goes to let its hair down. I am waiting for a gig to start and eavesdropping on the hipsters crowded around the next barrel, comparing Sydney unfavourably to Brisbane.
“Everyone’s so miserable there”.
Not been to London, I take it?
It’s a year to the day since I landed in Sydney. That was my first taste of Australia and I had loved it all, instantly, without reserve. It was everything I wanted it to be. The sun shone, the sea sparkled, the people were relaxed and effortlessly beautiful. Avocado was on every menu! There were adverts on the subway telling you how to perform sit ups correctly! I was smitten with this casual, amiable, unexpectedly health conscious city.
A week later, I rolled into Roma Street, Brisbane’s transport hub, after 12 hours cooped up in a Greyhound. If I had found Sydney laid back and friendly, Brisbane was that again and then some. The station was tumbleweed deserted. It appeared to have as much buzz as my provincial hometown, Hereford, a city still struggling to recover its mojo since the wool trade collapse of 1480. But the people. Oh the people! Uniformly, they have been friendly, kind and helpful with a dash of salty humour. By way of contrast, the people of Hereford once executed a man, starting with his penis. His name was Hugh le Despenser the Younger and that will teach him for colluding with the French.
Brisbane: A Lot to Love
Let’s be clear, I love Brisbane. After that first impression, I found its buzz. I feel the same way about Brisvegas (nicknamed after its one shiny casino) as John Legend does about Chrissy Teigen. I love all its curves and all its edges, all its perfect imperfections.
I love its incongruous place names: Auchenflower, Eagle Farm, Fig Tree Pocket, Geebung, Nathan, Tenerife. I love that there’s actually somewhere in Australia called Kangaroo Point.
I love the spacious suburbs of frangipani-framed Queenslanders, as individual as snowflakes. I love the bull sharks in its river. I love that the city provides free outdoor yoga classes so one can savasana under the bats in South Bank. I love that in less than 200 years it has transformed from a prison colony into a handsome, well-designed, cosmopolitan city. I love that the rest of Queensland either resents it or moves there.
Backpackers upon arrival often ask what there is to do in Brisbane. I never know what to advise. There are no bucket-list must-sees. It lacks Sydney’s photo op friendly harbour or Melbourne’s murals and iconic laneways. You can’t skydive as in Cairns or swim with crocodiles like in Darwin. It doesn’t even have a beach. For many tourists, it’s just an admin stop on the east coast; somewhere to pick up their rented campervan or fly home from.
What Brisbane is, however, is a good place to be. The world is divided up into places that are good to visit and places that are good to live. Consider Jamaica and Belgium.
World’s Best City
I would argue Brisbane is the most liveable city in the world. Provided you don’t hanker for winter sports (and even then you could reach the snowfields from its international airport), all your needs from birth until death can be met, comfortably and conveniently, within two hours of Brisbane’s CBD.
After international music stars and sporting fixtures? See what’s on at The Gabba and Suncorp Stadium. Want a world class education? Come on in to the Queensland University of Technology or Griffith. Step on a brown snake? Don’t worry, there’s first rate, specialised healthcare and cutting edge medical research. (You won’t step on a brown snake.) Peckish? An explosion in foodie culture means nearly every world cuisine is available here: Brisbane dines out.
‘How do we nourish our minds?’, I hear you cry. Check out the cultural centre, a concrete lover’s wet dream of museums and galleries that host genuinely fascinating exhibitions. Queensland Performing Arts Centre (called QPAC to rhyme with Tupac) attracts West End shows, operas, ballet. A country bumpkin at heart? Hold on for EKKA, the annual agricultural show otherwise known as a party in cowboy hats. There’ll be plenty of race days and smaller rodeos until then.
The Secret of Brisbane’s Success
Brisbane’s success has been to take the winning features of other cities, roll them into one perfectly proportioned package, link them together via excellent public transport and, as the cherry on top, lay this splendour out under the country’s best weather. There’s the Story Bridge, dreamt up by the same mastermind who designed Sydney’s. Like its more famous sibling, should you feel particularly reckless, you can climb it to get a fresh look at the River City. For more views, there’s the Wheel of Brisbane: a dead ringer for the London Eye or drive up Mount Coot-tha for the lookout (everywhere in Australia has one).
Mimicking Melbourne, there are laneways leading to hidden gem cafes and too-cool-for-school bars where one can sip cocktails through honeycomb surrounded by decorative hams (popular for Tinder dates). There’s the man-made lagoon, a feature of many towns where, if you go into the sea today, you might get a big surprise. Should you crave a real beach, Byron Bay is two hours away, Gold Coast a mere one. Alternatively, take the water taxi to North Stradbroke Island, ‘Straddie’ to its friends, a smaller version of Fraser Island. The former is the world’s largest sand island. The latter is its second, minus the hordes of backpackers crossing places off their East Coast grand tour like nanas at the bingo. There’s also no need to carry a dingo stick for protection on Straddie which can only be another mark in its favour.
They might not sing songs about Brisbane, nor is it topping any dream destination lists but I lost my heart to this town. And you know what, under the blue sky and palm trees, no one is miserable, uptight or driving too fast. What more could you want?