Gold Coast travel guide: Best things to see and do, where to eat out in the Gold Coast, Australia

It's seven on a Friday evening and an enormous warehouse in a neighbourhood of mechanic's workshops is beating to an entirely different kind of racket. A Cuban salsa band have taken the stage, and families by food trucks are watching on as boho artists and designers create at the fringes.

In these parts, they call this sort of community creativity zone a marketta – there's one in almost every neighbourhood. One thing's for sure, they didn't exist a couple of years ago. Being cultural on the Gold Coast used to mean watching a film without Bruce Willis in it.

Meals came crumbed or battered – with fries and salad. The fanciest cuisine was served in surf clubs; and no one ate outside the hours: 7-10am, 12-2pm and 6-8pm, because you couldn't. Visitors came for theme parks, beaches and Surfers Paradise with its 24-hour party strip.

I was raised around here – and after a two-decade hiatus, I returned to live 12 months ago and found a different place entirely, south of Miami (Queensland, not Florida). New cafes and restaurants have opened up; in some suburbs (like Palm Beach), hip new eateries seem to pop up overnight.

Industrial estates have become arts precincts, craft beer breweries were built where surfboard factories once reigned, and the country's funkiest markets have opened up on vacant street blocks, and outside primary schools.

"The arts community of the Gold Coast was more than ready for this," Emma Miliken, creator of the Coast's first (and best) marketta (Miami Marketta) says. "The mainstream community not so much, but our intention was to make creative events normal to everyone on the Gold Coast. And it worked."

There's a lot more accents now, and silicon and collagen have been replaced by a well-heeled earthiness normally associated with Byron Bay, 45 minutes south.

"Things are a lot different around here," long-time local and three-time world surfing champion Mick Fanning says. "Bars, cafes, breweries and restaurants are opening all the time, it's a different Gold Coast."

Twenty per cent of locals now own their own business, and they've set up design studios, co-working share spaces, art galleries and vegan restaurants and cafes.

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While Surfers Paradise's streetscape remains a throwback to the '70s, it's the neighbourhood's south which has  evolved into some of Australia's best new cultural and culinary zones. And the Commonwealth Games, which begin on Wednesday, April 4, will reveal all this to the world; with visitors during the event enjoying the unprecedented buzz of the first Games ever held in regional Australia.

A total of 275 events will be held across 18 sports at 17 venues all over the Gold Coast, turning it into an 11-day festival zone. Martin Winter, chief executive of Gold Coast Tourism, says that the Commonwealth Games will be "transformative for this city". And whether you're visiting the Gold Coast before, during or after its Games, as Traveller's true insider's guide will give you the inside running.

GOLDEN HOODS: THE GOLD COAST'S HOTSPOTS

BURLEIGH HEADS: A TOUCH OF CLASS

THEN A long-time tourist hot-spot, Burleigh Heads was all about fish and chips and souvenir stores, and surf club bars where horse races on TV dominated ocean views.

NOW The Gold Coast's answer to Melbourne (well, near enough to it); with new bars, cafes and restaurants opening down secret laneways and beside hidden car parks which take some finding.

WHY One of Queensland's most complete beach destinations: Burleigh Heads is home to one of the world's most famous surf beaches, while offering the most vibrant café and retail scene on the southern Gold Coast.

DO Spend afternoons under Norfolk Island pines in the park beside Burleigh Point, watching surfers as you mix with locals soaking up the late afternoon ambience, while dining on pizza delivered by bicycle from Justin Lane.

EAT Enter through an unmarked door – a secret back entrance into a dark room where Japanese chefs grill over Binchotan charcoals, just 200 metres from the waves. See ikuyakatoribar.com.au

DRINK Justin Lane reinvented the way Gold Coast locals do casual drinks. Transformed from an abandoned arcade into the Gold Coast's trendiest roof-top bar, with views over Burleigh Point. See justinlane.com.au

SHOP Held at the local primary school every second Sunday, The Village Markets have spawned the likes of international fashion brand, Sass&Bide and continue to showcase emerging designers. See thevillagemarkets.co

STAY Brisbane designer Anna Spiro attempts to reinvent Gold Coast accommodation at minimalist bon Sol Luxury Apartments, set in an unassuming apartment block by the beach. See bonsol.com.au

PALM BEACH: THE FOODIE MECCA

THEN With a social security office (now closed) and dirt-cheap '70s-era housing, Palm Beach was a petty crime hot-spot frequented by drug addicts and their dealers, with cuisine dominated by Dominos.

NOW Palm Beach is where the Gold Coast has changed most dramatically; gentrification has transformed the hood into a foodie Mecca, with more than  15 restaurants and bars opening in two years.

WHY  While Burleigh Heads teems with weekend and holiday traffic, Palm Beach offers plenty of trendy eateries in a street scene with just the right amount of people.

DO While there's hip new bars and cafes all over, the Palm Beach Surf Club is the best positioned drinking establishment on the Gold Coast. Listen to live bands and meet locals who have been there for 50 years. See palmbeachsurfclub.com

EAT The Collective At Palm Beach epitomises the "new" Gold Coast. Palm Beach's former post office has been transformed into a collective of five restaurants in a dreamy outdoor space that's always busy, no matter what night it is. See thecollectivepalmbeach.com.au

DRINK The Scottish Prince is the antithesis of the typical outdoor Queensland bar; choose from 150 bottles of whisky while sitting at the bar in an establishment which wouldn't look out of place in Manhattan. See thescottishprince.wordpress.com

SHOP Two years ago, no one could have have imagined an artisan grocer in the heart of Palm Beach serving everything from Byron vegan mayo to Gold Coast chutney to locals who wouldn't be caught dead shopping at Coles. See thestoreartisangrocer.com

STAY Hip hotels are still a few years off for Palm Beach, but you won't beat the views from high above the beach on 19th Avenue. See 19thavenuepalmbeach.com.au

COOLANGATTA: THE OTHER SURFERS PARADISE

THEN Local surfing stocks were depleted when a heroin scourge struck the town in the '70s and '80s. Progress came by way of high-density apartment blocks and a new influx of locals aged deep in their golden years.

NOW Stay away a week and chances are Coolangatta changed. Much of its streetscape could do with an overhaul, but trendy new eateries open each month run by youthful out-of-towners and locals.

WHY There is no more picturesque coastal set-up in Australia. There are three sandy bays that  run side-by-side, offering surfers the world's best conditions and swimmers protection from the elements.

DO Walk from Kelly Slater's favourite break, Kirra, along Greenmount Beach and beyond to the planet's most famous point break, Snapper Rocks. The world's best surfers ride it at the Quiksilver Pro, but watch Australia's best out there daily.

EAT That a vegan restaurant is Coolangatta's best eating option should speak volumes. Five years ago, there were no vegan restaurants on the Coast; now there's 13. The best is Greenhouse Canteen & Bar (next door to Hog's Breath Café). See greenhousefactory.com.au/contact

DRINK While its food is winning accolades, it's what Baskk At Kirra Point offers night revellers in Coolangatta that sets it apart. DJs appear once meals are finished, and the Coast's prettiest people sip cocktails in a strip once famous for bar fights. See baskk.co​ 

SHOP Women who live by the sea need look no further – the boutique  Salt Living offers  everything from bikinis to organic skincare made by locals. See saltliving.com.au

STAY There's no hipper place on the Coast. Wake to views across Greenmount Beach after a night of DJs and cocktails at the ocean-front beach club. See komuneresorts.com/goldcoast

CURRUMBIN/CURRUMBIN WATERS: THE ARTY PRECINCT

THEN Its beach has long won visitors' hearts, but the surf club on it hogged much of the limelight. Currumbin Waters looked like Brisbane's far-flung southern suburbs, with its unsightly factories and fast food outlets.

NOW Choose between earthy, organic cafes on the beachfront where creative types linger, or head into the industrial confines of Currumbin Waters to try a new café, bar or gallery in the Gold Coast's least likely arts precinct.

WHY It's every southern Gold Coast local's favourite hang-out; but it is often overlooked by visitors hell-bent on Burleigh Heads. Home to arguably the Coast's best beach, and cafes along its creek.

DO Swim in the lagoon-like waters of Currumbin Creek, before upping the ante at one of three surf schools operating beyond the entrance of the creek, at world-renowned Currumbin Alley.

EAT Fine French cuisine is served up at Allure on Currumbin, just beside Currumbin Creek, next to the bicycle shop. See allureoncurrumbin.com.au

DRINK Four local pro-surfers – including three-time world champ Mick Fanning – got together to create Balter Brewing Company. Wedged between factories of the industrial estate, the Coast's coolest Sunday session comes complete with a Mexican food truck. See balter.com.au

SHOP A former clothing factory exhibits leading local artists' work within a hip café at Dust Temple, right next door to Gather Australia, the Coast's best home-ware store. See gatheraustralia.com.au See dusttemple.com.au

STAY Time a stay with a meditation retreat at Tenteram Fine Foods' luxury rainforest retreat 15 minutes from the beach. See tenteramfinefoods.com.au

MIAMI: MARKET TOWN

THEN Like a poor man's version of its American namesake, Miami was built along the Gold Coast Highway, and was pockmarked with fast food restaurants and high-density apartment blocks.

NOW Miami Marketta started the change: a suburb of factories and mechanic workshops became the beacon for south-east Queensland's emerging arts and food scene. Cafes, restaurants and bars fell over themselves to get here.

WHY Nowhere does eclectic dining like Miami, it's where the innovators of Queensland's foodie scene came to flex their muscle. If you think you've made the wrong turn into the industrial estate: think again, that's where the gold lies.

DO Burleigh's headland might be more famous, but it gets crowded. Come and check out the other great Gold Coast headland.

EAT Australia will soon have its first plant-based marketplace. Set on the Gold Coast Highway, LCMP (Lovechild Market Place) will feature two levels of plant-based businesses open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. See thelovechild.com.au

DRINK The Gold Coast has become Australia's hottest craft beer brewing destination. Lost Palms Brewing is set in an industrial zone, but the pastel pink and mints outside will guide you in. See lostpalms.com.au

SHOP You'll find the Miami Marketta amongst Miami's mechanic workshops – there's an open-air food market inside a warehouse that's home to the best local boho fashion designers and artist studios. See miamimarketta.com

STAY Book a luxury apartment, with your own private concierge who'll take care of everything from your fridge to your kids. See eliteholidayhomes.com.au

TWEED COAST: WHERE TWO WORLDS COLLIDE

THEN The Gold Coast used to end at Tweed Heads' pokies palace, Twin Towns Services Club. South of that, tiny villages with not much more than a pub and a Chinese restaurant were spread out along an old coast road.

NOW With the creation of trendy satellite hoods like Casuarina and Salt, the Gold Coast stretches well beyond Queensland. Cashed-up creative types moved up in their thousands, creating a need for high-end bars, restaurants and shops.

WHY If holiday traffic gets you down, there's kilometres of empty roads waiting down south, beside stretches of deserted beach, east of family-run fruit and vegie farms.

DO Spend a day in an old-fashioned fishing village, with a twist. Hire a tinny to fish the Tweed River at Kingscliff, then finish your day browsing its trendy main street.

EAT There's no better Greek restaurant in Australia. Built in a 90-year-old fishing cottage and looking out across an offshore islet, Taverna is the perfect lunch escape, 20 minutes from the airport. See taverna.net.au

DRINK Sit among the beautiful people sipping custom cocktails like the Halycon Negroni at one of the Tweed Coast's best bar/ restaurants. See halcyonhouse.com.au

SHOP Local sisters conceived a round-shaped beach towel and became global retail superstars with The Beach People. Now they sell Australia's most in-demand seaside luxury must-haves. See thebeachpeople.com.au

STAY There's elements of Cotes d'Azur in the Tweed Coast's most lauded boutique hotel, Halycon House, though it's set on a beach the French could only dream of. See halyconhouse.com.au

THE GOLD COAST'S STEREOTYPES: MYTH OR REALITY

IT'S FULL OF THEME PARKS

REALITY There's every kind of World here – from Dreamworld to Movie World, and everything in between. And now there's Holoverse, the world's most futuristic theme park which features hologram technology. But you'll only find them on the northern part of the Coast.

IT'S ALL ABOUT THE BEACH

MYTH/REALITY These days, you could bypass the beach totally on holiday. But why would you? There's 57 kilometres of beaches here – home to four of the world's best surf breaks: Snapper Rocks, Kirra, Burleigh Heads and Currumbin Alley.

GOLD COASTERS ARE FASHION SLOBS

MYTH While thongs and boardies are still a fashion staple, there's a fashion scene here headed up by local designers such as Isobel Quinn, Sass& Bide, Lisa Brown, Annette Daley and Violet Gray (to name but a few).

IT'S FULL OF RETIREES FROM THE SOUTH

MYTH/REALITY Sure, it's long been a retiree hot-spot. But these days more than  12,000 people a year move here, making it  one of Australia's fastest growing regions – and most of them are families fleeing Sydney or Melbourne. The median age on the Gold Coast is now 39.

GOLD COASTERS ARE ALL TRADIES

MYTH Nothing wrong with tradies, but in reality more than  20 per cent of locals own their own businesses – the Gold Coast is the breeding ground of the new age entrepreneur. Some of the biggest accounts on Instagram live here and it's the headquarters for the world surf industry – which adds $3.3 billion to the local economy.

GAMES ON: 10 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT GOLD COAST 2018

1. With the debut of beach volleyball and women's rugby sevens, the Games will be the first major multi-sport event in world to give out an equal number of medals for men and women.

2. There will be 6600 athletes and team officials coming to the Games from 70 nations and territories around the world. There were 400 athletes from 11 countries when the Games started in 1930.

3. The mascot for the Games will be a koala missing a thumb who knows how to surf. It's the first time a koala has been used as an official Australian mascot.

4. Australia has won more gold medals at the Commonwealth Games than any other nation (2218 medals). In swimming, Australia, Canada and England have won 1300 medals while the rest of the Commonwealth has managed just 212.

5. This will be the first time that the Commonwealth Games has been hosted in a regional Australian city. However, Australia has hosted more Commonwealth Games than any other nation (five).

6. The only events held outside the Gold Coast will be basketball played in Cairns, Townsville and Brisbane.

7. Watch out for Usain Bolt's heir apparent, Canadian Andre De Grass. He recorded a 9.69 sec 100 metres last June and will be looking to beat Bolt's 9.58 sec world record.

8. Australia has topped every Commonwealth Games medal tally since 1986, with the exception of the last Games in 2014. England won 174 medals, while Australia managed 137.

9. There will be 275 events across 18 different sports held at 17 venues across the Gold Coast, from beach volleyball at Coolangatta to the south, to mountain biking in Nerang's foothills to the north.

10. The opening and closing ceremonies and athletics will be held at Carrara Stadium, Southport's Aquatic Stadium will host the swimming, while road cycling events will take place in the Gold Coast Hinterland and the marathon will be held beside the Gold Coast Broadwater.

See gc2018.com

THE BEST (AND WORST) OF THE REST OF THE GOLD COAST

BEST – NOBBY BEACH

It might be tiny – it's barely four blocks wide – but Nobby Beach packs a punch. Fine dining institution, Hellenika (hellenika.com.au), was responsible for rethinking the way Gold Coasters saw dining out, and now restaurants like Gemellini (gemellini.com.au) are making this one of Queensland's true gourmet suburbs. The Gold Coast's burgeoning craft beer scene is on display at Bine Beer Bar (binebeerbar.com).

BEST – CURRUMBIN VALLEY

Barely 10 minutes from the beach, the roadway winds its way beneath rocky escarpments. Once just a Sunday drive, the Valley is now home to the region's best organic farms, offering earthy treats and stunning outlooks – like Currumbin Valley Harvest (currumbinvalleyharvest.com.au), and Freemans Organic Farm (freemansorganicfarm.com.au) It's also home to the Coast's prettiest evening market (thegreenmarque.com).

BEST – TUGUN

A former eyesore off the Gold Coast Highway dominated by pubs with pokies and $10 counter lunches and Subway outlets, now the Gold Coast's surf elite (pro-surfers and surf company executives) linger over superfood brunches at organic cafes like House Of Hubert (houseofhubert.com.au).

WORST – SURFERS PARADISE

Plenty of hip new restaurants, bars and hotels have opened in Surfers Paradise but there's no getting around its skyscraper-dominated streetscape, which casts shadows on its beach every day from 3pm. As the southern Gold Coast continues to gentrify, the gap between north and south gets more obvious.

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