Brisbane, Queensland: Travel guide and things to do

In recent times Brisbane has been a frenzy of building activity as the city has acquired new bridges, freeways, cultural centres, hotels and office blocks. The visitor returning to the city after a three year absence could be forgiven for wondering if they had accidentally arrived at the wrong destination. It is this aggressive desire for progress and change which is slowly converting the city.

Of course it must be remembered that Brisbane is no ordinary state capital. Whereas other states radiate out from their capital, Queensland, because of its size and its decentralisation, can claim Brisbane as its centre of government while acknowledging the regional importance and status of cities like Townsville and Rockhampton.

To understand Brisbane it is vital to recognise that the city is full of contradictions. It is an informal place full of aggressiveness. It is a place of shorts and thongs and high finance. It is both sophisticated and bucolic. It is a city in flux. A city eager to change and reluctant to abandon its old and easier ways.

The nation's fastest-growing capital, Brisbane is Australia's third-largest city with a population of 1,626,900 in the year 2000. Its climate is sub-tropical with an average annual rainfall of 1090 mm (most of which falls between December and March), an average of over seven hours of sunshine each day, a humidity level which hovers around 50 per cent for all the year, and a temperature range from 10°C in winter to 30°C in summer. The locals will happily tell you that Brisbane is the only Australian capital city to enjoy a perfect climate - and who would argue with them.

Brisbane, like so many early settlements along the coast of eastern Australia, started life as a penal colony. It is thought that the Ngundanbi and Yagara Aborigines lived along the banks of the river before Europeans settled the area.

In September 1822 the British government instructed the Governor of the colony of New South Wales, the Scottish astronomer and administrator Sir Thomas Brisbane, to send out exploration parties to Moreton Bay, Port Curtis and Port Bowen with a view to finding a suitable place for a new penal colony.

In November 1823 the explorer John Oxley reached the waters of Moreton Bay. Within days of his arrival he chanced upon three escaped convicts - Thomas Pamphlett, Richard Parsons and John Finnegan. The convicts claimed that, while on wood-cutting expedition, they had been swept out to sea. Their small vessel had floated north and eventually been washed up onto the lonely sands of Moreton Island. They had been found by the local Aborigines who had shown them the local source of fresh water. This the local convicts duly showed to Oxley who named it the Brisbane River after the governor.

Oxley immediately returned to Sydney Town with news of the discovery. The next year Governor Brisbane sent the explorer back to Moreton Bay accompanied by 29 convicts, 14 soldiers, the botanist Allan Cunningham, a surgeon and storekeeper named Walter Scott, and the settlement's first military commandant, Lieutenant Henry Miller. Before the small sailing ship Amity left Sydney Cove, Brisbane told Oxley: 'The Amity is placed under orders for the purpose of crowning your late discovery of a large river flowing into Moreton Bay with the formation of a new settlement in its vicinity. The spot which you select must contain three hundred acres of land, and be in the neighbourhood of fresh water. It should lay in the direct course to the mouth of the river, be easily seen from the offing of ready access. To difficulty of attack by the natives, it ought to join difficulty of escape for the convicts.'

The first European settlement in Queensland.
The first settlement was at Redcliffe on Moreton Bay. Three months later the site was moved to North Quay on the Brisbane River. When Chief Justice Forbes arrived in December 1824 it was decided that the colony should be called 'Edinglassie' but this was soon rejected for Brisbane, in recognition of the Governor's important role in the founding of the colony.


Brisbane has long had a tradition of newness and consequently it has relatively few genuinely old public buildings of importance. This can partly be explained by the city's long history of building in timber and the fact that in 1864 a fire destroyed many of the city's finest early buildings. However it should be remembered that Brisbane's old buildings are gracious and impressive.

Things to see

1. The Buildings in the City Centre.
There were three major periods of building in Brisbane during the nineteenth century. The first occurred between 1824 and 1839 when Brisbane was a closed penal colony. It was during this time that the Old Commissariat and Observatory Tower (1829) and the Windmill Building (1828) were constructed using convict labour.

Brisbane was opened to free settlement in 1842 and became a separate colony on 10 December 1859. In spite of an active building program during this period only two buildings survive - the old St Stephens Church and the Deanery.

The last building boom occurred between 1860-1880 when an impressive array of public buildings including Government House and Parliament House, both symbols of the city's new affluence and independence, were built.

The Old Commissariat Store
Of the early settlement only two buildings still stand. The Old Windmill sometimes known as Observatory Tower and the Old Commissariat Store at 111 William Street. Built by convicts when Brisbane was a closed penal colony it is now the headquarters of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland.

Reputed to be the state's first stone building it was constructed with walls which ranged in thickness from 60 cm to 1.2 m. The first building was completed in 1829 as a two storey structure but over the period 1886-1926 it was expanded to three storeys.

Over the years it has been put to a number of different uses. Originally a store it became the State archives repository and a migrant depot before becoming the centre for the Royal Historical Society.

Brisbane City Hall Art Gallery and Museum
One of historic Brisbane's most significant landmarks the City Hall Art Gallery and Museum complex combines King George Square, the Brisbane Administration Centre and the City Plaza Shopping Centre.

The City Hall itself is an interesting example of an attempt to use English neo-classical architecture in a modern building. It uses Queensland brown-tinted freestone, marble, sandstone and timbers. The scale is impressive and full of old world charm. The main foyer inside King George Square, for example, uses ornate high vaulted ceilings, floor mosaics, and crafted timber and plasterwork to great effect. There is also a huge 16 m sculpture depicting Queensland protecting her citizens.

The City Hall Art Gallery and Museum was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1977 and contains extensive displays of paintings, ceramics and photographs.

The clock town, an amazing Italian renaissance number with rises 91 m above the City Plaza, provides excellent panoramic views of the city.

The Queensland Cultural Centre
If the essence of modern Brisbane is a new sense of sophistication then the Queensland Cultural Centre in some ways sums up the city's new aspirations.

Brisbane does not enjoy a reputation as an important home of the arts (in fact southerners tend to regard it as the home of philistinism and anti-intellectualism). It may be a reaction to this criticism which led the city to construct Australia's finest cultural complex which was opened to coincide with the Brisbane World Expo in 1988. This superb complex now includes the Queensland Art Gallery, the Performing Arts Complex, the Queensland Museum and the State Library.

Located just over the Victoria Bridge from the city's central business district, the complex was designed by the local architect Robin Gibson. It has successfully drawn together, on the banks of the Brisbane River, most of the city's major cultural activities.

Surrounded by subtropical gardens it consists of the John Oxley Library (which has the country's most important collection of books and papers relating to the history of Queensland), the Queensland Museum with its 2 million items including the tiny 'Avian Cirrus' aeroplane in which Bert Hinkler made the first solo flight from England to Australia in 1928, a number of restaurants, and the Performing Arts Complex with its Lyric Theatre, Concert Hall and Cremorne Studio Theatre.

The Art Gallery, in which the State's extensive collection is housed, is open from 10.00am-5.00pm every day of the week.

For more information check out:

Customs House
With its solid Corinthian columns and its greenish copper dome the Customs House stands beside the Brisbane River like a great Victorian matriach. Its position and prominence ensure that it is one of Brisbane's most impressive landmarks. It was built by John Petrie between 1886-89 and features twin pediments with heraldic shields and the words 'Advance Australia', a noble thought although, at the time of construction, there was no 'Australia'. For more information check out:

St Johns Cathedral
Located at 417 Ann Street, St Johns Cathedral may well lay claim to be Australia's oldest uncompleted building. This handsome Gothic cathedral, built in brick and Brisbane porphyry stone, was started in 1901 and, even today, the western section remains uncompleted.

However to concentrate on the incompleteness of the building is to ignore its beauty. The architect John Loughborough Pearson was chosen to design the building. Unfortunately he died before the work was completed and his son finished the design.

Although the cathedral was designed in a Gothic style it is more than a mere imitation. It is laid out like a crucifix and has some particularly impressive flying buttresses and fine rose windows.

The construction of the cathedral has been a never ending saga. The foundation stone was laid in 1901, the first stage consecrated in 1910, and new bays completed in 1968. A model of how the cathedral will eventually look is located in the church. For more information check out:

The Deanery
Located at 417 Ann Street this gracious, two storey porphyry stone residence was designed by Andrew Petrie and built for Dr William Hobbs in 1853.

It has a number of interesting claims to historical importance being one of the few remaining buildings built between 1842-59 and once serving as the Governor's residence (1859-62) while Government House was being built.

Perhaps the Deanery's finest secular moment came in 1859 when the proclamation separating Queensland from New South Wales was read from the building's east balcony.

General Post Office
Located at 261 Queen Street the General Post Office is located on the site of the city's original female convict barracks. Construction on the building was started in 1871 and completed in 1879. It is recognised as a fine example of a late Victorian Classical Revival building.

When the Central Railway Station was built in Ann Street at the end of the nineteenth century the architects quite consciously placed its tower in the centre of the block so that the towers of the Post Office and the Railway were aligned.

Although the project had started 59 years earlier it wasn't until 1930, with the creation of Anzac Square, that the entire streetscape was completed.

As if to establish the perfect symmetry of the precinct the War Memorial Shrine, and the bronze equine statue commemorating the Boer War, was aligned with the towers of the General Post Office and the railway.

Old Government House
Located between the Queensland Institute of Technology and the Brisbane River, old Government House was built in 1862 when the population of Brisbane was a mere 6 000 people. A Classical Revival building it was designed by Charles Tiffin, built of porphyry and sandstone, and constructed between 1860-62. It remained the Governor's official residence until 1910 after which it was used as the first building of the University of Queensland.

Over the years the building has been subjected to a number of additions - upper verandah (1873), billiard room (1899) and southwest balcony (1906).

Old Government House is currently used as the offices for the National Trust of Queensland. Apart from a range of publications the National Trust also have a comprehensive listing of churches, old buildings, historic sites and landmarks throughout Brisbane. For more information check out:

MacArthur Chambers
Located at the corner of Queen Street and Edward Street, MacArthur Chambers became important during the latter half of World War II when General Douglas MacArthur, the Commander-in-Chief of the South-West Pacific area, used the building as his headquarters. It is now open for inspection from 9.00am-5.00pm Monday to Friday.

The Mansions
A superb example of nineteenth century ornateness. The Mansions were erected as six elegant townhouses in the 1890s. By any measure they were a superb example of a Free Classical terrace. The deep arcaded verandahs on both floors give the building a very distinctive appearance. The building now contains a number of up market shops including a restaurant (with views over the Botanical Gardens), an antiquarian print gallery, a bookshop, an antique shop and the National Trust of Queensland Gift Shop.

Queensland Maritime Museum
The Queensland Maritime Museum is located on the river at the end of Dock Street almost directly opposite the Queensland Institute of Technology. An interesting display of charts, model ships, engines and memorabilia combined with 'on the water' displays of a World War II frigate and an old steam tug it will keep the nautical enthusiast interested for hours. For more information check out:

National Bank Building
Located on the corner of Queen and Creek Streets (308-322 Queen Street) this huge and gracious building is regarded as the finest Classical Revival building in Australia.

The National Trust's description of the building is more of a eulogy than a description:

'Constructed from Murphy's Creek sandstone with columns and carved work in New Zealand Omaru limestone, the National Bank is considered to be one of Stanley's masterpieces. Its opulent yet precise composition features two major facades rising through three spacious levels, dominated by tall Corinthian columns with ornate pilasters surmounted by a massive entablature. Early photographs show a pediment above this feature. Window openings increase in complexity from the lower to upper levels, featuring a simple arch with keystone on the ground floor, the addition of discrete rectangular columns on the first floor and typically Classical ornate pedimented window mouldings with helix and small ornamental balconies on the second floor. The interior features a large banking chamber which is lit naturally by means of a leaded glass dome and approached via corridor with a coffer–ceiling. Fine cedar joinery and plaster work, largely intact and beautifully preserved, are evident throughout, but are especially noteworthy in the first floor executive offices and board room. The fireplaces are in Italian marble and, on the second floor, originally the residential quarters, the rich treatment is continued.

'The Queensland National Bank was awarded the Government account in 1879, and in the ensuing years enjoyed unparalleled dominance of the Colony's finances, having at one time no less than 65 branches and agencies. In 1948 it merged with the National Bank. Over the years the building has been closely connected with the State Government and in the nineteenth century the cabinet met frequently in its board room. Many important matters were discussed and debated within its sanctum, notably the decision to annex Papua. It is undoubtedly one of the finest Classical Revival buildings in Australia and is remarkably well preserved both internally and externally. Virtually unchanged since it was built, it is a commanding presence in the inner city precinct and of incalculable architectural significance with memorable historical links with the National Bank, Queensland State Government and the development of Brisbane City.

Parliament House
Immediately after Queensland was declared a separate colony in 1859, Brisbane saw the large and gracious Parliament House building rising on the hill above the Botanical Gardens.

The colonial architect, Charles Tiffin, was awarded the commission to build Parliament House after he had won an Australia wide competition with his unusual imitation of the French Renaissance style. The building was started in 1865, first occupied in 1868, and finally completed in 1889. It is characterised by solid colonnades which keep the building cool in summer, some truly magnificent timber work which was executed in local Queensland timbers, and an impressive and gracious interior.

St Stephens Cathedral
Located in Elizabeth Street St Stephens Church, sometimes known as Pugin's Chapel, is the city's oldest church. Built in 1850 and attributed to the English architect Auguste Welby Pugin it is a simple Gothic sandstone church. It was replaced by the new St Stephens Cathedral, which now stands next to the old building, in 1874. The 'new' cathedral was built between 1863-74 to a design by Benjamin Backhouse.

Story Bridge
The main access point from the west the Story Bridge looms large in the minds of residents of Brisbane. It is the bridge to walk over if you want a superb view of the city centre. It is the bridge which people run over once a year. And it is the one bridge which is really elevated above the river in a dramatic way.

The Story Bridge's one claim to fame lies in the poor bedrock of Brisbane. Unlike Sydney, which is built on sandstone, Brisbane basically lies on sand. In order to construct the Story Bridge it was necessary to dig down 40.2 m to establish a firm foundation. This means that the bridge can boast one of the deepest foundations in the world.

Victoria Bridge
Although it is not the oldest bridge across the Brisbane River (the William Jolly Bridge can claim that distinction) the Victoria Bridge can claim an impressive list of antecedents. It is the third bridge to be built on a site which was used as the earliest European crossing point.

A pylon from the second bridge (1897) has been retained as a monument and is now listed on the National Estate. On the pylon is a plaque to a Greek boy who was killed during the World War I victory celebrations in 1918.

The Victoria Bridge runs from the Central Business District across the river to the Performing Arts Complex and the Queensland Cultural Centre.

Victoria Barracks Military Museum
Located in Petrie Terrace the old Victoria Barracks were built between 1864-74 to a design which had been drawn up by the War Office in London. The original barracks, which consisted of an officers quarters, barrack blocks, guard room and kitchen, were completed in 1864. Three years later a soldier's hospital and superintendents house was built and in 1874 the police stables were completed.

Today the barracks are a military museum housing weapons, old uniforms, photographs and memorabilia.

The Museum is open from 1.00pm - 4.00 pm every Sunday. Contact (07) 3233 4531 for details. For more information check out:

The former Windmill Building or the Observatory
One of the only two buildings in Brisbane which remain from the city's convict era, this rendered stone and brick building, located in Wickham Terrace, dates back to 1828 when the unloved Captain Patrick Logan was Commandant of the Colony.

While it was originally built as a windmill (the colony's first industrial building) it was soon converted to a treadmill where convicts rather than the wind drove the machinery. By the end of the nineteenth century an observation platform and cabin had been built and it had become known locally as 'the observatory'.

In 1930 the building was used for some interesting early experiments with television.

2. The Parks and Gardens
If Brisbane has a small number of interesting historic buildings it certainly has no shortage of parks. There are nearly 200 parks and reserves within the 97 200 hectares administered by the Brisbane City Council. These range from Mount Coot-tha Reserve which covers 1 142 hectares and offers spectacular views of the city and Moreton Bay to small city parks where the weary shopper and tourist can rest their tired legs after sightseeing and bargain hunting.

The City Botanical Gardens
The City Botanical Gardens cover over 20 hectares of land and are one of the city's unambiguous showpieces. Beautifully located on the banks of the Brisbane River and spreading over the gentle slopes and undulations below Parliament House and the Old Government House, the gardens are a peaceful respite from the bustle of the Central Business District.

The Botanic Gardens date back to the earliest years of European settlement. Long before 1855, when they were formally laid out by Walter Hill, the first Gardens Director, the area had been used as a vegetable garden.

Hill planted rows of bunya pines and introduced plants like the poinciana and jacaranda. He also built a fountain in 1867 and planted a row of weeping figs.

The sub-tropical climate, combined with the rich soils of the riverbank, ensures a permanent display of spectacular colours and heady fragrances of frangipanis, orchids, oleanders, flame trees, bougainvilleas and jacarandas. A walk through the gardens, particularly a walk along the river bank, is a must for every visitor to the city. For more information check out:

Mount Coot-tha Botanical Gardens and Reserve
In recent times a second, and equally spectacular, Botanic Gardens has been opened on Mount Coot-tha Road. Located off Mt Coot-tha Road in Toowong only ten minutes from the city centre, the Mt Coot-tha Gardens are reputed to be Australia's largest sub-tropical display of flora. They cover an area of 57 ha in which plants are set against an environment of lakes, ponds, and streams. There are literally thousands of tropical plants housed in the unusual Tropical Dome indoor display. Of particular interest are the Japanese Gardens, a delightful and quiet retreat. Nearby is the Exotic Rainforest and beyond it are the sections of bunya forest, Bougainvilleas, Australian Rainforest, Open Eucalypt Forest, Melaleuca Wetlands and a section devoted to Western Australian Flora. The Gardens also contain a Planetarium and, at the top of the hill, there is an impressive lookout. It would be easy to spend a day wandering around the gardens. They also have a good restaurant and gift shop and there are plenty of locations where a picnic under the trees is possible.For more information check out:

3. Around Brisbane
It is impossible to list all the attractions and historic buildings which exist in Greater Brisbane. Any city with over 1 million people sprawling for over 20 km in every direction from the Central Business District inevitably has endless places of interest. Many of the places just beyond the outskirts of the city (Bribie Island), or places of historical importance (Moreton Bay and Redcliffe) have been treated as separate entries in the Brisbane region.

The superb The Heritage of Australia: The Illustrated Register of the National Estate (Macmillan 1981) lists no fewer than 103 buildings and sites of national significance in the Greater Brisbane area.

Coochiemudlo Island
Known affectionately as 'Coochie', Coochiemudlo Island was discovered by Matthew Flinders in 1799 and has largely remained untouched since then. A re-enactment of his landing is an excuse for general festivities each year in July. The island is still a haven for birdlife and exotic tropical plants including wildflowers, fresias, casaurinas and palm trees. The island is only 130 ha in area and it offers fine views of Moreton Bay, relaxing, attractive environs and tranquil waters for fishing, swimming, sailing, windsurfing or paddle boats. The island has a nine-hole golf course, tennis and croquet facilities and it can be explored on foot, by bicycle, tandem bicycle or bus tour. Craft markets are also held regularly.

Access to the island is via ferry or vehicle barge from Victoria Point jetty, at the end of Colburn Ave. For more information check out:

Kingsford Smith Memorial
10 km from the city centre on Airport Drive near the new Brisbane Airport is the famous 'Southern Cross' which Charles Kingsford Smith flew in the epic the first crossing of the Pacific Ocean. The plane was built by Fokker in Holland in 1926 and later modified by the Douglas Aircraft Company in America. The plane made the Pacific crossing in terrible weather, stopping at Fiji and arriving in Brisbane on 8 June 1928. In 1929 it was involved in the famous, or 'infamous', attempt to fly to England which resulted in Kingsford Smith and his crew being forced to land on the coast of Western Australia. At the time there was much controversy as some people suggested that the forced landing had been nothing more than a publicity stunt. It then completed the journey to London in 12 days and 18 hours and, after being rebuilt by Fokker, flew across the Atlantic thus completing an around-the-world journey. It was bought by the Federal Government for £3000 in 1935 and eventually found a permanent home at the Brisbane airport.

Newstead House
One of the many superb buildings in suburban Brisbane, Newstead House (located on the riverside at Breakfast Creek Road, Newstead) was built in 1846 for the pastoralist Patrick Leslie. It became the residence of Captain Wickham from 1847-59. The most intriguing feature about the house is that it is actually a two storey dwelling masquerading as a single storey house. It was Captain Wickham who built the verandah around the house, extended and raised the ground level. The impression is of a sumptuous one storey dwelling. Today it is recognised as one of Brisbane's oldest and most impressive residences.

Newstead House is open for public inspection Monday to Friday 10.00am to 4.00pm and Sundays and some public holidays from 2.00pm - 5.00pm. The last admission is one half hour prior to advertised closing times. Saturdays are set aside for wedding ceremonies and functions and a traditional Devonshire Tea is served March - November inclusive 2.00pm to 4.30pm with other refreshments available on weekdays with prior notice. For more information contact:

St Helena Island
Now owned and run by the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service (tel: 07 3396 5113), St Helena Island contains the ruins of one of Queensland's major prisons. The oldest ruins on the island date from 1866 when a quarantine station, using a combination of locally hewn stones and hand made bricks, was constructed. Within a year the building had been converted to a prison. At its peak St Helena prison held 300 prisoners. It was downgraded to a prison farm in 1921 and finally abandoned in 1933.

Tours of the island are organised by St Helena Ferries. Contact (07) 3393 3726 for further details. For more information check out:

Tourist Information

Brisbane Visitors and Convention Bureau
Ground Floor Brisbane
Brisbane QLD 4000
Telephone: (07) 3221 8411
Facsimile: (07) 3229 4126