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Brisbane (population: 1.6 million) is the capital city of the state of Queensland, Australia, and was established in 1825 as a penal colony for the more difficult-to-handle convicts. It has been described as both a big country town with all the stupefying dullness that term implies, and a 'dynamic city shaped by its history, climate, open spaces and diversity' (Brisbane City Council (BCC)).
Both of these statements might be true.
Brisbane sits in a half-bowl, formed by small mountains that surround it and the mouth of the Brisbane River, which opens into Moreton Bay. Built up around the river, the city is green, relaxed and rapidly expanding. Since World Expo 1988, Brisbane has tried hard to shake off the country town image and become a cosmopolitan centre. Situated between the glitz of the Gold Coast to the south, the Sunshine Coast to the north and the mountains and rainforest and then outback to the west, Brisbane makes a good stepping-off point for the rest of Queensland and has some attractions of its own.
The weather in Brisbane, like the rest of coastal Queensland, is beautiful in winter and humid and stormy in summer. The spectacular light shows of thunderstorms are common during December. Because Brisbane is surrounded by mountains, the heat and humidity (and occasionally smog) can be trapped and build to a level that resembles the tropics much further north.
It's not hard to find maps, plane, bus, train and ferry timetables on the Internet (See the BCC site for example).
Public transport doesn't run 24 hours, generally, and late at night taxi drivers become wary of picking up people who are staggering along darkened streets waving at them. If you've been out visiting some of the local nightspots, the thing to do is to line up with other revellers at taxi ranks (and be careful not to get the front end of the line confused with the back) and you'll be guaranteed to get a ride home eventually.
Riding a Bicycle
There are some good bicycle paths around the city and riding on the streets is not too dangerous, although at times Brisbane drivers tend to be a bit careless about anyone not similarly encased in metal. Bike paths stretch along the river and through the Botanical Gardens. A nice ride might be from South Bank1, first having a nice cold beer at the pub there to hold off thirst, north over the new pedestrian/cyclist bridge, left through the Queensland University of Technology - or into the gardens for a peaceful diversion and a refreshing ale - and along the river (Coronation Drive) to Toowong, where you can quench your thirst at the Regatta or the RE hotel.
Most of the roads in Brisbane were built on old cattle tracks. They meander over and around each other in a rather haphazard fashion, through what was once farmland (and is now the suburbs) up to the hills and mountains surrounding the city - fortunately the relatively small population means that the roads are rarely congested, except at peak hour. It is important to obtain a current map if you must drive while in Brisbane, as the roads are fairly constantly worked on, shifted, closed, and built2.
One of the down-sides of the small population (for a city, but not a big country town) is a higher than normal proportion of tourists attempting to navigate through the streets of the city centre, many of which are one-way, or on the highways leading to the city. This only adds to the reputation of Brisbane drivers as being a terrifying mix of hick and hooligan, as they attempt to get to and from work while dodging the hopelessly lost visitors or the just-as-lost new residents from Melbourne.
Riding a Motorcycle
Brisbane is very close to some of the best motorcycling roads in the country, whether west over Mt Glorious and Mt Nebo; north over Mt Mee and on to the Glasshouse Mountains; or south over Mt Tamborine (and then through the Gold Coast hinterlands to northern New South Wales). You can hire bikes, but be prepared to pay for the privilege.
Mt Glorious and Mt Mee are both accessible via Samford, a faux-rustic village with a handy service station. Mt Glorious has a reputation for injuring riders, and the police are often out in force at weekends. The view from Mt Glorious is spectacular, although most bikers fail to take it in.
The city centre itself can be a challenging experience on a bike. The highways north and south are boring and infested with speed cameras, and the highway west is crowded, narrow and chaotic – and infested with speed cameras.
Swimming the Brisbane River is not recommended. Not for any reason.
Street magazines are usually free, and also on the Internet, for those interested in finding nightspots, pubs or bands. Time Off is one example. Similarly, daytime entertainment listings, things to see and places to go are freely available on the Web.
There are numerous 'Irish' pubs, and 'English' pubs are becoming common. These pubs are typically adorned with 'ye olde' style furnishings, and serve Guinness and other Irish/English beers on tap.
Some of the better pubs in Brisbane include:
The Breakfast Creek Hotel, Newstead - Famous for its steak restaurant, the pub opened in 1890, and is located out of town on the way to the airport.
The RE Hotel, Toowong - This was once the hangout of students, primarily from the University of Queensland, and had a dirt floor in the beer garden. Nothing has changed, except the dirt floor is now cement, and the beer garden adjoins a new pokie3 machine area.
The Regatta Hotel, Toowong - The Regatta sits across Coronation Drive from the Brisbane River, and has recently been renovated. Also popular with students.
The Story Bridge Hotel, Kangaroo Point - This pub hosts the International Festival of Beer, an annual event worth attending if only to sample some of the less well-known varieties of Australian beers.
The Normanby - The Normanby frontage, threatened by recent roadworks at the Normanby Five-ways, is undergoing much-needed renovations (at the time of writing). A classic hotel in a difficult position, the Normanby's beer garden is shaded by a graceful Moreton Bay Fig.
The Orient, Brisbane City - The Orient is one of the few old pubs to have survived the development frenzy and midnight demolitions that claimed so many heritage buildings in the city centre during the over-long premiership of Joh Bjelke-Petersen4. Bands play on Friday and Saturday night, and Thursday night is the night for discounted drinks. In fact, Thursday night is a popular student's night out, as many of the pubs and nightclubs around Brisbane serve cheap drinks.
Brisbane City Centre
Brisbane City itself contains a casino (in the old state Treasury building, ironically)5 as well as the Botanical Gardens, countless restaurants, pubs and nightclubs. Cameras at every corner attest to the need to be cautious after dark if you are on your own. The cameras centre around the pedestrian-only shopping mall in the heart of the city.
Fortitude Valley ('The Valley')
The Valley is where most of the city's youth-oriented nightclubs are to be found. More alternative, underground and unsavory, and yet more trendy than the city centre, the Valley has been the subject of beautification that only serves to disguise the true nature of the area to the naïve. There are some very nice restaurants in the main street, Brunswick Street (which has its own pedestrian-only mall, complete with cameras), and several pubs.
The Valley is also the home of Chinatown, and consequently cheap and good Asian restaurants are abundant.
Australia is home to some of the most dangerous land-snakes in the world (although see this dissenting opinion: Australia's venomous snakes: The modern myth), and the most venomous of these are found around Brisbane - and even in the city-centre. A woman was bitten by what was believed to be a brown snake in the newly-opened Roma Street Park (she survived). So it's a good idea not to put your hands or feet where you can't see them - hence the advice in the entry on Australia about not putting your hands down holes.
Brisbane is also the home of numerous varieties of venomous spiders, particularly the Redback spider, a relative of the North American Black Widow. The Redback is a small black web-residing spider with a red hourglass symbol on its back, reminiscent of a black leather jacket and gang patch. The Redback spreads on the wind, riding the currents and invading houses like hordes of wanton bikers intent on destruction.
Brisbane suburban dwellers have an unfortunate tendency to spray insecticides in an attempt to kill off the Redback invaders. Along with killing Redbacks, this serves to eliminate the natural predators of the Redback, the 'Daddy Long-legs' spider and other house spiders. This is like the town citizens hanging the sheriff, because the Redback spreads much quicker than other spiders, and soon returns to the recently sprayed home in greater numbers.
The city (and thus Australia) has recently been invaded by Fire ants, who arrived without welcome from overseas, probably in the contents of a shipping container. Attempts are being made to eradicate what has the potential to become a serious pest, although the outcome of these efforts is yet to be decided.