Above: Rooftop bar and alfresco cinema at the newly opened Limes Hotel in the city’s Fortitude Valley.
Long a poor cousin to Sydney or Melbourne, Queensland’s capital is casting off its image as a sleepy subtropical backwater. Will a new wave of chefs, restaurateurs, artists, and designers transform Brisbane from hick to hip?
By Natasha Dragun
Photographs by Cory White
For most of my childhood, summer holidays were spent in Brisbane, or “Brissy,” as the locals call it. On December 20 every year, my family—parents, sister, dog, three guinea pigs—would pile into our clapped-out VW camper van for the 1,700-kilometer journey north from Melbourne. Three excruciating days after leaving home —72 hours of tears and tantrums, spilled drinks, slopped ice cream, and lost guinea pigs—we’d arrive at my grandparents’ Wilston Hill residence, a sprawling Queenslander house with a broad veranda and overhanging eaves.
My sister and I would spend the next two months catching cane toads after the rain, dodging gigantic subtropical insects and spiders, and trying to find grandpa’s hidden candy jar. Come dusk we’d laze on the veranda eating mangoes and papayas, listening to the orchestra of crickets in the garden. By 8 p.m., the city would be quiet: restaurants would have closed for the night, and the streets would be deserted. By 9 p.m., lights in the buildings framing the Brisbane River would begin to fade. You’d never guess that you were in Australia’s third-largest city.
Melbourne-born comedian Barry Humphries (a.k.a. Dame Edna Everage) once famously quipped that “Australia is the Brisbane of the world”—meaning that, if Australia’s reputation abroad lacks a certain sophistication, so too does Brisbane’s at home. Until recently, most Melburnians and Sydneysiders considered Brissy no more than a big country town. There were no museums or galleries to speak of, no orchestra or opera house. Indeed, the biggest draws were to be found on the Gold Coast, an hour’s drive from town, home to cheesy amusement parks like Sea World and Dreamworld, not to mention oversize shrines to Queensland agriculture (the Big Banana and Big Pineapple spring to mind). Style? Forget about it. The Brisbanite’s dress code consisted of flip-flops and bright tank tops, and his or her sport of choice was—gasp!—rugby union, rather than Australian rules football. And while talented chefs flocked to Melbourne and Sydney to open haute dining rooms overlooking the water, the toniest restaurant in Brisbane was the Imperial Dragon, dishing out beef in black-bean sauce and sweet-and-sour pork in polystyrene takeaway containers.
In his 1984 A History of Queensland, Ross Fitzgerald, a professor at Brisbane’s Griffith University, declared the city “a cultural wasteland.” It was a verdict that few disputed at the time. As if to confirm the fact, the same year saw Brisbane thrust into the global spotlight… for all the wrong reasons. Newspapers across the world reported that Brisbanite Graham Barker was assembling a record-breaking collection—of navel fluff. That’s how exciting Brissy was back then. Nor did the gerrymandering, illiberal government of long-serving Queensland premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen help temper the backward image. When Bjelke-Petersen was forced to resign in 1987 over charges of corruption and perjury, his state became a national laughingstock.
While some five million tourists visit Brisbane every year, few Australians see it as anything more than a stopover en route to the beach resorts of the Sunshine Coast to the north or the Gold Coast to the south. Until recently, if you did happen to get marooned in town, residents would likely point you in the direction of its main attraction: the old Castlemaine brewery at Milton, which has been churning out the local lager, XXXX, for more than 130 years—most of the city’s history. (My friends used to joke that XXXX, pronounced “four-ex,” got its name because you can’t put the word “SHIT” on a beer can—or because Queenslanders couldn’t spell “beer.”). Bad beer and bellybutton fluff—not the sorts of things that cosmopolitan cities are built on.
The term “BrisVegas” is now official. The Macquarie Dictionary has entered it into its Book of Slang; the Brisbane City Council even uses it in its promotional material. What it actually means is anyone’s guess. Brisbane wasn’t the first city in Australia to build a casino (that honor goes to Hobart), but the 1995 opening of the Conrad Treasury Casino gave Brissy a much-needed injection of glamour. Still, it’s a far cry from Las Vegas, and perhaps that’s the point. Housed in two grand colonial buildings, the Treasury was —and remains—a sedate version of its glitzy Nevada counterparts. And back then, people didn’t come to Brisbane to get married; they came to retire. BrisVegas felt kind of fabricated, desperately searching for cultural credibility.
“It’s taken a while, but Brisbane is definitely coming into its own now,” says Lyndon Terracini, who runs the city council’s stridently named event organizer, Major Brisbane Festivals. Indeed. Look past Brisbane’s obvious allures—an average of 243 sunny days per year, a relatively low cost of living, easy access to some of the best beaches in Australia—and you’ll see a city on the up. In recent years, billions of dollars have been pumped into new roads and bikeways and a slew of chic hotels, bars, and restaurants. Terracini and I are savoring Peruvian coffee in one of these: the lush, boudoir-styled Belle Époque café in Brisbane’s buzzing new Emporium district. The area is part of Fortitude Valley, a historic commercial precinct that fell into disrepair (and disrepute) in the 1970s and ’80s, but that is now home to some of the city’s hippest haunts. Our café adjoins the two-year-old Emporium Hotel, designed to wow from the moment you step into the funky red lobby. Nearby is another savvy boutique hotel, the Limes, as well as shops from globally recognized Australian designers like Jean Brown, Samantha Ogilvie, and Easton Pearson. “Over the last five years, Brisbane has become much more of an international city. It’s become very contemporary, and is physically very attractive these days,” Terracini says.
Originally from Melbourne, Terracini moved to the Queensland capital in 2001 to oversee the Brisbane Festival, which he’s since built into one of the country’s largest arts fairs. In the same vein, the city now hosts Multimedia Art Asia Pacific, Straight Out of Brisbane (a festival for emerging local artists), and the massive Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, held this year in the striking new Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) on the riverfront.