Since its dubious beginnings in 1824 as a harsh penal settlement for Australia's worst convicts, the CBD has had a string of reincarnations before it became today's modern glass and concrete business and retail hub.

Flanked by sprawling subtropical public gardens on two sides, the river and the alternative entertainment, art and fashion hub of Fortitude Valley, the city is home to a mixed bag of permanent residents, corporations, major retail chains and smaller independent shops, bar, cafes and restaurants.

Despite its at times homogeneous there are some interesting pockets and a remnants of its colonial heyday still in evidence for those who care to look.


At the time the penal settlement was closed Brisbane was little more than a wild frontier town of dirt roads, rough hotels and basic stores along Queen St as free settlers and ex-cons put down roots.

After Queensland's separation from NSW in 1859 plans were made to create some kind of capital city starting with its own Government House, and by the late 1800s grand European style civic buildings were being built, transforming the town centre and bedding it down as the state's centre of government.

By the 1920s the Brisbane City Hall was being constructed on swamp land, tram lines ran through the city streets (which were laid out and named in a royal grid – female royal names running north-south and males running east-west), and an opulent Her Majesty's Opera House and grand baroque Regent Theatre injected a much-needed dose of refined culture to the city, along with arcades such as The Brisbane Arcade and Tattersall's.

During World War II the whole city was transformed as it became the frontline for the Asia Pacific War effort, playing host to General Douglas MacArthur whose office remains intact at MacArthur Chambers. The advent of war tripled the population overnight with the arrival of US service men and lined the city streets with bomb shelters and soldiers. It also increased the residual separation animosity with New South Wales as stories of the Brisbane Line emerged, the underlying premise being that should the Japanese invade, Brisbane would be surrended in order to save New South Wales and the south.

During the 1960s to 1980s, much of the city, having escaped being invaded or bombed, ironically became the victim of the State Government's wrecker's ball, with grand theatres, department stores and warehouses demolished and replaced with featureless glass and concrete towers. Still, a walk around the streets can find plenty of vestiges of the past, from the lone still standing convict stores building The Commissariat on William St to the decorative facades above the Queen St Mall, the grand government buildings that still line George St and the warehouses in the eastern CBD towards the Botanical Gardens, an area that was known in the late 19th and early 20th century as Frogs Hollow.

Today the CBD is increasing its residential cred with a proliferation of mixed-use towers that are bringing in a wave of dwellers attracted to postcode 4000.

At a glance: Check out our Top 25 Things to Do in Brisbane CBD.

Eating and Drinking

As a general rule, the further from the mall, the better the food and coffee, although there are exceptions tucked away in the surrounding streets and lanes.


Budget city eateries are clustered around the Little Asia precinct, incorporating the Elizabeth Arcade with hole in the wall Japanese Kadoya and Korean Madtongsan perpetually packed with Asian students. Other great budget finds, the majority tucked away up or downstairs from street level with little signage are Mary St's glamorous Japanese hotpot diner Shabuhouse, or Korean Madtongsan II and vegetarian stalwart Govinda's both upstairs on Elizabeth St.

On Edward St in the basement of Metro Arts on Edward St is NY style Italian eatery and bar Verve.

Down Burnett Lane tiny German eatery German Hut Imbuss peddles bratwurst and beer and, on Friday nights, pork hock and upstairs on Queen St Mall Beijing House peddles yum cha from a heritage bank building.

Ben's Alibi adds a touch of Morocco to the mono law precinct, dishing up tagines and pizza for lunch on weekdays and down at riversde there's a Brazilain BBQ cooking daily at Navalia Churascarria.

Meanwhile the city's best lunches for under $10 are found at Spring, LR Sushi or Wednesday's City Farmers Market in Reddacliff Place and for quick eats that won't break the budget check out these: Best Quick Eats in Brisbane CBD.

Mid-Range eateries are limited to the atmospheric Burnett Lane hideaway The Survey Co, veteran Japanese inhabitant of Koala House, Oshin, along with sky garden style Public on George St, Asian, Coppa Spuntino Italian cafe bar; 127 Bar Bistro, Asian fusion bar/ restaurant Nest on Roma Street and Brisbane Square's Communal Bar and Eating House

High-Range restaurants are clustered around the Botanic Gardens and Riverside precinct, led by culinary jewel and degustation restaurant, the divine three hatted Esquire. Hot on its heels come Matt Moran's Aria on the riverfront and Urbane and Restaurant II in the City Botanic Gardens vicinity. Other gems include The Euro off Spencer Lane and Malt Dining upstairs in Brisbane's first marketplace, Spanish-infused Moda by the Gardens and Phillip Johnson stalwart E'cco Bistro in a no-man's land bordering the Valley. Or for Brisbane's best Chinese, head to Madame Wu on the waterfront.


For a city centre that is more about food halls, the Brisbane CBD still manages a decent array of cafés -from the old world charm and chandelier room of Room with Roses atop the 1924 Brisbane Arcade and Keri Craig's Emporium Café in the basement to the gritty urban charm of Brew in lower Burnett Lane and Brother Espresso in a century old warehouse on Margaret St, to the gritty Brother Espresso in an old warehouse on Margaret St and the quaint high-ceilinged rooms of Bistro 41.

And take a look down some of Brisbane's laneways and arcades for some cute offerings like Strauss, Kitchen Door, Felix Espresso and Marchetti.

Jude is a Hampton's style foodie haven down in the Riverside area and what nearby Pourboy Espresso lacks in décor it more than compensates with top notch food and coffee. Back on George St Java Coast serves up excellent coffee from an Asian style garden courtyard and over on Ann St Sage on Ann is the go-to for reliable café fare at budget prices, with the jewel in the crown The Pantry in Old Government House.


The CBD's best coffee is a need-to-know-where affair: Frisky Goat Espresso annexed to a heritage listed banking chamber, Glen's Espresso, a street cart at the base of an Ann St building where coffee is free to the good-looking first timer, Bean in a basement fashion boutique down a George St carriageway, Cocoa Woo in a purple bird cage style den, coffee degustation at Coffee Anthology, Extract Espresso in a marble walled delivery entrance, Brew in a converted loading dock and The Coop Espresso and John Mills Himself Cafe Bar hidden away in lanes.


Bars proliferate, many of them large scale and impersonal although a recent showing of smaller quirky drinking holes has greatly enhanced the CBD after hours scene.

Burnett Lane is the go-to for cosy micro bars – speakeasy style Super Whatnot, subterranean Brew and the glass-windowed front room of The Survey Co. Off the beaten track from Elizabeth Street is the tiny beer and piano bar John Mills Himself.

In the same end of the city The Treasury Hotel's premier bar Ryan's on the Park befits an Agatha Christie novel while up the road on George St The Villager, a multi level bar set between the narrow exposed brick walls of another old treasury building has on its top floor a late night supper bar.

Edward Street and surrounds are home top several worthy bars including Spencer Lane's uber cool Laneway Bar , which packs a discerning crowd into its cubical upstairs space while nearby in the old Port Office the arcaded verandahs of Moo Moo Bar are Brisbane's answer to Raffles and inthe old warerhouse housing Restaurant Two is vintage-inspired Nant Whisky Bar. Take a trip up Edward St towards Spring Hill and in the lane beside Jamie's Italian Kitchen is cool basement blues and live music bar Sonny's House of Blues.

In midtown Brisbane opposite grounds of historic Post Office at the entry to Gresham Lane, the heritage-listed NAB Bank has a chic Gresham Bar and further down the lane is American style Red Hook and through a corridor chic little Italian bar Coppa Spuntino. Heading back towards the river, Malt Bar in an 1860s marketplace and uber cool American cellar bar Brooklyn Standard is the go-to for nightly live music in Eagle Lane.

On the waterfront Jellyfish Bar has great bar food and views as does Italian Bar Pacino, Blackbird and the elegant glass-enclosed Mr & Mrs G's Riverbar. From here in the no man's land towards the Valley you'll find another great undrground wine bar that channels Dean Martin - Grape Therapy.


The Queen St Mall is the city's chain retail and department store hub, bookended by the labyrinthine Myer Centre at the river end and David Jones's Queens Plaza at the downtown end. In between a couple of modern internal malls – Broadway on the Mall and the newly refurbished Wintergarden - feed off the pedestrian mall as do the elegant heritage Tattersall's Arcade and the fairest of them all – the gorgeous Edwardian baroque Brisbane Arcade, which sits on the site of Queen St's first butcher shop owned by notorious colonial settler Patrick Mayne.

In the base of Queens Plaza and strewn along Edward St and into Elizabeth Street are the denizens of luxury shopping and designer fashion – Rhodes & Beckett, Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Tiffany's, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Marcs, and Elio Moda and indie boutiques like Dogstar.

Meanwhile the swanky new Wintergarden hosts Bessie Head, Seed Heritage concept store with in-house basement candy shop, Lisa Ho, Dinosaur Designs and men's boutique Dirtbox.

Adelaide St is home to a handful of quirky fashion boutiques such as My Monkey's Uncle, upmarket outlets Gorman and Zimmermann and Mum's and children's boutique Seed, while in the tiny Adelaide arcade that time forgot, vintage and pre-loved outlets Revamp and Lifeline Design Store.

Otherwise the heart of indie fashion is the 1960s Elizabeth Arcade off Elizabeth St is home to a collection of edgy micro boutiques including Violent Green, Garnsis and Red Cordial

Despite their worldwide decline, book shops still abound in the city, with sci-fi Pulp Fiction, cerebral independent Folio Books, the post war American Book Store and quirky Rosemary's Romance Books for the new and the must visit Archives, a century old warehouse packed to the rafters with over a million secondhand, rare, first edition and out of print books.

Similarly vinyl still rules in the country's largest Record Exchange, upstairs in Adelaide St. Here just about every single of LP ever made can be dug up from the long dusty aisles of browsing punks and Led Zeppelin look-alikes, along with all manner of rock'n'roll and punk memorabilia.

And across in Queen St Butter Beats is a smaller version that incorporates film and TV memorabilia while down on Albert St mall Rocking Horse Records continues to trot along thirty years after it was regularly raided by police.

Arts and Culture

Most of Brisbane's cultural life lies immediately outside of the CBD although tucked away off the beaten shopping tracks are a few museums, galleries and historical buildings of note. And like any city Brisbane has its secret places – historical and curious sites and objects that few know about but are easily accessed by the public.


While not offering anything famous or earth shattering in the way of things to see, the CBD has plenty of interest points to dig up. The CBD-South Bank Walk is a good place to start, taking in Brisbane's prime heritage buildings incudig the city's only remnant convict building the Commissariat along George and William St.

Brisbane City Hall (currently being rescued from sinking), Anzac Square, City Botanic Gardens, the Brisbane Arcade and state of the art Brisbane Square Library are all worth a look as is the interior of the Treasury Hotel.

In addition dotted around the streets are a host of hidden treasures – tiny museums, sculptures, art works and things of historical significant, which are all revealed in the Brisbane City Secrets feature.


Only one skerrick of convict life has survived in the CBD proper, the penal settlement's store house Commissariat building, made from locally querried porphyry. The next oldest buildings, that date from pre-separation times are both churches - the tiny St Stephen's Chapel and the Ann St Presbyterian Church. Post separation Old Government House was built in the early 1860s as was the first wing of Parliament House, the old Government Printing Office and Brisbane's first market buildings (c1864) which are now home to Malt Bar and Dining, while the 1870's saw the GPO and Telegraph Office built. The building boom associated with the resources boom of the late 1880's saw the majority of Brisbane's grand Euro style colonial buildings erected, most of which are concentrated in George St, including the Treasury Building, the Queensland Club, The Mansions, the second wing of the Government Printing Office and the Old State Library. Other grand relics from this era include the old Customs House and the old NAB.

Also from the late 1800s through to the early 1900's, warehouses sprang up around the area from Queen St to the City Botanic Gardens, many of which, such as the Charlotte St Group and the home of Metro Arts that remain today and most of the ornate facades which overlook the Queen St Mall date from these times.

In the early 1900s the first high rises made their debut, including the old Family Services building and Perry House, which is home to the Royal Albert Hotel and Brisbane's prettiest place of worship, the Albert St Uniting Church came into being then.

The splendid Edwardian baroque Brisbane Arcade, the city's oldest surviving arcade is another star from the 1920s. For the rest of the 20th century, the only major public buildings of architectural note have been the Brisbane City Hall, built on swamp land in 1930 (and sinking slowly ever since) and the conceptual Neville Bonner building.

Of all the skyscrapers built, the six star green Santos building is an architectural masterpiece on all levels, worth a walk around the outside to watch the window shades change hue and pattern.


Dotted around the city are a handful of mini museums, each devoted to a niche piece of Brisbane's history and all worth a visit. Of these the most intriguing is perhaps the Macarthur Museum, which, as well as giving a fascinating insight into the huge impact World War II had on Brisbane, contains the intact wartime office of General Douglas Macarthur, who directed the Asia-Pacific war effort from here.

Otherwise there's a tiny telegraph museum at the GPO, the archives of convict life in the CBD's only remaining convict-built building the Commissariat, and exhibits of art and themed aspects of Brisbane's history at the Museum of Brisbane.

Or make a foray into the city's dark side at the Police Museum, with interactive exhibits and tales of Brisbane's most notorious crimes.


Despite having only a couple of fringe art studios – the galleries above Metro Arts, the tiny Box Copy space above Brother Espresso in Margaret St and the larger QUT Art Museum tucked away within the CBD - Brisbane has a quirky eclectic collection of street art sprinkled throughout its streets, gardens and building foyers.

From painted traffic signal boxes to much-loved Expo relics such as the sci-fi Forme del Mito at the base of Jacob's ladder, grand installations at office building entrances to tiny streetscape additions such as the native animals entwined on Adelaide St's iron street lamps, sculptures depicting the city's founders and wars to gargoyles on 19th century buildings, a walk through the streets and City Botanic Gardens uncovers an abundance of art pieces.

Look out for the first copy of the Moreton Bay Courier on the corner of Charlotte and George St and the sculpture garden, King Edward Park and the extraordinary Venetian glass mosaic in the Anzac Square War Memorial.

Robert Klippel (Tank St), Daphne Mayo (City Hall and Anzac Square), Barbara Heath (Neville Bonner building) and Leonard Shillam (Post Office Square) are some of the greats whose works still grace the city streets.

Performing Arts

From an era when Queen St was the city's opulent theatre district, today there are only two theatres left in town – the intimate fringe theatre at Metro Arts and the mid-size QUT Gardens Theatre, both of which are worth checking out for their full and varied programs.

The City Hall (when re-opened), Customs House and the city's churches (St John's, St Stephen's Cathedral and Albert St Uniting Church) regularly host splendid classical recitals, with most performances free.

Meanwhile, since the demise of the Festival Hall, the best venue in town to see a concert is the Riverstage at the City Botanic Gardens. On a scale that manages to combine rock concert energy with cabaret style intimacy, there's nothing quite like a night under the fruit bats and stars in this mangrove-fringed clearing down by the river.


The Brisbane City Council building's conceptual coloured boxes facing Raddacliff Place also happen to be the entrance to the City Square Library, its showcase multi-level state-of-the-art lending centre. Here can be found a brilliant children's corner, the lion's share of Brisbane history books, WiFi and more.


The City Botanic Gardens, which hem the CBD on its eastern side, are not just a sublime riverside retreat from the city streets, but as the site of the first convict farm, and then the first purpose built civic gardens, also a living piece of history, with their first plantings dating back 150 years.

The Roma St Parklands, the largest city subtropical garden in the southern hemisphere, are a spectacular maze of tiered horticultural precincts incorporating lakes, sculptures, a Spectacle garden, lawns, playground and walkways.

Dotted within the city itself are a few green squares of historical note, including Anzac Square which is an ode to the wars of the past two centuries, the formal Queens Garden and King Edward Park with a sculpture garden and relic bomb shelter.


On Wednesdays Raddacliff Place comes to life with the fantastic Jan Power's institution City Farmers Market, where shoppers can pick up all manner of fresh and gourmet produce and lunchers can snaffle up a mini meal for well under $10.

Every couple of months the fabulous Indie Twilight Markets take over King George Square, with the city's best array of handmade accessories, wares and clothing on offer and, on a much smaller scale the Bleeding Heart Gallery holds a Friday mini-mart of quirky handmade wares within its historical walls.

On Sundays, the Riverside Markets (which led a Brisbane market renaissance after the 1980s) are still going strong decades after their creation by market doyenne Peter Hackworth (who can still be spotted there regularly) and these are a mix of arts and craft, fashion and food in an ambient riverfront setting.


Whilst there's no particular activity or place designed for children in the CBD, the City Botanic Gardens has a playground, bike hire, duck feeding, sculptures and headspace while Roma St Parklands has a little train that choo choos its way through the gardens, playground and plenty of interesting nature to keep children happy.

The free City Loop bus is a great saviour for little legs and for, some, an entertainment unto itself.

For a peek into a past era of shopping glamour, the Brisbane Arcade's Keri Craig Emporium, with café and toy shop, is a novelty as is the Pancake Café in the old chapel (although the service and food can be hit or miss). Or head up historic Burnett Lane, learning history on the way and grab some German hotdogs at German Hut Imbuss.

The Brisbane City Square Library has a fab children's corner with a view and the MoB has the odd children's interactive display. When the City Hall opens, do as children for generations (and the Queen and The Beatles) have done and ride the lift to the top of the clock tower.

Otherwise combine a half day in the city with the reward of a post-shopping swim at South Bank afterwards.


It's not a dog's life in the city, with no water stops, doggie bags or amenities. Dogs are allowed leashed on the streets but are strictly banned from the pedestrian malls.


Four main hotel groups dominate the city accommodation stakes, the Hilton on the Queen St mall, the Marriott down on the riverside, the Sofitel sitting atop Central Station, and the Stamford Plaza in the pick of positions overlooking the river next to the City Botanic Gardens.

The jewel in the crown however would have to be the Treasury Hotel, the grand old heritage hotel overlooking a historical square at the top end of the city and close to South Bank, GOMA and the cultural centre.

Otherwise apartment hotels pick up the slack and make a great same-or-lower price alternative. Both Macarthur's Chambers and the Royal Albert Hotel are located in converted heritage buildings and the Oaks group has contemporary short-stay apartments in key location around town.

The only budget accommodation in the city can be found at Backpacker hostels such as The Base Backpackers Central or the string of hostels along Roma St on the city outskirts.

Getting Around

On Mon-Fri from 7am-5.50pm, there's The Loop, a free red city council bus which circumnavigates the city streets on a continuous loop, with options to connect to Spring Hill. See Translink.

CityCycle is a public bike scheme for those who care to brave the streets on two wheels, with bikes for hire stationed in prominent positions around the city heart. Either pre-pay on line or, casual users and visitors can utilize them via a daily access charge (BYO helmet).

Otherwise hire bikes and helmets from a human at Gardens Cycle Hire, which is stationed inside the main Alice St entrance to City Botanic Gardens.

Two pedestrian/cycle bridges, Kurilpa and Goodwill, and the Victoria Bridge link the city to South Bank, the art galleries, cultural centre and Streets Beach.

A combo of air-conditioned, underground bus terminals and street bus stops keep the city connected to everywhere in Brisbane and beyond. See Translink.


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