Brisbane: A versatile vibe

By Anna Harrison

Brisbane is so much more than skimpy swimsuits and bogans, writes Anna Harrison.
The Brisbane letters at South Bank. Photo / Anna Harrison
The Brisbane letters at South Bank. Photo / Anna Harrison

Brisbane is the perfect place to test out the togs-undies theory.

You remember the ad: it was for icecream and as the man walked away from the beach, there came a point where his Speedos crossed into Completely Inappropriate territory.

At the inner-city Streets Beach I come across locals lounging around in their togs in front of high-rise office blocks and the motorway snaking along the riverside.

Thankfully there are no Speedos in sight. And almost everyone sticks to the obvious rule - within eyesight of the water - before the skimpy uniform changes to more city-
appropriate wear.

Brisbane feels like a large-scale seaside town with its beach, icecream kiosks and markets selling hipster jewellery and tie-dyed dresses.

And of course there's the slight bogan factor - behind the beach is the Plough Inn, a pub built in 1885, that is today full of men wearing stubbies drinking cheap beer with 90s anthem Wonderwall blaring.

But I soon discover this is only a pocket of Brisbane - the city is much larger and more vibrant than I realised.

My guide for the afternoon is Brisbane greeter Rob. He used to be a cop but now keeps up his civic duty by volunteering to show visitors around.

Rob is raring to go in his wide-brimmed hat and sensible walking shoes and, as we set off along the waterfront, he tells me how the city has grown up in the past 30 years.

Back in the 70s, it was the poster city for the suburban dream, he tells me. But everything changed in 1988 when Brisbane hosted World Expo.

An inexplicable ban on outdoor dining was lifted and people flocked to South Bank to enjoy a world of culture, entertainment and cuisine that went far beyond meat and three veg.

The government wanted to turn the area into office blocks when Expo 88 ended but locals protested so it was turned into the Parklands, a green expanse along the river featuring the Streets Beach, a Rainforest area and the 1km Arbour, a walkway with steel beams like elephant ribs, draped in the purple blooms of bougainvillea.

Parklands is a wonderfully relaxed place and everyone seems to be in a good mood.

The legacy of World Expo can be seen, too, in the line of restaurants along the waterfront offering everything from Japanese to Lebanese food.

Tables spill out on to the pavement and there's a buzz in the air with people chatting and sipping wine, enjoying the balmy breeze coming from the river.

I make a mental note to return for dinner but first Rob and I head up behind the Parklands to the city's arts precinct.

A string of cultural institutions include the state library, a museum and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. It's a sprawling complex with four venues and performances every night, including big-name ones like Les Miserables.

And right at the end, we find the jewel in the crown - the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art. The modern architecture and grassy spaces out front make these buildings pieces of art in their own right.

I pop my head in and spot some mythological creatures that fire the imagination; I add a visit to my mental list.

Art isn't confined to galleries in this city. Directly outside, Rob shows me the huge black elephant upended on its trunk, a work by Kiwi artist Michael Parekowhai.

And as we cross to the CBD, Rob points out plenty of public art - the giant spheres
at the top of George St; a statue of King George V triumphant on his horse outside City Hall; sculptures of drovers around a billy on Ash St and of fallen soldiers at the Anzac memorial.

I lose count of the historic buildings we pop into and Rob points out the more modern ones too - there's one he calls the Batman building which looks like it's straight out of Gotham City and then there's the Santos oil company building with yellow panels on the side like bulldozer blades.

After the official tour, I'm not quite satisfied.

Art inside the Powerhouse above the lift, Brisbane. Photo / Anna Harrison
Art inside the Powerhouse above the lift, Brisbane. Photo / Anna Harrison

I had heard that Brisbane has a burgeoning street art scene but I suspect that's not my former cop's area of expertise.

So after we part ways, I embark on my own tour, keeping my eyes peeled for interesting murals.

Down Burnett Lane I hit the jackpot.

On a brick wall is a painting of that moment at the 1968 Olympics when two American runners raised gloved fists in a black power salute.

Further along, the message "Great minds like a think" is emblazoned across the back
of two buildings.

And then there's the curious animal cut-outs.

This is the work of the Blu Art Xinja (pronounced ninja), a Banksy-style artist in a Lycra suit who sticks blue shapes in impossible-to-get-to places.

They're all over the city but Burnett Lane has a wall full of them so now I know what to look for.

The next day, my search for a more alternative scene takes me down the river to the Powerhouse.

It's an imposing brick building on the water's edge at New Farm that used
to supply electricity for the city's tram network.

As trams were replaced by buses, it fell into disuse and ended up being a home for squatters.

Some of the graffiti spray-painted then still adorns the brick walls - a slogan near the ceiling reading "I want to get high" makes me smile.

The Powerhouse has been revamped with a cafe and bar and various performance spaces for musicians, comedians and theatre companies.

And it's filled with hidden art piece surprises - an electric pink chair in one corner and a stencilled intruder above the lift.

It's an incredible building to explore even if you're not going to a show.

Outside, the Jan Powers Farmers Market features stalls selling everything from fresh veges to cinnamon doughnuts.

I'm keen to sample the produce but it's hard to move in the heat and my coffee doesn't help so I collapse in a shady spot in the park behind the markets and try to catch a breeze
from the river.

Back in the city, it's time for a bit of shopping.

James St in Fortitude Valley seems to be the Ponsonby Rd of Brisbane featuring boutique stores from Australian designers and upmarket cafes tucked down narrow lanes.

The air-conditioning draws me from one shop to the next until I find refuge in the cool, dark interior of Gerard's Bistro.

Its sophisticated Middle Eastern-inspired food and a glass of Australian red revive me enough to keep going.

Then, after a tough afternoon of shopping and battling the heat, it's back to South Bank to find an outdoor table with a view.

I melt into a chair and, with a glass in hand, spend the rest of the afternoon watching the giant Wheel of Brisbane turning lazily, the evening sun glinting off the windows and gilding the river.

It's the perfect relaxed city vibe.

10 must-visit bars in Brisbane

1. The Gresham (Australia's best bar 2015)

2. Brooklyn Standard (best live music venue 2015)

3. Eleven Rooftop Bar (pictured)

4. Lefty's Old Time Music Hall

5. John Mills Himself (focus on local produce)

6. Riverbar (fun, relaxed corporate vibe)

7. Coppa Spuntino (prosciutto and vino)

8. Anise (22-seater bar with amazing wine list)

9. At Sixes & Sevens

10. Canvas

- Spy.co.nz

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