She first visited the Queensland capital 30 years ago, but Dionne Christian only now realises what she's been missing

Walking over a bridge called Goodwill with the sun on my back and a visit to one of Australasia's most exciting art museums ahead, not even a sign warning of dive-bombing territorial birds — including crows and magpies — was going to rain on this particular parade.

Then, as I crossed over the Brisbane River and started to walk leisurely along the city's stunning South Bank, it hit me harder than a mad magpie in full flight: the first time I was here was 30 years ago. A whole three decades; more than half my life.

That was with a group of school friends. None of us had mortgages, kids or credit cards with limits much over $500; we'd never flown overseas without Mum and Dad nor had we eaten buckets of prawns with cold beers on rooftop terraces or got lost in department stores so big that we couldn't find an exit.

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We had an idea there was a world outside suburban Pakuranga, which brought us to Brisbane in the first place (along with a lot of organisation by our friend, Kevin). We joined 15,760,000 other tourists who came to see World Expo 88 — and learn about "Leisure in the Age of Technology" — with 100 pavilions from 52 governments including New Zealand. Talk about getting a taste of where we might want to head next!

South Bank, originally a meeting place for traditional landowners the Turrbal and Yuggera people, was Brisbane's first commercial district but flooding in 1893 saw the city fathers shift the CBD to higher ground on the opposite side of the river. As the new CBD soared, South Bank's fortunes plummeted — until the 1970s when parkland along the river bank was reclaimed and Queensland's visual and performing arts hub started development.
By 1988, South Bank, the World Expo site, also boasted the Queensland Cultural Centre complete with the Queensland Art Gallery, the Queensland Museum, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre and the State Library of Queensland. Not that we knew it; we were there for sun, surf, shopping and late nights that turned into early mornings.
Brisbane hasn't forgotten Expo 88; it's marking the 30th anniversary with an extended self-guided World Expo 88 Public Art Trail, with sculptures and artworks — many have been restored or moved — scattered throughout the city.

Meanwhile, its residents are probably marking the anniversary by thanking their lucky stars that someone had a bit of foresight and didn't turn South Bank into a secondary commercial centre as was planned. Instead, they got 17 hectares of some of the best parkland, cafes and restaurants, pagodas, human-made beaches, sculpture parks and cultural institutions that you'll find in a modern city anywhere in the world.

The already impressive cultural facilities were added to in 2006 with the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) where I was lucky enough to see one of the best exhibitions I've seen in a long time, Melbourne-based artist Patricia Piccinini. Her work took over pretty much the entire ground floor of GOMA and is the institution's largest exhibition of an Australian artist's work.

That night, I was back — outside, anyway — to watch US artist James Turrell's Night Life which lights up the gallery from within and, according to its PR, "realises the architects' vision of animating the building's facade at night".

To see art displayed so confidently in an expansive cultural precinct is a sure sign of a city's cultural coming-of-age. Many regard Melbourne and Sydney as the cultural hearts of Australia, but I reckon Brisbane gives them a run for their money.

In a little over a month, Brisbane will turn it on and up for its annual festival with South Bank one of the main hubs for a celebration of arts and culture that gets bigger every year. In 2018, there are close to 600 performances — 100 of them free — of almost 70 shows across 17 venues.

South Bank is the hub of the Brisbane Festival: anywhere with a man made beach has to be good.
South Bank is the hub of the Brisbane Festival: anywhere with a man made beach has to be good.

If you want further proof of how much Brisbane has matured, consider that eight new works — many of them large-scale — get their premiere performances at the festival which is now so big, it's divided into three distinct acts — one for each week of its 22 days.

It opens with River of Light, The Story of Maiwar — an art-meets-technology water fountain, light and laser show which pays homage to the Brisbane River. Then it's straight into Act One, which revolves round ideas of home, memory and gender. The signature event looks to be Memorial, a theatrical epic bringing life to the 215 dead soldiers in Homer's Iliad. It stars legendary Australian actress Helen Morse and a community chorus of 215.

Of especial significance is Qweens on King, an inner-city garden party in Bowen Hills where eight real-life same-sex couples will tie the knot in a public ceremony. This neighbourhood, in Fortitude Valley, registered the highest YES vote in the marriage equality postal survey in Queensland, so it's an appropriate place for a public celebration.

Act Two casts the individual against the giant forces of nature, fate and society.

Legendary Australian actress Helen Morse stars in the moving Memorial, part of the Brisbane Festival 2018.
Legendary Australian actress Helen Morse stars in the moving Memorial, part of the Brisbane Festival 2018.

Highlights include two world premieres, En Masse by Brisbane's internationally renowned Circa in one of their biggest shows yet, and Dust by Australia's leading company for dance innovation, Dancenorth.

Act Three, the festival's final week, timed to coincide with Queensland school holidays, is about fun, family and thrills with the children's opera The Owl & The Pussycat and the world premiere of Man With The Iron Neck from leading physical theatre company, Legs on the Wall.

It comes to an explosive finish with one of Australia's biggest fireworks displays, Sunsuper Riverfire complete with aerobatics from the Royal Australian Airforce. One of the best vantage points? South Bank. One of the best things about being 30 years older?

Three decades of hard work mean being able to afford a hotel room with a view of it all — and champagne with the prawns.

BRISBANE FESTIVAL 5 TOP PICKS

1 Culture vultures:

Looking for epic theatre, grand orchestral performances or opera? Memorial, in week one, is a haunting, uplifting performance from battlefield to meadow to starlit sky where Homer's Iliad brings into focus the impact of war on the thousands caught up in armed conflict. That's September 7-9 at the Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre. Week two offers the Benjamin Britten masterpiece

Peter Grimes

, a visceral portrayal of a small town caught up in rumour and mob rule. That's at the QPAC Concert Hall, September 20-22.

2 Date night: Okay, flying to a foreign city might be a bit extravagant for a date but if you've got a special anniversary coming up, it could be just the ticket.

The always raunchy Strut & Fret stage Life The Show — "a joyous celebration of what it means to be human" — at the Spiegeltent throughout the festival.

3 Something different: Looking for something unusual, off-beat or just plain wacky? The Brisbane Festival has it in spades. Try Umami Mermaids, in between puppet theatre and gothic feminist fairy-tale with mutant mermaids thrown in for good measure. That's at the La Boite Studio, Theatre Republic, September 18-22. Then there's Mother's Ruin, a cabaret about gin, at Theatre Republic, September 18-22 or the spookiest of the lot, Seance, in pitch-black 40-foot shipping container with 3D audio and sensory deprivation at Treasury Brisbane Arcadia throughout the festival.

4 Music lovers: Whether you're keen on classical or alternative rock, there'll be a concert to suit you, given music forms the backbone of the Brisbane Festival.

Symphony for Me is like an orchestral mix tape — remember those? — with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra playing music chosen by members of the public. That's a one-night-only gig at QPAC's Concert Hall on September 15. The festival goes out with a roar when Australia's biggest rock band, Violent Soho, joins a host of other similarly loud bands for the free Riverstage concert on September 29.

5 Take the kids: Any kids' show called The I Hate Children Children's Show Rock and Roll Spectacular has to be worth a look. This comes complete with the meanest magician in the world, a live rock band and a helping of comedy. It's at the Spiegeltent, September 25-28. If you're looking for something more traditional, there's an Owl and the Pussycat opera at QPAC's Cremorne Theatre from September 26-29. And don't forget the light shows and fireworks that bookend the festival.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Qantas

flies from Auckland to Brisbane, with Economy Class, return fares starting from $588.

DETAILS
This year's Brisbane Festival runs from September 5-26.