In the past, coastal Brisbane – Australia’s laid-back third-largest city, some 900km north of Sydney – was seen as a bit backward in comparison to its more sophisticated cousins, Melbourne and Sydney, but over the last decade it has transformed itself into one of Australia’s most livable and visitable cities. And with more temperate weather than other Australian state capitals, stacks of child-friendly things to see and do, and a definite cosmopolitan feel, “Bris-Vegas,” as it’s come to be known, is now a smart place to include on any Australia-exploring itinerary.
Here, freelance writer and mum-of-two, Kate Shannon, shares all her secrets of getting the very best of Brisbane with kids.
In a nutshell, I love taking my kids to Brisbane because:
- There are just so many great things to get up to.
- It’s easy to get around.
- There’s drive-through coffee, heaven for parents with young kiddos.
- The weather is glorious, most of the time.
- Did I mention there’s drive-through coffee…?
Brisbane comprises a whole host of individual neighbourhoods – known as “urban villages” or “inner-city suburbs” – bisected by the bends of the Brisbane River. At the city’s core is the CBD (Central Business District), where Queen Street Mall provides the central retail experience and the City Botanic Gardens, along the river’s edge, the greenery. Across the river, to the south-west, South Bank and West End beyond it (see SEE&DO below) both have lots to offer visitors, South Bank being home to Brisbane’s big museums, and West End providing the edgy, artsy feel. North of the CBC, Fortitude Valley is a hub of clubs, bars, and live music venues (hence one to explore if you spring for a sitter), and to its east, New Farm is a hip area, complete with the wonderful New Farm Park (see SEE&DO below).
If you’ve more time in Brisbane, other neighbourhoods worth exploring include cute Paddington and Rosalie and Milton, all west of the CBD, en route to Mount Coot-tha – home to the beautiful Brisbane Botanic Gardens and the Mount Coot-tha Forest, with fabulous views from its scenic drive (go early to avoid the crowds, or late to see the city lights).
Alternatively, venture out east to the Bayside areas of Wynnum, Manly and Shorncliff, hugging Moreton Bay and home to the charming 1930s-built Wynnum Wading Pool and Waterpark. Finally, don’t forget to make it down south to the district of Woolloongabba, home to terrific antique stores (see SHOP below) and the Brisbane Cricket Ground.
SEE & DO
As the capital of Queensland – often referred to as the “Sunshine State” – Brisbane offers lots of outdoorsy things for the kids to do, as well as a good list of cultural activities, from the Brisbane Powerhouse to the jewel in the city’s cultural crown, the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA).
In my book, the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) is the best thing to do with children in Brisbane. Aside from the fantastic touring exhibitions that GoMa attracts – think Warhol, Picasso and the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art – it has a bunch of kids’ spaces, including a permanent Kids’ Art Centre, and other amazing interactive activities relating to the current exhibitions featured at GoMA.
On the occasions we’ve visited, the kids have had their photos taken in front of interactive backgrounds, created their own wonderland landscape on computers, made pirate masks to take home, built trains in a room full of train tracks, and run wild in the expanse of lawn outside the gallery, which also houses a great café with pencils and paper at the little ones’ disposal. The GoMA shop is also worth a look for its range of tempting books, journals, knick-knacks and child-sized stuff – just don’t expect to get out of there without buying something!
I don’t know what it is about dinosaurs but my kids love them, so whenever I’m in Brisbane a trip to the Queensland Museum is always on the cards. The museum has a permanent Playasaurus Place area, complete with life-size dinosaurs. Downstairs is the Sciencentre where curious kids will love the more than 100 hands-on, interactive exhibits that delve into life science and technology in fun, thought-provoking ways.
I’m declaring New Farm Park the best park in Brisbane. There is a huge playground with a range of activities for all ages, including swings, round-about thingies and a very cool wooden adventure area, which weaves through the boughs and trunks of gigantic old fig trees. Generally there’s a coffee van parked right out the front of the playground, doing a roaring trade with mums and dads in need of a pick-me-up. The park itself has lots of green space to run and play in, and a delightful rose garden and view of the city. Right next to the park is the Brisbane Powerhouse performance space, which often has kids’ performances and events scheduled. Either way, it’s worth a walk along the river and through the Powerhouse, which has a great bar and restaurant attached.
New Farm Park is centrally located and there’s plenty of parking, or alternatively you can catch the CityCat boat (see Ride the CityCat below), which has a stop right beside the park.
The QSO holds regular events to introduce kids to the wonders of orchestral music and instruments. The performances are written for toddlers to school-aged children, and feature favourite story book characters, nursery rhymes and well-known songs to get everyone singing. Importantly the performances are short to ensure tempers aren’t frayed too much due to tiredness.
The Queensland Symphony Orchestra is based at South Bank, a fabulous area of shops, green spaces, restaurants, a water-play park and man-made beach. Explore the South Bank dining scene on Little Stanley, drop a coin in the Nepalese Pagoda’s wishing pond, eat your lunch al fresco at Picnic Island, let off some steam at one of several playgrounds, get a 360 degree bird’s eye view of the city from the Wheel of Brisbane, or take a snap of the kids beneath The Arbour, a beautiful bougainvillea tunnel. Check out upcoming family activities (think story-times and origami workshops). It’s all accessible from a CityCat boat stop (see Ride the CityCat, below), just beside the park; a map of the whole area is available here.
Located within sight of the CBD (Central Business District), the West End district makes for a great day out with the kids. The area brings together a mix of cultures and people and, despite its recent move towards gentrification, has an authenticity that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. Think old Greek family restaurants and longstanding Vietnamese grocers, mixed with trendy bars, second-hand bookstores and organic cafés.
Start at the West End Library. Located in a tiny old building up one end of Boundary Road – the main West End drag – the library staff conduct regular story and song sessions for babies and kids up to 5 years old.
A short stroll from here is Avid Reader store, a hub for good books, literary journals and magazines with a substantial kids’ section. Avid also has a great café and outdoor garden, perfect to sit down and enjoy a chino while your kids play or read their new book. The café also has delicious blueberry smoothies and cupcakes, both of which appealed to my toddler no end.
The Davies Park Market is another great family destination. Positioned on the banks of the river in a park filled with fig trees, the market makes a good breakfast option with its fresh fruit and veggies, sourdough bakery items and cheeses. It’s on every Saturday from 6am to 2pm, come rain or – more likely – shine.
Before your visit, keep an eye on the website of the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts. The ‘Judy,’ located in Fortitude Valley, is home to a unique blend of cabaret, circus, dance, music and contemporary performance and they often have exciting productions that school-age kids and adults will enjoy.
A ride on a CityCat catamaran is an adventure in itself (also see GETTING AROUND below). The ‘Cats’ scoot along Brisbane River from Hamilton on the northside, through to Southbank and the city, and then out to the university in St Lucia. It’s a unique way to see the city from one end to another, and there are many sights on the way that are great to show the kids.
The ‘Cat’ stops at New Farm Park where you can access the Powerhouse (see New Farm Park in SEE & DO above), markets and the park itself, as well as being a great vantage point to Fortitude Valley. Around a few bends lies South Bank (see SEE & DO above), another worthwhile stop for kid-friendly activities.
Other notable stops include Riverside where you can walk along the river and through the relaxing City Botanic Gardens; and Northshore allowing access to the Portside complex which has a Dendy Cinema, restaurant strip and park. During the school holidays, Northshore also runs various creative activities for kids including kite making and flying, and circus tricks.
Punthill Brisbane Offering a supremely central city location and well-appointed, spacious apartments (though the bathrooms can be on the small-side) Punthill is a great value option for families. There’s pool access and the staff are wonderfully helpful.
Inchcolm Hotel Some kids I know would want to stay at this elegant heritage hotel for the old-fashioned cage elevator alone, but it also offers renovated rooms, a rooftop pool and a handy location across the road from Central station. They have two-bedroom suites available.
Emporium Hotel For something more on the luxe side, experience a night or two at the glitzy Emporium Hotel, where the furnishings are drenched in rock star sex appeal. All rooms come with kitchenette and laundry. Expect incredible service and, despite the flashy surrounds, children are very welcome.
Toowong Villas Serviced apartments of up to three bedrooms make for a stretch-outable family stay at this well-liked place, with two good pools, easily accessible from the CBD.
If you’re planning on being in the city more than a night or two, it’s worthwhile checking out Airbnb, which has some cute central Brisbane apartments on offer, for rental by owner.
Farmers Markets Brisbane has a variety of lovely weekend markets, which offer lots of good local produce and food for kids and adults to gobble up. Our favourites are the Jan Powers Farmers Markets at five locations in town, including just in front of the Powerhouse (see SEE & DO above) in New Farm. They’re great for local, fresh produce and are a good choice for breakfast out with little ones, with stall after stall of delicacies including sweet Stanthorpe apples, delicious Japanese dumplings, locally roasted coffee for parents, and all manner of fresh breads.
Eat Street Markets Head to Hamilton Wharf on a Friday or Saturday night (4-10pm) where there’s a fabulous food market run out of a series of mini shipping containers. It’s a big enclosed area, so kids can scoot around trying all the different dishes. There’s also live music and good craft beers for the grownups.
Dumplings If you loved the dumplings at the markets make sure to eat at dumpling stall offshoots Happy Little Dumplings or Steamed (various locations), where they make these little packages of deliciousness right in front of you. The menus are extensive with dumplings ranging from the traditional pork to tasty vegan creations.
Chouquette If you’re having a play at New Farm Park, pick up some extra sustenance a few blocks away here, where you can indulge in the flaky baked treats of this impressive French pâtisserie.
The Bun Mobile Bris-Vegas is as crazy for mobile food vans as its southern sister states. Facebook will tell you where it is, proffering its 14 types of hand-crafted steamed buns. It moves around from West End to Kangaroo Point cliffs and you’ll find everything from pork buns and chicken buns (with coleslaw and mint) to dessert buns on the menu.
G-Doggz Because a gourmet (or slightly exotic) take on fast food is always fun, check out this recently-opened place in Fortitude Valley for hot dogs such as Chow Chow (pork sausage with wasabi mayo and kim chi) and the Frenchie (sausage with truffle mayo, spring onion and smoked cheese). Little fans of Japan’s Mos burger chain can tuck into original Mos fare – the teriyaki burger, rice burger, and heaps of vegetarian options like veggie kinpira and oyster mushroom burgers – at two Brisbane locations.
Flamingo Cafe Pull up a stool on the astroturf and tuck into a hearty meal at this colourful café in Fortitude Valley. Mac’n’cheese, malted milkshakes, super sangers and an impressive array of juices can be found at this popular lane-way cafe.
Jocelyn’s Provisions To pick up something special for a bite in the park, stop in here, famous for its cakes and pastries. Take out roast vegetable focaccia, pastel-coloured cupcakes, and some gooey, crunchy slices of white chocolate rocky-road. Yum!
The Cupcake Parlour If you’re in the mood to treat the little ones, this is the place to do it. A myriad of colourful cupcakes (including vegan and gluten-free options) in a cute West End location.
Another favourite place of mine to eat with the kids in Brisbane is Wagamama ramen bar. There are restaurants in the city and in Fortitude Valley and the food is fresh, healthy and delicious. Dishes from the sophisticated children’s menu come free when you purchase your own main meal. They also have high chairs and colouring-in pens.
If you find yourself in Woolloongabba for the antiques (see SHOP below), stop off for brunch at the Crosstown Eating House, with such yummies as egg on toast with watercress, potato and feta hash cakes, and halloumi tacos. Very friendly staff, a sweet heritage location, and a really nice courtyard, just perfect for a mellow family morning.
For great vintage and knick-knack shopping, trawl the streets of West End, where you’ll find such gems as Nook, chock-full of cute treasures, Avid Reader, a terrific book shop (with coffee!) with great children’s and young adults sections, and The Happy Cabin, a hipstery store of still more little treasures, plus cool clothing for the parents, with a great new little coffee place – ‘Nostalgia Haus’ – tucked into its garage, to pick-you-up as you go.
Paddington Antique Centre No, no, not those boring old antiques! That’s what you need to tell the kids when you lead them into this wonderful treasure trove. This enormous former theatre houses over 50 local collectors trade vintage finds from wacky ornaments and rare books to jewellery, collectables, homewares, dress-ups and artwork and all the war memorabilia you can handle.
Street performers and live music makes for a festive atmosphere at Kelvin Grove Markets, which are held every Saturday morning until 1pm. The streets are lined with stalls selling yummy, farm fresh produce, crafty goods and vintage clothing.
For etsy enthusiasts big and small, a trip to a BrisStyle Indie Market is well worth it. Held monthly (with a second monthly Twilight market running from 5pm to 9pm), they’re a great way to support local artisans and crafters.
If you happen to be in the neighbourhood, Reverse Garbage housed in a warehouse in Woolloongabba is a great place to get an eco-slant on your shopping habits. Vending goods recycled from junk on its way to the landfill, this place also runs a variety of classes and courses for children: they can make a spaceship, a hat, or a cuddly toy from repurposed garbage, while you take a quick tour through the fabulous Woolloongabba Antique Centre (Brisbane’s largest) not far away.
Biome Eco-friendly children’s products are for sale at this great place, which also stocks some very clever little gizmos, including Para-kito natural mosquito protection: wristbands refillable with essential oils – clever!
Funky Fabrix If you’re looking for cool fabrics for children’s clothes, don’t miss this place, packed with plenty of cute and retro fabric designs, with the added bonus of them all being printed on organic, natural fabrics.
- Queen Street Mall in favour of the interesting buildings and parks in the backstreets.
- The Brisbane Show – otherwise known as the Ekka – is on for nine days in early August. There’s showbags (an Australian phenomenon: bags of goodies for sale at Australia’s big annual shows) and animal petting but it’s also crazy busy, and obscenely difficult to park. If you do want to check it out, head to the CBD side (the showgrounds are divided in two by a street) which is where you’ll find the local produce and interactive stuff where people can learn all about Queensland producers.
TIPS FOR BABIES AND TODDLERS
As an exceptionally easy city for all ages of children, the only baby/toddler-specific advice for Brisbane is to take full advantage of the wonders of drive-through coffee on offer in the city; perfect for when you’ve got a sleeping babe in the back. Di Bella in Bowen Hills on the North side does a delicious brew, as well as sweet treats.
Merlo Coffee’s factory on the corner of McLachlan and James Streets offers a drive-through service, as does the Paddington outlet on Latrobe Terrace.
OUT OF TOWN
Suttons Beach, Redcliffe
A 20 minute drive from the north side of town and a beautiful spot for a swim, fish and chips and ice cream with the kids. There’s also a great fort-style playground overlooking the water.
Yatala Drive-In Theatre, Stapylton
Only 40 minutes south of Brisbane and you’re back in the early 70s at this drive-in cinema where children with hot dogs ran between cars, teenagers on dates get cosy behind the dashboard, and families camp out in lawn chairs. Popular kids flicks start the show at 7pm each night before moving into adult blockbusters.
How can you resist? Get up close and personal with Australia’s native animal-life at this great sanctuary (the oldest koala sanctuary in the world), about 13km from Brisbane city centre. Here your little naturalists can feed the kangaroos, cuddle a koala (or a python, if they’re so inclined) and learn about indigenous species at frequent demos and displays. Family tickets for 2 adults + 3 children are AU$80; children under 3 are free.
Springbrook National Park
Further afield, 98km south of Brisbane (about an hour’s drive), you’ll find the weird and wonderful world of Springbrook, where such storybook beings as glow-worms, glow-in-the-dark mushrooms and strangler figs abound. There are lots of easy short walks to stunning look-out points, many taking in waterfalls, or you can opt to visit in the evening to take in the sweet little glow worms.
A 75-minute ferry ride from the city, Moreton comprises – incredibly – the world’s third largest sand island, and together with its pristine World Heritage-listed neighbour, Fraser Island, is the biggest sand structure in the world. Come here for the day, to swim, snorkel, hike, walk, whale-watch and sand-toboggan. Since roads are unsealed, you can either take a tour, or rent a 4WD vehicle and bring it over on the ferry. Pack a picnic, since the food options on the island are largely underwhelming.
If you decide to stick around for a couple of days, the large Tangalooma Resort offers plenty of family-friend accommodation, dozens of sand-and-sea based activities, and the unique opportunity to feed wild bottle-nose dolphins.
A stunning place for a picnic, less than half an hour from from downtown Brisbane, there are Scenic Drives to occupy you whilst the little ones snooze in the back, and the South East Queensland Wildlife Centre at Walkabout Creek, where you can peek into the world of the elusive platypus, when they wake up.
WHEN TO GO
Summers can be searing (think 29 degrees Celsius) and winter is colder than you think (temperatures can dip as low as 10 degrees Celsius), so heading to Brisbane in either autumn (March/April) or spring (September/October) are more pleasant options.
Many travellers visit as part of a great Australian East Coast odyssey – from Melbourne or Sydney down south, on up to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef further north up the coast. If this is you, you may already have a rental car or campervan at your disposal. I always organise my own wheels while in Brisbane with kids for ease of getaway, and because they’re good car sleepers which is always handy after a big day of fun.
If you’re carless, however, don’t fear: Brisbane has great public transport. Buses are cheap and frequent; the main stop for local lines is the Queen St Mall bus station, while there are lots of bus stops on Adelaide Street, between Edward and George Sts. There’s also ‘The Loop’, a frequent, useful and free-of-charge service that circles the city centre.
Alongside the CityCat catamarans (see SEE above), there are plenty of other ferries nipping to and fro across the Brisbane River. Take a look here to see a map and descriptions of all the various routes. For children, there’s probably no funner way of getting about than on the water itself.