South Bank guide: Everything you need to know about Brisbane’s cultural heart
Sitting oh so pretty on the southern banks of the Brisbane River, the premier precinct is a year-round source of inspiration, home to myriad cultural ingredients – from Australia’s largest gallery of modern and contemporary art to its world-class dining scene.
But with over 17 acres to cover, we wouldn’t blame you if your head was spinning trying to plan the ultimate South Bank staycation.
So to help you out, we’ve created this guide laying out what to see, what to eat, and where to stay so you can make the most of this cultural locale.
Things to see and do
Follow the art trail
Creativity and imagination come to life at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA). Standing on either side of the State Library, the twin galleries focus on the contemporary art of Australia, Asia and the Pacific, offering distinct yet complementary experiences that, together, cover a wide range of artistic moods.
Start your trail at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), where the scene takes on more of a traditional sense of contemplative admiration – we’re talking portraits, paintings and artefacts spanning Indigenous Australian to European and Asian influence.
Over at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) things get delightfully weird and wonderful, even more so this year celebrating its 10-year anniversary with the headlining exhibition Sugar Spin. Where else can you stroke a furry wall, play with thousands of Lego, gaze at sleeping giants, and spiral down a slide from the top to the bottom gallery floor?
The thrills don’t stop there – and Marvel fans will be glad to hear it – as characters like Thor, Captain America and Iron Man come to life in the first major Marvel-related exhibition to be staged in Australia (and the largest ever presented in an art museum). This experience will also extend into GOMA’s Australian Cinémathèque with a retrospective of the official Marvel Cinematic Universe of films.
Tip: While most exhibitions are free, if you want to delve even further you can hop on a guided tour of gallery highlights at no extra cost (check their website for details).
Catch a show
If theatre, dance and music is more your cultural-jam, then you’ll want to book ahead for a show at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC).
Home to the Queensland Theatre Company, Queensland Ballet, Queensland Symphony Orchestra, and Opera Queensland, the centre features a year-round menu of productions from circus shows to broadway performances, including the upcoming 60th-anniversary celebration of My Fair Lady, directed by none other than the queen of musicals herself, Julie Andrews.
Across the road at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, the action continues with a line-up of entertainment from kids shows and musical performances to informative expos and festivals, including the annual Mind, Body and Spirit Festival (17-19 March) and Madman Anime extravaganza (10-11 June).
A day at the museum(s)
Sea-loving folk won’t want to miss a trip to the Queensland Maritime Museum under the Goodwill Bridge. While slight in size, she’s packin’ a hearty collection of vessels and nautical equipment worthy of a solid few hours.
Suss out the conditions of crew mates aboard the WWII HMAS Diamantina or put yourself in Jessica Watson’s (sailing) shoes exploring Ella’s Pink Lady, which she commandeered in her voyage as the youngest person to sail solo and unassisted around the world.
On South Bank’s north side you’ll find the Queensland Museum and Sciencentre, and trust us when we say you’ll want to set aside a full-day for this bad boy. Covering four levels of collections and exhibitions, you’ll be a walking encyclopaedia by the time you’ve finished schooling up on fossils and animals in the Discovery Centre or getting stuck into interactive experiments in the Sciencentre.
Speaking of experiments, the last few months have allowed visitors to step inside one of the world’s greatest, the Hadron Collider (the largest and most powerful particle accelerator on the planet). Although the clock is ticking on this exhibition fresh outta London, you’ve still got until 25 April to squeeze in the 101 on the science behind it.
World Science Festival Brisbane
South Bank can’t stop/won’t stop the science train, and we couldn’t be more thrilled.
After being held outside of its native New York for the first time last year, the World Science Festival returns to Brisbane in 2017 with a one-up on last year’s festivities, kicking off with an exclusive live performance of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi wonder 2001: A Space Odyssey, accompanied by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra.
As well as the slime and bubbles set to overtake South Bank Parklands during Street Science!, we can once again expect a seriously epic line-up of chats and panel discussions with leading scientists and thought leaders from around the world (including Australia’s own Dr Karl Kruszelnicki).
Check out some more highlights of this year’s program and tips on getting prepped with this guide.
State Library of Queensland
Not only a decent WiFi spot, the State Library of Queensland is hotbed of literary and cultural goodness, housing a mammoth collection of journals, magazines, manuscripts and archives, rare books, music, photographs, films and videos, with a large chunk covering Queensland’s heritage, history, art, design and science.
But they also hold a range of exhibitions, discussions, workshops and short courses for kids and adults either for free or at minimal cost! So do yourself a favour and check out their upcoming calendar on their website.
South Bank strollin’
More than just some pretty greenery, the South Bank Parklands covers 17 acres of riverfront land hiding a few cultural twists of its own.
Nature lovers will relish the change of pace along the Rainforest Walk, starting at the green behind South Bank Piazza. Winding along raised wooden walkways through a man-made canopy of tropical and sub-tropical plants, the northern entry point also marks the home of the enchanting Nepalese Peace Pagoda.
Featuring 80 tonnes of intricate hand-carved timber crafted by more than 160 Nepalese families over two years, the three-storey tiered tower is one of only three Nepalese peace pagodas in the world to be located outside of Nepal. It was originally brought to Brisbane as the Kingdom of Nepal’s contribution to World Expo 88.
A little further up you’ll find an eccentric picnic space in the Liana Lounge. Architecturally inspired by Australia’s native liana, the chair structure mimics nature’s long-stemmed woody vines in a playful burst of bright green, all made sustainably from precast concrete and recycled plastic. #bigkudos
And of course, don’t leave without a token snap in front of the giant BRISBANE sign on the foreshore in front of QPAC, tagging #thisisqueensland so we can see your Brisbane love!
To market to market
For those who’ve got retail therapy on their minds, South Bank is a hub for finding one-off goods and unique buys thanks to its buzzing market scene.
Every Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday, the South Bank Collective Markets fill the Stanley Street Plaza with stalls of arts, crafts, collectables and homemade treats (I once found a stunning portrait of a sloth and it’s now one of my most treasured possessions #slothsrule).
If fashion, jewellery, and homewares are more your target, make sure you catch the Young Designers Markets held on the first Sunday of the every month, featuring cutting-edge creations from local designers.
You get free stuff, you get free stuff, everyone gets free stuff
South Bank is like the Oprah of travel destinations, and year-round you can find her dishing out freebies like no one’s business.
Ditch the gym for the leafy lawns and saltwater goodness of Little Stanley Street, where the Medibank Feel Good Program will have you working up a sweat with free outdoor fitness classes (including yoga, pilates and high-energy workouts) from now until 6 May.
If cardio isn’t your thing, soak up the ‘laxed vibes and live music at City Sounds every Saturday evening, where local and touring musicians will be crooning sweet tunes on the parkland lawns.
Back it up with River Quay’s weekly Sunday Sessions and finish your weekend on the right note with more live music, lawn games and funky chill-out seating. (FYI, the River Quay Green is licensed between 10am and 8pm daily. You’re welcome.)
Still haven’t had your fill of South Bank? Hit up Brisbane Greeters for a free walking tour led by keen locals more than happy to show you its best-kept secrets.
South Bank for families
Got the kids in tow? Don’t worry, there’s plenty to keep young minds captivated with this list of family-friendly activities:
- Show the youngins the lay of the land on a ride of the Wheel of Brisbane.
- Take a dip in Australia’s only man-made inner-city beach, free to use and patrolled by qualified lifeguards year-round.
- Next to the lagoon, the interactive water park Aquativity will keep the kids on their toes with tipping buckets, fountains and educational play elements teaching them about the Brisbane River.
- Let their imaginations run wild on pirate ships and skywalk bridges at the Riverside Green Playground.
- Hire a bike and cruise next to the Brisbane River on Clem Jones Promenade, keeping an eye out for the perfect picnic spot along the parklands. (Note: CityCycle has three bike station locations in South Bank).
- Spend a Thursday morning playing, creating and discovering at South Bank’s Little Day Out program. Each week the free children’s workshops change in theme from Superhero Escapes to music classes, so check their website to see what’s on.
- Engage their minds at the kids corner in the State Library and at the Children’s Art Centre in GOMA (keeping an ear out for pop-up workshops and activities during school holidays).
Where to eat and drink
Dining in South Bank is like scoring a ’round-the-world ticket for your tastebuds.
Serious food fiends will want to point their tummies in the direction of premier foodie strips Little Stanley and Grey streets. Here, you’ll find the mass of multicultural offerings from Japanese street food and Hellenic-inspired gyros and fetta chips, to sangria bars and craft beer haunts.
At the crossroads of both, the Stanley Street Plaza is serving up a casual but infectious atmosphere of live music, classic Aussie pub-grub, and homemade market treats.
If you want views-to-die-for on the side, River Quay delivers with these restaurants overlooking the CBD and Brisbane River. For quick and easy bites – we’re talking kebabs, ice-cream and takeaway fish ‘n’ chips – the parkland food court has got you covered.
Prefer to DIY? South Bank is peppered with picnic and BBQ facilities, with the most popular green spots being River Quay, Picnic Island and Riverside. Better still, drop in to the Epicurious Garden next to Aquativity on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday between 7am to 2pm and you can score free produce from the garden’s harvest cart (it’s a first-in, best-dressed basis here, so you’ll want to get in early to avoid missing out).
But if you really want to see South Bank shine on the food front, time your visit with the annual Regional Flavours, where over two massive days you’ll get to indulge in Queensland’s best artisanal food and wine, and learn tricks of the trade from celebrity chefs and industry experts.
Where to stay
Making South Bank your Brisbane-base is always a good choice, not only due to the fact you’ve got all the above at your doorstep (which, let’s be honest, is pretty awesome) but because you’re also central for exploring Brissie’s other bangin’ city precincts, too.
To help you find what you’re looking for, we’ve got a few suggestions based on traveller type and experience:
Couples and solo visitors
If you’re looking to stay in the heart of South Bank’s bustle, set your sights on the newly redesigned Rydges on Grey Street. Adjoining the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre and only a short stroll from QPAC and QAGOMA, it’s ideal for those wanting to maximise the cultural surroundings (plus their rooftop bar scene is seriously on-point #justsayin).
A few streets back, the Botanic Residences are luring travellers with their stylin’ studio apartments and top-notch facilities. Only a 10-minute stroll from the central buzz, you’ll relish coming back to the relaxation offered by the realm of space in your cosy digs (hello high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling glass) and rooftop pool and movie theatrette at your disposal.
Two words: child minding. Aside from getting a little parental downtime to enjoy the dining scene at your leisure (sans tears and fussy eaters), Mantra South Bank on Grey Street sits directly across from South Bank Parklands, meaning more time playing and swimming and less time having to haul weary littles ones after they’ve exhausted all their physical energy.
If your kids would rather roam the fossil structures of dinosaurs and get stuck into art play, then the self-contained apartments at the Morgan Suite Hotel should do the trick, with the Queensland Museum and Sciencentre, State Library and GOMA all within a 10-minute walking radius.