Bleary-eyed after a 13-hour flight, I go for a walk in West End and end up on Granville St, eventually turning onto Boundary. After braving the brunch lineup at a hip café for a delicious meal and coffee, I top up my TransLink card at a train station, before opting to walk some more to the nearby waterfront for a ferry ride instead. The weather’s spectacular as I watch the glistening glass towers of downtown disappear in the distance. I disembark by a park, and walk along a pedestrian path bisected by a bike lane, surrounded by picnickers on this lovely Sunday afternoon. After some more aimless wandering, the sun’s going down and I’m hungry. I head to the night market — packed as usual, full of people speaking everything including Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, and the like.
If it weren’t for the cars running down the wrong side of the road, if it weren’t for the accent… I may as well have been describing a lovely summer weekend at home. Oh yeah, it’s winter here.
Brisbane may be on the other side of the world, but the similarities to Vancouver don’t end there. Both are the third-largest cities of their respective countries. Both have a metro population of roughly 2.5 million. Both have a vacation-friendly Sunshine Coast about an hour away. And for whatever reason, both cities like to thank their bus drivers when disembarking. I think that’s great.
In many ways, Brisbane seriously impresses, surpassing Vancouver. Their TransLink involves a much larger network of trains, buses, and ferries that criss-cross the river, with many expansions in progress ahead of the 2032 Olympics. Speaking of criss-crossing the river, there are pedestrian-only bridges everywhere with more under construction. And speaking of pedestrians, the busiest shopping and nightlife streets downtown are fully pedestrianized, spacious, and clean — a complete contrast to the sorry state of Vancouver’s Robson or Granville. Their waterfronts on both sides of the river are also thoroughly walkable spaces though not exclusively so: they’re much more alive and activated than Vancouver’s, full of public spaces: restaurants, boardwalks, parks, and even a combination of all that in Howard St Wharves with its whole setup of beanbag chairs under the Story Bridge from which you can order food and drinks from, or the beautiful South Bank Parklands, an everything-in-one destination facing the skyline. There’s even the Kangaroo Cliffs, which provides a lovely view for most people, or a rock climb in full view of downtown for the crazier folks. And people seem to wake up early all the time to do outdoor active stuff — run, bike, row — since the street and river across my apartment for the week gets busy at 6am every morning!
They’ve got a crowded night market which locals like to complain about too! Just like home! Though less Asia-centric and more international, the food’s good though prices are a little steep: again, just like home. With tons of live music and lit-up districts though, it’s a way better atmosphere than the one we have. Can we do anything right??
What does seem to match though is the diversity. Aside from just the sample of languages I hear walking down the street, the food scene’s pretty similar too. Over some lovely post-work meals of dumplings, izakaya, Thai curry, and maybe the world’s fanciest bowl of pho, I had the rare chance to also catch up with some travel friends from this side of the world: Brodie, who I went with to the Sahara and beyond in Morocco way back in 2012, and Vyvian, who I met watching polar bears in Churchill two years ago.
They see the city another way: comfortable, good for their hobbies, but not terribly interesting. Public transport can be better, there can be less construction, less traffic jams, the job market’s tough, things are getting too expensive, rent is increasingly unaffordable… Now why does this all sound so familiar? (Though I wish our unaffordable rent was just the same A$400/week, or C$350.) Again, it’s just like Vancouver: we complain a whole lot too. But from an outsider’s perspective, there’s so much to appreciate, and so much that the city does get right even if there’s always room for improvement, or if other places do it better.
Of course it’s got its own issues. Despite having a similar population to Metro Vancouver, Brisbane takes up almost six times the space. The suburban sprawl is very noticeable once you leave the city core: it’s a land of highways, strip malls, single-family homes, and few trains stations, with transit mostly feeding into the city centre hub-and-spoke style. (At this point, you might realise that I’m into good urban planning.) At least there’s great Asian food in the burbs — far more than in Fortitude Valley’s old Chinatown.
It’s also dealing with similar issues but in a different context. Australia and Canada both have rather atrocious pasts in dealing with their indigenous peoples, and the consequences reverberate still today. Land acknowledgements are also a big thing here (for Brisbane, that’s the Yuggera and Turrbal peoples, though the nations seem to argue over the order of who should come first!), but so are elder acknowledgements past, present, and future, and giving places indigenous names again. In almost every context where the Australian flag is flown, so are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags. In the context of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Brisbane is equally referred to as Meaanjin in all signage. My visit also coincided with Australia’s NAIDOC Week (National Aborigines’ and Islanders’ Day Observance Committee), with monuments lit up in the colours of the Aboriginal flag, and plenty of visible indigenous cultural programming all over the city. Museums in the city are full of indigenous art, and grapple with the idea that “Australian art does not exist.” They seem a few years further along the process of re-indigenization than Canada is — even if that progress is running into resistance.
Ultimately though, this is a different city in a different country, and there are things that are new to me. Brisbane sure does like its botanical gardens, having several large and centrally-located free ones in addition to its ample parks, and at least their Canada goose (“cobra chicken”) replacement is a more dignified-looking ibis (“bin chicken”) that looks like it belongs, being arguably the most populous resident in every green space. The famed wildlife of Australia isn’t to be found in the city but it’s certainly nearby, and in much greater numbers at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary an hour out of town, where you can admire and touch some very cute koalas, kangaroos, and other marsupials while also marveling at how spoiled and lazy they’ve gotten. (Koalas don’t seem to care to move out of the way when another koala’s pooping right above — or on — them. They don’t flinch either, and they all smell terrible.)
Further afield, there’s plenty of day trip potential. The famed Gold Coast is an hour south — while the gaudy glitz of the city may not be anything I’d write home about, that long, long stretch of perfect beach and coastline is an undeniable draw for even a non-surfer like me. (I mean… they did literally name the most popular suburb Surfers Paradise.)
More my scene is North Stradbroke Island (“Straddie”), a much sleepier spot a boat ride away from a Brisbane suburb, also full of endless stretches of beaches but without the crowds, and coastal walks where you can spot some sea turtles and wild kangaroos. Southern winter marks the humpback whale migration season, and… you don’t even need to get on a boat. Just sit there and face the ocean. Whales surface for air in every direction, with a visible water spout every 10 seconds or so. It’s a pretty wild sight, though one that doesn’t exactly photograph well from land.
In the opposite direction, north of Brisbane, is the aforementioned Sunshine Coast. Sure, there’s more endless beach and resort town stuff. But on a day trip with Vyvian driving and picking the sights, the inland Glass House Mountains were a bigger draw, not just for the crisp air, rainforest, valley views, and strange peaks, but for the cute little towns scattered about like Maleny and Montville, plus a whole lot of locally-produced yoghurt and cheese. Even she had to admit it was a very fun day near home — and if I had more time, it would be a lovely region to visit more of.
And even a simple day in the city can be fun — grab a long black or a flat white and a meat pie or sausage roll, hit one of the sprawling weekend markets like the one in West End, picnic in the warm winter sun, head to the river for some people watching, hop on a ferry somewhere… It reminds me of the best days of summer at home, the silly or touristy days I try to make an effort for whenever something gets me negative about my city. For my friends, it’s perhaps a reminder on how rare the livability of Brisbane is. For me, already on the road but about to embark on a trip very, very far out of my comfort zone, there couldn’t have been a better way to ease me in.