What it's like visiting blossoming Brisbane as it sheds 'third best' and prepares to host the Olympics

Brisbane at night.
Brisbane at night. Photo credit: Getty Images

Two years ago Brisbane created a nice piece of sporting history for Australia when it was chosen to host the 2032 Olympic Games.

Over more than 130 years of the world's biggest sporting spectacle, only one other nation has staged the event in three different cities: the United States, with St Louis 1904, Los Angeles 1932 and 1984, and Atlanta 1996.

The Aussies have previously welcomed the Olympics to Melbourne 1956 and Sydney 2000, with Brisbane becoming the third.

Excitement within the country's third-largest city (population 2.6 million) is palpable.

"I have so much pride in my state for our people," said Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszcuk. "Never in my lifetime did I think this was going to happen - it’s amazing."

Two years later, those Olympics are still nine years - and two Games - away. Paris 2024 will be followed by Los Angeles (for the third time) 2028, before Brisbane begins its sprint to the finish-line.

While the pride hasn't dissipated, the Queensland city is pacing itself in the build-up to its moment in the spotlight.  

"Everyone's still excited, but no one's really doing anything about it," said Tourism Queensland publicity manager Shelley Winkel. "It's still too far away."

Annastacia Palaszcuk celebrates Brisbane's selection for the 2032 Olympics.
Annastacia Palaszcuk celebrates Brisbane's selection for the 2032 Olympics. Photo credit: Getty Images

That's not exactly true. Casual conversations reveal the Olympics have given the city's industry a focal point on the horizon.

Brisbane is used to playing third fiddle behind its counterparts further down nation's eastern seaboard. It revels in that underdog status, but these Games have thrust it onto the international radar, propelling it from nowhere to 15th on the Burson Cohn & Wolfe annual ranking of sports cities, surpassing both Melbourne (22nd) and Sydney (44th) in the process. 

Auckland sits 66th.

With the Women's Football World Cup in town, Newshub was invited to Brisbane to sample what it has to offer visitors considering a sporting sojourn across the Tasman.

Three previous days in Melbourne revealed a rich dining and cultural element to complement its sporting heritage.

"Brisbane has food and art too, but it's mainly about the sport," warned Winkel. I braced myself for an action-packed couple of days - and here's how they went.


After immensely enjoying the All Blacks' demolition of the Wallabies at Melbourne Cricket Ground, I travel with a group of other journalists to the airport for a flight to Brisbane.

We get off to a false start, as the plane must return to its docking bay for an unspecified mechanical check, filling passengers with a sense of unease. So far, the Aussie airlines have not covered themselves in glory during our trip.

Finally, we arrive at our destination, where the climate is 25 degrees with no wind - basically an NZ summer's day despite being in the middle of winter.

After scoffing down our terminal lunches, we're immediately thrown into our first activity - kayaking on the Brisbane River (or the 'Brown Snake', as locals call it). Yes, it's brown for a reason, so swimming (or capsizing) is not recommended.

Also, bull shark sightings have increased hereabouts and they can grow up to 4m, but we are blissfully unaware of those risks as our guide takes us along the city frontage, from the Riverlife Adventure Centre opposite the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens as far as the Story Bridge.

There's surely no better way to enjoy the city on a Sunday afternoon, I think, as we admire its impressive skyline.

The waterway also hosts its share of entertainment. We pass the Brisbane Jazz Club, which apparently goes off on a Friday night.

On the city side lie a variety of restaurants and bars, including the former site of the notorious City Rowers nightclub, scene of a particularly memorable night back in the mid '90s. Our young guide wasn't born then and is not acquainted with that establishment, which has since closed.    

Also sharing our river this afternoon is YOT Club, a luxury party boat that seems to be hosting a birthday or wedding on this occasion.

Kayaking the Brisbane River.
Kayaking the Brisbane River. Photo credit: Riverlife Adventures

Our group complete our return journey in about 90 minutes with the assistance of the incoming tide on the way back. Despite the wakes from passing CityCat ferries, no one samples the Brown Snake.

Riverlife also offer abseiling, if you'd rather keep your feet dry and aren't afraid of heights. 

Drying ourselves off, we finally check into the The Westin Brisbane in the central city and freshen up for dinner at Iris Rooftop.

Across the Tasman, the Football Ferns are battling for their World Cup lives, but their scoreless draw against Switzerland is not enough to book passage into the tournament knockout stages.

On a mild night, the roof at Iris is open and diners can enjoy views back across the river and the Story Bridge. The menu is Spanish influenced and the atmosphere provides a relaxed way to unwind from a travel day.

Winkel (who has heard of City Rowers) briefs us on the next day's itinerary, which includes an early start and an activity described as 'sand tobogganing'. She insists if she's ever to win an Olympic gold medal, this is the sport, utilising her unique skillset of speed, agility and fearlessness.

The Games may be nine years away, but the locals are already identifying which new events to add to the programme.

Iris Rooftop.
Iris Rooftop. Photo credit: Supplied


For one night at least, we were the best protected travel famil group in the world.

Creeping from our rooms at 6am, we discover we are not the only occupants up and about early. Our neighbours are the security team for the US defence secretary, presumably staying in the penthouse.

Excited that we are staying at the most secure accommodations in town, we collect our packed breakfasts - the restaurant isn't open yet - and head to the Holt Street Wharf, where the ferry to Tangalooma Island Resort awaits.

Previously known as Moreton Island, the outpost used to be a whaling station, but the advent of vegetable oil squeezed its owners out of that business just before the whales ran out and the government mandated its closure.

The whaling station was sold to the family that had developed Gold Coast as a tourist location and they created the island resort. The whale population has since returned to local waters and dolphin sightings are also a popular attraction.

Sales & marketing director Bernie O'Keefe suggests the Olympics have already sparked an uptick in interest from offshore tourism companies planning package tours.

We're about to sample some of the activities on offer.

First up, the much-anticipated Desert Safari Tour. In reality, the toboggan is little more than a thin piece of formica with wax rubbed on the underside to facilitate a smooth descent.

Slide head first and remember to grip the front of the toboggan and hold that front edge up to avoid getting a face full of sand. It takes one attempt to recognise the value of this technical advice.

While hurtling facefirst down the hill is scary enough, the toughest part of this activity is undoubtedly the climb back up the incline for another attempt. One out-of-condition man takes 10-15 minutes to reach the top, and then can't raise himself off his hands and knees, lying in recovery for almost half an hour.

Brisbane desert safari tour.
Keep your elbows up and your mouth shut. Photo credit: Tangalooma Island Resort.

Turning down all offers of assistance, he eventually gingerly lowers himself back down the slope on his butt, without actually completing a toboggan ride.

Picking grains of sand out of every orifice, we cram back onto the bus and proceed to the next activity - an Elite Helicopters ride around the island.

Hovering over the coastline, we can see turtles scuttle through the shallows to deeper waters. Cutting back over the island, we pass above the sand dunes we have just hurtled down - and then, the highlight of the day.

As we follow the coast north, we happen upon a mother whale and her calf cruising past the island, surfacing momentarily, before submerging again. Of all the exhilarating experiences I experienced on this trip, it was Mother Nature that perhaps most took my breath away. 

On the return trip, we pass over the ships wrecked off the coast to form an artificial reef that protects visiting boats from the elements.

Once our feet hit solid ground again we're hustled off to the ATV quad-biking track, given a brief driving lesson and a length of the beach to gain confidence on these awkward machines before hitting the forest trails. Somehow, the boys all find their way to the back of the line where they lag behind the rest of the group before gunning it through some turns.

The bikes are quite cumbersome to steer through corners and picking the camber is crucial. A couple of times, I barely save the bike from tipping.

Quad biking at Tangalooma Island Resort.
Quad biking at Tangalooma Island Resort. Photo credit: Supplied

The morning has been all-action so lunch at the Beach Cafe gives us a chance to reflect before we head back to civilisation. Ideally, you'd spread these activities - and others on offer - over a few days... maybe a Weekend at Bernie's?

There's time for a nap on the boat ride back to Brisbane and some downtime at the hotel before we depart for the evening's entertainment - the FIFA World Cup match between Nigeria and Ireland at Suncorp Stadium, renamed simply Brisbane Stadium for the tournament as the international body cleanses venues of their sponsored monikers.

The football spectacle is a very good chance for Brisbane to host top-level sport in the build-up to the Olympics.

Of course, the city has already proved itself very capable of staging major events; but very few of them are stage-managed to the same extent as the International Olympic Committee or the Federation Internationale de Football Association, probably the world's two major sporting organisations. 

Their standards are sky high and one of our party stumbles on a distressing scene in the hotel lobby where a FIFA official has reduced a staff member to tears after they failed to reach those expectations. The official then tries to block other guests from using an elevator, but their protestations are rejected by the fiesty Kiwi journo.

FIFA protocols usually ensure things run smoothly, but they can come across as arrogant and pedantic if you're not used to them. When you're that important, you don't worry about ruffling a few feathers along the way.

We proceed to the South Bank Parklands, scene of the Brisbane FIFA Fan Festival, where supporters are gathered to watch Japan hammering Spain at Wellington on the big screen. The Spanish contingent are subdued, but their day will come in a couple of weeks.

Indigenous artist Chern'ee Sutton with a FIFA World Cup ball.
Indigenous artist Chern'ee Sutton with a FIFA World Cup ball. Photo credit: Grant Chapman / Newshub.

We're joined by talented Indigenous artist Chern'ee Sutton, who collaborated with Māori artist Fiona Collis to design the official FIFA ball for this tournament. She shows us her original design, which looks little like the finished product, and wishes organisers had kept more of her elements.

Most designers will tell you that's usually how it works - someone with no design background usually has the final say. Sigh.

We begin the trek from South Bank to Brisbane Stadium, crossing the river and eventually blending with commuters from the nearby train station. Like Auckland, the Brisbane rail system is being upgraded and will be completed within the next couple of years.

The bar district of Claxton Street has become the unofficial Irish fanzone. You have to feel sorry for the Nigerians, who will likely be severely outnumbered by the time they reach the venue, and we briefly consider a change of allegiances to even things out.

Irish flags are handed out with 'COYGIG' emblazoned - 'Come On You Girls In Green'.

We walk past the statue dedicated to rugby league legend Wally Lewis on the day he revealed he was suffering the early signs of dementia, caused by repeated head contact during his career.

While Suncorp Stadium/Brisbane Stadium/Lang Park is smaller than some of its counterparts around Australia - if still perhaps a little bigger than Eden Park - if offers an intimate setting where no one feels far from the pitch. 

Our hospitality box overlooks one end where the Irish are warming up, egged on by their ever-swelling fanbase arriving from the bars outside.

FIFA's ruthless efficiency is once again on display, when all the accredited photographers are rounded up inside a small roped square and herded en masse to halfway to shoot the opening formalities.

The match gets underway and while the skills on display are impressive, no one can break scoreless deadlock. The best scoring chance is a header deflected onto the crossbar by the Irish keeper, who is duly named Player of the Match.

Irish keeper Courtney Brosnan makes an incredible save against Nigeria.
Irish keeper Courtney Brosnan makes an incredible save against Nigeria. Photo credit: Getty Images

Nigeria advance to the knockout stage, Ireland exit the tournament, but receive rapturous appreciation from their fans. The encounter attracts 24,884 spectators, so the stadium is less than half full.

I secure an Irish alternate strip for just over $100 at the merch stand and head back to the hotel satisfied.


We're due to return to Auckland this evening, but still have a few hours to jam in some more of Brisbane's sights and sounds.

To showcase another side of the city's cultural scene, Winkel has booked us into the Queensland Art Galley and the Gallery of Modern Art.

Outside the main building is a sculpture by Kiwi artist Michael Parekowhai entitled 'The World Turns', but renamed by myself as 'Elephant Faceplant'. My personal appreciation of art is shamefully literal and this work is literally an elephant tipped on its face.

Inside we are treated to two quite different exhibitions - one by local artist Michael Zavros, named 'The Favourite', and the other by eX de Medici, entitled 'Beautiful Wickedness'.

Zavros will bring his work to New Zealand soon. It features a lifelike mannequin as a stand-in father, but the highlight of this show is a piece called 'Drowned Mercedes', which is a perfectly restored Mercedes-Benz SL-Class filled with water. 

This work is so fascinating I am scolded by a nearby attendant for standing too close, even though the gallery is clearly being overrun by noisy schoolkids.

Michael Zavros' 'Drowned Mercedes'.
Michael Zavros' 'Drowned Mercedes'. Photo credit: Supplied

Across the foyer, 'Beautiful Wickedness' uses images of guns, helmets and skulls. The most interesting piece is a tribute to rock band Midnight Oil, entitled 'Nothing As Precious As A Hole In The Ground'.

For lunch, Babylon Brisbane is perched on the cityside of the river, offering an incredible Mediterranean-style menu.

As the waiters bring out plate after plate of gorgeous food, I realise I have hit the culinary wall and can't eat another delicacy placed before me. My companions are loathe to send their meals back to the kitchen untouched, so they put up a valiant fight - to no avail.

Suffice to say, our Specialised Transport Australia driver Ryan, who has loyally driven us around town for the past 48 hours, makes good use of the fridge in the back of his limo and won't need to buy dinner for a couple of days.

The final stop of our tour is the impressive Queen's Wharf development, an AU$3.6 billion precinct feating a six-star hotel, casino, an open-air Sky Deck with restaurants, bars and entertainment facilities.

Marketing lead Graham Witherspoon explains the city lacked an iconic landmark that visitors could identify as being Brisbane.

"They often talk about our beaches - but that's the Gold Coast, not Brisbane."

Queen's Wharf will come on line from April 2024 and will provide that focal point. 

With the Olympics still nine years away, Brisbane is slowly, but surely breaking out of its chrysalis, about to blossom as a butterfly on the world stage.

Newshub travelled to Melbourne courtesy of Tourism Australia.