For the Love of Travel
For the Love of Travel

Culture treats galore in Brisbane

Heading to Brisbane, don’t miss these cultural treats by Mike Yardley…

If you needed just one reason to pay a visit to the buzz and bustle of Brisbane, GOMA, the Gallery of Modern Art boasts some serious bling. GOMA is exclusively playing host to one of the most stirring exhibitions of international art ever staged in Australia, ‘European Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.’ I ventured to GOMA just days after the exhibition’s June 11 opening and despite all of the hype, it still smashed my expectations. Installed at GOMA until 17 October, ‘European Masterpieces’ is a wonderfully escapist and intimate journey through five centuries of European painting from exquisite devotional scenes of the early Renaissance to fleeting glimpses of nature captured by the Impressionists.

CARAVAGGIO_The Musicians 1597
CARAVAGGIO The Musicians1597. Photo: GOMA

Charting a path through the most important movements in Western art history, enjoy some face time with 65 prized paintings. All of the European masters are represented, including Fra Angelico, Titian, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Rubens, Raphael, Renoir, Turner, van Gogh, Cézanne and Monet. So how did Brisbane manage to get its hands on the Met’s treasure?  Several years in the making, those canny Queenslanders saw an opportunity to host the masterpieces while the Met’s galleries for European paintings undergo a major renovation, particularly to the skylights. That refurbishment is currently underway and will be completed next year, so these 65 works have been spirited to Australia in the interim. GOMA has gone all-out to ramp up the reverence of these masterpieces, with impressively designed, purpose-built spaces inspired by the motif of the arch in European architecture.

European Masters.
European Masters. Photo: GOMA

. In addition to engaging with these intensely sublime works of art, The Studio is a supplementary experience, featuring an array of interpretive and interactive enticements ranging from “draw along” workshops to live music performances. The exhibition has been curated into three chapters, tracing the development of art and artists from a time when creativity was closely controlled through the patronage of church and state, to the period in which our contemporary idea of the independent artist was born. It is beautifully spaced out so that you want be hustling with the hordes to get up-close and intimate in communion with these treasures. There are so many highlights, but the indelible works that topped my hit list include Titian’s grand and poetic Venus and Adonis from the 1550s.’ It captures a luminous Venus reaching to embrace her lover one last time before he leaves to go hunting and meet a tragic end. Caravaggio’s baroque beauty, The Musicians, JMW Turner’s atmospheric, light-filled scene Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute, Vincent van Gogh’s The Flowering Orchard and Claude Monet’s Water Lilies are all stupendous crowd-pleasers. I was fascinated to learn that Monet was such a stickler for perfection, he would get his gardener to ride out into the lily pond and clean the lilies prior to him erecting his easel to weave some impressionist magic with his brush.

Titan, Venus and Adonis
Titan, Venus and Adonis. Photo: GOMA

After taking your fill of eye-candy from the masters, the South Bank Cultural Precinct spills forth with arty offerings. Collectively, the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art house more than 17,000 artworks from Australia and around the world, split between permanent installations and a constantly rotating schedule of visiting exhibitions. GOMA is already the largest gallery of its kind in Australia, with over 10,000 Australian and international works residing within its walls. Also home in this cultural epicentre is the Performing Arts Centre, Queensland Museum and the Maritime Museum. Strung along the southern banks of the Brisbane River, its 17 hectares of lush parklands boast a plethora of enticements and obligatory photo-stops – including in front of the iconic Brisbane sign.

Gallery that forms part of the Queensland Cultural Centre
Gallery that forms part of the Queensland Cultural Centre

I first visited Brissy as a teenager during World Expo ’88, when the city took its first meaningful strides in stamping its mark as an international city. Despite unfairly being perceived as a bridesmaid to its bigger southern siblings, Sydney and Melbourne, Brisbane has continued to blossom and accentuate its stature ever since.

Brisbane skyline
Brisbane skyline. Photo:

If you’re a nostalgia tragic like me, don’t miss the beloved Nepalese Pagoda – a treasured vestige of Expo 88, as it was the Kingdom of Nepal’s offering. It took more than 160 Nepalese families two years to complete this hand-carved timber delight. Another South Bank showstopper is Streets Beach, Australia’s only inner-city, man-made beach, boasting a sparkling lagoon surrounded by white, sandy beaches and sub-tropical plants.

It’s patrolled by lifeguards year-round. Then there’s Boat Pool, The Wheel, leafy picnic spots and playgrounds my perennial favourite: The Arbour. This one kilometre-long walkway is comprised of 443 curling, galvanised steel posts that are each clad with a blaze of magenta bougainvillea – long the source of my abiding affection.

Mike Yardley in Brisbane
Mike Yardley in Brisbane. Photo: Mike Yardley

If you’re catching a performance at night along South Bank, pair it with some trend-happy dining in Fish Lane. I ventured to Southside Restaurant a daring newcomer to the lane, strung across three levels. Bedecked with ferns that lend it the feel of an industrial temple swaddled by jungle, Southside sits tall and narrow in Fish Lane, riffing off the inner-city energy. Pan-Asian cuisine takes centre stage with fast paced dumpling and noodle dishes that suit the buzzy location. From the dim sum menu, chicken wontons are drenched in black vinegar and chilli oil, while pork xiao long bao come spicy. Share plates include Goolwa pippies tossed in XO sauce and a must-try is char kway teow stuffed full of Moreton Bay bugs.

Southside Restaurant, Brisbane
Southside Restaurant. Photo: Mike Yardley

Another head-turning South Bank dining experience can be savoured from the rooftop of Emporium Hotel. This one-of-a-kind urban sanctuary is lauded as one of Brisbane’s most glittering hospitality destinations, with five-star accommodations and loaded with indulgences. Gracing the rooftop, I drooled over the infinity pool and dreamy cabana suites, before enjoying a stupendous lunch at the adjoining restaurant venue, The Terrace. This effervescent and artfully designed rooftop perch is a divine spot to watch the world go by, overlooking the Brisbane River. From the all-day food menu, we plumped for a selection of delightfully executed share plates, noshing on Korean Fried Chicken Karaage, Woodland Mix Mushroom Tempura, Terrace Charcuterie and seasonal vegetables. Whether you’re staying in-house or not, it’s an essential South Bank experience – although you’ll be fast seduced by those cabana suites backing the pool! The hotel has some incredibly priced deals and packages.

Emporium Hotel rooftop pool Brisbane
Emporium Hotel rooftop pool. Photo: Emporium Hotel

For a particularly heady dollop of authentic culture, I took a 30 minute hop south from Brisbane to the historical village in Beenleigh, which plays host to Spirits of the Red Sand. The village boasts an extensive collection of 19th century heritage buildings and early Australia memorabilia, alongside a pre-European Aboriginal village, setting the stage for this stirring cultural journey. Launched four years ago, this unique tourism experience is an undeniable eye-opener to the history, beauty and rich vibrancy of the Aboriginal people. The backstory to Spirits of the Red Sand begins with Eddie Ruska and his son Shannon, who created a drama and dance programme for at-risk youth. Aboriginal children would come to Eddie & Shannon’s programmes to enjoy dance, drama and song – and to feel like they belonged. Eventually, this dance troupe took an indigenous tour to New Zealand, where Eddie and Shannon crossed paths with the Tamaki Maori Village in Rotorua. Inspired by the concept of cultural performance and indigenous storytelling, the seed was sown for Spirits of the Red Sand.

Spirits of the Red Sand indigenous performance, Brisbane
Spirits of the Red Sand indigenous performance. Photo: Mike Yardley

Mike Tamaki, who now lives in Queensland, came on board as the Chief Executive and the cultural tourism venture has blossomed – scooping a multitude of awards in recent years. While Spirits of the Red Sand differs from Tamaki Maori Village in many ways, the essence is the same – to create respect and admiration for a culture through storytelling, to leave people from all over the world with unforgettable memories and to help local indigenous people thrive through sustainable work and career development. I had the pleasure of meeting Eddie, Mike and the full cast when I experienced Spirits of the Red Sand. There are a variety of cultural encounters, from the Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony Experience, Didgeridoo Lessons, Tribal Challenge and the signature Aboriginal Live Theatre Experience. This world-first Aboriginal live ‘roving theatre’ and dinner experience takes you on a 60,000 year journey from Dreamtime to 1800s’ Australia when the British and Aboriginal ways of life collided. Speaking of the three-course dinner, I loved noshing on those tasting skewers of kangaroo, crocodile and emu with roast vegetables. Then there is the piping hot damper with dipping oils and bush dukkah. Enjoy a hearty Australian-style char-grilled buffet with winter vegetables.  And how could you say no to the Lemon Myrtle cheesecake? Authenticity is the key to cultural theatre and Spirits of the Red Sand is a triumph. The sense of connection is deep and profound, and the performance standard is exceptional. It’s a spell-binding, embracing and thought-provoking cultural encounter to undoubtedly enrich your visit to Queensland. Wunya!

Spirit of the Red Sand Performance. Photo: Mike Yardley

Discover the soul of Brisbane, Queensland’s cosmopolitan capital for arts, culture and destination dining. With stunning natural assets, a laidback charm and a subtropical alfresco lifestyle, Brisbane fast lays on the seduction factor. For timely tips and trip inspiration, start your exploration on the Sunshine State’s official visitor website.

Lights of Brisbane
Lights of Brisbane City. Photo: