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Girls floating on inflatable unicorns at Streets Beach, Brisbane
Photograph: Supplied/Streets Beach

Best free things to do in Brisbane

You won’t have to spend a cent to have an experience that’s quintessentially Brissie

Written by
Julian Morgans
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Nothing in life is free. Nothing! And you might disagree and say something like “what about walking along a beach? That’s free!” And you’d be right, but Brisbane doesn’t have beaches, so you’d be wrong. 

So if you’re in Brisbane, and you’re broke and looking to have some fun, what do you do? Well, after living here a long time with varying amounts of disposable income we feel we’re in a position to offer some suggestions. Here’s what we’d do, in no particular order.

Cashed up? You may like to go eat at one of Brisbane's best restaurants.

  • Attractions
  • Beaches
  • South Brisbane

As we just said, Brisbane doesn't have a beach so they built this thing. It's a palm-fringed inner-city swimming beach along a lagoon with a picnic area. You might grimace at the idea of swimming at a fake beach (that’s a normal reaction) but then you get there and find yourself marvelling at the view over the city and the fact that the whole place is free. Plus they’ve always got lifeguards on duty so it’s a safe place for kids to burn off energy while you cool down. Look, it really is a shame that Australia’s second-most tropical city was built on a tidal wetland rather than a beach, but Streets Beach goes some distance to atone for this mistake.

  • Museums
  • Brisbane City

City Hall was built in the 1920s and opened in 1930, and until the late 1960s it was the tallest building in town. You can take a trip back in time any day of the week by doing the Museum of Brisbane’s free 15 minute Clock Tower tour. Head up to level three to find the museum itself, and book in for the tour, which takes place throughout the day every day depending on demand. A guide will take you into the original cage lift that ascends to the tenth floor, up behind the stately clock faces to see their vintage mechanisms, and up to the viewing platform to view the enormous bells and the city itself around you. It's astonishing to think that maintenance staff have been riding this exact lift since the Gatsby era (relax, it's in exemplary working order). You can also book online, and don’t forget to browse the excellent gift shop and the thoughtfully curated art works on your way back down.   

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Nick Dent
Associate Publisher, Time Out Australia
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  • Shopping
  • Boutiques
  • Brisbane City

We can't stress enough how incredible this place is. If Wes Anderson ever decides to make a film about a shopping mall, he won’t need to build any sets. Keri Craig’s is an immaculately preserved time capsule of 1980s design in the centre of town that, depending on your age, will feel both familiar and very bizarre. We’d highly recommend that you have a sandwich in the Licensed Fashion Café, which does cucumber sandwiches and Devonshire teas along with Champagne. It’s quite bizarre, and all just a bit fabulous.

  • Attractions
  • Wildlife centres

Yes, entry to the Daisy Hill Koala Centre is free, and while patting or handling the koalas is not possible there are ample viewing possibilities from two different boardwalks. Apart from seeing the resident marsupials, kids and adults can learn about koala conservation in a hands-on exhibit. Daisy Hill is one of Brisbane’s hidden gems. Hiking, mountain biking and horse riding are some of the best ways to see the park, and there are trails to suit all levels.  

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Listen to City Sounds
Photograph: Kenny Smith

Listen to City Sounds

Every week the city puts on a range of free concerts called City Sounds. These shows have been going since 2000 and the idea is to get musicians who play every genre on the planet – from techno to opera – to give free public performances in parks, malls and the streets around the CBD. There's an ever-changing guide to find out what's on this week.

Go see the trees opposite Suncorp Stadium
Photograph: Julian Morgans

Go see the trees opposite Suncorp Stadium

Ask anyone to describe their ideal tree and they’ll invariably end up describing a Moreton Bay fig. Green leaves? Check. Trunks that kind of sprawl outwards instead of just going up? Check. Cool root systems that also do some sprawling? Double check. And now we’ve agreed that Moreton Bay figs are objectively perfect trees, you should probably know that Brisbane’s best Moreton Bay figs are tucked into the side of an embankment beneath a busy road opposite Suncorp Stadium. Go to Caxton Street in Paddington and you’ll find a little staircase leading down to a dog park. The dog park is underwhelming, but it’s presided over by a century-old fig with roots like a spider’s web. It’s huge and definitely enchanted. There's a whole subculture of Brisbane fig-fans who love this spot and we once even heard it referenced on ABC Radio National. You’re now very lucky to know about it too.

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  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens

Need to reconnect with nature but don’t want to drive for hours? There are tonnes of easy bushwalks, all within Brisbane. You’ll still need passable walking shoes, a hat and a water bottle, but you’ll be on the trail within minutes of stepping out your front door – we're talking Morningside, Chermside, Nathan, Camp Hill, Mount Gravatt and Wynnum. As with any hike, check the weather conditions, glance at a map, walk with a friend and avoid the hotter part of the day. Don’t forget to stop, look around and listen. Soak up that bushy ambience! These local walks will rejuvenate your soul without losing your mobile signal, because that Map app will be useful when the trail gets confusing.

  • Attractions
  • Fortitude Valley

You know how sometimes you can visit a city and struggle to find its heart? In Sydney you never have that problem because the main bit is obviously the bridge and the Opera House bit. Well, Howard Smith Wharves is to Brisbane what Circular Quay is to Sydney. If you want to feel like you're really in Brisbane, just go here. The night will invariably be warm and electric. The 1930s Story Bridge will be spotlighted in iridescent colours. The restaurants will be full of people. You'll feel like you've found the city's beating heart and then you can go home and say you’ve been to Brisbane.

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  • Art
  • Galleries

OK, so not in Brisbane per se, rather an hour's drive south, but boy is it worth the journey. HOTA Gallery is a world-class fine art gallery housed in a six-level facility visible from kilometres away that in turn enjoys 360 degree views of the Surfers Paradise region. There are four levels of permanent exhibition space showing an entertaining and vibrant selection of Australian contemporary art. It's strong in 1970s abstraction, ceramics, photography and Indigenous art. Naturally, there is a strain of art inspired by the Gold Coast itself. The building too is fun to navigate with various views to enjoy as you climb the stairs. Go all the way to get to the top level which houses the Exhibitionist Bar, with an outdoor area and a menu of cocktails and sophisticated bites. 

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Nick Dent
Associate Publisher, Time Out Australia
  • Museums
  • South Brisbane

The larger-than-life Lost Creatures exhibit introduces the remains of some of Queensland’s long-lost inhabitants including dinosaurs, giant marine reptiles and megafauna, most notably the towering skeleton of a Muttaburrasaurus langdoni, a Cretaceous-era herbivore standing seven metres tall. Entry to the museum is free, although some special temporary exhibitions attract a charge, as does the Sparklab, an interactive science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) space ideal for curious six to 13 year olds.

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