I think people used to see Brisbane as a big country town, and they’d often bypass it on the way further north. But over the past few years it’s become a reference point in Australia for amazing restaurant experiences, retail and galleries. Brisbane has discreetly been coming up the inside lane. I grew up in the semi-rural Brisbane suburb of Brookfield in the ’70s and ’80s. I’d ride my horse to school and was very fortunate to have the freedom of space, nature and fresh air.

I moved to London at 25, where I worked in advertising during the day and made clothes at the weekend, in the early days of Sass & Bide, the brand I founded with my best friend Sarah-Jane Clarke. Despite spending the past 20 years living in Sydney, I’ve always felt a Queenslander at heart. Now I split my time between Sydney, where my fashion and art collective Artclub is based, and Brisbane. 

Brisbane City Botanical Gardens
Brisbane City Botanical Gardens © Vicki Smith/Moment/Getty Images

I appreciate the gentler pace of the city – it feels vibrant and fun without being frenetic. There’s a lack of pretension and a genuine warmth to Queenslanders. As soon as I arrive, I feel completely relaxed. The city has a subtropical climate – even in winter, you can wear a T-shirt in the middle of the day.

Brisbane is built around a beautiful river that snakes through the city – I like to walk or run along it, through the Howard Smith Wharves and Botanical Gardens, ending up at the Goodwill Bridge. I’ll often stop by some of the city’s art galleries while I’m out, including Jan Murphy and Edwina Corlette around New Farm, and the Gallery of Modern Art, which has a constant stream of thought-provoking artists and creators.

Middleton at the Gallery of Modern Art
Middleton at the Gallery of Modern Art © David Chatfield

Also in New Farm is the James Street precinct, which is a retail and lifestyle development built by my partner, Michael Malouf, and his family in 2002. To me it’s a little utopian pocket of Brisbane that has become one of the coolest spots in the country. They’ve kept the area very green, and the edit of retail is strong, with all the best Australian brands as well as stores such as Camargue, which is a fashion store with international and local brands. There’s also The Calile Hotel, which is where I’ll often stay when I’m in Brisbane; it’s quite progressive but also timeless. It’s got a rooftop garden, and all the herbs and plants supply the restaurants in the hotel. 

James Street Precinct
James Street Precinct © Cieran Murphy
The spa at The Calile Hotel
The spa at The Calile Hotel © Sean Fennessy
Hellenika restaurant at The Calile
Hellenika restaurant at The Calile © Sean Fennessy

Much of the city’s development is fairly recent, although the distinct architectural style is the beautiful old Queenslanders, which are houses built on stilts to allow for airflow in the hotter months. A lot of them go back at least 100 years and there are some wonderful adaptations where part of the home is left in its original state and the other part is modernised.

Seafood is the signature cuisine of Brisbane. The Moreton Bay bug is like a lobster in texture and flavour but a little smaller; Hellenika restaurant does an amazing Moreton Bay bug spaghetti with tomato, chilli, garlic and wine. There are a couple of prawn dishes that I seek out too, like the king prawn tacos at Mama Taco, or the yellow prawn and turmeric curry at Same Same. There’s also a fantastic restaurant called Agnes in Fortitude Valley, which is set in an old brick warehouse, and every dish is made in vast wood-fired ovens.

The Raw Trio (top) of bluefin tuna, ocean trout and kingfish and chargrilled king prawns at Hellenika
The Raw Trio (top) of bluefin tuna, ocean trout and kingfish and chargrilled king prawns at Hellenika © Joshua Maguire

When I want to escape the city, I’ll drive up to Moreton Bay, which is surrounded by natural beauty; there are national park walks and an abundance of things that you can do such as fishing or paddleboarding. We often hire a boat for the day to explore all the little bays. The fact that you have these pristine, crystal-blue waterways and white-sand beaches an hour from the central business district is something that gets overlooked. It’s really quite a spectacular city. 

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