It’s time to rethink the Land of Oz. With modern cities like Brisbane—which boasts an enviable public park system, an excellent transit system and festivals that feed your senses and light up the sky—Australia has more to offer than ever.

My first glimpse of Brisbane was not at all what I had expected, which was, I’ll admit it, a beer-washed landscape complete with swaggering drovers, dusty kangaroos and broken down utes. Instead the glitzy skyline seen from a distant curve in the river was just the first clue that Brisbane has morphed into a modern metropolis that sees it ranking with some of the most stylish cities in the world. A detail that’s fascinating when you consider much of what makes Brisbane distinctive is not only relatively new (with many of the bridges, walkways, parks and buildings being recent additions) but Brisbane also went through a devastating flood in early 2011—with much of the city center ending up under a few meters of water.

The flood water came from the city’s namesake—the serpentine Brisbane River which winds and divides the city and its suburbs, creating unique pocket neighbourhoods and invites exploration—and over the course of a few days my family and I traversed the waterway through the city then up to a vantage point at Mt Coot-tha—taking in sights and activities along the way.

A River Runs Through It

Unlike many cities, where getting around is more of a necessary evil than an event, we discovered Brisbane has several transportation options that kids love. The simplest way to explore is by foot—and with pretty parks and pathways lining the river, numerous pedestrian bridges and bubblers (drinking fountains) every few blocks (it gets hot in the city) we found we could easily see the sights in the compact downtown centre and the adjacent neighbourhoods of South Bank and Fortitude Valley without much effort.

For longer distances Brisbane’s excellent City Cycle program (where for $2 a day, or $11 a week you have the use of bikes all over the city) offers the perfect way to explore further a field. But if you really want to have fun try taking a plunge into the city’s public transit system. For getting around inside the city there’s the free City Hopper Ferry or loop buses while to explore further a field the numerous buses, trains and ferries are easy and affordable to use with a go card.

Cross the Bridge When You Get to It

The way the river winds and entwines makes it easy to lose your bearings in Brisbane one great way to get a feel for the city is by taking a free Greeters Tour. Offered daily the themed tours offer an insider’s perspective and introduce you to some of the city’s hidden highlights including historic buildings, public art and cultural attractions.

Another option is to head to the historic Story Bridge. The bridge offers the perfect vantage for sorting out exactly where places like New Farm Park or the Kangaroo Point Cliffs are in relation to downtown.

Anyone can cross the bridge—but when my husband Evan and I had a chance to climb the bridge with Story Bridge Adventure Climb, we jumped at the chance. One of only three bridge climbs in the world, the trek to the 80 metre summit was quite easy (though looking through the see-through walk-way made my knees shake) and it turned out to be the perfect place to catch the last of the sunset and learn a bit more about Brisbane’s history.

Boom Town

From the top of the bridge I could just catch a glimpse of our next day’s destination—South Bank Parklands. Built for the 1988 World’s Fair the parklands are a favourite hangout for families (thanks to a gorgeous water park and pool—as well as picnic areas that boast a few of Brisbane’s incredibly cool free electric BBQs) and the area is also home to several theatres and museums.

Despite the appeal of Streets Beach’s sandy man-made lagoon–we were headed to GoMA, Queensland’s Museum of Modern Art. What attracted us was the Children’s Art Centre which focuses on exhibits that appeal to kids. Our daughter Maia was intrigued by artist Yayoi Kusama’s obliteration room, where visitors are invited to participate in the artistic process by applying dots to a white room. After making it through our sheets of stickers we moved on to the drawing room—where we practiced our skills with various still-life arrangements.

Into the Wild

Dominated by glass and steel towers it’s easy to forget that Brisbane’s humid subtropical climate also supports lush forests that come complete with creatures with names that conjure up childhood songs. But in the city botanic garden (and the ‘back-up’ gardens which were built on Mt Coot-tha after the 1974 flood) we wandered through forests of eucalyptus, Moreton Bay Fig and Red Gum and listened to kookaburra’s laughing and watched rainbow lorikeets at play.

We learned even more about Australia’s fantastical native animals at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary—which is home to more than 130 koalas as well as kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes, wombats and Tasmanian devils. My daughter Maia was thrilled with her chance to cuddle a koala—while I loved having a kangaroo nibble food from my hand.

We never did run into a drover or come across a broken down ute as we explored Brisbane—instead we discovered a city that seems to be designed with exploring in mind.