Brisbane is frequently misunderstood by the rest of the country. Why? Because no one ever comes here. Interstate visitors instead visit the Gold or Sunshine Coast, or head further north to Cairns and Port Douglas.

If you’re still dining out on the idea that Brisbane is backward, you need to get out of the 90s. This is a modern, young metropolis with vibrant arts and culture scenes.

That other cliche, though, of the big country town, still rings true somewhat. And it has nothing to do with the people and everything to do with the sheer scale of the place. Brisbane was the first of Australia’s urban sprawlers, something town planners have only recently begun to tackle. What that means in 2017 is that you need to travel a little more and work slightly harder to find the places that matter.

But it also means Brisbane, with a renewed focus on the inner city development, is changing almost faster than locals can keep up. It seems that every other week a new precinct is finished or a new restaurant, bar or cafe pops up. It’s a city at an almighty inflection point and that means it’s an exciting place to be. Here’s what to check out.

(Also: if your travels are taking you elsewhere around Australia this Christmas, Broadsheet has hit lists for Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Adelaide, too)

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Once a city of lousy inns, Brisbane’s conference trade and role as a tourism hub means its hotel scene has improved immensely over the past 10 years. For those in town to explore, The New Inchcolm is your best bet. Sitting at the intersection of the city, Fortitude Valley and Spring Hill, this heritage-listed former medical clinic has benefitted from a recent M Gallery makeover, every room an Art Deco-styled stunner. Further up the hill is The Johnson, a beautiful (and gargantuan) addition to Art Series’ portfolio of swish hotels, while the recently opened Rydges Fortitude Valley hides in a quiet corner of the party district, meaning you can dip in and out of the crazy times at your leisure

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Morning: If you need caffeine and you’re staying in the CBD, head to Coffee Anthology, Adam Wang’s little cafe that’s often regarded as producing the very best specialty coffee in the city. Elsewhere, Bellissimo in Fortitude Valley has won more than 100 awards in the last five years for its distinctive bags of beans. Its first pour is a terrific dark roast but souvenir a bag of Mocha Java for the trip home. For filter, get south of the river to Light Coffee in East Brisbane — Eva Shao is a leader on the Brisbane scene right now.

Fun fact: Brisbane is the earliest rising city in the world. Makes sense, then, that it knows a thing or two about a good breakfast cafe. Perhaps the best in town is King Arthur in Fortitude Valley. Occupying one of the old blister hangars that dot the area, it’s a breezy, pleasant place to graze on some rarefied breakfast fare. Those staying on the south-side should head instead to Pearl in Woolloongabba, the longstanding Parisian-styled yardstick of Brisbane’s cafe scene. And if you feel like getting bucolic, opt for snazzy Hunter & Scout in Graceville, a village-like western enclave rarely visited even by Brisbane locals.

Lunch: Head south of the river to Fish Lane for a bunch of classy restaurants and bars. Hello Please is one of the most popular. It’s gussied up Vietnamese street food served out of a shipping container and soundtracked by the trains roaring across the flyover above. Brisbane’s best ramen joint, Taro’s is also over here, although for our money it’s maybe better to head to the city outlet and grab a drink at Bar Otto upstairs afterwards — it boasts spectacular views of the Story Bridge.

Dinner: Longstanding fine-diner Urbane is on a tear right now, gaining national recognition for its innovative vegan degustation. If you hate booking, head instead to somewhere you can’t — Longtime peddles elevated Thai food from a team of chefs that between them has cooked for both the Thai and British royal families and worked under three Michelin-starred chefs. For those who bend more towards Middle Eastern flavours, Gerard’s Bistro has one of the best offerings in Australia.

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Afternoon: Brisbane’s brewpubs are some of the best in the country. Perhaps the choice of most locals is Green Beacon in Teneriffe. Afternoon beers in this warehouse, with the sun reflecting off the brickwork and breeze blowing in from the river makes for a fine way to start an evening. If kicking on in the area, Newstead Brewing Co is just around the corner, while Milton’s Aether Brewing will get you to a less visited part of the inner city. Those seeking something more salubrious should try Eleven in the Valley — looking uphill at the city from a peculiar angle, it has some of the best views in town (go now rather than later, when the place gets a bit too giddy).

Pre-Dinner: Head over to Woolloongabba for Electric Avenue and its secret upstairs bar, Jack Rabbits — a perfectly pitched speakeasy. On more familiar turf, Gerard’s Bar in the Valley is a great spot to mix with Brisbane’s beautiful types and sink a sunny cocktail or two.

Post-Dinner: Tiny Maker in Fish Lane is consistently rated among Brisbane’s best cocktail bar. With barely 15 seats in the place, most of them looking straight at the barkeeps, the precise service you get here soon makes sense. The Cloakroom Bar, hidden in the city, is a new contender for the crown. It’s a completely bespoke experience – staff will interpret your boozy preferences to create something new and unique. A little noisier but just as slick are The Gresham on Queen Street and Super Whatnot in Burnett Lane.

Late-Night: If you’re staying out you’re probably going to find yourself in the Valley. Barbara is one of the area’s go-tos, a medium-sized bar with a club-sized sound system. Around the corner is Savile Row – hidden behind an orange door on Ann Street, its back bar boasts well over 750 different spirits. Further afield, Cobbler is Savile’s West End older sister, while Lefty’s Old Time Music Hall on Caxton Street is where to head to dance the night away.

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The Yayoi Kusuma survey at GOMA is typical of the blockbuster exhibitions the gallery likes to bust out every year, so much so that it has almost eclipsed an equally impressive Gerhard Richter show on the ground floor of the gallery. Make a day of it and check out both. Over the river, the Museum of Brisbane is running a fantastic look into the life of Queensland Ballet artistic director and Mao’s Last Dancer author Li Cunxin.

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James Street at the northern end of the Valley is the go-to for designers such as Gail Sorronda, Molten Store, Calexico, Scanlan Theodore and Natasha Schweitzer. Paddington is your back-up, an enormous antique centre anchoring an interminable strip of natty boutiques, while Woolloongabba in the south matches dress and homewares shops with a bunch of classy joints to eat, drink and caffeinate. For the blokes, stop by The Outpost on Winn Street or head instead to the city where you’ll find Apartment and Contra.