Night markets, rooftop bars, hipster cafes… and penguins! Even Sydneysiders don’t have those! Sophie Nellis discovers why Melburnians have got everything, but the weather, going for them…
Once one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world, today Melbourne dominates city rankings in a different category. This vibrant, multicultural metropolis has been voted the world’s most liveable city for the past two years in a row, no doubt much to the annoyance of its archrival, Sydney.
Melbourne is also the most European of Australian cities, which you can see not only in the city’s diverse population – it’s said to have the largest Greek-speaking population after Athens and Thessaloniki – but also in its infrastructure and urban design. The inner city is dense and very walkable, and thanks to Melbourne’s comprehensive tram network (the largest in the English-speaking world), there’s less of a car culture here than in other parts of Australia.
Postwar immigration from Europe and Asia introduced the locals to new foods and flavours and transformed the city’s culinary landscape. The Italians played a particularly important role, bringing their passion for coffee and wine. Since then, the Melburnians have turned coffee making into an art form that borders on an obsession, and the city is famous for its independent cafés.
Sydney might have nicer beaches and better weather* but what Melbourne has that makes it stand out is culture. Heaps of it. With its world-class arts scene and jam-packed events calendar, Melbourne is widely acknowledged as the cultural capital of Australia. Walking around, you can sense that this is a city with lots of energy and a dynamic, creative atmosphere.
But it’s also a very laidback city and manages to be dynamic without being hectic. Melburnians know how to relax, whether it’s soaking up some sunshine down at St. Kilda Beach or taking advantage of the city’s municipal bike-sharing scheme. Melbourne is a city that knows how to live.
*Remember that Crowded House song Four seasons in one day? Well, that was about Melbourne. As was Rain by The Beatles.
Best of the Beaten Track
The best place to start is Federation Square in the city’s Central Business District (CBD). With its jagged, geometric façade, deckchairs and stage, Fed Square is one of Melbourne’s major meeting places and a hive of cultural activity. Art-lovers will enjoy the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, the world’s first major gallery dedicated exclusively to Australian art, and the National Gallery of Victoria’s other location, NGV International, is only a 10-minute walk away. This gallery has an extensive collection of art from all over the world has hosts major international exhibitions.
Across the street from Fed Square is the elegant Flinders Street Station, which was built in 1909. With its tower, dome and clocks, the station is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks and is the most used metropolitan railway station in Melbourne.
No trip to Melbourne would be complete without a trip to the bustling Queen Victoria Market, which has been feeding hungry Melburnians since 1878. There is a dazzling array of fresh produce as well as stalls selling crafts and clothes. Now open in both winter and summer, a trip to the hugely popular Night Market is also a must.
For the best view of the city, take a trip up to the top of the most impressive building in Melbourne’s skyline. Located on level 88 of the Eureka Tower in Southbank, the Eureka Skydeck is the highest viewing platform in the Southern Hemisphere. Daredevils can pay extra for ‘The Edge’, a glass cube which projects three metres out from the building.
And when you’ve had enough of the hustle and bustle of the CBD, take a tram down to St Kilda. Get an ice cream on Acland Street and sit on the beach. Or walk down the pier at sunset to catch a glimpse of the colony of Little Penguins that live in the breakwater.
A more alternative tour of the CBD would wind around Melbourne’s legendary laneways and arcades, which are full of lively cafés, bars and boutiques and home to some of Melbourne’s best street art. Start at Degraves Street, just off Flinders Street, and weave your way through the city grid via Centre Place (check out the gothic street lights), the splendid Block Arcade and Union Lane, a graffiti artist’s paradise.
But if you want to really get to know the city you have to go beyond the CBD to the inner suburbs. The young, hip and alternative tend to hang out in Fitzroy, which is home to some of Melbourne’s finest Victorian-era architecture. Brunswick Street is the heart of Fitzroy and full of cool design stores, vintage boutiques and shabby-chic bars and cafés.
If you prefer your hipsters slightly less hip, head to Windsor and Prahran. Walking along Chapel Street, you’re spoilt for choice in terms of bars, cafés and trendy clothing stores. This is a great place to hit up the charity shops (or “op shops” as they’re called over here) and the Chapel Street Bazaar is a treasure trove of retro furniture and accessories. Get some tasty food from the Prahran Market and check out what’s on at The Astor, a grand old movie theatre that screens both classics and new releases, often as double-bills.
Experience & Events
Melbourne is a city of festivals and when a festival is in full swing you get a real insight into what a vibrant and energetic city this is. Popular events include the Melbourne Writers Festival and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which is not only one of the three largest comedy festivals in the world, but also Australia’s largest cultural event. But new festivals and events arrive on the scene every year and in February 2013 Melbourne held its first White Night; an all-night cultural event that was so popular it looks set to become a regular feature on the city’s event calendar.
But one thing that is not a laughing matter in Melbourne is sports. Melburnians take sport very seriously and going along to a sporting event is a good way of blending in with the locals. The Australian Football League (Australian rules football, not soccer) is hugely popular here and the AFL Grand Final is held in late September or early October at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), Australia’s largest stadium.
If you fancy watching a more familiar sport, look into getting tickets for the Boxing Day Test match at the MCG or the Australian Open, which is held at the nearby Rod Laver Arena and Hisense Arena every January. Or put a bet on a horse during the Spring Carnival, a three-month racing extravaganza that sends the city horse crazy. The highlight is the Melbourne Cup; an internationally renowned horse race that carries one of the highest prizes in the racing world, AU$6.2m.
Those who prefer doing sport to watching it can sign up for Urban Adventures’ best selling Moonlight Kayak Tour of the city, and paddle through the docklands after dark, enjoy the nighttime atmosphere and grab a classic Aussie fish’n’chips dinner.
If you’re on a budget, the Melbourne Central YHA Hostel is very conveniently located on Flinders Street in the CBD. Facilities include a BBQ and a roof-top deck and the hostel organizes a number of activities including walking tours. For something a bit more comfortable try the charming Brooklyn Arts Hotel in the hip neighbourhood of Fitzroy. Located in a big old house, this quirky hotel has a garden and lovely antique furniture. And if you want to splash out in true Melbourne style why not check into a penthouse suite at one of the city’s Art Series Hotels? Each of the three boutique hotels is named after and inspired by a different Australian artist and the luxury rooms are an embodiment of the respective artist’s work.
Melbourne is a paradise for foodies and there are restaurants to suit all budgets. Dumpling houses are cheap and cheerful and two of the best are Shandong Mama in the CBD and the aptly named I Love Dumplings in Richmond. If you’re in the mood for something more European, there’s great Italian food to be had at Carlton Espresso on Lygon Street and the rather old-school Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar on Bourke Street.
Chez Dre in South Melbourne (famous for their delicious macarons) does amazing French-style breakfasts and lunches. For a more Greek-inspired start to the day try Dimitri’s Feast in Richmond. Vegetarians will love the meat-free cuisine at Shakahari, although most places in Melbourne are very vegetarian-friendly. At the top end of the city’s food chain are Melbourne-born chef Andrew McConnell’s elegant restaurants Cutler & Co. and the Ricky & Pinky at the Builders Arms Hotel, both located in Fitzroy.
Many of the city’s best bars are hidden down laneways, up on rooftops, or behind unassuming doorways so bar hopping in Melbourne is often more a case of bar hunting. Tucked away on Manchester Lane in the CBD is Shebeen, a non-profit bar that sells beer and wine from the developing world. So you might end up with a fuzzy head the next day but at least your conscience will be clear. Another laneway secret is New Gold Mountain. With dim red lighting, screens and paper lanterns, this intimate bar oozes opium den glamour.
Summertime drinking in Melbourne means one thing: rooftop bars. The Rooftop Bar on Swanston Street has a spectacular view of the city’s skyscrapers, reasonably-priced drinks and a fantastic outdoor cinema. If you fancy some Spanish style tapas and vermouth on an intimate rooftop try The Alchemist in Fitzroy has a particularly creative cocktail menu. Furnished with velvet couches and chandeliers, it’s the perfect place for a decadent cocktail. Or two. And for live music, some of the best venues are down in St Kilda. The Prince Bandroom and The Esplanade Hotel (known as The Espy) have been organizing gigs for decades and have a good mix of local and international acts.
Australia’s largest airline Qantas flies to Melbourne from the UK, Europe, the US, Asia and New Zealand. But other airlines often have better deals so it’s worth going through a comparison site to find the best price. If you’re travelling within Australia, the two budget airlines are Jetstar and Tiger Airways. The best way to get into the city from the airport is on the Skybus.
The City of Melbourne’s What’s on is good for official information, but if you want to experience the city like the locals do then Time Out is the best guide. Sign up to their free weekly newsletter a few weeks before you arrive and you’ll get a good idea of what the latest Melbourne trends are. Another local favourite is online magazine Broadsheet, which mixes café/bar/restaurant recommendations with longer feature articles.
Given that The Lonely Planet headquarters are in Melbourne, their handy pocket-sized Melbourne Encounter is probably your best bet for a hard copy guide to the city. Another small but very informative book is Jenny Lee’s The Making of Modern Melbourne, a brief history of the city from an Aboriginal settlement to a 21st-century metropolis. And if you’re looking for a good novel, Peter Carey’s Booker prize-winning The True History of the Kelly Gang tells the (fictional) story of the infamous outlaw Ned Kelly who was hanged in Melbourne Gaol in 1880.
Melbourne often appears on the silver screen in films about Australia’s criminal underworld. Chopper tells the story of notorious Aussie ‘crim’ Mark “Chopper” Read who grew up in Melbourne’s suburbs but spent the majority of his twenties and thirties in prison. Also set in suburban Melbourne, Animal Kingdom is a chilling portrayal of a dysfunctional bluecollar crime family on the verge of self-destruction. For something less violent and more inner city, watch Dogs in Space. Filmed in a ramshackle old house in Richmond, the story is set during Melbourne’s experimental post-punk scene at the end of the 1970s and stars Michael Hutechence of INXS fame.