If you ever come across a traveller who claims Australia is all about the booze and the beach, you can be almost certain Melbourne wasn’t on the itinerary. Sure, you don’t need to go far here to find a bevvy. And the coastline around the bay isn’t too bad either. But as it bares its soul, you’ll quickly fall for its charisma and edge, realizing there’s far more than just hangovers and sunburn on offer.
As a frequent visitor to this city over the past decade, I was never drawn to Melbourne by bright lights and showy attractions. It’s not a been-there-got-the-T-shirt kind of place. It’s more subtle and nuanced than the likes of Sydney. Now, as a bona fide local living in the city’s inner north, I have only just begun to truly get to know her many charms. She’s a city that’s multi-layered, cosmopolitan and cool without trying too hard. She’s a hub for art, music, cuisine, fashion, performance and design — packing in some of the best of the world’s most celebrated cities — yet still it manages to have a relaxed, big-country-town feeling to it.
Melbourne is regularly voted the most ‘liveable’ place on the world map. What does this ‘liveability’ factor equate to for the traveller? In my experience, it means that once the lights go out and the sights have all been seen, it’s likely you won’t want to pack your bags and leave right away. You’ll want to stay around and walk its hip city laneways, take a tram to St Kilda and cycle to Sydney Road. You’ll want to catch a film, see a band, do some shopping, catch a sporting fixture or just soak up some sun while sitting on the sand.
For those who seek a little culture, edginess and European sophistication, Melbourne is Australia’s standout winner.
“Eating is bigger than religion here, my friend,” says Nick, one of the Italian fruiterers at the South Melbourne Market. “In this city, we’re doing food better than anywhere else.”
The fixation with food borders on the obsessive. When I was a kid, you’d be lucky to find 20 decent places to dine in downtown. Just 30-odd years later there are more than 3,000 establishments to choose from on its multicultural and colossal food scene. A good place to start exploring is at the big markets, such as Queen Victoria, South Melbourne, Preston, and Footscray.
And although the city does have a range of world-class high-end dining options, it’s with the cheap-eats and mid-tier options that Melbourne excels. Eating across downtown is all about food with Asian flavours: beyond Chinatown on Little Bourke Street, a favourite of mine is Chin Chin, a fun take on the working-man’s dining halls of Bangkok. It’s a busy and energetic place with a wonderful pan-Asian menu, perfect for sharing and being adventurous with plenty of small, unusual dishes. Tables can be hard to come by at times, but there’s a snug bar downstairs if you’re willing to wait.
Lentil as Anything, meanwhile, is a much-loved haunt at the lovely and leafy old Abbotsford Convent. The food here is an ever-changing variety of vegetarian dishes. While you’re sure to walk away satisfied with a wholesome feed, the unique thing about this place is that it’s non-profit and you pay whatever you think the food is worth and can afford, with all profits going to programmes helping newly arrived refugees.
You may not be an early riser but doing brekkie is a must in Melbourne. Pope Joan, in Brunswick East, is a great little cafe that takes its commitment to serving top-notch breakfasts very seriously. For a light start, the Full of Grace berry granola with fruit and yoghurt is some of the best going, while the spicy goat sausages, smoked trout and excellent omelettes are great for those with an appetite.
And you’d be mad to miss its buoyant coffee culture. While some might argue the city’s fixation for quality coffee waivers on the pretentious, caffeine lovers will be thankful for the demand for — and abundant supply of — world-class coffee. Inner-city options such as Patricia (standing-room only), The Truffula Seed and Kinfolk set the standard.
Although Melbourne isn’t a city that’s renowned for its postcard-worthy attractions, those who delve deeper than just doing a Neighbours minibus tour will undoubtedly be rewarded. The city’s grid-like streets make it a very easy place to navigate on foot or bicycle, and having one of the biggest tramway systems in the world makes it a breeze to get out and about.
There are, of course, the big-ticket items to see such as Federation Square, Eureka Tower, the Royal Botanical Gardens, and Luna Park down in the seaside district of St Kilda. If you’re visiting the latter, hire a bike and ride east along the foreshore down to Elwood, Brighton and beyond if your legs will allow it. The beaches along the way are less crowded and are lovely on a decent day.
The National Gallery of Victoria, the Immigration Museum, and Melbourne Museum are also all very worthy of a visit; housed in the Old Customs House in the city centre, the Immigration Museum will give you a good sense of how the city’s population has developed over time. And, as one of the great sporting cities, going to the MCG (known locally as ‘The G’) to watch a game of Australian Rules Football is a brilliant outing.
Having ticked all that off, try venturing into the lesser-known neighbourhoods. Head north on the 96 tram — something travellers rarely do — for a morning’s stroll around the CERES Environmental Park, with its markets, workshops, plant nursery and an outdoor cafe.
For something a little different after nightfall, take a trip to Melbourne Zoo — while some zoos can be a bit naff, and sometimes downright unpleasant, this one is different. Apart from housing a bunch of Australia’s weird and wonderful creatures, it runs a magical evening experience called I, Animal. This interactive adventure through the park is part multi-media tour, part theatrical experience, and part animal encounter — I’ve seen it bring grown men to tears.
For those looking for a local guide to show the way, Hidden Secrets Tours does a great job of revealing some of the inner city’s more obscure sites. The walks feel like an informative stroll with a friend rather than a rigidly organised excursion, whether you want to play sommelier around wine bars or browse the racks of boutique stores on a Lanes & Arcades stroll.
Melbourne’s enthusiasm for a good night out is up there with its passion for food. From secretive cocktail bars to grungy rock joints, pop-up events to world-class festivals, this city knows how to have a good time. As most locals will attest, there’s a bit of a north/south divide in Melbourne. In the nightlife stakes, stick to the city — for its laneway bars — and places north of the river.
If you do venture south of the Yarra for a night out, head to St Kilda’s Claypots Bar for cheap pints and paella. Or sample the big range of beers at The Local Taphouse up on Carlisle Street. Just a short walk east from here, still on Carlisle Street, there are plenty of decent wine bars and places to eat popping up.
In the north, suburbs such as Collingwood, Fitzroy, Northcote and Brunswick are the places to seek out after dark — you’ll find plenty of live music, backstreet pubs, cool bars and cocktails galore. On Brunswick Street, the Naked in the Sky rooftop bar offers fantastic views and great food. Across the road, above Kodiak Club, there’s a little-known tequila joint called Little Blood that’s well worth visiting for a tipple. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the guys from Tequila Tromba — a top-notch Mexican tequila brand started by young Melbournites — putting on one of their Toma Tequila tasting and learning sessions.
And if you’re into live music, good venues include The Retreat (Brunwsick), The Espy (St Kilda), Bennetts Lane Jazz Club (the city), and the Northcote Social Club. Those with more highbrow tastes should head to the city centre, where the likes of the Malthouse Theatre and Her Majesty’s Theatre are to be found.
People travel from across the country to shop in Melbourne’s retail precincts. While the less adventurous will head directly for Bourke Street Mall in the city or South Yarra’s Chapel Street, go further afield to discover that one-off retro clock or limited edition prints.
For bargain clothes, Bridge Road is a safe bet, with the likes of Claude d’alban Paris, Mazi and Hipster always producing the goods if your budget is tight. Up on Sydney Road, Brunswick, you’ll come across an eclectic mix of stores. From rockabilly shops like Vicious Venus, to the clothing, jewellery and textile cooperative Olive Grove Studios, many a good buy can be found here. When up this way, drop in to Brunswick Bound, an independent bookstore doubling as a makeshift artist space and outlet for art, magazines, records and more.
In-the-know shoppers shouldn’t miss Fitzroy’s Gertrude Street either. This strip has an eclectic range of things to buy and if you tire of the shops, there are some cute pubs and bars along here too — the Builders Arms has a fancy new menu that’s worth exploring. And head to Dr Follicles if you’re in need of a hipster barber — free beer included.
Shoppers with a thing for vintage clothing will find Ruby Red Dress an absolute pleasure to peruse. Bicycle fans will enjoy the mix of fashion and bikes at St Cloud, while for a touch of the unusual, Amor y Locura sells wacky antiques from Latin America.
Melbourne is also very big on markets. Keep an eye out for Suzuki Night Market, Collingwood Farmers’ Market and St Kilda Twilight Market.
Stay downtown if you can — it gets you close to the action and it’s easy to reach the suburbs from here. Ovolo, on Little Bourke, just up the hill from China Town, is one of my favourites. It’s not pretentious, but it’s cool and comfortable. The free mini-bar and ‘grab-and-go’ breakfast are nice touches, and it’s great to walk out the door and be right among the laneways and inner city establishments, without it being too noisy or busy.
If you want to be down by the water, The Prince Hotel in St Kilda is a top pick. With an art-deco facade and a sophisticated interior, this 40-room hotel is a Melbourne favourite. The restaurant here is one of the best you’ll find, having been awarded two hats (the Aussie equivalent of Michelin stars) for its Euro-influenced modern Australian fare. The attached pub downstairs is a funny creature. It’s divided — left and right — into two distinct sides. On the left it’s a gay bar, on the right it’s a blokey Aussie pub with pool tables and sport playing on TVs. Both sides seem to mingle happily out the front though — somehow it just seems to work.
The Olsen in South Yarra is a colourful coming together of an art gallery and a hotel, and is one of Melbourne’s best-loved places to stay. While The Olsen ticks all the boxes as a five-star boutique property — with all the mod cons and big, modern rooms — it’s the art that really sets this place apart. The work of revered Australian landscape artist Dr John Olsen is found throughout the hotel. Be warned: you might end up checking out with a few paintings under your arm and your credit card being stretched to its limits.
Air China, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, China Southern, Emirates, Etihad, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar, Royal Brunei, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Vietnam Airlines and Virgin Atlantic all fly to Melbourne from the UK via their respective hubs.
Average flight time: 21h.
The new Myki ticketing system for travel on trams, trains and buses is being rolled out throughout 2013. Ensure you purchase a Myki card (at 7-Eleven stores, newsagents etc), from $7 (£4.64) for a day pass in zone 1. Keep it with you when you travel as it doesn’t allow for buying tickets on board. Taxis are easy to find apart from busy periods. www.myki.com.au
When to go
The ‘four seasons in one day’ cliche exists for good reason here. But it’s still very bearable year-round. January, February and March are the most stable and warm months with temperatures around 25C.
Need to know
Currency: Australian Dollar A$. £1 = A$1.51.
International dial code: 00 61 3.
Time difference: GMT +11.
Claude d’alban Paris: T: 00 613 9425 9711.
Hipster: T: 00 613 9429 8892.
Vicious Venus: www.viciousvenus.com
Olive Grove: www.olivegrovestudios.com.au
Brunswick Bound: www.brunswickbound.com.au
Ruby Red Dress: T: 00 613 9416 0040.
St Cloud: www.saintcloud.com.au
Amor y Locura: www.amorylocura.com
Claypots: T: 00 613 9534 1282.
The Local Taphouse: www.thelocal.com.au
Naked in the Sky: www.nakedforsatan.com.au
Little Blood: T: 00 613 4 3194 7910.
Toma Tequila: www.tomatequila.com.au
Northcote Social Club: www.northcotesocialclub.com
The Retreat: www.retreathotelbrunswick.com.au
The Espy: www.espy.com.au
Bennetts Lane Jazz Club: www.bennettslane.com
Malthouse Theatre: www.malthousetheatre.com.au
Her Majesty’s Theatre: www.hmt.com.au
How to do it
Travelbag offers seven nights at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in St Kilda from £1,075pp with indirect flights with Royal Brunei. www.travelbag.co.uk
Published in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)