For many years, Melbourne has been ranked one of the world’s most liveable cities. Not bad for a place that’s long played second fiddle to the glamour of Sydney. Victoria’s state capital has earned itself a reputation as a laid-back, affordable metropolis with great food and a friendly, multicultural vibe. Immigration has long been central to its appeal — it’s home to large Italian, Greek and Vietnamese communities, among others — and the city is currently growing faster than any other Australian state capital. But while most tourists flock to the city-centre attractions, it’s the suburbs that showcase the best of Melbourne: its people, their culture and the energy of a growing city.
Separated from the CBD by miles of shipping containers and warehouse distribution centres, Footscray is like nowhere else in Melbourne. While investment has poured into other parts, it’s always been a bit scruffy — but for generations of immigrants, it’s been the first port of call.
“Footscray seems to be a place that’s welcoming for anybody who’s starting out,” says Tony Cavallaro, who grew up here. Established 62 years ago, his family’s business, T Cavallaro & Sons, is a local institution, known across Melbourne for its cannoli. On any given day, you’ll find three generations of extended family baking in the kitchen, laughter carrying out from the back.
“Footscray was mainly European — Greeks, Italians, Yugoslavs, Poles,” says Tony, whose father emigrated from Sicily to Australia in the 1950s. “Because we had that European background, it was like one big community.”
As I walk through the suburb, the businesses tell the tale of the area’s shifting demographics. Next door to Cavallaro’s is a bakery selling Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches — a legacy of Southeast Asian immigration since the 1970s — while down on Nicholson Street, an Ethiopian shop makes injera flatbread, evidence of the area’s African community.
“It’s becoming more like I remember it in the early days, because everyone is moving in, rather than one ethnic group at a time,” says Tony. Unlike much of Melbourne, Footscray hasn’t fully gentrified yet, but the creep has begun, with numerous high-rise apartment blocks shooting up. Meanwhile, cheaper rents and a relatively unsaturated market have made it an appealing place for new ventures. Among the businesses that have flocked to the area is an outpost of Melbourne burger chain Huxtaburger, and 8bit, a diner whose corner facade gets covered afresh every few weeks with fly-posters patterned with the brand’s retro arcade game-style burger logo.
“We believed we had a chance to provide something that was not being offered,” says Caleb Baker, co-owner of Mr West, a bar that opened last October in the rafters of a former discount shop in Footscray’s mall. “We always wanted it to be in the west — and, in particular, in Footscray,” says Caleb. “We thought it had such a unique and soulful vibe about it. Everyone who lives in or has grown up in the west is very proud of it.”
While Footscray is a place to start out, the story of Melbourne’s once-bustling high street is about starting again. Running from South Yarra to St Kilda through Windsor and Prahran, Melbourne’s Chapel Street suffered the same fate as many of Britain’s retail precincts in the past decade, yielding to the pressure of mall culture and online shopping. Yet, in recent years, the city’s booming food scene has breathed new life into the area around Chapel Street — or parts of it, at least. Driven by Melbourne’s rapid population growth, property prices have soared and thirtysomethings with an appetite for dining out have moved in.
While there are still rundown sections, the Windsor end of the street is now home to one of Melbourne’s premium inner-city dining strips. During the day, cashed-up gourmands head to Prahran Market — Australia’s oldest food market — to snack on boutique bites, sip designer coffee and fill their shopping bags with organic, sustainable produce.
Low commercial rents have made this a place where up-and-coming chefs open cool restaurants, and foodies wait for hours in the bitter cold for tables at local institutions like Japanese fusion restaurant Mr Miyagi (think salmon nori tacos) and Chin Chin (which has just opened a branch in Sydney, ramping up the interstate rivalry locals in both cities seem to preoccupy themselves with).
The local bar scene has been subject to the same social media-fuelled hype. Walk through the industrial freezer door at sandwich shop Boston Sub and you’ll be able to order a cocktail from Chapel Street’s worst-kept secret, the tiki bar-style speakeasy Jungle Boy. Those after something more sophisticated can peruse the moody-interiors and whiskey-laden shelves of old-school cocktail bar The Woods of Windsor.
On the indie shopping front, Greville Street’s boutiques and record store are worth a detour from the main drag, as is the chaos of the Chapel Street Bazaar, which features retro homewares, collectibles of questionable taste and buried pop culture treasures.
Fitzroy & Collingwood
A bohemian enclave for artists and a hub for hipsters, Fitzroy and sister suburb Collingwood were once defined by their blue-collar roots, shared student housing, warehouses and industry. These days, the area has found itself in fashion as people have bought into the laid-back, creative vibe.
“It was very working class,” says Eliot Morrissey, of Localing Private Tours Melbourne. “My grandma’s generation think it’s crazy that all the kids want to live down here, because back then you’d get mugged”.
These two areas are known for their street art, which ranges from the quirky to the political. Highlights include a photorealistic portrait of an Indigenous Australian child by artist Adnate in Fitzroy, and a 34-year-old mural by US artist Keith Haring on the walls of the former Collingwood Technical College that’s somehow survived the elements (and repeated graffiti attacks).
Other installations have a more parochial flavour. On Brunswick Street, well-known local poet and performer Adrian ‘Mr Poetry’ Rawlins is immortalised in cast-iron by Melbourne sculptor Peter Corlett. Another urban landmark is Naked for Satan, a pintxos joint with a rooftop bar. The story behind the pub’s name exemplifies the creative and slightly dodgy spirit of the area. It pays tribute to Russian immigrant Leon ‘Satan’ Satanovich, who distilled vodka in the basement during the Depression. “It would get so hot during the Melbourne summer that he’d take his clothes off and be left in his jocks stirring these big vats,” says Eliot. “So the local saying became ‘let’s get naked for Satan’, which was code for ‘let’s get wasted on Satanovich’s bootleg vodka’.”
As is often the case in Melbourne, food here is taken a little too seriously. Lune Croissanterie is a bakery ‘purpose-built for croissants’ — lovingly prepared inside a temperature-controlled glass cube called the Lune Lab; Aunty Peg’s cafe/coffee roasting house has a coffee menu that changes every two weeks (they also make the artistic choice to not offer milk). The pretension is slightly grating, but easily forgiven once you experience the quality of — and passion for — the product.
While those in search of the hip life drive prices up, local authority housing keeps the area’s demographic balanced — often visibly so. On a tower block in Fitzroy is a blue neon art installation created by kids living on the estate. It flickers in the night with a simple, clear reminder for those visiting: ‘Our Home’.
When in Melbourne
Back in 2010, over 10,000 people marched through the CBD to protest that the city’s licensing laws were slowly strangling the live music scene. People power worked, and once-doomed venues such as The Tote and others along Collingwood’s Smith Street continue to nurture up-and-coming acts.
The city’s trams cover 24 routes across 155 miles of track. They’re free in the Central CBD, where the number 35 City Circle service passes key tourist attractions and includes commentary.
Street art is a big part of Melbourne’s identity. The CBD laneways are saturated with tags and murals thrown up overnight by visitors, but the best street art is found in the precincts — often in the most unexpected places.
Every city needs a quick getaway, and for most Melburnians, that place is Phillip Island, home to penguins, seals, vineyards and fine dining restaurants, plus a Formula 1 racing circuit.
The fever-pitch obsession with coffee in Melbourne means baristas now have the skills of chemists. Owners import and roast their own beans, and customers travel from far afield to try the latest hipster brew.
Emirates flies to Melbourne via Dubai from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Newcastle. Expedia offers economy flights from Gatwick plus a five-night stay at Coppersmith Hotel from £1,229 per person.
Published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)