MELBOURNE is Australia’s second-largest city, with a population of 3.8 million, around half a million less than Sydney. Rivalry between the two cities – in every sphere from cricket to business – is on an almost childish level. In purely monetary terms, Sydney is clearly in the ascendancy, but, as Melburnians never tire of pointing out, they inhabit one of the world’s most “liveable cities”. While Melbourne may lack a truly stunning natural setting or in-your-face sights, its subtle charms make it an undeniably pleasant place to live, and to visit too.
Melbourne is a truly multicultural city – whole villages have come from Vietnam, Lebanon, Turkey, Italy and especially from Greece. Not surprisingly, the immigrant blend has transformed the city into a foodie mecca, and tucking into a different cuisine each night is one of its great treats. Melbourne’s strong claim to being the nation’s cultural capital is well founded as well; laced with a healthy dash of counterculture, the city’s artistic life flourishes. Sport, especially Australian Rules Football, is almost a religion here, while the Melbourne Cup in November is a public holiday, celebrated with gusto.
At the heart of the city lies the Central Business District (CBD), dotted with fine public buildings and with the narrow-lanes of Chinatown near its centre. The Immigration Museum in the Old Customs House is dedicated to the myriad of nationalities that have made their way to the state of Victoria. To the north of the CBD a wander through lively, century-old Queen Victoria Market will repay both serious shoppers and people-watchers, while the Melbourne Museum in tranquil Carlton Gardens draws on the latest technology to give an insight into Australia’s flora, fauna and culture.
Bordering the south side of the CBD, the muddy and, in former decades, much-maligned Yarra River lies at the centre of the massive developments that have transformed the face of the city, including the new tourist sight, Eureka Tower. High-rises are still popping up like mushrooms. Federation Square on the north bank of the Yarra opposite Flinders Street station went through its own transformation about a decade ago and has since become one of the city’s main focal points.
However, it’s in Melbourne’s inner suburbs, jammed full of places to visit, that you’ll really get a feel for what life here is all about. Café society finds its home to the north among the alternative galleries and secondhand shops of Fitzroy, while the Italian cafés on Lygon Street in nearby Carlton fuelled the Beat Generation with espresso, though these days boutiques far outnumber bookshops. Grungy Richmond, to the east, has both Vietnamese and Greek enclaves, is home to a number of good Middle Eastern restaurants, and has a diverse music scene in its many pubs. South of the river is the place to shop until you drop, whether at wealthy South Yarra, self-consciously groovy Prahran or snobby Toorak. To the south, St Kilda has the advantage of a beachside location to go with its trendy but raucous nightlife.
Melbourne is an excellent base for day-trips out into the surrounding countryside. Closest to Melbourne are the quaint villages of the eucalypt-covered Dandenong Ranges, while the scenic Yarra Valley, in the northeast, is Victoria’s answer to South Australia’s Barossa Valley, and one of many wine-producing areas around Melbourne. To the south, huge Port Phillip Bay is encircled by the arms of the Bellarine and Mornington peninsulas. Mornington Peninsula offers more opportunity for wine-tasting, and in addition to bucolic scenery there are beaches galore, the windswept coast facing the sea is popular with surfers, while the placid waters of the bay are good for swimming and messing about in boats.