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.
The Yarra River
The Yarra River
Despite its nondescript appearance, the muddy Yarra River was – and still is – an important part of the Melbourne scene. Tidal movements of up to 2m meant frequent flooding, a problem only partly solved by artificially straightening the river and building up its banks. This also had the incidental benefit of reserving tracts of low-lying land as recreational space, now pleasingly crisscrossed by paths and cycle tracks. At Federation Wharf, on the north side of Princes Bridge, you can rent bikes to explore the river banks; on fine weekends, especially, the Yarra comes to life, with people messing about in boats, cycling and strolling. The best way to see the Yarra though is on a cruise.
Tours from Melbourne
Tours from Melbourne
Adventure Tours Australia
t1300 654 604, wwww.adventuretours.com.au. This South Australia–based safari-tour operator does runs along the west coast from Perth to Darwin, Darwin to Melbourne and has Tasmania “stitched up”. It also does a three-day one-way tour from Melbourne to Adelaide via the Great Ocean Road and the Grampians departing three times a week ($395).
t03/9419 8878 or t1800 000 507, wwww.autopiatours.com.au. Long-established outfit running popular day-trips by minibus along the Great Ocean Road ($125), to Phillip Island ($135) and the Grampians ($120), plus a combined tour to the Great Ocean Road and the Grampians (3 days; $395), including dorm accommodation and most meals. It also offers one-way tours between Melbourne and Sydney via Wilsons Prom, Snowy Mountains and Canberra (3 days; $395); prices include meals and accommodation.
Bunyip Bushwalking Tours
t03/9650 9680, wwww.bunyiptours.com. Nature-focused tours with – as the name implies – lots of bushwalking, mainly to Wilson’s Promontory National Park (1–3 days; $110–195). For the longer trips you need to be reasonably fit and able to carry a pack with your own tent and supplies. The one- and two-day tours can be combined with the Phillip Island Penguin Parade on the way back to Melbourne. A three-day tour of the Great Ocean Road and the Grampians costs $340, and a one-day sunset tour is $120, including lunch. Very small groups.
t03/9646 8249, wwww.echidnawalkabout.com.au. Long-running upmarket ecotour operator, with very small groups and enthusiastic, extremely knowledgeable guides, focusing on native wildlife. The Savannah Walkabout day-tour ($180) goes to Serendip Sanctuary and the You Yangs, southwest of Melbourne, while longer trips head along the Great Ocean Road and to remoter parts of East Gippsland, and include bushwalks; accommodation is in B&Bs or very comfortable camps ($1450).
Eco Platypus Tours
t1800 819 091, wwww.ecoplatypustours.com. One very long day-trip along the Great Ocean Road, going as far as Loch Ard Gorge and staying at the Twelve Apostles for the sunset. The return trip is along the faster inland route via Colac ($100, but cheaper if more than 3 people book at the same time).
t1300 736 551, wwww.gowest.com.au. This family-run tour company offers day-trips, primarily aimed at the backpacker market, on a 21-seater minibus travelling the Great Ocean Road ($120) and to Phillip Island ($125); tours are very good value, entertaining and informative.
t1800 661 177, wwww.groovygrape.com.au. One-way tour specialist offering regular trips between Melbourne and Adelaide via the Great Ocean Road and the Grampians (3 days; $355). In Adelaide you can join its day-tour to the Barossa Valley ($79) and its one-way tour to Alice Springs (7 days; $895). Max twenty people.
Melbourne’s Best Tours
t1300 130 550, wwww.melbournetours.com.au. More conventional half-day and full-day tours in a small (21-seater) luxury coach to various destinations including Mornington Peninsula wineries ($361), Ballarat and Sovereign Hill ($367).
t1300 300 028, wwww.ozexperience.com. One-way trips from Melbourne to either Adelaide or Sydney, with an emphasis on hands-on activities such as surfing, hiking, mountain biking.
Phillip Island Penguin Tours
t03/9629 5888, wwww.penguinislandtour.com.au. As the name suggests, it focuses solely on day-trips to see penguins (from $99) and does it well with good minibuses equipped with DVD players.
The most obvious areas with a concentration of accommodation are the CBD, the adjoining suburbs of North Melbourne, Carlton, Fitzroy, East Melbourne and Richmond, and down by the bay around St Kilda. Some of the cheap accommodation areas on the fringes of the city centre are fairly dead at night, though they’re within easy reach of all the action. St Kilda is very lively, if a bit rough around the edges, with a few hostels and quite a few motels and apartments. South of the CBD, South Melbourne, Albert Park, South Yarra and Windsor are handy for both the city centre and the beach, and with lots of good eating options.
The most exclusive hotels are in the CBD, particularly around Collins Street and the leisure precincts of Southgate and the Crown Casino, while there’s a collection of revamped hotels around Southern Cross station. Melbourne has plenty of backpacker accommodation, ranging from fairly basic, scruffy places to smart, custom-built hostels with all mod cons. Most hostels have separate dorms for females on request. Standard facilities include a kitchen, TV room, laundry, luggage storage and internet access. If you’re staying a while and are interested in flat-sharing, check the Saturday edition of The Age, as well as the notice boards of hostels, the Galleon Café at 9 Carlisle St in St Kilda, Readings Books and Music, 309 Lygon St in Carlton, and the Traveller’s Aid Centre.
If you plan on staying during the big sporting events be aware that virtually all accommodation tends to be booked out months in advance. This applies particularly during the Australian Open Tennis in January and the Grand Prix (first or second weekend in March); other events and times to avoid or pre-book far in advance are the Melbourne Cup (first Tues in Nov and the preceding weekend) and the AFL Grand Final (last Sat in Sept).
Melbourne is Australia’s premier city for eating out. Sydney may be more style-conscious and Adelaide cheaper, but Melbourne has the best food and the widest choice of cuisines. In the city centre, Greek cafés line Lonsdale Street between Swanston and Russell streets, while Little Bourke Street is the home of Chinatown. Lygon Street, in inner-city Carlton, is just one of many places across the city with a concentration of Italian restaurants. Nearby, Brunswick Street in Fitzroy and Smith Street in neighbouring Collingwood both have a huge variety of international cuisines as well as trendy bars and cafés. Indeed, Fitzroy and St Kilda, another gastronomically mixed bag, are the centres of bar and café society; St Kilda also has great restaurants, bakeries and delis, as does Jewish Balaclava (aka East St Kilda). In Richmond Vietnamese places dominate Victoria Street, but you’ll also find cheap Middle Eastern and Burmese fare. Every year in March, the city celebrates all this culinary diversity with a sixteen-day Food and Wine Festival, with food-themed street parties and events around the city and its environs.
Some licensed restaurants still allow you to bring your own (BYO) drink, though check first. Most places only allow you to bring in wine, which usually incurs a corkage fee.
Bars, pubs and clubs
Bars, pubs and clubs
Melbourne’s fondness for a drink or three is reflected in its abundance of excellent bars and pubs – from places so obscure and cutting-edge you’ll only know they exist by word of mouth, to large establishments catering to broader and louder tastes. The clubbing hot spots are Chapel Street in South Yarra and the CBD, but clubs take root anywhere they can, from big commercial nights in the suburbs to obscure experimental sessions in inner-city laneways. International DJs visit frequently, and local talent keeps the scene thriving. The bigger the night, the more the cover charge, though it rarely tops $15 unless there’s an international guest.
In general, bars stay open to around 1am during the week and 3am at weekends, while some clubs are open until 5am or 7am at the weekend. Some of the more upmarket places have dress codes. You’ll find reviews of the city’s drinking spots at www.barfinder.com.au.
Melbourne has a thriving band scene, and just about every pub puts on some sort of music – often free – at some time during the week. Grungy Richmond has a big concentration of music pubs, as does Fitzroy, while St Kilda is also a worthy area to head to for a range of live music. Most clubs have a cover charge of around $10. Some backpacker hostels give vouchers for reduced or free admission to a rapidly changing array of venues. Free listings magazines such as Beat and Inpress are good sources of information about the local music scene, while local FM stations Triple R (102.7) and PBS (106.7) air alternative music and tell you what’s on and where.
Melbourne is the comedy capital of Australia, home of the madcap Doug Anthony All Stars, Wogs Out of Work and comedians from TV shows such as The Big Gig and The Comedy Company. The highlight of the comedy year is the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (www.comedyfestival.com.au) in April, based at the Town Hall in Swanston Street, with performances at over fifty venues around town. For one-off performances and other venues, check out the “EG” supplement to The Age on Fridays.
The Crown Casino, Melbourne Central and the Jam Factory in South Yarra have a number of cinemas showing blockbuster movies (cheap tickets available on Tuesdays). In summer, watching a film under the stars at the Moonlight Cinema in the Botanic Gardens can be a real treat (www.moonlight.com.au). The city’s vibrant independent cinemas screen less obviously commercial US films and foreign-language films; these cinemas tend to offer discounts on Monday. The Melbourne International Film Festival in July (www.melbournefilmfestival.com.au) has been going for over fifty years, based at a number of cinemas around the city. The much younger Melbourne Underground Film Festival (www.muff.com.au), held in October, continues to grow in popularity at an enormous rate.
Arts and music festivals
Arts and music festivals
The Melbourne International Arts Festival (www.melbournefestival.com.au) in October presents a selection of visual and performing arts, and opera, and features individual performers from Australia and overseas, as well as a host of free events at Federation Square and other places around the city. The more innovative and cutting-edge Melbourne Fringe Festival (www.melbournefringe.com.au) starts in late September and overlaps a few days with the Melbourne Festival, while the Melbourne Writers’ Festival (www.mwf.com.au) takes place in late August. The heavily promoted Moomba Festival (www.melbournemoombafestival.com.au), held in March, has a more commercial approach, featuring events such as firework displays and dragon-boat races on the banks of the Yarra River in Alexandra Gardens, and Docklands. Three popular outdoor music festivals take place in summer: Summadayze on January 1 featuring international bands and DJs; the Big Day Out on January 26; and Good Vibrations in early February. Other events include the Brunswick Music Festival in the third week of March, concentrating on folk and world music, and the St Kilda Festival, which runs for one week early February featuring music, comedy and street performances. The biennial Next Wave Festival, held over two weeks in the second half of May (the next one is in 2014), celebrates Victoria’s young artists, writers and musicians.
Gay and lesbian Melbourne
Gay and lesbian Melbourne
Melbourne’s gay and lesbian scene may not be as in-your-face as Sydney’s, but it’s almost as big, and is also less ghettoized. Fitzroy, Collingwood and Carlton, north of the river, and St Kilda, South Yarra and Prahran, to the south, boast a strong gay presence; Fitzroy, Northcote and Clifton Hill are the city’s recognized stomping grounds for lesbians. MCV (Melbourne Community Voice, gaynewsnetwork.com.au), a free gay and lesbian paper published weekly, is available at gay and lesbian venues.
Big events are mostly organized by the ALSO (Alternative LifeStyle Organisation) Foundation. The scene’s annual highlight, however, is the fabulous Midsumma Festival (mid-Jan to early Feb; www.midsumma.org.au). Held annually since 1988, Midsumma provides an umbrella for a wide range of sporting, artistic and theatrical events, and includes Pride March.