Sydney and Melbourne have been battling it out for supremacy as long as Europeans have been setting sail for Australia. Both are capitals of their respective states – New South Wales and Victoria – and both think they should be the capital of Australia.

So fierce is their rivalry that nobody could choose between them, and instead Australia had to build a whole new capital inland in Canberra.

Canberra, though, has nothing on these two. Both have gorgeous coastal locations, world-leading museums, trend-setting restaurants and a vibrant nightlife. Both are great places to shop, to watch sports and to hit the beach. And both are gateways to some of Australia’s greatest sights.

So which one should you head to first? Here’s our lowdown on Australia’s greatest debate. Get ready to weigh in.

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Which is best for culture?

Melburnians would sniff at this question – their city, after all, is known as Australia’s “cultural capital”. You’ll find the Southbank precinct here, with the vast Arts Centre (the country’s busiest performing arts venue), the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia’s oldest, largest and most visited arts museum, and the country’s oldest professional theatre company the Melbourne Theatre Company.

There are more than a hundred art galleries in the city, as well as plenty of cutting-edge culture, from some of Australia’s best street art in the narrow lanes that run through the CBD to audiovisual art at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image at Federation Square.

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Sydney does have a lot to offer too though, and it certainly has more iconic architecture. There is, of course, the Harbour Bridge stretching across the water, and the famous Opera House, which plays host to a fabulous line up of events, including performances by Opera Australia and The Australian Ballet.

But what if I’d rather hit the beach?

Sydney has the edge here, with some of the world’s most recognisable big-name beaches (Bondi and Manly) strung along its shores. Head to the south shore for Bondi, where the surf is always up and you can learn how to ride those waves yourself.

You can also walk along the coastal path to Bronte beach, one of Australia’s most accessible and pleasant strolls. Manly is on the north shore and reached by the Manly Ferry – probably one of the world’s best-value cruises at just a few dollars for 30 minutes of gorgeous harbour views.

Melbourne’s answer to such strong competition is St Kilda, a sandy strand just a short tram ride from the city and home to a proper pier, as well as Brighton, with its brightly painted beach huts and city skyline views.

And what about sport?

Australia loves to get out on the football field (increasingly soccer as well as Aussie rules), and rugby or cricket pitches, so unsurprisingly both cities are great places to watch sport.

Melbourne claims to be the country’s “sporting capital” and along the banks of the Yarra River you’ll find numerous sporting venues including the Melbourne Cricket Ground (Australia’s largest), and the Rod Laver Tennis Centre, home to the Australian Open.

There’s definitely more big-ticket sport happening in Melbourne, but Sydney hosted the 2000 Olympics and still has the Olympic Park, where you can catch a game of soccer, Aussie rules or netball.

That’ll work up an appetite, so which is best for food?

Both cities have benefited from diverse immigration and this is reflected in the choice of places to eat. Significant Asian populations mean there are plenty of Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants, while the well-established Italian and Greek communities mean you won’t struggle to get a great pizza or moussaka.

Melbourne, though, probably pips Sydney when it comes to haute cuisine. It has long been the proving ground for an international chef’s first foray into Australia (Britain’s Heston Blumenthal relocated his famous Fat Duck here for six months in 2015 and Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay have both had restaurants in the city) and as a result more experimental cuisine is often on the menu.

Try Dinner by Heston for truly creative cuisine, The European for fabulous French dishes or Dish at the Royce Hotel for Mod Oz classics including local calamari and lamb rump.

Melbourne is also Australia’s “coffee capital” and days here pretty much always start with a strong cup of Joe. The best coffee is found at tiny cafes tucked into the lanes, and you’ll find plenty of pavement tables here to enjoy a leisurely breakfast come brunch.

Sydney does a particularly fine line in waterfront dining. Seafood is, predictably, very popular and there is generally a slightly more laidback vibe than in Melbourne, with long lunches by the water de rigueur. Head to North Bondi Fish for local seafood overlooking the famous beach, or head out to Watson’s Bay for fish and chips beside the ferry pier at Watson’s Bay Hotel.

What about nightlife?

Sydneysiders may try to label Melburnians as dull and uptight, but Sydney’s party scene has been seriously harmed in recent years by the state government’s lockout laws. These draconian party-pooping restrictions mean Sydney has lost dozens of late night bars and clubs, and its infamous Kings Cross is a shadow of its former self.

Step forward Melbourne, where you can follow the cool kids to speakeasy-style bars tucked into the narrow laneways that snake through the CBD or go all-out with cocktails at one of the city’s rooftop bars. Fancy a drink at 5am? Crown Casino never closes.

Back in Sydney hit Newtown to avoid the lockout laws. You’re outside the so-called Sydney CBD Entertainment Precinct here and close to the university – a winning combination.

Image by Gerard Ward on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Which is the best base for day trips?

Like wine? Then either city will work for you, with the Hunter Valley close to Sydney and the Yarra Valley only a short drive from Melbourne.

Sydney is also just two hour’s drive from the Blue Mountains, where you can stroll through eucalyptus forest to waterfalls and towering rock stacks.

Melbourne has the Great Ocean Road on its doorstep, a 243km coastal drive that is one of the world’s most scenic road trips. You’ll see the Twelve Apostles rock stacks, swim at Loch Ard Gorge and walk through ancient rainforest at Cape Otway as well as enjoying the thrill of swinging the car around loop after loop high above the surf.

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So which one should I go to first?

Well, we said this was a great debate…. So would we dare come down anywhere but on the fence?

Both Sydney and Melbourne are fun cities with cool culture, great food and beautiful beaches, as well as being great bases for some memorable day trips, so take your pick and you won’t be disappointed either way.

Explore more of Australia with the Rough Guide to AustraliaCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

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