Melbourne is Australia’s second-largest city, with a population of 4.25 million, around half a million less than Sydney. Rivalry between the two cities – in every sphere from football to fashion and business – is on an almost childish level. In purely monetary terms, Sydney leads the race, 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 and vibrant culture make it an undeniably pleasant place to live, and to visit too.
In many ways, Melbourne is the most European of all Australian cities: magnificent landscaped gardens and parks provide green spaces near the centre, while beneath the skyscrapers of the Central Business District (CBD), an understorey of solid, Victorian-era facades ranged along tree-lined boulevards presents the city on a more human scale. Large-scale immigration since World War II has shaken up the city’s formerly self-absorbed, parochial WASP mind-set for good. Whole villages have come here from Vietnam, Lebanon, Sudan, Turkey, Italy and especially from Greece, furnishing the well-worn statistic that Melbourne is the third-largest Greek city after Athens and Thessaloniki. Not surprisingly, the immigrant blend has transformed the city into a foodie heaven, and tucking into a different cuisine each night is one of its great treats.
The CBD lies at the heart of the city, a grid bounded by La Trobe, Spring, Flinders and Spencer streets, dotted with fine public buildings and plenty of shops. To the north of the CBD, a wander through lively, century-old Queen Victoria Market will repay both serious shoppers and people-watchers. In the east, the CBD rubs up against Eastern Hill, home to Parliament House as well as the landscaped Fitzroy Gardens, from where it’s a short walk to the venerable Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), a must for sports fans, also part of the Ultimate Sports Tour or take a walking tour and visit the museum.
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, with new high-rises still popping up like mushrooms. Since the waterfront development began in the mid-1990s, Southgate, Crown Casino and the Melbourne Exhibition Centre have since been joined by Southbank’s Eureka Tower (featuring a stunning observation deck you can visit) and the Docklands development to the west with its waterside bars and restaurants. Federation Square on the north bank of the Yarra River is considered the centre of the city; the adjacent park, Birrarung Marr, links Fed Square with the sports arenas further east. Continuing south of the river, the Victorian Arts Centre forms a cultural strip on one side of St Kilda Road, while on the other, Government House and the impressive Shrine of Remembrance front the lush and ramblingRoyal Botanic Gardens.
Surrounding the CBD, Melbourne’s inner suburbs offer up a melange of different vibes – the combination of which gives the city its distinctive “Melbourne” flavour. To the north, edgy Fitzroy, Brunswick, Carlton and Collingwood are home to hipsters, live music, quirky cafés and trendy bars, while Richmond, in the east, is renowned for discount shopping outlets and incredible Vietnamese food. South of the river, the more polished, high-end shopping suburbs of South Yarra and Prahran provide a more sophisticated side of Melbourne, before morphing into the raw, urban grittiness that is the Windsor, Balaclava and St Kilda trio. Melbourne’s west, while it still has a way to go in the merciless Melbourne cool stakes, is undoubtedly an area to watch.
The city’s strong claim to being the nation’s cultural capital is well founded: laced with a healthy dash of counterculture, the city’s artistic life flourishes, culminating in the highbrow Melbourne International Arts Festival for two weeks in October, and its slightly more offbeat (and shoestring) cousin, the Fringe Festival. Throughout the year, there are jam-packed seasons of classical music, comedy and theatre, a wacky array of exhibitions in small galleries, enough art-house movies to last a lifetime, and the Writers’ Festival in August showcasing Australian literary talent. Sport, especially Australian Rules football, is almost a religion here, while the Melbourne Cup in November is a public holiday, celebrated with gusto.
Melbourne is an excellent base for day-trips out into the surrounding countryside. Closest to the city 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. For those with deep pockets, a Sunrise Balloon Flight will help you discover the region in style. The Yarra Valley is also home to the Lake Mountains, the closest ski resort to Melbourne and an easy day trip from the city.
To the south, huge Port Phillip Bay is encircled by the arms of the Bellarine and Mornington peninsulas. The Mornington Peninsula on the east side has farmland and wineries on gently rolling hills and is home to some of the city’s most popular beaches and surfing spots, while the placid waters of the bay are good for swimming. Western Port Bay, beyond the peninsula, encloses two fascinating islands – French Island, much of whose wildlife is protected by a national park, and Phillip Island, whose “Penguin Parade”, when masses of Little penguins waddle ashore each night, is among Australia’s biggest tourist attractions. Book onto a day tour and see the penguins in action.
Geelong and most of the Bellarine Peninsula are not quite so captivating, but they do give access to the west coast and the Great Ocean Road. This famous stretch of coastline has spectacular ocean views and ancient rainforests and can be discovered on day trips like this small group day tour from Melbourne. Queenscliff, near the narrow entrance to Port Phillip Bay, with its beautiful, grand hotels, is a stylish (and expensive) weekend getaway.
Melbourne boasts a reasonably cool climate, although January and February are prone to barbaric hot spells when temperatures can climb into the forties with the threat of bushfires, which may close off certain areas to the public.
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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. 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. For online guides to the city’s drinking spots try melbournepubs.com or barfinder.com.au.
Melbourne’s club culture is as vibrant as its bar scene. The hot spots are Chapel St 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.
Melbourne’s gay and lesbian venues are concentrated around the areas of South Yarra and Prahran in the south, and Collingwood and Fitzroy in the north. While there are still several staunch gay-only bars, the trend is increasingly moving to mixed venues that are gay friendly.
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has a season from Feb to Dec based at Hamer Hall and the Melbourne Town Hall, while the State Orchestra of Victoria performs less regularly at Hamer Hall, often playing works by Australian composers. Ticket prices are around $40–80 for classical music performances, and $70–150 for opera.
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 St between Swanston and Russell sts, while Little Bourke St is the home of Chinatown. Lygon St, in inner-city Carlton, is just one of many places across the city with a concentration of Italian restaurants.
Nearby, Brunswick St in Fitzroy and Smith St 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 St, but you’ll also find cheap Middle Eastern and Burmese food.
A walking tour is a great way to get to know the foodie scene in Melbourne.
Rising up from St Kilda Road in a gentle incline, the Plaza at Federation Square narrows into a horseshoe-shape where it’s hemmed in by buildings including the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, one of the country’s most interesting art museums, and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. There are also numerous cafés and restaurants, usually buzzing with activity. Of the sights around Federation Square, Flinders Street Station, St Paul’s Cathedral and the National Trust-listed painting Chloe are worthwhile diversions.
Occupying an entire block between Flinders Street and the Yarra River, Federation Square (or “Fed Square”, as it’s generally known), is considered the “heart” of Melbourne’s CBD. Created in 2002 to provide Melbourne with a single, central unifying focus, it was initially met with some resistance by Melburnians. Now, however, its bars and cafés are a popular after-work meeting spot, while the Plaza at its core is where crowds gather to check out live music, short art films and major sports events on a huge video screen.
Walk from Flinders Street through the Atrium – a unique passageway of glass, steel and zinc – or from the Plaza through the similarly narrow Crossbar to reach the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, named in honour of Sir Ian Potter (1902–94), a local financier, philanthropist and patron of the arts. Occupying three floors, the centre showcases one of the best collections of Australian art in the country. The gallery is split between traditional and contemporary indigenous art, historic and modern Australian collections, and special temporary exhibitions. The stylish Crossbar café on the third floor has views of the Yarra and serves good snacks and drinks.
The building itself is as much a work of art as its exhibits, constructed from two overlapping wings forming a slightly crooked X and offering constantly shifting views, with glimpses of the Yarra and the parklands through the glass walls in the southern part of the building. The best way to get a handle on the collection, as well as the building, is to participate in a free guided tour of the main collection. Additional tours focus on specific aspects of the collection.
As Australia’s “culture capital”, Melbourne plays host to a number of lively festivals throughout the year celebrating food, music, film, fashion, culture and the arts. The City of Melbourne council website That’s Melbourne (thatsmelbourne.com.au) has an extensive festivals guide.
FRENCH ISLAND, on the eastern side of the Mornington Peninsula, is well off the beaten track. A former prison farm, about two-thirds of the island is a national park, with the remaining third used as farmland. The island is renowned for its rich wildlife, especially birds of prey, and a flourishing koala colony. Make sure you bring mosquito repellent. You need a permit to bring a car onto the island, but it’s a great place to cycle, an activity that is encouraged, with all walking tracks open to bikes.
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. There is a selection of gay- and lesbian-friendly accommodation in these areas and a host of gay- and lesbian club nights around town.
The scene’s annual highlight is the fabulous Midsumma Festival (mid-Jan to early Feb; 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. There’s also the much-celebrated Melbourne Queer Film Festival in March (mqff.com.au), which has been running since 1991.
MCV (Melbourne Community Voice; gaynewsnetwork.com.au), a free gay and lesbian paper published weekly, is available at gay and lesbian venues.
Southwest of Melbourne, the Bellarine Peninsula, together with the Mornington Peninsula to the east, separates Port Phillip Bay from Bass Strait. The Bellarine does not receive the hoards of tourists that the Mornington Peninsula experiences over the summer months and for this it is a quiet, peaceful place to escape. Passing through Werribee, the You Yangs and Serendip Sanctuary, the city of Geelong – the state’s largest city after the capital – is the gateway to the peninsula and the Great Ocean Road, and a worthy stopoff point for an afternoon or a few days en route. The historic seaside village of Queenscliff, with its elegant Victorian-era hotels, stately churches and quaint fishermen’s cottages, sits at the end of the peninsula and is the docking point for the Peninsula Searoad passenger and car ferry, linking Queenscliff and the Bellarine with Sorrento on the Mornington Peninsula.
Approaching GEELONG via its industrial outskirts, you can be forgiven for wanting to zip past the bland melange of fast-food outlets, petrol stations and suburban housing to the beckoning seaside attractions of the Bellarine Peninsula and the Great Ocean Road beyond. However, Geelong has made a big effort to shed its rust-bucket image, mainly by revamping the waterfront. The city centre is a pleasant enough place to do some exploring, combined with a lunch stop.
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 (beat.com.au; see Entertainment listings and booking agencies) are a good source of information about the local music scene.
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 in April.
The Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Precinct, located 3km east of the city, contains a series of sport stadiums and venues including Melbourne Park, Olympic Park and the beloved Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). It is considered Australia’s premier sports precinct, and regularly hosts some of the biggest domestic and international sporting events, including the AFL Grand Final (Australian Rules football), Australian Open (tennis) and Boxing Day Test (cricket). The venues have also previously hosted the 1956 Summer Olympics and 2006 Commonwealth Games.
Birrarung Marr forms a green link between the sports precinct of Melbourne Park and Federation Square, giving striking views of the city skyline, the sports arenas, river and parklands. Created from land previously occupied by railway lines, a swimming pool and a road, it now consists of grassy slopes, intersected by a long footbridge that crosses the entire park from the southeast to the northwest. The footbridge starts at a small, artificially created wetland area in the southeast by the river called the Billabong and leads over Red Gum Gully to the park’s centrepiece, the Federation Bells, a collection of 39 bells ranging in size from a small handbell to a huge bell weighing a tonne, created to commemorate the Centenary of Federation in 2001. The bells are computer-controlled and normally ring three times a day.
East of the CBD lies Yarra Park, containing the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). Hosting state and international cricket matches and some of the top Aussie Rules football games, the “G”, as it is affectionately referred to, is one of sports-mad Melburnians’ best-loved icons. Home to the Melbourne Cricket Club since 1853, the complex became the centrepiece of the 1956 Olympic Games after it had been completely reconstructed – only the historic members’ stand survived. The present-day MCG has a capacity of 100,000, boosted by the development of the Northern Stand, which was created for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, and houses the National Sport Museum, containing various sports exhibitions.
Melbourne’s tram system dates back to 1885, and some of the trams are vintage wooden vehicles dating back as far as the 1920s. The vintage City Circle tram is a free service that runs in a loop along Flinders, Spring, Nicholson, La Trobe and Spencer sts. The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant is a converted 1927 tram offering a traditional silver- and white-linen restaurant service as you trundle around Melbourne.
Daily (except Christmas Day & Good Friday) every 12min. Timetables and maps available on w ptv.vic.gov.au.
Starts at Normanby Rd near the Crown Casino, South Melbourne. The restaurant (no-smoking) offers a three-course early dinner and a 5-course dinner, plus a 4-course lunch. All drinks are included. You’ll need to reserve at least 2 to 3 weeks ahead, or up to 3 or 4 months in advance for Friday and Saturday evenings (tramrestaurant.com.au).
The Mornington Peninsula curves right around Port Phillip Bay, culminating in Point Nepean, well to the southwest of Melbourne. The shoreline facing the bay is beach-bum territory, though the well-heeled denizens of Sorrento and Portsea, at the tip of the peninsula, might well resent that tag. On the largely straight, ocean-facing coast, Mornington Peninsula National Park encompasses some fine seascapes, with several walking trails marked out. The western side of the peninsula facing the shallow waters of Western Port Bay (and French and Phillip islands) has a much quieter, rural feel. Heading north from the pleasant township of Flinders, the coastline of rocky cliffs flattens out to sandy beaches, while north of Stony Point are mudflats and saltmarshes lined by white mangroves: not particularly visually appealing but an internationally recognized and protected habitat for migratory waterbirds. Away from the coasts, the townships of Arthurs Seat and Red Hill make for an enjoyable day-trip or weekend getaway, with an abundance of wineries, walks and markets to explore.
The inland area around Arthurs Seat and Red Hill is probably the most scenic: a bucolic landscape of rolling hills, orchards and paddocks. This is also where the bulk of the peninsula’s two hundred or so vineyards are located. They produce superb, if pricey, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio/Gris and Pinot Noir wines. As in the Yarra Valley, good restaurants, especially winery restaurants, have proliferated on the peninsula in recent years, some of them in truly spectacular settings.
The hugely popular holiday destination of PHILLIP ISLAND is famous above all for the nightly roosting of hundreds of Little penguins at Summerland Beach – the so-called Penguin Parade – but the island also boasts some dramatic coastline, plenty of surfing, fine swimming beaches, and a couple of well-organized wildlife parks.
Cowes, on the sheltered bay side, is the main town and a lively and attractive place to stay. Other, smaller, communities worth a visit are San Remo, on the mainland just before the bridge; Newhaven, the first island community across the bridge; Rhyll, on the northeast corner of the island; and Ventnor, just west of Cowes.
The Phillip Island Reserve includes all the public land on the Summerland Peninsula, the narrow tip of land at the island’s western extremity. The reason for the reserve is the Little penguin, the smallest of the penguins, found only in southern Australian waters and whose largest colony breeds at Summerland Beach (around two thousand penguins in the parade area, and twenty thousand on the island altogether).
It's an easy day trip from Melbourne to explore the coastlines and the penguin parade (see below).
The Penguin Parade is inevitably horribly commercial, with four thousand visitors a night at the busiest time of the year (around Christmas, Jan and Easter). Spectators sit in concrete-stepped stadiums looking down onto a floodlit beach, with taped narrations in Japanese, Taiwanese and English. But ecological disaster would ensue if the penguins weren’t managed properly, and visitors would still flock here, harming the birds and eroding the sand dunes. As it is, all the money made goes back into research and looking after the penguins, and into facilities such as the excellent Penguin Parade Visitor Centre: the “Penguin Experience” here is a simulated underwater scene of the hazards of a penguin’s life, and there are also interactive displays, videos and even nesting boxes where you can watch the chicks.
The parade itself manages to transcend the setting in any case, as the penguins come pouring onto the beach, waddling comically once they leave the water. They start arriving soon after dark; fifty minutes later the floodlights are switched off and it’s all over, at which time (or before) you can move on to the extensive boardwalks over their burrows, with diffused lighting at regular intervals enabling you to watch their antics for hours after the parade finishes – they’re active most of the night. The quietest time to observe them is during the cold and windy winter (you’ll need water- or windproof clothing at any time of year). Remember, too, that you can see Little penguins at many other beaches in southern and southeastern Australia, perhaps not in such large numbers, but with far fewer onlookers.
Most cruises ply the Yarra River and the upper reaches of Port Phillip Bay (called Hobsons Bay) between St Kilda and Williamstown at the mouth of the Yarra. A cruise on the western suburbs’ Maribyrnong River reveals a side of Melbourne tourists don’t usually get to see, and contrary to local (eastern suburbs) prejudices, it is not all factory yards and oil-storage containers either. The main departure points in the city for cruises along the Yarra River are Federation Wharf, at the southern end of Federation Square, Southgate and, further west, Williamstown. All cruises run weather permitting; in the cooler months (May–Sept) the last scheduled departures of the day may be cancelled.
Melbourne’s big two department stores, David Jones and Myer, are located off the Bourke Street Mall, though the city really excels with its independent funky boutiques. Many places are open 7 days a week, especially shops in suburban areas such as Carlton, Fitzroy, South Yarra and St Kilda.
Melbourne’s standing as the centre of Australian theatre has been recognized since 1871, when visiting English novelist Anthony Trollope remarked on the city’s excellent venues and variety of performances. Nowadays, you can see a host of quality productions most nights of the week, from big musicals to experimental drama.
The Crown Casino, Melbourne Central and the Jam Factory in South Yarra have a number of cinemas showing blockbuster movies (cheap tickets available on Tues). The city’s vibrant independent cinemas screen less obviously commercial US films and foreign-language films; these cinemas tend to offer discounts on Mon. Two annual film festivals take place in the city – Melbourne International Film Festival and Melbourne Underground Film Festival.