Seen from across the river, Melbourne’s Central Business District (CBD) presents a spectacular modern skyline; what you notice from close up, however, are the florid nineteenth-century facades, grandiose survivors of the great days of the gold rush and after. The former Royal Mint on William Street near Flagstaff Gardens is one of the finest examples, but the main concentrations are to the south on Collins Street and along Spring Street to the east. At the centre of the CBD, trams jolt through the busy Bourke Street Mall. A stone’s throw from these central thoroughfares, narrow lanes, squares and arcades with vibrant street art, hole-in-the-wall cafés, small restaurants, shops and boutiques add a cosy and intimate feel to the city.
North of Bourke Street, and running parallel to it, is Little Bourke Street, with the majestic Law Courts by William Street at the western end, and Chinatown in the east between Exhibition and Swanston streets. Australia’s oldest continuous Chinese settlement, Melbourne’s Chinatown began with a few boarding houses in the 1850s (when the gold rushes attracted Chinese people in droves, many from the Pearl River Delta near Hong Kong) and grew as the gold began to run out and Chinese fortune-seekers headed back to the city. Today the area still has a low-rise, narrow-laned, nineteenth-century character, and it’s packed with restaurants, stores and some of Melbourne’s best-hidden laneway bars and restaurants.
East of Parliament House, the broad acres of Fitzroy Gardens run a close second to Carlton Gardens as a getaway from the CBD. Originally laid out in the shape of the Union Jack flag, the park’s paths still just about conform to the original pattern, though the formal style has been fetchingly abandoned in between. The gardens are best appreciated on weekdays, as at the weekend you’ll spend most of your time dodging the video cameras of wedding parties. The much-touted main attraction is really only for kitsch nostalgists: Captain Cook’s Cottage was the family home of Captain James Cook, the English navigator who explored the southern hemisphere in three great voyages and first “discovered” the east coast of Australia. Otherwise, there are attractive flower displays at the Conservatory.
Nothing screams “Melbourne” quite like trams, four-seasons-in-one-day weather and the MCG. That is, nothing except a vibrant city laneway. Often missed by visitors, the multitude of character-filled laneways crisscrossing the CBD are one of the city’s greatest assets and the lifeblood of Melbourne’s unique culture and identity. Some of the best experiences Melbourne has on offer are tucked away in the most unassuming of lanes, so don’t be afraid to venture around corners to see what you uncover.
Bars Russell Place, Meyers Place, Liverpool Street, Tattersalls Lane
Cafés Somerset Place, Degraves Street, Centre Place, Somerset Place
Restaurants Hardware Lane/Street, Market Lane, Flinders Lane
Shopping and fashion Presgrave Place, Manchester Lane, Little Collins Street and Block Arcade
Street art Hosier Lane, Union Lane, Croft Alley, Higson Place
Erected in stages between 1856 and 1930, the Parliament House and buildings have a theatrical presence, with a facade of giant Doric columns rising from a high flight of steps, and landscaped gardens either side. Just below, the Old Treasury Building and adjacent State Government Office, facing the beautiful Treasury Gardens, are equally imposing. Completed in 1862 to a design by John James Clark, who was just 19 at the time, the Treasury was built to store the city’s gold.
Opened in the 1870s, Queen Victoria Market remains one of the best-loved of Melbourne’s institutions. Its collection of huge, open-sided sheds and high-roofed decorative halls is fronted along Victoria Street by restored shops, with their original wrought-iron canopies. The market is a boisterous, down-to-earth affair where you can buy practically anything from new and secondhand clothes to fresh fish. Stallholders and shoppers seem just as diverse as the goods on offer: Vietnamese, Italian and Greek greengrocers pile their colourful produce high and vie for your attention, while the huge variety of deliciously smelly cheeses effortlessly draws customers to the old-fashioned deli hall. Saturday morning marks a weekly social ritual as Melbourne’s foodies turn out for their groceries, while Sunday is for clothing and shoe shopping. The guided Foodies Dream Tour takes in all the culinary delights of the market, while the action-packed Night Markets have music stages, bars and over 200 stalls providing on-site cuisine from around the world as well as clothing, jewellery and other crafty goods. The market also runs regular day, evening and weekend cooking classes.
To the western edge of QV is the State Library of Victoria. The building, dating from 1856, is a splendid example of Victorian architecture, and houses the state’s largest public research and reference library. The interior has been painstakingly refurbished and is well worth a visit, in particular the Cowen Gallery with a permanent display of paintings illustrating the changing look of Melbourne and Victoria; the La Trobe Reading Room with its imposing domed roof; and the Dome Galleries, which vividly tell the history of Victoria. The library houses a trove of paintings and rare and antiquarian books and newspapers, along with the deed of land purchase by John Batman from the Dugitalla Aborigines, Ned Kelly’s armour, and the famous rage-filled Jerilderie letter, which inspired Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel The True History of the Kelly Gang. There’s also a branch of the excellent Readings bookshop, and a Chess Collection: with almost 12,000 chess-related items it is reputedly one of the largest public collections in the world. Around the corner, the Wheeler Centre runs a lively programme of literary talks, readings and debates.