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. The best way to see the Yarra is on a cruise, and you can rent bikes to explore the riverbanks; on fine weekends, especially, the Yarra comes to life, with people messing about in boats, cycling and strolling.
Providing the Yarra’s unavoidable focal point, the Crown Entertainment Complex is Australia’s largest gambling and entertainment venue, stretching across 600m of riverfront west of Southgate between Queens Bridge and Spencer Street Bridge. Within the complex, you’ll find a casino, three luxury hotels (Crown Metropole, Crown Promenade and Crown Towers), designer-shopping boutiques and a variety of restaurants catering for a range of tastes and budgets.
On what was once the city’s old dock area, Melbourne’s newest suburb, Docklands, is a large-scale commercial, residential and leisure development that’s slowly rising to the west of Southern Cross Station. The constantly evolving face of the area is set to undergo further developments in the coming years (notably a second attempt at the “Southern Star” observation wheel – a smaller version of the London Eye), but for now the restaurant promenade, NewQuay, on Victoria Harbour, and the ever-expanding Waterfront City are very much open to the public and gaining in popularity among Melburnians.
The riverside’s most innovative development is the new 92-storey Eureka Tower located on the Southgate site and named after a landmark rebellion in Victoria’s gold-rush era (the top levels are clad in gold). Finished in 2006 and towering 300m, it is the tallest building in Melbourne. Visitors can enjoy amazing views of the city and beyond from the 88th-floor Skydeck, which features the stomach-churning “skywalk” The Edge, a 3m glass cube that juts out over the city below.
The Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre is a whimsical example of the city’s dynamic new architectural style: facing the river is an immense 450m-long glass wall, while the street entrance has an awning resembling a ski jump propped up by wafer-thin pylons. The complex hosts a range of large-scale public and trade exhibitions, conventions and events, and is worth checking out for its “6 Star Green Star” environmental rating design.
The Royal Botanic Gardens contain twelve thousand different plant species and over fifty thousand individual plants, as well as native wildlife such as cockatoos and kookaburras, in an extensive landscaped setting. Melbourne’s much-maligned climate is perfect for horticulture: cool enough for temperate trees and flowers to flourish, warm enough for palms and other subtropical species, and wet enough for anything else.
Highlights include the herb garden, comprising part of the medicinal garden established in 1880; the fern gully, a lovely walk through shady ferns, with cooling mists of water on a hot summer’s day; the large ornamental lake full of ducks, black swans and eels; and various hothouses where exotic cacti and fascinating plants such as the carnivorous pitcher plant thrive. Families should head to the dedicated children’s garden, which features snaking paths, bamboo thickets, water channels to jump in and a lily pond. The painstakingly restored Observatory Gate, a group of nineteenth-century Italianate buildings next door to the visitor centre, can be visited on one of the tours that leaves from the centre.
One of the first developments in the riverside transformation, Southgate, immediately west of Princes Bridge, is an upmarket shopping complex with lots of smart cafés, restaurants, bars and a huge food court with very popular outdoor tables. Look out for Ophelia, the iconic mosaic sculpture commissioned for the opening of the site in 1992 – her sister sculpture Angel lives up the river at Birrarung Marr (see p.744).