If Sydney is the New York of the Southern Hemisphere, then Melbourne is Boston or Philadelphia — with attractions centralized rather than sprawling, a low-key atmosphere, a traditional look, and tons of restaurants, cafes, nightlife and cultural destinations. Melbourne prides itself on being one of the world’s most livable cities, and while that may indeed be true, the capital of the state of Victoria is certainly one of the most delightful to visit — welcoming, relaxed, international and cultural.
Melbourne is the most English of Australia’s cities, and yet it also has a highly cosmopolitan population of more than four million. Waves of British, Italian and Greek immigrants began arriving after World War II, and when immigration restrictions changed to allow Asians to become residents, a huge influx arrived, including lots of students at Melbourne University.
The Yarra River runs through the city center, and leafy parks and open spaces give relief from the vehicular traffic that travels, as in Britain and New Zealand, on the left. North of the Yarra River, you will find the commercial heart and to the south most of the museums, theaters, concert halls and open spaces — including the lovely Royal Botanic Gardens. Nearby neighborhoods such as Carlton, Fitzroy, Richmond, Toorak and St. Kilda are worth exploring by foot with each area having its own distinctive flavor.
Happily, pedestrians have lots of rights and walking is free-flowing and safe. It’s also ever so easy to navigate the city via its wonderful tram (trolley) system. The first electric models began running in 1889, and unlike so many other cities, they were never abandoned. In fact, the network is expanding.
Being in the south of the country, Melbourne gets cloudy, rainy and cold in the winter months (Northern Hemisphere summer) and warms to pleasantly hot in summer, which is when most travelers visit. While Sydney is the most popular stop for international visitors, nonstop flights are also available to Melbourne from the U.S., and Sydney is just a short flight or a leisurely day-long train ride away.
Federation Square is the city’s premier gathering spot. Geometrically designed buildings housing art galleries, cinemas, shops and cafes surround a large open area used for concerts, outdoor films, sitting, strolling and people watching. The city’s excellent Visitor Center is located here in spacious underground premises.
The National Gallery of Victoria has two distinct properties worth visiting. The Ian Potter Centre, located on Federation Square, has a wonderfully eclectic, three-level interior design, with each room varied in shape and color. It houses a large collection of Australian art, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art on canvas and bark; intriguing sculpture made from wood and found objects such as metal and barbed wire; and Australian colonial art, landscapes and Impressionists. The National Gallery of Victoria International is located just south of the Yarra River and offers works by major European and other international artists.
For performances and other cultural events, head to the Arts Centre Melbourne; the complex includes the State Theatre, the Playhouse and the Fairfax Studio, among other venues. The lobbies’ art works are open to the public.
The design of the handsome reading room at the State Library of Victoria was based on London’s original British Museum Library Reading Room. The central dome provides galleries for two permanent exhibitions: The Changing Face of Victoria with historic artifacts, photos, drawings and maps, and Mirror of the World: books and ideas, an exhibition from the library’s valuable rare book collection. Admission is free. Internet use is also free — there’s a wireless hotspot here.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, located at the corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets across from Federation Square, is neo-Gothic in style with an interior of decorative mosaics, floor tiles and wood carvings. A choir of men and boys sings at 5:10 p.m. every Tuesday through Friday and at Sunday services. On the opposite corner is the imposing mustard-yellow facade of Flinders Street Railway Station, with its long arcades stretching along Flinders Street and St. Kilda Road.
For a view of the city, Eureka Skydeck affords a 360-degree panorama from 935 feet up. For a truly scary experience, a glass cube called the Edge extends out beyond the building’s top edge with views in all directions — including straight down.
The Royal Botanic Gardens comprise 94 undulating acres with 10,000 plant species from all over the world. Sections of the gardens include an Australian forest walk, fern gully, camellia garden, and ponds with geese, ducks and swans. It is free and may be accessed by walking about a mile via Princes Bridge and then along the Yarra River, or from St. Kilda Road just south of the National Gallery of Victoria International. The area along the Yarra River has free barbecue setups and picnic tables, and the botanic garden has two attractive cafes.
Docklands — an emerging commercial, residential, sports, marina, hotel and restaurant complex — is still under construction in the old industrial port area, but its many restaurants, shops and public attractions are already open to visitors. You can reach Melbourne’s largest new development via the free City Circle tram.
St. Kilda is a quirky seaside suburb with a huge number of restaurants and pastry shops, an esplanade, a beach, a pier with an arts and crafts fair on Sunday, and Luna Park with its old-fashioned amusements and rides. It makes a nice half-day outing. It’s served by several different tram routes; for a variety of city views, you can go via one and come back another. You can also take a tour with Viator.
Sovereign Hill, near Ballarat, recreates Victoria’s gold rush days during the 1850s when it was the richest alluvial gold mining area in the world. See the tented and mud-and-bark hut living quarters, and watch horses hauling carts and carriages and propelling machinery. The town has candle and confectionary makers, blacksmiths and tinsmiths, carriage makers and wheelwrights, and furniture manufacturing. You can pan for gold, explore a mine and spend the night in a lodge overlooking the town. It’s about 90 minutes outside of Melbourne by train or car.
Melbourne’s restaurants are as diverse as its population, and food in Australia is very good with plentiful fresh produce and fish. Chinatown, in the city center, has a plethora of Asian restaurants, and Lygon Street in Carlton is lined with one Italian restaurant and cafe after another, creating a sidewalk buzz at night (though less so during the day). It’s touristy but fun to walk past the eateries before choosing one that appears to be the most crowded with locals.
Hopetoun Tea Rooms, located in the Block Arcade off Collins Street, is an old-fashioned and legendary cafe that dates back to the late 19th century. It offers breakfast items as well as sandwiches, salads, hot dishes and wonderful cakes.
For a pricey but elegant meal, head to Flower Drum, which some have called Australia’s best Chinese restaurant. Cantonese favorites include Peking duck and dim sum, alongside exotic fare such as pearl meat and barbecue squab. Reservations are essential.
Another great spot for a splurge is Donovans, located right on the beach in St. Kilda. You can enjoy the view as you enjoy selections from the extensive menu, which includes options from both land and sea. A few dishes are designed for two to share. For family travelers, there’s a kids’ menu as well.
Among the many Italian restaurants in Carlton, the intimate Scopri is a local favorite. Lunch is served on select weekdays, while dinner is available Tuesday through Saturday. The simple menu includes a fish of the day, as well as a small selection of starters, main dishes and desserts.
Longrain offers a blend of Southeast Asian flavors in a chic CBD location. You can order off the a la carte menu — which includes dishes like barramundi with hot and sour broth or caramelized pork hock with chili vinegar — or enjoy the banquet menu for the whole table if you’re in a group of four or more. Arrive early, as reservations are only accepted on a limited basis.
Shopping in Melbourne
The most intriguing places to shop in Melbourne are the one-block arcades, such as the Block Arcade between Collins and Little Collins and the Royal Arcade between Little Collins and Bourke Street Mall.
Bourke Street Mall itself is a major pedestrianized shopping precinct with two department stores, David Jones and Myer, located there. The eastern end (which used to be called the Paris end) of Collins is a center for high fashion. The brand Country Road is known for its quality Australian designs.
Queen Victoria Market, off Elizabeth Street, a few blocks to the north end of the city’s main street grid, is one of the largest pavilion-style markets of any major city in the world, replete with Australia’s bountiful foods arranged in rows and rows of stalls, plus delis, quick eateries and clothing stalls. I would consider moving to central Melbourne to be able to shop here.
Melbourne Central, between Latrobe and Lonsdale Streets, is a modern multi-level complex of 300 shops, restaurants and a multiplex theater.
Popular buys in Melbourne include aboriginal art; paintings on paper, canvas and bark; sculpture; and musical instruments.
–written by Theodore W. Scull