Image credit: Tourism Australia
David Whitley takes the time to fall for Melbourne’s charms
Of Australia’s two great cities, Melbourne has never been able to rely on its looks as much as Sydney. This means it often gets written off by those who have a couple of days there as part of a breakneck hurtle around Australia.
Put simply, ticking off sights is not the best way to tackle Melbourne. The capital of Victoria does have some excellent attractions, but it’s more about the overall vibe. The intense cultural energy and ever-evolving food scene play a far bigger part in shaping the character – and they’re best explored with a strong degree of spontaneous whim-following.
Used as a base for a few days – even with day trips out of the city – it begins to make far more sense. And those who do stay long enough to click with Melbourne generally end up adoring it. It’s your Montreal, Berlin or Austin rather than Toronto, Munich or Dallas.
So our two-day guide mixes up a bit of traditional sightseeing with experiences that will introduce clients to elements of the city that are quintessentially Melbourne, from street-art tours and kayaking to old-fashioned amusement parks. And in this foodie city, it would be remiss of us not to point out some top spots to refuel.
09.00: The Federation Square project was one of the major catalysts for central Melbourne’s transformation into a hive of urban cool. Surrounded by blocky, bulging, asymmetric metal-and-glass buildings, there is always something going on there.
That might be people sitting in deckchairs watching tennis on a big screen, or an outdoor exhibition of animal sculptures. Several museums, cultural centres and galleries cluster around, the most enjoyable of which is the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.
Image credit: Fed Square Pty Ltd
This covers highlights from the history of Australian TV and cinema, and has a big joystick-waggling section on homegrown computer games.
10.30: Melbourne’s most fascinating museum is a few blocks away, however. The Immigration Museum brings together stories of how Australia has been settled since the first Europeans arrived in 1788.
Many are individual accounts blazed on video screens, but there’s also a reconstruction of a convict ship that shows how grim conditions on the long voyage were and an exploration of the astonishingly racist tests to which potential immigrants were once subjected.
Questions had to be answered in a European language – and anyone immigration officers didn’t like the look of would have to answer in something obscure such as Gaelic or Maltese, irrespective of where they were from.
12.00: There’s no shortage of buzzy lunch spots, and Cumulus Inc at 45 Flinders Lane captures the Melbourne cool rather nicely.
It works on many levels, with posh take-out sandwiches for those in a rush, but also charcuterie plates, oysters and tapas-style small dishes for those wanting to linger and polish off a bottle of Yarra Valley chardonnay. Even if it looks full, there are often seats at the bar or on the circular communal table.
13.00: It’s time to dive into the maze of ‘laneways’ that were once synonymous with bins and general grimness, but have been revived to play host to all manner of fascinating shops, bars, restaurants and cafes.
They’re also where some of the best street art in the southern hemisphere is found. Melbourne Street Art Tours is run by a collective of artists who know all the best spots either because they did the work or they know someone who did.
This makes for fabulous detail, with the guide often pointing out things such as little scrap-metal figures that the untrained eye would gloss over. The tours finish with cheese and wine at the workshop-cum-gallery.
18.00: Tackle Melbourne from the water on Kayak Melbourne’s moonlight paddling tour (departure times vary with the time of year).
It starts in the shiny Docklands area, stopping for fish and chips before continuing down the Yarra River to see the flame towers outside the Crown Casino on the South Bank.
Image credit: Tourism Australia
It’s an excellent way to get a feel for how Melbourne has changed and to see its most spectacular recent developments. Just beware of Matilda, the territorial goose that patrols the boat ramp at the end.
21.30: If you’re still hungry, you’ll probably want something along the lines of Gazi, an unshakeably cool bar-plus-Greek restaurant hybrid owned by MasterChef Australia judge George Calombaris.
The food is ‘dirty Hellenic’, such as mini souvlakis. Alternatively, there’s ‘vertical laneway’ Curtin House, which is packed with interesting shops and bars. Cookie on the first floor does pretty decent Thai dishes alongside its huge range of Victorian craft beers.
10.00: Start a much less hectic second day with an Aboriginal heritage walk around the Royal Botanic Gardens. These concentrate on the native plants, and how the local Aboriginal people have traditionally used them.
Melaleuca bark was good for painting on, lemon wattle leaves were handy for flavouring bush teas and mat rushes were woven to make eel traps.
12.00: Get the tram down to St Kilda, Melbourne’s favourite seaside suburb. The beach isn’t much to write home about, but the area has bags of character.
Old-fashioned rollercoasters at the Luna Park amusement park mix with brunchy cafes and legendary gig venues such as the Esplanade Hotel and Prince of Wales Bandroom.
Acland Street is home to more excellent cake shops than is strictly believable; the correct course of action is to turn lunch into a sinful cake trawl.
15.00: Finish off your afternoon in St Kilda with a walk around neighbouring Albert Park. This is partly because it is quite pretty, but mainly because it offers a rare chance to say you’ve walked around a Formula One grand prix circuit.
The traditional curtain-raiser for the season is held in Albert Park in March, making it an Aussie sporting venue on a par with Melbourne Cricket Ground. The latter hosts Australian rules football and cricket – taking in a match would make an alternative afternoon or evening option.
Image credit: Tourism Australia
18.30: Back in the city centre, Movida, on street art-covered Hosier Lane, specialises in wonderfully inventive tapas dishes. But being Melbourne, it works just as well for a snack and beer at the bar as it does for a sit-down meal.
To carry on drinking afterwards, Eau de Vie features bar staff making cocktails with blowtorches, while Madame Brussels goes for delightfully silly Alice In Wonderland-esque kitsch.
City Tempo’s simple but boldly decorated apartments are a steal, given that they come with washer-dryers and kitchens. They’re not sprawlingly spacious, but the price point and location are great.
Book it: From £63 a night
The Adelphi has bags of character. The horse-and-cart reception desk, rooftop pool that hangs over the street and welcome messages scrawled in lipstick on mirrors are among the quirks.
Book it: From £133 a night
The Crown Towers is the Crown Casino complex’s premium address – and it doesn’t do subtlety. The lobby is all chandeliers, marble and water features. There’s something of a Vegas feel about it, with everything in the rooms electronically controlled. The rooftop tennis courts and pool are a bonus.
Book it: From £218 a night
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