30th Apr 2012 1:37am | By Leigh Livingstone
Melbourne is often overlooked by travellers but it’s a city that rewards closer attention. These highlights should get you started.
Melburnians are fond of saying that Sydney is a tramp while their city is a lady. And, while that owes something to the time-honoured rivlary between the two cities, there’s a nugget of truth to it. Sydney’s charms are permanently on display – they’re obvious. In Melbourne, you might have to look a bit harder, but rest assured, they’re there in abundance.
Melbourne may not have Sydney’s gleaming harbour or its city beaches, but it ticks pretty much every other box. It’s the sporting capital of the country and Australian rules football is the biggest game in town. And rather than making the trek all the way out to the suburbs to watch a game, there are a couple of stadiums right next to the city. Throw in the Australian Open tennis and the city’s two rugby sides – one league, one union – and sports fanatics are ridiculously well-serviced.
But Melbourne also leads the line when it comes to culture. While Sydneysiders were still stuck drinking in massive, echoey pubs, Melbourne was already saturated with small boutique bars and a thriving late-night drinking scene. It’s become a cliche to say that “Melbourne is more European”, but in this respect, and in the importance placed on food and drink, it’s spot-on.
There’s also a thriving art scene – the Melbourne International Film Festival is Australia’s top cinema event and you can catch in-demand comedians and bands all year round. When it comes to fashion and design, Melbourne has also worked harder to carve out a niche than some of Australia’s other cities.
So while sunning yourself on the east coast might be good for your tan, you should definitely pack your winter gear and head south to Melbourne, at least for a weekend. You never know – you could lob in one of Melbourne’s inner-city suburbs – St Kilda, Richmond, Carlton, Fitzroy, Collingwood, Northcote – and decide you never want to leave. Beware though – if the locals ask you whether you like Sydney better, you’re advised to answer very diplomatically.
Melburnians love their footy so a trip down south wouldn’t be complete without taking in a game and maybe even adopting a team. From March until September, it’s all about Australian rules, which attracts more obsessive coverage than either of the rugby codes enjoy in the northern states. The famous MCG is only a few minutes’ walk from the centre of the city, so you can catch a tram most of the way there or you grab the train to Jolimont station and then complete the well-worn walk with the rest of the punters into the MCG cauldron. Alternatively, you can go across to the Docklands Stadium on the city’s west side. Oh, and everyone hates Collingwood, apart from their fans, who are one-eyed and have no teeth. A bit like Aussie scousers.
This vibrant open-air market is a bustling hub of activity and fresh produce. In fact, fifty per cent of it is dedicated to meats, vegetables, fruits and fresh seafood. It’s a proper working market during the week, with hospitality types flocking there at the crack of dawn for their daily stock. That’s a wonderfully authentic sight but if you’re keen to take it easy, maybe schedule your visit on a Sunday, when everything is a little more low-key. You’ll be stunned by the variety and quality of the produce and will likely end up buying something for your dinner. If not, it’s still worth going along simply to marvel at the old-world charm of the high-vaulted ceilings and vibrant atmosphere. It’s one of Melbourne’s most recognisable buildings and, to the city’s credit, still enjoys a busy life rather than being retired.
Melbourne fancies itself as the eating and drinking capital of Australia and, although top-notch restaurants have now cropped up all over the city, Lygon St was one of the earliest sites of the European food revolution which transformed Australian cuisine. Carlton is one of Melbourne’s inner-northern suburbs, a short cab-ride from the city, and you’ll find it buzzing on a Saturday night, with eager restaurateurs standing outside their establishments trying to coax you in, going all out to get your dollars. It’s less overrun during the week but with no less choice. So take a stroll and look for the best bargain or whatever tickles your fancy. After dinner, you can grab a gelato or go for a nightcap at one of the area’s dozens of licensed late-night bars or cafes.
Unlike a lot of big cities, Melbourne’s CBD is one of its main attractions, tiny laneways splitting off from the main thoroughfares at every turn, with tons of small bars and shopping strips to discover. And, at the top end of Collins St, one of the busiest city stretches, is the Old Treasury Building, which is one of Melbourne’s most recognised and cherished structures. It turns 150 this year, so drop in and take a look at its permanent exhibitions, which trace the development of Melbourne, from its gold rush days into a bustling centre of urban cool, hipsters, food-lovers, artists and sports junkies. Once you’re done with your educational fix, head around the corner and cruise down Little Collins St, where you’re sure to find plenty of neat bars to wet your whistle and more than a few cracking restaurants.
If Lygon St is the stomach, then Brunswick St is the soul of Melbourne. There’s still a pleasant village feel during the day – it’s a great place for coffee and is full of interesting bookshops and boutiques. Then, when the shadows lengthen, its nightlife kicks in. You can catch a live band at The Evelyn Hotel or enjoy a beer at the dingy but beloved Bar Open, which is a Brunswick St institution. Other bars have come and gone over the years, but Brunswick St remains one of Melbourne’s most vibrant, free-spirited inner-city stretches. If you feel like you’ve had your fill, it’s also worth heading a few blocks east to Collingwood’s Smith St, or a bit further south to Johnston St or Gertrude St, which have the same vibe but aren’t as busy.
Another great mini-trip outside of Melbourne is the Great Ocean Drive. The route itself covers over 240 kilometres and if you join it in Geelong, south-east of Melbourne CBD, you can just keep heading east and see where the day takes you. It’s an incredibly scenic part of the Victorian coast so make sure to stop along the way at Anglesea and Aireys Inlet, which has beautiful beaches and invigorating hikes through national forest to magnificent waterfalls. If you are ambitious enough with your early start, you can even make it to the Twelve Apostles, which jut out of the ocean just over four hours away from Melbourne. Only eight of the stacks, caused by the constant erosion of the cliffs by the water, remain standing today.
Federation Square is an impressive example of modern architecture set in an open square full of restaurants, bars and galleries. You will find it at the corner of Swanston and Flinders St and it’s a great place to pull up a deckchair and check out a classic AFL game for free on the big screen. Or visit the remarkable Atrium built from fractured glass and steel, which hosts three galleries exhibiting the best local work. There is always something going on in the square, from multicultural festivals to wine showcases. And when you’re done, it’s a short walk to a cool bar, like Transport, which boasts views over the Yarra river. If you’re in a more sober mood, you can wander across to Flinders St Station, which is one of Melbourne’s oldest buildings and makes a stunning photo opportunity.
The laughing-face facade of Luna Park fun fair welcomes visitors to this southern suburb. Its pretty bayside view and beaches make it easily one of the main Melbourne attractions, ensuring popularity with backpackers and Aussies alike. Luna Park is all very well for a family-friendly day out but it’s after dark that St Kilda really comes alive. The main boardwalk – Fitzroy St turns into The Esplanade – snakes along the top of St Kilda beach and is lined with bars and clubs. Be warned, some of them are a little too cool for school so if you want to fit in, you’ll have to leave your checked shirt and cargo pants at home. There’s a fair bit of glamour in St Kilda, but it’s also home to some old-school live music venues, so you’re sure to find a gig or two that’s worth a look if you’re in town for a few days.
Every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday you can journey back to Old Melbourne, a time when the spices of Old China Town masked the smoke of opium dens , poor houses supplied bodies in the name of advancing medical science and the famous opera singer Federici gave his most dramatic performance- plummeting to death infront of his audience. Meander through cobblestone streets, listen to the horses' hooves and come face to face with infamous killers on a guided ghost tour to unravel the darker side of Melbourne. Given that Australia is such a young country, all this nastiness was going on surprisingly recently. You’ll be surprised how dodgy it was – these days, that dodginess is mostly confined to the nightclubs on King St. Tours leave from Federation Square, bookings essential.
The famous Yarra river is the boundary between north and south Melbourne, winding for 240 kilometres from Baw Baw National Park to the coast. A popular feature along the Yarra is the Southbank area that houses a market and a beautifully scenic promenade, which extends to the glittering gambling labyrinth that is the Crown Casino and entertainment complex. Along the Yarra, visitors can find the Melbourne Aquarium and the Melbourne Convention Centre as well as the Maritime Museum. Or, if you fancy an open-air cook-out, you can find public barbecues that are free to use. It’s a world-class location for a barbie but it’s probably an idea to give the grills a good scrub before putting your snags on them.
What would a visit to Melbourne be without jumping on a bus and riding around the locations of the long-running Australian soap? The real Ramsay St, for the record, is way out in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, while the other Erinsborough locations are dotted around nearby. You’ll get to go past the coffee shop and Lassiter’s – if you’re lucky, you might even catch Toadfish having a beer. Tours depart from Flinders St in the city so you won’t have to traipse out to the burbs on your own. But be prepared, if you mention that you’re taking the tour to any locals, they might roll their eyes and regard you as slightly tragic. Most Aussies are baffled by the British obsession with one of their quainter cultural exports.