Created | Updated Dec 22, 2008
In love with this girl
And with her town as well.
Walking 'round the rainy city,
What a pity there's things to do at home.
– from the song 'Melbourne', by The Whitlams
Melbourne, the capital of the state of Victoria, is the southernmost mainland capital city in Australia, and surrounds the north, east, and south eastern sides of Port Phillip Bay. The west of the city extends into plains, the north and east into the surrounding hills, and the south east stretches out along the Mornington Peninsula.
Melbourne is a city of trams, parks, cafés, and an upside-down river thrown in for good measure. Being home to roughly 3.2 million people, it is the second largest city in Oz after Sydney, and is not only a leafy, bay-side city situated on the Yarra River, with a mix of fanatic 'footy' fans, students and artists, but it is also a shopping mecca. And one of the very few places in the world with a public holiday to celebrate a horse race - the famous Melbourne Cup.
If you choose to fly to Melbourne, you will most likely arrive by air at Tullamarine - which is some 20km from the Melbourne Central Business District (CBD). This is a $30 taxi ride, but small buses depart the terminal every 15 minutes and will drop you to most parts of the CBD for $12. The Bureaux De Change at Tullamarine are competitive, so don't be worried about converting your currency there.
Taxis cannot be hailed from the street in the city, they have to be called (13 2227 or 13 CABS), or you can find them waiting in designated bays. Like in New York, they're big and yellow but also run on Liquid Petroleum Gas, making them just that little bit more environmentally friendly. If you plan to use public transport (buses, trams and trains) get yourself a Metcard - these range from two hour tickets to full yearly, and are so useful that they rank right up there with an umbrella1.
Melbourne is a vast sprawling place consisting of a Central Business District surrounded by its more interesting inner suburbs: Carlton, St Kilda, South Yarra, South Melbourne, Richmond, Fitzroy, Prahran and Collingwood2. These are all within a 4km radius of the CBD and, according to the RSPCA, Melbourne is also the 'Fox Capital' of the western world - with 6 to 23 foxes to be found every square kilometre in this metropolitan area.
Beyond these inner suburbs lie the 'Australian Dream' - as far as the eye can see are three- and four-bedroom homes built on quarter-acre blocks, and large suburban shopping centres with nothing to recommend them to the visitor. The pubs in such areas are indistinguishable from each other, and largely revolve around poker machines (one-armed bandits) which have unfortunately become pandemic since the Kennett Administration of the 1990s.
If you're from out of town, out of state, or out of country, do not hesitate to ask anybody for directions. Even most of the guys with no hair, tattoos and big black glasses are really nice blokes. Be careful, however, do not try to imitate the accent, or use slang without prior knowledge. This is probably the most annoying thing you can possibly do to an Australian, aside from tell them to 'chuck another shrimp on the barbie' - or mistake them for a Kiwi3.
Melbourne also has plenty of street performers. They are entertaining, but if you don't pay them at the end they will verbally slander you in front of a crowd, and if you have children, they will tell them that you don't love them. It is best if you leave before the climax, or give them a fiver at the end. You'll also find an almost endless supply of book shops in the city. They are invariably massive and mind boggling, with an event horizon about three metres around the door. Not even light can escape these things, so rich with information they are, so full of interesting books and knick-knacks. Don't try to resist, just go in. Which is pretty much the Melbourne mantra.
Oh, and two of the world's most interesting food stuffs have their origins in the city. Vegemite was not only invented in Melbourne, but every jar of Vegemite 'ever made' has come from the Melbourne factory at Fisherman Bend. And Victoria Bitter, well, it's quite possibly the best lager on the planet.
Melbourne has a reputation in Australia as having four seasons in one day4. First, you, the unsuspecting tourist, may decide that it would be a nice idea to walk rather than catch the tram because it is such a lovely day. Then a biting wind will slice right through you and rain will begin to dampen your day. However, just when you get your raincoat on (it's always a good idea to take one - in fact, an umbrella is almost as important in Melbourne as a towel), the sun breaks through the clouds and you find your sweat clinging to you due to the sudden humidity. This is no joke.
On the statistical side, summers are likely to see over 35°C, and winters around 13°C. The average rainfall is less than Sydney, however, the number of rainy days is roughly the same. Its climate varies from as low as freezing point (during the night) in June/July to sometimes over 40°C in January/February. It is therefore best visited in late November through to March, but even then make sure to bring at least one of everything - a coat, a t-shirt, bathers for swimming, a jumper to keep yourself warm, an umbrella, jeans, shorts, a long-sleeved shirt or dress, a short-sleeved shirt or dress, summer and winter pantyhose, etc...
A Short History
Established in 1835 by a group of Tasmanian businessmen, settlement in Melbourne (named after Queen Victoria's Prime Minister at the time, Lord Melbourne) did not begin until 1837. In 1840, a military surveyor named Robert Hoddle laid out the plans for the city. He envisioned a grand future with transport requiring large streets, and designed the grid of the now Central Business District with this idea in mind (he had a street named after him for that). In 1840 the population was around 10,000 and in 1851, the now state of Victoria was established as a colony with Melbourne as its capital. This was rather timely as large deposits of gold were discovered within Victoria which was to bring a large number of migrants and wealth to Melbourne and Victoria.
The history of the city certainly wasn't without its bloodshed - between 1834 and 1860 the Aboriginal population of Victoria plummeted from 15,000 to 2,000 due to massacres. Other bloodshed would fall on the hands of the authorities, for example the Eureka Rebellion of 1854, a significant event in the history of Australia that saw many miners die at the hands of the corrupt government. However, in 1856 a group of Melbourne workers (mostly stonemasons), won an eight-hour day from their employers. This was a world first, and is celebrated with a public holiday.
The discovery of gold in Victoria transformed Melbourne into a boomtown, and the designation of large areas of the city for parkland (a feature the city is vehemently proud of today) led many at the time to call the growing city 'Marvellous Melbourne - the Paris of the Antipodes'. However, Melbourne fell on hard times in 1890 when the first of many financial crashes crippled the city.
After the Second World War, Melbourne entered a long period of conservative government. In the post-war period immigration caused the population to swell, and many Mediterranean peoples migrated to the rich city, including a large proportion of Greek fishermen - and to this day there is a very strong Greek presence in Melbourne. In 1956 the city also held the summer Olympic Games, boosting a flailing economy.
In the 1980s, the Labour Party led the city into another period of increased land value - and increased building size. This was not to last, and in 1990, the boom period crashed. Come the 2000s things levelled off - although most Melbournians will continue to bemoan the days of the Kennett administration, complaining of the fact that they'd been constantly 'Jeffed'5.
Places of Interest in Melbourne CBD
The Central Business District (watch out for the hook turns if you're driving here) is made up of beautiful old buildings and skyscrapers, and is on the north side of the Yarra River. The CBD combines modern geometric with Victorian architecture, creating a stunning contrast that is pleasant to be in. There are a few key places to consider.
The city extends to the south of the Yarra River with more haphazard road planning than Canberra. On this side is the beautiful Royal Botanical Gardens, Albert Park Lake, the Performing Arts Centre (continuing the theme of 'Paris of the Antipodes' with its Eiffel Tower-like spire), the Victorian Art Gallery, the War Memorial (Shrine of Remembrance), the Southbank and Crown Casino.
In the centre can be found many hidden cafés in small alleys, Chinatown, the Bourke Street Mall, the Swanston Street Mall (the main artery of the central city), the State Library, (state) Parliament House, the State Theatre, disgruntled tram drivers, beautiful cathedrals, the Queen Victoria Market, several pubs, and the usual collection of shoppers, business types, tourists, and beggars.
Look out for the many outdoor art works and the independent galleries here too. And don't be put off by any small side streets - these are a haven for pubs and bars with a lot of character. Some of the more popular destinations are explained a little more below:
Southbank and Crown Casino Complex - This is on the south bank of the Yarra River (which bisects Melbourne and flows into Port Philip Bay) just across from Melbourne's two main railway stations; Flinders Street and Spencer Street. Flinders Street Station is a Victorian styled train station that can get you anywhere in Melbourne, and most places in Australia. There's a daily gathering of emo kids on its front steps under the clocks out the front, which can be amusing to watch, and as with most Melbourne landmarks, sushi is abundant. The complex itself features over 100 restaurants, cafés, bars, cinemas, nightclubs, theatres and ferry rides - and is a great sampler of Melbourne's eclectic dining possibilities. If you are in Melbourne for a day, it's a must-do.
Chinatown - Chinatown is centred on Little Bourke Street and has over 50 Chinese restaurants, varying from ordinary to world class. The best of the best, the Flower Drum (a Melbourne institution) is one of the best Chinese dining experiences in the world but is priced accordingly. Never let their wine waiter pick a wine for you unless you have Teflon-coated credit cards.
Melbourne Aquarium - You'll find the aquarium on the opposite side of the river from the Southbank Complex. It opened in May 2000 and killed its first visitors with Legionnaires' within six weeks. The problem is now fixed. If you like looking at exotic fish while staying dry with just a hint of danger, this is probably for you.
Old Melbourne Gaol - For history buffs, and those wanting a good scare, the Old Melbourne Gaol offers much. Funnily enough, the Gaol is actually stuck pretty much smack bang in the middle of the modern CBD on Russell Street (between Victoria and LaTrobe Streets) and is easy to get to - and you don't even have to steal a loaf of bread or knock a copper's hat off to get in nowadays.
Melbourne Trams - One of the few large cities in the world to retain trams as a form of public transport, here you can sample why the rest of the world did away with them. The largest system outside the European continent, and the fourth largest in the world, it stretches along 244 kilometres (152 miles) of track, and has 450 trams. There is a tourist circular service which describes CBD places of interest at each stop, and it's free (the circular that is, not the trams).
The Eureka Tower - The highest observation deck in the Southern Hemisphere, the tower has a rather stylish restaurant and a snazzy decor. There's a fee to get in, and then another fee to experience the Edge - a glass box which shows you just exactly how high up you are, and is the closest you can get to abject fear without bunjee-jumping.
Federation Square - Whatever this is, it is not a square. Fed' Square is a stunning building with super-modern architecture, and lots of things to see and do. Many shopping opportunities abide here, as does an Art Gallery, a lecture hall and several exhibitions a year. Restaurants galore, and a lovely place to walk and take in the scenery.
The Backpackers Bar - This is a good meeting place for younger folk on a budget. It's on the first floor corner of Flinders Lane and Elizabeth Street, near Flinders Street Station. And for cheap eats try O'Connell's, downstairs and next door to the Backpackers Bar. They do massive non-gourmet lunches at a cheap rate.
The inner suburbs of Melbourne can be just like any other cities, a little daunting, perhaps frightening, but once you're in there, by jingo - there's plenty on offer.
North Melbourne and Carlton
North Melbourne is an interesting suburb. In the early 21st Century an urban renewal began there, and it is an interesting mix of yuppies, junkies, students and artists. The main street of North Melbourne is Errol Street, which has some interesting pubs (try the Town Hall pub for a great atmosphere), an art gallery and some nice restaurants which can also be found in adjoining Victoria Street. Following this road brings one to the Queen Victoria Markets - the best place for fresh produce and cheap deli food.
Carlton, a 2km tram ride north of the CBD, is Melbourne's Little Italy. Superb Italian food is available everywhere at competitive prices along its main street, Lygon Street. There is also a very good cinema complex called Cinema Nova - which shows a lot of art-house and foreign films. Further back towards North Melbourne is Melbourne University, which has some very interesting old (in Australian terms) architecture. A great band venue and pub is the Art House. There are also a few parks and the exhibition buildings.
Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond
Crossing Nicholson Street, we arrive in Fitzroy. One of the best things about Fitzroy is Brunswick Street. With a definite bohemian feel, this street has character oozing out of the dingy side alleys. Anywhere you go in this suburb you will experience fringe culture at its finest. It's worthwhile sitting on one of the many mosaic chairs to watch many interesting people pass by. There are many good live music venues, pubs, cafés, bookshops, galleries, and restaurants.
Bordering Fitzroy and Collingwood is the seedy and interesting Smith Street. It has undergone somewhat of a resurgence of interest since 1999, for obvious, big-city reasons. The end closest to Central Melbourne is now full of cafés with character, and pubs with presence. The Town Hall entertains a few good local and interstate bands from time to time, however, most prefer to go to nearby Fitzroy.
Neighbouring Collingwood is Richmond. It contains three streets of interest - Victoria Street, Bridge Road and Swan Street. Bridge Road has become more like Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, Victoria Street is often referred to as Little Vietnam - with innumerable Vietnamese restaurants/cafés which are mainly low on ambiance, but provide terrific food for little money. In fact, you can eat well here for under $10. Swan Street is closer in feel to Smith Street of Collingwood6. Each are worth taking a walk down. Crossing all three is Church Street which has some interesting old architecture, and a couple of good galleries.
Slightly further afield, a great pub is the All Nations on Lennox Street (near Victoria Street) which serves terrific food and wine. It has a beer garden and open fires in the winter - a gem! The Kingston Hotel is similar, a bit bigger, maybe a little more stylish but a little less friendly. You'll get the best steak in Australia at Vlado's on Bridge Road. Owned and run by an Argentinean perfectionist, this place is only for top-grade carnivores. Do not ask for a well done steak as a punch in the mouth often offends!
South Yarra, Prahran and St Kilda
At Church Street, Richmond, we cross the Yarra and it becomes Chapel Street, South Yarra. This is a very upmarket street packed with expensive cafés, bars, clothes shops, hairdressers, and people - not that you can pay for one here. People come here to be seen - loud cars which are actually stereos on wheels patrol the streets, designer clothes being worn to be envied, mobile phones ringing at the drop of a hat with the first part of the loud conversation for the purpose of letting the other person know that the call is being made.
This attitude stretches into Toorak Road, which the tram trundles down. The best pub is the Fawkner Club Hotel. It has a large beer garden, okay food, and is really the only place to be on a summer's evening. The best restaurant is Jacques Raymond, found on Williams Road. This is another that is world class and priced accordingly. It's cheaper for lunch, though; $40 for two courses is average.
There is a safe-haven in nearby Prahran. As you continue down Chapel Street, the garishness slowly diminishes into a nice, gentle suburb. There is a demarcation where this occurs - Greville Street. This quiet version of the South Yarra part of Chapel Street is very small, but full of character, alternative book-stores, cafes, bars, and a cheaper alternative to the Chapel Street clothing stores.
Nearby, just south of South Melbourne, St. Kilda is definitely worth looking at. With a racier image due to its once being the main red-light district, it attracts many shady characters. However, due to a gradual rejuvenation (common throughout most of the inner city haunts mentioned here), there is now a more sophisticated feel. The major attractions include Fitzroy Street, Ackland Street, Luna Park (a fun park whose Sydney counterpart is all but closed down), and St Kilda beach and esplanade, on which the great pub, the Espy, can be found.
You'd also be hard pressed to find a bad restaurant here, the best being the Café di Stasio. It is 'modern Italian', and serves excellent food. It has a cheap two-course lunch which contains quality food, costing around $20. Don't miss the Stokehouse for a sea front dining experience- cheap and noisy downstairs, good food and nice ambience upstairs.
Following the beach (many do on a form of transport called roller blades or in-line skates) north takes you back to Melbourne. Otherwise you could cross Albert Park - home of the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix and the Save Albert Park protest group (formed as a reaction against the Grand Prix).
South Melbourne/Port Melbourne and the Docklands
South Melbourne, or Port Melbourne, is a trendy kind of place. The best pubs are the Bells Hotel & Brewery, and the London Tavern while the best restaurant is Est, Est, Est. The Docklands is a large precinct of Melbourne, but it really shines right on the water. Home to many stylish clubs, bars and restaurants, it also is a great day out for the family. Ice cream is abundant, and a free standing tent holds exhibitions of art, and other goodies.
Melbourne is proud of its sporting triumphs, and the legends it has called its own, like Sir Donald Bradman, Pat Cash and Ron Barassi. Sport is important to Aussies, and Melbourne isn't shy in showing off its capabilities in this field of human endeavour. The Yarra boasts rowing races, the MCG held the 1956 Summer Olympics, the majority of Aussie Rules Football teams hail from the suburbs of the city, Test Matches and the Ashes have been won and lost since the Aussies suddenly got extremely good at cricket, the list is virtually endless. In fact, there are so many sporting grounds in Melbourne it's not possible to list them all, but the following are the cream of the crop:
Melbourne Cricket Ground - The MCG, known locally as 'the Gee', is the home of Cricket and Australian Rules Football in Australia, and seats exactly one crapload of people. It has a rich history of sporting triumphs, and there are tours available of the ground which are well worth the time.
Rod Laver Arena - Rod Laver was a really, really good tennis player. So good in fact, that they named a tennis stadium after him, putting his name in enormous letters across the top of the arena. The Australian Open is held here, one of the four Grand Slams.
Telstra Dome - A multi-purpose cricket/football oval with a retractable roof. Used for soccer, rugby (League and Union), concerts and other large gatherings of people. Formerly Docklands Stadium, it was bought by Telstra7 and given its new name. In 2025, the Australian Football League will take over ownership.
Vodafone Arena - A multi-purpose stadium for when the others fill up. Basketball, small concerts, tennis, that sort of thing. Nice cafeteria.
What Else is There To Do?
You can catch up with what's on in the entertainment pages of The Age or The Herald Sun, Melbourne's daily newspapers if you are really at a loss for something to do though. There's also The Argus - the favourite paper for gay listings. Other information can be found at the following:
- City of Melbourne is the city's own website, and is a very handy one to bookmark if you are planning a visit.
- That's Melbourne offers a little more about the lesser known activities that might be going on in the city.
- The free weekly magazine Beat is excellent for its interviews, reviews, and concise gig guide.
- The Melbourne Diner's Guide has help for navigating the wonderful food paradise that is Melbourne.
- Vicnet has general information and links to many websites about Melbourne and Victoria.
Day Trips from Melbourne
Surrounding Melbourne is the standard suburban sprawl. Go west and you'll find Geelong and the Bellarine Peninsula. Go north and you'll find the Great Dividing Range. East lies Mount Dandenong and the Yarra Valley. South east is the Mornington Peninsula. The following are the highlights of these areas:
Phillip Island - For many years a tourist must-do, every day any number of coach operators take you on a two hour each way trip, the highlight of which is watching the Fairy Penguins come ashore to their nests just after dusk.There is also a wildlife sanctuary, the largest population of seals in Australia at Seal Rock, and a surf beach.
The Great Ocean Road - One of the world's great roads. Cut into the cliffs facing Bass Strait, the road better observed under your own steam in a hired car. Spend two or three days driving to Warnambool and back, unless time is a problem, in which case a one day bus tour is ideal.
The Yarra Valley - Australia's fastest-growing wine-making areas, the Yarra Valley is situated just one hours drive from Melbourne. With some 50 different vineyards, some with accommodation and restaurants, there is plenty on offer. The best vineyards are Chateau Yering, Domaine Chandon, Eyton on the Yarra and De Bortolis. Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary and Zoo is also in the Yarra Valley, and is your best opportunity to experience and learn about some of Australia's unique fauna.
Mount Dandenong - only about an hours drive from Central Melbourne, it is certainly worth a day trip. Covered with a temperate rainforest and more B&B's than you can poke a stick at, the area has a magical feel, and inspired artist William Rickett to build a house in serene surroundings - and create art in one of the most beautiful and alive places on Earth.
Portsea & the Mornington Peninsula - Two hours from the CBD, lunch at the Portsea Pub overlooking Port Phillip Bay is a summer's day must-do. Take the ferry from Portsea Pier across the bay to Queenscliff, or surf on Sorrento back beach. The other surf beaches are on the Mornington Peninsula, and there are some wineries there too, and some nice galleries. The surf beaches are best for beginners and intermediate surfers (mostly beginners)8. For better surf, try the excellent beaches near Geelong. If you follow the Nepean Highway (from central Melbourne along the length of the Mornington Peninsula) to the end, you'll also find yourself in the Otway Ranges National Park - home to the world's tallest flowering plant, the mountain ash.
The above is by no means a comprehensive list of what is available to see and do in and around Melbourne. Those with time should investigate the Victorian Alpine Country, Lake Eildon, the Lakes District (Metung, Paynesville and Lakes Entrance), the Goldfields (such as the towns of Ballarat, Bendigo and Beechworth), and, well the list is almost never-ending in this most beautiful city and region - the best in the world.