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Melbourne city guide: Best things to do and where to stay in Australia’s free-spirited capital of cool

Sophisticated with a hipster edge, Melbourne is consistently ranked as one of the world’s best places to live (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Sophisticated with a hipster edge, Melbourne is consistently ranked as one of the world’s best places to live (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Stylish, cosmopolitan and fabulously eclectic, Melbourne is urban Australia at its most inspiring. Forget glittering surf and endless sunshine: this moody, bluestone city is a well-read, macchiato-guzzling beast more akin to Berlin than Bondi. Down here, gritty, art-strewn alleys (known as laneways) harbour maverick cafés and restaurants, while unmarked stairwells lead to avant-garde ateliers, sharply curated bookshops and buzzing rooftop bars.

In a few short decades, the feverish Victorian gold rush of the 1850s transformed Melbourne – Naarm to its traditional owners, the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people – from a dusty settlement into a wealthy, worldly metropolis. This gilded period lives on in the city’s prolific heritage architecture, from rows of ornately decorated Victorian terraced houses to cathedral-esque banks. In sharp contrast is contemporary Melbourne – an edgy, ever-evolving hotbed of creativity, where boundaries are constantly pushed, from couture to cocktails and cuisine.

Best time to visit

Flinders Street Station, one of the city’s most famous landmarks (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Flinders Street Station, one of the city’s most famous landmarks (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

March and April see Melbourne at its meteorological best. Daytime temperatures are generally warm and stable, and evenings are cool. The wintry chill of low season (June to August) is countered by Australian Rules Football mania (a veritable religion) and major cultural events, including Melbourne Winter Masterpieces and arts festival Rising. Summer (December to February) is peak season, with music festivals, tennis at the Australian Open and expensive accommodation along Victoria’s beautiful coastline.

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Best things to do

Seek out hidden treasures

Much of central Melbourne’s treasure is hidden off its tram-graced thoroughfares, in laneways, arcades and behind carved stone facades. Slip into AC/DC Lane, Croft Alley and Hosier Lane to savour world-renowned street art, or dig deeper with Melbourne Street Tours. For a classic Instagram shot, don’t miss Centre Place, a densely packed laneway of tiny cafes, bars and Art Nouveau street lamps. The passageway runs off Flinders Lane, once the heart of Melbourne’s rag trade and home to the 1920s Nicholas Building, a multi-level hive of artists, artisans and galleries. Among the latter is artist-run Blindside, championing emerging and cutting-edge creatives.

Get lost along the many laneways in Melbourne (Getty Images)
Get lost along the many laneways in Melbourne (Getty Images)

A block away, on blue-ribbon Collins Street, portals lead to sumptuous 19th-century interiors channelling Melbourne’s gold-rush glow. Among these is Milanese-inspired Block Arcade, adorned with lavish stuccowork and floor mosaics, and the Hogwarts-like ANZ Gothic Bank, Australia’s finest secular Gothic-Revival building. Even more spectacular is 333 Collins Street. An architectural Kinder Surprise, its Gotham-esque office tower – built in 1990 – encases a 19th-century banking chamber complete with neo-Baroque cupola.

Find inspiration at NGV

The National Gallery of Victoria (free to enter) claims one of Australia’s most distinguished public art collections, spread over two buildings on opposite sides of the Yarra River. At bluestone behemoth NGV International, lie down under Leonard French’s epic stained-glass ceiling (the world’s largest), lose yourself in Tiepolo’s commanding The Banquet of Cleopatra and meet Picasso’s Weeping Woman, infamously stolen in an unsolved 1986 art heist. Across the river on aesthetically divisive Federation Square, Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia displays the gallery’s homegrown masterpieces, including works by renowned Indigenous artist Emily Kam Kngwarray and John Brack’s iconic Melbourne painting Collins St, 5pm. At different times of the year, NGV International stays up late for NGV Friday Nights, with pop-up bars, DJs and live acts inspired by its big-ticket exhibitions.

Hop between neighbourhoods

Each of Melbourne’s inner-city neighbourhoods has its own distinct vibe and pull. You could easily spend a day (and night) exploring Fitzroy’s hipster strips of Brunswick, Smith and Getrude Streets, hopping between galleries, bookshops, design stores, cafes and pubs. Just off Smith Street lies arts precinct Collingwood Yards, home to one of the few surviving murals by American pop artist Keith Haring. In leafy, Italo-centric Carlton, sip a spritz at pasticceria Brunetti Classico and dive into Melbourne’s independent theatre scene at the venerable La Mama.

The amusements at Luna Park, in St Kilda, have been open for over 100 years (Getty Images)
The amusements at Luna Park, in St Kilda, have been open for over 100 years (Getty Images)

Melbourne’s sublime Royal Botanic Gardens flank fashionable South Yarra, awash with grand Victorian-era abodes, polished bistros and on-trend locals. From here, Chapel Street shoots south into edgier Prahran and Windsor in a sweep of cafes, boutiques, clubs, vintage shops and street art; look out for the 20-metre-high robot mural by Welsh artist Phlegm. Further south on Chapel is the iconic Astor Theatre, a go-to for cult classic films. The art-deco cinema lies in bohemian, bayside St Kilda, speckled with Victorian and Spanish Mission architecture, legendary live-music venues like The Espy, Palais Theatre and Memo Music Hall, and an eponymous pier famed for its skyline view.

Where to stay

Next Hotel

Plush, understated rooms underscore sultry Next Hotel. Part of the upmarket 80 Collins dining and retail precinct, the 255-room address includes sexy, modern Italo-Australian restaurant-bar La Madonna and its barrel-aged cocktails. nexthotelmelbourne.com

Laneways by Ovolo

Set in the East End Theatre District, this svelte boutique hotel is within walking distance of hotspot restaurants and bars. Contemporary, clean-lined rooms feature mid-century design influences and bold pops of colour. ovolohotels.com/ovolo/laneways

Dorsett Melbourne

The Dorsett Melbourne is within walking distance of Southern Cross railway station and airport shuttle buses. Elegant rooms, Art Deco accents and a heated indoor pool set a sophisticated scene. dorsetthotels.com/dorsett-melbourne

Where to eat

Anthony Bourdain once declared he’d rather eat in Melbourne than Paris, a testament to the city’s superb produce, prodigious chefs and extraordinary ethnic diversity.

Tables are hot property at Andrew McConnell’s glamorous Gimlet at Cavendish House, whose polished, Europe-centric dishes might see jumbo quail paired with chicken liver parfait, black fig and elderberries. Native ingredients and South-east Asian influences have created something fresh and exciting at Khanh Nguyen’s Sunda, where the buttermilk roti with Vegemite curry is non-negotiable.

Expect modern Australian dining infused with Southeast Asian flavours at Sunda (Kristoffer Paulsen)
Expect modern Australian dining infused with Southeast Asian flavours at Sunda (Kristoffer Paulsen)

For modern Indigenous cooking, hit Nornie Bero’s Big Esso, a casual, all-day eatery on Federation Square serving share plates like charred purple yams with meta chimichurri and crispy saltbush. If you’re feeling adventurous, order the Green Ant-tini, a martini spiked with citrusy green ants. Federation Square also harbours Alejandro Saravia’s Victoria by Farmer’s Daughters, a showcase for Victorian ingredients, from cured Bass Strait scallops to smoked Great Ocean Road duck. For something completely out of the box, sink a burger at Easey’s, set in a converted train carriage atop an office block.

Gimlet at Cavendish House has all of the flair that you’d associate with the city’s popular chef and restaurateur Andrew McConnell (Sharyn Carins)
Gimlet at Cavendish House has all of the flair that you’d associate with the city’s popular chef and restaurateur Andrew McConnell (Sharyn Carins)

Where to drink

Melbourne takes its coffee very seriously: one slurp at specialty roasters like Patricia and Market Lane Coffee you’ll know why. Many of the city’s independently owned cafes also serve excellent food. Among them is Hardware Société, so successful it has opened outposts in Paris and Barcelona. Fitzroy’s minimalist Industry Beans ups the ante with offerings like porcini dusted egg with potato nest and wild mushroom duxelles, while croissainterie Lune justifies its queues with flawless pastries.

For smashing cocktails with an Aussie accent, settle in at Luke Whearty and Aki Nishikura’s Byrdi, where bar ingredients include Yarra Valley hay, Tasmanian wasabi and fermented mango. A dingy alley off Collingwood’s bar-riddled Smith Street leads to Above Board, a sleek, intimate cocktail den with superb drinks and Lost in Translation undertones. If the weather is on your side, take in Melbourne’s skyscrapers from indie-cool Rooftop Bar or oh-so-West-LA Beverly.

Pastries are the order of the day at Lune (Lune)
Pastries are the order of the day at Lune (Lune)

Where to shop

Melbourne’s superlatives include Australia’s largest shopping mall, Chadstone, but the city’s true forte is its independent retailers. Shop Fitzroy’s Gertrude Street for idiosyncratic local fashion from Handsom and Variety Hour, and Carlton’s Grown Alchemist for high-grade skincare. On weekends, Fitzroy’s Rose Street Market lures with affordable, locally designed clothing, jewellery, art and crafts.

Epicureans flock to Melbourne’s 19th-century Queen Victoria Market and South Melbourne Market, both heaving with seasonal produce, artisan cheeses, charcuterie, baked goods, coffee, wine and more. For thoughtful souvenirs, stop by the Melbourne Visitor Hub, where you’re bound to find anything from hand-painted ceramics from Indigenous designers to resin jewellery made with preserved native flora.

Handsom is a store that balances ‘modernity with considered functionality’ (Cristian Bonetto)
Handsom is a store that balances ‘modernity with considered functionality’ (Cristian Bonetto)

Architectural highlight

Victorian-era architect Joseph Reed designed Melbourne’s Unesco World Heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Building, crowned by a magnificent dome inspired by Brunelleschi’s cupola for Florence Cathedral. Guided tours lead up to the Dome Promenade and its sweeping views of the Carlton Gardens and city. In sharp contrast is neighbouring Melbourne Museum, a postmodern statement of sloping canopies and interactive galleries. Among them is the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, a powerful porthole into Victoria’s rich Indigenous heritage.

FAQs

What currency do I need?

Australian dollars.

Should I tip?

There’s no obligation to tip in Australia, but if you’re happy with a restaurant’s service, 10 per cent is good.

What’s the time difference?

GMT+10.

How should I get around?

Central Melbourne is easily explored on foot. An extensive network of trams and trains reaches the inner-city suburbs. See PTV for ticket information, timetables and a handy trip planner.

What’s the best view?

From Melbourne Skydeck, located on level 88 of the city’s second-tallest skyscraper, Eureka Tower.

Insider tip?

For a quick coastal escape, spend a day or two on the Mornington Peninsula, an easy drive south of the city. Make lunch reservations at acclaimed biodynamic farm Tedesca Osteria, and hop between geothermal mineral pools at Peninsula Hot Springs. The Peninsula is renowned for its cool-climate wines; quaff a local pinot at architecturally striking Port Phillip Estate, also home to an international sculpture collection.

Getting there

Airlines with one-stop flights between London and Melbourne include Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Qatar Airways. The fastest route is Qantas’ non-stop service from London to Perth, which continues through to Melbourne (21 hours and 45 minutes).

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