[updated March 2020]
After living in Melbourne (pronounced ‘Mel-bun’ in Australia) for three months, I’d become quite familiar with the lovely city on the Yarra river and some of its finer offerings. Why go to Melbourne? SO many reasons!
In so many ways Melbourne has been competing with its older brother, Sydney, since the 19th Century. Just as in the U.S., Chicago will always be second banana to New York City, hence its oft-used nickname: The Second City. Here, it seems Melbourne could be called the same thing. But not for much longer! In just a few years, Melbourne is set to overtake Sydney as Australia’s largest city! The population is growing at a faster pace in Melbourne as Australian’s and Victorians move to the country’s culture capital.
Currently, Melbourne has about 5 million inhabitants and was once Australia’s largest city thanks to a gold rush in the mid 1800s. Sydney was first claimed for the British by Captain James Cook in 1770 (of course the Indigenous Australians were here first—for, oh about 50,000 years) and, it’s no rumor, many of its first inhabitants were British convicts.
This island nation was first seen as a harsh and horrible place—and in many ways it still is very tough for folks to live here—case in point—the horrible drought they’ve been suffering for several years now. Unlike the U.S., Australia has NO water running through the middle of it. More than 168,000 convicts had been ‘shipped’ to Australia by the time the practice was abolished in the mid 1800s. Sydney now has a little over 5 million, mostly law-abiding people who get to admire the Opera House and stunning Harbour on a regular basis.
Melbourne hosted the first Olympic Games in the Southern Hemisphere in 1956 and became the country’s sporting capital. Of course, Sydney ‘one-upped’ Melbourne with the 2000 Games. Since the Australian people are very proud of their hometowns, you can imagine the on-going debate over which is the better city.
Why Go to Melbourne
Just through my experiences alone, I happen to prefer Melbourne. I am the first to admit this is all based on simple personal experiences and if I’d gotten a job in Sydney and had met more people there, I may feel the reverse.
Summertime in Melbourne
When I lived and worked in Melbourne, it was summertime and the city came alive with moonlight movies in the park, outdoor concerts put on by the symphony, cricket matches, the Australian Open, and Melbournians just getting outdoors for the sake of getting outdoors.
I mentioned in an earlier entry how ethnically diverse the city is. Like most big cities, it’s a veritable melting pot of the world. And there is no day better to celebrate this than on Australia Day. Multiculturalism is the theme here and the live concert on Australia Day was a random mish-mash of local performers—Asian, Maori, Indigenous Australians, Spaniards, right down to the “robot man” known as—get this—the Sonic Manipulator, who is an iconic street performer here. Sounds like the next Arnold Schwarzenegger flick—today the California Governator, tomorrow the Sonic Manipulator.
For more to do check out this Melbourne city guide.
Things to do in Melbourne
Wondering why go to Melbourne? There is a ton to see and do in Melbourne. So I turned to my fellow bloggers and travel writer colleagues who either live here or have spent some time here. Here are their top picks on things to do in Melbourne.
Melbourne’s Federation Square
Recommended by Hannah from Hannah’s Happy Adventures
Melbourne Street Art
Recommended by Ivan from mindthetravel.com.
While Melbourne is hands down home to some of the world’s most iconic street art, its residents are encouraged to participate in creative expression. In Melbourne, street art has become widely accepted as a popular form of visual artistic expression. Many building owners are providing legal spaces for both international and Australian graffiti artists to display their works. These intricate hand-drawn murals can be found in alleys and laneways all around the city, and very few stay for long until they are painted over again.
Hosier (see more below) and Rutledge Lanes (just a stone’s throw away from Fed Square) and Centre Place are among the most colorful spots, creating some of the city’s best open-air galleries. These two easily attracts thousands of tourists who flock here every day to take photos. While Hosier Lane, ACDC Lane, and Union Lane are the most famous streets in Melbourne for art, there are also Blender Lane, Collingwood, and Fitzroy that have plenty of great artworks from graffiti artists.
Melbourne boasts hundreds of street art themes: including food, lifestyle, music, actors, art deco, legends, fairy tales, new age and more. Street art in Melbourne is marked by immediacy and individuality. It is ever-changing and very inspiring. Bear in mind that not one single piece of graffiti mural stays there forever. On some streets and city laneways, artworks change daily, on some weekly, on some monthly. They are always changing, so making more than one visit is a must.
Consider staying in the Central Business District (CBD)while visiting Melbourne; the YHA Central is a cool place to stay. The CBD and inner suburbs are great if you want the best of Melbourne at your feet, whether it be street art, sporting events or a plethora of food options. Not to mention easy access to the oldest and largest university campuses in Australia.
Recommended by: Liliane of My Toronto, My World
Nowhere is Melbourne’s thriving street art scene more apparent than on Hosier Lane.
This one block alleyway can be found close to Flinders Street and Russell Street in downtown Melbourne. It’s a short three minute walk from Flinders Railway Station so it’s quite accessible.
While you’ll find lots of traditional street art pieces (some political, some humorous and some that veer more into the basic tagging), you can also find small little art works around the alley. During my visit there was a random Barbie doll head hanging on a rope, a rat statue that was caught in a trap and many more.
The pieces do rotate here so even if you’ve been before you should definitely check it out again as it makes for some fantastic photography. It’s free to enjoy with no opening hours that restrict a visit so it’s super easy to squeeze it into any itinerary.
Take a Melbourne Food Tour
Recommended by Katy Clarke of Untold Morsels.
Melbourne is an undisputed foodie city and you’d be missing out if you didn’t get your fork into some of the tastiest bites in town. The best way to do this is on a food tour where you can taste a variety of dishes from several establishments. Unlike some food tours that celebrate purely local cuisine, Melbourne food tours focus on the city’s diverse cultural communities. You’ll slurp noodles from Malaysia, try Turkish ice cream and some of the best pizza outside Italy.
Many food tours run in the Central Business District (CBD) and through Melbourne’s famous Queen Victoria Market, but we suggest heading to the inner north and suburbs like Coburg and Northcote where you can have an adventure and explore the areas that foster up and coming chefs and new culinary experiences. Wherever you go, your food tour will give you some insight into Melbourne’s history with a side of street art and culture as well as delicious bites. Food is an important part of our city’s identity so joining a tour that celebrates this should be on the top of your list of things to do in Melbourne.
Take a Tour of the State Library Victoria
Recommended by Rebecca of Rebecca and the World.
Book lover or not, the State Library Victoria in Melbourne is a beautiful place to visit. This 19th-century library has recently undergone a multimillion-dollar facelift and now welcomes up to 7,000 visitors a day.
Across 23 separate buildings, that were constructed at various times over the past century and a half, there are reading rooms, spaces busting with historic records and galleries featuring Australian art. There are also several areas with seasonal exhibitions, including one that holds the infamous Ned Kelly’s armor.
The octagonal LaTrobe Reading Room, also known as The Dome, is usually as full of photographers as it is with readers. People are drawn to the large, white space with its 35-metre-high domed skylight. Another beautiful room is Queen’s Hall, which has only just been reopened to the public after 16 years.
There are free daily tours. Guides point out hidden artworks around the library, and share the history of this gorgeous building. The State Library is located in the Central Business District (CBD), one of the best Melbourne neighborhoods to visit.
Recommended by Sharon of Simpler and Smarter.
If there is one thing you are going to want to do in Melbourne, it’s to look at it from above and you can do this quickly and easily at the Melbourne Star!
Melbourne Star is the city’s version of the big, Ferris wheel style attractions that have popped up in many parts of the world. Located in the Docklands area of Melbourne, it’s easy to get here on the free city circle trams.
Most of the time, it’s easy to get your own cabin. These are a decent size and there are maps and audio to help you get your bearings. Rising to a height of 120 metres, the views are fantastic. It takes about 30 minutes to go all the way around.
The big decision is to decide whether to go in the evening for night views or during the day. I recommend going around sunset for great views of both!
Princes Pier and Westgate Park
Recommended by Nina of Ragusa of Where in the World is Nina.
For a free and easy thing to do in Melbourne, strolling the Port Melbourne Foreshore is a great option. Head to Princes Pier, which makes for an interesting photography spot and mini history lesson. This was a major hub for new migrants post-war. As the years went by, the timber became weak, the port was closed, and squatters caused a fire that destroyed the structure. Now there are just rows of intriguing stumps leading into Port Philip Bay.
After a few snaps, you can walk along Sandridge Beach to Westgate Park. There are a few lakes to loop around and some picnic spots, so bring a snack! The coolest thing is Salt Water Lake. Due to high salt levels, high temperatures, and a mix of sunlight and little rainfall, these perfect conditions cause an algae to grow. And that algae produces a pigment that turns this lake bright pink!
If it’s been raining a lot, the lake will look like your average lake, so try to come after a dry spell and when it’s warm out. Since I was working and living in Melbourne and trying not to spend an arm and a leg, I loved this area. It’s a beautiful walk and best of all, free!
Visit St. Kilda in Melbourne
Recommended by Fiona from Passport and Piano
St Kilda is a delightful seaside town that’s only six kilometers from the city center and worth putting on your Melbourne itinerary. The town has a beautiful promenade that you can walk along, and there are plenty of thrills to be had at the Luna amusement park. You can take a spin on a rollercoaster, have fun on the dodgems or test your nerve in the Haunted house.
The towns other major attraction is the cute and gorgeous little penguins. As the sun sets head to St Kilda Pier where every evening you can watch the penguins as they return to their nests after hunting all day at sea. Seeing them waddle in one after each other is a fantastic sight, and it’s a wonderful way to end a day trip to St Kilda.
From Melbourne, the easiest way to get there is on Tram 96 from Bourke Street. There is no entrance fee to see the penguins, so it makes a much cheaper alternative than a trip to St Philip Island.
Visit The Geelong Waterfront
Recommended by Audrey Chalmers of See Geelong
Melbourne is an amazing city and we visit it often, but if you’d like to get out of the city for a while, we recommend visiting the Geelong Waterfront. It’s easy to get to, and with the new ferry service leaving from the Docklands you don’t have to worry about traffic. Once you arrive you can join in all the fun activities and vibrant events that regularly take place here.
The cosmopolitan area is filled with restaurants, bars, and cafes, public art and beautifully landscaped gardens. One of the most popular spots is Eastern Beach. With its Art Deco buildings and historical promenade, it’s like an old-school seaside holiday resort, and you can enjoy all the facilities for free! Here you’ll find the iconic Geelong Bollards, a children’s pool, sea baths, a playground, and Giant Sky Wheel, all surrounded by lush sloping lawns. While you’re here you can make use of the picnic and barbecue facilities or enjoy a meal at the stunning new Beach House Café. Geelong makes a great day trip from Melbourne or stay overnight and check out the nightlife along Little Malop Street.
Visit Melbourne’s Williamstown
Recommended by Monique at tripanthropologist.com.
All around Victoria, from Portsea to Port Fairy, are wonderful old fishing ports and villages. Williamstown is special though, because it’s Melbourne’s first port. It’s a perfectly-scaled maritime village with picturesque beaches, a lovely small botanical garden, a village green and a bustling pier and waterfront shopping precinct. This microcosm of Melbourne’s best attributes is accessible by road, rail and ferry. It is a happy place – full of hidden treasures – the remnants of a maritime past – colonial buildings, forts, towers, maritime museums and pirate-themed bars!
A bandstand sits in the park fronting Gem pier where families sit watching the water and eating fish and chips. At the adjacent pier, the Sea Shepherd, offers tours and a sense of what life is like on the sea-chasing illegal whalers. Behind Gem pier is Nelson place – the original main street that is lined with eateries and bars in converted chapels and colonial buildings — this is where most tourists head.
But there is so much more to Williamstown – walking through its beautiful and small botanical garden will lead you to Williamstown beach. Grand houses line the seafront. The Fort Gelibrand Coastal Heritage Trail sweeps further around the coast, leading you to Fort Gelibrand and the Timeball Tower (which was used by ships as a navigation aid but also to correct the time on board ships). It’s impossible to run out of fascinating things to do and learn about this charming and lively old maritime village.
The Weather in Melbourne
Just like everywhere else I’ve lived, the weather here is the butt of many jokes and is known for its changeable conditions. Here, they always say, “four seasons in one day.” One morning it can soar into the 100s (F) and then later that afternoon it’s 60ºF degrees and rainy. When I was there it reached 43.9ºC (111ºF) in January breaking a record and was Melbourne’s hottest since 1939.
Getting Around Melbourne
Melbourne’s famous tramway system is said to now be the largest in the world. Operating continuously in Melbourne since 1885, it now stretches along 250 kilometres (160 miles) of track, and has 493 trams. A free city tour tram circles the central business district forming a loop around it.
This mostly flat city has been named one of the best cycling cities in the world and is criss-crossed with hundreds of bike lanes and paths. Bike lanes here are marked in bright green and when I say bike lane—I really mean it—a solid line separates you from the cars and in some cases there are even traffic lights for bikes!
I took advantage of this cycle-friendly city by renting a bike for a few weeks and using it to tour around and as my main transport method to and from work. I was lucky enough to score an excellent deal on the rental thanks to the fact that all the Brunswick Street Cycle Shop guys and gals came in to the café where I worked to get their lunches and coffees. Apparently TV jobs aren’t the only ones with perks!
Melbourne is often referred to as Australia’s garden city, and the state of Victoria is known as “the garden state” just like my home state of New Jersey. Melbourne is chock full of lush green spaces—The Botanic Gardens, Carlton Gardens, Fitzroy Gardens. These are all huge parks with towering trees and bricked curving paths where locals can laze the day away with a picnic of vegemite sandwiches or just play some fetch with their pooches.
Also, like many cities, there is a huge revitalization going on. The Docklands, Southgate and Crown Complexes are all newer areas to eat, shop, and stroll around in what was once old industrial port and shipping yards.
There is also some pretty amazing public art sprinkled throughout the city—in parks, on bridges, and on sidewalks.
Tours of Melbourne
One day I also swapped roles here and took a Melbourne Greeter Tour. I was a Chicago Greeter Volunteer back in Chicago for a couple of years. Many cities in the world now offer this great service where a local will take around tourists for a few hours and show them their city from a real local’s perspective. On the tour we discovered one of the best and most defining characteristics of Melbourne — its “little laneways.” Degraves Lane, Hardware Lane, the Block Arcade, the Royal Arcade are all virtually glorified alleys that have been closed to traffic, filled with charming European-like cafes and outdoor table seating.
They offer the illusion of being secret and hidden even though they are quite famous. Some are darker and narrower than others and some barely feel like much more than an alley except for the fact that they lead to an inconspicuous bar.
Melbourne will no doubt continue to struggle to come out from the shadow of big brother Sydney’s striking yet obvious beauty. I like to think Melbourne’s beauty is more ‘hidden’ and more than just skin deep.
I think one of the reasons I like Melbourne so much is its ‘down to earth’ similarity to my adopted home and my ‘second city’… which I think is really number one.
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