T&C’s ultimate guide to Melbourne

Our insider tips for the Australian city

Often overlooked by tourists in favour of Sydney and the Gold Coast, Melbourne is a culturally rich metropolis that deserves to top everyone’s first-time Aussie travel itinerary, especially if you’re after a more enriching experience down under.

Situated in the state of Victoria on the south-east coast and surrounded by picturesque national parks, to fully appreciate Melbourne’s unique charm you’ll need to understand its heritage. A young city by European standards, it was founded in 1835 and, due to the Australian Gold Rush, doubled its population during the 1850s via mass migration from Europe and Asia. As a result, the city has evolved into a modern, multicultural hub of diverse arts, architecture and cuisine. Named by Queen Victoria after her close confident Lord Melbourne, it has been awarded the world’s most liveable city for seven years running. Its forward-thinking approach and melting pot of arts, cuisine, sport, coffee, live music and continued investment have sent the population soaring again; it is predicted to double by 2050 (the government has already begun work on an $11bn underground metro, due for completion in 2025).

Pic: Federation Square

The beating heart of the city is the Central Business District (CBD), a rectangular grid of skyscrapers intercut with tiny laneways and arcades that are connected via a free tram network (you have to pay for transport outside the CBD). It is these laneways that have become the city’s most endearing feature; a vibrant hub of artisan coffee shops, independent eateries and craft stores, decorated throughout with award-winning street art.

Think of Melbourne as a Matryoshka doll; understated and unassuming, you remove the top layer and discover something unexpected, remove the second layer and you’ll find another revelation. Locals will encourage you to venture off-grid and make your own discoveries; you’ll soon learn that if a shop or bar is heavily advertised then it’s a tourist hotspot and not worth a visit. Everyone here is a coffee and food connoisseur, and this is reflected in the quality and quantity of offerings citywide; from the bustling streets to the literature and social media, for Melburnians the thriving culinary scene is widely discussed, praised and tasted (more on this to come) and forms an essential part of daily life here.

Pic: Melbourne laneway

Flinders Lane, which runs east to west on the southern part of the CBD, is a 24/7 hive of activity, lined with galleries, healthy cafés, bars and independent shops, many tucked away behind hidden doors or stairwells. Just off here, on Watson Lane, you’ll find Craft (craft.org.au) – a wonderfully innovative retail-cum-gallery initiative that commissions new and established designers and artists to make beautiful ceramics, homeware, sculpture and jewellery (a separate exhibition programme runs alongside). A short walk and you’ll come to the iconic Chicago-style Nicholas Building, which opened in 1926 – it’s now a creative hub of quirky market shops and galleries, but it’s the untouched 1920s interior and exterior, in all its glory, that will wow you (if you like poetry, then the shabby but much loved Collected Works on the second floor is a gold mine of rare, out-of-print and worldwide publications). Other architectural high points in the CBD are the Republic Tower, an eye-catching Brutalist-style high-rise designed by Fender Katsalidis and opened in 2001. At ground level there is the Republic Art Space – a huge billboard used to display artists’ works. If you’ve worked up an appetite and need a healthy pitstop for lunch, visit Laneway Greens (lanewaygreens.com.au), which is on Flinders Lane and offers a quirky and healthy salad-bowl menu. 

Pic: Degraves Street

The neighbourhood of Fitzroy, located to the north-east of the CDB and about a 10-minute walk away, is Melbourne’s equivalent of Shoreditch – a hip haven favoured by creatives with (more) coffee shops, quirky clothing, record stores, cutting-edge galleries, brunch spots, antiques stores and bars. The key areas to head for are Brunswick Street, Gertrude Street and Smith Street. The Australian Print Workshop (australianprintworkshop.com) on Gertrude Street is a great place to view and buy prints by Australian artists, and if you happen to be visiting in early December they sell limited-edition prints by named artists at affordable prices as part of their annual fundraiser. Here you’ll also find a high concentration of colourful Victorian terraced houses built in the British architectural style during the gold rush,many in red brick, others in native blue stone, with quaint timber balconies at the front.

Pic: Block Arcade

Head south, and short walk over the river leads you to Southbank, home to the city’s main cultural institutions: The Arts Centre (their Sunday crafts market is worth a visit), ACCA (Australian Centre for Contemporary Art), National Gallery of Victoria and the Melbourne Theatre Company. If you have time, you should also venture out to the Heide Museum of Modern Art (heide.com.au) in the outer suburb of Bulleen; the former home and gallery of collectors John and Sunday Reed, who amassed a superb repertoire of art over five decades and left everything to the Victoria government when they died in 1981 (10 days apart). Now a public-art space, it’s easily reachable by Uber or public transport, and in addition to the permanent painters and sculptors on display there are curated programmes and beautiful gardens to explore.

To the south-east of the CBD you’ll find the beautiful Botanical Gardens, an oasis of lakes, sweeping green spaces and colourful majestic trees; a great place to relax with a book or go for an early-morning run. Beyond this is South Yarra, an upmarket leafy neighbourhood with a village feel and some of the best restaurants in town and upscale boutiques.

ACCOMMODATION

You’ll want to stay in the CDB district to fully experience all that Melbourne has to offer. We’d recommend the QT, a new design hotel that opened in 2016 and has become a destination in itself thanks to its hugely popular rooftop, which houses a cocktail bar and terrace overlooking the city’s breath-taking skyline – it’ll be packed on Friday and Saturday evenings, so arrive early (it’s the perfect spot to watch the sun go down).

It has an industrial aesthetic and there’s an obvious Philippe Starck influence in the interior, with bed/desk combinations and glass-enclosed bathrooms in bedroom suites that make creative use of the space, furnished with contemporary art and brightly coloured rugs. The Pascale Bar & Grill on the first floor is an opulent 120-seater open-plan restaurant with an open kitchen, contained in a low-lit dark wood/black steel design. It features a cocktail menu inspired by the lively New Orleans ‘French Quarter’ and an expensive selection of award-winning South Australian wines. Breakfast is à la carte or buffet; both options are healthy and will satisfy even the pickiest eaters. In the foyer there is a coffee and snack bar that offers more casual dining, or for those who are on the run.

FOOD & DRINK

The food scene in Melbourne is one of the best in the world and there are more than enough excellent eateries to keep the locals occupied, which makes it hard to recommend only a handful of places. If you’re visiting the city, dinner at Matilda 159 (matilda159.com) in South Yarra is a must. It has a warm and inviting interior that is minimal and modern, with natural woods to reflect the botanical gardens opposite. It is named after the owner’s daughter and that personal touch carries through to the service. As you enter, you’re greeted by a bustling open kitchen fuelled by an open fire and hot coals; bag a seat there for the best experience. The menu features only local produce and dishes are rotated seasonally. If you like steak we’d highly recommend the Sher Wagyu Rump Cap; it’s an Australian speciality and the best we’ve ever had. Another must visit is Iki-Jime (ikijime.com.au), a seafood restaurant located in the CBD district. This is a popular eatery that combines fine dining with the ambience of a member’s club or cool late-night bar; you’ll want to eat, drink and hang out here for the duration of the night. Its dark-wood, low-lit interiors feel effortlessly glamorous and the staff are friendly. The menu features responsibly sourced ingredients from the local area and nationwide. The wood-grilled bass groper with coastal greens and asparagus, paired with a glass of 2017 Kaesler Old Vine Semmillon from Barossa Valley South Australia, is a particular highlight. 

Pic: Matilda 159

It you are an early riser, take advantage of the city’s thriving breakfast scene; one of the best is at Higher Ground (highergroundmelbourne.com.au), located in the CBD opposite the central train station. It’s housed in a lofty red-brick warehouse, with exposed walls and ground- and mezzanine-level seating. Get there early or risk having to queue. It has one of the more innovative menus we’ve seen. To counteract the copious wine the night before, opt for the hearty minced lamb, miso eggplant, eggs, barberries, smoked yoghurt and pine nuts on sourdough. For a sweeter option, we loved the Mambulloo mango and coconut chia, passionfruit, kiwi, basmati meringue and lemon murtle.

Coffee in Melbourne is an art form; think you’ve had a good cup back home, then think again, but you’ll have to venture off-grid if you want to find the perfect brew. Situated below street level in one of the pedestrianised tunnels now used for the metro is Cup of Truth (cupoftruth.com.au), the winner of multiple awards and rightly so – we’d be bold enough to say it’s the best cup of coffee we’ve ever had. Most people struggle to find it. as its physical address is at street level, but it is a hole in the wall that sits in Campbell Arcade, the subway that connects Flinders Street station and Degraves Station. The tunnel was redecorated for the 1956 Olympics for locals to use exclusively for their daily commute – there’s a charm to the pink mid-century tiles that frame this intimate booth.

WHAT TO SEE

If you have time, rent a car (there is an Avis at the Park Hyatt hotel in the CBD) and drive south to the Mornington Peninsula – a beautifully picturesque coastal area famed for its wineries (there are more than 170) and beaches. It’ll take you roughly an hour and a half, or closer to two in rush hour. The Port Phillip estate (portphillipestate.com.au), housed in a contemporary glass exterior, overlooking its vineyard and sculpture garden, offers a more formal dining experience. For those seeking a livelier alternative, head to the Rare Hare (rarehare.com.au), which has communal tables, a tapas-style menu and a boozier vibe. Try the grilled king brown mushrooms, xo sauce, black garlic and fried enoki, which is one of their signature dishes. After lunch, stroll secluded beaches, relax at the hot springs, or if you want to make a weekend of it stay at the new Flinders Hotel on the south-eastern tip (flindershotel.com.au). On the way back, take advantage of the Great Ocean Road and divert on one of the most scenic road trips that showcases Australia’s dramatic landscapes, winding along the rugged coast. A particular highlight, and one of the most instagrammed, is the 12 Apostles, where limestone pillars jaunt out dramatically from the sea in front of windswept cliffs and crashing waves.

We travelled with Abercrombie & Kent and flew with Cathay Pacific.

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