Not just home to Victoria Bitter, or Tennis Australia’s epicentre, but every jar of Vegemite ever made and the largest Greek population outside of Athens, Melbourne is the world’s largest southernmost city.
As the city navigates its way out of Covid, it’s a good time to begin planning a trip there. Combine it with a self-drive tour of the Great Ocean Road and Tasmania. While many Australians are critical of Melbourne’s reputation for cold weather, I rather like the city – in fact, I’d say I like it a lot.
So what’s there to like about Melbourne?
1. Yes, Melbourne’s Climate
Australians mercilessly tease anyone travelling to Melbourne, taunting them with comments like: “you’ll need your umbrella” or, “don’t forget your overcoat“, (even in summer)!
Yet, in my experience, this is almost always wrong. Unless, of course, you visit in the wintertime, which in Melbourne’s defence, is actually their scheduled wet season!
In fact, other Australian cities have higher average rainfall than Melbourne, but Melbourne does have more rainy days than most.
This is likely due to a phenomenon I call, “fairy rain” or my father called, “Melbourne mist”– soft rain showers hardly worth worrying about when you compare it to the drenching one of Queensland’s downpours might unleash. When the tropical thunderstorms unleash their fury in the north, nothing will protect you from being soaked through. (Ironically Queensland, being in the sub-tropical zone, called: the Sunshine state).
Those visitors from the North who think Australia is too hot will revel in the temperate climate Melbourne offers, with maximums of 30 C (86 degrees F), in summertime and there is that wonderful southern twilight that lasts until 10pm, in summer, allowing for extra sightseeing before dark.
There’s no white stuff to shovel in winter, but during June – September you have the option of travelling to the snow fields of Falls Creek, (a mere five-hour drive), nestled in the high country of the Snowy Mountains.
2. The Arts Scene
Melbourne has loads of artsy attractions to sink your tourist teeth into.
ACMI, the Museum of Film, TV, Videogames and Art and the adjacent Ian Potter Museum, which houses a collection of native art and contemporary exhibits, currently undergoing renovations, thus, is temporarily closed, (June 2021), so cross the road to an informal but fascinating street display of Graffiti Art in Hosier lane. Undiscovered artistic talent abounds there!
There’s usually a buzz of activity at Federation square, from buskers to street food stalls. If you’re there in January and missed out on tickets to the Australian Open Tennis, you can watch the players battle it out on the big live screen, perhaps reclining in a complimentary deck chair or bean bag.
After that, a short walk across the iconic Princess bridge will take you over the Yarra River and past the Gardens to find the National Gallery of Victoria which will soon re-open with an exhibition of Australian impressionists.
3. The History
Melbourne, touted as Australia’s capital city in the gold-rush era, was one of the wealthiest cities in the world in the 1800s. The Queen Victoria exhibition building, housing the World Expo of 1880, is but one example of the wealth and status of Melbourne, in years gone by.
Unfortunately with all the wealth, comes crime, and the Old Melbourne Goal was built from blue-stone blocks to house the undesirables of society. Whilst no longer in active use, it makes a great sightseeing destination, to get in touch with history, and kids love the interactive element on offer.
I spent a few hours there, including several tense minutes experiencing what it might have been like being a prisoner locked in one of the goal’s padded cells; saw the flogging triangle used in colonial times; was a “witness” in a mock courtroom trial of Ned Kelly, (a famous Aussie bush-ranger), stood under the gallows and its infamous trapdoor where Ned Kelly and other notorious criminals were hung; saw slightly creepy death masks and even tried on a Ned Kelly style metal helmet, which he fashioned to repel the bullets of apprehending police.
On a more sombre note, the Shrine of Remembrance is a gargantuan memorial to the fallen veterans of war and worthy of a visit, not only because it gives an excellent vantage point of Melbourne, from the upper balcony. The structure is something like a cross between an Egyptian pyramid and Mayan temple. Impressive and grandiose are words that come to mind.
The date 11th November is earmarked as Remembrance day when all Australians observe a minute of silence to honour the soldiers and veterans. The Shrine is constructed so that at 11am on 11th November, sunlight will cross a stone inside the Shrine to illuminate the word Love in the verse, “Greater Love Hath No Man,” in reference to the supreme sacrifice the young soldiers made in support of war efforts in Allied countries. This phenomenon is recreated, most days, on the hour, for visitors.
You may also enjoy the Melbourne Museum for a chance to see the real “Phar Lap”, a revered Australian racehorse, (the world’s fastest of its time), which died prematurely whilst competing in America. For someone like me who is not into horses at all, I found the exhibit surprisingly mesmerizing.
Don’t forget to check out the Fairy Tree and Captain James Cook’s cottage (transported brick by brick from England), in the ‘Fitzroy’ Gardens for some unusual features in Australian history.
4. The Architecture
Historic and beautiful examples of great architecture abound in Melbourne, like the Windsor hotel, the State Library’s Reading Room, the original gas lights outside the Parliament building, as well as the old Shot Tower, now protected by an awesome glass dome.
In addition, Art Deco is alive and kicking at Luna Park and the ‘Palais’ Theatre, in St. Kilda and both sit comfortably together with more innovative modern examples of architectural genius like the Rialto building and Eureka Towers, with it top 10 floors plated with 22 carat gold.
Time a visit to Eureka Skydeck at sunset for a fantastic view of the city lights, or “hang out” suspended in mid-air, 88 storeys above the ground, in the Edge glass cube.
5. The Beach
Unless you are anywhere near the calibre of surfing legend Lane Beechley, St Kilda Beach offers everything you’d want in a beach and it’s within a 5 km stone’s throw of the city. There may not be any ‘dumpers,’ (i.e. large waves that roll in and crash over your head, throwing you around and forcing you to swallow copious amounts of salty water), but hey, I’m pretty comfortable with low lapping waves, white sand, swanky cafes, grand Federation era guesthouses as well as an old-style picture theatre and amusement park. Think Coney Island ‘down under’, but on a smaller scale.
6. The Shopping
Not really my scene, but at the time of visiting my teenage daughter was with me, so it was a must do. It seems there is a very good reason Swedish fashion giant H& M decided to open their first Australian store there. It’s Australia’s fashion capital, (also the former hub of cloth manufacturing), and the city is alive with shoppers and not too pricey shopping arcades with brand labels.
Check out the Spencer Street outlet centre for bargains, if you are a super keen shopper.
7. The People and Food
Australians are, by and large, a friendly, laid-back bunch. Melbourne has a lively and vibrant Italian community so that you can visit authentic Italian restaurants and coffee houses in Lygon Street, such as the fabulous “Brunetti,” to the north of the city centre, where the pasta, pastries and espresso are better than that served in the streets of Milan.
For an alfresco dinner, there is nothing better than the restaurants lining Hardware Lane, (where waiters entice customers in by spruiking extra deals) or, De Graves Street: a cosmopolitan alleyway of small street cafes, intimate restaurants and eateries that would feel more at home in France or the continent than in Australia. The food is pretty good too, with all cuisines catered for.
8. Public Transport in Melbourne
Melbourne must be thanking its lucky stars they kept the network of city trams, year after other Australian cities ditched them. Trams take you to a multitude of destinations and the free City Circle tram enables tourists to quickly access each end of the central business district without fuss, or tired legs! The whole inner city of Melbourne is a free transport zone, meaning any bus, train or tram is free within the city centre boundaries.
N.B. You will need a ‘myki’ (electronic) card to access areas outside of the city centre on public transport.
Grab a city bike, located at various stations around the city, and for a few dollars, you can have a pleasant 5km cycle along dedicated bike-ways along St. Kilda Road or around Albert Park Lake, dropping off the bike at various destinations or when you arrive at St. Kilda beach.
Getting to and from the main airport hub is simple with the Airport bus departing every 10 minutes.
9. Further Afield – Proximity to other Attractions
Melbourne is the starting place for those venturing to the Great Ocean Road, one of the World’s most scenic journeys. It is also the departure point for the ferries to the island state of Tasmania with its World heritage areas.
Don’t forget to spend some time in country Victoria in the cherry orchards, or take a steam train through country villages, experiencing more of the Gold Rush era in towns like ‘Ballarat’ and ‘Bendigo’, or if you prefer a kicking back with an alcoholic beverage, the many wineries in the Yarra Valley will delight.
10. The Gardens
If you have a green thumb, you’re not forgotten if you stay in Melbourne city. With three botanic gardens and several well-established parks within a 3-kilometre radius, visiting more than one in a day, is easily doable. Fitzroy Gardens features the cottage where British explorer Captain Cook grew up and a fabulous Victorian Conservatory; Carlton Gardens adjoins the glamourous Queen Victoria Building and neighbour to The Museum, whilst the Botanical Gardens on the far side of the river is in close proximity to The Shrine of Rememberance, Government House, Crown Casino and the Myer Music Bowl, a popular venue for open-air concerts.
11. The Sport
If sport is your thing, Melbourne offers tennis tournaments in the state of the art ‘Rod Laver’ Arena, cricket at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and the iconic and very Australian, “Aussie Rules” Football, something that every international visitor has to experience at least once, preferably with a meat pie in hand!
As one Melbourne taxi driver advised me: There’s never time to be bored in Melbourne.