DAWN GIBSON EXPLORES THE COBBLED LANES, HIDDEN BARS AND VIBRANT ARTS SCENE OF AUSTRALIA’S MOST SOPHISTICATED CITY
Elegant and steeped in Victorian charm. Brash and edgy, bristling with feisty attitude. A warm glow and cool jazz spilling from a small bar, tucked into an almost forgotten back lane. An insistent bass beat reverberating through a converted warehouse, where heavily tattooed bar staff serve cocktails in tumblers. A tree-lined street of chic designer boutiques. Waterside restaurants with award-winning fusion cuisine. Melbourne is all of these things, and yet far more than the sum of its parts.
Referred to as Australia’s cultural capital and the most European metropolis of the antipodes, it is doing Melbourne a disservice to consider it merely as ‘Australia’s second city’. It may be less known and marginally less populous than Sydney, yet the capital of the state of Victoria is a unique and delightfully modern world city, complete with a genuinely kind, welcoming heart.
Melbourne combines all the elements that appeal to a seasoned traveller: intriguing streetscapes mixing contemporary design with handsome nineteenth-century terrace houses and glorious art deco landmarks; a world-renowned foodie scene that includes some of the best restaurants you could ever wish to raise a fork in; an established boutique bar culture and exciting nightlife; internationally revered art galleries and covetable designer fashion; shopping destinations which tug insistently on the purse strings; lush parks and sprawling gardens, and, last but by no means least, some of the best coffee shops on the planet. Hence, it was not hard to see why in 2017 Melbourne was named the most liveable city in the world for the seventh year running, beating Vienna and Vancouver. Melburnians know they are onto a good thing, and international travellers are now chomping to experience a piece of it.
The Cultured Traveller flew to Melbourne on SriLankan Airlines, the Indian Ocean nation’s award-winning flag carrier, which recently launched a daily non-stop service from Colombo as part of the airline’s on-going expansion of its international network. SriLankan’s Melbourne route not only provides travellers with a convenient new entry-point into Australia, but also affords those departing from the U.K., Oman, Qatar, U.A.E. and India the opportunity to stop off and explore the beautiful island of Sri Lanka en-route to ‘Straya, effectively providing two completely different country experiences in one trip.
I land in Melbourne on a weekday afternoon and buy a ticket for the SkyBus Melbourne City Express, a user-friendly service which runs 24/7 and departs MEL airport every 10 minutes. The journey takes about 30 minutes and costs AUD35 return, about the third of the price of a taxi (www.skybus.com.au). Alternatively, pre-book a chauffeur driven luxury German sedan via Omnicar, and arrive at your destination in style for AUD90 one-way (www.omnicar.com.au).
On my way into the city, I gaze out the window and spot a herd of wild kangaroos lazing on a hillock not far from the highway, a magical start to my Australian adventure. Green fields soon give way to suburbia, before the sleek steel and glass skyline of Melbourne’s cityscape appears. The SkyBus stops at the central Southern Cross Station, and from there, complimentary feeder buses take visitors to their lodgings.
Founded in 1835 on the north bank of the Yarra River, taking advantage of the natural bay of Port Phillip, Melbourne is made for exploration on foot, as the well-spaced streets are designed in an easily navigable grid. However, if you’re short of time, getting around by public transport or taxis is relatively stress-free. Melbourne has the largest urban tram network in the world, and tram rides within the centre of the city are completely free. For travel by train, tram and bus, visitors can buy a re-usable ‘myki’ smartcard at main train stations or online (www.ptv.vic.gov.au/tickets/myki). Also, Uber operates very efficiently in Melbourne, and provides a variety of different vehicle categories, including premium cars.
Contemporary Melbourne deftly achieves a harmonious balance between a glorious past and a thriving present. Just decades after it was founded, the fledgling community on Australia’s south-eastern coast became one of the biggest and richest cities in the world as a result of the gold rush of the 1850s. As hundreds of thousands of prospectors flocked to its shores, glorious Victorian architecture sprung up, much of which is still happily evident today. Following the federation of Australia in 1901, Melbourne served as the new nation’s temporary seat of Government until 1927. As a result of its pivotal role in national history, Melbourne is home to some of Australia’s oldest and most significant cultural landmarks, including the UNESCO World Heritage protected Royal Exhibition building, completed in 1880, and Melbourne’s famous cricket ground, opened in 1853.
For a first-time visitor, the best way to understand Melbourne is as a network of neighbourhoods radiating out from the Yarra River, each with its own style and ambience; and each worth setting aside at least half a day to investigate more fully, to wander and absorb the sights, sounds, tastes and smells, from the vibrancy of Southbank and the Docklands, to the upmarket boutiques, cafes and cocktail lounges of South Yarra and the relaxed, beachside ambience of St Kilda. But a meteorological word of warning: while Melbourne enjoys a temperate climate of warm summers and cool winters, the weather is notoriously fickle, so a bright sunny morning can easily turn into a raging thunderstorm in the space of an hour – the song ‘Four Seasons in One Day’ by Melbourne band Crowded House sums up the climate perfectly. Do check the forecast every time you head out, and don’t ignore the lead of locals who often wear layers!
The natural place to start your orientation is the city centre, where fabulous al fresco cafés and virtually hidden bars jostle for space along cobbled laneways amid antique emporiums, jewellery shops and boutiques showcasing Australian and international designers. Of course, there are the department stores and global chains you find everywhere, but it is the original and quirky which make Melbourne’s CBD such a fascinating place to explore.
I start in Flinders Lane, the hub of Melbourne’s rag trade in the mid-20th century, and today home to designer wares and vintage clothing stores. Heading towards Russell Street, I turn right into cobbled Hosier Lane, known for its colourful graffiti and street art. After taking some Instagram-worthy photos, I stroll back to Flinders Lane and find myself lured into a vintage boutique, where fifties and sixties style dresses in a variety of colours and prints line the walls. In the first of many such encounters, the sales woman is genuinely warm, chatty and helpful, without pushing me to buy. Next stop is Centre Place, one of Melbourne’s most famous and photographed laneways, a veritable bustling hive of activity. I sit down outside one of the buzzing cafés to enjoy a superbly creamy latté and a scrumptious ‘toastie’ of bacon, egg and smashed avocado.
Sufficiently refuelled, I walk to Collins Street, Melbourne’s luxury shopping enclave. In a city passionately obsessed with fashion – Melbourne Fashion Week every September is a huge event, and the world-famous Melbourne Cup each November is as much about the frocks as the fillies – Collins Street is where the well-heeled go for their fill of international designer togs. Prada, Gucci, Dior, Armani, Hermès and Burberry are all here. The east of Collins is known as the ‘Paris end’ due to its grand architecture, while the west of the street is referred to as the ‘New York end’, a nod to its modern buildings and financial institutions. Don’t miss The Block Arcade, between Collins and Elizabeth Streets, built in the 1890s and inspired by Milan’s Galleria Vittoria. A glorious tribute to the delights of shopping, the arcade features intricate mosaic floors, a glass canopy and carved stone finishes, as well as the traditional Hopetoun Tea Rooms, where the window groans with sinfully tempting cakes.
From Elizabeth Street, I turn right and walk past the junction with Little Collins, until I reach Royal Arcade on the right. Opened in 1870, this is the oldest surviving arcade in Australia, featuring a superb light-filled interior topped with arched windows similar to the famous Burlington Arcade in London’s Mayfair. After a fun half hour darting in and out of the little shops, browsing everything from hard-to-find French perfumes to quirky home-wares and delicate silk scarves, I emerge into the sunlight from the Victorian arcade onto the bustle of the Bourke Street Mall, a leading retail strip, bringing me abruptly back into the hum of the modern metropolis. Whilst I won’t go into detail about all of the fascinating nooks and crannies, Degraves Street and Hardware Lane are also well worth a visit for their bars, cafes, restaurants and shops.
Wherever you wander, you are bound to build up an appetite, and Melbourne is happily one of the finest places in the world to satisfy it. The city has for decades been known for its wonderfully diverse multicultural foodie scene, the legacy of waves of immigration since its Gold Rush days: Melburnians will proudly tell you their city has the largest Greek-speaking population outside of Europe and that the Vietnamese surname Nguyen is the second most common after Smith.
Venture to Chinatown at the eastern end of Little Bourke Street to be spoilt for choice in terms of contemporary and traditional Chinese cuisine, including scrumptious street food – don’t leave without tasting a steamed savoury dumpling with a piping hot centre of pork or bean curd. Go to Little Italy – a section of Lygon Street in the inner-city suburb of Carlton – to sip a cappuccino in the place where Melbourne’s café culture began, but beware the touts offering free glasses of vino to convince you to dine, as you will typically find better fare elsewhere.
The restaurant scene at large is fiercely innovative and staffed by some superbly talented, visionary chefs, all making excellent use of abundant local produce. Gourmands in the know are sure to have heard of Attica. Chef Ben Shewry’s clever use of native ingredients, and ability to deliver a dining experience many rave about for weeks, have resulted in the restaurant being listed among the world’s top 50. But you don’t need to spend a fortune to eat good food in Melbourne, and the city’s culinary diversity makes it possible to sample a wonderful variety of cuisines without blowing your holiday budget.
Similarly, Melbourne’s bar and nightlife scene is brilliantly varied, eclectic and ever-changing. The city is particularly known for its music – Nick Cave, The Avalanches, Jet, The Temper Trap, Missy Higgins and pop icon Kylie Minogue all hail from Melbourne – as well as its chic late-night wine and cocktail bars. Rooftop bars are an enduring favourite when the weather is fair, and a multitude can be found scattered throughout the inner-city.
One neighbourhood popular with foodies, night owls and fashionistas alike is the bohemian northern inner-city suburb of Fitzroy, known for its vibrant mix of hip bars, art galleries, cafés and home-grown designers. Start your exploration with a flat white on the Brunswick Street strip, where snippets of conversation on yoga, mindfulness and artists’ residences will swirl around as you drink your coffee. Pose for a picture on one of the mosaic-tiled couches, an enduring symbol of Fitzroy’s ubiquitous street art, before taking a stroll down the strip, where you will be hard pressed to decide where to dine, sip or shop. Many of the boutiques and cafés were hipster haunts before hipster was a thing, and the upbeat vibes in the air are positively contagious. Gorgeous twenty-somethings, wearing corduroy and flower-patterned shirts, canoodle over falafel wraps while seated on distressed benches painted bright orange, while couples with small children and giant dogs shop for succulents and Nepalese textiles.
Southbank is another locale worth dipping into, either for an afternoon or an evening. An urban renewal precinct on prime riverfront real estate, right next to the city centre, Southbank boasts a glitzy promenade bursting with stylish eateries and trendy bars. Most venues are unsurprisingly heavily tourist-orientated and priced accordingly, but this can easily be forgiven on one of those perfect but not too warm Melbourne days, when it would be a shame not to be sitting next to the river people-watching and sipping a glass of crisp white wine. Southbank is also the site of the Melbourne Arts Precinct, the home of Australia’s largest performing arts centre as well as The Australian Ballet, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, the Melbourne Theatre Company and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The National Gallery of Victoria, Australia’s oldest and largest art museum, is worth devoting several hours to, and its superb permanent collection spans everything from Renoir and Monet to Warhol and Picasso, works by Australian Aboriginals to colonial Australian drawings, and Australian decorative arts to antiquities from around the globe. The inaugural NGV Triennial will be held from mid-December through mid-April, featuring more than 100 artists hailing from over 30 countries (www.ngv.vic.gov.au).
Given the plethora of happening locales and the seemingly constant array of cafés, bars, clubs, art spaces, exhibitions, retail and restaurants, Melbourne is a city where it is virtually impossible to be bored. There is always a new experience around the corner or down a lane. The creativity is almost tangible, bursting to the surface of the everyday in urban art and café culture, expressed in the tens of thousands who throng excitedly to gallery openings and first nights, as well as by the buskers playing to appreciative crowds in the open-air malls.
After four days of sampling what the city has to offer, I inherently know there is an awful lot more still to explore – more neighbourhoods, more restaurants and more galleries. Basically, more of everything. I take one final look at the captivating skyline as I travel towards the airport – it is an extremely bright, sunny day, and the buildings are back-lit by a warm fuzzy glow. I take that golden glow onto the plane with me, where I watch through the window as Australia’s green and gold vastness slips out of view in the almost ethereal late afternoon light, and vow to return soon to discover more of Australia’s cultural capital.