If you think your trip down under to Melbourne will lead you to the outback most Americans associate with Australia, you’ll be sadly mistaken. Instead, eucalyptus trees reach tall above rolling green gardens circling the city. In this modern concrete jungle, the future collides with the past. Here the historical influence cannot be missed as old churches rise nearly as high as the nearby edgy, new buildings cloaked in glass.
Melbourne is a glamorous city with a laid back lifestyle making it the perfect destination for just about any traveler sans outdoor junkies. The high-fashion, high-tech, high-priced consumerism pulses with the beat of the city. One could label the rhythm of Melbourne as organized chaos. Thousand of people dodge in and out of stores, restaurants and bars all the while zig zagging their way through the crowds meandering past window displays and some of the most eye-catching artwork you’ve ever seen.
It seems the side of any building and most definitely a many back alleyways have become nothing more than an open canvas for street artists. Some would say the city has a graffiti problem, but they most certainly could not be referring to the expressive and labor intensive street art found everywhere across Melbourne.
With so much to experience, you could easily find yourself in Melbourne for a weeks’ time, but for those with less there are some things you must do to catch the pulse of the city.
My first and most important suggestion is simple: walk the Central Business District. It’s not extremely expansive although it may take you half an hour or so to cross. Weaving in and out of downtown’s main thoroughfares like Swanson St., Collins St., Burke St., etc. and into some of back alleys like Centre Place or Lt. Burke will give you the best feel for Melbourne.
While the city’s towering buildings and eclectic busy streets boast the best of many big cities, it may very well be the green space surrounding downtown that earns this city my vote for variety. The nearby Royal Botanic Gardens stretch along gentle rolling hills aside downtown. This 8 hectare oasis is the perfect escape from the city. From aired landscapes littered with succulents to soaring palms and towering gum trees, the Royal Botanic Gardens boasts unbelievable variety. In fact, there are around 52,000 plants from 10,000 species rooted across the globe. Meandering through the lush gardens or lounging on the grass near one of the sparkling lakes is the most naturally relaxing thing you can do in Melbourne. The garden gates swing open at 7am daily and close at dusk. No running is allowed within the Royal Botanic Gardens themselves, but just outside the gates lies what locals refer to as ‘the tan’ – a more than 3km gravel track encircling the gardens. In the mornings and evening it’s packed with those looking to increase their heart rate.
Across from the entrance to the Royal Botanical Gardens stands Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance. You’ll first be struck by its stature then overcome with emotion upon walking the halls and through the sanctuary dedicated to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in war, mostly centered around WWI and WWII. The visitors center located in the basement details the stories of Australian soldiers and families as well as foreign prisoners of war held in Australia during war-time. It’s a powerful memorial to the violence of war and the solace of peace. Free guided tours are offered at 11am and 2pm each day, and make sure to climb the stairs to the balcony,which offers exquisite views of Melbourne’s CBD.
If you’re passing into downtown from the gardens and shrine, chances are you’ll pass the unmissable Federation square. It is dubbed as Melbourne’s meeting place thanks to its central location just steps from the arts district and directly across the street from the heavily trafficked Flinders St. Station, just a short walk to the sports grounds and at the base of the CBD. The ultra modern architecture isn’t just aesthetically pleasing, it’s also a necessity. The station sits on a platform of steal beams, concrete walls, coils and rubber pads that protect it from the vibrations caused by the train station beneath. Not only is the square home to historic art collections, it’s also writing its own history by hosting most of Melbourne’s big events like New Year’s Eve bashes, Anzac day celebrations, etc. You may stand in awe of the buildings themselves, which are made of sandstone and glass. The geometric shapes of these materials are what makes them unique – a series of triangles join together to form larger geometric triangle shapes. The square is home to an array of cafe’s and restaurants as well as many of Australia’s most prized Indigenous works of art at the Ian Potter Centre (part of the National Gallery of Victoria). The Centre also pushes the envelope with its collection of forward-thinking, modern works. And, the nearby Australian Center for the Moving Image explores all things digital including the worlds of TV and film. Outside, the square is filled with lounge chairs and seating pads, so grab a seat in front of the jumbotron and hook into some free wifi internet as you watch Melbourne move by at a hectic pace. There are weekly events at the square worth checking out. a wine showcase is held the first Wednesday and Thursday of every second month in the evening – tickets are available online. Every Saturday you’ll find a free book market in the Atrium and each Tuesday you’ll find Tai Chi classes from 7:30am to 8:30am. If you just want to know more about the square itself you can catch a free tour Monday-Saturday at 11am outside the visitors center.
If it’s high-end fashion you’re after Crown Melbourne (akin to a Vegas casino), Burke St. and Collins St. are the places to head. Don’t forget to Melbourne’s GPO and QV malls as well.
If it’s bohemian, funky fashion you’re after or your just want to lounge at the most eclectic cafes and restaurants Chapel Street is your target. You could easily spend a day here lost in the boutiques and bars as you browse truly unique shops. On the northern end of the City Centre through the Fitzroy gardens you’ll find the fun, laid-back and funky shops along Brunswick St. and Smith St.
For something different take a night out at Dracula’s Cabaret Restaurant. It’s here you’ll see dozens of people dressed in Dracula drag laughing along with the new Spiderlash variety show as they’re wined and dined. To book go to draculas.com.au.
If you have some extra time and are looking to get out of the city itself, a trip to the Yarra Wine Valley is a must. There are a number of tours available for booking at the Melbourne Visitors Center or if you have your own car, pick up a wine valley map and spend the day sipping and swirling some of Australia’s finest wines. My favorite for great atmosphere and wine is the Yearling Station Winery, and some of the smoothest wines can be found a Yarrawood, which is a small vineyard off the beaten path.
If you do have the freedom to explore the valley on your own, take half the day to visit the Healesville Sanctuary. It’s your chance to meander through a beautiful sanctuary filled with Australia’s most famous inhabitants. Here you can interact with koalas, kangaroos and much, much more. The food at some of the cafes inside isn’t too expensive, and there is free wifi so you can download a free app to help you learn more about the creatures you’re seeing. If you do decide to go, you can skip the Platypus Show (Tales from Platypus Creek), but the Birds of Prey and Parrots (Spirits of the Sky) show is an absolute must. Those are held at 12:00pm and 2:30pm each day, but keep in mind the birds won’t fly in heavy rain.
Back in the city, it’s simple to get around just make sure to pick up a Public Transport Victoria map. You will need a myki card, which is a refillable money card that makes paying for all of Melbourne’s public transport easy. A full fare myki card costs $6.00 or $3.00 for a senior or child card, plus the amount you think you’ll spend on transport. You can pick one up from 7-eleven stores, customer service centers at Premium Stations, myki machines at some train stations or you can get one online at myki.com.au. Once you get the hang of it, the trains and trams are simple to use, and get you to almost all inner city areas as well as suburbs. If you aren’t traveling far and just need to get around the city center, there is a free trolley and a free shuttle than runs in a continuous circle – just hop on and hop off.
One of the stops you’ll find is near the National Gallery Victoria, a beautiful building showcasing some of history’s most important works. The museum is free, and better yet a free guided tour is offered at 11am. It’s definitely worth the several hours you can spend wandering the gallery halls. From the gallery and the nearby Arts Centre, you can look out over Federation Square to the Melbourne Cricket Grounds. The sports complex stands tall along the river to the east of the city centre, and is an awesome place to catch a true Australian ‘footy’ game. While you may not understand the rules, the action on the field is enough to keep anyone entertained. Depending on where the season stands, you can pick up general admission tickets to a game for slightly more than $20.00 AU per person. I’d say it’s a must do while in Melbourne.
FREE in Melbourne:
While Melbourne easily caters to the extravagant traveler, it also has a laundry list of free activities for those exploring on a budget. A walk through the Queen Victoria market and its seemingly never ending stalls is free as is the National Gallery Victoria, the Australian Center for the Moving Imagine, Federation Square (free wifi!), the Royal Botanic Gardens and surrounding parks and the State Library. If you can show a bit of self restraint, a stroll through Crown Casino can also be entertaining and they offer free lessons for just about any table game you can imagine. My husband and I learned the tricks to playing Crown’s version of black jack from a true expert as well as how to play Baccarat. Unlike the US, though, the drinks here are not free – so order a water and saddle up for an in-depth poker lessen, you’ll proud to have walked out of a great casino without losing a dime.
No matter what you’re looking for in a vacation, Melbourne has you covered. But, because there is so much to do, it’s best to start at the Melbourne Visitor’s Center. There you can sit down with a representative who can help you plan your days, and can book any activities and tours your looking to do.