Stately city of the south and a vibrant, elegant melting pot with its roots in the great Gold Rush of the 1850s…
Think Australia and most people usually think Sydney Opera House, Red Centre, Great Barrier Reef. They think kangaroos, deserts and shrimps on the barbie.
But these days savvy travelers also think Melbourne, stately city of the south and a vibrant, elegant melting pot with its roots in the great Gold Rush of the 1850s Melbourne, capital of the southern state of Victoria, has about four million inhabitants and is set on the shores of Port Phillip Bay. Less raucous than Sydney, Melbourne is Australia’s home of ‘old money’ and has a quieter way of life with a strong focus on culture and fine food.
Which is not to say there isn’t all the glamour and excitement a visitor would need to pack into three or four days. Sure, Melbourne rocks – but with style.
The city is laid out in a large rectangle and has a lively and cosmopolitan pulse. A river runs through it – the slow moving Yarra, with its headwaters in the nearby mountains. As much as the bayside beaches, the river and its adjoining parks are the city’s playgrounds.
Melbourne is big and modern – it has the world’s tallest residential building – but it reveals the heady days of 19th century in its massive public and private buildings, many dating from a shining, golden moment when this was the richest place in the world.
The city has many faces – elegant and luxurious in what is known as the ‘Paris End’ of the business district; head-jerking in the many ethnic enclaves – Vietnamese, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Chinese, Spanish and other communities who have made their home in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. Some of these enclaves are just a lane or two, while others cover the banks of the Yarra or a busy CBD street. One glance at a map and it’s obvious that Melbourne is a planned city: a tidy, balanced grid of neatly angled streets. But beneath this sense of everything in its place restraint lies a restless creative energy constantly pushing back at the city’s seeming conservatism.
City arcades: The city’s network of shopping arcades is Australia’s most extensive with the Block Arcade (between Collins and Elizabeth streets, built in 1891) its undeniable crowning glory. Here you’ll find imported Italian mosaic floors, glazed ceilings supported by elaborate iron-lace columns, and octagonal glass domes. Royal Arcade (between Bourke Street Mall and Little Collins Street, built in 1869), is Melbourne’s oldest and features two wonderful folklore giants of the ancient Britons Gog and Magog, who strike the hour.
Other arcades such as Collins two3four, Australia on Collins, The Walk, the Galleria Shopping Plaza and Centrepoint Mall offer an impressive mix of large flagship stores, unique owner-operated shops and quality cafes and foodcourts and all the arcades sit within a block of each other off Little Collins Street.
The laneways: This is a world just waiting to be explored; a web of lanes, alleys, little streets and arcades. Some lanes have been reborn and hum with quirky city life. Others are still waiting to be discovered. Check out Punch Lane or the combined office-retail-residential project between Little Lonsdale and Lonsdale streets Car-free, café-lined Degraves Street (in the Flinders Quarter) is a streak of gently undulating umbrellas hiding patrons from the midday summer sun (or mid-winter drizzle). Nearby funky Block Place (in the Collins Street precinct)is an intimate niche so narrow that the awnings from opposing businesses kiss overhead, while The Causeway, just across Little Collins Street, is another deep ravine of outdoor tables and, in nearby Centre Place, key-hole cafés buzz with diners. The lanes either side of the Chinatown strip (Little Burke Street) are a rich source of indoor Asian eateries and have been for well over a century. But the mother of all alfresco lanes is Hardware Lane where traffic gives way to a long line of trees, plant-thick window boxes and a canvas sea of awnings lapping gently at the tables’ edge.
The bar scene: The most successful product of Melbourne’s laneway renaissance is the boom in bars. Single, unassuming doorways, often with just a discreet sign, open into sumptuous and often spacious interiors. Some are designer cool, while others are miscellaneous mixes of carefully chosen, jumble-sale furnishings. These funky watering holes can be found throughout Melbourne’s lanes including Meyers Place, Bennetts Lane, Bullens Lane, Sniders Lane and Market Lane.
Extending around the bay are a number of inner suburbs, each with its own distinct character and personality. A short tram (streetcar) ride from the city centre, Melbourne’s suburban neighborhoods are a must see for anyone wanting to experience what life here is really all about.
Melbourne’s melting pot of cultures is reflected in its microcosmos of restaurants, cafes, bistros and bars. Fashionable, eclectic and eccentric – Melbourne’s dining spots offer a dizzying spread of the world’s great cuisines, serving meals from the substantial and classic to the truly exotic.
In the city, you can enjoy afternoon tea in the genteel surroundings of a nineteenth-century hotel, watch and be watched in buzzing laneway cafés and bars, or handpick a bottle of Yarra Valley chardonnay at the latest über-chic hangout. Head out a little further and explore one of Melbourne’s specialist eating destinations – Richmond for cheap and cheerful Vietnamese dishes, Carlton for Italian classics, Fitzroy for tantalising Spanish tapas.