It’s an age old rivalry over an impossible question. Which is Australia’s number one city? Both Sydney and Melbourne have strong claims to the title, but in many respects, the country’s two biggest cities couldn’t be more different. So which Aussie ‘big smoke’ deserves more of your time on an Australia vacation?
Spoiler alert. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer on which is the “better” city to visit between Sydney and Melbourne. The two cities have been fighting it out for over a century and are no closer to an answer today. Melbourne smugly sits atop The Economist’s Most Liveable Cities list year after year, only to have Sydney shoot it down with a few choice comments about the weather. Still, having lived in both and gotten to know them fairly well, about the only sure answer I can give you is that it depends what kind of traveller you are. So let this be a very rough guide to what different types of travellers can expect to get out of each of these great cities.
The Bucket Lister
If you’re drawn to cities that impress with great architecture and one-of-a-kind sights, Sydney will tick several key items off your list. Before your plane even touches down, the city greets you with the awesome sight of its harbour, with Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House forming an iconic centrepiece. For beach lovers, Bondi is a neighbourhood to rival South Beach, Copacabana, and Venice Beach for name recognition, while shining Sydney Tower overlooks it all with stunning views. The city’s ferries take you to some of the lesser known harbour sights, and are considered Sydney icons in their own right. Frankly, this is a city where you can fill in several days, on your Australia vacation, moving from one icon to the next.
By contrast, Melbourne’s icons are more subdued. It’s the only city in Australia with an active and widely used tram system, and if you’ve ever wanted to have dinner aboard an old fashioned tram, now’s your chance. Melbourne has put much more effort into preserving its beautiful old theatres, libraries, memorials, and other heritage buildings. Simply take a walk down Parliament Street to see this first hand as you pass the Princess Theatre and Windsor Hotel. The only real “bucket list” items however aren’t actually in Melbourne. The Twelve Apostles are located a lengthy day trip away along the Great Ocean Road, while the little penguin parade that comes ashore each night is located on nearby Phillip Island.
WINNER: Melbourne will pack your memory card with great photos, but they’ll probably need captions. For a more Instagram-friendly holiday, make a beeline to Sydney.
The Sun Seeker
Sydney-siders love to bring up the weather whenever they feel their city being threatened by Melbourne, and it’s true. Melbourne has practically made “four seasons in one day” part of its brand. But let’s be fair, it’s still Australia! It’s a rare day that gets below freezing, so while the locals tend to complain, winter here is nothing most North Americans aren’t ready for when embarking on an Australia vacation. Summer can come as a rude shock, as the dry heat can skim 45°C/113°F. Still this is usually only for a few days a year. Typical Melbourne weather really can change from bright and sunny to cool and rainy, or windy, and back again within hours, particularly in the spring and autumn, so dress in light, comfortable layers.
Of all the capital cities in Australia, Sydney has perhaps the most idyllic climate, with gentle, mild winters and pleasantly balmy, humid summers. It’s hard to argue with a city that offers beach weather eight months of the year, even if things get a bit wet around February and March. The city doesn’t entirely escape those 40°C/104°F+ days, but just like in Melbourne, they rarely last.
WINNER: While Sydney gets more annual rainfall than Melbourne, this is an easy win on the whole for Sydney.
The Culture Vulture
If the weather is Sydney’s favourite shot at Melbourne’s expense, the southern city can always hit back with its undisputed status as the cultural capital of Australia. Sydney certainly doesn’t lack for culture, with the Sydney Opera House, a large number of theatre companies of various sizes, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Museum of Contemporary Art, plus a number of large and fascinating museums such as the Australian Museum, the Australian Maritime Museum, and the Powerhouse Museum, devoted to technology.
The thing is, Melbourne has most of those things too, or highly respected equivalents. More than that, theatre, art, and culture are essential parts of everyday Melbourne life, as you’ll discover on your Australia vacation. New plays, musicals, concerts, and exhibitions are the stuff of casual conversation here, and the city actively encourages its residents to come into the inner city to play. Melbourne treats the arts with a reverence unheard of in Sydney, right down to encouraging graffiti and street art. The city also makes the most of winter, packing its cultural calendar, and courting a major “Winter Masterpieces” exhibition every year at the National Gallery of Victoria, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, or one of numerous other museums and galleries worth exploring. Melbourne Museum is also the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, and the NGV’s collection is so large, it’s actually splits off into the NGV Australia in Federation Square.
WINNER: While Sydney’s no slouch for culture, it’s a vital part of Melbourne’s urban makeup, which makes all the difference.
The History Buff
Each Australian state was a separate colony until 1901, so each capital has its own distinct stories to tell. On your Australia vacation, a visit to Old Melbourne Gaol is an absolute must, while the Shrine of Remembrance is probably the country’s most moving war memorial outside the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Melbourne was also the capital of Australia from 1901 to 1913.
In Sydney’s Rocks district however, there are traces of history that feel almost frozen in time. Surrounded by heritage buildings, one can overlook Circular Quay and imagine the first white settlers and convicts building lives here. Hyde Park Barracks is another great stop to learn more about the colony.
WINNER: This one’s close, but Australia’s oldest colony edges out its first capital. Sydney it is.
Australia’s temperate climate means you can enjoy delicious meals across a wide range of the world’s cuisines, on your Australia vacation, in just about any city in the country. Then, there’s Australia’s almost too serious relationship with coffee (local tip: don’t order drip coffee unless you want one of ‘those’ looks). All the Australian capitals are bursting with great restaurants and cafes, ready to satisfy any craving.
And then, there’s Melbourne, where good food and drink becomes an almost brutally competitive sport. Melburnians consider good cuisine essential to good living, and so tend to have their own list of favourite restaurants, along with a healthy appetite for trying new names. Much like theatre and art, an appetite for good food is just part of what makes Melbourne, whether it’s brunch in a cozy laneway, delicious cheap eats in the west’s oldest Chinatown, classic Italian on Lygon Street, delicious regional cuisine in one of the city’s ethnic enclaves, or a truly original take on a classic pub meal. Good food is everywhere here. Locals will also argue fiercely over where to get the best coffee.
WINNER: Adelaide competes for quality, but nowhere else in Australia delights the taste buds with the sheer variety you’ll find in Melbourne.
Australia isn’t the cheapest destination, so if you’re going to shop here, you’ll want things to be a little bit special. Both Sydney and Melbourne rise to that challenge. In Sydney, you can find all the usual luxury brands around Martin Place, but you’re probably better off heading to King Street in Newtown for some Bohemian finds that are uniquely Sydney. Alternatively, browse the boutiques of Paddington along Oxford Street, or lose a couple of hours in the picturesque Queen Victoria Building (worthwhile, even if you don’t buy anything).
Melbourne is generally regarded as the centre of Australia’s fashion industry and has historically been home to its grandest department stores, not to mention the boutiques of many up and coming designers, alongside local names. Getting lost in the inner city’s laneways is sure to bring you to some delightful local shops for fashion, gifts, or anything else you might want to bring home after your Australia vacation. The city’s fierce appetite for creativity ensures a good mix of unique, local flavours in between the big brands.
WINNER: Sydney puts in a good effort, but Melbourne is Australia’s treasure trove of unique finds.
The Selfie Snapper (or…Who’s the Prettiest?)
Whether it’s gardens, beaches, or just awe-inspiring selfie spots, Sydney is hands down one of the world’s most beautiful cities. A walk along the shoreline of Sydney Harbour spoils for choice when it comes to great photo spots, while many more await along the city’s famous cliff walks in Watson’s Bay and between Bondi and Coogee beaches. Arguably the best view of the city can be had from the water, on a ferry or harbour cruise.
While Melbourne doesn’t really have a setting to compare, it isn’t for lack of trying. The city’s architects have filled it over the years with beautiful parks, and the city has taken active steps to preserve its beautiful historic buildings. You can even go to the beach in St. Kilda. There’s just nothing to rival the instant “wow” factor of Bondi or Sydney Harbour, so keep your expectations in check and let its charms sink in slowly.
WINNER: While Melbourne accessorizes well, Sydney wins the lottery for natural beauty.
The Party Animal
Fans of the popular film Priscilla: Queen of the Desert might think Sydney nightlife is all about fabulous drag queens trash talking a faithful audience while bright lights bounce off every sequin. Others might be hoping for a rowdy, trashy night “up the Cross.” Sadly, the 90s was a very different time. Today, nightlife is a hugely contentious issue in Sydney. The city imposed strict “lockout” laws several years ago, supposedly to curb alcohol-related violence. Many locals agree they’ve come at too high a cost – dimming Sydney’s nightlife and closing many iconic bars, pubs, and clubs in the inner city hubs of King’s Cross, Darlinghurst, and elsewhere. North Americans who are used to “last call” may not see the fuss, but those expecting the wild sights and sounds of 90s nighttime Sydney might be disappointed.
Melbourne, on the other hand, proudly touts itself a 24/7 city with no intention of slowing down. From cocktails after work in the chic “Paris” end of the city, to tastings at stylish wine bars, to rowdy late nights enjoying live music or Australia’s liveliest club scene, Melbourne divides the fun among several major nightlife districts, offering variety and plenty of room to grow without overcrowding. Live music is a serious business here as well. Whether it’s at a swanky, quirky cabaret like The Butterfly Club, or a dingy, unpretentious rock dive like The Tote, Melbourne has it all for you to enjoy on your Australia vacation.
WINNER: Sydney surrendered the crown on this one years ago, and Melbourne won’t be giving it up any time soon.
The Day Tripper
If your time in Australia is limited, you won’t want to spend it all in the big cities. Still, this is a huge country, so hopping around to see “the great outdoors” can take up a lot of time and energy. Good day trip options can come in extremely handy, and both Melbourne and Sydney are blessed with some great ideas. Sydney’s most obvious choice is the Blue Mountains, where you can take in sweeping views in between visiting some of Australia’s most beloved native animals. Alternatively, head north to the Hunter Valley, one of Australia’s top wine regions, for a particularly tasty day trip.
Set on Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne is sheltered from the wild winds and waves of the Southern Ocean. But they’re easily reached, and perhaps the best place to see them in evidence is along the Great Ocean Road. This rugged coastline has been shaped and changed over centuries by the fierce ocean, leaving behind beautiful rock formations such as the Twelve Apostles. Along the way, there are chances to see koalas, kangaroos, and other native animals. Alternatively, head south towards Phillip Island and catch the little penguins coming ashore each day at dusk. There are a wide range of wildlife reserves here too, making Phillip Island a great spot for nature lovers of every kind.
WINNER: It’s close, but for the perfect balance of spectacular geography and cute critters, Melbourne gets the nod.