It’s a particularly sweet victory this year for the Victorian capital, since it’s also the first year traditional rival Sydney has fallen out of the top 10. Maintaining a very comfortable 11th place, Sydney however, still continues to get the lion’s share of tourist attention, and with good reason.
So what makes Melbourne so special when it comes to liveability? Should it be the urban centrepiece of more Australia vacation packages?
Having visited countless times before, before taking the opportunity to live there for six months, I can say yes. More than just one of Australia’s “must see” destinations, Melbourne is one of my favourite cities in the world. It may not have the instant “wow” factor of a day on Sydney Harbour, but it sinks its hooks in deep, filling visitors up with a heady mix of off-beat creativity, fascinating history, delicious food (and coffee…we’ll get to that), plus the undeniable sense that Melbournites have perfected the work/life balance, and know how to keep the two apart.
Melbourne is commonly said to be Australia’s most European city, which isn’t surprising given its rich history of Mediterranean immigration. In fact, it’s home to the world’s largest Greek population outside of Athens, while the Italian community of Carlton has turned Lygon Street into a bona fide foodie haven. The eastern half of the city is commonly referred to as the “Paris” end of Melbourne (though not by locals), and European style cafes, patisseries, and small bars abound throughout. But this area is also home to Australia’s oldest Chinatown, not to mention all five of Melbourne’s major theatres. So it’s hard to beat for a cultural night out, regardless of your tastes or budget.
As you’ll notice on your Australia vacation, you really don’t have to go far to be in the thick of artistic Melbourne. This city’s street art has earned comparison to the likes of New York City and Berlin. There’s barely a wall gone to waste in the famous laneways of the inner city, or the inner northern suburbs of Fitzroy and Collingwood. But if you’d prefer a more classical take on art, the National Gallery of Victoria is one of the country’s top galleries, encompassing artists from around the world. If you’d rather focus on local talent, visit the NGV Australia in Federation Square. Best of all, both galleries are free, as is the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, if you’d like to dive into Australia’s film and TV history.
But back to Melbourne’s laneways. Hosier Lane is one of the best for street art. But the most famous is probably Centre Place, which reminds some visitors of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley…that is, if you replaced the magic shops with dozens of hole-in-the-wall cafes. Space is at a premium, so be ready to rub shoulders with locals. If you really don’t want to look like a tourist, do not order drip (or plain) coffee. In fact, many cafes here don’t even serve it. Remember what I said about the influence of Italian and Greek immigrants on Melbourne? In this city, the only people you’ll find in Starbucks (only five exist in the city), are foreign students and tourists. So go independent. Melbourne’s talented baristas will throw together almost any espresso-based concoction you can name, though if you want the local signature, order a flat white.
Drink In Australia’s Coffee Culture
After dark, there are bars tucked away in those laneways! Small and special bars offering a range of delights from kitchy themes, to top notch live cabaret, or just a quiet drink in a cozy atmosphere. A personal favourite is the quirky Butterfly Club, an eccentric and friendly space which fronts a number of small theatres. Befitting its name, Gin Palace serves a staggering array of first class cocktails. Berlin Bar is a loving tribute to another of my favourite cities, dividing guests quite literally into east and west, depending on whether your tastes lean toward Ostalgie hipster, or Weimar decadence. Meanwhile, the faux garden terrace of Madame Brussels is a Melbourne icon, named for the city’s most famous Madame (with an appropriately cheeky cocktail menu). Google Maps is your friend if you’re trying to find somewhere specific, but with so many worthy small lounges and cocktail bars dotting central Melbourne, you won’t be without a cozy watering hole for long.
Many of the locals of course prefer the surrounding neighbourhoods. Prahran and St Kilda are home to many of the city’s most upscale clubs filled with scene stealers sporting the latest designer trends. For a more bohemian, artsy, and diverse crowd, head to Brunswick and Smith Streets in Fitzroy and Collingwood. I’m sure you won’t soon forget the name Naked for Satan? That’s just as well, because it’s an excellent place to start the night, offering tasty tapas and cocktails with beautiful city views from its rooftop. Afterwards, explore to your heart’s content. Brunswick Street gets the most love from the alternative crowd, while Smith Street serves as both a live entertainment hub and gateway to Melbourne’s LGBT nightlife. If you want a real taste of Melbourne’s music scene, head north to The Tote on Johnston Street, a punk and rock pub where countless Aussie rock icons have cut their teeth. Just remember to dress down, with a healthy splash of black. Nobody puts on airs in this sometimes controversial (what good rock venue isn’t?) pub.
In desperate need of a relaxing, outdoor day while enjoying your Australia vacation? Melbourne is surrounded by parks, any of which is well worth an hour of two of wandering. The Royal Botanic Gardens to the south hold the Shrine of Remembrance, a moving and exquisitely designed memorial to the armed forces of Australia and its allies in every major conflict. To the east, Fitzroy Gardens is a popular spot, boasting Cook’s Cottage, the resurrection of the explorer’s home in England, which will put some of Australia’s history in perspective for you. One more park well worth a wander is Carlton Gardens, home to both the Royal Exhibition Building and Melbourne Museum, which is the largest museum in the southern hemisphere and a great way to spend a few hours, particularly if you have kids in tow. Alternatively, head to Parkville, home to Melbourne Zoo, commonly thought to be the best in Australia.
Used as a springboard to exceptional excursions such as the Great Ocean Road, or taken as a city break all on its own, Melbourne will continue to be a highlight on any Australia vacation for years to come. How many more years will it hold its “most liveable” crown? The southern capital shows no sign of slowing down yet.
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