I really felt at home in Melbourne. It’s the kind of place I could easily see myself living long term. It’s everything that you could want in a city: diverse, affordable, laid back, young, inclusive, a great food scene that doesn’t take itself too seriously but is still as cultish as an Asian city. The service industry can afford to live and eat downtown and the city respects and supports art. Pair that with a few amazing markets, a craft beer and liquor scene, and friendly opinionated locals, you’ve got a winning combination.
I spent 9 days in Melbourne and feel like I got a good sense of the town. Renting a condo just south of the Central Business District (CBD) in the Southbank neighborhood I had quick access to public transportation, both of the large markets, and all of the lively neighborhoods surrounding the CBD.
The CBD has a free tram that runs around the perimeter of the neighborhood and out to the Docklands in both directions with options to keep going for a fee. The trams run with traffic so they’re a bit slow for long travel but an easy solution to getting from one side to the other quickly. I bought a myki card at a bus stop and loaded some money it which allowed me to move from bus to train to tram using the same card. You can access faster trains at the Flinder’s Street Rail Station at the bottom center of the CBD on the Yarra River. I found the busses easy to use as well running throughout the city and easy to navigate via Google Maps.
We spent the majority of time wandering the CBD on foot discovering little pedestrian alleys and local eateries and coffeeshops. The Yarra River splits Melbourne on its way to the sea and divides the CBD from Southbank with a lovely pedestrian area rimmed with shops and restaurants including the Crown Casino complex with more upscale options.
Views of Southbank
Southbank bustles with construction with many of the new modern skyscrapers. A fast growing area, it lacks the old world charm of the CBD but is a great place to find a condo on AirBnB to use as home base. The tallest building in Australia is located here and I recommend the view from the Eureka Skydeck 88. Skip the extra glass room upgrade. You aren’t allowed to take pictures and the experience itself isn’t that amazing. The South Melbourne Market is also in Southbank with both amazing food options and local crafts/shopping.
The Yarra River cuts right through Melbourne and has great views of the skyline, pedestrian areas and parks along the water with great art, and good options for food. Not quite the same quirky atmosphere as CBD locations but easy options for family oriented travelers. And the views at night are fantastic.
Dinner By Heston Blumenthal
My big reservation in Melbourne was Heston Blumenthal’s place Dinner by Heston. I’ve always been a fan of his work. But sadly this wasn’t my favorite place that we ate. Our waitress summed it up perfectly, “The best places in Melbourne aren’t the expensive ones.” And that’s exactly right. There’s a ridiculous amount of food to be had for cheaper than an average lunch in Seattle and the food is everywhere. Everybody knows this. Locals demand great food at a reasonable price. So the only people eating at these puffed up places are tourists. The restaurant was located fittingly on the second floor of a giant casino. I ordered the Wagyu steak which was way too big to eat and the restaurant didn’t allow you to take your leftovers saying that since the food was sous vide it would be dangerous to let us take it? The kangaroo risotto was good but hardly had any kangaroo, it was clearly added to entice Americans like me, there are lots of more fitting preparations that I later found around town. And the grilled pineapple tipsy cake did not merit the perplexingly elaborate roaster that was positioned front and center to sell it. All of the food was good, the staff were very friendly and inviting, the drinks were well made. But having said all of that, save your money. The real treasures to be found in Melbourne are hidden throughout the city and almost everyone on the street knows where they are. Just ask around.
Central Business District
I really liked the CBD with old town charm, lots of cheap eats with quality food, great atmospheric coffeeshops and art galleries, along with convenient malls and modern shops for travel supplies. I recommend the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) on Flinders St. It’s a free art gallery with optional paid shows that I wish I’d spent a little more time at. It’s also the central tourist area so if you’re looking to catch a tour or a Hop On bus, this is where you’d go. Across the street is a small alley which encourages grafitti down Hosier Ln and around Rutledge Ln. The CBD has a little Chinatown and lots of great international restaurants from all over. My favorite section was a pedestrian alley stretching two blocks from Flinders to Collins St, first on Degraves St then turning into Centre Pl with loads of great food and beverage options and great atmosphere. We returned there several times. And of course on the northwest corner, the Queen Victoria Market which merits its own section.
Degraves St and Centre Place
Also worthy of mention is a spanish place right on Flinders and Hosier Lane called MoVida. Excellent spanish food done exactly right. Quality ingredients without too much fuss. A little spendy but a great meal. Call ahead for reservations. If the Flinders St location is full there are several other locations around the city.
Queen Victoria Market
Unlike most cities, the locals don’t really like grocery stores. Normal people crowd into this enormous beautiful market to buy the real stuff straight from farmers. Football field sized blocks of fresh produce, fresh meat and seafood, specialty shops for cured meat and cheese, and endless rows of cheap coats, trinkets, and even full kangaroo pelts. A must see if you’re in the city. Fun fact: The Vic Market was once the city’s first cemetery housing over 10,000 bodies. As the market expanded it took over the graveyard and built over it. And . . . they didn’t move the bodies. So there’s that.
I don’t want to make it look like every booth was selling kangaroo. All the shows do that. I had to hunt it down. It’s certainly an exotic meat. But easy to find in the boutique booths in the front of the market.
The Fitzoy and surrounding neighborhoods
North of the CBD you find all sorts of neighborhoods with lively pub and cafe scenes. These streets seem to stretch on forever with option after option of places to try out. We particularly liked the Fitzroy neighborhood directly northeast of the CBD. But as we found out go a few blocks over and you’ll find an entirely different scene there too. One night we ate a place called Rice Queen which had a great vibe and another we ate at a middle eastern joint Bourdain recommended called Rumi. There’s a great pintxos place called Naked for Satan that I didn’t get to try but it comes highly recommended. And I really loved this little french cafe called Bon Ap’ Petit Bistro.
Katy had a friend she met on the PCT who’s staying in Melbourne and she invited us out to a pub league footie match. I wasn’t previously aware of footie. It’s somewhere between american football and rugby as best as I could tell and was played on an oval cricket court. There’s an oblong ball. You kick it, you catch it, you run through a goal. Everyone seemed to be having a great time in the cold rain. And there was interesting beer. I like beer.
While we were in Australia we thought we might as well see the local animals. So we booked a nature tour that got us access to several wildlife preserves including some up close time with a koala and kangaroos, wallabies, and wallaroos. Also a farm with sheep sheering, pigs, and a conceited horse that loved to show off his enormous erection and fart on the tourists. The grand finale was penguins! Yes, Australia has penguins. Super cute tiny ones. That live in earthen burrows. They stay in the ocean during the day and at night thousands of them come ashore and waddle their way, sometimes over a mile, to their little burrows. Photos were strictly prohibited so you’ll have to use your imagination. I did get a pic of a burrow before sunset. And the sunset on the penguin island was truly amazing as well.