Melbourne: Arts and Culture Capital

Australia’s second-largest city boasts arts festivals, eclectic ethnic cuisine, exotic wildlife and easy, walkable streets to explore it all.

Shaped by immigration, gold rushes and bustling commerce, Melbourne has more recently become a city of art, design and gourmet experiences. An easygoing approach to multiculturalism and an insatiable appetite for the best of everything pervades the city’s leafy avenues and charming laneways. Melbourne’s many restaurants, hotels, attractions and festivals offer something for every taste. All a Melbourne vacationer needs to uncover its secrets is a healthy curiosity and comfortable shoes.

A Little History

The city of Melbourne was founded in 1835, and a bloke called Robert Hoddle began to plan the city in 1837. He must have foreseen a future population that loved nature and was obsessed with sports, but he also must have wanted everything a big city has to offer to go with it. Wide boulevards, secret laneways and abundant parkland bordering the city center continue to define Melbourne’s relaxed attitudes and sense of space.

The discovery of gold in Victoria in the early 1850s saw Melbourne’s wealth and population skyrocket, and the city is peppered with magnificent buildings built on the back of the gold rush.

In the last century Melbourne, like the rest of Australia, received large numbers of immigrants who turned their backs on battered homelands. Each nationality quickly sought to establish its identity in their new home, and the result is the cultural and gastronomic diversity Melbourne celebrates today.

Melbourne Today

In the City

In the early 1980s, the suburban dream began to reverse and low inner-city housing prices became attractive housing alternatives. Melburnians rushed back to the city in droves to live in warehouses hidden down laneways and apartments in lovely but largely empty Victorian and Art Deco buildings. An infrastructure that would soon be the talk of the town sprang up to feed and entertain them. Coffee became espresso, sandwiches became panini, and vodka and orange became a Dirty Martini. Restaurants, cafés, boutique shops and music venues of all kinds began to appear.

Around the City

The surrounding suburban pockets have embraced the concept of specialization. Carlton was shaped by Italian migrants, Richmond is Little Vietnam and Fitzroy is hipster headquarters. Lebanese, African and Turkish migrants inhabit Brunswick, while South Yarra caters to cash-rich fashionistas. In St Kilda, the rich and famous rub shoulders with the down-and-out in this popular bayside suburb. Jump on a Metlink Metropolitan tram to discover these many different faces of Melbourne.

Next:  Melbourne Attractions for First-Time Visitors

Melbourne Attractions for First-Time Visitors

First and foremost: Put on your walking shoes! The city is compact, relatively flat and easy to navigate. Apart from Phillip Island Penguins, all of the following recommendations are a stroll or at most a tram ride from any city hotel, and are great for families.

History Lessons

The Melbourne Immigration Museum is a great place to begin your exploration into the history of the city. Immigrants from all corners of the world have made Melbourne what it is today, and their stories are a fascinating way to understand the city’s development. Admission: $8 AUD (US$5.40) for adults, free for children 3 to 15. 11 Nicholson St., tel. +61-3-9927-2700.

City Sights

For a bird’s-eye view of the city go to Eureka Skydeck 88 on the 88th floor of the Eureka Tower. Here you can simply get your bearings and enjoy the view, or the more adventurous can experience The Edge. This is a fully-enclosed glass cube that extends out from the building, leaving you suspended more than 984 feet from the pavement below and the city, literally, at your feet. Skydeck admission: $16.50 AUD (US$11.14) for adults, $9 AUD (US$6) for children 4 to 12. The Edge additional admission: $12 AUD (US$8.10) for adults, $8 AUD (US$5.40) for children 4 to 12. Riverside Quay, Southbank. Tel. +61-3-9693-8888. 

Zoo and Museums

No visitor to Australia should miss the unique native wildlife. Children will get a special kick out of seeing kangaroos, koalas, wombats and the bizarre platypus. These and many more friendly, and not-so-friendly, animals can be seen up close at the Royal Melbourne Zoo. Admission: $23.60 AUD (US$16) for adults 16 and over, $11.80 AUD (US$8) for kids 4 to 15, Elliott Avenue, Parkville. Tel. +61-3-9285-9300.

Visit the Melbourne Museum, located in the Carlton Gardens, to discover Victoria’s natural and cultural history. There’s also an indoor rainforest, Aboriginal Centre and children’s display. For just a little extra money you can enjoy an IMAX movie experience on the southern hemisphere’s biggest 3D screen. Admission: $8 AUD (US$5.40) for adults, free for children 3 to 15. IMAX tickets: Rates start at $17.50 AUD (US$11.80) for a single film, $12.50 AUD (US$8.44) for children; add $5 AUD (US$3.40) for combined museum admission. Nicholson Street, Carlton. Tel. +61-3-8341-7777.

Melbourne Market

Classified by the National Trust, the Queen Victoria Market is a Melbourne institution and a rowdy shopping experience. It’s the best place to pick up picnic supplies, clothing and souvenirs. Open every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. From November to February, be sure to visit the Night Market on Wednesdays and enjoy live music and street hawker food from around the world.

River Cruises

Day or night, Melbourne is at her most photogenic from the water. A Yarra River cruise leaving from Southbank can take you around the Melbourne port area or head up the river through some of city’s stunning parkland. Melbourne River Cruises has a range of cruises on offer. Rates start at $22 AUD (US$14.84) for adults, $11 AUD (US$7.40) for children 3 to 17. Tel. +61-3-8610-2600.

Phillip Island Fairy Penguins

These delightful little creatures have entertained visitors to this island—75 miles from Melbourne—for decades. Each evening at dusk hundreds, if not thousands, of blue-grey fairy penguins emerge from the surf and waddle up the beach to their burrows after a hard day’s fishing out at sea. Penguin Island Tours offers day trips to see the penguins leaving from the CBD. Tel. +61-3-9629-5888.

Federation Square

Melbourne’s largest public square is found in Federation Square. Melburnians debated its architectural merits during construction, and while some still see it as an eyesore there’s no denying its modernity. Visit the National Gallery of Victoria’s Ian Potter Centre dedicated to Australian art. Admission is free.

Film lovers shouldn’t miss the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, home to a diverse program of screenings and exhibitions covering television, cinema, computer games and art. Admission to the building is free. Film viewings cost extra; go to for more information.

Next:  Melbourne Attractions for Return Visitors

Melbourne Attractions for Return Visitors

Having spent time in the city already, a return visit should also include some day trips to enjoy some of the best regional activities Victoria has to offer. It is the smallest Australian state after all, and renting a car or taking an organized tour to the following is simple.

Yarra Valley: Wine and Food

The Yarra Valley is a big day out for both food and wine lovers. Located 37 miles east of the CBD, the numerous wineries specialize in cool-climate varieties such as pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and sparkling wines. A host of specialty food producers have followed suit so visitors can enjoy local fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products with a glass of their preferred tipple. Accommodation is plentiful for an overnight stay, or join an organized day trip leaving from the CBD. [Read Wine tasting in Melbourne for more information.]

Werribee Open Range Zoo

An African safari in Melbourne? You can experience one just 22 miles west of Melbourne at the Werribee Open Range Zoo. See hippos, lions, giraffes, rhinos and more in their natural settings. Open vehicle tours bring you face-to-face with them all, and you can even sleep over in luxury camping accommodation to experience the sounds of the jungle at night. Buses to the zoo leave regularly from Werribee train station. Admission: $23.60 AUD (US$16) for adults, $11.80 AUD (US$8) for children 4 to 15. K Road, Werribee. Tel. +61-3-9731-9600.

The Mornington Peninsula

Hit the beach and sample the fresh produce and wine from Melbourne’s closest seaside escape. With calm bay beaches on one side and surfable ocean beaches on the other, the Mornington Peninsula is a favorite getaway for locals. On hot days, head inland to the Red Hill region for cooling breezes, wine tasting and fine dining lunch options. [Read Wine tasting in Melbourne for more information.]

The Great Ocean Road

Southwest of Melbourne is a stunning coastline famous for great surf, natural beauty and quaint towns. Driving there on the twisty Great Ocean Road is half the fun, whether self-driving or on a tour. Stretching for 151 miles, the cliff-hugging road takes you past national parks, the 12 Apostles rock formations and much more.

Next: A City of Festivals and Sporting Events

A City of Festivals

Melbourne’s festival calendar is overflowing with events. The largest of these include:

Hardly a week goes by without the opportunity to explore a festival of some kind. In 2007, Melbourne was also named UNESCO’s second City of Literature (the first being Edinburgh, Scotland) in recognition of the city’s literary roots and passion for words. [Read more in our Literary Melbourne article.]

Game On: Melbourne Sporting Events

When they’re not at a festival, Melburnians will probably be watching sporting events. The following events will get your heart started:

Australian Rules Football is the predominant conversation starter, even in the off-season. A mongrel game born in Melbourne, “Aussie Rules” has been described as a mix of rugby, soccer and gridiron, without padding. It’s undoubtedly fast, aggressive and highly skilled. Watching a game of this unique football code (style, of which there are four in Australia) at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (colloquially known as “The G”) in winter is the quintessential Melbourne sporting experience. March to September.

For many years, Melbourne has hosted both motor racing and motorcycle Grand Prix. Top venues include the Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park (March 26 to 19, 2009; and
Motorcycle Grand Prix, Phillip Island (Oct. 16 to 18, 2009;

For tennis lovers, the Australian Opensees the world’s best tennis talent at the first Grand Slam event of the year. January.

In November, the Spring Racing Carnival culminates in a Victorian Public Holiday for the running of the world’s richest horse race, the Melbourne Cup. Not for nothing is it called “The race that stops a nation.”

Next: Eat and Drink, Where to Stay, If You Go

Eat and Drink

The only criterion that matters to Melbourne’s cosmopolitan tastes today is quality. If you aren’t offering the best regardless of price, well, we’ll just go next door.

Fine Dining and Ethnic Cuisine

Restaurants like Ezard (187 Flinders Lane, tel. +61-3-9639-6811), Circa (the Prince) (2 Acland St., St Kilda; tel. +61-3-9536-1122) and Vue du Monde (430 Little Collins St., tel. +61-3-9691-3888) tap into the high end of the market. Lebanese (Abla’s, 109 Elgin St., Carlton; tel. +61-3-9347-0006), Moroccan (Moroccan Soup Bar, 183 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North; tel. +61-3-9482-4240) and Cantonese (Seamstress, 113 Lonsdale St., tel. +61-3-9663-6363) are just a taste of the other options for delicious and authentic everyday dining.

Read more in Melbourne’s Best Eats article.

Coffee Spots Around Town

Coffee is taken very seriously—and very often—in Melbourne, and boutique roasters and expert baristas are abundant. Here are four of the best buzz stops:

Atomica Café: Fitzroy (268 Brunswick St., Fitzroy; tel. +61-3-9417-4255)
Degraves: Central Business District (23 Degraves St., tel. +61-3-9654-1245)
Batch Espresso: St Kilda (320 Carlisle St., Balaclava; tel. +61-3-9530-3550)
St. Ali: South Melbourne (12-18 South Yarra Place, tel. +61-3-9686-2990)

For more eating and drinking insider tips read Top Dining in Melbourne and Bars and Nightlife.

Where to Stay

Exploring the streets and laneways of the city and discovering the eating, drinking, entertainment and shopping secrets within is an important part of any trip to Melbourne. It makes sense to stay in or near the CBD at modern luxury hotels like the Grand Hyatt Melbourne, The Langham Melbourne and Crown Towers Hotel, or at boutique hotels such as Hotel Lindrum or the Adelphi Hotel. [For more information, read Best Hotels in Melbourne.]

If You Go

Getting There

Depending on the airline, your flight may take you via Sydney, however there are usually direct flight options. Qantas is the national carrier and offers direct flights to Melbourne from Europe, the United States and Asia.

When to Go

Located south of a desert and north of Antarctica, Melbourne’s weather is notorious for the unpredictability that can strike at any time of year. Winter (June to August) can be dry and mild, and summer (December to February) can switch from scalding hot to cold within 24 hours. Spring (September to November) is generally a good time to visit, as the weather is usually mild and warm, but always be prepared for anything when heading out.

The sun in Australia can be particularly fierce, even on overcast or relatively cool days. Sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above is an essential item and should be reapplied every three to four hours, and in summer wearing a wide-brimmed hat makes good sense.

Destinations: Melbourne

Themes: Art and Museums, Outdoor Adventures, Urban Endeavors

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Museums, Sightseeing, Wine Tasting, Boating