By Isaac Bosque
Contributor for Penny’s Daybook
Isaac Bosque is a student in International Relations at the Australian National University in Canberra. Strategically located between Australia’s two great cities, he has travelled extensively to both Sydney and Melbourne, and knows the streets like the back of his hand. If your GPS stops working the next time you’re in either city, give him a call.
Ask anybody what they think of Melbourne and you’re likely to get a comment on the weather. But heat waves and flash floods aside, Melbourne is well known as a city of the arts, having even been named as a UNESCO City of Literature.
It is also Australia’s sporting capital, hosting three world-class annual sporting events in the Australian Open, the Australian Grand Prix, and the Melbourne Cup, as well as having the distinction of having hosted the first Summer Olympics to be held in Australia in 1956. And with everything from freshly made gelato to piping hot dim sum to be found on its streets, Melbourne is nothing short of foodie paradise.
A good place to start off the Melbourne experience is under the clock tower at Melbourne Central shopping centre. As the meeting place for many a casual appointment, standing beneath the giant clock is a sure sign of having arrived. Resist the urge to try the delightful cupcakes in the window of the Cupcake Bakery and pop out to Elizabeth St for some fresh air.
Heading off to the right, the famous Queen Victoria Market is a ten-minute walk away. Open all week save for Monday and Wednesday, the market is home to rows and rows of stalls selling everything under the sun ranging from fresh produce to oil paintings. Notably, it is not just another tourist attraction; the locals flock there for grocery shopping as well!
Travellers tip #1: in summer, the QVM runs a night market on Wednesday nights serving up a smorgasbord of cuisines from all over the world – even as far as Mauritius – in addition to great displays of live music. Great fun!
Save your feet a bit of hurt and hop onto a tram – not being lazy here, the tram is a Melbourne icon – heading towards Flinders St. You can’t miss Flinders St Station; it’s the big yellow building at the end of the road. People seem to walk more quickly around here – understandably though, the historic building is one of the city’s major train interchanges.
Head on down the bridge along St. Kilda Rd, which offers magnificent photo opportunities of the Yarra River and the occasional high school rowing team out for a practice session. A minute further down is Melbourne’s version of the adult video store for art lovers: the National Gallery of Victoria. Entry to the permanent exhibitions is free, so feel free to leave your bags at the cloakroom and take a look inside. The gift shop stocks some delightfully quirky (and cool) items.
When you’ve had your fill, head across the road to Federation Square. Sit yourself down on the steps in the courtyard and help yourself to a little bit of nice warm sunshine (which might actually kill you, so don’t forget sunscreen). Another popular meeting spot, Federation Square is also host to impromptu events such as Michael Jackson’s candlelight vigil and the offsite screening of the Australian Open.
Afterwards head up Swanston St, which runs parallel to Elizabeth. If you haven’t realized by now, the Melbourne CBD runs on a grid. As with all major cities, driving around by car can be a first-timer’s worst nightmare, but Melbourne has one more scare up its sleeve. The hook turn. Implemented to avoid traffic bottlenecks in the city, the hook turn can be a major fright fest for the uninitiated. You’ll have to experience it in person to find out for yourself!
Feel free to branch off from Swanston into Flinders Lane and the intersecting alleyways between Elizabeth and Swanston. These lanes are lined with dozens of incredible shops stocking fashion one-of-a-kinds, vintage clothing, and even patisserie chocolate.
For the cosmopolitan bookworm, the Foreign Language Bookshop on Collins St stocks dictionaries, learning aids, and novels published in all the major languages of the world. Established in 1938, it is a must-visit for the language aficionado. Make your way through the labyrinth of stores and emerge onto Bourke St Mall, where the road is closed to motorized vehicles. Retail giants Myer and David Jones sit side by side, so take your pick.
Traveller’s tip #2: in December, the Myer Christmas window display is an institution it its own right, and the queues tend to spill over to rival David Jones’ entrance. Just remember, school will be out, so get there early to avoid (with much luck, hopefully) the crowds.
On the other side of Swanston on Little Bourke St is Melbourne’s Chinatown. You won’t miss it; the arch is a dead giveaway. In any case, take a walk down the street – avoid the souvenir shops hawking abalone in the window, you’re likely to get ripped off – and stop at one of the many yum cha restaurants for tea.
When you’re done exploring, head back towards Swanston, but this time along Lonsdale St. The keen-eyed will notice more than a couple of Greek restaurants in succession, so feel free to grab a baklava or two. Once back on Swanston, head up towards the State Library of Victoria. The third of Melbourne’s hotspots, the lawn outside the library is a favourite with students, lovers, and young executives kicking back after a day’s work.
Traveller’s tip #3: for the thought-inclined, the library has a chess room where you can sit yourself down at a table and engage in a battle of minds with someone else – or yourself, if it rocks your boat. And who knows, you could meet your future spouse.
All in all, comparisons with Sydney, as many an Australian are inclined to do, are absolutely pointless. Both cities have something unique to offer, and what is so special about Melbourne is its innate charm and avant-garde personality. Melbourne is a coffee joint, an art gallery, and a banker’s swivel chair altogether at once.
Home to large Greek, Italian, and Vietnamese populations, Melbourne is equally welcoming to the aesthete, the tourist, and the business traveller. If you have a few days to spend in Melbourne, make the most of it!