Melbourne is Australia’s second-largest city, with a population of 4.25 million, around half a million less than Sydney. Rivalry between the two cities – in every sphere from football to fashion and business – is on an almost childish level. In purely monetary terms, Sydney leads the race, but, as Melburnians never tire of pointing out, they inhabit one of the world’s most “liveable cities”. While Melbourne may lack a truly stunning natural setting or in-your-face sights, its subtle charms and vibrant culture make it an undeniably pleasant place to live, and to visit too.
In many ways, Melbourne is the most European of all Australian cities: magnificent landscaped gardens and parks provide green spaces near the centre, while beneath the skyscrapers of the Central Business District (CBD), an understorey of solid, Victorian-era facades ranged along tree-lined boulevards presents the city on a more human scale. Large-scale immigration since World War II has shaken up the city’s formerly self-absorbed, parochial WASP mind-set for good. Whole villages have come here from Vietnam, Lebanon, Sudan, Turkey, Italy and especially from Greece, furnishing the well-worn statistic that Melbourne is the third-largest Greek city after Athens and Thessaloniki. Not surprisingly, the immigrant blend has transformed the city into a foodie heaven, and tucking into a different cuisine each night is one of its great treats.
The CBD lies at the heart of the city, a grid bounded by La Trobe, Spring, Flinders and Spencer streets, dotted with fine public buildings and plenty of shops. To the north of the CBD, a wander through lively, century-old Queen Victoria Market will repay both serious shoppers and people-watchers. In the east, the CBD rubs up against Eastern Hill, home to Parliament House as well as the landscaped Fitzroy Gardens, from where it’s a short walk to the venerable Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), a must for sports fans.
Bordering the south side of the CBD, the muddy and, in former decades, much-maligned Yarra River lies at the centre of the massive developments that have transformed the face of the city, with new high-rises still popping up like mushrooms. Since the waterfront development began in the mid-1990s, Southgate, Crown Casino and the Melbourne Exhibition Centre have since been joined by Southbank’s Eureka Tower (featuring a stunning observation deck) and the Docklands development to the west with its waterside bars and restaurants. Federation Square on the north bank of the Yarra River is considered the centre of the city; the adjacent park, Birrarung Marr, links Fed Square with the sports arenas further east. Continuing south of the river, the Victorian Arts Centre forms a cultural strip on one side of St Kilda Road, while on the other, Government House and the impressive Shrine of Remembrance front the lush and rambling Royal Botanic Gardens.
Surrounding the CBD, Melbourne’s inner suburbs offer up a melange of different vibes – the combination of which gives the city its distinctive “Melbourne” flavour. To the north, edgy Fitzroy, Brunswick, Carlton and Collingwood are home to hipsters, live music, quirky cafés and trendy bars, while Richmond, in the east, is renowned for discount shopping outlets and incredible Vietnamese food. South of the river, the more polished, high-end shopping suburbs of South Yarra and Prahran provide a more sophisticated side of Melbourne, before morphing into the raw, urban grittiness that is the Windsor, Balaclava and St Kilda trio. Melbourne’s west, while it still has a way to go in the merciless Melbourne cool stakes, is undoubtedly an area to watch.
The city’s strong claim to being the nation’s cultural capital is well founded: laced with a healthy dash of counterculture, the city’s artistic life flourishes, culminating in the highbrow Melbourne International Arts Festival for two weeks in October, and its slightly more offbeat (and shoestring) cousin, the Fringe Festival. Throughout the year, there are jam-packed seasons of classical music, comedy and theatre, a wacky array of exhibitions in small galleries, enough art-house movies to last a lifetime, and the Writers’ Festival in August showcasing Australian literary talent. Sport, especially Australian Rules football, is almost a religion here, while the Melbourne Cup in November is a public holiday, celebrated with gusto.
Melbourne is an excellent base for day-trips out into the surrounding countryside. Closest to the city are the quaint villages of the eucalypt-covered Dandenong Ranges, while the scenic Yarra Valley, in the northeast, is Victoria’s answer to South Australia’s Barossa Valley, and one of many wine-producing areas around Melbourne. To the south, huge Port Phillip Bay is encircled by the arms of the Bellarine and Mornington peninsulas. The Mornington Peninsula on the east side has farmland and wineries on gently rolling hills and is home to some of the city’s most popular beaches and surfing spots, while the placid waters of the bay are good for swimming. Western Port Bay, beyond the peninsula, encloses two fascinating islands – French Island, much of whose wildlife is protected by a national park, and Phillip Island, whose “Penguin Parade”, when masses of Little penguins waddle ashore each night, is among Australia’s biggest tourist attractions. Geelong and most of the Bellarine Peninsula are not quite so captivating, but they do give access to the west coast and the Great Ocean Road. Queenscliff, near the narrow entrance to Port Phillip Bay, with its beautiful, grand hotels, is a stylish (and expensive) weekend getaway.
Melbourne boasts a reasonably cool climate, although January and February are prone to barbaric hot spells when temperatures can climb into the forties with the threat of bushfires, which may close off certain areas to the public.