Along with its position at the very bottom of the continent – only Hobart beats it for southerly latitude and Southern Ocean chill – Melbourne might have been purpose built to challenge accepted notions of Australian city life. It can seem topographically bland, prone to capricious cold and hot snaps, and, if blessed by a sandy fringed bay, far from what you’d call a beach destination.
What Melbourne offers instead of sun and surf is a slowness and intent around everything culinary, plentiful museums and galleries, and a late night culture that’s definitely the country’s most varied and vibrant. It’s fashion conscious and trendsetting, defiantly intellectual, and a champion of diversity and multiculturalism. Its city centre is a joy to traverse by foot or tram and just beyond lie some delightfully intact Victorian streetscapes. Outdoorsy action comes in the form of an enviable sporting calendar and miles of gorgeous parkland. It’s a subtle, intriguing and enveloping mix – Melburnians wouldn’t have it any other way.
Explore our interactive map below for all the local highlights, and scroll down for our suggested day-by-day summary of the best things to see and do.
Now wander down the city’s street art hub, the technicolour Hosier Lane – being first thing in the morning, you’ll miss the perpetual photoshoot – then head to the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia. There’s everything from the sublime, mysterious colonial landscapes of John Glover and splendid works from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities to Australian Modernists from Grace Coddington Smith to John Brack, and highlights of Melbourne’s thriving contemporary scene.
Afterwards, browse the shops of Flinders Lane: Alpha60 does wearable Melbourne irony in an Anglican chapel, there’s a beautiful hometown Aesop and makers’ hub Craft. This is also Melbourne’s prime gallery going zone, with contemporary dealers, Anna Schwartz, Tolarno, and Murray White (by appointment only) all in close proximity.
You’ve not yet ventured far, but Movida, will transport you far away, to Spain. This is Iberian eating that’s as innovative as it is earthy: think air-dried Wagyu with poached eggs and truffle foam and Milawa duck with local shitake.
The Victorian-era Fitzroy Gardens with its leafy avenues of European trees will lead you to the home of Australian Rules Football, the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Take a tour and clock the city skyline from one of the lofty terraces.
Before it gets dark, bus or Uber it to St Kilda; local singer-songwriter Paul Kelly once name-checked the Esplanade’s ‘sweet promenade’ and sunset from the historic pier, and it’s a view certainly worth taking in yourself. At the very least, the Esplanade’s namesake pub, aka the Espy, is a sweet sight indeed. After a sunset ‘pot’ – a small beer – and a peek at its legendarily rambling, if recently refurbished, interiors, the smartly uniformed bar staff at Bar di Stasio will have aperitivo ready for you: snack on prawn or wild greens frittelle and savour what might be the city’s best Negroni.
Continuing the Italian culinary theme after a short tram ride back into the city to at Tipo 00, have a late dinner of pappardelle with Gippsland rabbit, hazelnut & marjoram. Or, from May until August, feast on risotto or linguine with local truffles (it’s best to book ahead, especially during winter truffle season).
For twinkling city lights, whatever the chill factor, head to Rooftop Bar & Cinema, or if you’re craving some big city glamour, head to gorgeous Gimlet for an amaro nightcap at the bar.
Melbourne’s inner neighbourhoods are full of charm, but take a little to get to know. Down a quiet residential backstreet you’ll find Cibi, an all-in-one café, produce store and Japanese homewares emporium. The coffee is faultless, and there’s matcha or yuzu pound cake, but it’s the delicate but grounding special breakfast – miso, grilled salmon, tamagoyaki (a rolled omelette), greens, rice and grains that you’ll remember.
From here Uber out to the Heide Museum of Modern Art, set in a suburban bush valley. The Heide II gallery is a beautiful example of Australian mid-century architecture.
Back in the Uber to Fitzroy and another backstreet beauty. Napier Quarter’s bluestone bones once housed a corner shop. You can now lunch on fig and goat curd tart or a bowl of kale and buffalo yoghurt soup and there’s excellent coffee, cakes and natural wine in lieu of meat pies and mixed sweets.
In this area, you can take your pick of pubs for late afternoon craft brews on tap and a soundtrack of ironic psych rock or early hip hop. If you’re more inclined to sampling small producer wines and a sneaky plate of oysters or ortiz anchovies on toast, try the Builder’s Arms. Or take your time winding your way up shop-lined Gertrude Street: Bruce, Megan Park and Standard Store and many other small boutiques here are worth a long, leisurely browse.
Cutler & Co is considered one of Melbourne’s best restaurants. Book ahead and you can head out to the low-lit back room for some thoughtful, laid-back fine dining surrounded by contemporary art and a crowd of locals. But a casual bar stool is no second prize here, with a glass of Duval-Leroy Brut in hand and elegant snacking to be had (say an abalone katsu sandwich with bulldog sauce or kingfish crudo with Tasmanian wasabi and begonia).
Live music is alive and well in the southern capital so Uber or cycle over to Corner Hotel for international indie acts in a suitably louche band room or up to Brunswick to Jazzlab for serious improvised tunes. If you’d prefer a nightcap sans discernable soundtrack, intimate Everleigh is a short stroll, and they’re all about artisan booze and murmured conversation.
If you miss out on a place or don’t have time to do a full tour of Melbourne’s much revered street art sites, the City of Melbourne council has a very easy to use downloadable map. Walk the four-mile, two-hour route or just use it to find key sites. It also has details of the city’s best public art works.
One of the last inner neighbourhoods to gentrify, Collingwood’s booming wine bars (The Moon, Congress and Paradise Alley are good places to start), cafés (try Terror Twilight and Everyday Coffee) and artisan delis (such as Meatsmith) still share real estate with Vietnamese bakers and $2 shops. Explore on and off Smith Street, take in Collingwood Yards, a bustling new arts precinct, then take time to discover a fascinating mix of old industrial sites – it was once known as ‘little Manchester – workers’ cottages and grand 19th-century shopfronts, from Smith Street and down into Perry, Oxford, Cambridge and Peel Streets.
The NGV International’s blockbuster shows often attract huge crowds. Book ahead for the NGV Friday Night sessions though and you’ll skip the long queues and also get talks, live bands and DJs for a price not much higher than the usual entrance. And on the dance floor, the crowds are a bonus, not a curse.
Take the lift up to Hotel QT’s bar for one of the city’s most glamorous views and refreshingly laid-back vibes – it attracts a younger, more fun crowd than most CBD hotel bars and can sometimes feel more like a private party. For plenty of time out on that skyline-backed terrace, get here early – it closes at 11pm.
Did you know?
Think Aussie Rules football is an Antipodean upstart? The ‘Melbourne Rules’ codification in 1859 predates that of soccer, rugby union and Gaelic football (respectively codified in 1863, 1871 and 1885). The still-going-strong Melbourne Football Club, whose first games happened on the scrubby parkland by the Melbourne Cricket Club, is also one of the world’s oldest football associations.
Where to stay
The shimmering gold, 33-level Grand Hyatt luxuriates in an understated opulence befitting of its city. Facilities include an outdoor tennis court, half-court basketball court and golf practice cages. The hotel is located on central Melbourne’s most prestigious thoroughfare, flanked by luxury boutiques, heritage architecture and iconic skyscrapers.
Double rooms from AUD 355 (£217)
United Places is a smart, sexy and stylish sanctuary. Guests are treated to luxury hotel essentials – bespoke service and a high attention to both aesthetic and experiential detail – while doing away with show pony overstatement. With only 12 suites, it’s calm and intimate. A nonchalant façade and striking contemporary architecture combine with décor that’s beautiful, tactile and practical.
One-bedroom suites from AUD 650 (£360)
Perforated, blonde-wood wall panels and space-age edges set a millennial tone in The Larwill Studio’s expansive lobby. Dramatic black text runs across mirrored wall panels, floor-to-ceiling windows frame the Melbourne skyline and the spaces are energised by original, soul-lifting artworks by the late Australian artist David Larwill – this is where Scandi-style aesthetics meet homegrown creativity.
Double rooms from AUD 159 (£87)
What to bring home
Instantly recognisable to savvy Melburnians around the globe, Brunswick’s Dejour Jeans (542 Sydney Road) are not only cheap, they’re custom fitted for you on site, making this shop worth the tram ride.
When to go
Melbourne’s jam-packed events calendar, and Victoria’s geographic diversity, makes this corner of Australia a year-round destination.
Summer is the most popular season with visitors, with the longest days and good beach weather (especially from January to mid-March). The Australian Open (January) draws huge crowds to Melbourne, as does LGBT+ cultural festival Midsumma (January-February) and White Night (February).
Autumn is arguably the best season: days are warm to mild; blazing foliage graces Victoria’s parks; and Melbourne’s festival season revs up with the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival (February-March), International Flower and Garden Show (March), and International Comedy Festival (March-April).
Winters are grey and chilly, but always atmospheric. The AFL (Australian Rules Football) season is in full swing, the ski slopes are open for business, and the major cultural events continue, among them the Melbourne International Film Festival (July-August) and the National Gallery of Victoria’s Winter Masterpieces exhibition (months vary).
Spring offers spring blooms and sporadic weather. Winter is over and there’s a celebratory feeling in air, with big-scale events including the AFL Grand Final (September), Fringe Festival (September-October), Melbourne Festival (October), and all the millinery, glamour and galloping of the Melbourne Cup Carnival (November).
British Consulate-General: 00 61 3 9652 1600; Level 17, 90 Collins Street, Melbourne, 3000.
Emergency services: Dial 000
Tourist office and information: The Melbourne Visitor Centre (visitmelbourne.com) is on Federation Square, right across from Flinders Street Station. Open daily, 9am-6pm. A smaller information booth is located in the Bourke Street Mall, between Swanston and Elizabeth Streets and at the Town Hall on Swanston Street. Open daily, 9am-5pm. Tourist information is also available in the Arrivals Hall at Melbourne International Airport
Currency: Australian dollar. Prices are rounded off to the nearest 5c (1c and 2c coins are not used in Australia)
Time: +10 hours (+11 hours during daylight savings Oct-Mar)
Travel times: Flying time from London to Melbourne is around 21.5 to 23 hours. Flying time from Sydney to Melbourne is around 1 hour and 15 minutes
Local laws and etiquette
In the Central Business District (City Centre), many intersections require you to make a right turn from the left lane in order to keep tram tracks clear. This is called a hook turn, marked with a ‘Right Turn From Left Only’ sign, either overhead or to the side of the road. Approach and enter the intersection from the left lane and indicate that you are turning right. Move forward to the far left of the intersection, keeping clear of pedestrian crossings and remain stationary until the traffic lights on the road you are turning into have gone green, then turn right.
Tipping: As in the UK, tipping in restaurants and cafes is customary not compulsory. If you receive good service, 10 per cent of the bill would be reasonable. If you wish to tip your hotel porter, AU$2 (£1) to AU$5 (£3) per bag is a suitable amount. In taxis, you may choose to round up the payment to the nearest dollar
Donna Wheeler is Telegraph Travel’s Melbourne expert. She was lured south from Sydney by the city’s moody streets and booming arts scene. Donna lived in the city’s inner north for two decades, where she was never more than a block away from a strong flat white and a glass of small producer pink or orange wine.