Poking its elegant head up on the ‘most liveable cities in the world’ list every year, anyone who calls Melbourne home needs no convincing that it deserves the accolades.
There’s an indefinable quality that gives the city its edge, but it’s no secret that creativity, cuisine and eclectic culture play a key role in making Melbourne more than a little bit special.
There are many iconic experiences to be had, so it’s a task and a half to distil them down to the ten best things to do in Melbourne. But every one of the following has woven its way into the fabric of the city’s character, and helped define its depth, colour and irrepressible vitality.
This one comes first, simply because doing a loop on the City Circle tram (aka route 35) is one of the best ways of getting an orientation of the CBD. You can hop on one of the heritage W-Class trams at any of the designated stops around the circuit (they run in both directions every 30 minutes), and trundle around the city for absolutely nix. The recorded audio commentary gives you an introduction to Melbourne’s history and points out the major attractions along the way. While the loop takes about an hour to complete, you can hop on and off at your leisure — so it might take a good deal longer!
Ah, how Melburnians love their coffee — and they do it so well! So you must experience ‘doing coffee’ at one of the CBD laneway cafés during your visit. Tucked away all over the city in secret, unexpected places, you might find yourself squatting on a milk crate with the hipster crew, reclining in a vintage armchair, or rubbing elbows with the suits and stilettos at a miniscule bar as you enjoy your brew. The best known laneways are the pedestrian-only Centre Place and Degraves Street (on either side of Flinders Lane). Soak up the ambience Euro-style, with a confusion of chairs and tables spilling out onto the cobbled lanes and the heady aroma of food and freshly ground coffee filling the air.
Set over two sites, on either side of the Yarra River, the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) has been at the centre of Melbourne’s cultural scene since 1861. Divided into the NGV International and the NGV Australia, the superbly curated gallery has some of the most noteworthy collections in the country. With everything from painting and sculpture, to architecture and fashion, the gallery also hosts major international touring exhibitions and events throughout the year. Make a plan to see specific artworks, or just wander around and enjoy the buildings themselves. There’s never a wrong turn, and the best thing is it’s all absolutely free. (Admission charges may apply for temporary and touring exhibitions.)
Of course, Melbourne is famous for embracing a very different kind of art as well, and the city’s alleys, laneways and sides of buildings are the canvas for the work of some extremely talented street artists. The entire city is a huge open-air gallery for these vibrant works, but some of the best places to see them are Hosier Lane, AC/DC Lane, Centre Place, Duckboard Place and over in the back streets of funky Fitzroy. If you really want to get under the gritty skin of Melbourne’s street art scene, a walking tour with a working artist is a great way to go.
The grand old dame of Melbourne’s markets has occupied the same spot for over 140 years, and no visit to the city is done and dusted until you’ve experienced the assault upon your senses that is the Queen Victoria Market. Open daily from Tuesday through to Sunday, more than 600 stall owners ply their wares of fresh produce, deli foods, seafood, arts, crafts, fashion, homewares, sporting goods, and the list goes on. And on. Whatever you’re in the market for, you’ll find it at ‘the Vic’, and the buzzing atmosphere and host of characters you’ll encounter are the best bargains of all.
Melbourne is awash with live theatre; everything from comedy and musicals, to fringe works and highbrow plays. The amateur theatre scene is also massive. While visitors have a packed programme of choices to weigh up, if you can snag yourself a ticket to an MTC (Melbourne Theatre Company) production, you’ll get the quintessential theatrical experience that’s earned this cutting-edge company its stellar reputation.
OK, rooftop bars are not exclusive to Melbourne, but it’s an experience the city has practically claimed as its own — and it does it oh-so-well that that presumptuousness can be forgiven. Is it just imagination or do your cocktails actually taste sweeter overlooking the panorama of evening city lights as a gentle breeze ruffles your holiday hair? Only you can come up with the definitive answer, but you’ll have plenty of opportunities to test the theory. If you want to be in with the in-crowd, head for Loop Roof, the Parisian-style Siglo Bar, Rooftop at QT and Good Heavens.
The legendary Melbourne Cricket Ground (if you want to sound like a local, just call it ‘the G’) has been hosting sporting clashes since 1853. In fact, it’s been around almost as long as the city itself! Over the decades, the ground has played host to a huge range of sporting and entertainment events, including football, cricket, World Cup soccer, rugby union, international concerts, and even an Olympics. If you time it right and you’re in town for a big game, the atmosphere is like no other. But even if the great ground is silent, you can book in for a behind-the-scenes tour and get an intimate taste of its longstanding traditions.
Believe me when I say it’s all about the food in Melbourne. So much so, that you’ll be selling yourself short unless you plan to try as much of the fabulous multicultural cuisine as you can while you’re here. Wander through Chinatown for dumplings, along Lygon Street for Italian (read reviews first!), and down Victoria Street in Richmond for Vietnamese (it’s an easy tram ride there and back). You should also treat yourself to one extra special dining experience to add that extra spice to your memories of Melbourne. If you need some inspiration, Attica (already named the prestigious Restaurant of Year for 2020 by Gourmet Traveller) brings the concept and ingredients of Indigenous food to fine dining, while the perennial Flower Drum offers a very different experience to your cheap and cheerful Chinese.
It’s unmistakeable, inimitable and defines the Melbourne CBD like no other landmark: Flinders Street railway station. Cornerstone of the city since 1854, the building you see today was completed in 1910 (although the famous clocks, which inspired the phrase ‘meet you under the clocks’, date back to the 1860s). The station’s impressive Art Nouveau façade is one of the most recognisable in the country, but there’s so much more to this grand building. Do a guided walking tour to delve deeper into its fascinating heritage. PS. If a man holding a fishing rod disappears into thin air before your very eyes, don’t be alarmed. That’s just the station’s resident ghost named George.
The Clarion Suites Gateway is popular with business types, but there’s no reason the big end of town should have this deluxe Melbourne hotel all to themselves. Located on bustling Flinders Street, right next to the must-visit Immigration Museum and just a short walk across the Queen Street Bridge to the Southbank restaurant and bar precinct, a stay at the Clarion Suites Gateway puts you right in the heart of the Melbourne CBD. This stylish all-apartment hotel has 120 suites, including studios and one and two-bedroom apartments. All rooms feature a subtle, contemporary décor, supremely comfortable beds, stylish furnishings and kitchenette facilities. Request a south facing room to enjoy amazing views across the Yarra River.
The Clarion Suites Gateway’s superb location makes a stay in Melbourne effortlessly easy. Step out the door and onto free public transport (with the CBD grid), including the City Circle tram, or stroll up Flinders Street to Federation Square (a ten-minute walk). At the end of a hard day of sightseeing, head for the heated indoor pool or enjoy a drink and seriously well-priced dinner at Williams Bar and Café.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the ten best things to do in Melbourne? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Julietta Henderson is a Melbourne-based travel and feature writer. Originally planning to visit London for six months, she ended up staying for ten years and now divides her time between her home in Australia and several months of the year in the UK, Italy and France. Julietta has travelled extensively through Europe, North America, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia and Russia, and believes the keys to a great travel experience are an open heart, an open mind and an open-ended ticket.