Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside!
So goes the popular music hall tune of the early 1900s, and you can’t help but hum it as you explore the foreshore in Melbourne’s fabulous seaside suburb of St Kilda. Back when the song was recorded in 1909, Melburnians flocked to the whimsical St Kilda Sea Baths for their sunny, salty pleasure. It was a time when neck-to-knees swimwear was de rigueur, and men and women swam in segregated ocean baths that jutted out into Port Phillip Bay.
Fast forward more than a century and a scaled-back version of the St Kilda Sea Baths remains to this very day. A visit to the complex — which now houses a spa, gym and a selection of bars, cafes and eateries — to look at the historical photographs on display there is a must-do. Melburnians continue to converge on St Kilda beach on a good day and the charm of this quintessential, slightly offbeat seaside enclave is still well worth singing about.
St Kilda makes a terrific spot to base yourself during your stay in Melbourne. Seven kilometres from the city centre (as the seagull flies) sounds like a bit of a trek, but that’s part of the magic of this part of the city. Thanks to the superb tram access, the trip always flies by. The number 3 or 16 tram down St Kilda Road are the fastest options, while the scenic number 96 through leafy Middle Park and South Melbourne is a longer, but extremely pleasant ride. Skybus offers direct transfers from Melbourne Airport to St Kilda.
Here are ten top things to do in St Kilda.
Walking is where it’s at when getting to know St Kilda. The main tourist strips of Fitzroy Street and Acland Street are linked by the semi-circle sweep of the Esplanade (where most of the historic seafront landmarks can be found), while freewheeling down any residential street will reveal myriad architectural treasures. If you prefer some structure to your roving, download one of the excellent self-guided walking tours from the City of Port Phillip website. The St Kilda Foreshore Walk covers around four kilometres and provides fascinating detail on the sights of note along the way.
No visit to this part of Melbourne would be complete without a meander along the iconic St Kilda Pier. This photographer’s dream (and purveyor of bad hair days when the wind is up) has had many extensions and alterations over the years. While it looks the business, the kiosk at the end is not original. The almost century-old structure was gutted by fire in 2003. However, the reconstruction is superb.
There are plenty of ways to enjoy the pier. Buy an ice cream from the kiosk, admire the boating hardware at the Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron, take a ferry to Port Melbourne and Williamstown, toss in a line, or just dangle your legs over the edge and drink in the stunning views of the city skyline.
St Kilda Pier has almost come to the end of its design life and will be replaced with a more modern construction within the next couple of years.
While thousands of visitors to Melbs trek down to Phillip Island to see the world-famous Penguin Parade, it’s possible to enjoy a sunset encounter with the region’s pint-size celebrities much closer to home — and for free. A colony of little penguins resides on the breakwater at the end of St Kilda Pier and visitors can freely enter the conservation zone. However, don’t love the penguins to death. Feeding, touching, torches and flash photography are not permitted (a flash can stun the birds and cause them to desert their chicks, and no selfie is worth that). Volunteer guides from not-for-profit Earthcare St Kilda are on duty each evening to supervise proceedings.
Next to the pier, St Kilda’s most prominent landmark is arguably Luna Park. Guests have been entering the amusement park through the toothy grin of the much-photographed Mr Moon, framed by opulent Moorish-style towers, for well over a century. Luna Park is home to a mix of old-time and new rides and attractions, including the Great Scenic Railway — the oldest continuously operating wooden roller coaster in the world — and the Carousel — which is listed on the Victorian and National Heritage Registers.
The park is open on weekends, public holidays and during Victorian school holidays, but is closed on weekdays during school terms. Check the website for details.
St Kilda’s Acland Street has long been known for its continental cake shops. Built on the back of European-Jewish migration to the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne from war torn Europe, Acland Street saw its first cake shop — Monarch Cakes — open in 1934. Many others followed suit. While today only three or so pastry shops remain along the strip, they’re an enduring link with the past (and Monarch still bakes its Polish cheesecake using an original recipe).
It’s also worth boarding the number 16 tram for the short ride from Acland Street up to Carlisle Street in Balaclava (past the majestic St Kilda Town Hall) to visit Glick’s bagel shop. Founder and Polish-born holocaust survivor Mendel Glick passed away in 2017.
Walk off your crumbly indulgences with a stroll in the sublime surroundings of the St Kilda Botanical Gardens. This has to be one of Melbourne’s best kept secrets, and on weekdays, save for a bunch of ducks and the odd gardener, you are quite likely to have the 6.4 hectares all to yourself. One of only two suburban botanic gardens established in the 19th century in Victoria (the other is in Williamstown), today the layout of the gardens remains largely faithful to the original design. The ornate wrought iron gates are open from sunrise to sunset.
All that exploring will have left you in need of a restorative latte or bite to eat, and as you would expect, St Kilda has no shortage of great cafes. Check out fabulous Fitzrovia on Fitzroy Street, which effortlessly melds old world charm and boho bric-a-brac with an innovative menu that packs plenty of flavoursome punches. If you’re yet to venture to the gardens or foreshore, enquire about Fitzrovia’s picnic hampers. They come complete with a five-course tasting menu, cutlery, crockery, napkins, glassware and sparkling water. All you need to add are the bubbles. Now that’s what we call a picnic!
There’s an undeniable and somewhat indefinable edge to life in St Kilda, and the precinct’s entertainment offerings generally like to push the mainstream boundaries. Experimental and fringe theatre works have long found a platform at Theatre Works in Acland Street. It’s worth booking a ticket even if you know nothing about the show you’re seeing. Just go with it. More recently, the Alex Theatre in Fitzroy Street has come online with three performance spaces. The soaring Palais Theatre, which at one time was Australia’s largest picture palace, now hosts everything from stand-up comedy and drag, to burlesque, bands, and the odd bit of ballet. Live music fans will also love the new look Espy (Esplanade Hotel) of RocKwiz fame.
Yes, you could shell out for dinner at one of St Kilda’s ritzier restaurants, but there are some local culinary institutions that won’t break the holiday bank. The Banff on Fitzroy Street has been part of the St Kilda streetscape for longer than anyone cares to remember, and serves up bargain-priced pizzas and pastas, washed down with no-frills-beakers of wine. Leave your personal space requirements at the door. Over on Acland Street, check out Claypots for incredible seafood. The eponymous claypots are awesome value. Lentil as Anything on Blessington Street invites you to pay what you can afford or pay it forward if you have the means.
Rub shoulders with local artisans and tuck into tasty food-van fodder at the St Kilda Esplanade Market, which is held every Sunday along the Esplanade. Only products that are handmade by the vendor can be sold at this popular market. From crocheted cushion covers to tie-dyed tea towels, browse the 140+ stalls for that completely unique souvenir of your St Kilda sojourn.
A stay at the Adina St Kilda makes it very easy to channel life as a local in this captivating part of Melbourne. Let’s start with the location. The hotel is situated at the top end of Fitzroy Street, just a stone’s throw from the tram interchange, and within walking distance of all the attractions covered in this story. There’s even a Woolies across the road. If your room faces Fitzroy Street, you’ll be able to watch the trams whizzing by. This is central with a capital C, and at a lead-in room rate of $131.75 per night, it’s also sensational value.
The hotel offers 83 light-filled apartment-style accommodation options, including studios, and one and two-bedroom apartments. The rooms are spacious and well-appointed with contemporary furnishings and modern bathrooms. Each one or two-bedroom apartment features a fully functioning kitchen. Many rooms have those views of Fitzroy Street, or across to magnificent Albert Park.
There’s no onsite dining at the Adina St Kilda, but the hotel does offer room chargebacks from Fitzrovia, and there are numerous cafes, bars and restaurants located close by. The compact foyer is fun and funky, with an open fireplace and stylish furnishings, and there’s an onsite gym.
My parting thought: ‘OK, so exactly how much would an apartment in St Kilda cost?’.
Adam travelled as a guest of TFE Hotels and Adina St Kilda.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in St Kilda? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.