With both an Olympics and Commonwealth Games under its belt, alongside more than a century of AFL grand finals, an annual Grand Slam tennis tournament, and one of the most famous horse races in the world, the roar of the crowd is a familiar sound in Melbourne. Julietta Henderson and Adam Ford check in with ten must-sees and dos for sports buffs...
The city has an enduring passion for its many sporting traditions, and whether its Australian Rules Football (AFL), soccer, rugby league, cricket, tennis, basketball or car racing, you can expect to find tens of thousands of cheering fans in attendance at all major matches and events.
If your visit to the Victorian capital doesn’t line up with an actual game, don’t despair. Here are ten Melbourne highlights for sports fans to tick off at any time of the year.
Likened to a giant cauldron and able to accommodate in excess of 100,000 people, the much-loved Melbourne Cricket Ground (referred to locally as the ‘MCG’, or simply as ‘the G’) is arguably Australia’s most famous sports venue. Whether you’re lucky enough to have tickets to an AFL match, or you just want to bask in the ambience of the hallowed ground, the MCG is easily accessible from the city on foot or by tram or train from Flinders Street. Book a guided tour and go behind-the-scenes. It’s a fascinating experience.
2. Do a tour of Docklands Stadium
Docklands Stadium once sat outside the western end of the city, but over the past three decades it’s been slowly subsumed by the rise of the surrounding commercial and residential precinct. Today the stadium is almost completely encircled by office towers and apartment blocks. While it’s not held to the breast of Melburnians as tightly as the MCG, it is a key cog in the city’s sporting machine. AFL matches are played here and there are three venue tours offered daily. See the players’ change rooms, the coaches’ briefing room and box, the umpires’ tunnel and much more. Bookings are essential.
3. Go trackside at Flemington
Further west, you’ll find Flemington Racecourse — a mecca for horse racing fans, and best known as the venue of the annual ‘race that stops a nation’ — the Melbourne Cup. The Cup takes place during the Spring Racing Carnival, which sees the city’s fascination with fascinators go into overdrive, and the track’s 16,000 rose bushes come into bloom. At other times of the year, plan a visit to the Flemington Heritage Centre. It’s only open by appointment (hence the need to plan it), and is packed with memorabilia. You can also book a guided walking tour of the grounds.
4. Meet the living legends of the track
Once they’ve had their time in the sun, many of the four-legged champions of Australian horse racing retire to Living Legends at Woodlands Historic Park, about 30 minutes’ drive from the Melbourne CBD. Tours of the sprawling property with a trainer are offered twice daily and you’ll get to hear fascinating insights about the careers and personalities of names like Might and Power, Rogan Josh, Apache Cat, Brew, and Fields of Omagh. The horses love the attention and it’s clearly a labour of love for the staff. The homestead houses a small museum and serves up a mean Devonshire tea.
Melbourne Park on the eastern side of the city (adjacent to the G) is made up of Rod Laver Arena and Margaret Court Arena (tennis), Melbourne Arena (basketball and netball), and AAMI Park — home to pro rugby and soccer. The precinct comes to the fore in January when the world’s top tennis stars jet in for the Australian Open. Take a tour of the facility or tap into your inner-Serena/Roger with a tennis lesson.
6. Soak up the history of the City Baths
Elite level swim meets are hosted at the state-of-the-art Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre in Albert Park, but it all began at the City Baths on Swanston Street. Prior to their initial construction in 1860, Melburnians bathed in, and even drank water from the Yarra River. While it wasn’t as murky as it is today (the result of excess clay sediment in the water from run-off), it did lead to a nasty outbreak of typhoid. Hence the need for the construction of the baths.
The opulent Edwardian Baroque building you see today replaced the original in 1904 and featured segregated swimming pools for the sexes, a washhouse, bathrooms and a gymnasium. Much of the original period detail is still visible inside.
7. See the chequered flag drop
This city certainly has a need for speed. The Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix is held each year on the Albert Park street circuit, and you don’t have to be a rev head to appreciate the thrill of burning rubber at Calder Park Raceway (although it helps). The park is best known for its drag racing strip and infamous high-speed Thunderdome speedway. Go on, you know you want to…
8. Get interactive at the Australian Sports Museum
In your rush to soak up the fun and atmosphere of a real-life sporting event at one of the city’s sporting venues, don’t miss the opportunity to also delve into the history of sport in Australia. The excellent Australian Sports Museum (formerly known as the National Sports Museum) is located at the MCG and features interactive exhibits and a trove of memorabilia.
Technically, the greatest Australian race horse of all time was a New Zealander. But like pavlova, we’ll defend our claim to this icon to the bitter end. The taxidermised hide of Phar Lap, who lived for just six years (1926 to 1932) and won 37 races (including the 1930 Melbourne Cup), is on permanent display at Melbourne Museum. Framed by the dark days of the Depression, Phar Lap’s story is one of great courage, but with a tragic end. 80 years on, he remains the museum’s most popular exhibit.
10. Melbourne Sports Lovers Tour
Tie all the threads together by booking a spot on the popular Melbourne Sports Lovers Tour, which takes in many of these sporting must-sees. Visit Flemington, drive around the public roads that make up the Formula One track, go behind the scenes at the G, and check out the Australian Sports Museum. Lunch at Docklands Stadium is included, along with commentary from a sports-mad local guide.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of top things to do in Melbourne for sports fans? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
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.
About the writer
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.