Melbourne or Sydney? There’s this old rivalry between these two big Australian cities. Sydney – the city of beaches and sunshine, the laissez-faire and Asian street food. Melbourne – the city of sophistication, culture and shopping. It’s hard to say which one comes up on top, as there are certain qualities to both cities that I wouldn’t want to miss. So it’s best to find your base in a city that suits your lifestyle and then pay a visit from time to time to the other of the two. This way you get the best of both worlds!
A couple of weeks ago I spend some days in Melbourne, visiting an old friend and exploring the city. Can you imagine, I’ve known this crazy girl since we were both 14 – me living in Germany wanting to improve my school English, her sitting in Melbourne and wanting to learn more about the world. So we started a pen-pal friendship all these years ago. Remember, back when you actually wrote letters and took photos and had them developed and then you put it all in an envelope, carried it to the post office and bought a stamp. Waited two weeks for the letter to arrive on the other side of the world, then wait another 2 weeks for a reply? Those were the days! And look what happened – we are still in touch, after more than 20 years. It was definitely great to catch up!
For a couple of days, Melbourne was there right before me like on a serving platter. No kids, no obligations, just a couple of days of pure fun. So let me show you some of the great things you can do in this beautiful, cosmopolitan city. Some of them you will maybe be familiar with, others are more of the off-the-beaten-path kind. It’s a wonderful mix, I am sure you can pick some highlights for your own Melbourne trip from this list.
1. The Melbourne Laneways
Ok, this one is easy. Everybody knows that Melbourne is famous for its net of laneways. But knowing and seeing are two different things, and being right in the middle of it is something else altogether. The Laneways have a certain atmosphere, almost European, something that Sydney will unfortunately never be able to achieve in its CBD.
Just enter the laneways from one way or the other and lose yourself in the confusing maze. You will see, they are busy even during working hours and on a weekday. The people, the tables on the curb, the signs and shop windows, the colours and posters and the food. Yes, the food. Eating in this marvellous ambience is just taking on a very special quality, something you don’t want to miss when you are in Melbourne.
2. Have your cake and eat it too
If you are getting tired after a lot of exploring, check out these beautiful tea rooms here: The Hopetoun is an absolute favourite amongst locals, so much so that there’s a queue in front of this Collins Street shop. You only need to take a quick look at their shop windows to understand why: These guys are masters of the game, and eating here will be one of the most enjoyable experiences you will ever have while in Melbourne. I mean, look at these cakes! I am already profusely salivating just writing about it.
You will find them in the charmingly restored Block Arcade. If you want to take your High Tea here, make sure you book first. Other meals require no booking. http://www.hopetountearooms.com.au
3. Medieval artist colony Montsalvat
Looking for something entirely different? Then maybe I have something really nice for you! Montsalvat is an artist colony in the Melbourne suburb of Eltham. It’s a really pretty compound that resembles a medieval village, but much, much more enchanting.
You can clearly see that artists have been working on these designs, with huge windows, turrets, and weird angles everywhere. You can even find a swimming pool, a church and a cafe here, all lovingly placed on a wooded piece of land with meandering paths and vegetable gardens.
There’re real artists living here, so this is no Disneyland. But you are definitely invited to visit and enjoy the changing exhibitions. It is so pretty that professional photographers like to use the buildings for their photoshoots, for fashion or wedding photography. Unfortunately, that means that ordinary photography for my little blog is not allowed unless you buy a license which I didn’t do. So here’s the only photo that I can share with you which is the entrance to Montsalvat.
Getting to Montsalvat is not that easy unless you have a car. But you can in theory take the train out to Eltham and then walk the 30 minutes to the colony. There is also a bus serving the area but to be honest I wasn’t quite able to work out the route.
4. Glam and Hollywood at Rippon Lea
I lost my heart to Rippon Lea. It’s such a beautiful old mansion. I really wanted to re-visit the place after having seen it for the first time back in 2006, but unfortunately it was closed so that they could set up a new exhibition, and I missed out.
But let me tell you that when it comes to stately homes, Rippon Lea is probably one of the most beautiful that you will find in all of Australia. In the 1930s the house was epicentre for lavish parties around the pool, and it shows also in the interior style which is dubbed “Hollywood style”.
The house, which is now looked after by the National Trust, is surrounded by beautiful gardens, so there’s a second reason why you should visit. Rippon Lea is located in the suburb of Elsternwick which you easily reach by train. http://www.ripponleaestate.com.au
5. Visit the Cooks’ Cottage
Speaking of old buildings, Cooks’ Cottage is probably one of the lesser known places to visit in Melbourne. And no, I am not making a mistake with my use of the apostrophe, this is really how it is written. You see, the Cooks’ Cottage is the cottage of Cook’s parents, not Captain Cook himself. Remember Captain Cook from your history lessons? The brave explorer and seafarer who discovered and mapped a great part of the South Pacific, Hawaii and of course Australia?
So of course, there’s some significance to this building. And of course, it originally was not set in Melbourne, Australia. That would be weird, because back then Melbourne, Victoria was little more than a piece of outback bush. Instead, this cottage was originally located in Yorkshire, England. Leave it to the crazy Australians to move a whole house halfway across the globe!
Anyway, you can visit this lovely English cottage in Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens. It’s tiny, so you won’t spend a massive amount of time here, but it’s certainly worthwhile and an interesting puzzle piece to what we call Australian history.
6. Find the beauty in Federation Square
You probably heard of that one before. It’s right in the centre of Melbourne, a hub and focus point next to FIinders Street Station. Why you should visit it? I think it’s just a fantastic piece of architecture that simply invites you to explore the different structures with your eyes. Of course, there’s also the Melbourne Visitors’ Centre, the fabulous ACMI and the National Gallery of Victoria, but you don’t necessarily have to have these on your list, if museums and the like are not your thing.
Just take a walk across the square, explore the inside of the atrium, take notice of the cobblestones and the different facades.
Funny really, that the whole complex appears so unpopular with the Melburnians who apparently find it rather ugly. I let the pictures speak for themselves and rest my case.
If you have children or if you want to escape the trams and the hectic of the big city, then find your way down to Fitzroy Gardens. You will be greeted by something totally unexpected: A miniature village from the Tudor days. So if you want to show your kids the quaint English countryside in miniature form, then this is the place where you can do that.
It’s free, so a nice feature that just belongs in the park and that can be easily visited.
Conveniently enough, there is also a Fairies Tree right next to it, so this will add to the enjoyment for your kids. Let me tell you a funny story: My friend who grew up in Melbourne thought she remembered the tree differently, bigger and somehow more pompous. When we enquired in the nearby cafe whether there was another Fairy Tree in the park we were told no, but strangely other people had come in and asked the very same thing! Do you believe in a shared false memory like this? Maybe magic did play a role in this, who knows?
8. Find the hipster in Brunswick Street
If you want to see the hip side of Melbourne then you need to leave the CBD behind and make your way up to Brunswick Street in Fitzroy. This street belongs to one of these places that used to be rather poor, working class and cheap but have seen a miraculous transformation in recent years.
Today, the residents here are made up of artisans, young professionals, and housing commissioners. If you want to taste a bit of the real Melbourne then this is the place where you need to go out for a drink in one of the more than 70 bars and restaurants that have opened up here. Brunswick Street is also great for shopping, so a daytime visit would be equally a good idea.
9. View the city from above
I always recommend viewing cities from a vantage point. It just gives you that new perspective on things, and who knows what you might discover that you would otherwise miss? In Melbourne, the best views can be enjoyed from the Skydeck of the Eureka Tower which is almost 300 metres high. This is the highest public observation deck in the Southern Hemisphere, so expect some spectacular views from here – from the Yarra to the CBD grid and then the ocean on the other side, Melbourne will reveal itself in astonishing new ways. And if you are a thrill seeker, think about the Edge Experience, a glass cube that projects out from the 88th floor. Crazy!
The photos below were not taken from the Eureka Tower but you can see the Eureka Tower in the distance in the last shot. It’s the one with the golden tip.
10. And then… just walk, walk, walk
The best way to explore a city is by simply walking its streets. All you need is your feet, it’s that easy. Melbourne has some exciting new faces that weren’t there when I last visited. It’s thrilling to see how quickly this vibrant city is evolving. And it’s good to see how different the designs are, and how innovative.
That doesn’t mean that you need to like them but I think you can appreciate them for what they are. And then there’s of course the old stuff as well. And the trams. And the shopping malls. You can easily spend a day in Melbourne just drifting, watching the people, looking at the facades, be surprised by the street art. It’s a beautiful city, and there’s so much more to explore, I will definitely have to visit it again soon.
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