Full disclosure: though I thought I’d love Melbourne, my takeaway impression was lukewarm at best.
I don’t like to be too quick to judge a city, but I also want to be candid here on the blog when somewhere just doesn’t quite live up to expectations. But while I can’t recommend it unreservedly (and I think 5 days is too long for most people), there are definitely some gems that are well worth seeking out. So here’s our 5 day itinerary, in the hopes that it might help you plan your own trip to Melbourne! My favourites are highlighted with a ★.
I’m Free Tour
After enjoying the Sydney version, we naturally chose to once again orientate ourselves with an I’m Free tour. The tour was fine but I found it far less compelling this time around – perhaps because the surroundings and the history under the spotlight just weren’t as appealing to me as the equivalent in Sydney.
State Library of Victoria
I adore libraries, so the State Library in Melbourne was a natural fit. The main draw for me was the La Trobe Reading Room, which can admired from varying heights as you climb the stairs at the back. I also enjoyed the Changing Face of Victoria exhibition on level 5 (Ned Kelly’s armour, on display here, is iconic to say the least).
City Circle Tram
The City Circle tram is completely free to ride and the service runs every 12 minutes or so between set hours, depending on the day. We rode the whole loop, taking the opportunity to sit back, relax and take in the different parts of the city alongside some useful commentary. Of course, this can also double as a practical way to get from A to B!
Fitzroy is a “hipster” area of Melbourne (or so I gather), with wall murals and some interesting shop fronts – a little like Camden in London. The streets have a run-down quality, which may be part of its charm for some but which I found kind of unpleasant. I ate here briefly but my experience was mixed: I had a lovely lunch from Radhey, but also a really disappointing breakfast at a spot I won’t mention. You win some you lose some, I guess!
One of the things Melbourne is most famous for is its laneways. I have to admit, I’m not sure I got the appeal. I’m all for quaint or unusual narrow streets lined with independent shops or cafés, but Degraves St – just off Flinders Street and connecting through to Flinders Lane, with the pretty Majorca Building at the end – seemed a little too much on the dark and dingy side for me. I much preferred the historic Block Arcade, below.
The Block Arcade is a heritage shopping arcade on Collins Street, just a short walk from Degraves Street. The ornate architecture, pretty mosaic tiling and the confection-filled façade of the Hopetoun Tea Rooms all blend to create an elegant and decadent impression.
(Sadly the Hopetoun cakes we tried didn’t taste anywhere near as good as they looked. Nor as good as you’d expect from the line out the door!)
★ Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI)
For anyone interested in film, TV, video games and other media, ACMI is a must-visit Melbourne destination! We were particularly keen to see the paid temporary exhibition on Scorsese (featuring scripts, costumes, photographs and other items from his oeuvre), but I liked it so much I actually returned the next day to see the permanent exhibition – a stroll through the timeline of media from the first moving images to the age of the Internet.
Ben and I feel an affinity with Captain Cook (leaving the North East of England to explore the Antipodes etc.). He seemed like such a significant figure in New Zealand and Australia that we imagined the best way to explain where we were from would be to say “the same area as Captain Cook”. Fun fact: everyone we’ve tried that on has responded with a blank look!
But I digress. Cooks’ Cottage, built by his parents, has followed a similar journey – travelling from its home in Great Ayton all the way to Australia in the 1930s, where it was reconstructed brick by brick. It’s now labelled the “oldest building in Australia”, though I find that a slightly misleading description! We decided against paying to go inside, but it was nice to see a fragment of the familiar in an unexpected location.
★ Shrine of Remembrance
I had envisioned the Shrine of Remembrance as a monument first and foremost, a building on an immense scale (it was modelled after the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus) to stand tribute to those who died in the world wars. It is a monument of course, but the superb set of war exhibitions in the crypt elevate it to so much more. Through poignant artifacts, written accounts and multimedia (documentary-style videos, photography and sound recordings/music), I felt a renewed sense of engagement with this period in history. We stayed until closing time perusing the exhibits and I came back a few days later to make sure I’d seen everything I wanted to! All free, too.
★ National Gallery of Victoria
I took a volunteer guided tour around to get my bearings before exploring the NGV alone, which I’d recommend. I found the layout of the galleries very atmospheric and well-tailored to the items that were on display, whether through a sense of scale, lighting or background music. If you’re a fellow lover of museums and galleries, the eclectic collection here makes for a very enjoyable way to while away a couple of hours.
St Patrick’s Cathedral
Even as a devout atheist I have a big appreciation for religious art and architecture. St Patrick’s Cathedral didn’t hold my attention for long, but its interior did look enchanting bathed in the golden light that streamed through the stained glass.
Old Treasury Building
Sadly I felt the Old Treasury Building was a missed opportunity. Perhaps I’m being too demanding – the museum is free, after all. There were some interesting objects and room displays (the gold display piqued my interest and I felt I got a good introduction to the history of the gold rush in Victoria). But many of the video exhibits/text panels were so slow/wordy that I found my attention wandering a little too often for my liking…
Continuing a bit of a theme here, we took a free tour to get ourselves acquainted with what the museum had to offer. Melbourne Museum covers a lot of ground and we found the galleries and exhibitions consistently high quality. Highlights for me included the Mind and Body gallery (for the insights into mental illness and the Ames Room), Science and Life (the bugs in particular!) and the Melbourne Gallery (including exhibits from domestic and public life through the ages and design work from some talented local students).
Royal Exhibition Building
I have mixed feelings about the Royal Exhibition Building. Its design and decor are pleasant and its scale impressive, so I was grateful to take a glimpse inside and learn more about its history and development (entry is by guided tour, booked from the Melbourne Museum). But it’s also stark and empty; unachieved potential hangs heavy in the air (I believe it’s used as an exam hall these days). Devoid of the grandeur and opulence it needs to measure up to its size, it felt like a skeleton in need of fleshing out and bringing to life.
We headed to St Kilda to see the Penguin Colony, taking a tram all the way to the Esplanade. We were a little confused by the lack of signage but by chance managed to muddle our way to the end of the pier, where the colony is. We visited at around 6.30-7pm and it was manned by ‘Penguin Guides’ with red light torches. They showed us where the penguins were and answered questions. When we returned after dinner (Sister of Soul – awesome veggie restaurant!) there were no guides anymore, but still people milling around looking for penguins.
There’s also a Luna Park here. I’m quite fond of the kitsch of fairgrounds, so we enjoyed wandering around and taking photos here too.
Over to you
Have you visited Melbourne? Did you enjoy it? Most people have such positive things to say about the city, I’m wondering what I missed!
P.S. my top things to do in Sydney!
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