The more I think about it, the more I think Melbourne has a lot in common with Wellington, my adopted home and one of the coolest cities I know…
What they lack in external beauty and impressiveness, they make up for with buckets of character – a laid back atmosphere, stellar cultural institutions and a dash of quirkiness.
Why am I sharing this? Because in the original version of this post I got a bit negative about Melbourne. And that doesn’t do justice to my memory of the city at all. I just had some high (probably unrealistic) expectations, and I found that reality didn’t match up in a few areas. And I originally wrote this article in that mindset.
But, as is so often the case, my experience was a balance, including plenty of areas where my expectations were totally exceeded. (The exhibitions at ACMI and the Shrine of Remembrance were world class, and I relished time spent people watching in Federation Square, meandering around the NGV or encountering little blue penguins in St Kilda.)
So without further ado, here’s how we spent five days in 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. While it wasn’t quite on a par with our experience in Sydney, it was still a great way to get our bearings on foot, check out some street art and pick up some interesting tidbits about the city.
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. Feeling tired after a day spent on our feet, 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!
We visited Curry Vault for dinner and were really pleased with the food and service. We still gush about the mozzarella and mashed potato naan to this day. So good!
I think it’s fair to call Fitzroy a “hipster” area of Melbourne. With its colourful wall murals, crumbling aesthetic and some interesting shop fronts I’d liken it to somewhere like Camden in London.
While I liked wandering around this area and admiring/photographing the grunginess, the one thing I was most interested in was the food – I’d heard great things. Sadly, my experience was mixed. I had a really poor breakfast experience at a spot I won’t mention, but luckily I was able to follow this up with a lovely vegetarian lunch at Radhey, which I can definitely recommend.
One of the things Melbourne is most famous for is its laneways. 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 – didn’t manage to capture my imagination in the way I expected. I found it a little on the dingy side.
To be fair, though, I didn’t give it much of a chance to impress. I only lingered for a short while and didn’t go inside any shops or cafés, preferring to head onwards to 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.
I browsed around a commercial gallery inside the arcade and joined the long line of people waiting to get a taste of something sugary from Hopetoun Tea Rooms. I actually found the cheesecake we had disappointing. Perhaps I just chose the wrong thing? Or maybe it was one of those situations where I expected too much based on appearances.
★ 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.
I feel a certain affinity with Captain Cook after leaving the North East of England to explore the Antipodes.
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”(!) While we decided against paying to go inside, I thought the exterior was pretty charming and it was wonderful 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 a lot of love and appreciation for religious art and architecture.
I found St Patrick’s Cathedral a very pleasant place to wander and admire, both inside and out. Its interior looked so magical bathed in the golden light streaming through the stained glass.
Old Treasury Building
This is a free museum, so I don’t want to be too harsh. Let’s just say that the Old Treasury Building wasn’t for me.
There were some interesting objects and room displays – the gold display, in particular, 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 or verbose that I found my attention drifting more than once.
The Melbourne Museum was more my kind of place! We took another free tour to get ourselves acquainted with what the museum had to offer, which I was grateful for. The museum is large and covers a lot of ground, but we found the galleries and exhibitions consistently high quality.
Highlights for me included:
- Mind and Body – for the insights into mental illness and the Ames Room, always a hit!
- Science and Life – the bugs in particular
- Melbourne Gallery – including exhibits from domestic and public life through the ages and design work from some talented local students
Royal Exhibition Building
The Royal Exhibition Building is such an interesting place. I was so impressed by its size and grand exterior – set in the lovely green surroundings of Carlton Gardens – that I knew I had to see the inside too if at all possible. I was delighted to find guided tours available, which we booked in person at the Melbourne Museum.
I’m so glad I got to glimpse inside and learn more about its history and development, but ultimately I found the emptiness of the space loomed very large, and left it feeling like a shell of what it could be. While the building does host exams and special events throughout the year, it seems like a such a missed opportunity to leave it so bare for large swathes of time.
We headed to St Kilda to see the Penguin Colony, taking a tram all the way to the Esplanade. We were a little bewildered 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, answered questions and ensured that visitors were considerate of the penguins and the area.
We grabbed dinner from Sister of Soul – amazing vegetarian restaurant! – and then took the opportunity to visit the St Kilda Luna Park. I love the kitsch of fairgrounds, so we rounded out the evening with a leisurely stroll around the park under the glowing lights of the rides and displays.
Over to you
Have you visited Melbourne? I’d love to hear your experiences and recommendations in the comments.
P.S. my top things to do in Sydney!
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