I’m an American who immigrated to Melbourne in 1972, before Australia became the new “it” destination. Most tourists to Australia visit Sydney, but rarely take the 900-kilometer (500 mile) journey south to Melbourne. It’s a pity.
There’s a rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. Sydney-siders see themselves as sophisticated, “fast laners,” whereas Melburnians are more laid back and openly friendly.
Melburnians are sports mad, and they religiously follow “Aussie Rules Football,” which originated in Melbourne. If you’re an American tourist, they’ll chide you that Grid Iron, what Aussies call American football, is for ‘wusses.’ The Aussie footy players wear none of the protective gear, but get out there in tight shorts and a T- shirt, nothing getting in the way of bashing the hell out of each other.
This is not to say that Melbournians are uncultured; they are also devoted to the arts. Near the heart of the city, there’s a cultural art/theatre/concert hall complex and renovated National Gallery of Victoria. A new aquarium and museum have just opened up in the city.
During the Melbourne Festival each October, the city is lit up and vibrant at night, crowded with people flocking to see the performing groups. In March, Melbourne hosts the Comedy Festival, which attracts both local and international talent at different venues. I’ve enjoyed many anarchic comedians with names like the “Umbilical Brothers” and “A Dog’s Breakfast.”
The food in Melbourne has improved over the last 30 years. When we first came to Australia, the average diet was rather bland. In the 60’s and 70’s, Greek and Italian immigrants battled to educate Aussie palates; as a result, garlic and spices became acceptable ingredients of Australian food.
Now you can get just about any ethnic food: Greek, Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysian, Indian, Mexican, French and Chinese, and more.
The move towards multiculturalism in Melbourne is never more evident than in the Queen Victoria Market, on the northern edge of downtown. You can start the day with a wander through this large open-air market, a feast for the senses with pyramids of exotic fruit and vegetables, seafood and meats.
Pungent smells of fresh fish, ripe cantaloupe and spicy sausages fill the air. You can also get some real buys in leather goods, such as Australian souvenirs and Akubra hats, if you’re willing to do some lighthearted bargaining with the multilingual stall holders.
A 10-minute walk from the market brings you to the Yarra River that runs through Melbourne. Sydney-siders may brag that they have the Sydney Harbor, but Melbourne has the Yarra, a languorous river that meanders its way down from the Great Dividing Ranges.
At the heart of the city is a famous landmark: Flinders Street Train Station. Built in 1910, with its large copper dome and soft-brown stone façade, it looks almost Middle-Eastern in style.
Midday, the city bristles with the sounds from the traffic, seagulls squawking, the clanging bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Melbourne trams. The trams are a Melbourne icon and are a convenient way to get around the city without blistering your feet. There is even a special tourist tram car you catch at Flinders Street station for a free guided tour of the city landmarks.
One of the buildings houses the Moving Images Centre, where you can experience interactive archival and contemporary film projected on the walls. The complex also includes a visitors’ centre, a Japanese restaurant, art galleries and commercial offices.
Across the bridge and down to the river’s edge is Southgate, a complex of specialty craft and clothing shops, as well as cafes and restaurants. Drinking a cappuccino at one of the outdoor cafes, listening to some buskers playing “Flutes of the Andes,” and watching the tourist boats steaming up the Yarra is my idea of heaven.
Farther south is one of the oldest, most popular parks around Melbourne: the Royal Botanical Gardens. The RBG have an extensive collection of plants and trees gathered by international explorers. The ornamental lake in the centre of the park attracts picnickers who like to feed the swans, ducks and eels inhabiting the lake.
A fascinating but controversial feature of the park is the flying fox population, of over more than 30,000. They hang like chattering fig-like creatures upside down on branches of the tall trees. When they take to the air en masse, their black silken wings blot out the sky.
On the outer perimeter of the Melbourne, there are also numerous bike tracks. If you’re on foot, you can catch a tram near the park on St Kilda road to the bayside suburbs, and hire a bicycle to ride on the bike path, running along Port Philip Bay.
Three-storey Art Deco houses overlook the track and the millpond-like bay dotted with sailboats. The city skyline in the distance emerges from the mist as you pass by the kite fliers and ‘kickboarders’ taking advantage of the coastal breezes.
On sunny weekends, the track is crowded with young male skaters stripped to the waist, showing off their washboard chests, families push baby strollers, and wobbly Japanese tourists on rented skates and bicycles struggle to keep upright.
You can end your bike ride at the old inner city suburb of St Kilda. This area used to preserve of predominantly Russian and Jewish immigrants in the daytime, drug slingers and prostitutes at night – all seeking freedom from violence, to get a chance of happiness through the broad avenues and large rambling Art Deco buildings.
These groups have been partly replaced by young, upwardly mobile singles, attracted by the availability of apartment units, swimming beaches, and the bohemian ambiance.
Asian style restaurants and book stores mix with the outdoor cafes of this area, including vegetarian restaurants and fringe theatres. Exhausted cyclists can finish the day by indulging in one of the luscious continental cakes “to die for” that are on display in shop windows.
Down on the beach, you can also spend the afternoon watching the sun go down, as the city lights reflect in the ocean. And overall, St Kilda mirrors the vitality and ethnic mix of the inner city.
You may choose to return to the heart of the city to visit the nightclubs, discos, and theatres, as well as the many cinemas and the towering Crown Casino that overlooks the Yarra. The cosmopolitan, yet homely, nature and laid-back friendliness of the people make Melbourne the most livable – loveable city.
If You Go
https://melbourne.citysearch.com.au (CitySearch Melbourne—best online guide to Melbourne, links to events, dining, accommodation, highlights, car rentals, maps )