Australia’s perennial “second” city, Melbourne usually plays second fiddle to larger Sydney, whose picturesque harbor, bridge and Opera House (its having hosted the 2000 Olympic Games notwithstanding) have made it the country’s de-facto representative on the world stage.
Melbourne might not be as massive, well-known or as in-your-face beautiful as Sydney, but the city is without a doubt Australia’s capital of cool. Colorful, hip and in spots downright futuristic, Melbourne should be at the top of every Australia traveler’s itinerary. Here’s a preview of what you can expect to find there.
You’ll quickly learn upon visiting Australia that a city’s central business district or “CBD” area is far from the “place to be,” particularly at night. Melbourne is perhaps more than any other Australian city an exception to this rule, if only for the juxtaposition of colonial architecture with some of the most modern skyscrapers on the planet.
If you don’t happen to be feeling the CBD, hop on any tram labeled “86 – Bundoora/RMIT” and ask the driver to notify you when you’ve arrived in Smith Street. Smith Street is the hip main artery of super-cool Fitzroy, the arguable coolest of Melbourne’s many cool neighborhoods. Although the avenue is dotted with awesome bars and restaurants — my personal favorite is Huxtaburger, a burger grill themed to “The Cosby Show” — you can opt to simply stroll along Smith Street and let the hipness wash over you.
Once you’ve had your fill of Smith Street, which defines the eastern border of Fitzroy, head west toward Brunswick Street, the moon to Smith Street’s sun. Although incredible street art is also present on Smith Street, I find Brunswick’s to be more colorful, nuanced and funky, as the café scene above illustrates.
Sydneysiders who diss Melbourne often use the fact that city doesn’t have a harbor to bolster their feelings of superiority, but they often neglect the fact the Melbourne does, in fact, have beaches. Is the capital of Victoria home to any coastline as pristine and beautiful as those you find in Sydney’s Bondi, Coogee or Manley neighborhoods? Absolutely not. But in true funky Melbourne fashion, the colorful bathing boxes in suburban Brighton more than make up for the less-than-surfworthy sea.
Brighton is located just 15 minutes from Flinders Street Station by train, which means that you can take in stunning skyline views as you soak up the sun, which admittedly shines only fleetingly during even the hottest part of the city’s summer. Brighton is also located in close proximity to St. Kilda, another interesting coastal suburb, whose historic Chapel Street becomes one of the city’s hottest spots as soon as night falls.
Heading back to Melbourne’s CBD for a second, do make sure and at least walk through Federation Square when you visit the city. In addition to the fact that the square offers incredible skyline views, particularly at night, you’ll find awesome dining, bars and even the helpful tourist information booth located in close proximity to it.
Looking for a unique place to spend a night out? Walk or take a cab to Melbourne’s Chinatown, then ask any local where you can find Croft Alley, which is hard to spot if you don’t know where to look. If the street art that papers most of the alley’s walls isn’t bizarre enough, what you find at its dead end should positively freak you out. The Croft Institute was, well, a mental institution in the 1950s and although it’s a trendy bar now, relics of the tests that went on there half a century ago will creep you out, particularly if you’re there early, when the bar is nearly empty.
Of course, Melbourne is also home to its share of “normal” bars. Remember Gertrude Street in Fitzroy, lined with boutiques, hairstylists and coffee shops? Many of the places where you’d enjoy a “flat white” or “long black” during the day convert into busy bars and pubs by night, so if you want to throw back a few — but don’t want to risk being haunted by the ghosts of psychiatric torture victims — head on up to Gertrude Street, join a table with empty chairs and start a conversation with a hipster.