Comparisons between Sydney and Melbourne are inevitable. Especially for Glen Driver of Melbourne Private Tours, who’s lived in both cities. And even though he’s entranced by the Harbour City’s looks, Driver can’t go past the personality of Australia’s capital of cuisine, coffee and culture. “Melbourne is a city you need to experience – you need to eat it, drink it, see it, and just soak up the atmosphere,” Driver tells Culture Trip.
“Sydney is a beautiful city to look at – the harbour’s glorious, it’s got the Opera House and the bridge – but Melbourne, you need to go behind the scenes, get behind the closed doors, go inside the cafes and experience the atmosphere – whether it’s a gallery or a restaurant or a live band that you’re going to see. It’s a city that you experience things in.”
But what about visitors who only have limited time to immerse themselves in Melbourne’s legendary laneways, galleries, coffee shops and restaurants? One of Driver’s tours squeezes in plenty of highlights, tailored to guests’ tastes.
“Some people might like to spend as much time as possible in the actual CBD itself, exploring all the hole-in-the-wall cafes or the street art, the Yarra River precinct, the Queen Victoria Market,” he says. “Other people might be keen to see some areas like St Kilda or the more bohemian suburbs of Carlton and Collingwood.”
Though arguably two days in Australia’s coolest city isn’t nearly enough, here Driver reveals how to make the most of just 48 hours in Melbourne, from Fitzroy Gardens and Flinders Lane to Luna Park and Lune croissants.
Start day one in the centre of the city. While Sydney’s postcards show off the sparkling waterway at its heart, a snapshot of Melbourne captures grungy inner-city alleyways slathered in graffiti. Several laneways snaking through the CBD are an ever-evolving exhibition of Australia’s hottest street artists, and nearby, opulent Victorian-era shopping galleries like the Royal Arcades and the Block Arcade provide a glimpse into Victoria’s Gold Rush riches of the 19th Century.
“If I’m personally hosting a tour and I want to show someone what I think is classic Melbourne, I’ll definitely spend some time doing a bit of a laneway walk around the city,” Driver says. “You’ll see some of the famous street art in places like Hosier Lane, Duckboard Place and AC/DC Lane. I’ll definitely showcase places like Collins Street and the beautiful galleries like the Block Arcade and the Block Place.”
Elsewhere in the CBD, the Queen Victoria Market hums with foodies every day other than Monday and Wednesday, and those who overindulge can work off the calories with a walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens just south of the city centre.
“You could also [see] any of Melbourne’s beautiful gardens – the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Fitzroy Gardens and the Carlton Gardens are all absolutely stunning,” Driver says.
The art continues inside the four walls of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), perhaps the premier collection in the country. The international pieces are housed in a monolithic grey building not far up St Kilda Road from the Royal Botanic Gardens, while Australian artworks are displayed in the Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square, next door to the iconic Flinders Street Station. And they’re only two of Melbourne’s cultural institutions – art-lovers should also make room in their itinerary for Southbank’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Exhibition Street’s Tolarno Galleries, and Flinders Lane’s Anna Schwartz Gallery.
“There’s loads of galleries big and small, but the NGV is definitely the most famous one,” Driver says. “I’m a big fan of the Ian Potter Centre – they have some fantastic permanent displays of Australian artwork. And then the main NGV usually has two to three feature exhibitions that rotate throughout the year. They’re truly world-class. And then you have a number of really good galleries for indigenous art in the city as well. There’s also places like the Blender Studios, which is a street art co-operative, so a lot of local street artists will have their little studios in there.”
Melbourne’s menu is crowded with mouth-watering places to eat. But few areas are as drool-inducing as Gertrude Street in Fitzroy for dinner and drinks. By day, queues snake along Rose Street for a taste of Lune croissants, anointed the world’s best by the New York Times. And by night, Melbourne’s trendies fill the Naked in the Sky rooftop for a cocktail before strolling down Brunswick and Gertrude Streets for a meal. The 3065 postcode has a reputation for being Melbourne’s hipster hub for a reason.
“There’s some really great places along Gertrude Street in Fitzroy – you’ve got ones like Marion and Cutler and Co,” Driver says. “It’s a little bit out of the city but it’s walkable from the CBD, and there’s some great options, both really fine dining and also mid-range dining and low-cost dining. And just around the corner from Gertrude Street you have Smith Street, Collingwood, which has some fantastic dining options too.”
If the city of Melbourne has one obsession that eclipses its love of Australian rules football, it’s an addiction to caffeine. And the city centre is plastered with places where Melburnians get their fix every morning. Visitors should spend one morning joining them at Patricia on Little Bourke Street, Traveller on Crossley Street, Axil on Flinders Lane, as well as Driver’s top picks.
“I’ll visit different places with different guests, because there’s just so many to try, and they’re all good,” he says. “There’s Brother Baba Budan, there’s a really good one called Dukes Coffee Roasters, there’s an amazing new one called Liminal – there’s just dozens of them.”
Just across Flinders Lane from specialty coffee stand-out Dukes, Brunetti is a Melbourne institution owned by the Angelé family since 1991.
“People from all walks of life – locals, corporates, tourists, everyone – goes there and it’s a real melting pot of culture in Melbourne,” Driver explains. “It’s just such a fantastic place to go. There’s amazing cakes and coffee. It’s loud. It’s busy. It’s open at eight o’clock in the morning and it’s open until the early hours of the morning. It’s definitely worth checking out.”
Sure, St Kilda isn’t as easy on the eye as Sydney’s sparkling beaches. But this bayside borough oozes character all of its own. Hop on the number 16 or 96 tram from the city centre to reach the smiling face of Luna Park that greets visitors to this historic seaside suburb. The legendary Monarch Cakes – an Acland Street icon since 1934 – hints at St Kilda’s Eastern European heritage, while the Palais Theatre and the revamped Prince Hotel are throwbacks to the neighbourhood’s days as Melbourne’s red-light district. Visit in the afternoon to witness the little penguins returning to the St Kilda Pier each day at dusk.
“Somewhere that’s quite distinctly Melbourne is the bayside suburb of St Kilda,” Driver explains. “Some people say it’s Melbourne’s version of Bondi, but it’s actually very different. There’s a lot of history and culture ranging from post-war migrants to the area – there’s a lot of Jewish culture in the area. Now it’s an amazing playground for backpackers and [people with] working holiday visas, and it’s also really diverse, so it’s a great little pocket of Melbourne to visit.”
In Melbourne’s early days, Flinders Lane was the epicentre of the city’s clothing industry. Since the turn of the millennium, though, this stretch in the east end of the CBD has traded textiles for tucker, becoming the undisputed capital of Melbourne’s thriving food scene. The walk from Spring Street to Elizabeth Street is wall-to-wall restaurants helmed by Australia’s most inventive chefs, making Flinders Lane a compulsory final stop for dinner to end this whirlwind two-day itinerary.
“The real heartbeat of the city is definitely Flinders Lane, in terms of dining hot spots,” Driver says. “They’re changing all the time. Within the last 15 years, it’s really taken off, and now there’s a lot of established chefs who’ll open a restaurant and then give it a change and re-open again. There’s so many – the most famous chef is probably Andrew McConnell. He has Supernormal down one end of Flinders Lane and then he has Cumulus Inc down the other end. He’s also got Cutler and Co on Gertrude Street as well. There are loads. There’s Kisumé. There’s Coda. There’s Tonka. There’s Pastuso. There’s Cecconi’s. Loads.”
This is an updated version of a story created by Joe Coates.