When American John O’Sullivan was a tour guide in Europe, he kept hearing Australians parrot this one myth. It wasn’t until he moved to Melbourne in 2016 that he realised it was a lie.
“I would hear the same thing again and again: ‘It’s so nice to be in a place that has culture and history, we don’t have that in Australia’,” O’Sullivan tells Culture Trip. “Then when I came to Melbourne, I found that it couldn’t be further from the truth, because Melbourne’s absolutely filled with more culture and more interesting history than you could possibly imagine.”
Nowhere is Melbourne’s character more vibrant than its Central Business District, an area bordered by Flinders, Spencer, Victoria and Spring Streets in the heart of the city. The Victorian capital doesn’t enjoy as much sunshine as the rest of Australia – Sydney-siders give Melbourne the unkind nickname Bleak City – but the odd shower fails to dampen O’Sullivan’s passion for his adopted home.
“In my experience, bad weather breeds good culture – that’s so true in Melbourne,” says the Minneapolis native, who also lived across the UK and Ireland for eight years. “One of my favourite quotes about Melbourne is by the comedian Barry Humphries, better known as Dame Edna Everage, and he considers himself ‘Not Australian, but Melburnian’, because there’s something different about what Melbourne has. It’s unique to any other part of Australia.”
When O’Sullivan moved to Melbourne with his Australian wife in 2016, he was surprised to learn free walking tours hadn’t saturated the city like they had Europe. So he set up his own company, Walks 101, which quickly became the biggest and top-rated walking tour in Melbourne. His top piece of advice for visitors? Get lost.
“The biggest thing that people need to know is that Melbourne is a city of laneways,” O’Sullivan says. “If you’re on a main street, you’re doing Melbourne wrong. You need to explore the small little laneways where you find some of the best street art in the world, amazing hidden bars, world-class restaurants and all sorts of unexpected things.”
The CBD contains most of Melbourne’s postcard attractions – Flinders Street Station, Federation Square and St Paul’s Cathedral on the corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets, as well as the glamorous Victorian-era Royal and Block Arcades for shopaholics, plus the Old Treasury Building and the Old Melbourne Gaol for history buffs.
O’Sullivan’s favourite is the State Library of Victoria, specifically, the six-storey reading room with natural light that floods through the octagonal atrium. “Ask for directions to get there; you need to go up a staircase, then you’re greeted with one of the best places to get lost in a book you could possibly imagine.”
The city centre’s most photographed attraction, though, is the dazzling street art that wallpapers Melbourne’s iconic alleyways. Hosier Lane is the most famous (and crowded) – Ed Sheeran even used the graffiti-caked walls as his backdrop for a pop-up gig in 2018 – but Duckboard Place and AC/DC Lane around the corner are a little more off the beaten track. Head to the visitor centre in Swanston Street’s Town Hall to grab a map for a self-guided tour of Melbourne’s hottest street art locations.
“One of the unique things about laneways is that they are ever-changing… the best laneways change with which artworks are in them,” says O’Sullivan, who particularly loves the framed frescoes and 3D murals on Presgrave Place. “It’s almost like you’re in an art gallery, but you’re outside.”
Melbourne’s CBD isn’t huge, it takes about half an hour to walk from one corner to the other – without getting sucked into any laneways along the way – but the public transport is excellent. Melbourne’s tram system dates all the way back to 1885, and the No.35 City Circle service – a loop of the CBD’s top attractions in a vintage W-class carriage – is a nod to that heritage. That service is free, and so is every tram within the bounds of the city centre.
“You can take literally any tram and go to a wealth of free museums,” says O’Sullivan, who recommends the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), the Ian Potter Centre, the ANZ Banking Museum and the Koori Heritage Trust. “All those museums don’t cost a dime, and they’re wonderful ways to learn about the city, especially in a place where the weather can be a bit more unpredictable.”
Melbourne’s CBD sat at the epicentre of third-wave coffee as it washed over Australia, pioneered by places like Brother Baba Budan – the tiny venue that’s been blazing a trail on Little Bourke Street since 2003. Budan’s sister café, Traveller, which also serves beans from eminent Carlton roastery Seven Seeds, as well as Patricia on Little William Street and Dukes on Flinders Lane, are other speciality coffee hotspots worthy of a visit.
John O’Sullivan has two favourite cafés. One is Chapter House in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, where husband-and-wife ownership team Jo and Peter are often the friendly faces behind the coffee machine. The other is Jungle Juice, a Centre Place institution before it was cool.
“Any time any international media broadcasts from Melbourne, they go to Centre Place, which is that classic grungy laneway,” O’Sullivan explains. “But before it was filled with cafés, there was only one: Jungle Juice, by a proprietor called Marcus McNamara, who is a local legend around here. Both these places are the perfect embodiment of the friendly neighbourhood quality that Melbourne has.”
Melbourne is a coffee Mecca, so O’Sullivan’s only other piece of advice – or rather, his strict instruction – is simple. “You’re not allowed to go to Starbucks. If you want to see a bunch of tourists, go to Starbucks – locals don’t go there.”
Melbourne’s thriving coffee culture means there’s no shortage of places for brunch – The Hardware Société on Katherine Place is one standout. And there’s a long list of lunch spots around the CBD, too, including New York-style diner Bowery To Williamsburg, the cathedral-like Higher Ground, and no-frills burger bar Butchers Diner.
“It’s rare for restaurants to last more than a couple of years because of the intensely competitive nature of it, which means that it’s almost a travel guide-proof city – it changes so often,” O’Sullivan says. “Just wander the laneways and don’t be afraid to go into an unmarked door, because there are lots of unmarked doors that actually hide great restaurants and bars behind them.”
For dinner, revered Cantonese institution Flower Drum, cutting-edge Italian restaurant Di Stasio Citta, Asian favourite Chin Chin and wine bar Embla are among Australia’s most respected eateries. But at the cheaper end of the scale, the dozens of dumpling joints like ShanDong MaMa in Chinatown and the farm-fresh Queen Victoria Market dish up delicious meals on a budget.
“Most people go to the Queen Victoria Market, you should particularly go on a Wednesday night for the night markets there,” says O’Sullivan, who also suggests catching the No.1 tram from Swanston Street to South Melbourne Market to rub shoulders with the locals. “You can eat fresh oysters right at both markets, I always tell people to compare the two.”
Laneways are also the site of the CBD’s best nightlife. Bar Americano is a postage-stamp-sized, standing-room-only venue hidden on Presgrave Place; Eau de Vie is a time machine back to the Prohibition Era on Malthouse Lane, and Union Electric links Heffernan Lane with one of Melbourne’s most atmospheric rooftop bars.
Like restaurants, Melbourne’s after-dark scene changes so rapidly that O’Sullivan also guides an ever-evolving tour of the city’s hidden bars, stopping for a drink at a moving roster of four different watering holes. One permanent fixture, though, is Beneath Driver Lane, an underground blues bar that pours what O’Sullivan anoints the best cocktails he’s ever tasted, as well as fresh oysters served with a pipette of Laphroaig whisky.
“They have cocktails that are on fire, they use liquid nitrogen to make some of the cocktails, but they don’t just rely on that like a lot of showy cocktail bars do,” he says. “They have great banter, they have great staff that will have a chat with you, they have live blues music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, and they have great food.”