I am fascinated by cities. Visiting a new city excites and inspires me and gets all my senses firing. Of course a tropical holiday is *dreamy*, but a holiday spent in a new city has the capacity to get under your skin, to give you new ideas and to get your creativity flowing.
I love the energy and the constant buzz. I love the mirrored windows of sky scrapers towering above the clouds. And the intricate facades of buildings left over from the 20’s and 30’s sandwiched between them. I love eating at the famous restaurants I read about online. And finding the little hidden coffee shops that only a handful of locals know about. Drinking cocktails at cafes that spill onto busy sidewalks. Learning about the social climate; what people are thinking and feeling, from the colourful splashes of street art that decorate alleyways and buildings. Discovering the heritage of locals through the flavours of their food.
I visited Melbourne over December and fell head-over-heels in love with the city. It’s basically the benchmark for city exploration. It’s modern, beautiful, well maintained, diverse and pretty much heaven for anyone with an appetite. The city centre is easy to get around and relatively small, while each suburb has it’s own catalogue of great restaurants, bars and coffee shops. It’s flooded with faces and languages from all over the world; the flavours reflected on the plates of the thousands of restaurants that tempt passers by with their smells.
Australia isn’t exactly the easiest place for South Africans to visit. Flights are expensive, it’s extremely far if you can’t get a seat on a direct flight, the visas are pricey and with the Rand/Aus Dollar exchange rate looking bleaker than ever, Melbourne is likely to break the bank. Think R120 for a beer, at least R45 for a coffee (peaking at R80) and around R300 for breakfast. We just made a point not to convert and to enjoy the holiday without clutching our purse strings and you know, not doing anything.
In fact, we went all out. Full tourist. No cost was spared. No cocktail went unordered. We didn’t spend a single day at home and with my sister Jonti and her Melbournian fiancé Nick as our guides, I think we got to see more of Melbourne than some locals see in a year. If you’re planning a visit in the future, I hope you find my guide useful.
My Melbourne City Guide
The city centre is a great place to start, but don’t get stuck there or you’ll miss out on all gems in the suburbs. I used Broadsheet Melbourne and The Urban List throughout my trip for ideas on where to eat and explore, so bookmark these sites. Prepare to spend $$$. Get yourself a Myki card for public transport and always carry something warm – if you think the Cape Town weather is crazy, just wait till you experience Melbourne.
What to do in Melbourne
1. Learn about the culture
We checked out the Melbourne Museum and spent a lot of time at the First Peoples exhibition. I really enjoyed it and it gave me some great insights into the history of Australia. There’s also a huge Italian and Asian population, along with the Aussies, so there’s a lot to explore culturally. My sister’s fiancé is Italian, so we spent some time on Lygon Street, which is a bit like Little Italy.
2. Ride the city
We were going to jump on the CitySightseeing red bus, but tickets cost $34 and the bus stopped at all the key places we could see from the seat of the Melbourne Bike Share bikes which are available all over the city. These bikes are super cool and give you way more freedom to stop where you like and cruise along the Soutbank and Docklands neighbourhoods. They’re also much cheaper at $3 per day, and you’ll need to dock the bike at one of the ports around the city every 30 mins, which is less efforts than it sounds. They’ve even got an app you can use to find the nearest docking station. This was one of my favourite things we did in the city.
3. Check out the street art
Hosier Lane is Melbourne’s street art hotspot and is worth a visit. It makes for some great photos. It’s near the city centre, close enough to walk to on a “city day”. There are a few cool bars around the area that I would have loved to check out if we’d had the time.
4. Visit Welcome to Thornbury
A food truck park with a large permanent bar and a collection of the best looking people in Melbourne. What’s not to love about Welcome to Thornbury? While you’re there, do not resist a Mr Burger.
5. Rooftop Bar Hopping
Rooftop bars are a big thing in Melbourne and there are lots to choose from. We visited Campari House and Loop Roof (where we spent New Year’s Eve). My conclusion is that most bars should be on rooftops and I wish we had several more in Cape Town.
6. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day
I dragged my family all over the city to visit various breakfast spots and learned quickly that you either need to book a table or arrive really early. We arrived at cult restaurant Top Paddock on a public holiday and were about 50th in line. We eventually went back at 8am on a work day and immediately realised what the fuss was about. I had the eggs benedict with pork cheek and pressed apple and an excellent coffee. The moral of the story: Early bird gets a table at Melbourne’s most famous breakfast spot. In the suburbs, Mister Hoffman serves good coffee and has a beautiful little courtyard where you can enjoy the avo toast Melbournians are so obsessed with.
7. Pork Buns
Sure, you’ve had pork buns before. But have you had pork buns in *Melbourne*? With its huge Asian population, the city is brimming with Asian fusion restaurants and specifically, delicious pork buns. Kong BBQ, Rice Paper Scissors, Rice Queen…we ate a lot of pork buns on this trip and I still drool at the thought of them. Restaurants are busy every night, so book ahead.
8. Skip the Moonlit Sanctuary
Unless you have kids, maybe. We drove out to Moonlight Sanctuary to see Australian wildlife and found a large patch of dry grass, a couple of wallabies and a queue of tourists paying $15 each to “cuddle” a poor Koala in 40 degree heat. For me, it wasn’t really worth it and to be honest, I just felt sorry for the animals.
9. Gelato MANIA
I’ve never seen more gelato shops in my life. Granted, I’ve never been to Italy, but Melbourne is Gelato mad. Every neighbourhood, every suburb, every street has a collection of gelato shops ranging from basic to nightclub-esque. N2 Extreme freezes your ice cream with liquid nitrogen as you order (read about it on their website, it’s worth the read) and covers it in whipped cream before sticking a syringe of sweetness into it. Gelato Messina has a heaving crowd spilling out onto the pavement as dimmed lights and thumping music lead the unsuspecting passers by (me) to believe they’ve stumbled across a pretty good nightclub -this was at 11pm, after all. Queues line the sidewalks at all hours of the day at various gelato bars and I can’t tell you how this fascinated me.
10. See the city from the sky
We decided on a whim to board a sea plane and see Melbourne from the sky and I’m so glad that we did. It was breathtakingly beautiful and a really once in a lifetime experience. At 120AUD per person for 20 minutes, it wasn’t cheap, but it’s one of those things you really don’t regret spending money on.
11. Melbourne from the water
We rented a boat for the afternoon and cruised from the harbour to St. Kilda beach, where we swam and jumped off the boat into the water. It was a really great afternoon and I felt like Beyoné and if you’re travelling in a group, I highly recommend it. We used Pleasure Cruising Melbourne, who were great. Again, it was one of the more expensive things we did while we were there, but man, was it memorable.
12. The Coffee Scene
Melbourne has a much talked about coffee scene and after visiting I can see why. We didn’t have a single bad coffee in the whole damn city. In fact, McDonalds apparently launched a nation wide campaign to improve their own coffee, employing and training baristas and are now serving some pretty good $1 brews. My favourite was in a small hole-in-the-wall in the city, recommended by Melbourne local turned Cape Town bar scene disruptor, Luke Whearty of Cape Town’s Outrage of Modesty; Brother Baba Budan makes a really excellent latté. But to be honest, you’d be hard pressed to find an unimpressive coffee.
13. Visit the Yarra Valley
For a wine lover like me, a visit to the Yarra Valley was a must. We went with Chill Out Tours and stopped at Domaine Chandon, Train Trak Vineyard and Zonzo, Yering Station and De Bortoli. You can read more about the tour, which costs 123AUD per person on their website.
14. Don’t skip the Twelve Apostles
It really is worth driving out to see the Twelve Apostles. My favourite part of the trip was getting lost and doing a wine tasting at a farm in the middle of nowhere. And also the insanely beautiful beach at Loch Ard Gorge.
There’s so much more to Melbourne than coffee and bicycles, but it’s a good place to start. I only spent two weeks getting to know this city and trying to uncover all it’s layers and hidden gems and I’d love to go back for more. If you’d like to see more about our trip, check out the pictures I shared and locations I tagged on my Instagram account.