From our archives, this article first appeared January 14, 2014
If you’ve arrived in Melbourne determined to observe good traveller’s etiquette by not comparing it to Sydney, that’s sweet. Just wait 10 minutes and the local media will do it for you. Among the many things this chic, arts-loving Australian city has that Sydney doesn’t is a serious second-fiddle chip on its shoulder. But it’s a one-way rivalry. In fact, many Sydneysiders will find any excuse to wing their way south, and so should you.
Being the “second child” means Melbourne just tries harder, and it shows in the smorgasbord of major events staged in the city all year round. The Australian Open, Australia’s Grand Prix, and many of the country’s major theatre and arts openings all make their home here. The Melbourne Museum is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, with seven permanent galleries, a children’s gallery and a gallery for temporary exhibits.
Nestled below what looks like the bastard child of a tutu and the Eiffel Tower (no really, these supposedly were its original inspirations), the Arts Centre boasts four major performance spaces and one of the world’s largest stages, in its State Theatre. The expanded capacity allows it to host productions out of a certain Sydney icon’s reach, including the complete Ring Cycle in 2013.
Comparatively low rents and an appetite for bold ideas have repaid Melbourne with Australia’s liveliest cultural scene. It’s also not afraid to adopt a grungier spin on creativity, standing alongside Berlin and New York as one of the world’s graffiti and street-art capitals. Okay, Prague it’s not, but as modern cities go, the narrow laneways of Melbourne’s inner city are some of the world’s most enjoyable in which to get lost. Spend your morning surrounded by cafés, boutiques and street art, while dozens of hosts invite you to enjoy the city’s “best brunch.”
Some important notes on coffee: a proper flat white is an essential part of any visit. This is basically a smoother, stronger form of latte, and with all respect to the North American baristas who’ve tried, Melbourne really is the best place to sample Australia’s signature coffee. Don’t waste your time looking for a Starbucks (only six remain in Victoria) and don’t ask for percolated drip coffee. You’re at the heart of an espresso-loving nation now, and locals will argue fiercely over where to get the perfect cup.
Cabaret fans will also find an edgier and, yes, sexier scene than anywhere else in Australia. All through late June, the Melbourne Cabaret Festival takes over the city and surrounding suburbs, with Australian and international acts ranging from burlesque to Broadway. It’s the second largest festival of its kind in the world (the largest is in South Australia’s capital, Adelaide). It’s also held in June, if you fancy a quick jaunt west (and if you’re a wine snob, you’ll want to visit anyway).
Melbourne’s Midsumma festival easily rivals Sydney’s Mardi Gras in its diversity and range of offerings. Held in late January, it coincides roughly with the Australian Open, so don’t expect hotel rooms to be a bargain. The upside of this is seeing Melbourne at its most vibrant while enjoying all its diverse LGBT community has to offer.
The 2014 festival began with the outdoor Carnival, on Jan 12, where more than 130 stalls, sporting and community organizations, along with a popular dog show, bring together more than 100,000 locals and visitors. The festival will end with Melbourne showing off its activist side on Feb 2. Expect Australia’s ongoing push for marriage equality to be a raw topic at this year’s annual Pride March Victoria.
Pack carefully. Melbourne officials famously penned the cliché “four seasons in one day” to describe their city’s weather, and they weren’t exaggerating. A mostly cool yet unpredictable spring lasts right into December before switching suddenly to a hot, dry summer that lasts until March. Winters are chilly and grey, but temperatures rarely drop below freezing.
Car rental is completely unnecessary if you don’t plan on leaving the city; all the main sights are a short walk or tram ride from the central business district. If you do have wheels, Phillip Island is a leisurely day trip, or for those with extra time, the Great Ocean Road makes a spectacular two-day drive to Adelaide.