Melbourne may appear gritty at first glance, but it continually ranks as one of the world’s most livable cities. The profusion of graffiti is mostly confined to a few specific zones where artists are legally able to demonstrate their skills and enhance Melbourne’s creative vibe. Green spaces and cultural attractions abound, and FREE trams in the city center make exploring them a breeze. Given how easy it is to get around, I was able to see quite a lot during my two days in Melbourne.
Much of Melbourne’s charm lies in its laneways (or alleyways, depending on where you’re from) and I dedicated my first day to wandering down as many as possible. Melbourne has over 40 laneways, so this is no small task. The most famous is probably Hosier Lane, the epicenter of street art in Melbourne. Seemingly every inch of brick is covered with colorful murals and graffiti tags several layers deep. (Don’t go expecting to find a particular piece, it’s likely been painted over already.) I found several artists at work in the narrow lane and a never-ending stream of tourists – many of whom were taking their sweet time perfecting their poses. The situation was moderately better on Rutledge Lane, a grungy little cul-de-sac off Hosier.
Nearby AC/DC Lane affords more breathing room and less clutter between murals. It’s named after the Aussie rock group that gained international fame during the ’70s and ’80s and is home to Cherry Bar, one of the city’s top live music venues. Venture around the corner to find the impressive Duckboard Graffiti Walls.
Join the queue for lunch at Chin Chin on Flinders Lane. The chef’s Asian fusion dishes are absolutely worth standing in line for! Highlights include zesty kingfish sashimi, light-as-air fried squid, and mouthwatering Wagyu beef rendang. If you don’t feel like waiting outside on the pavement, add your name to the list and head downstairs for a cocktail at the bar.
Get a breath of fresh air after lunch with a stroll along the Yarra River. To get there, cross Princes Bridge next to Flinders Street Station, both iconic Melbourne landmarks. I’ve been told the riverside bars are a great place to while away an afternoon, but I had more laneways to explore.
Degraves Street is hung with eye-catching signs advertising an array of tempting cafes and bars. This cute lane empties out adjacent to Centre Place, a narrow flue crowded with more divey-looking establishments. The phrase “grunge-chic” came to mind, since the cobblestones were swept fairly clean despite the seeming chaos.
Elegant European-style covered shopping arcades provide a striking contrast to the paint-scrawled laneways. The Block Arcade looks like it’s been transported from the streets of London! This is an excellent place to pick up gifts, and Haighs Chocolates gives out free samples should you need an afternoon pick-me-up.
The older and more colorful Royal Arcade is located just across the street. Be sure to look up from the checker-board floor to see the whimsical Gog and Magog statues that have been ringing their bells every hour since the 1890s.
I ended up on Hardware Lane, where I met a Melburnian friend at Kirk’s Wine Bar, her favorite local hangout. Even though the place was fully packed, a waiter deftly found a spot for us at an outdoor table. We nibbled on scrumptious polenta sticks and sipped wine while taking in the scene. From there we hoped to have similar luck squeezing in at a particularly hot eatery, but it wasn’t meant to be. Instead, the hostess directed us next door to Osteria Ilaria. What a fabulous surprise that turned out to be! Ilaria’s modern Italian menu featured such gems as porcini mushroom croquettes, stuffed squash blossoms, and grilled calamari.
My friend recommended we end the night with a bang at Dex2Rose Nitrogen Gelato. The mind-boggling concoctions are made with liquid nitrogen, a slightly dangerous chemical that freezes things on contact. To complete the laboratory ambiance, many of the desserts are served with sauce in a plastic syringe for you to inject. My syringe was filled with Nutella ganache. It’s a mad, mad delicious world!
Day two was spent exploring some of Melbourne’s most significant cultural landmarks. First among them is Queen Victoria Market, which has been in continual operation since 1878. The beloved “Queen Vic” is made up of several hundred vendors spread across multiple halls. My favorite is the Dairy Hall, a heritage red-brick building bursting with ready-to-eat delicacies from around the globe. I put together a picnic of bread, cheese, and antipasto to enjoy at one of the tables in the courtyard outside. Many other folks had the same idea, so it’s best to go before the lunchtime rush. And if you are there on a weekend, don’t miss the specialty craft stalls of “String Bean Alley!”
State Library Victoria was opened in 1854, making it the oldest public library in Australia. The founders wanted a place where citizens could have free access to information to better themselves and their community. The library also serves as a public museum with a vast collection of historic artifacts on display. Two of the more interesting pieces are the suit of armor and death mask of Ned Kelly, a notorious bank robber and outlaw. The free exhibit is located in the Dome Galleries which overlook the stunning La Trobe Reading Room.
I marked a milestone in Melbourne with my 100th UNESCO World Heritage Site – the Royal Exhibition Buildings and Carlton Gardens. Built for the Melbourne World’s Fair in 1880, it’s the oldest surviving structure of its kind in the world. Many events are still held here, from trade fairs and expos to Melbourne’s annual Oktoberfest celebration. The surrounding Carlton Gardens are laid out much as they were at their inception, with a wide avenue leading up to formal flower beds and an ornately carved fountain.
St Patrick’s Cathedral is the seat of the Catholic Archdiocese in Melbourne and the largest church building in all of Australia. Its blue-gray Gothic facade hides an interior bathed in golden light. (I wasn’t able to take many photos as I unwittingly arrived right before Mass was about to start. You can check the times here.)
I closed out my two days in Melbourne with tacos and tequila at Mamasita. This popular Mexican cantina also serves up some of the best street-style corn I’ve ever tasted, though it was long devoured before I even thought of snapping a pic. All the more reason to return!