Melbourne - A Peculiar, Yet Oddly Cool, City PDF Print E-mail
Features - Features and Views
Written by TK   

Showing someone around Melbourne is always a difficult experience.  Not in the sense that your friend is difficult (well, this depends on who exactly your friend is). No, it is more that it is just not entirely obvious what it is that a first time visitor to Melbourne should do.  

If you are a first time visitor, you may have heard the age-old argument that Sydney is the beautiful city and Melbourne is its slightly-ugly younger sibling.  It is an impossible argument to answer, and frankly rather boring.

But is Melbourne really that ugly?  Well, yes, there is no doubt that certain parts are.  Certainly, if you awoke and found yourself in a house in the middle of far-flung Brunswick on Sydney Road (which leads, rather ironically, to Sydney), a housing estate in Werribee or in high-street Springvale, you would be solely disappointed.  Just as you would be in the suburbs of Sydney away from its beaches and the harbour.  

In fact, if you had no reason to be visiting those particular areas, you should exit stage left immediately.  But, on the other hand, as a first time visitor you find yourself wandering the streets of inner Fitzroy, North Carlton, South Yarra or the promenade in St Kilda, you will have an idea of what the fuss about Melbourne is all about. 

All of this pontification does not really help a first time visitor determining what they should do in Melbourne. 

Arguably, the thing that works most in favour of Melbourne is inner city living.  The suburbs are all arterials, hardware warehouses and fast-food chains.  The outer suburbs are, for the most part, absolutely hideous. Is this snobbery on my part?  Well it does rather sound like it, but I don't believe that anyone has the right to be a snob.  Rather, it is my observation of the complete lack of planning that developers engage in before pouring concrete over an old paddock, vineyard or orchard.  I fear that your average developer these days have less creativity than even the most conservative of politicans.  And that is saying something.

There has been more documented signs of beauty in my left armpit than some of the stretches of "urban sprawl" of Melbourne outer-suburbs.

So we are no closer to knowing what to do as a first time visitor in Melbourne. We have, however, ruled out a few things.  Whilst we are ruling things out, we should add the new "Melbourne Eye" to the equation, which is an expensive gimmicky tourist attraction which broke down very soon after completion.  It still hovers over the docks looking sad for itself, like an eye with an incurable disease.  At least it is not overly prominent, what with it being next to the airport highway.   
I would suggest this first and foremost - base yourself in an inner city area.
However, forget driving around.  The only problem with this view is that arguably even if you are based in an inner city area, you really do still need a car to get around Melbourne due to the city's appalling public transport. Unless you are getting a train from one station to the next along the same line, forget about trains!  And if you do end up driving, make sure you don't end up unwittingly making your trip that bit more expensive by copping a parking fine.  Local councils have conspired against each and every driver in Melbourne to ensure that you require a law degree to interprete the various parking signs in different areas of the city. 

This subject does dish up another topic of interest though, that of the Melbourne tram.  Melbourne is like Berlin in its appreciation of trams.  And this definatly adds character to a city already brimming with character.  And it is well worth taking the city's free tram whilst you are here.

So there it is.  You need to be based in an inner city area with a car and a law degree. So once you awake, what happens?

Well, I propose that you should head to your local cafe.  It doesn't matter where you decide to eat breakfast, you will be guaranteed a gourmet health feast served with (startingly) the best coffee in the world.  Apparentely in the 1960's the closest Melbourne got to being cosmopolitan was the European cars being driven on its streets.  Now there is a cafe for every one person living in Melbourne.  Although I believe that this has not been proven statistically yet, it must be only a matter of time.  I have been "doing" the cafe thing ever since I discovered that I didn't love cooking that much.  And whether it is a white chocolate and raspberry muffin, an almond croissant, eggs Benedict, or fruit salad you want, Melbourne cafes will cater for all of your desires.  Orange Cafe in South Yarra, Degraves Cafe in the city and practically any option on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy will keep your stomach satisfied.  A word of warning - never drink instant coffee in front of a Melbournian; things may get a little nasty.   

With food sorted, it is time tocheck out some sites.  And this is where things get a little tricky.  Because if you are not eating, drinking coffee or people-watching, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what it is you should do.  Melbourne does not have the immediate scenic impact of other great cities of the world.  It is a relatively new city, and with a lot of recent development including the Eureka Towers (the city's tallest tower) and the Docklands, it is beginning to have a little bit of an Asian vibe.  But if you dig deeper, there is much more to it than that.  There is an incredible amount of parkland in and around the city, and Fitroy Gardens, the Botanical Gardens, Exhibition Gardens and Fawkner Park are the stand-outs.  The view from the Botanical Gardens over the Yarra River towards the city is arguably the best in the city.  The architecture in the immediate vicinity of the Botanical Gardens will also keep your camera ticking over, especially around Domain Road.  And this area is just a short hop to the Yarra River, which is infamous for its murky brown colour.  Despite appearances to the contrary, this is not actually an overly polluted river, and instead it is the local soil (clay) which causes the discoloration. St Kilda is also a short distance from here too, which is positioned right on Port Phillip Bay.

There are plenty of sites around the city of historical interest, however unless you want to learn about the history of wool in the nineteenth century, or the gold rush, there is not much to keep anyone interested. Aboriginal history is fascinating, but there are not many remnants of this around Melbourne.  This is in part due to the disrespect paid to the Aboriginals by Europeans upon settlement, as well as the fact that Aboriginals were basically nomads and didn't leave much trace of their history.  There are museums and historical buildings like Parliament House around, however if you are anything like me, these may plainly bore you.

There are destinations set up specifically aimed at tourists such as Crown Casino, Southbank, and the top of Eureka Tower, but in my mind are worth avoiding due to the very fact that they are aimed at tourists.

Then, of course, there is shopping.  You cannot mention Melbourne without mentioning shopping.  Melbourne shopping.  There it is again.

There is an incredibly diverse range of shopping options in this city, and the most scenic places to stroll and window shop are Little Collins Street and Chapel Street.

By this stage, you will have a roaring thirst.  And if there is one thing Melbourne does well, that is nightlife. Cookie Bar in the city on weeknights or Sundays is always fun.  Avoid this bar at all costs on a Friday night unless you want to be buried underneath a pile of business cards from corporates.  In fact, this is a general rule of thumb in the Central Business District (CBD) on a Friday night.

La La Land in Windsor is very laid back and a good place to meet people.  A classic pub is the Espy in St Kilda, with its waft of stale beer and stunning ocean views.  Younger guys tend to head to impressive clubs like Seven, Boutique and Electric Lady Lounge.  However, these are not everyone's idea of a fun night out, and can be a little snooty although do feature good electronic DJs.  You may need a degree in human psychology to outwit the impossibly too-cool-for-school bouncers though.

There are too many restaurant options to mention, and you can pretty much pick up a quality fresh meal at any place serving food, including corner pubs.  Bimbo Deluxe in Brunswick Street manages to serve pizzas at 1980 prices.  Other good options are the Stokehouse in St Kilda and the Napier Hotel.


Finally, every Melbournian knows that the best time to visit is around the nation's favourite horse-race, the Melbourne Cup, around the beginning of November for a week of drinking, socialising and casual gambling.  Cricket also enthralls Melbourne at the end of December.  Then there is the Melbourne Tennis Open, the Melbourne Grand Prix, Phillip Island motor-racing, and the International Lawn Bowls Champions.  Ok, maybe not the last one, but you get the idea.

And let no public relations guru fool you - Melbourne is not cheap.  However, let's face it, no where in the Western world really is.  For most wage-slaves, after your salary has taken into account income tax, enforced superranuation, indirect taxes, and normal living expenses (and even maybe a student debt), you end up with $2 left in your pocket. So come here with a full wallet, especially if you want to experience all that this strange city I call home has to offer.

Example of living costs in Melbourne end 2009 - Petrol $1.20 per litre; loaf of bread $3.50; caffe latte from cafe $3.00; small pot of honey $4.40; 6 x small yoghurts $6.00.

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