After being wined, dined, and pampered on a decadent Virgin Australia flight, we arrived in Melbourne at 6:30 am. Thanks to the completely automated system, getting through immigration was a breeze–the antithesis of flying into JFK or LAX. At 7:30 we checked in to our hotel, and by 9 we had showered, changed, and were off to explore.
City Circle Tram
Melbourne’s free tram zone is an easy way for tourists and locals to get around the Central Business District (CBD). We hopped on the Route 35 City Circle. Decked out in maroon and green, we rode this sightseeing tram passed many of the city highlights, including Flinders Station, Old Treasury Building, Parliament House, and Princess Theatre. We oriented ourselves as we made our way around the CBD loop in less than an hour. While a great way to get an overview of the highlights, the tram can also serve as “hop-on-hop off” or simply to get around if you don’t want to walk.
Much like New York, Melbourne’s CBD was built on a grid. Because the original city design did not include a central square, the city council decided to build one in the 1960s. Since its opening, the site has had several iterations. The most recent version, abstract-shaped Federation Square, opened in 2001 for Australia’s Federation centennial celebration. The second branch of the National Gallery of Victoria which only exhibits Australian art gave us a great overview of aboriginal art.
Across the street, Flinders Station stands tall as the oldest train station in Australia. As you can see from my pictures, the building’s facade, with its green copper dome and large clocks, proves a striking view regardless of the time of day. We continued walking along the Yarra River, coming to a bridge to cross and follow the River Walk.
Following the River Walk, we saw Federation Square, Flinders Station and the cityscape of Melbourne’s CBD all in one picturesque shot. We stopped at Crown Melbourne on the Southbank promenade, grabbed a seat outside at one of the many cafes, and enjoyed a flat white (Australian version of a latte). We then meandered along the tortuous river to Alexandra Gardens and Kings Domain before crossing the bridge back towards Rod Laver Arena. As we walked, we saw magpies in the trees along the riverbank.
In doing the research for our Australia trip, one of the most noteworthy features I found that sets Melbourne apart is its laneways. Having lived in the big city, I immediately recognize “laneway” as a euphemism for alley. But Melbourne has cleverly transformed these typically dark and gritty places into works of art. There are many laneways, some easier to find than others; walking tours provide a great way to discover these hidden gems. Two of the laneways I found most remarkable, Hosier Lane and AC/DC Lane (yes, named after the band), were relatively easy to find.
Across from Federation Square, where Flinders Lane joins Flinders Street, lies the cobblestoned Hosier Lane. At the heart of Melbourne’s street art scene, Hosier Lane is an ever-changing canvas. Events of national and worldwide significance are illustrated in vivid detail. At first we were overwhelmed by the overflowing art decorating every surface (including the dumpsters). We made several trips up and down the lane to take it all in.
Tucked between Exhibition Street and Russell Street is the short, narrow AC/DC Lane, named to honor one of Australia’s most iconic rock bands. Here we found street art depicting all sorts of fantastic musical scenes. And, of course, we made sure to check out the street sign with the added AC/DC thunderbolt.
“Marvelous Melbourne” Shopping Arcades
The prosperity of “Marvelous Melbourne” that resulted from the gold rushes of the late 1800s is on display in two exquisitely elegant shopping arcades that are a block apart in the CBD: Block Arcade and Royal Arcade.
If you have ever been to Milan, you would immediately recognize that the Block Arcade was modeled after the glorious Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. For me, the glass canopy and skylights were absolutely reminiscent. Also, we took time to appreciate the intricate mosaic-tiled floors, stained glass windows, wrought iron fixtures, and carved stone finishes that are representative of the Victorian era architecture. We also had the opportunity to check out the window at Hopetoun Tea Rooms even though we didn’t wait in line for High Tea.
The Royal Arcade is the oldest shopping arcade in Australia. A glass and wrought iron ceiling punctuates the Italianate architectural features of this beautiful building. But it was the seven-foot statues of Gog and Magog, two biblical monsters, tolling on the hour on either side of Gaunt’s Clock that made the greatest impression on me. They alone made Royal Arcade a stop not to be missed.
Melbourne’s multinational, multicultural diversity creates a food lover’s paradise. There is something for everyone. These are three very different but equally delicious places that we loved.
Melbourne is known for its coffee culture so finding a great cup is not hard to find. On the other hand, one would not expect to find fabulous croissants as well. I was shocked when someone told us that one of the world’s best croissants (according to the NY Times) could be found at Lune. Needless to say we had to do our own taste test. All the croissants we tried were delicious, but the lemon curd was definitely our group’s favorite.
Maha is located on a quiet side street in Melbourne’s CBD. Marked only by a door, we almost walked past it. When you enter, you descend into a beautifully appointed, cave-like space. The Maha tasting menu was a delicious crash course in Middle Eastern cuisine. Each of the four courses consisted of multiple small plates. We cleaned every delectable dish with pita bread, until we realized that there was so much food that we needed to pace ourselves. Maha was one of our most elegant, sophisticated, and formal dining experiences in Australia.
Walking down a restaurant-lined alleyway, we came to a neon-studded, street art adorned place with a lively atmosphere spilling out the door. Luckily we were able to make a reservation as the place is always packed. Hochi Mama capitalizes on Melbourne’s cultural diversity to deliver great Asian fusion cuisine. We opted for the “Me Hungry Now” menu, which gave us two small plates, two large plates, and a side for two people. This was a fun way to sample the wide assortment of options since we had a hard time narrowing down our choices. My favorite–Hochi Chicken Banh Bao.
As one of Australia’s most notable cities, Melbourne did not disappoint. Not only was it well worth a visit, but it also served as a great takeoff point for our visits to Yarra Valley wine country, Phillip Island, and the Great Ocean Road. Be sure to read my future posts about these amazing spots.
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