Melbourne is a cool city.
Cool in the way that Berlin is cool. In the way East London is cool. In the way San Francisco’s Mission District is cool.
It would be unfair to label Melbourne with the hipster tag. The H-word is now filled with so many negative connotations, lensless sunglasses and short trousers that it is a disservice to besmirch Australia’s second biggest city.
It is this coolness that makes Melbourne such a joy to visit, such a grand place to eat, drink and be merry, a wonder to stroll through endless laneways filled with charming cafes and bars and covered in graffiti.
Arriving early one Thursday morning, the city is just awaking. Rush hour is so seemingly unrushed it makes you wonder where the three million Melburnians work and how they get there. Disembarking at Southern Cross Station and walking the 30 minutes to our hostel, it is Melbourne’s architecture that grabs you at first.
While, from a distance, the Melbourne skyline is nothing to write home about; up close it is a wonder of modern architecture. A city with few true skyscrapers, the 90 storey Eureka Tower stands out like an exquisite modern obelisk.
The smaller buildings on the walk through the CBD are no less impressive. Mingled in with colonial relics and antiques of the British empire are wondrous new structures. Glass and metal combined in ways that boggle the mind and there is new construction all around.
Arriving at our hostel, Home @ The Mansion, the staff couldn’t be friendlier and the room may be simple but it is housed in an old Salvation Army HQ, one of the aforementioned British landmarks, with a stunning facade and well refurbished interior.
With no time to spare, we head out of the city to one of the foremost tourist attractions Australia has to offer. While Uluru and Sydney’s Harbour may hold the spiritual and commercial heart of Australia, Melbourne has the cutest tourist attraction in the country: the Little Penguins of Phillip Island.
It is odd that sun-baked Australia is home to an animal so shrouded in Antarctic snow and ice but we are assured that more than 30 000 Little Penguins call Phillip Island home.
Having booked a tour through Bunyip Tours, we leave Melbourne for the two hour journey to the island. On the way we stop at a wildlife park where all manner of marsupials are available for photographs and feeding. The park isn’t much but it keeps certain American tourists happy.
Arriving at Phillip Island at dusk, we are taken to view another animal colony, as thousands of Australian Fur Seals call Phillip Island home too. The interactive base at The Nobbies is a fantastic vantage point and the cameras they have trained on the seal colony is a fantastic way to view these blubbery specimens. The giant reproduction of a Great White Shark caught in the waters around the island is a reminder that not all Australian wildlife is so cuddly.
Heading over to Penguin Parade, we are joined by throngs of other tourists and coach trips. According to our guide, only the Great Barrier Reef attracts more tourists in Australia as some 500 000 people descend upon Phillip Island each year to view the penguins.
Strolling down the boardwalk towards the penguin viewing pavillion is a thing of beauty. With the ocean stretching out in front of you and the sun setting behind, the craggy cliffs of the island look majestic. Now we await the stars of the show.
One moment, you are merely watching waves and then the next, little creatures stand upright in the surf, all along the beach. No photography is permitted so it has to be seen to be believed but up walk a waddle (scientific name) of penguins. They huddle together behind some rocks and seaweed on the beach before making a break for the grassy knolls behind the viewing platforms where they each have a burrow.
As waves of penguins descend on the beach, you can walk back up the boardwalk and see the the lovely little creatures waddling over the hills to find their home and mate. At an average size of 30 cm (13 in) the Little Penguins are a truly stunning sight.
The next day, it is time to see the city.
Originally planning on partaking in a free walking tour with Peek Tours, our plans are scuppered by a lack fellow travellers. Instead, we head into the brilliant tourist information centre in Federation Square and collect a couple of free maps and decide to tour ourselves around the city.
First we head to Melbourne’s laneways, hidden streets filled with the trendiest cafes and bars. Wandering through a maze of alleys we stop for lunch at Five and enjoy the local hospitality while watching the world pass by. These tiny cafes dot the landscape as it seems everyone in Melbourne has to drink some sort of coffee before they are allowed to settle in the city.
We continue our walking down Hosier Lane, an alley filled with elaborate graffiti, as several artists spray the walls. People have conflicting views of graffiti, or street art as it is called in posher circles, but Melburnians have greeted it with open arms as practically every nook and cranny is tagged. It doesn’t look dirty though, the city just embraces this alternative culture and the city and its art blend perfectly.
Having traipsed around the many laneways, we head on a more well trod tack, through Melbourne’s city centre. Walking along the affluent Collins Street, New York springs to mind. The tree lined streets of Bourke Street evoke Paris while the regal architecture harks back to a bastion of the British empire.
Melbourne really is a world in one city. A vast population of immigrants call Melbourne home. Chinatown is one of the oldest is the Western world and boarders a Greek community which leads to Lygon Street and the Italian community…you get the idea.
We hop on one of the free trams that glide across the city. Melbourne is quite distinctive thanks to the tram network. Trams seem older than the New World and again hark back to European roots but the complimentary CIty Circle is a must.
After crossing the Yarra River, whose golden riches are the reason Melbourne was founded, we head to the aforementioned Eureka Tower for a stunning aerial view of the city.
I am a big fan of a tall building and while the Eureka Tower isn’t the tallest (although apparently it does boast the highest viewing platform in the Southern Hemisphere) it is beautifully designed and the viewing platform is a great multimedia experience.
After a day of wandering, we decide to head back to our hostel to rest before we explore the bars of Melbourne.
We head down Lonsdale Street and start our night at the fantastic Touché Hombre, a Latin American street food restaurant with a staggering array of tequila. We take seats at the bar and our waiter/barman couldn’t have been better. He talked us through the menu (must have: Pulled Pork quesadilla) and the tequila list. There is much more to know about tequila than I ever imagined, we picked a few varieties at random supped away.
As we finished our meal we relied on our tequila guide to help us find some other hidden gems in the city. He points us in the direction of Section 8, a laneway bar in a car park, and Toff of the Town, a club in a nondescript building.
We start with some beers in the booming Section 8, a real Melbourne bar. Basically, a truck with booze in a car park surrounded by heaters and pallets, it is certainly an experience. Busy with after work drinkers and revellers of ll kinds, Section 8 is a great watering hole.
After a few local brews were imbibed, we headed to Toff. Australia has a strange night out mentality. Many of the bars and clubs are forced to close early thanks to stringent licensing laws and Australians tend to go out early rather than stay out late.
Toff wiped away both of these stereotypes. On the second floor of the Curtin Building on Swanston Street, Toff had all the greatness of a dingy nightclub. The music may have been a little suspect at times but after a few more local brews, you hardly notice.
The next day, with a bit of sore head, we are off to a Melburnians favourite past-time: footy at the ’G. Footy has a different meaning the world over, in Melbourne it means Australian Rules, and the ‘G is Melbourne Cricket Ground.
The MCG holds about 100 000 people but on this sunny Saturday it is only half full. Australia is very regional with sport, Sydneysiders love rugby league whilst Melburnians love footy and Queenslanders love everything they win.
Australian Rules is an odd game. 30 minute quarters with 15 minute breaks in between mean you are in for the long haul but it isn’t a bad spectacle. To say you’ve seen footy at the ‘G is like watching soccer at Wembley, playing golf at St. Andrews or watching tennis at Wimbledon: it is the home of the sport.
The Richmond Tigers face the Brisbane Lions and the Tigers (eventually) pull out a win. It is the stadium that is the real winner though. The tenth largest in the world, the MCG is a mammoth wonder. Surrounded by the Rod Laver Arena (home of the Australian Open tennis tournament) and the AAMI Arena (a soccer stadium), the sporting complex is a must for any sports fan.
Enjoying a pie and a pint (the Australian way to enjoy any sport apart from surfing) it doesn’t matter if the game seems more accustomed to a different planet. The atmosphere is electric and it is a perfect way to end our stay in Melbourne.
While we enjoyed some good winter weather during our stay (it only rained one day out of three, good odds for Melbourne), winter may not be the best time to visit Victoria’s capital. While tourists stay away, so does the sunshine but rain or shine, Melbourne is a must for any traveller.
If nothing else, as you stumble across an out-of-the-way cafe or a hidden bar in a construction site, it’ll make you feel cool.