Chances are that Melbourne is Australia’s coolest city. Head down an alleyway and you’ll find an alternative bar or trendy café. There’s a massive arts scene and all the boutique clothing stores and vintage shops you could ask for. When it comes to a meal, this multicultural city has every cuisine you could think of.
So, what’s not to love about Melbourne? Well, for a lot of travellers, “alternative” and “arty” might not make the cut on a typical Australian itinerary, but after my three-day jaunt to Victoria’s capital, I discovered you can get a good dose of Aussie culture and history in Melbourne.
As dorky as it sounds, I knew I was in for a good trip after a smooth bus ride from the airport. It’s 20 minutes long, leaves every 10 minutes, runs 24/7 and a return trip will set you back $26 (a one way taxi ride will cost you over $50). Score!
After dumping my bags it was time to explore. The city is known for its awesome graffiti and a friend had recommended a stroll down Union Lane. Located just opposite David Jones on Bourke Street, this vibrant street runs between Bourke and Little Collins Street. Union Lane is like an urban gallery with layers and layers of brightly coloured graffiti, murals and artworks. It’s actually encouraged by the government and at the end of the street is the warning, “bill posters will be prosecuted”.
Once on Little Collins Street I visited a café called The Sensory Lab. It siphons your coffee in science-type beakers and test tubes. There’s none of this inferior sugar sachet business, and instead they use cute pots of brown sugar. Lamps were giant light bulbs, water came out in measuring jugs and they sell coffee body lotion. A bit much? Maybe, but Melbourne is all about novelty.
A short walk and I was almost at Federation Square, but first – it was time for the pub. Unlike its rival city, Sydney, Melbourne thrives in the colder months. Young and Jackson is one of Australia ’s oldest remaining pubs and on the roof is a modern cider bar. This hidden haven has a huge selection of both international and locally brewed cider. With outdoor heaters, old school lamps and astro turf lining the floor, I couldn’t get cosier.
After a few drinks it was time to embrace my arty side. Across the street was the famous Federation Square and ACMI, the centre of the moving image. Downstairs is cinema world and with lots of friendly staff, fabulous displays and interactive high-tech goodies to get your hands on, I easily spent over an hour here, especially given the caffeine and alcohol high. There are video games to be played, and film artifacts to gawk over such as the original Mad Max car, costumes from Moulin Rouge, and geeky Lord of the Rings elfin ears. And it’s FREE.
Ever thought there’s only one accent in the land Down Under? My favourite display was a showcasing of various Aussie accents ranging from 1950s newsreaders to Meryl Streep doing her best “a dingo ate my baby” impersonation. Some other funny moments were Paul Hogan, Chris Lilley, Chaser and ex-prime minister Bob Hawke.
You can learn the nuances between Greek Australian, Lebanese Australian, indigenous Australian and your iconic “she’ll be right mate”.
Over breakfast I picked up a local street press paper and nearly spat out my coffee. In the middle of a feature was the quote: “If they said someone would have to die for the club I would do it. It would make sense.”
This place is obsessed with AFL (aka Australian Rules Football). For Melbournians, AFL is a religion. While cities like Sydney, Perth and Brisbane only have one AFL team, Melbourne has nine. Yes, nine. Which means over a weekend there will often be at least four games being played at one of their many stadiums. If you visit the city on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday between April and September you’ll be able to see what the fuss is all about.
Rugging up, I headed off to Etihad stadium, handed over my $20 to watch the Sydney Swans play the North Melbourne Kangaroos. Surprisingly, there is a big support network for Sydney Swans in Melbourne because it used to be the South Melbourne club, so once seated in the stadium it was pretty evenly matched, with fans wearing red and white versus black and white.
Melbournians have their children (even the babies) dressed to resemble tiny little mascots and they are covered head to toe in team paraphernalia. It wouldn’t surprise me if you could buy roo-shaped dummies or swan-covered nappies.
Etihad Stadium has a retractable roof so it was actually pretty snug sitting in the enclosed stadium. Again, points to Melbourne for coping with winter. If you want a proper AFL experience you can buy a $6 pie and a plastic schooner of beer. Healthy types need not to worry. As this is a city proud of its cuisine, so you can also get sushi, gourmet wraps or fruit salad. The game was almost three hours long and broken up into quarters – I had to give it to them, AFL players have stamina, especially as it’s not uncommon to see players leaping six feet into the air. The length of the pitch is much bigger than in a union, league or soccer game and the players end up running laps of a cricket ground.
I sat on the edge of my seat, nail biting as the game was neck and neck with Sydney only winning by one point. Once the game finished, the team and its supporters did a sing-a-long to a big band kind of anthem that sounded very outdated. Okay, it was kind of endearing and refreshing to see Melbourne’s not so cool side.
Ned Kelly is an Aussie icon and, as morbid as it sounds, I was keen to check out the place where he was hanged. Modeled on London’s Pentonville Prison, the grounds of the Old Melbourne Gaol are impressive although kind of gloomy and disturbing.
This multi award-winning tourist attraction offers free tours, and the elderly lady who did our talk was surprisingly feisty and charismatic. After a good hour or so learning about the gaol’s history I went next door to the City Watch House, where I was subjected to a 40-minute long interactive experience (ie I was arrested and thrown into a cell). There was about 15 in the group and we were all given cue cards so we knew who we were supposed to be and why we were being arrested.
Somehow, I was “lucky” enough to be singled out. I was interrogated by a barking cop, searched for contraband and to the delight of all around me, I turned tomato red while trying to stifle my giggles. Why was I arrested and thrown into a cell with rapists and murderers? Apparently I had been caught for driving without a license and in those days everyone, no matter how minor or major their crime, was put in holding cells together.
All I can say is, thank god I live in the 21st century. And after all that, it was time for me to find an alleyway with another arty rooftop bar…
Photos: Getty, Australian Tourism Board