So you’ve partied on boats, sand islands, in tropical nightclubs and outback pubs, and if you ever see a bag of goon again it will be too soon. What next? Sure, Melbourne has all the madness of backpacker specials, but the Victorian capital also boasts many of Australia’s coolest bars, clubs and restaurants. The trick, like with any major city, is knowing where to go to avoid the usual touristy haunts.
But what sets Melbourne apart is that it is constantly raising the bar, ahem, as yet more establishments open their doors year after year, in yet more hidden locations, with even the locals constantly clamouring to discover new places. One thing’s for sure, the vibrant cosmopolitan lifestyle means there’s no problem satisfying everyone. Here’s our guide to the best of the best…
If you’re searching for a place to take you from day to night, hunt no further than Southbank. Looking out across the Yarra River, it’s the perfect place to unwind with a beverage or two after a hard day of sightseeing.
With such a high profile location, bars here are unavoidably busy most of the time, so arrive before the post-work rush to nab yourself a perfect people-watching spot. Try Left Bank for über-cool cocktails (with accompanying pricetags), or World Bar with its comfy sofas and chilled Sunday sessions. Cross over the river to Federation Square and enjoy a drink amid possibly the most well-trodden path in the CBD. The whole square comes alive with the arrival of any sporting match of importance, so soak up the atmosphere and indulge in being a tourist at Transport (it’s huge, you can’t miss it) or Time Out Café.
You might be fooled into thinking the streets of the CBD are just full of shops and offices, but look up a level and you’ll see balconies and rooftops with people looking down on the streets below, a world away from the hustle and bustle. Take a chance on an open doorway and climb the stairs to the world above. Beginners should try Cookie on Lonsdale Street; a perfectly kitsch cocktail lounge with a huge selection of beers to boot. Another worth refuelling at is The Carlton Club, on Bourke Street, where you’ll soon find yourself making friends with all the stuffed animals.
Fitzroy/Brunswick and St Kilda
Sydney Road, Brunswick and Brunswick Street, Fitzroy; a bit of a conundrum when you’ve had a few, so write it down. Any taxi driver worth their salt (and I promise Melbourne cabbies are better than their Sydney counterparts) can have you quenching your thirst with a pint in one of the many pubs or laidback lounge-type bars these two suburbs have to offer.
Brunswick’s Sydney Road rocks day or night. Grab a coffee and trawl through the endless vintage boutiques during the day, then enjoy live music or relax in a beer garden at Retreat, a great pub-come-bar-come-club, or Edinburgh Castle, a cheap and cheerful establishment with live music at least five nights of the week. If your backpack is bursting with tattered Converses, Ray-Bans and vintage leather, Brunswick Street in Fitzroy will no doubt become your second home. Grab a cheap (and healthy) bite to eat at Vege Bar, or a $4 pizza at Bimbo Deluxe any night of the week and wash it down with one of their delectable home-infused vodkas.
If you’re after an afternoon tipple check out The Standard, which boasts one of the best beer gardens in Melbourne, and is a great place to watch the footy. Once you’ve crawled along both sides of the seemingly endless street of bars you’ll be ready for a dance, so head along Johnston Street to Night Cat and indulge in a bit of jazz. Don’t be put off by the word jazz though, Night Cat is very user-friendly with bands and DJs playing modern and classic jazz plus salsa. Brunswick and Fitzroy are the perfect places for a cruisey night of gliding from restaurant to bar to club without having to walk very far inbetween.
You simply can’t come to Melbourne and not sample the nightlife of St Kilda. There’s something about drinking by the sea that makes people extra excited, and when the sun sets over the ocean on a summer’s day, you’ll be surrounded by smiles and laughter as the beer gardens overflow onto Acland and Fitzroy Streets. While St Kilda does have a huge backpacker community, the locals are ever present and add to the fun-filled atmosphere.
Prime spots belong to those places right on the seafront. Head towards the sea baths and you’ll be spoilt for choice. Grab a swing chair at Republica to watch the sunset accompanied by live DJs, cocktails and top-notch views over the ocean. Acland Street is the place to go for an extended lunch break, with some great pubs and restaurants serving coffee (and beer) all day. Try Vineyard to be right in the thick of it, or head to the Prince of Wales for early evening drinks, then head downstairs to sumptuous Mink for an after hours lounge in luxurious couches with plenty of vodka. You can’t miss the rambling Esplanade Hotel on the seafront. While its status as a St Kilda institution can make it busy, it does host some great bands and makes a fantastic meeting spot.
Backpacker Bars and the Laneways
So you’ve had a couple of classy cocktails and a civilised pint or two, but you’re still craving sweat, cheese and goon? Well yes, you can get your fill of backpacker carnage in Melbourne, it’s just not screaming from every street corner.
The old classic PJ O’Brien’s on Southbank has a massive Sunday session with great drinks offers all night, or head to Pug Mahon’s on a Monday for cheese and Jägerbombs. Also on a Monday is Public Bar in North Melbourne, which holds its weekly $1 pot (that’s half pints) night and is always full to bursting with students and backpackers. Most of the bigger hostels have specials and happy hours every night of the week. Base X in St Kilda has a ladies night with ‘something free’ for the fairer sex every Thursday. Cushion and Tongue and Groove off Fitzroy Street have regular backpacker specials, and who can forget the cream of the crop – Neighbours Night.
The quiz night-come-cast meet and greet has become an institution at the Elephant and Wheelbarrow in St Kilda, and after the obligatory photo with Karl Kennedy and friends, KK and his band The Waiting Room bash out a few songs for your listening pleasure. If you’re really lucky everyone’s favourite villain Paul Robinson might belt out a tune as well.
This is just the start of it. Like high class venues with swanky dress codes? Head to Chapel Street. Looking for LGBT-friendly venues or hard core dance? Try Commercial Road, Prahran.
If live music is more your scene, Melbourne is a top destination for everyone from DJs to local bands and international groups. If you still can’t find something to suit your night out needs in Melbourne, I wash my hands of you, you can go it alone. But then again, that’s often the best thing to do in this city of drinks aplenty.
What makes Melbourne’s nightlife so special is its abundance of ‘secret’ venues. It’s just about the only time it’s okay to stray off the main streets of a big city and venture up random staircases and down dark alleyways, because more often than not you’ll come across a fantastic bar, a cosy restaurant or an intimate club perfect for mixing with the locals.
The laneways of Melbourne’s CBD date back to the Victorian era when they were used as service lanes for horses and carts. They now provide homes to thousands of coffee shops, restaurants, bars and clubs, and their walls display colourful works of modern art. Most of the action is centred around Flinders Lane, with Degraves Lane being a huge hub of street cafés and bars, which buzz well into the night. There are tours of the laneways, but if there’s a group of you it’s much more exciting to go it alone; chat to the bar tenders and locals. You never know what you might discover.