Melbourne today seems to effortlessly tick all the right boxes, but it wasn’t always this way. Founded nearly a century after Sydney, Melbourne thrived on the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s and 60s.
When the gold fever abated by the early 1890s, the city stopped being ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ and found itself back in the shadows of Sydney’s gleaming beauty. From there to being consistently voted among the “world’s most liveable cities” is a testament to the power of the underdog.
And what it lacked in spectacular landmarks that have graced a million postcards out of Sydney—from the iconic Opera House to the touristy Bondi Beach—Melbourne has made up for with a buzzing food, arts and culture scene. The Royal Botanic Gardens. The Eureka Sky Deck.
That temple to sport, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, or the G, as Melbournians call it. And the magnificent Great Ocean Road that winds its way along the choppy waters of Australia’s south-eastern coast.
For me, Melbourne’s charm lies mainly in its easy-going European feel; cosy neighbourhoods, cobblestoned lanes, alfresco cafés and large green spaces. On my first evening in Melbourne, I visit the glass cube on the 88th floor of Eureka Sky Deck for a bird’s eye view of the city.
This cube, known as The Edge, projects three metres out from the building and I am suspended in mid-air 300 metres above the ground.
The next morning, I head out early to explore the “inner city”, the Central Business District, of Melbourne. My starting point is the open space in front of Federation Square that sits between two old and elegant buildings: the Flinders Street train station and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Cafés spill onto the roads, people of all ages chatting over coffee and cupcakes; Melbourne prides itself on its excellent coffee.
My favourite in a walk through Melbourne is the old GPO, with its high ceilings and large atrium dating to 1859. After a major fire in 2001, the GPO was converted into a grand shopping mall for swanky brands, with more cafés in the atrium. Melbournians treasure this as a heritage spot.
Another unique aspect of Melbourne’s inner city circle is how its once unsightly graffiti has been curbed and turned into attractive street art. The once dirty and unsafe alleys such as Hosier Lane and Rutledge Lane are now famous for their graffiti.
At the end of all these ultra-urban experiences, I am never not far from nature and wildlife at the Melbourne Zoo. Here I come face-to-face with a moody orangutan for the first time, watch a couple of seals dive and perform like needy actors craving audience appreciation, and get to feed a green lunch to a group of docile kangaroos. I have an enjoyable encounter with a little penguin called Miss Wings, who was rejected by her parents and subsequently hand-reared by the lovely people at the penguin enclosure. Miss Wings now believes herself to be human!
A few years ago, a tourism ad for the city, called ‘Play Melbourne’, became a great hit on YouTube. The ad slogan went, “Forget what you think you know. Take a chance, roll the dice and see where it leads you...” And I am glad to say that my roll of the dice paid off spectacularly, revealing a Melbourne full of hidden surprises.