Melbourne, in Australia’s south-eastern state of Victoria, is sometimes overlooked by travelers in favor of the glitz and glamour of Sydney. Melbourne, however, is the epitome of understated chic when it comes to cities, or the low-key luxe, if you will. Rather than throwing an Opera House and Bondi Beach in your lap, gleefully demanding your full attention, Melbourne invites you to discover its gorgeous laneway cafes during the day and amber-lit bars at night. The National Gallery and Melbourne Museum are fine, but it’s much more satisfying to take a tram or bicycle to the suburban streets of nearby Collingwood, Fitzroy, St Kilda and Carlton to seek out independent, artist-run galleries in renovated warehouses and garages.
In Melbourne’s Central Business District (CBD), the expansive, architect-designed Federation Square provides a central space for performances, as well as entry to galleries, museums, bars and restaurants with a view to the nearby Yarra River. Across the road, the historic Flinders Street Station—with its signature line of clocks—is the beating transport heart of the city, carrying people all around the locale with relative efficiency.
You could stay in the CBD and traverse the grid of laneways for hours with their treasure trove of fashion boutiques, stand-up cafes, art galleries, Pilates studios and world-renowned street art. Equally, if you’ve got a few days, you could plan a walk along St Kilda esplanade, with stops for coffee and brunch, before exploring the historic Astor Cinema, and the vintage stores and boutiques of Chapel Street in nearby Prahran.
Here’s our guide to making the most of a (long) weekend in Melbourne.
Where to find a top coffee
20A Centre Pl, Melbourne VIC 3000, Australia
In Melbourne’s laneways, you could walk for 10 minutes and find at least three cool and creative little nooks to grab a fantastic espresso. Our personal favorite pick is the multi-level, cozy Hells Kitchen, with a small pavement space if you’re quick enough to nab a table out front. The dark, dimly-lit upstairs bar area, with windows out to the laneway below, is a great place for whiling away some time alone, and people-watching.
Where to catch live music
57 Swan St, Richmond VIC 3121, Australia
Melbourne is almost synonymous with live music. In fact, don’t forget to seek out AC/DC Lane and Amphlett Lane in the CBD, both paying homage to our world-famous musical icons. One of the longest-running and best-known venues is The Corner Hotel in Richmond, boasting big-name talent (which sell out fast) and local acts with a budding fanbase. From rock and punk to metal and grunge, and even folk, there’s a richness of variety on their schedule. And if you come for a beer and a parma, but bypass the live show? Great. Check out the rooftop area with views of Richmond and the MCG.
484 Smith St, Collingwood VIC 3066, Australia
In Fitzroy, locals proudly flock to “The Gaso” for live music and great pub meals. The Gasometer favors local acts, with a mix of bands and artists with heavy radio rotation in Australia alongside newly formed or experimental acts.
1 George Lane, St Kilda VIC 3182, Australia
In the bayside suburb of St Kilda, which has a long music history in Melbourne, the relatively new George Lane venue boasts country, folk, acoustic and rock acts. The velvet lounges, vintage lamps and rugs, in addition to a dedicated outdoor lane space, provide for a more intimate experience than the more spacious Corner and Gasometer.
Where to find independently-owned and run art galleries
45 Moreland St, Footscray VIC 3011, Australia
Melbourne’s western suburbs haven’t always been considered the top place for thriving art, hospitality and fashion, but that’s changing. Footscray Community Arts Centre is an ever-changing home to contemporary arts and community events, which has been operating since 1974. Whether it’s dance, music, visual arts or workshops that you’re interested in, this is a locally-beloved institution.
26 Acland St, St Kilda VIC 3182, Australia
In St Kilda’s Acland Street, Linden New Art is a low-key, not-for-profit contemporary art gallery that is conveniently accessible by tram. It offers an always exciting gallery space with lofty ceilings and a sense of spaciousness, while still feeling inviting and homely. Impressive works by Australian artists are the heart of the gallery’s modus operandi. Plus, the annual Linden Postcard Show is a beloved institution, presenting postcard-sized works from hundreds of artists.
25 Easey St, Collingwood VIC 3066, Australia
Backwoods Gallery is one of those IYKYK spaces that is deserving of word-of-mouth recommendations. The name stems from the back entrance to the gallery, which avoids the predictability of commercial work in favor of unusual, idiosyncratic and emerging contemporary art. It was launched by Alexander Mitchell and Izabel Caligiore, providing space for Australian artists including Ghost Patrol, Rone, Reka and Meggs to exhibit their work, somewhat simplistically described as “street art,” though it has arguably transcended that genre.
Where to take a scenic walk
There are so many varied trails to explore in Melbourne, but the Yarra Trail offers a lengthy, winding route from the city to the suburbs. If you begin in Richmond, entering underneath the Swan Street Bridge, you could walk all the way to Dights Falls. Along the way, you’ll spot New York artist Ugo Rondinone’s gigantic and cheerful rainbow sculpture, Our Magic Hour, the Collingwood Children’s Farm and the Abbotsford Convent.
Port Melbourne to St Kilda
At sunrise or sunset, this walk will make you fall in love with Melbourne. The view of the bay from St Kilda Pier is especially divine on sunny days, and depending on the time of year, you may witness penguins, too. The smell of sea air and a sprinkle of palm trees reminds you of how beautiful the expanse of bayside Melbourne is, and it can provide relief from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Organ Pipes National Park
Melbourne schoolchildren are taken to Organ Pipes National Park by bus to witness the historic and beautiful natural geology, but it also provides visitors with a beautiful and unique insight into Melbourne’s landscape. The 299-acre park is located just off the Calder Freeway, less than 13 miles north of Melbourne. The two and a half million-year-old basalt columns resemble organ pipes, explaining the name of the park. There’s a short circuitous walk around the park, but you might want to make time to linger, and observe the land and wildlife that call this home.