Laud Melbourne

By Jan Shure, April 23, 2004

The city named for our 19th-century PM is well worth a detour

Until 25 years ago (when both superlatives were snaffled by Sydney), Melbourne was Australia’s biggest and most important city.

Stinging from, among other things, Melbourne’s selection as host city for the 1956 Olympics, Sydney set out to become Australia’s first city. (In theory, that honour belongs to the federal capital, Canberra, but like Brazil and Turkey, Oz suffers from its capital being eclipsed by a more famous non-capital city).

Sydney and Melbourne still enjoy a keen rivalry, but having been to both on a recent visit to completely fabulous Australia, I would be very reluctant to choose between them. (If you forced me, I would probably declare for Sydney — but by a whisker, and only because of that fabulous harbour). And I would urge anyone Australia-bound on no account to miss out Melbourne.

Situated on Australia’s south-east coast about 250 miles south-west of Sydney, the city sprawls inland from the Tasman Sea amid low green hills. Its centre — ringed by prosperous suburbs — blends graceful, finely restored Victorian buildings with gleaming, steel-and-glass edifices, all flanking wide, tree-lined avenues that are intersected by parks and bordered by wonderful shops and malls.

The tallest building in Melbourne is the Rialto Tower on Collins Street, the city’s main drag. The tower has a 55th-floor observation deck which provides a 360-degree view of this vibrant, cosmopolitan and historic city. Australian seat of government until the mid-19th century, the Victoria state capital is now home to fabulous cuisine and arguably (Sydney naturally argues with Melbourne on this), the best shopping in the Antipodes

If you don’t have a mass of time there — and sadly, we didn’t — the tower helps you get a sense of the city’s layout and also to glimpse Australia’s twin meccas of sporting excellence: Melbourne Cricket Ground and the Rod Laver Arena, home of the annual grand slam Australian Open tennis tournament.

In addition to a superb transport infrastructure (clean modern trams and underground trains), the city has its “Circle Line,” a series of free vintage trams which clank round the city at frequent intervals stopping at, or near, all the main tourist sights.

We got off on Flinder’s Street, near the main railway station — a glorious Victorian confection of pillars and iron fretwork — and opposite Federation Square, the futuristic and controversial new arts centre. Scheduled to open at the millennium, it was two years overdue and several million over budget, and it divides Melburnians as the Pompidou Centre once divided Paris.

Architecturally, too, it bears comparison with the Pompidou, with its intestines of intertwined pipes and cables visible through a vast glass roof space set into an asymmetric façade of marble and steel girders.

Federation Square has buzzy cafés, a restaurant, a gift shop and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, but highlight of the complex is the visitor-friendly National Gallery of Victoria, which is worth several hours of even the tightest tourist schedule.

If you have limited time, don’t miss the gallery’s ground floor, which is devoted to Australia’s indigenous art. Vibrantly coloured paintings, stunning sculptures and ancient ritual items are displayed alongside thought-provoking modern paintings and installations by young, contemporary aboriginal artists like Julie Dowling. Her stunning “Federation” series depicts, in photo-realism and collage, the history of the indigenous peoples of Australia. The floors above chronicle the development of non-indigenous art, and while interesting, most works merely substitute cows for kangaroos.

Like Sydney and many European and US cities, Melbourne has also glammed up its former docklands. The disused port region has been transformed, the pristine waterside walkways now lined with shops, galleries, cafés, restaurants and bars.

For those in need of a retail fix, Melbourne’s best shopping is in Collins Street and the parallel Little Collins and Bourke streets. In all three, top international designer boutiques (Hermes, Gucci, Vuitton, et al) vie for your cash with Aussie retail chains and clever local designers. Quirkiest mall is the Block Arcade on Collins, a lovingly renovated Victorian area where you can buy clothes, glass, hand-made chocolates and desirable stationery; The glitziest is Collins two3four, a repository of Aussie brands and designers as well as a few UK names, plus the usual cafés. This part of town also has the city’s two department stores: the up-market David Jones and the more basic Myer; as well as a raft of restaurants, cafés and bars.

The city has a number of markets, too, including the Queen Victoria, with more than 100 stalls inside yet another beautifully refurbished 18th-century building. For browsing, visit the Sunday craft market at the Vic Arts Centre on St Kilda Road and the Sunday arts and crafts

market in St Kilda itself. St Kilda, Melbourne’s seaside, is where the Jews settled when they first arrived in the city in the 18th century. The Jewish community has mostly moved on to populate the suburbs, and today St Kilda’s main drag, Acland Street, and the neighbouring Barkly and Carlisle streets are packed with funky boutiques, cafés and bars, creating a hang-out for the brunch-and-cappuccino crowd.

The once-thriving Continental-Jewish culture also survives in the form of coffee shops that nestle between edgier enterprises.

Names like Europa, Scheherezade and Monarch recall a mittel-European provenance, while their windows are filled with impossibly tempting pastries, gâteaux and cheesecake.

Bypassing St Kilda’s garish Lunar Park — currently undergoing refurbishment — the promenade boasts a cream-washed building that once housed Victorian baths and now an elegant complex of cafés and restaurants. Close by is Stoke House, a popular beach-side café-cum-bar-cum-restaurant, where you can have a chilled beer, a pizza or dinner with white linen. A few doors away is Donovan’s, one of Melbourne’s best restaurants, and impossible to get into without a reservation.

While you are at the coast — easy if you hire a car (and Aussies, of course, drive on the left, like us) — find an hour or so to visit Phillip Island Nature Park to see its most famous residents, the tiny, and achingly cute fairy penguins.

Of the town-centre’s stock of beautiful historic buildings, perhaps the finest is the State Parliament, a broad-fronted cream building with a sweep of steps and palladian columns that symbolise its power and authority. Until 1857 it housed Australia’s national parliament, and today visitors can take a guided tour on any weekday. A few hundred yards north, set amid the lawns of Carlton Garden, is the fine domed edifice of the Royal Exhibition Building, built in 1880 and fronted by lawns and an elaborate fountain.

Nearby looms the dour Victorian St Patrick’s Cathedral, a stone edifice that would not look out of place in Edinburgh. Almost in its shadow, on Albert Street, is the East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation Synagogue. Built in 1877, the graceful white stucco shul is closed for refurbishment.

Our base, the glamorous Park Hyatt on Parliament Square, was conveniently close for those wanting to attend a Shabbat service. Decorated throughout in a modern take on Art Deco, its circular lobby achieves the “wow factor” with soaring atrium and lavish use of black marble and shiny bronze. Our huge room had a vast bathroom, outsize bath and a TV sunk into a wall. Ideally located amid restored Victorian terraces and close to Parliament and Collins Street, it had every amenity (shady gardens, pool, divine breakfast, superb restaurant) a Melbourne visitor could want.

It was recommended by up-scale travel specialists Abercrombie & Kent, who helped us plan our trip. As well as whisking us between airport and hotel by limo, they provided lists of recommended restaurants for every stop.

After dining at our lovely young friends Jayne and Dion on our first night, we tried Italy 1 (from their list) on our second. Handily located in George Parade, off Collins Street, it offers delicious, unabashedly authentic Italian cuisine including vegetarian antipasto, fish and veggie dishes and sumptuous puds.

Like its rival Sydney, Melbourne offers the visitor too much to see in a few days. We didn’t get to the Aquarium, the Immigration Museum, the fabled casino or any of Victoria’s lovely countryside. But on our return to Oz, we’ll just have to revisit Melbourne, too.

Last updated: 3:05pm, September 10 2008