First of all, many apologies for how long it has taken me to post this. The simple answer is that my brain has partially atrophied in Australia, due to the fact that it’s summer here and I’ve just generally been lazy. That sounds ridiculous, I know, like some fool you know who moved to Hawaii and is like “Hey man, I don’t even wear a watch now.” But so it is and I’m now finally getting around to writing about Melbourne. Which is a totally cool place!
I spent the first two days in Melbourne at the Australian Open, which I won’t get into too much at the risk of it becoming too inside baseball and/or just completely uninteresting for the casual observer. Whether you’re a Nadal acolyte (sorry about your life recently, if that’s the case) or have never heard of Roger Federer, it’s still a fun event for its general revelry and carnival-like atmosphere.
Melbourne really turns out for this event. If you hate tennis, January would be a really long month for you in this town. Tons of restaurants offer discounts to ticket holders and have special box lunch deals for people going to the tournament. In Federation Square, the unofficial central gathering point in the city, they set up an enormous TV and lawn chairs free to the public to come and watch the tennis. A huge stretch of the riverwalk near the stadium serves as an unofficial extension of the tournament grounds, with sponsor booths, food and drink stands, and more TVs and chairs. Even nice jewelry stores in town were advertising special Australian Open promotions. Melbourne is a city of 4 million, so there’s always a lot happening here. They hardly need to be falling all over themselves over this, but it was cool to see a city so completely rally around a big event.
As far as sightseeing goes, the list in Melbourne isn’t tremendously long. There are very few must-see sights and I quickly discovered Melbourne is a city that’s just nice to be in. There’s plenty to do and also nothing to really do. I’ll get into this more later but Melbourne is very much a city for living in, not for visiting, though that said, it’s a great place to be a tourist.
The Prahan/Windsor area (pronounced pr-AH-n, one syllable, which I conveniently only discovered after I left Melbourne) is the token “transitional” neighborhood, but it doesn’t feel like it’s going to fully transition any time soon. Most of the storefronts, tucked under old-timey awnings covering the sidewalk, are now populated by trendy taco restaurants and boutiques selling organic cotton t-shirts and the like, but there are still a handful of tired Chinese restaurants, questionable piercing and tattoo parlors (with names like Body Pleasure Piercing), and a shocking number of pawn shops selling items like this:
North of Prahan is South Yarra, the more posh version of Prahan, and it’s almost painfully quaint. Melbourne has this ability to take things that would seem insufferably pretentious anywhere else—artisanal olive oil emporiums, handmade leather bowtie boutiques, barbershops with barbers named “Thommy” who give you a shot of small-batch whiskey with a $70 shave, ridiculous niche bookstores—and make them interesting, original, and approachable. Both Prahan and South Yarra are a study in this process of de-pretensionization. Every barista is bearded (and only serves pour-over coffee), every restaurant has exposed brick walls and a neo-steampunk design motif, every art gallery is experimental, every other menu features “global street food,” but somehow you don’t hate it. Instead you walk around and think, “A haberdashery with fedoras, how charming and not obnoxious! You never see this kind of thing in Williamsburg.”
Head west and north across the river and you come to the center of the city. This is your typical central business district with the usual hubbub, business-oriented restaurants and coffee shops, and a large train station (Flinders Street Station is unusually beautiful though). But even this part of Melbourne feels like Melbourne; it has personality. I kept waiting to turn down a street and think, “Oh, this is boring.” But it never happened. At one point I ended up on Swanston Street, where you’ll find all the standard souvenirs shops and McDonald’s, but then you come across a restaurant called Lord of the Fries and how can you be mad at that? The most uninteresting part Melbourne I came across was Collins Street, which only lacks in charm because it’s where Tiffany & Co. and Chanel have set up shop, so its most egregious offense is being the sanitized, buttoned-up part of town.
I don’t want to go overboard here. Melbourne is still a big city with all the drudgery and not so good parts that come along with that, but I was taken aback by how much of it felt so unique and so interesting in a way that wasn’t oppressively bourgeois or try-hard hipster-y or just gross in a drab, big city way.
The historical part of the city is in East Melbourne and this is the part of town where you have to be willing to be a creep because the sightseeing consists of wandering around outside people’s cool houses. Melbourne’s official tourism board puts together a map of this area with a bunch of highlights, and different houses have blue placards like you see in London designating them as historic buildings and talking about who lived there. So if you buy a house in this neighborhood, you know what you’re signing up for, but it can still make taking pictures feel a little voyeuristic. East Melbourne is and has always been an affluent suburb and the quality of the Victorian and colonial homes shows it, but not in overly ostentatious ways. These houses are all listed as “mansions,” but by today’s standards, they’re practically townhouses, albeit exceptionally nice ones.
Once you’ve had your fill of loitering, you can head over to Fitzroy Gardens nearby, where if you’re lucky, you can creep on some wedding ceremonies and check out the Cook’s Cottage, which is a 250-year-old cottage an English captain brought over from the motherland piece by piece. Most importantly, they have people in colonial dress, which is how you know you’ve found a quality tourist attraction. I’m actually not kidding, I genuinely love things that involve people in period dress. The cheesiness of it totally works on me and if someone looks like he could have been Paul Revere’s neighbor, I’m in.
Melbourne’s signature feature is probably its laneways and arcades. These tiny pedestrian-only streets, some open air and some not, were originally built as service roads between Melbourne’s main streets, but have now been converted into crammed alleyways overflowing with squished cafes and specialty shops. These areas are Melbourne’s most iconic element and they’re great. The restaurants are practically ¾-sized, but very inviting; on a rainy day, it’s almost impossible to grab a table that’s actually fully inside and not spilling out into the central courtyard. There’s something very Old World European about the rickety, hole-in-the-wall eateries and old-school ice cream and candy stores.
For a very different side of Melbourne, you can head over to Crown Towers. This is your standard nice hotel-casino-shopping mall megaplex and even though it’s only one “building” technically, it takes up an enormous section of the downtown area and is one of the tallest buildings in the city.
I’m not entirely sure how I ended up here; I may have heard a rumor this is where the top tennis players stay during the Open, it doesn’t matter. The point is, this place is nuts. If you’ve been to Caesars Palace (it drives me nuts that there is no apostrophe in that name!), then the Crown Towers is not going to astound you, but this place actually exists in the real world (i.e. not Las Vegas) and it’s out of control.
The design scheme is like a combination of the sets from an old James Bond movie set in China, a collection of light-up animals stolen from Disney World (note: I discovered the animals were a temporary thing for Chinese New Year, but they were still horrible), and the furniture from the Kardashian’s living room. It’s so bad but so transfixing, and so incongruous with an otherwise very cool, laidback, not showy city.
Melbourne gets a lot of accolades from travel magazines and such for being a really “liveable” city. I don’t often trust metrics like that, but there is so much validity to that claim. Melbourne is a city designed for its residents. Housing seems affordable. The parks are well maintained. There are trashcans and recycling bins with icons on the top that actually make sense. There are parking spaces and affordable parking lots in the downtown area and amazing fresh food markets instead of grocery stores. None of these things are particularly sexy or that important to tourists, but they make living in a city so much easier. It’s amazing how rare this idea seems, how few cities appear really to have their residents in mind. New York is the ultimate example of this; it may be a great city, but it is not great in a lot of ways for the people who live there.
Further evidence of Melbourne’s general awesomeness: I was walking through the botanic gardens—completely free and public—one morning and heard people yelling in the distance. Hoping it was one of those cosplay conventions where you have people dressed up as Lancelot and Dumbledore fighting Thor, I headed over and realized it was a production of The Wind in the Willows being staged by the local Shakespeare company for a kids’ show. And they really committed to it! The costumes were great, the sets were pretty elaborate, and the actors were not phoning it in. It was raining that morning, but everyone seemed like they were having a great time. I know children’s theatre is hardly revolutionary, but I felt like I kept stumbling on things like this around the city.
Undoubtedly there are bad things about Melbourne, but I couldn’t find them. While residents complaining about their city is a God-given right anywhere, I never met a Melbournite, either an expat or an Aussie, who had any real gripes about their city. No city is perfect, but Melbourne seems to come pretty close.
Because I’ve been so delinquent in my writing, I have a few more posts about Australia that will follow shortly. Check back for my upcoming ramblings about Tasmania.
Updated: Headline explanation