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If Sydney is the New York of the Southern Hemisphere, then Melbourne is Boston or Philadelphia, with attractions centralized rather than sprawling, a low-key atmosphere, a traditional look and tons of restaurants, cafes, nightlife and cultural destinations. Melbourne prides itself on being one of the world's most livable cities, and while that may indeed be true, the capital of the state of Victoria is also one of the most delightful to visit -- welcoming, relaxed, international and cultural.
The 1850's gold rush in the state of Victoria propelled Melbourne to become one of the world's great cities by the 1880's, when it was the chief conduit for people, goods and financial matters in and out of Australia.
Melbourne was and still is the most English of Australia's cities, and yet it also has a highly cosmopolitan population of more than three million. Waves of British, Italian and Greek immigrants began arriving after World War II, and when immigration restrictions changed to allow Asians to become residents, a huge influx arrived, including lots who became students at Melbourne University. As the "uni" is close to the city center, the sidewalks tend to be as crowded and lively as those in Manhattan.
The Yarra River slices through the city, and leafy parks and open spaces give relief from the vehicular traffic that travels, as in Britain and New Zealand, on the left. North of the Yarra River, you will find the commercial heart and to the south most of the museums, theaters, concert halls and open spaces -- including the lovely Royal Botanic Gardens. Nearby inland and coastal neighborhoods like Carlton, Fitzroy, Richmond, Toorak and St. Kilda are worth exploring on foot, with each area having its own distinctive flavor.
Happily, pedestrians have lots of rights, and walking is free-flowing and safe. It's also easy to navigate the city via its wonderful tram (trolley) system. The first electric models began running in 1889, and unlike so many other cities, Melbourne never abandoned them. In fact, the network is expanding and well run. It's a pleasure to see them gliding rhythmically through the streets, and they're a joy to travel on.
Due to its southern location, Melbourne gets cloudy, rainy and relatively cold in the winter months (the northern hemisphere's summer) and warms to pleasantly (and sometimes searingly) hot during its summer. Given that Melbournians complain a lot about their winters, travelers are usually pleased to find out that most cruise ships call at Melbourne during the Australian summer. Consider coming out early for a stay of several days before (most likely) joining your ship in Sydney, a short flight or a pleasant daylong train ride away.
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The most intriguing places to shop are the one-block arcades, such as the Block Arcade between Collins and Little Collins and the Royal Arcade between Little Collins and Bourke Street Mall. Bourke Street Mall itself is a major, pedestrianized shopping precinct with two department stores: David Jones and Myer. Aboriginal art; paintings on paper, canvas and bark; sculptures and musical instruments are popular buys there and in the museum shops. The eastern end (formerly called the Paris end) of Collins is a center for high fashion. The brand Country Road is known for its quality Australian designs. Melbourne Central, between Latrobe and Lonsdale Streets, is a modern, multilevel complex of 300 shops, restaurants and a multiplex theater.
English is spoken with various, distinctive Melbourne accents, including an upper-middle-class one often close to British English. The city, by the way, is pronounced Mel-bun not Mel-born. The first meal of the day is breakie, food is tucker and a response to a "thank you" is usually no worries. Once, for me, it was even no dramas. A hotel may actually be a pub, and an institution of higher education is simply called uni. See ya laytah is often said upon parting, even if you never expect to see the person again.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Bank ATM's are available all around the city. The largest coin denominations are the tiny, gold-color two-dollar pieces and the larger, gold-color one-dollar pieces. (We know that seems backwards so pay extra attention when counting your change.) Check www.oanda.com or www.XE.com for the latest exchange rates. Also you should know that Australia no longer uses pennies, so all prices are rounded to the nearest five cent increment.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships tie up at Station Pier in Port Melbourne, the dock formerly used for overseas liners and the current facility for the Spirit of Tasmania, the overnight ferry that sails across the Bass Strait to Devonport on the island of Tasmania. Melbourne's nearby skyline is well within view.
The immediate port area is relatively quiet with few restaurants and stores near the pier. More retail outlets are available just north along the tram line in South Melbourne. But one oversized deli/general store adjacent to the tram terminal can be useful for immediate needs like coffee, snacks and sundries.
By Tram: One of Melbourne's famous city tram routes has a terminal at Port Melbourne, a five-minute walk from Station Pier. Stations and trams have onboard coin-operated ticket machines (usually no conductors) for buying one-way tickets, roundtrips and Myki cards (a debit card that you can replenish as needed) for tram and bus travel. Melbourne's many trams glide about almost everywhere you want to visit, and if not, buses supplement. If in doubt, ask a local. Aussies are very friendly.
The ride from Port Melbourne to the city center takes 20 minutes, and once there, lots of the best sites are within walking distance. The central district also has a free City Circle tram that operates daily in both directions every 12 minutes. It makes a large loop along the perimeter, bounded by Flinders, Spring and Latrobe Streets and the Harbour Esplanade at Docklands. A complete circuit takes about an hour. These vintage trams provide a commentary, are maroon in color, marked "City Center" and provide a good overview.
By Taxi: Melbourne taxis are painted yellow and can be found in designated spots outside hotels and at the two railways stations -- Flinders Street and Southern Cross. If you see a taxi with the rooftop light illuminated, it's empty, and you can hail it from the street. Taxis are metered, and drivers do not expect a tip, though sometimes rounding up the fare to the next dollar is appropriate. Surcharges only apply between midnight and 5 a.m. From the cruise terminal at Station Pier, a ride to the central business district will cost about $20. To and from the airport, it'll be about $50.
By Foot: Melbourne Greeter Service matches visitors with a local resident and volunteer guide for free two- to four-hour walking orientations. Twenty-four hours' notice is required, and tours leave at 9:30 a.m. from the visitor center. For reservations, phone 03 9658 9658 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The spacious underground visitor center at Federation Square, the city's principal meeting place, is directly across from Flinders Street Station. The personnel are helpful, and the racked information brochures are plentiful and include handy little booklets of Melbourne Walks, featuring maps and sightseeing information. In addition, City Ambassadors, volunteers wearing red outfits and hats, roam the city center to answer questions.
By Train: For trips into the suburbs and outlying cities, trains leave from either the relatively new Southern Cross station (formerly called Spencer Street) or Flinders Street station, both located in the city center. Flinders Street station, completed in 1911, is a fabulous mustard-colored pile of Edwardian Baroque architecture, decorated with arches, domes and a clock tower facing Federation Square. Southern Cross, with its soaring train shed, handles the V-Line country trains, long-distance trains and coaches, and the Skybus to and from the airport.
By Bus: The red Skybus links Melbourne's airport (international and domestic terminals) with Southern Cross station every 10 to 15 minutes, and the journey takes about a half hour. A free shuttle links most hotels with the Skybus at Southern Cross station.
For information on public transportation by train, tram or bus, visit http://ptv.vic.gov.au/.
Watch Out For
Be sure to observe what is called a hook turn at intersections where cars wanting to make a right turn across the tram tracks must move into the far left lane when entering the intersection and then proceed with the green light of the cross street. Also, watch for the vertical white signal light that gives trams priority at intersections while car traffic may be stopped.
Federation Square is the indoor-outdoor Grand Central, the city's premier gathering spot. Geometrically designed buildings housing art galleries, cinemas, shops and cafes surround a large open area used for concerts, outdoor films, sitting, strolling and people watching. The city's excellent Visitor Center is located here in spacious underground premises.
At the Ian Potter Centre: National Gallery of Victoria, you'll get free access, except for special exhibitions. (A recent one dedicated to Australian landscape artist Fred Williams was well worth the price of entry.) The museum has a wonderfully eclectic, three-level interior design, with each room varied in shape and color. It houses the largest collection of Australian art, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art on canvas and bark; intriguing sculptures made from wood and found objects like metal and barbed wire; and Australian colonial art, landscapes and impressionist works. (Located in Federation Square, the museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. It's closed on Mondays.)
The National Gallery of Victoria International is located just south of the Yarra River and is accessed by the Princes Bridge and St. Kilda Road. Admission is free to the general collection, which includes works by major European artists. Special exhibitions require a fee. (It's located at 180 St. Kilda Road and is open Wednesday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It's closed Tuesdays.)
The Arts Centre is located along St. Kilda Road; the complex includes the State Theatre, the Playhouse, Fairfax Studio and other venues. The lobbies' art works are open to the public. (180 St. Kilda Road; open Wednesday - Monday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
The State Library of Victoria established in 1854, houses two million books, and its handsome reading room (viewed best from Levels 5 & 6) was modeled after London's original British Museum Library Reading Room. The central dome provides galleries for two permanent exhibitions: The Changing Face of Victoria (covering more than 200 years with historic artifacts, photos, drawings, maps and a video) and Mirror of the World (books and ideas, an exhibition from the library's valuable rare book collection). Admission is free. Internet use is also free -- there's a wireless hotspot. (You'll find it at 328 Swanston Street; it's open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
St. Paul's Cathedral, located at the corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets and across from Federation Square, is English Gothic Revival in style with an interior of decorative mosaics, floor tiles and wood carvings. A boys' choir sings at 5:10 p.m. every Tuesday through Friday and at Sunday services. The church spire (321 feet) is climbable. On the opposite corner is the imposing mustard yellow facade of Flinders Street Railway Station with its long arcades stretching along Flinders Street and St. Kilda Road.
For a view of the city, Eureka Skydeck 88 (Riverside Quay, Southbank) affords the highest public view in the Southern Hemisphere -- 360 degrees and 935 feet up. For a truly scary experience, a glass cube called The Edge, taking 12 fearless souls, extends out beyond the building's top edge with views in all directions, including straight down. There is a charge for The Edge. (The hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Queen Victoria Market, off Elizabeth Street, a few blocks to the north end of the city's main street grid, is one of the largest pavilion-style markets of any major city in the world. It's replete with Australia's bountiful foods, arranged in rows and rows of stalls, plus delis, quick eateries and clothing stalls. People from the city center and the suburbs go there on a regular basis to shop for some of the world's finest produce. Cafes surrounding the market pavilion add to the liveliness and diversity of offerings. (It's open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
Been There, Done That
The Royal Botanic Gardens founded in 1846, comprise 99 undulating acres with 50,000 plant specimens from all over the world. Highly varied sections of the gardens include the rainforest, fern gully, camellia garden and ponds with geese, ducks and swans. It's free and may be accessed by walking about a mile via Princes Bridge and then along the Yarra River or from St. Kilda Road just south of the National Gallery of Victoria International. The area along the Yarra River has free barbecue setups and picnic tables, and the botanical garden has two attractive indoor/outdoor cafes. (It's on Birdwood Avenue, South Yarra, and it's open daily.)
Docklands -- an emerging commercial, residential, sports, marina, hotel and restaurant complex -- is still under construction in the old industrial port area, but its many restaurants, shops and public attractions are already open to visitors. You can reach Melbourne's largest new development via the free City Circle tram or river cruises.
St. Kilda is a quirky seaside suburb with a huge number of restaurants and pastry shops, especially along lively Acland Street, plus an attractive esplanade, good beach, long pier with an arts and crafts fair on Sundays, and Luna Park with its old-fashioned amusements, including a rollercoaster. It makes a nice half-day outing. Ride out on tram numbers 3, 3a, 16, 67, 96 and 112. For a variety of city views, you can go via one route and come back on another.
Rippon Lea, built by a wealthy merchant in 1868, is a grand suburban mansion set in a lovely 14-acre garden with a pond, waterfall, windmill and lookout tower. The house reflects the last owner, who redecorated some of the rooms in Hollywood style to entertain Melbourne's then-elite social set. It can be reached by train from Flinders Street in 10 minutes and via tram 67 in 20 minutes, followed by a short walk. (Hours for guided tours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Sovereign Hill, near Ballarat, re-creates Victoria's gold rush days during the 1850's, when it was the richest alluvial gold mining area in the world. See the tented and mud-and-bark hut living quarters, and watch horses hauling carts and carriages and propelling machinery. The town has candle-makers, confectionaries, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, carriage-makers, wheelwrights and furniture manufacturers. You can pan for gold, explore a mine and spend the night in a lodge overlooking the town. Take a V Line train from Southern Cross station, and 90 minutes later, you'll arrive in Ballarat, itself an architecturally outstanding Victorian city of some 90,000 residents. A free bus meets the train for the short drive to Sovereign Hill and back. Ballarat city bus 9 also provides a transfer. (It's open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Gold Museum's hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.)
Melbourne's restaurants are as diverse as its population, and food in Australia is very good with plentiful fresh produce and fish. Chinatown, in the city center, has a plethora of Asian restaurants, and Lygon Street in Carlton is lined with one Italian restaurant and cafe after another, creating a sidewalk buzz at night (less so during the day). It's touristy but fun to walk past the eateries before choosing one that appears to be the most crowded with locals. Prices may be higher than you are used to at home, but remember that a menu price includes taxes and tip (though it is now a custom to leave 5 to 10 percent at top restaurants).
Colonial Tramcar Restaurant is a long-time and highly successful Melbourne institution. A maroon city tram, plushly fitted out and air-conditioned, glides along city streets through trendy Prahan, Armadale, seaside St. Kilda and South Melbourne, while passengers enjoy a four-course, fine dining lunch with wine. Advance reservations are required. The tram departs from tram stop #125 at Normanby Road, South Melbourne. (Lunch is served from 1 to 3 p.m.)
Hopetoun Tea Rooms, located in the Block Arcade off Collins Street (No. 280-282), is an ever-popular, old-fashioned and legendary cafe that dates to 1892. It offers a sirloin beef sandwich with beetroot, crab salad and wonderful cakes at reasonable prices. (Check it out Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 03 9650 2777.)
Royal Botanic Gardens has an indoor-outdoor Terrace Cafe restaurant overlooking Ornamental Lake, a lovely setting for lunch with gourmet sandwiches, baguettes and meat pies ordered from the counter, plus an English-style afternoon tea. Prices are very reasonable. (You'll find it on Birdwood Avenue, South Yarra. 03 9252 2300.)
National Gallery of Victoria International Tea Room, located on Level 1 of the museum, offers a view of the atrium, as well as a light meal. Menu items include smoked salmon, creme fraiche, red onions and caper sandwiches; tartine of marinated beef and mozzarella; and afternoon tea, cake, scones, savories and sandwiches. (Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Tuesdays. 03 8620 2431.)
The Windsor opened in 1883 in a neo-Renaissance style and is now Australia's only original grand hotel. Formerly owned by Oberoi Hotels International, the hotel is now run independently. The rooms have high ceilings and excellent appointments, and they are well maintained. An English afternoon tea is served on various days of the week. (111 Spring Street, next to the Princess Theatre and across from Parliament House. 03 9633 6000.)
Grand Hotel overlooks the Docklands. Built into a heritage-listed building that was started in 1887 and added to over the years, it became a hotel (now owned by Accor Hotel Group) in 1997 with modern amenities and the public room styles of the 1880's. Some rooms have balconies. (33 Spencer Street, next to Southern Cross railway station. 03 9611 4567.)
Citigate Melbourne opened in 2003 across from Flinders Street Railway Station and close to Federation Square. It boasts 179 rooms. The more expensive rooms feature views of the Yarra River. (270 Flinders Street. 03 9654 6888.)
Staying in Touch
Several Internet cafes line Elizabeth Street in the heart of Melbourne between Latrobe and Flinders Streets. Rates are very reasonable.
Shore excursions in Melbourne may include city tours by bus, bike or foot; active tours like kayaking and snorkeling; and day trips to surrounding areas for wildlife or scenery viewing.
Puffing Billy Train and Farming Homestead: Start your half-day with a trip on a restored narrow-gauge steam train. Ride in open-sided carriages while passing over high trestles into forests and fern gullies in the Dandenong Ranges. Drive to the top of Dandenong Observatory for a great viewing of the surrounding lush scenery. Watch for colorful rosellas, lyrebirds, king parrots and kookaburras. Other versions of this tour take guests to wineries, wildlife sanctuaries and forests.
Panoramic Melbourne: A half-day bus tour takes in some of the city's more attractive suburbs as well as the city center. Drive past the Princess Theatre, the Arts & Cultural Center and Melbourne Cricket Grounds. You'll also take in 360-degree city views from the Melbourne Eureka Skydeck, the Southern Hemisphere's highest viewing platform, before checking out the Shrine of Remembrance and the Royal Botanic Gardens.
Horseback Ride Through Wine Country: This all-day tour includes a three-hour trail ride on horseback with stops at two vineyards for wine-tasting and a barbecue lunch at Spring Creek Farm. The scenic 90-minute drive through Mornington Peninsula to Red Hill passes along coastal cliffs and beaches.
For More Information
On the web: www.thatsmelbourne.com.au and www.visitmelbourne.com
Melbourne Visitor Centre: Federation Square, corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets (phone 03 9658 9658)
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--by Theodore W. Scull, Cruise Critic contributor