Melbourne is not as touristy as Sydney and is a great place for art, literature, and coffee lovers. While I found Sydney easy to tour in a day, it takes longer to appreciate everything Melbourne has to offer. It’s easy to get around on the number 35 tram in Melbourne CBD and best of all, it’s free. When you go beyond the CBD, you can use Uber or public transportation. For trams and buses outside the CBD, you will need a Myki Card, which allows you to tap on and off of all public transportation. You can easily buy one at the airport or the train stations.
City Tram Loop
Tram 35 runs a daily loop around Central Melbourne will stops at all the major attractions. You can hop on and hop off all day long, moving clockwise or counterclockwise. Beginning at the District Docklands and running counterclockwise, here are some things to do along the route.
The District Docklands is a place to go to spend money. There are shopping malls and restaurants, plus the Melbourne Star, a giant observation wheel with a variety of options that range in price from about $20 for a single ride to as much as $350 for a private party. The Docklands is a good option if you are traveling with young kids, since they have some little rides, like a carousel and train. I stopped for ice cream and people watching and went on my way. If I was with a friend I might have tried the glow golf, a black light mini golf place, but primarily it is expensive shopping and dining.
SEA Life Melbourne gets great reviews and I would have gone if I hadn’t just done SEA Life Sydney. Admission was $42 AUD at the time I was there, but you can get a discount if you book through their website.
The Immigration Museum is a great place to learn about the history of immigration policy and how it has shaped Victorian culture. Learn about racism through the lens of the Immigration Restriction Act, also known as the White Australia Act, which limited immigration to citizens of British countries from 1901 – 1945.
Australia is now a melting pot with over 9 million immigrants since European settlement in 1788. The Victorian Values Statement is painted proudly on the wall alongside colorful signs expressing the values, showing just how much progress has been made toward equality since the days of the Immigration Restriction Act.
Victorian Values Statement
- One law for all
- Discrimination is never acceptable
- Freedom to be yourself
- A fair go for all
- It is up to all of us to contribute to a Victoria we can be proud of
The interactive Journeys to Australia display which demonstrates the time and routes taken to Australia over the years is also a must see. Would you have guessed that the trip to Australia has become steadily shorter since the 1850s? I did, and I was incorrect. It’s true that it took 70-80 days by ship in the 1800s while it only takes about 24 hours by plane today. But I didn’t think about the refugees who come by boat, taking 6 to 24 months and great personal risk, to get here. Don’t miss this interactive display!
Identity – Yours Mine Ours
I really enjoyed this temporary exhibit that is only on until December 22. If you are near Melbourne, I highly recommend making a trip to the museum to check it out. The exhibit asks us to think about how well we know ourselves and challenges us to do three things.
- Discover something new about yourself
- Question your assumptions
- Share your thoughts
It’s rare that I get an assignment from a museum exhibit, but this one is worth putting some thought into.
East of the museum and north of Flinders St. Station there are a bunch of cool side streets to explore, filled with little shops and cafes. I recommend stopping on Desgraves for the atmosphere, but any cafe in Melbourne is likely to have a great breakfast and mocha. I drank the best mochas of my life in Melbourne – rich and creamy, not too sweet, but not too bitter.
Described by some as the heart and soul of Melbourne, Federation Square is a public gathering place that is home to some great restaurants, shops, and event venues. Here, you will find the Australian Center for the Moving Image, a museum of film, TV, video games, digital culture and art. You will also find the National Gallery of Victoria: Australia (NGV International is across the Yarra River).
NGV Australia has a nice collection of 19th – 21st century Australian art and the Joseph Brown collection on permanent display. When I was there, they had Polly Borland: Polyverse and Ken Unsworth: Truly, Madly.
Truly, Madly is the first major sculptural exhibition of Ken Unsworth’s in Melbourne, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I’m not sure what to say about Polyverse. It was a bit disturbing, but in a somewhat comical way. If this exhibit were music, it would be Babes in Toyland meets Marilyn Manson. I enjoyed watching other people react to the exhibit almost more than I enjoyed the exhibit itself. According the the NGV website, “Borland creates images that invite the viewer to see the human form in unfamiliar ways, infused both with humour and an unsettling disquiet.”
The Old Treasury Building Museum has free entry and it’s a good place to learn about the gold rush. The building itself is widely considered to be one of the nicest 19th century buildings in Melbourne. The nearby Fitzroy Gardens are 26 hectares of heritage-listed land and home to Cooks’ Cottage, built by Captain James Cook’s parents in Yorkshire, England, in 1755 and transported to Melbourne in 1934.
There is a stop near Parliament House, in case you want a picture. Across the street from Parliament is the Princess Theatre, a 1452-seat theater that is on the Victorian Heritage Register. This area is also easy walking distance to the Chinatown Precinct, but you can also do Chinatown easily enough from the next stop if you skip this one.
The Carlton Gardens are a world heritage site and a great place to stop for some quiet time. There were other people around, but when I was there it wasn’t overly crowded, and I felt like I had enough space to relax and do some deep breathing. It was a nice break from the city. The Royal Exhibition Building is on the garden grounds, but was under construction when I was visiting. Beyond that is the Melbourne Museum Melbourne Museum, which I decided not to do because it didn’t have the best reviews considering the price of $25.50. If they had slightly better reviews or a little lower ticket price, I would have gone in, but there were other things I wanted to see more.
State Library Victoria spans an entire city block and is my second favorite library in Australia. There is so much to see here! With events, exhibitions, talks, lectures, and tours, it’s impossible to get bored. The LaTrobe reading room and dome galleries were closed for construction while I was visiting as part of the library Vision 2020 redevelopment, but they are scheduled for reopening in December.
Also in this neighborhood is the Old Melbourne Gaol. The ticket price of $28 includes a self-guided tour of the cell block and a 30-minute guided tour of the watch house. I was feeling hungry and overwhelmed when I got there and the man who sold me the ticket was talking really fast. I didn’t understand anything he said to me the first time, but after I had him repeat everything, I figured out that I could walk around the gaol for as long as I wanted and then join any of the tours that day, which start from somewhere around the direction he was pointing. About to go completely nonverbal, I chose not to attempt asking questions and wandered into the gaol.
The gaol itself was pretty cool. You can go inside the rooms where the prisoners were held and see the death masks which are molds of the face they made after a prisoner was hanged. They have bushranger and folk hero Ned Kelly’s death mask on prominent display, made after Kelly was hanged for murder. In its 74 years, 133 prisoners were executed at the gaol.
I skipped the watch tower tour and went for lunch. I regret a little bit not going back after lunch, but after several days of nonstop travel, I was pretty burned out, so I just moved on.
The Greek and Turkish influence shows all over Melbourne, but is most obvious in the Greek Precinct along Lonsdale. There are plenty of great restaurants and cafes, so I’m sure you won’t be disappointed wherever you go in this neighborhood. That said, I recommend Goz City. The old Turkish ladies making bread in the window caught my eye, so I tried it. I’m only sorry I never made it back a second time. They make delicious gozleme flatbreads which they stuff with filling, kind of like a Turkish quesadilla.
Last stop before you complete the loop is Queen Victoria Market. It’s actually off the main loop a little bit and could easily be done as part of a North Melbourne tour instead. Unfortunately, I never made it to the market, but it looks like they have some great food and shopping. This could be a better option than shopping at the District Docklands.
Southbank and South Melbourne
There are so many beautiful gardens in this area that you could spend anywhere from 3 hours to a full day exploring, depending on your interest level. Here is a list of the gardens and attractions, beginning just south of the Yarra River and stretching from north to south.
- Alexandra Gardens
- Queen Victoria Gardens
- Kings Domain and Sidney Myer Music Bowl
- Pioneer Womens Garden Memorial
- Shrine of Remembrance
- Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria
I didn’t know about the Shrine of Remembrance and was surprised to find a building in this style in the middle of the gardens in Melbourne. This is where Melbourne honors Victorians who served in the armed conflicts Australia has fought in. I didn’t go inside, but from outside, the building is spectacular.
There are a variety of ways to enjoy the Royal Botanic Gardens, ranging in price from free to $35. You can grab a map on your way in and explore the gardens yourself for free, which is what I did. I saw at least half of what the gardens have to offer, including the Fern Gully, Ornamental Lake, and Guilfoyle’s Volcano, just to name a few.
The Garden Discovery Tour is also free and runs twice a day at 10:30 am and 2 pm. There are vehicle and lake tours, or on the high end of the price range, you can do the Aboriginal Heritage Walk at 11 am. On this tour, you will learn about the Kulin People and their traditional use of plants.
And for parents with children, the Ian Potter Children’s Garden provides an interactive educational experience where kids can learn about nature.
If you walk back to CBD from the gardens, you will find NGV International on St. Kilda Rd, on the left hand side. This is the second of two buildings that houses the NGV collection and is the oldest and most popular museum in Australia.
There is plenty to do in North Melbourne, too. I didn’t get this far myself, but if you do, you can see the Melbourne Zoo, University of Melbourne, Ian Potter Museum, and Readings Carlton, before walking down Lygon St. through the Italian Precinct leading back to the CBD.
An adult ticket to the zoo is $37 AUD and a walk around the university campus is free. If NGV isn’t enough for the art lovers, you can stop at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, For my fellow book lovers, Readings Melbourne is two blocks east. This is one of the most popular of many, many book stores in Melbourne (see UNESCO City of Literature section below).
Lygon St. is famous for its Italian heritage and restaurants. There are plenty of places to stop if you are craving good pasta or pizza. If you walk south down Lygon, you will run into the north end of CBD, with Carlton Gardens and the Melbourne Museum to the east and Queen Victoria Market to the west.
UNESCO City of Literature
I had to dedicate an entire section just to Melbourne, UNESCO City of Literature. I stepped into a bookstore in the CBD and found a literary map of Melbourne, which of course made me so excited that my stomach got fluttery.
One side of the map shows the 26 book shop and library stops in CBD. Flip it over to find a map of another 37 literary stops outside the downtown area.
You can learn more about literary Melbourne at the City of Literature website and more about UNESCO creative cities in general (with a color coded, interactive map!) at UNESCO Creative Cities Network.
I recommend spending at least a week in Melbourne. The CBD itself takes a couple days to experience, and you can spend a day each exploring South and North Melbourne. Next time I’m in Melbourne my schedule will look something like this.
Day 1: CBD/city tram loop
Day 2: Bookstore and café tour
Day 3: Break
Day 4: CBD/city tram loop and Bookstore tour, hitting the sites you weren’t able to see on the first two days
Day 5: North Melbourne
Day 6: Break
Day 7: South Melbourne
For a day trip from Melbourne, check out my St Kilda Beach post.
If you have any questions about Melbourne or ideas to add to this itinerary, please share your thoughts in the comments!