Melbourne Travel Tips
Melbourne was the final stop in our brief tour of Australia and one that proved to be a highlight of the journey. Without exaggeration, Melbourne is one of the best cities I have visited anywhere in the world, and weeks could be spent exploring the nooks and crannies of this beautiful town. The hidden lanes, gorgeous architecture, world class museums and quirky neighborhoods all combine to make this a not-to-miss destination on your Australian adventure. If you only have a couple of days though, here are my recommendations to get the most out of your time.
Hidden Secrets Lanes and Arcades Tour
Lately I’ve become convinced that the best way to get to know a new city is through a well done walking tour. I don’t mean your average, run of the mill group tour, but a unique, fun walking event. Hidden Secrets came highly recommended by our concierge at the InterContinental Rialto, and I soon learned why. Led by the company’s quirky founder, Fiona, we quickly jumped into the strange and labyrinthine system of laneways and arcades that makes Melbourne so distinctive.
Fiona has designed tours that showcase the beauty of the city, along with its hidden secrets. She focuses on small businesses and how they combine to create the unique atmosphere found only in Melbourne. The tours can be tailored to the participant, but the goals are always the same. To show a side of Melbourne the visitor may not be able to find on their own and to focus on local content, alongside innovations in design and culture.
There is, in my opinion, no better way to start off your Melbourne adventures than with this tour.
After the tour, return to one of the many great cafes or bistros you passed on your walk, maybe do some shopping at one of the locally owned businesses, and then head out to see more of the touristy side of the city.
City Circle Tram
The walking tour was a great way to start off your day, but it doesn’t give you the whole picture of the city. The best way to do this is through the free, yes free, City Circle Tram. Trams are an integral part of Melbourne’s public transportation system, and every visitor will find themselves on one at some point. The burgundy trams known as the City Circle complete a loop of the city throughout the day stopping at key points of interest. If you just want to see the whole city, the loop takes about 45 minutes, or you can get off at any one of the many stops to explore more on foot. We took the tram and our first stop was at the Old Melbourne Gaol.
Old Melbourne Gaol Experience
I’ve been on a lot of old jail tours (yeah, I don’t know why either), but this was one of the best. (Kilmainham in Dublin is still #1) The Melbourne version though is decidedly different and one of the most engaging I’ve toured. The old prison is at the heart of the tour, restored and each cell serves as an exhibition area, full of details about inmates or prison life. I’m sure the Australians in the group heard of many of the notorious criminals, but most were new to me, except for Ned Kelly. Australians have an unusual obsession with Ned, as I detail in this post, but the area devoted to him did a great job of finally explaining to me some of his significance. What makes the Melbourne Gaol experience different though is that it’s not just a walk through an old jail, it continues through modern jurisprudence. Part of the admission price includes the role play tour at the City Watch House, next door. Guests are ushered through, given new identities of various criminals, and are taken on a sometimes brusque look at what inmate life is like even today.
State Library of Victoria
Not far from the Gaol is this historic library, famous for its 19th century art and architecture. I love historic buildings and this still active library is magnificent as it blends history with modern utility. We didn’t spend a lot of time in the library, just long enough to check out the La Trobe Reading Room and other notable spaces, but it was a fun stop.
By this time it’s late afternoon, it’s been a busy day, so head back to your hotel and rest before going out in search of dinner. Melbourne is a real foodie town, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the choices are nearly limitless. In fact, they can be a little daunting. Best to ask for recommendations from the hotel or locals before braving the trendy restaurant scene for yourself. We went a different route, we decided to combine a neighborhood exploration with our dinner search.
Not unlike San Francisco, Melbourne’s Chinatown arose from its gold-rush days and like its California cousin, remains a strong and vibrant community. You’ll find everything you’d expect, from shops selling Chinese festival decorations to scores of delicious looking dim sum houses. We, however, were lured in by the smell of roasted duck from a nearby restaurant. It was a small local place, English wasn’t an option and the universal language of pointing was in full force. There are many great, little cafes and restaurants in this part of Melbourne that it’s hard to really go wrong.
Melbourne Cricket Ground
Check with your hotel to see if there’s anything going on and if so, be sure to get a ticket. Home to cricket for part of the year and Aussie Rules Football for the other part, this is a huge sports venue and really provides great insight into the sporting culture of Australia.
I’m a sightseer by nature, so my itineraries tend to reflect that. I love history, but I recognize not everyone travels the same way I do. Day 2 could easily be spent on a great day trip (detailed below) or just relaxing around town. I didn’t do that though, instead this is how I spent my time in Melbourne.
Royal Exhibition Building
After a short tram ride, we were deposited at the 19th century Expo building. Originally built for the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition, the beautiful building was once the largest in Australia and is surrounded by acres of beautiful gardens. We didn’t take advantage, but there’s a daily tour that goes into the history of the building and how it has been repurposed over the years. Right next door to the Expo is the world class Melbourne Museum.
Basically, this museum has it all. The museum features natural history, a rainforest, Aboriginal history, Victoria history and a revolving door of amazing touring expositions featuring everything from ancient Egypt to the wonders of Mesopotamia. Kids will love it, adults are fascinated, but it’s big. If you want to do this museum right, be sure to allocate plenty of time and energy.
Lunchtime! So jump on the Circle Tram and check out the Flinders Street Station/Federation Square part of town to enjoy the city the way the residents do. There are tons of shops, restaurants and even festivals to keep you occupied.
The city center of Melbourne is great, but its neighborhoods can be just as quirky and charming. One of my favorite neighborhoods is St. Kilda.
This time you’ll have to pay for the tram ride, but it’s cheap and the trip doesn’t take too long to reach this seaside escape. There’s a lot to do in this area in its own right, it’s been a popular get away for city residents since the 19th century. Luna Park is an old amusement park that’s as great for the ambiance as it is for the actual rides. My favorite activity though is to just admire the surroundings. Take a walk around the fancy neighborhood and then walk down the long pier to admire the sunset. Finish off the day at any of the outdoor cafes offering water views and enjoy what it means to live in one of the best cities in the world.
Melbourne Day Trips
There is plenty to do in Melbourne to keep you occupied without leaving town, but if you have a little extra time, here are a couple of great diversions relatively close to the city.
Healesville started in the 1920s and since the very beginning has always been a research facility. It also evolved a unique tourist element, drawing visitors to witness firsthand the Australian wildlife on site. The Sanctuary was responsible for the first captive breeding of the platypus and is currently working diligently to protect near extinct endemic species. Healesville is primarily focused on species native to Australia and more than just a showcase, it is a living, breathing sanctuary in the purest of terms.
The Sanctuary also features Magic Moments, a way to get closer to the wildlife surrounding you. For an extra fee visitors can hand feed kangaroos, pet a dingo or even get kissed by a koala. Healesville though is also an active sanctuary, saving the lives of native species every day. The hospital is constructed in such a way that guests can visit and see for themselves the important work done at this remarkable institution. Simply put, it’s a world class wildlife facility.
Penguin Parade at Phillip Island
Melbourne residents have been flooding Phillip for decades to bear witness to one of the most amazing animal oddities in the world, the nightly return of the tiny and appropriately named Little Penguins to their burrows.
The penguin parade has been occurring nightly at Summerland Beach for a very long time, but tourists first found them more than 80 years ago. At first the affair wasn’t organized, people simply showed up by ferry, spent the night on the island and walked over to the beach for the spectacle. A bridge connecting the island was built in the 1940s though and with it came a huge influx of tourists and with them destructive influences. Before long many of the penguin habitats had been destroyed and dogs were killing the minuscule penguins. To its credit, the government responded by creating the Phillip Island Nature Park and constructing fences and viewing stands that would provide views of the parade without harming the penguins. Over the years these efforts were modernized and expanded into the well oiled machine that is the penguin complex of today.
InterContinental Melbourne – The Rialto
Our stay in Melbourne was greatly enhanced by our stay at the remarkable luxury property, the InterContinental Melbourne - The Rialto. This historic property is located in downtown Melbourne, walking distance to Flinders Street Station, Federation Square and some of the best laneways and arcades in the city. Its location isn’t the only amazing thing about the InterContinental, it’s one of the best hotels I have ever had the privilege of experiencing. The service was stunning, the entire staff went above and beyond in order to help make sure our vacation was the best it could be. The rooms were so great I would move in if given the opportunity. Add to that the fact the hotel has integrated itself with a historic building, the Rialto, and you have what is arguably the best hotel in Melbourne. It ticks every box and adds a few more to the list. Stay here if you have the opportunity.