MELBOURNE HAS a reputation as a buttoned-down town, but arrive on the first Tuesday in November and you might think you’ve stumbled into the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Businesses brandish “closed” signs; blokes don suits and colourful ties; women parade a rainbow whirl of hats, fascinators, and other head-gear; and a general mood of silliness prevails. This is Melbourne Cup Day, the culmination of an annual horseracing carnival, when even those who can’t tell blinkers from bookmakers feel compelled to have “a flutter,” or a bet.
Inspiring fun and frivolity, the Melbourne Cup, more than any other event, illustrates the split sensibilities of the city’s close to 4 million residents. For while Melbourne, frequently described as Australia’s most European city, often appears conservative and refined, it also possesses a delightful sense of whimsy. From the chiming of the green and gold “rattlers,” or trams, to the scent of roasted chestnuts wafting from the back of street carts, Melbourne tempers modern sophistication with old-style charm.
DAY ONE / Awaken, stretch, and savour views of Melbourne and the meandering Yarra River from your room at The Langham Melbourne. This big hotel boasts a boutique atmosphere and a decorating philosophy that effortlessly melds crystal chandeliers and sweeping marble staircases with comfortable couches and cloud-soft beds. Its understated elegance along with discreet service and an award-winning spa have made it the hotel of choice for high-profile visitors including Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
Enjoy a sumptuous buffet breakfast at the hotel’s Melba restaurant before taking an easy stroll across the river toward the central shopping district. It’s here you’ll begin to glimpse Melbourne’s many mysterious layers, as the sensible crisscrossing streets are subverted by a honeycomb of semi-secret lanes and alleyways brimming with cafés, shops, and other hidden treasures. The fully restored Block Arcade, dating to 1891, is one of the most beautiful and architecturally significant examples of the Victorian Mannerist style. Howey Place, with its lashings of art and attitude, is also worth a wander.
Many boutiques here are exclusive to, or originated in, Melbourne. Particularly recommended are Brimelows for luxury leather goods and La Bella Donna for high-end homegrown fashion. Fancy a taste of what Melbourne’s quirky coffee culture has to offer? Pause to enjoy a steaming double shot in the cosy (some say tree house–style) surrounds of nearby Switchboard.
Walk up Swanston Street to the State Library of Victoria. This is Australia’s oldest library, offering free exhibitions of items including armour belonging to the infamous bushranger Ned Kelly. Allow ample time to explore the atmospheric Old Melbourne Gaol. The bleak bluestone building has a history intertwined with some of Australia’s most defining events, including the Gold Rush and the Eureka Stockade Rebellion. As the site of 135 hangings, the prison contains a unique collection of death masks of executed criminals and related memorabilia. A tour of the City Watch House next door, where visitors are “booked” for various offences and briefly locked in pitch-black cells by actors posing as policemen, can be a sobering experience.
The CBD (central business district) lunch crowd will have thinned by the time you reach Nostro Baretto, so pull up a chair and make your selection from an everchanging chalkboard menu. This newish restaurant has built its reputation on rustic Italian recipes conjured from fresh, seasonal produce.
Walk off the zabaglione by weaving through Melbourne’s Chinatown, the oldest area of continuous Chinese settlement in the Western world. Browse the small shops filled with exotic food and knickknacks, and then make your way to the Chinese Museum. Here, five levels of galleries are home to diverse riches, including wedding gowns woven in gold; shoes worn by women with bound feet; the relics of market gardeners, herbalists, and traders; and the Millennium Dragon, the largest Chinese dragon in the world.
As late afternoon slides into evening, amble to The Deanery. This wine bar is tucked away at the end of a dimly lit blind alley, leading you to anticipate an encounter with the city’s seamier side. Instead, the doors open to reveal a sophisticated den with a split-level dining room. The menu is small but selective—after all, your attention will be on the 11-page wine list, which includes a collection of rare and older vintages from around the world.
Savour your last glass of pinot gris; then take a gentle stroll toward the Paris end of Collins Street, so named for its exaggerated tree-lined elegance. Enjoy the bustling atmosphere before turning left onto Spring Street for a performance at your final destination on this first perfect day, The Princess Theatre. This landmark building dates from 1886 and is rumoured to be haunted by the ghost of a singer who died during a performance of the opera Faust.
DAY TWO / Melbourne is frequently described as the cycling capital of Australia, so what better way to blend in than by saddling up? After a stop at the concierge desk to collect the bicycles you requested ahead of your visit, take an exhilarating spin past the ornamental Alexandra Gardens and on toward breakfast. This safe, winding bike path takes you past rowing shacks and boat sheds as it runs parallel to the celebrated Yarra River all the way to Kanteen. You’ll know you’re getting close when you spot the quirky sculptures dotting Herring Island. Don’t let this casual café’s ancient history as a toilet and shower block put you off: The coffee is first-rate, and the menu options include Spanish eggs and black sticky rice as well as toast or croissants served with Jam Lady Jams, made by a friend of Kanteen proprietor Mark Tanner.
Cross the river for your return cycling trip; it will give you a different perspective on the city. Return the bikes to the hotel and walk to Federation Square. It would be an understatement to describe the design of this vast, futuristic complex constructed of steel, stone, and glass as controversial, but, love it or hate it, distinctive Federation Square forms the undeniable cultural heart of Melbourne. It contains a multitude of art galleries, museums, shops, and cafés, including The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, which has an outstanding collection of indigenous art. Those harbouring celluloid fantasies will also enjoy The Australian Centre for the Moving Image, focusing on cinema’s evolution from its early days to the latest digital technology.
You’re lunching at the ferociously popular MoVida, with a tapas-style menu to suit both large and small appetites. Here, chef Frank Camorra delights in showcasing the sausages, slow-cooked braises, and other home-cooked Spanish foods he grew up with. Sample the costilla con sobrasada (lamb cutlet with pork and paprika pâté), but be sure to leave room for the classic chocolate-dunked churros (Spanish doughnuts).
It’s been an energetic and extended morning, so return to the hotel’s luxurious Chuan Spa for some rest, relaxation, and muscle rejuvenation. Plunge into the indoor saltwater pool or contemplate Melbourne’s soaring skyline from the bubbling Jacuzzi before indulging in one of more than 40 specialty treatments based on the holistic principles of traditional Chinese medicine. Particularly recommended for couples is the Serenity Shen signature service, which incorporates a soak in a private geisha tub, a stone therapy massage, and a refreshing marine algae mask.
Feeling relaxed and refreshed, step out for dinner at The Brasserie by Philippe Mouchel. This stylish eatery is set in the opulent surrounds of the landmark Crown casino complex, the Southern Hemisphere’s largest casino. Furious bursts of flame on the rooftop mark the passing of each hour, but even this extravagance cannot distract from the food. Diners clamour for Mouchel’s signature snails served in a tomato fondue with garlic and parsley butter.
Resist, if you can, the lure of the lucre and cross the sculpture-lined pedestrian footbridge en route to familiar territory. Melbourne’s Regent Theatre oozes old-fashioned glamour and is presenting the award-winning musical Wicked until mid-2009.
DAY THREE / You’re in for an authentic Melbourne experience as you catch the tram to bohemian Brunswick Street for breakfast at Mario’s Café. Owner Mario Maccarone began serving all-day breakfasts to cater to the area’s crowd of late-sleeping artists and musicians, but the café welcomes all comers. Pull up a stool at the front window so you can watch the passing parade and tuck into eggs Benedict or Florentine or else try Mario’s own Bircher muesli with grated apple and yogurt.
After lingering over a last cup of caffe, turn left and take a rewarding stroll down Brunswick Street. This strip is home to an eclectic smattering of shops that perfectly showcase the artistic, individualistic nature of one of Melbourne’s most famous funky inner-city suburbs, Fitzroy. Particularly worth a visit are Kleins perfumery and Scally and Trombone, with its assortment of millinery and jewellery. The Greenstore has cutting-edge gifts for eco-conscious friends back home, and the T2 store across the road sparked a small revolution for tea aficionados.
From here, you’re close enough to hoof it across to The Melbourne Museum, with its focus on the Australian, and in particular, the Melbourne way of life. Highlights include a living fern gully that replicates Victoria’s mountain forests and the mounted hide of Phar Lap, the champion racehorse that died in 1932.
After three days on foot, your legs might be tiring, so cab it down to The Press Club for lunch. Located on the ground floor of an old newspaper building, this restaurant offers fresh interpretations of classic Greek food in a city that has the third-largest Greek population in the world. Slide into one of the plush leather banquettes and peruse a menu that has been described as “a combination of Hellenic nostalgia and avant-Greek experimentation.” The four-course kerasma offers a taste of many dishes, including mussel spanakopita and baklava with licorice ice cream, but be warned: Portions are extremely generous.
Around the corner are the Fitzroy Gardens. This landscaped 19th-century wonder is spread over 64 acres. Points of interest within the garden include the family home of English navigator James Cook, a model Tudor Village, and The Fairies’ Tree featuring mythical and realistic carvings.
Head back across the river to Pure South for an early dinner. This award-winning restaurant serves seafood, dry-aged steak, milk-fed lamb, hand-fed pork, quail, pheasant, and other offerings sourced exclusively from the Tasmanian and Bass Strait islands.
With the taste of a smooth semifreddo on your lips, take a short walk to The Arts Centre. Billed as the flagship of the performing arts in the state of Victoria, this constellation of venues offers a wide and changing array of music, dance, and drama.
Before retiring for the night, indulge in a nightcap at the hotel’s Aria Lounge. This intimate spot is the perfect place to hunker down and reflect on the past three days, raising your glass in a heartfelt toast to magical, mercurial, multicultural Melbourne.
Denise Cullen became acquainted with Melbourne’s passion for racing as a child, when her father helped her stake 50 cents on Think Big in the 1974 cup. The horse won, and she pocketed a fortune of A$12.
November is spring in Melbourne. Winds from the interior can boost highs into the 80s and 90s, and winds from off the Southern Ocean can leave afternoons as cool as 60. Summer highs peak near 80, with lows in the upper 50s. Melbourne enjoys mild winters with highs ranging from the mid-50s to the lower 60s and lows in the 40s. The warmest days peak in the 70s.
The Weather Channel
Weather information is provided by The Weather Channel. For more Melbourne climatological details, visit weather.com.
Melbourne Airport is Australia’s second-busiest but is less frenetic than you might imagine. It takes 20 minutes and costs A$16 (US$13) to go from the airport to the city on the Skybus Super Shuttle. A taxi ride to the city will cost A$40 (US$32). Melbourne is compact and built on a grid system, making it easy to navigate on foot. Fun, free City Circle trams travel the perimeter of the central business district.
Melbourne for Kids
A Melbourne Aquarium (melbourneaquarium.com.au) Southern Ocean creatures and a glass-bottom boat ride
B Eureka Skydeck 88 (eurekaskydeck.com.au) Includes The Edge, a glass cube that projects 3 metres from Melbourne’s tallest building
C Luna Park (lunapark. com.au) Classic, colourful carnival rides
D Scienceworks and Melbourne Planetarium (museumvictoria.com.au/ scienceworks) Hands-on exhibits including a competition against an Olympic gold medallist
This story originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Hemispheres magazine, the inflight publication for United Airlines. To download a pdf copy of this story complete with maps and contact details visit the Hemispheres magazine website.
Image here courtesy Visions of Victoria. Caption: Waiter delivers coffee at Cumulus Inc. in Flinders Lane