MELBOURNE AUSTRALIA

Australia's second city is a place of contradictions and hidden charms. A leafy, bayside community on the `upside-down', brown Yarra River, it is cosmopolitan, suburban, cultivated, football crazy, conservative and a haven for the avant-garde. Visitors come for its shopping, restaurants, nightlife and sporting calendar, encouraging many Melburnians to believe that they live in one of the most civilised cities in the world.

 

Facts at a Glance

Population: 3.3 million
Country: Australia
Time Zone: GMT/UTC plus 10 hours
Telephone Area Code: 03

History

Although mystery surrounds many aspects of Australian prehistory, it seems certain that the first humans came here across the sea from South-East Asia around 50,000 years ago. There were about 38 tribal groups living around Victoria when white people arrived. Aborigines were traditionally tribal people living in extended family groups and using the environment sustainably. It is believed that Aboriginal people were the first to make polished, edge-ground, stone tools, to cremate their dead and to engrave and paint representations of themselves and animals. Although their society was technologically simple, it was culturally sophisticated, using complex ceremonies which integrated religion, history, law, art and codes of behaviour.

Aboriginal people around Victoria resisted white settlement (which began in 1803), and although some settlements had to be abandoned, the original inhabitants were really just postponing the inevitable. Soon after settlement, the Aboriginal people had been dispossessed of their lands and massacred in their thousands. Between 1834 and 1860 Victoria's Aboriginal population dropped from 15,000 to 2000.

Melbourne was established in 1835 by a group of Tasmanian entrepreneurs, and is the youngest city of its size in the world. Although the settlement was not named until 1837, its characteristic grid layout was imposed by military surveyor Robert Hoddle the same year, and by 1840 over 10,000 people had been attracted to the area. The colony of Victoria was formed in 1851, with Melbourne as its capital, neatly coinciding with the discovery of gold which swiftly and inexorably transformed them both.

Gold bought a huge influx of immigrants from around the world, and the wealth it generated created a city of extravagant proportions. In 30 years the designs of the city's architects, the skills of its many European tradespeople and the designation of large areas of the city for public parkland had established what was known as `Marvellous Melbourne - the Paris of the Antipodes'. This progress was temporarily halted, however, in 1890 by the first of many devastating financial crashes which have afflicted the economically vulnerable city.

The ethnic mix of Melbourne's population has always been an important influence on the city's character: the Chinese and Irish diggers attracted by gold in the 19th century and the postwar arrival of refugees and migrants from all over Europe (particularly Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Poland) and more recently from Vietnam and Cambodia, have all contributed elements of their cultures to what could otherwise have been a conservative, passionless English society. These migrants have boosted Melbourne's population to 3.3 million and their influences are witnessed in Melbourne's robust and varied architecture, restaurants, festivals and entertainment.

 

After WWII Melbourne went into a long period of stable conservative government, until the 80s, when the Labor party took office and the city hit boom times. Land prices just kept going up, and so did buildings, until 1990 when the whole thing fell in a heap. In 1992 radical conservative autocrat Jeff Kennett took the reins, provoking ire and admiration in seemingly equal doses. Under Kennett, Melbourne has waved goodbye to social services and healthcare, and given a hearty hello to the Grand Prix and the Crown Casino.

 

When to Go

Just about any time of year is a good one to visit. Melbourne's climate has an unfortunate reputation: wet, windy, unpredictable and liable to extremes - very hot or very cold and often both on the same day! On the plus side, Melbourne's multitude of parks makes it a beautiful place to witness the changing seasons: it is rarely unbearably chilly, the mercury rises above 35C (95F) only a few times each year and Melbourne's soggy reputation outstrips the reality - it receives only half the average rainfall of Sydney or Brisbane. In winter the average temperature ranges between a maximum of 13C (55F) and a low of 6C (43F).

 

Orientation

Melbourne's suburbs extend around the huge Port Phillip Bay, into the plains to the west and east and out to the foothills of the Dandenongs. With a population of over three million to house, this sprawl extends for more than 50km (30mi) from east to west and 70km (43mi) from north to south, covering a massive 1700 sq km (663 sq mi). This huge area of settlement has been necessitated by the dying but intractable goal of the Great Australian Dream - a detached home on a quarter-acre block, 2.5 children and two cars.

The city centre is about 3km (1.8mi) inland, on the north bank of the Yarra River. It consists of a mixture of elegant and kitsch 19th century architecture and self-important skyscrapers. The main north-south artery, Swanston St, is mostly a pedestrian mall, while Bourke (also a mall for part of its extent) and Collins Sts, which cross it, are the city's other two main shopping thoroughfares. The Yarra forms the city area's southern boundary. Melbourne is notoriously flat, but this lack of definition makes it an easy city to get around. Transport is also assisted by the network of trams - today a mixture of characteristic old green-and-yellow rattlers and more modern pneumatic monsters. The city's airport, Tullamarine, is 22km (14mi) north-west of the city centre. The interstate train station (Spencer St) and the main metropolitan station (Flinders St) are both in the city centre, while the bus station is just to the centre's north.

Melbourne's excellent eating opportunities have been a welcome feature in the last few decades. They range from Chinatown in the city and Richmond's Victoria St (commonly known as `Little Saigon') to the Italian fare of Carlton's Lygon St and the numerous cuisines available in Southgate in the city, Fitzroy's Brunswick St, Prahran's Chapel St, and Fitzroy and Acland Sts in St Kilda.

 

Melbourne's accommodation options are almost as varied as its cuisine. Bottom-end choices can be found in the city centre and in the nearby suburbs of North Melbourne, Carlton and Fitzroy. However, the beachside suburb of St Kilda is the budget accommodation centre. Good B&Bs, guesthouses and hotels can be found in the centre and in any of the inner suburbs - East Melbourne, Parkville, Carlton, South Yarra and, again, St Kilda. South Melbourne and South Yarra are the places to look for serviced apartments. Top-end hotels are to be found in the city centre. The best entertainment venues tend to be in the city centre, Fitzroy, South Yarra and St Kilda.

Attractions

City Centre

The city centre consists of a 7 sq km (3 sq mi) rectangular grid of streets bordered by the Yarra to the south, the Spencer St railway station to the west and the Fitzroy Gardens to the east. Two of Melbourne's most obvious central landmarks are the recently renovated Flinders St Station and the neo-Gothic St Paul's Cathedral. North of these buildings lies the continuing saga that is the badly planned city square (construction of a hotel/apartment/shopping complex has commenced), the boom-years' Town Hall, the domed and pillared building containing the State Library and the flamboyant City Baths.

Other city attractions include the bustling Queen Victoria Market on the northern fringe of the CBD; views from the 35th floor of the Regent Hotel at the eastern end of Collins St; the mammoth Treasury and State Parliament House buildings; Scots and St Michael's churches; the 19th-century Block Arcade, which runs between Collins and Elizabeth Sts; the collection of Gothic-revival banks on the corner of Collins and Queen Sts; and the landmark Rialto Towers (now boasting an observation deck) at the western end of Collins St. At the top end of Russell St there's the atmospheric Old Melbourne Gaol. Other historic buildings include the Old Customs House, St James Cathedral and the Old Royal Mint.

The key to an important facet of Melbourne's character can be found on the sportsgrounds scattered on the parkland to the south-east of the city centre, including Flinders, Olympic and Yarra parks. The superb Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) and the National Tennis Centre reflect Melburnians' renowned passion for sport.

The Yarra's South Bank

The focus of Melbourne is slowly shifting to the south bank of the Yarra, which has seen large scale construction and the influx of huge sums of money and political will. The Victorian Arts Centre buildings and the National Gallery of Victoria are both on the south bank. The aliens-are-coming spire of the arts centre's theatre building is probably Melbourne's most famous landmark. Opposite the arts precinct are the Royal Botanic Gardens - considered to be among the finest in the world - and Kings Domain, which contains the Shrine of Remembrance, Governor La Trobe's Cottage and the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. The new Southgate complex of shops, wine bars, snack stalls and restaurants line the Yarra's bank. Melbourne's gigantic Crown Casino entertainment complex is nearby.

Inner-City Haunts

The inner suburbs of Carlton, Fitzroy and Richmond are all recommended for their architecture, restaurants and atmosphere. Carlton is the Italian centre, full of pasta & spaghetti bars, muscle cars and slick Italian clothing stores. Victoria St in Richmond is the vibrant Vietnamese centre, chock full of budget restaurants, and the focus of the Lunar New Year celebrations in January-February. Fitzroy is now a magnet for the urban cool, cafe dwellers and property renovators, but was once the working-class heart of Melbourne. St Kilda is a day trip in itself. For years it was Melbourne's sex and sin centre - drunks, drugs, girls, shady deals and shady characters abounded - but the suburb is slowly being rejuvenated. Fitzroy St retains traces of its former tarnished character, although today you're more likely to be sipping a crisp white and dining on rocket salad than slugging a beer and looking for action. There is a string of average beaches running from St Kilda back into the city, including Middle Park, Albert Park and Port Melbourne. Luna Park, near St Kilda Beach, is an old-fashioned fairground that's fun for kids and coltish adults.

Off the Beaten Track

Phillip Island

At the entrance to Westernport Bay, south-east of the city, Phillip Island is rugged and windswept with plenty of beaches, a fascinating collection of wildlife and several old-fashioned townships. The island's Penguin Parade is one of the country's most popular tourist attractions. Every evening the little penguins at Summerland Beach emerge from the sea and waddle up the beach to their nests, seemingly oblivious to the busloads of camera-toting tourists. In the south-west of the island, Seal Rocks are inhabited by Australia's largest colony of fur seals, or you can head inland to the Koala Conservation Centre and check out the little cuddly fellas with the sharp fingers.

The island's surf beach, Woolamai, is renowned for its strong rips, but there are also safer bay beaches for less-daring swimmers. Churchill Island is a small island with an historic homestead, beautiful gardens and a museum of old farming machinery, as well as some great short walks.

Bellarine Peninsula

The Bellarine Peninsula forms the western side of Port Phillip Bay, and is a popular holiday spot for Melburnians. The seaside resort of Queenscliff sports some fine extravagant buildings now restored to their gold-era glory. Fort Queenscliff was built during the Crimean War to protect Melbourne from Russian invasion - money well spent - and is now home to a military museum. Queenscliff is also the centre for the peninsula's excellent dive scene.

If you prefer not to get your hair wet, head west to Point Lonsdale, renowned for the marine life in its huge number of rockpools. There's also a good surf beach here and an early settlers cemetery. On the ocean side of the peninsula, Ocean Grove has some fantastic wreck diving in one of the world's most dangerous waterways. Torquay, just south of the peninsula, is one of the most popular surfing and summer resorts on Victoria's coast, and the capital of Australia's surf industry

Yarra Valley

The Yarra Valley, on Melbourne's north-east outskirts, is a lovely area for bushwalking or biking, or swilling a few glasses of pinot. The Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the best places to see Australian native fauna. The sanctuary is in a natural bushland setting, and a walking track will take you past enclosures housing wallabies, kangaroos, wombats, platypuses, koalas, birds, snakes and lizards.

The valley is also one of Australia's most respected wine-growing regions, with more than 30 wineries scattered among these beautiful hills and valleys. The region is particularly noted for its pinot noir, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and sparkling wines. The Warrandyte State Park in the valley is one of the few remaining areas of natural bush in the metropolitan area - there are walking and cycling tracks and picnic areas, as well as galleries and potteries dotted throughout the hills.

Activities

Apart from the popular indoor activities of shopping, eating and visiting museums and galleries, Melbourne has many outdoor activities to enjoy. Of course there's horse racing and all those football (`Aussie rules'), cricket, tennis and basketball games to watch. The 4km (2.5mi) jogging track around the Kings Domain and Royal Botanic Gardens is extremely popular, as is the circuit around Albert Park Lake. There are also several interesting heritage walks around town. The Yarra River cycling path follows the river eastwards from the city for over 30km (19mi).

 

Both the Yarra and the bay offer great canoeing, fishing, boating and sailing opportunities. Surf can be found on the ocean sides of the Bellarine and Mornington peninsulas, and boards can be hired at Torquay and Sorrento. Melbourne's snowfields are all within two to five hours' drive, and both downhill and cross-country skiing are available. Melbourne also has numerous public and private golf courses, several of which are world famous.

There is interesting bushwalking in the parks and forest reserves surrounding Melbourne, including the You Yangs Forest Reserve, Brisbane Ranges National Park, Wombat State Forest, Organ Pipes National Park, Kinglake National Park and the Dandenong Ranges.

Events

Dividing the year into seasons, summer sees outdoor evening performances of plays, Carols by Candlelight at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, cricket at the MCG, the Australian Open tennis championship, the Summer Music Festival at the Victorian Arts Centre, horse races at Hanging Rock, the St Kilda Festival, the Victoria St Lunar Festival, Chinese New Year celebrations, the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, the three-week long gay and lesbian Midsumma Festival, the Australian Grand Prix and the Moomba family festival. Autumn features the Greek Antipodes Festival, Garden Week, football, the International Comedy Festival and Heritage Week.

Winter brings more football and the International Film Festival. Spring sees the football finals (phew), the Melbourne International Festival, the Royal Melbourne Show, the Oktoberfest, the Spring Racing Carnival (including the Melbourne Cup), the Italian Lygon St Festa and the Hispanic Community Festival.

 

Getting There & Away

Melbourne's airport services both domestic and international flights. While plenty of international airlines have direct flights into Melbourne, many flights still stop off in Sydney. Domestic flights run between Melbourne and all Australian capital cities, as well as to many regional centres and a few towns in Victoria.

Bus travel is the cheapest way to get around, but it's a big country and it can be slow and tedious. Buses tend to travel the major highways, which can make the trip even more boring. Buses arrive in Melbourne from other Australian capitals, Victorian towns and tourist favourites like Alice Springs and Cairns. Small bus companies travel slower, more scenic routes such as the Great Ocean Road, through the Victorian High Country, along the east coast and through central Australia. If you're driving yourself, the main highways into Melbourne are the Hume (inland) or the Princes (coastal) from Sydney and the Western (inland) or Princes (coastal) from Adelaide.

The country's train system is less extensive than the bus network and train travel is more expensive, but its often quicker and almost always more pleasant than slogging it out on a bus. Interstate rail services really only operate between capital cities. Major centres in Victoria are serviced by trains, and the areas that don't have train lines can be reached by V/Line (the train company) bus. A ferry and a quicker 'cat' run between Melbourne and Devonport, in northern Tasmania.

Getting Around

The Skybus runs a half-hourly shuttle between the airport and the city, but it's not cheap. If there's more than two of you, it's probably worth getting a taxi. Other shuttles run through St Kilda and around the bay, and west to Geelong. Public transport between the airport and city exists, but its sporadic and you'll have to do a couple of changes. A taxi from the airport to the city will cost between US$15 and US$20, depending on traffic.

Melbourne's public transport system is called the Met, offering tram, train and bus services on the one ticket. The system is divided into three zones, zone 1 being the inner area. The city and inner suburbs are best seen by tram - a unique way to travel, but take care when alighting to make sure the banked-up cars have completely stopped! The train network is extensive, and includes lengthy suburban routes and an underground city loop. The bus network generally fills in the gaps left between the tram and train services - an increasing gap as the state government carves up and destroys a fine public-transport infrastructure.

Taxis are numerous but expensive, and car-rental places range from the usual familiar names to the rent-a-bomb variety. Driving in Melbourne can be confusing, especially the unique hook turns necessary in the city. Traffic turning right must often do so from the left lane to avoid blocking tram tracks. Melbourne's generally flat terrain makes cycling a popular option for getting around but watch out for those tram tracks.

Recommended Reading

  • Old Melbourne Town
  • , by Michael Cannon, is an extensive and detailed history of the city's early years. If convicts are your particular bent, try Robert Hughes' mighty tome, The Fatal Shore. For a look at things from the Aboriginal perspective, The Other Side of the Frontier by Henry Reynolds is a disturbing read.
  • The National Trust publishes Walking Melbourne, which will take you on a guided tour of the city's historic buildings.
  • Melburnian fiction abounds. Classics include Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life, written in the State Library, Henry Handel Richardson's Fortunes of Richard Mahoney and Frank Hardy's Power Without Glory.

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