Melbourne: Oz Capital of Culture

Melbourne is Australia's most European city and one of the world's most liveable.

By Luke Wright
Published 10 Feb 2011, 15:17 GMT, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 11:16 BST

'I'd give you all of Sydney Harbour (all that land, all that water) for that one sweet promenade [St Kilda].' From St Kilda to Kings Cross, Paul Kelly (1985)

It's mid-afternoon on a Saturday in spring. Already I've cycled along the Yarra River to a farmers' market, feasted on dumplings for lunch, visited a backstreet art gallery and taken the legendary number 96 tram to St Kilda promenade for drinks by the bay. It's the perfect day in this city.

For first-timers hoping for big, flashy sights, Melbourne will most likely disappoint. There's nothing like the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty or Opera House. Getting under the skin of this city won't happen in a fleeting visit; she reveals herself slowly.

A city with many faces, it has the largest Greek-speaking population outside of Athens. Vietnamese surname 'Nguyen' is the second most-listed in the phonebook after 'Smith'. Lygon Street in the suburb of Carlton is a celebration of all things Italian. There are synagogues in East St Kilda, halal eateries in Brunswick, Russian cake shops in Balaclava, African cafes in Footscray, bohemians in the north and waterside wealthy in the south.

Melbourne is a literary, intellectual and creative hub, the country's capital of culture, sport and food. It hosts world-class events – Grand Slam tennis, Grand Prix, the Food and Wine Festival, the Melbourne Cup, the Comedy Festival and more – along with an overwhelming diversity of things to do on any night of the week.

Locals say it's a city to 'do', not 'see'. It has a dynamic energy and sense of inventiveness not found elsewhere in Australia. If Sydney is a brief fling, Melbourne is a long, loving affair.

To find the soul of this city and to hit upon what makes her heart beat, you must walk down and cycle on the streets, take a tram, swim in the bay, shop at the markets, linger in cafes, discover bars and galleries, go to the theatre, catch a game of 'footy' and a live band, and eat until you can eat no more. This is Melbourne.

Places mentioned
Collingwood Farmers' Markets: 18 St Heliers St, Abbotsford. T: 00 61 3 9417 5806.
Camy Shanghai Dumpling & Noodle: Tattersalls Lane, Central Business District. T: 00 61 9 6638 5525
Guilford Lane Gallery: 20-24 Guilford Lane, Central Business District. T: 00 61 4 2244 2363.
Camberwell Sunday Market: Station Street.
St Kilda Sea Baths: 10-18 Jacka Blvd, St Kilda. T: 00 61 3 8598 9055. 

Food, glorious food

Melburnians are infatuated with food. Fondness for food, along with the chat around the table, is a large part of what makes Melbourne tick. With such a confluence of cultures, the city and its suburbs offers a vast range of styles and flavours from around the globe. Loose change can buy hearty pork and salad rolls in Asian bakeries, dumplings in Chinatown and sushi rolls in a plethora of Japanese joints. On the other end of the scale, world-class dining abounds. Restaurants such as Jacques Reymond, Vue de Monde, Flower Drum and Movida easily mix it with the best of the best anywhere in the world. But Melbourne's mid-tier options such as Mamasita and Charcoal Lane are what locals and visitors alike will blether about. There are hundreds, if not thousands, to choose from.

While classy and creative restaurants can be discovered all around the city, there are several specialist districts those in-the-know frequent regularly. Chinatown, in Little Bourke Street, dishes up well-priced authentic Chinese food into the wee-small hours. For Grecian delights, Lonsdale Street is the place to go. Just out of the Central Business District, Richmond's Victoria Street is the Vietnamese quarter. There's a Spanish section on Johnston Street in Fitzroy, a mile of Lebanese and Turkish restaurants along Sydney Road in Brunswick and, of course, Carlton's 'Little Italy' on Lygon Street, which many locals claim is now more about getting tourists in and out than serving quality meals.

Melbourne is also famed for its fresh produce markets: Prahran Market, South Melbourne Market and the enormous Queen Victoria Market. A vast selection of meats, seafood, fruit and vegetables, cheeses, breads and delicatessen products can be found at these impressive places.

Melbourne's other obsession is coffee. Its deeply ingrained cafe culture, shaped by post-war immigration of thousands of Greeks and Italians, is evident everywhere. Coffee aficionados and regular joes demand pure, unadulterated coffee beans roasted on-site. While people will hover like sparrows for a table at better-known coffee houses such as Seven Seeds and Kinfolk, it's unlikely bad coffee will be served anywhere in this town.

Places mentioned
Mamasita: Level 1, 11 Collins Street. T: 00 61 3 9650 3821.
Charcoal Lane: 136 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. T: 00 61 3 9418 3411
Movida: 1 Hosier Lane, Central Business District. T: 00 61 3 9663 3038.
Queen Victoria Market: 513 Victoria Street, Central Business District. T: 00 61 3 9320 5822.
Kinfolk Cafe: 674 Bourke Street, Central Business District.
Seven Seeds: 106-114 Berkeley Street, Carlton T: 00 61 3 9347 8664. 

Party people

Don't come to Melbourne on the look-out for good weather. In fact, you should prepare yourself for the worst and the best of Australia's climates: rain, hail and sunshine all in the same day. The unpredictability is legendary. One positive consequence of this is there are plenty of indoor establishments, namely licensed cafes, bars and live music venues, dotting the map of the city. On the whole, this is not a 24-hour party place. Melburnians don't go in for garish neon lights and mega-sized venues. It's the small and slightly secret places that its inhabitants love to hang out in. But that's not to say they don't like to their hair down. On the contrary, partying is a pastime its people pursue with lots of vigour – it's just that Melbourne aims for more of a hip New York City ethos. Boutique bars, chilled-out cafes and places whose 'coolness' factor is dependent on how difficult they are to find.

In the Central Business District it's all about the laneways and reclaimed spaces. Back alleys once used as rubbish dumps are now places where locals wind down after work. Shipping containers, converted warehouses, grungy garages, rooftops – anything rundown and off the main street grid is given a quick lick of paint, furnished with milk crates and charity shop gear, and opened up to the eager and appreciative public. Places such as Section 8 and Sister Bella are perfect examples of this.

Given that laneway legroom is becoming scarce, vertical laneways – multi-use spaces that go up instead of across – are the next big thing in Melbourne. Curtain House, once a derelict building, is leading the way on this front, featuring fashion boutiques, design studios, bars, band rooms, a rooftop cinema and more.

Melbourne is also the live music centre of Australia. It has loads of large-scale venues and up-close stages, and its people like to get out at night to support its local acts. Many of its best bands emerge from here. Much of the music plays out in suburbs such as Brunswick, Collingwood, Fitzroy, Northcote, Richmond and St Kilda. The Corner, East Brunswick Club, Northcote Social Club, The Espy, Ding Dong Lounge, Pure Pop Records, Penny Black, The Cornish Arms and many more places offer live music seven nights a week.

These suburbs also host some of the best bars in the city. Fitzroy's Brunswick Street is justifiably an old favourite for bar hoppers. Smith Street, just up the road from Brunswick, is now emerging as a new destination for a night out, with funky establishments such as the Grace Darling and back-to-basics bars such as Kent Street all situated on the same strip.

Places mentioned
Section 8: 27-29 Tattersalls Lane, Central Business District. T: 00 61 4 2297 2656
Sister Bella: 22 Drewery Place, Central Business District.
Curtain House: 252 Swanston Street, Central Business District. T: 00 61 3 9663 7660.
Northcote Social Club: 301 High Street, Northcote. T: 00 61 3 9489 3917.
Grace Darling Hotel: 114 Smith Street, Collingwood. T: 00 61 3 9416 0055.
Kent Street: 215 Smith Street, Collingwood. T: 00 61 3 9419 6346

A pile of style

Looking around at an Australian Rules Football match, one could be forgiven for thinking that matters of style aren't overly important here. But football fans aside, this is a city concerned with looking good. Melbourne's dedication to independent and authentic artists, designers, boutiques, cafes, restaurants and galleries is visible everywhere. However, it tries not be pretentious or exclusive. It's a city where tattooed, scruffy students can – and do – co-exist happily with the well-heeled.

One of the first things to notice about Melbourne, especially in the Central Business District, is the world-class street-art – don't call it graffiti – jumping off the walls in backstreets and laneways, some of it council-sanctioned, some of it illegal. Street art enthusiasts claim Melbourne to be one of the top five cities in the world for its range and quality. Check it out by walking downtown through ACDC Lane, Union Lane and Hosier Lane. Ghostpatrol, Melbourne's home-grown version of Banksy, is often represented in galleries across town.

For creations that don't get washed off walls, there's a flourishing independent art scene. Utopian Slumps, Beam Contemporary, Gallery One and Blindside on Guildford Lane offer ready access to local artists' masterpieces. Further afield, Fitzroy and Collingwood host a broad range of galleries and emerging artists' studios. On the fashion front, from haute couture to vintage clothing, the city can be broken up into several districts. Chapel Street is the place to go for big international brands. The top end of Collins Street, known as the 'Paris end', is much the same. GPO on Bourke Street houses high-end local design, St Kilda has funky boutiques along Acland Street and Bridge Road in Richmond is a bargain-hunter's dream, with designer factory outlets and seconds. Gertrude and Brunswick streets in Fitzroy host vintage and bohemian outlets along with independent artisans and designers. Meet Me at Mikes is an innovative example in this area. And Lygon Street is a hot spot for well-priced independent fashion.

Another emerging trend in Melbourne is the hybrid cafe. On Somerset Place, Little Mule sells super-cool bicycles and great coffee. Meanwhile, Captains of Industry, also on Somerset Place, is a vintage-styled cafe doubling up as a gentleman's outfitter and barber.

Places mentioned
Utopian Slumps: 33 Guilford Lane, Central Business District. T: 00 61 3 9077 9918.
GPO: Corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets, Central Business District. T: 00 61 3 9663 0066.
Meet Me at Mikes: 63 Brunswick St, Fitzroy. T: 00 61 3 9416 3713.
The Little Mule Company: 19 Somerset Place, Central Business District. T: 00 61 3 9670 4904.
Captains of Industry: 2 Somerset Place, Central Business District. T: 00 61 3 9642 5013. 

Top 10 local tips

01 Go to a game of Australian Rules Football.
02 Try kite surfing on Port Phillip Bay, St Kilda.
03 Check out the non-stop festival programme.
04 The city has one of the world's largest number of record shops per head.
05 Lentil as Anything is a pay-as-you-please vegetarian institution.
06 Forget the city tram and rent a bike.
07 Go to Ceres, a not-for-profit urban farm and education centre beside the Merri Creek in East Brunswick, Melbourne.
08 Broadly speaking, the south side of the river, St Kilda especially, is for out-of-towners. The north side is where much of the local action takes place.
09 Watch an Australian sporting event on the big screen at Federation Square.
10 Hit the charity shop bargain bins for vintage clothing. 

More info

My Brother Jack by George Johnston; Three Dollars by Elliot Perlman; The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

Essential tours
Tour Melbourne's art scene with a local art expert.
Take the Lanes and Arcades tour to find your way through the backstreets of the city.

Published in the Jan/Feb issue 2011 of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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