Melbourne Through the Eyes of an Expat

Melbourne Through the Eyes of an Expat

08/10/2004 by Martin Astl

We met Louisa Williams back on 12 March 2002 after a referral from a Committee Member of the International Business Group of the Australian Institute of Management. On 8 October 2004, Louisa invited Martin Astl to submit his first travel writing piece to us for possible consideration. Martin is currently living in the United States of America and is looking forward to returning to Australia soon. This is his story…

When you think of Australia a few stereotypical images come to mind: the Sydney Opera House, Ayer’s Rock and the Outback, a catamaran plying the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, well-tanned bodies strolling the beaches of the Gold Coast.

Australia’s Most Liveable City

Rarely does one consider Melbourne, a lovely metropolis that seems to be, willingly or not, somewhat of a forgotten city. Recent advertisements from Tourism Australia, the country’s organization responsible for international and domestic marketing, suggest a visit to Melbourne only on itineraries of at least eight days, promoting instead the more well-known tourist destinations. And Melburnians are just fine with that, thank you.

Louisa Williams, who grew up in Melbourne, then left to study and work abroad, recently returned after seven years in Europe and the United States. “Melbourne is a wine and coffee culture,” she says, “whereas Sydney is a beer culture. Sydney is a better tourist spot but Melbourne is a better place to live.”

There is certainly strong debate over which city is more liveable (my vote goes to Melbourne for its relaxed pace, eclectic neighbourhoods, fantastic dining, extensive tram network, and because I like to say ‘Melbournian’). In fact, The Economist Intelligence Unit has named Melbourne the world’s most liveable city two times running (Sydney placed 6th).

Things to See and Do in Melbourne


Think of Sydney and an image of the Opera House comes to mind, or perhaps the Harbor Bridge. Think of Melbourne and… well, nothing comes to mind. The city has no icon by which it’s easily recognized around the world. Don’t sell Melbourne short, however. It has charm, character, and its share of attractions, making it a wonderful tourist destination.

Hugging the Yarra River like a bear protecting her cub, sprawling Melbourne sits proudly on the southern most part of the state of Victoria overlooking Port Phillip Bay, which opens into the Tasman Sea.

Approximately 650 miles southwest of Sydney and a leading seat of government, sport, the arts, and commerce, Melbourne’s small population density exudes a small town feel and sense of peacefulness rarely found in a city of over 3.4 million people.

It is a place to slow down and enjoy life in a relaxing and comfortable atmosphere. Jazz musician and comedian Franklyn Ajaye, who emigrated to Melbourne in 1997, calls it “New York without the tension”.

Walk through the heart of Melbourne at 9:30 on a Monday morning and you’ll be amazed at how calm and quiet it is. “Is this a holiday and no one told me?” you’ll wonder. This is Southbank, an area of hustle and bustle, of seemingly non-stop activity along the Yarra. Its tranquillity is almost surreal.

New condominium and office buildings are going up everywhere; museums, theatres, galleries, trendy bars, restaurants and cafés abound – many with fantastic views of the river and downtown skyline – plus decent shopping and a casino. All this right across the river from the Central Business District (usually referred to as ‘the CBD’).

In the evenings, at the top of each hour, flames shoot up from columns lining the river. The columns, resembling a pocket lighter on steroids,are a reminder of earlier days when Southbank was an industrial area riddled with smoke stacks. It is entertaining to watch unsuspecting tourists (and the occasional bird) get startled when flames shoot out unannounced.

Yet during the day, amid all this potential for racket, it’s possible to hold a conversation without having to raise your voice. The din of traffic is absent, and you can hear birds chirping hellos to each other as the avian community begins their daily activity.

Day Trips From Melbourne

There are a number of worthwhile day trips from Melbourne. If you’re up to driving on the left hand side, hire a car and set out on the roads.

Keep an eye out: from time to time you’ll come across a truck you swear was in the original Mad Max film. What gives them away is the large ‘bull bars’ on the front, designed to minimize damage (to the truck) if they come across wildlife on the road.

If you see a cab with three or more trailers, that’s called a ‘Road Train’ and is most often found in the Outback, traveling the huge distances between major cities.

If you’d rather relax in an air-conditioned bus while a knowledgeable tour guide shows you the sights, stop by the tour desks at Midtown Plaza near the corner of Swanston and Bourke Streets. All offer essentially the same itineraries for similar fares, but it’s best to read the brochures and see which one is right for you.
An absolute must is a tour of the Great Ocean Road. This trip requires a full day to experience one of the finest coast lines in the world. The tour will stop for photo opportunities at strategic points of interest, and usually includes a traditional Aussie ‘billy tea and tucker’ (morning tea, complete with lamingtons and vegemite).

You will have time to explore and view Loch Ard Gorge where you’ll learn the tragic story of the cargo ship Loch Ard and its two survivors, and you’ll behold the spectacular Twelve Apostles rock formation.

These stops tend to be near the end of the tour, making for some spectacular sunset photography. Try to find a tour that also includes a stop at the Otway Fly Tree Top Walk, a 120 ton steel canopy walkway 25 meters (82 feet) above the rainforest floor. Climb the Spiral Tower to reach 47 meters (154 feet) above the floor and enjoy fantastic views. If you choose to drive rather than take a tour, allow at least two days to see everything.

The Great Ocean Road offers a fun-filled day along spectacular coastline. If you’re lucky, you might spot a koala munching some eucalypt, the staple of their diet. The Twelve Apostles, rising dramatically from the ocean, are made of limestone that’s been carved out over thousands of years. Otway Fly is a 600 meter (1969 feet) long walkway.

The quaint oceanfront town of Lorne would be a perfect place to spend the night (reservations recommended). Be sure to ask a local about the results of the latest Pier to Pub Swim, an annual event which attracts over a thousand participants.

TIP: Upon arrival at Melbourne airport, look for the free Official Visitors’ Guide. It is indispensable for providing an overview of Melbourne, complete with listings of current events, helpful maps, transportation advice, dining tips, and valuable coupons.

One of the tour groups regularly includes a coupon for 20% off any day tour. Look for the guides as you make your way through customs and baggage claim.

Other pleasant day trips from Melbourne include The Koala Conservation Center and Penguin Parade at Phillip Island, where you can observe koalas in their native habitat and Little Penguins as they return to their nests each night, or a relaxing trip to the mountains and the Dandenong Forest.

Investigate local artisans and their crafts, visit the William Ricketts Sanctuary which displays sculptures inspired by Aboriginal life, ride Puffing Billy – Australia’s oldest steam train still in operation, and enjoy Devonshire Tea at Pie at the Sky Café in Olinda. There’s usually a short wait for a table, but there’s a reason for that – the tea and scones are first rate.

If you enjoy wine, spend a day or two touring some of the more than thirty wineries of the scenic Yarra Valley or, if you prefer, spend some time relaxing and pampering yourself in the Macedon Ranges and Spa Country.

Getting Around Melbourne

For your time in Melbourne you needn’t worry about a car – your feet and Yarra Trams’ 31 routes will get you wherever you want to go with speed and efficiency. The City Circle Line, with its distinctive maroon color scheme, is a free service which, as the name implies, circles the CBD.

For the other routes it’s pay-as-you-go, but consider a single- or multi-day pass as this eliminates searching for change and usually ends up being more economical.

Pay and validate once then hop on and off to your hearts’ content. Ticketing works via an honor system, but spot checks by transit officials are common and the fines can be considerable. Trams run frequently and are a great way to see the city.

The CBD is laid out in an organized grid pattern, with many streets hosting a tram line or two. Three of the major East-West streets have a little brother or sister named after them. There’s Bourke and Little Bourke, Collins and Little Collins, and Lonsdale and Little Lonsdale streets.

The smaller siblings are more or less overgrown alleyways with fewer cars and no trams, but offering some of the more interesting shops, eateries, and entrances to groovy shopping arcades. (Groovy is the currently in vogue adjective and you’ll hear it often).

The North-South running streets don’t share these traits, and I had been riding the trams for a week when I overheard someone telling a friend, “Did you notice how the streets are named? King Street. Then comes William Street. Then Queen Street, and finally Elizabeth Street. King William, Queen Elizabeth!” I was embarrassed for not having noticed it myself.

If your spirit of exploration is strong and your sense of adventure is willing, you can just hop on any tram, ride for about ten minutes, get off, and you’ll be in an area well worth exploring. Start your exploring downtown, in the CBD. From “groovy” architecture to shopping, there’s something for everyone.

Don’t miss Federation Square, on the corner of Flinders Street and St. Kilda Road, across from the Flinders Street train station. It is a vast open area with museums, art galleries, restaurants, cafés, and performance artists.

The architecture has sparked some controversy, and at first sight it seems like something you’d expect to see in Paris. But it grows on you and is one of the better places to people watch.

There’s also a Tourist Information Centre which provides all sorts of brochures, helpful tips, and free maps of the city. For important events, such as major sports championships or the recent marriage of Tasmania’s Mary Donaldson to Denmark’s HRH Crown Prince Frederick, large screens are erected and people jam the square to watch with a few thousand of their closest friends.

Eating and Drinking in Melbourne

Coffee shops are everywhere. Try a local establishment such as Hudson’s instead of the American import with the iconic green mermaid. Why travel all that distance to have something you can get at home? The spirit of travel is to experience new things.

On the opposite side of downtown, bounded by Peel, Victoria, and Elizabeth Streets, is the Queen Victoria Market. With almost 1,000 vendors offering their wares over an area covering about seven hectares, the market is in some ways a giant swap meet and others a top of the line grocery store. They have an excellent food hall offering fresh fish, meat, and poultry.

It can get loud inside as the proprietors shout and holler to advertise their goods and to get you to stop and shop. Want just a quick snack or some sweets? In another section of the food hall you can indulge your taste buds at the many delicatessens offering a delicious array of cheeses, pastries, and confectionery.

Nearby are the Fruit & Vegetable stands where many Melburnians shop for produce that tastes even better than it looks – and it all looks magnificent.

There is also a huge area of stalls and stands offering general merchandise including clothing, plants, jewelry, cookware, electronics, crafts, and every possible souvenir you can imagine. The market is an historical landmark and is open daily except Monday and Wednesday.

If you’ve a desire for excellent Greek food, stop at Stalactites on the corner of Russell and Lonsdale Streets. Their take-away Giro Souvlaki is excellent, and there are a few tables outside where you can savour their exquisite combinations of Mediterranean seasonings.

For a small adventure walk down nearby Heffernan Lane, towards Little Bourke Street and the Chinatown district. The sides of buildings along the lane are marked with numerous posters and placards offering philosophical reflections.

“To become whole, first let your self be broken” offers one. “That which is at variance with itself, agrees with itself” another.

Just to the north of the CBD, not far from the University, are Brunswick and Lygon Streets, two of my favourite parts of town. Brunswick Street is like a colourful garden where cafés, florists, ethnic grocers, wine shops, clothing stores, bookstores, and art galleries provide the flora.

There’s lots happening on this street, and it’s one of the best in Melbourne for viewing store signs. As you’re walking, look across the street and you’ll notice an artistic sign depicting bees and flowers above the florist, a frame above an art gallery, and a clock above a jewelers (because of overhangs it’s difficult to view signs on the side of the street you’re on).

Brunswick also has a licensed bagelry, “licensed” meaning they’re allowed to sell alcohol (they’ve a simple café with a few outdoor tables). Walk into Jasper Coffee and be overwhelmed by wooden barrels overflowing with aromatic coffee beans throughout the store.

After a few minutes you won’t be able to resist having a cup of some exotic blend, proving their slogan is oh so accurate: they consider themselves caffeine dealers.

Lygon Street is a great place to sit at an outdoor restaurant or café and wile away the day. It is in the Italian part of town, and many of the restaurants are run by native Italians who’ve lived in Melbourne for a number of years.

The food is authentic Italian in preparation, presentation, and taste, not the Americanized edition so often found throughout the United States. The meals are meant to be experienced and enjoyed, with no pressure to finish your meal so they can reset the table.

Sit back and relax as long as you want, enjoying the casual atmosphere and gentle breeze that brings with it a unique aromatic combination from nearby restaurants.

The owners know many of the locals, and it’s not uncommon to witness a greeting in front of a restaurant that seems like it’s a reunion of long lost cousins, when it’s simply good friends saying hello.

One of the more popular café/restaurants is University Café. Try their Penne Amatriciana – it’s scrumptious! Afterwards, stroll one block to Faraday Street and Brunetti’s for some espresso and your choice from a seemingly endless selection of sweets.

Also close to the CBD are the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Melbourne Sports Complex. A mecca for Australian sports enthusiasts, the Melbourne Cricket Grounds host the annual championship as well as home matches for the local team.

It sits next to Rod Laver Arena, home to the Australian Open, one of the four major professional tennis tournaments held each year which comprise the Grand Slam.

You can take a tour to get interesting behind the scenes insights into the history of the area and the tournament itself. Sit in the press room, walk the halls towards centre court, and find out which lockers are specifically requested by superstitious top seeded players. Across the street is Olympic Park, site of the 1956 Summer Olympics.

The Royal Botanic Gardens are an oasis that’s almost superfluous, seeing as Melbourne itself is a sanctuary of sorts. Overlooking the Yarra River, the gardens offer a wide variety of wildlife in addition to many species of plants. Meandering pathways guide you through the gardens at your own pace.

On the southwest corner of the gardens, just off St. Kilda Road, sits the Shrine of Remembrance. A poignant monument to those who gave their lives for Australia, the memorial provides majestic views of Melbourne.
If you’ve a strong sweet tooth, or even a weak one, sinfully satisfying pleasure awaits on Acland Street in St. Kilda. Acland Street seems to be lined with nothing but cafés, bakeries, and candy shops, and no one’s complaining.

There are some galleries and a linen store called Holy Sheet, but those are merely places to walk off what you just ate, places to kill time before hunting for an outside table at the next café.

Thinking of fighting temptation? Don’t bother, it would be a waste of valuable time. One of the tastier establishments is the Acland Cake Shop.

It is nearly impossible to survey their window and find just one delectable you’d like to devour, slowly chasing each dreamy bite with a sip of a smooth latté or mocha. If you are a chocoholic, this is the place for you. Pace yourself.

In its own right a great place to spend a day, St. Kilda is one of the more – if not the – eclectic districts of Melbourne, and is arguably the “grooviest” one as well. It is very much a place to be noticed, where the beautiful go to parade and be seen by one another.

With wonderful bay front views, great Victorian architecture, delicious restaurants, interesting shops, and a myriad of cafés, St. Kilda is where hours seem like minutes, and no trip to Melbourne is complete without a visit.

For the kid in all of us, there’s also Luna Park, an amusement park first opened in 1912 which was designed and built by a number of people with strong ties to New York’s Coney Island.

For a great place to watch the sunset, walk from St. Kilda or take the tram (either the 96 or 112 towards the CBD, then transfer to the southbound 109 at the Casino) to Port Melbourne.

With an expansive view of Port Phillip Bay, Port Melbourne boasts a glorious promenade with plenty of benches for relaxing with wine and cheese as you watch the sky turn a rainbow of colors.

At 9pm you can watch the nightly ferry sail for Tasmania. Two sister ships, the Sea of Tasmania I & II ply the waters between Devonport and Melbourne, passing each other in the Tasman Sea and arriving each morning at 7am to unload their cargo of passengers and trade goods.

A nice sunset, a gentle breeze, and some award winning Australian wine – not a bad way to end an unforgettable few days in Melbourne, one of Australia’s overlooked treasures. That flight from the West Coast doesn’t seem so long any more.

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