By Tacey Rychter Photographs by Susan Wright
Nov. 30, 2023
Tacey Rychter, an editor for The Times’s Travel section, lived in Melbourne for nearly 30 years and travels there regularly.
Melbourne, long seen as Australia’s second city, is runner-up no more after officially edging past Sydney in population for the first time in more than a century. But if Sydney is the extroverted showboat full of grand gestures (opera house! beaches!), arts- and food-loving Melbourne plays it cool. Visitors will discover odd and wonderful surprises, sometimes hidden in the laneways (what Aussies call alleys), including spaces like a church caretaker’s cottage turned cocktail bar or a limestone art gallery tucked amid rustling gum trees. Get swept up in the city’s sports obsession at the Australian Open in January, as well as its coffee addiction: Knowing the lingo — like the difference between a magic (a smaller, stronger flat white) and a long black (double espresso poured over hot water) — is just one way to get a dose of Melbourne’s leisure-loving culture.
- Caretaker’s Cottage, a cocktail bar in a former church caretaker’s quarters, has exceptionally warm hospitality and freezer-cold martinis.
- Heide Museum of Modern Art, an art museum and a sculpture park, feels like a secret piece of bushland northeast of the city.
- National Gallery of Victoria, better known as the NGV, is Australia’s most visited museum, with walls made of bluestone, the same volcanic rock used to pave Melbourne’s cobblestone streets.
- Manzé is a Mauritian restaurant and natural wine bar that amps up flavors with fruity, fermented chile sauces and spiced chutneys.
Restaurants and bars
- Soi 38 is a Thai-street-food kitchen hidden in a parking garage.
- Thai Baan draws diners to line up for its boat noodles, a Thai dish with a dark, aromatic broth originally sold by vendors in canals.
- One or Two, down an alley in Chinatown, is a welcoming cocktail den that offers a brief respite from the city.
- Stalactites is a long-standing Greek restaurant where families and late-night revelers come together for the love of a midnight souvlaki.
- Cathedral Coffee is a cafe by day, wine bar by night in a historic arcade in the city.
- Gimlet at Cavendish House, with its charming, light-filled dining room, is the kind of place where you can order lobster, caviar or a late-night cheeseburger.
- ShanDong MaMa is a mother-and-daughter-run dumpling house in a Chinatown shopping arcade.
- American Doughnut Kitchen, a food van parked at the Queen Victoria Market, is where your obsession with hot-jam doughnuts begins.
- Pidapipó is a popular, neon-lit gelateria with seasonal flavors, warm Nutella on tap and gorgeous gelato cakes in the fridge.
- Cibi is a Japanese cafe, design store and grocer in a sunny warehouse space.
Attractions, museums and live music
- Royal Botanic Gardens sprawls over 94 acres just south of the Yarra River, with green lawns, a rainforest walk, lakes and a new arid garden. There is also an open-air cinema in the summer.
- Museum of Chinese Australian History is a small, four-story museum in a former furniture warehouse in Chinatown.
- The Forum is a beloved live-music hall in a grand and slightly bizarre-looking 1920s cinema palace.
- Northcote Theater, which opened in the inner-north neighborhood last year, is another ornate former cinema transformed into a live-music space.
- Alpha60, a Melbourne brother-and-sister fashion label, has a stunning shop in a cathedral-like hall in the Chapter House building on Flinders Lane.
- Craft Victoria is a subterranean gallery and shop that shows experimental ceramics, textiles and fashion pieces from Australian designers.
- Queen Victoria Market, open since 1878 and encompassing 17 acres, is the city’s favorite food market. There is also a summer street-food market on Wednesday nights.
- Books for Cooks is a home cook’s dream, with thousands of new and secondhand cookbooks, food memoirs and culinary histories lining its shelves.
- Readings is a much loved independent chain of bookstores that spotlights Australian literature and nonfiction.
- Nicholas Building is a 1926 landmark whose 10 floors have been taken over by creative tenants, including tattooists, tailors, milliners, clairvoyants, booksellers and jewelers.
Where to stay
- United Places, a luxury boutique hotel in the South Yarra neighborhood, offers a sleek spin on Brutalist architecture, offset by the lush green of the Royal Botanic Gardens at its doorstep. Its 12 suites have textured concrete walls, rain showers and private terraces. One- and two-bedroom suites available, starting from 695 Australian dollars, or about $460.
- QT Melbourne, recognizable from the outside by its reflective copper double doors, is a 188-room hotel whose striped, gold-accented and neon lobby encapsulates its quirky industrial vibe and maximalist décor. Its central location is unbeatable for convenience. Rooms from about 300 dollars.
- Zagame’s House, a once faded motel that was gutted and modernized, has 97 rooms with dark tones and gold accents. The hotel is a few minutes’ walk from both the city center and the lush Carlton Gardens, popular for its green lawns and the grand Royal Exhibition Building. Rooms from about 229 dollars.
- For short-term rentals, the city center has listings for mostly modern, boxy condo apartments. You’re more likely to find homes with more character, and to get the flavor of local life, in suburbs like Fitzroy, East Melbourne, Richmond, South Yarra and South Melbourne.
- Melbourne’s train network is safe and easy to use, although services are minimal after midnight. Trams are slower but may drop you off closer to your destination. Both require a physical or digital Myki card before you board (although trams are free in the city center). Be warned: Inspectors are vigilant and hand out fines of up to 288 dollars for traveling without a valid ticket. Taxis and ride-hailing services like Uber and the Chinese-owned DiDi are available.
8 p.m. Eat spicy papaya salad in a parking garage
Soi 38, a northeastern Thai restaurant in a parking garage off Bourke Street, is no longer a secret, but lining up (unavoidable after 5 p.m.) for the hidden space still feels like pure discovery. Inside, perch on a stool and dig into fiery papaya salads, grilled meats and hot pots (dishes start at 15 Australian dollars, or about $9.80). Opposite is La Cave Garage, a tiny wine shop in a former parking attendant’s booth; pop open one of its bottles with your meal. The street has welcomed a wave of Thai restaurants, including Thai Baan, which features a flashing LED Ferris wheel on the wall. Order the Ayuttaya boat noodles, in an earthy broth, and sai oua, grilled sausage with turmeric and herbs (both 14.90 dollars).
10 p.m. Discover hidden nightlife in the laneways
Melbourne’s city center was a ghost town at night, until a relaxation of liquor licensing in the 1990s brought new life to the laneways. One standout, Caretaker’s Cottage, a cocktail bar inside a church caretaker’s former home, could rest on its novelty, but doesn’t. The staff welcomes you warmly, and the sound system is sublime. Try the clarified milk punch (the milk is filtered out, leaving a clear drink with a silky texture), which changes monthly — pavlova-flavored vodka appeared in one recent variation (all cocktails 25 dollars). Five minutes away, the new One or Two, a futuristic cocktail and whiskey den delights with details like a tiny orange-peel garnish in the shape of a cat’s face. Soak up the booze at Stalactites, a family-run Greek institution that keeps the gyro spit rotating until 2 a.m.
Strolling around Melbourne’s city center reveals a wide mix of architectural styles — including Gothic and Romanesque Revivals and Art Deco — embedded amid glossy modern towers.
The Arid Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens
8 a.m. Get close (but not too close) to rare cactuses
Start with a flat white (5 dollars) and a pastry at Cathedral Coffee, a cafe in an Art Deco arcade on the ground floor of the 1926 Nicholas Building, commissioned by a pharmaceutical company and now a vertical hive of creative shops and artist studios. Once you’re caffeinated, stroll 40 minutes south, across the Yarra River (or take a tram down St. Kilda Road), to the 94-acre Royal Botanic Gardens. The newest addition, the Arid Garden, displays around 3,000 cactuses and succulents, a collection that includes many rare and odd-looking species. Then, flop down on the north-facing grassy slope for a city view, or grab some shade under a Moreton Bay fig tree, a banyan with sprawling roots that’s native to Australia’s east coast. Entry is free.
The Arid Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens
10 a.m. Admire art made by robotic dogs and human hands
Robotic dogs are on the loose at the National Gallery of Victoria: As part of the NGV Triennial 2023, a major show of 75 international contemporary works, the Polish-born artist Agnieszka Pilat has programmed three Boston Dynamics-made dogs to paint artworks, some collaboratively. You can also see the painstaking work of many human hands: a more than 300-foot-long woven installation that represents a traditional fish trap used by the Yolngu, an Indigenous people, made by 13 artists and their apprentices. It is considered to be the biggest woven sculpture ever made in Australia. Finally, head to the gallery’s Great Hall to see the sun beaming through the world’s largest stained-glass ceiling. The NGV Triennial runs from this Sunday to April 7. Entry is free.
Gimlet at Cavendish House
12 p.m. Explore a lane that’s gone from rags to riches
Flinders Lane was the center of Melbourne’s rag trade, as its textile industry was known, until production moved offshore starting in the late 1960s. Today, it’s home to a number of gorgeous shops and restaurants. The city’s most beautiful retail space must belong to Alpha60, a local brother-sister fashion label (think boxy shirts and breezy culottes), whose store inside the Chapter House building occupies a cathedral-like space with lofty, vaulted ceilings, pointed-arch windows and a baby grand piano. Across the road, Craft Victoria, a subterranean gallery and store, features experimental Australian ceramics and textile art. After your shopping, drop into Gimlet at Cavendish House, a glamorous restaurant where crisply dressed waiters sail by with caviar and lobster roasted in a wood-fired oven, but you don’t have to go all out: Squeeze in at the bar right after the doors open at noon for an expertly made gin martini (29 dollars) before the lunch rush.
Gimlet at Cavendish House
1:30 p.m. Immerse yourself in Chinese Australian heritage
On weekends, Chinatown’s sidewalks are a crawl of families out for yum cha (what Australians call dim sum, from the Cantonese for “drink tea”). Melbourne’s Chinatown is the Southern Hemisphere’s oldest, established in the 1850s during the Victorian gold rush, when tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants came seeking their fortune. Spend an hour in the Museum of Chinese Australian History (12.50 dollars), where you’ll learn how the Victorian government introduced discriminatory laws to tax and limit Chinese arrivals. This paved the way for the 1901 White Australia policy, laws that restricted non-European immigration. There will be plenty to talk about over lunch. Head to ShanDong MaMa, a mother-and-daughter-run restaurant in a nearby shopping arcade to fill up on mackerel dumplings (24.80 dollars) and vegan zucchini potstickers (17.80 dollars).
American Doughnut Kitchen
3 p.m. Find happiness in hot jam and sugar
Australia doesn’t have much in the way of regional cuisine, but one local exception may be the hot-jam doughnut. Most likely an evolution of a German Berliner, the doughnuts are fried, pumped with fluorescent-red jam, rolled in sugar and served tongue-burning hot from vans. Try one from a pioneer, American Doughnut Kitchen, parked outside the Queen Victoria Market (2 dollars). Then wander through the market: Vendors will be showing off their lung capacity by hollering end-of-the-day discounts. You might get a good deal on a tray of shucked Sydney rock oysters or a half of a cooked Moreton Bay bug (a kind of lobster), which you can eat on the spot. Also check out Books for Cooks, a haven of about 20,000 new and secondhand books dedicated to food and cooking.
American Doughnut Kitchen
5 p.m. Try a frozen treat, then find a sweet read
Lygon Street, in Carlton, is Melbourne’s original Little Italy, where postwar migrants installed some of the city’s first espresso machines and imported Italian goods. For a glimpse at the new guard, check out Pidapipó, a neon-lit gelateria where the product is kept inside shiny-lidded pozzetti, Italian for “little wells,” for freshness. After a gelato, enjoy leisurely plucking titles from the shelves at Readings, the flagship location of a much loved independent chain of bookstores. (Check out the 2023 Stella Prize longlist for help navigating of-the-moment Australian authors.) Readings also has a bookshop just for children, a few doors down.
6 p.m. Crack into crab and natural wine
You don’t have time to try Melbourne’s full cornucopia of cuisines, but you can make some headway at Manzé, a new Mauritian restaurant in North Melbourne. Mauritian food — shaped by East African, South Asian and French influences — is not typical in Melbourne, but the chef Nagesh Seethiah’s fun and free-form cultural blending is. The snacks are so full of flavor, they practically cartwheel off the plate: Expect dishes like pickled mussels or taro fritters in fruity, fermented chile sauces and bold chutneys (from 4.50 dollars). The interior, with rattan chairs and breezy linen curtains, can fit only 24 diners. That’s fine: You’re sitting streetside in summer, cracking into blue swimmer crab in buttery, coconut-curry sauce (26 dollars) and drinking natural wine, as 1970s Mauritian tunes swirl from the speaker. What more could you want?
8 p.m. Discover your new favorite band in an old picture palace
Live music in Melbourne thrives in many forms, including sticky-floor pubs like the Curtin or the Tote. While Melbourne has lost some of its midsize music venues over the years, a number of historic spaces have been preserved — and have even reopened — against the odds. One newcomer on the north side is the Northcote Theater, a landmark former cinema built in 1912 that welcomed live music into its 1,400-capacity auditorium in 2022. If you want to stay central, see what’s on at the Forum, another former movie palace that is a delightful mess of architectural styles. Many Melburnians have fond memories of seeing their favorite band there, under the auditorium’s twinkling “starry” sky.
The decorative iron lacework along Lygon Street in Carlton is typical of Melbourne’s many Victorian-era homes, pubs and shopfronts.
9 a.m. Sip sencha in the sun
Melbourne perfected the elevated breakfast — at any almost neighborhood cafe you can order poached eggs, sourdough and fresh-vegetable sides with a velvety flat white. Many of the most refreshing breakfast spots these days are Asian. Go to Cibi, a Japanese cafe, design store and grocer (expanded in October) in the once-gritty, now-stylish northside suburb of Collingwood. Light beams into the large industrial space, which feels calm even when all its mismatched chairs are filled. The classic order is a breakfast plate that includes grilled salmon, seasoned rice, miso soup and tamagoyaki, a rolled omelet (27 dollars). Afterward, browse Cibi’s attached design store, filled with specialty Japanese products like tenugui (hand-dyed cotton cloth) and daikon graters. Or pick up the cafe’s self-titled cookbook.
11 a.m. Explore a temple of Modern art among the gum trees
Heide Museum of Modern Art, a gallery and sculpture park that was once the home of the art patrons John and Sunday Reed, sprawls along the Yarra River, its gum trees making it feel like a little piece of bushland. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the Reeds hosted many artists in Australia’s emerging Modernist movement. The current exhibition, “Always Modern: The Heide Story” (through Feb. 4), in the Reeds’ original cottage, gathers works like Sidney Nolan’s early impressions of the 19th-century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, and Mirka Mora’s intensely colored, mournful figures. Architecture lovers will adore the sun-splashed limestone walls of the Heide Modern, designed as a “gallery to be lived in.” Join a guided tour of the building, included with museum admission (25 dollars), Sundays and Thursdays at 11 a.m.