With its artsy laneways, cafe culture, festivals and major sporting events it’s easy to see why Melbourne claims to be the cultural capital of Australia.
And to be fair, it’s hard to argue against that point. The Victorian capital is Australia’s second-largest city offering plenty regardless of whether your trip to Melbourne is for business or leisure (or even a mix of both).
However, as with all popular tourist destinations, there are a few things that you really need to know before you get there.
The city is an eclectic mix of a modern metropolis with fresh new buildings going up every year and history dating back to its founding back in 1835.
Fun Fact: Did you know that Melbourne served as the capital city of Australia from 1901 to 1927 whilst Canberra was founded?
Having spent much time in Melbourne over the last several years, I’ve picked up a few things that will really help you out when you first arrive in the city.
The Best Things To Do In Melbourne
Melbourne offers plenty to see and do, so let’s get into my suggestions for some things you shouldn’t miss while you are there.
MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground)
Referred by locals as “The G”, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) is the largest sports stadium in the Southern Hemisphere.
Located a short stroll from the heart of Melbourne, this modern coliseum has hosted both the Olympics and Commonwealth Games. These days it is used year-round for domestic and international calibre sporting events including AFL (Australian Football League), Cricket, Rugby League and Rugby Union.
If you would like to experience the atmosphere of the 100,000 capacity stadium for yourself, keep an eye on the MCG’s events page to see what might be on while you are in Melbourne.
Pro Tip: The stadium hosts weekly AFL fixtures during the winter and regular international cricket events in December and January each year. But the biggest event by far is the traditional Boxing Day Test Match (Cricket) which is typically sold out.
That all said, if you aren’t a fan of big crowds or just happen to be in Melbourne when there isn’t an event on, the MCG is still worth a visit.
You have two options, the Australian Sports Museum (formerly the National Sports Museum) and the MCG Tour.
The Australian Sports Museum which also houses the Australian Sports Hall of Fame is located within the MCG (Gate 3, just look for the signs) and has recently (February 2020) undergone significant redevelopment.
Plenty of interactive experiences have been added (although these are targeted toward kids) to the amazing collection of Australian sporting history which is well worth checking out.
If you have the time, a look behind the scenes of this stadium that dates back to 1853 is also worthwhile. MCG Tours are held daily when the venue isn’t hosting an event. And it’s a great way to appreciate the history and facilities usually only reserved for the most elite of athletes.
Located in central Melbourne, along the banks of the Yarra River, Melbourne’s SeaLife Aquarium differentiates itself from the many other aquariums around Australia with a unique Antarctic and Southern Ocean display.
One of a number of SeaLife aquariums around Australia, the one in Melbourne is particularly large. While it’s got all the typical Australiana that you would expect as well as a tropical reef exhibit, the key attraction that makes SeaLife Melbourne stand out is the King and Gentoo penguins.
Even if you have been to some of the other SeaLife aquariums, the penguins that you’d otherwise need to travel to the remote islands of the Southern Ocean to see make this one in Melbourne a worthwhile visit while you are in the city.
As with the majority of the other aquarium and zoos, you’ll likely visit, if you are really keen, they offer a couple of animal encounter passes at an extra charge. Including an opportunity to get up close with the penguins and/or diving with the sharks.
National Gallery of Victoria (NGV)
I can’t say that Melbourne is the cultural capital of Australia and not include some arty attractions now can I?
The National Gallery of Victoria or the NGV for short is Australia’s oldest, largest and most visited art museum. And it is actually comprised of two galleries, NGV International and The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia.
Located on the Southbank side of the Yarra River (St Kilda Rd), the NGV International hosts a diverse collection of historic international art, including works from Picasso and Rembrandt.
It also has significant gallery space dedicated to a rotating exhibition of contemporary art, design and architecture known as the NGV Triennial.
While the NGV Australia gallery is much smaller, located within Federation Square and focuses more on local design and artwork.
General admission at both NGV galleries is free. However special exhibitions hosted at the venue often attract an entry fee.
Old Melbourne Gaol
Delve into the dark side of Melbourne’s history with a tour of the Old Melbourne Gaol.
The site of infamous bushranger Ned Kelly’s execution, this prison turned museum dates back to 1839 and offers plenty of insight into the historical seedy underbelly of Melbourne during the 1800s.
I could go into more details, but the tours do a really good job explaining the site’s extensive history. So I’d strongly recommend experiencing it for yourself and learning about the site as you explore it.
However, if you really want to creep yourself out, try one of the after-dark tours to really heighten the senses.
Ride The Tram
It might trivial, but the trams are iconic to Melbourne and a staple of day-to-day life in the city.
While other cities chose to remove their tram networks following the second world war, Melbourne continued to build upon the infrastructure and is now home to the largest operational urban tram network in the world.
The city has modernised its tram fleet over the years. However, some of the older historic trams still run within the CBD for the benefit of tourists. These trams operate within Melbourne’s Tram Free Zone making it a great way to sample the trams for yourself without spending any money.
Just keep in mind that to take advantage of the trams beyond the CBD you will need to purchase a Public Transport Victoria MyKi Card. Something that might come in handy anyway. Melbourne has a great public transport system within the city and surrounding suburbs which we’ll get to later in this post, which could save you from renting a car while you are there.
A dominant feature of Melbourne’s Southbank Promenade, the Crown Casino is more than just a casino.
In reality, Crown Casino is more like an entertainment precinct packed with restaurants, bars, nightclubs, high-end fashion stores and theatres on the southern side of the Yarra River. On top of the obvious gambling aspect of the casino.
Pro Tip: No matter what your reason for visiting Melbourne – If you are travelling with a group of people and looking for a relatively easy option for a night out, the Crown Casino is a great place to start. From casual to premium dining options to sports and cocktail bars, it’s got something to cater to almost everyone.
If that all sounds a bit too much, head out for a stroll along the Yarra after dark and keep an eye out for the nightly fire show, officially known as the Gas Brigade.
If you aren’t aware that it’s going to happen, it can catch you a little off guard, but these on-the-hour fireball shows are impressive to see. For the best view be sure to be on the northern side of the Yarra River, near Melbourne’s SeaLife Aquarium.
This one might be for the young, or at least the young at heart, but who doesn’t love some light-hearted fun from time to time?
While Melbourne really isn’t known for its theme parks, Luna Park’s iconic “Mr Moon” face entry is sure to trigger some nostalgia.
Located in the beachside suburb of St Kilda, Luna Park is a simple 25-minute tram ride outside of Melbourne’s CBD.
The historic amusement park’s carnival-style atmosphere makes it a popular attraction for both locals and tourists alike, particularly during the warmer summer months.
Home to the one of oldest continuously operating roller coasters in the world, the Scenic Railway, Luna Park has been open to the public since 1912. These days the park offers a mix of historic and modern rides and attractions for a fun-filled couple of hours by the beach.
If for nothing else, Luna Park is well worth a visit for the nostalgia factor. However, it’s also one of only a handful of beachside carnival-style experiences that Australia has to offer.
It’s also worth noting that Luna Park is open on the weekends year-round. However, it’s only over the Summer holidays that Luna Park opens every day of the week with extended hours.
Roam The Lane Ways
If roaming around graffiti-covered laneways chasing the best coffees from a hidden away, hole-in-the-wall style cafe isn’t the most Melbourne thing to do on this list, then I don’t what is.
Whether it’s the ever-changing street art or just the hunt for the perfect coffee, wandering the narrow laneways scattered through the CBD seems to be a way of life for the people of Melbourne.
To get you started on your laneway discovery of Melbourne, I recommend you visit Hosier Lane, just off Flinders Street (across from Federation Square) to sample some of the famous street art that the laneways offer.
While on that hunt for coffee and cafes, Centre Place between Flinders Street and Collins Street (running parallel with Elizabeth Street) will get you going.
From this point, it’s just a matter of walking around the streets of Melbourne and heading down little side access roads to see what you discover. Restaurants, cafes, galleries… there are plenty of hidden away discoveries to be found for those willing to explore and get lost amongst the laneways.
Pro Tip: Don’t be too stressed about getting lost in Melbourne; the CBD is laid out in a neat grid with train lines, the Yarra River and Fitzroy Gardens easily distinguish the CBD’s edges on three sides. It’s really only the north that you could mistakingly continue walking off towards. But in that direction, it’s nearly all uphill. So if you get lost just keep walking downhill until you rediscover the Yarra River and get your bearings back.
Queen Victoria Market
If Melbourne is known for anything, its food and shopping. While the shopping thing doesn’t really appeal to me personally, I can always get behind trying new foods.
Queen Victoria Market in the northern end of Melbourne’s CBD combines the two seamlessly with over 600 unique food and boutique stalls. Making high on the list of foodie experiences that the city has to offer.
While open year-round, during the summer months, Queen Victoria Market really comes alive with its Wednesday Night Markets which feature street food vendors, bars, live music and entertainment.
Definitely grab yourself some of the Dutch Pancakes while you are there.
Queen Victoria Market is also a good spot to pick up any touristy trinkets that you make like to acquire during your travels.
If you happen to be based on the Southbank side of the city, South Melbourne Markets is also a good alternative.
Until recently, Eureka Tower was the tallest building in Melbourne.
While it no longer holds that mantle, the Eureka Tower’s Skydeck is the city’s highest public viewing platform offering stunning views out over Melbourne and its surrounds.
If you ask me, the best time to visit the Eureka Skydeck is late afternoon/early evening so that you can watch the city transition from day to night. That experience certainly makes the price of admission worthwhile.
There is an extra charge to do “The Edge” experience which is a glass box that juts out from the tower allowing you to look clearly in all directions, including the 300 meters straight down. I wouldn’t pay the extra, but it could be worthwhile if the tower is particularly busy.
Pro Tip: Tickets purchased online are valid for 12 months, so you can purchase them in advance and wait for a clear day to make sure you get the most out of the experience.
For something similar, yet more formal and much more expensive, there is also a restaurant and bar above the Eureka Skydeck called Eureka 89 which you can also check out.
Flinders Street Station/Federation Square
Ok, so technically these are two separate attractions, but they are literally side by side, and I find the contrast between the old and new part of the fascination of the city.
The heritage-listed Flinders Street Station is easily one of Melbourne’s most recognisable landmarks and Australia’s oldest train station. Funnily enough, it is also one of the busiest with nearly 110,000 commuters passing through it each day.
Flinders Street Station as we see it today was built in 1910, but the site has been used as a train station dating back to 1854.
Obviously, the building’s facade is the key attraction. Something that is truly impressive when it’s lit up at night. However, inside the station has plenty of history to discover as well. Although a lot of those aspects of Flinders Street Sation, including the famous ballroom, have been closed off to the public for many years.
That said, it still operates as a train station however, you can join the thousands of people who use it every day to see the inside of the building. You’ll just need a PTV Myki card.
By contrast, the modern Federation Square was completed in 2002 as a venue for arts, culture and public events.
As a public space, there is always something going on in Federation Square. An event, an art installation, or any number of other things make it worthwhile just wandering past Federation Square any time you happen to be in Melbourne.
And while the architecture of the site has received much criticism Federation Square also houses a number of key Melbourne attractions including part of the aforementioned NGV Australia Gallery as well as the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and the Koorie Heritage Trust.
Depending on what part of art and culture takes your fancy, Federation Square is a good place to explore more of what Melbourne has to offer.
Drive The Great Ocean Road
Ok, so technically not in Melbourne. And you are most certainly going to need to rent/borrow a car to make the most of it. The Great Ocean Road is one of the iconic Australian drives and can be done, at least in part, as a day trip out of the city.
I’ve touched on everything that the Great Ocean Road has to offer in my driving Adelaide to Melbourne guide, but you can do an abridged highlights version by taking the M1 Motorway/Princes Highway out of the city until the C163 route (Timboon-Colac Road) exit.
From there it’s just a matter of following the signs to the Great Ocean Road/ Twelve Apostles to get you started.
You will miss some of what the full route has to offer, but you can always come back later to dedicate a few days to do the full trip.
I would highly recommend leaving really early to beat the crowds and the traffic (particularly the tourist busses) all trying to do the same thing.
From the Twelve Apostles, continue north/west along the Great Ocean Road towards Warrnambool to take in as much of the route as possible before linking back up with the Princes Highway for the return to Melbourne.
It works out to be about six and a half hours of driving (roughly 550kms), but you can’t go past the opportunity to witness these remarkable limestone structures if you have the time.
My personal suggestions include stopping in at Loch Ard Gorge, London Bridge, The Arch and The Bay of Islands to get in as much as possibly can into the day.
Where To Stay In Melbourne?
As with all major cities around Australia, finding accommodation in Melbourne isn’t too much of a challenge. From backpackers to luxury, and hotels to short-term apartments there is something for everyone.
That said, where you stay within Melbourne can have a big impact on your experience within the city. Particularly with the cities often fickle weather in the winter.
Staying within the CBD proper offers the most variety of options, but I would really recommend the following properties that are all within easy walking distance of a lot of the key parts of Melbourne.
- The Victoria Hotel – Conveniently located in the centre of the city and well presented while still being reasonably priced.
- QT Melbourne – A more premium experience, ideal for business trips. Make sure you check out the views from the inhouse restaurant.
- Punthill Apartment Hotel – Little Bourke – Ideal if you need to stay in Melbourne for a week or longer.
Southbank and South Melbourne is also a good area to stay while still being extremely convenient with easy access to the city.
- Crown Metropol Melbourne – Within the Crown Casino complex, this is the ultimate premium experience while in Melbourne.
- Travelodge Hotel Melbourne Southbank – A clean, comfortable option for those who are a little more price-conscious.
If you would rather stay outside the city, St Kilda is your best bet to be able to still easily access the CBD via the public transport system.
- Tolarno Hotel – Known for its local artwork, something a bit different while within walking distance to the beach and restaurants.
- Rydges St Kilda – A bit more of your traditional hotel experience and centrally located.
Getting To The City From Melbourne Airport
I should probably point out that Melbourne is serviced by two airports Tullamarine and Avalon. Well, technically three but commercial services don’t operate out of Essendon Airport.
The vast majority of flights operate out of Tullamarine which is known as Melbourne Airport, including most international, Qantas and Virgin domestic services. However, the budget airlines, Jetstar and AirAsia in particular, do have services through Avalon and Tullamarine. So it’s always good to double-check your flights in and out of Melbourne.
Fun Fact: Melbourne is the only major city (at this stage) in Australia with multiple airports. Sydney’s second airport isn’t due to be operational until 2026.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, the best, easiest and cheapest way to the city from either Tullamarine (Melbourne) or Avalon Airports is the Skybus service.
Skybus connects both airports to Southern Cross Station on the edge of Melbourne’s CBD. As part of the ticketed price, Skybus also includes a hotel drop-off service to select locations around the city.
However, if you find that where you are staying isn’t covered, Southern Cross Station convenient connects with Melbourne’s trains, trams and busses and is also a central pickup point for Taxis, Uber and other ride-sharing services.
That said, if you are staying elsewhere in Victoria, then renting a car will be your best option. The public transport system within the city is fantastic, but beyond can be a little tricky to get around without a car.
Getting Around Melbourne
I know I’ve just made mention of it, but Melbourne’s public transport system within the city is one of the best in the world. Between the trains and the trams getting around the city and the surrounding areas is a breeze.
The Free Tram Zone within the CBD is a really great way to get around and sample the trams. But once you start to look at travelling beyond that, you will need to purchase a Myki Card which is available at most convenience stores (7-Eleven and City Convenience) around the city.
It’s also worth noting that the way the CBD is laid out in a really neat grid, makes Melbourne really easy to walk around and explore on foot. A particularly good way to discover the hidden-away street art and unique cafes the city offers.
The only other thing I will mention is that Melbourne is one of the few cities you really don’t need a car to get around. Well, at least not within the tram network. That said if you do intend to drive around Melbourne, there are some unique rules that you will need to know about. Especially with the tramlines in the CBD.
Getting Beyond The City
Once you start looking beyond the suburbs that surround the city, the trains are a good option.
Run as part of the Public Transport Victoria system, trains run a regular schedule connecting the city with outer city suburbs including Geelong, Ballarat, Glen Waverley and Frankston from both Southern Cross Station and Flinders Street Station.
Again you will need a Myki, but it’s really straightforward system. That could save you from renting a car while in Melbourne in most cases. Handy for those who are budget conscious.
That said, if you do plan on travelling beyond the train network or need a bit more flexibility in your travel arrangements, then you will need a car.
Melbourne’s motorway network around the city is fairly straightforward getting you out of and/or around the city. Based on my experience the Bolte Bridge, in particular, can be a little tricky to navigate with late lane changes for exits. So just keep that in mind.
Otherwise, if you can avoid the peak hours in and out of the city, both the trains and the motorways are a fairly smooth experience.
Where To Find Food/What To Do In The Evenings?
Food and nightlife are part of the very essence that is Melbourne.
The first place I’ll direct you to is Southbank near the casino. You’ll find a variety of options from casual to fine dining along the riverfront. Then if you’d like to keep going into the evening, the Crown Casino also offers a variety of sports and cocktail bars.
Within the CBD, take a stroll along Little Bourke Street for the biggest concentration of restaurant options. There are plenty more options around the city for you to discover, but Little Bourke Street is a good place to start while you get your bearings.
Lygon Street in the city’s north is famous for its Italian restaurants.
While Swanston Street near Chinatown is a great place to go if you are searching for authentic Asian flavours.
Pubs, nightclubs and all sorts of other venues are also scattered around the city. The best way to discover it all is to wander around Melbourne and see what grabs your interest.
If you’d like to get more information to help plan your trip to and around Australia… Check out the rest of my blog posts.