Often said to be the most European city down under (due to its changeable weather just as much as its cafe culture), Melbourne is a must visit for anyone exploring Australia. Whether it’s the beautiful botanic gardens, the towering skyscrapers in the CBD, the impressive array of museums and arts on offer, the laneways that weave through the city, or something else entirely: there really is something for everyone in this eclectic city.
Before you go, check out the festival calendar – there will almost certainly be something on while you’re there so don’t make the mistake we did and book your flight to leave just as an amazing one is starting! Luckily we did arrive on the day of the St Kilda Festival (happens once a year in February) which was pretty great. Even if it’s not on, St Kilda is worth a visit and the Village Belle Hotel (a restored heritage building) is a good place for food, cocktails, and partying.
Cost wise Melbourne is not a cheap place to visit. Meals and drinks out tend to be on the dearer side, and most places have a 15-20% surcharge on public holidays. The higher pricing is largely because the wages in Oz tend to be better than in the UK or the US. Yay for Australians but tougher for tourists. The good news is there is a huge amount to do for free, and if you get a place with a kitchenette you can fill up on a big breakfast before you go out. There is also no expectation to tip, and taxes are included as standard, which means the price you see is the price you pay.
Things to do in Melbourne
The I’m Free Walking Tour Melbourne
This tour was absolutely brilliant. It is listed as free, but the idea is you pay what you thought it was worth at the end. We ended up giving $20 each but there was no pressure put on people to pay a particular amount, and some did leave without paying at all.
Our guide was great – informative, funny, and very approachable. This tour starts off by giving you a good insight into the creation and history of Melbourne, before heading into the CBD to see the more familiar sights. It’s 3 hours but there’s a break for toilets and a drink halfway, and it finishes up at a great spot for pictures of the skyline. Then you can pop down to any of the great bars along the river for a drink and a bite to eat.
Do this early on – you get a great sense of where things are, what there is to see, and clock places you want to come back to.
The tour runs twice a day every day, leaving from the statue of Sir Redmond Barry in front of the State Library of Victoria at 10.30am and 2.30pm. Find out more on their website and bear in mind they do tours in Sydney too, if you’re headed that way.
City Circle Tram
This is such a great initiative from Melbourne. You can hop off and on all day on this loop around the CBD, which includes a tourist commentary.
Couple of things to remember – the trams are heritage which means they are beautiful but lack air con, so can get a little uncomfortable on a busy warm day. They also don’t run into the evening, but other trams do so you will be fine to get back. Just don’t expect one to turn up after 6pm or so. More info here.
If you buy your tickets online then it is just $20 each (concessions available), which seems reasonable for the views and the fact there is no time limit. You can see pretty much everything in Melbourne and there’s lots of information so you can learn about what you’re looking at.
We went up about 30 mins before sunset which I would highly recommend – you get to see the city in daylight, dusk/sunset, and then watch it light up for night time. People head over to where the sunset will be well ahead of time so if you want an unobstructed view bear that in mind.
State Library of Victoria
This really is a gorgeous building inside and out, and is a great way to spend a couple of hours in Melbourne (for free). There was often live music out the front, as well as people playing chess on the huge chess boards.
Inside head up to the viewing gallery for lovely views down into the building, and enjoy the free exhibitions on the way back down. You can grab a book and relax in the reading room and use the free Wi-fi too. There is a coffee shop but it closed quite early and the staff weren’t overly helpful. More info, including on the exhibitions which change regularly, here.
Parliament of Victoria
A very beautiful building, and you can go on a free interesting tour with a really enthusiastic guide. The architecture is lovely, you can go in both Chambers, and learn about the history – it is the State Parliament now but was the Federal Parliament of Australia before Canberra was ready.
Be warned the free tours fill up fast – we turned up at 2.15 for the 2.30 and it was already full, and by 3pm there were already 25 people in line (the max allowed) for the 3.30pm tour.
Queen Victoria (Night) Market
We didn’t go during the day so can’t comment on how that is, but the night market (every Wed from 5pm) was amazing! There was food from all over the world, live entertainment, stalls selling crafts/clothes/music/pretty much everything. It was busy and lively and tables were hard to come by, but you can pay in advance to reserve one for $10pp.
Lots of places didn’t take card and the queues for the ATMs there were really long, so sort your cash out beforehand.
Melbourne Botanic Gardens
These gardens really are beautiful and so well maintained. There are lots of hidden gems so leave plenty of time! The tea room is set by the lake and is lovely – the scones are baked fresh and delicious. You can get great pictures of exotic plants in the foreground and the city skyline in the background from Guilfoyle’s Volcano.
If the walking seems a bit daunting (there are a few steep hills) there is a $10 service which will take you around and you can hop off/hop on all day.
We finished up at the observatory, which is just across the road from the impressive Shrine of Remembrance. From there we walked back towards Southbank and came across a brilliant free exhibition at the Arts Centre about Australian music which is definitely worth looking at – don’t miss the part near the end where you can stand between three giant screens showing musical events from Australia in the 70s.
ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image)
This is *such* a fantastic place. We only went as we had some time before our flight but I wish we could have stayed longer!
The staff were so enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and the exhibition on the history covering how we got from shadow puppets to cinema to tv to the internet to virtual realty is so interesting. The section on indigenous people reclaiming the use of their own image was particularly good.
The interactive section is amazing – you can make your own flip book, get 360 degree photos taken of you, experience virtual reality, and lots more. Great fun for kids and young at heart adults alike. There’s also a cinema on site showing indie films.
It’s free entry but a $5 donation is suggested.
Melbourne River Cruise
The staff were nice and friendly, the commentary was good, but the way we went (towards the gardens and sports stadiums) really just didn’t have much there. Unlike similar boat trips I’ve done in London/Paris/New York the bit of Melbourne further along the river outside the CBD just didn’t have much going on.
A perfectly pleasant way to spend an hour and $25, with lovely views of the skyline on the way back in, but only worth it if you’ve got plenty of time – there’s lots of better things to do in Melbourne. You can go along the river the other way for another hour for an extra $10, but this wasn’t available to use because of the tide being too high.
Where to eat in Melbourne
We saved a fair bit of money (Melbourne is not a cheap place to eat out) by renting an apartment with a small kitchen. Two places we did enjoy were The Grain Store and Smith and Daughters.
We went to The Grain Store on Flinders Lane for brunch on our last day- I wish we had found it earlier, it was so delicious! The pancakes were particularly tasty Great place, great service, great food.
Smith and Daughters is a vegetarian place a bit further out in the suburb of Fitzroy. As a vegetarian in Oz it’s so great when you can order anything off the menu! I have to say as a country it seems far behind Europe/US for having good veggie options in most places.
All the food we had was delicious and the service was great. You can take the free tram to parliament and walk (about 20 mins) which was a nice way to explore other bits of Melbourne, or get a myki and get the tram straight here.
Where to stay in Melbourne
We stayed in Aura on Flinders. The location was really good, very central and close to trams. Less than 10 mins walk to Southern Cross station, and about 15 mins walk to Federation Square. The room was ready when we arrived, the kitchen was well equipped and working fine, and we had access to a washer and dryer too. The gym was good, and we were able to keep our bags in storage after check out which was helpful.
There were however a few issues. It is advertised as a queen bed but it is in fact two single beds pushed together. The CBD views we had seen on the website are only available for the bigger and more expensive apartments, not the one bed we booked. There were only six hangers which wasn’t enough for two people for six nights. The sofa was quite small and not very comfortable, but we didn’t spend much time in so that didn’t matter really. When we went to use the plates for the first time they were greasy and dirty and still had bits of food on from the last guest – not nice! It was generally clean elsewhere but not spotless. When we came to collect our bags at the end it took a while for someone to go and fetch them, meaning we nearly missed our bus back to the airport, so bear this in mind when planning your timings.
Overall it was fine for what we needed, it was great to have the kitchen as we saved lots of money by cooking big breakfasts, but I think the apartments are marketed as more modern and luxurious than they actually are. There are plenty of other better places to stay for the same price.
Getting to and getting around Melbourne
Two airports with lots of domestic and international options. If you are flying to ‘Melbourne’ then you’re going to Tullamarine, which is the primary airport. Melbourne Avalon is actually in Geelong, and the airport is about 50km away from Melbourne CBD.
Skybus from Melbourne (Tullamarine) – We bought our tickets online for $34 each return. The buses were comfy, had free Wi-fi, and ran every 10 minutes. It took about half an hour from the airport to Southern Cross and is a great alternative to a taxi, which will set you back about $50-70 each way. There are also services to Docklands and St Kilda, and they run buses from Avalon airport too.
Once you’re in Melbourne there is a free zone for all tram travel (not just the City Circle tram). If you stay within this zone you don’t need to pay or do anything, but if you want to venture further afield then get a myki card at any station and most convenience stores and just tap it on the reader to pay.
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