Melbourne’s Mosaic City

“You’ll love Melbourne,” shared old friends and new acquaintances. They insisted that we’d appreciate the city’s coffee culture, the meandering river that cuts through downtown, its hip neighborhoods, and excellent public transportation. Turns out these folks knew us – we did fall in love with Melbourne for these reasons and more.

In many ways, Australia’s “garden city” brought us back to some of our favorite characteristics of cities back home. The core of the city is bisected by the Yarra River, similar to downtown Chicago. Like L.A., the broad, flat southern stretches of Melbourne butt against Port Phillips Bay, complete with sunny beaches and active boardwalks. The rich coffee culture, unpretentious bar scene, and buzzing nightlife brought us back to our time in San Francisco (complete with overpriced cappuccinos and local drafts). Unlike most American cities, however, Melbourne maintains a thorough and modern public transportation system – perfect for two travelers on a budget! Although these likenesses were apparent, a myriad of distinct features made Melbourne feel entirely in its own category among Australia’s cities.

Life on the Yarra

Fresh off our adventures through Sydney, we beelined our way from the Airport to Flinders Backpackers hostel in central Melbourne. The location is hard to beat – we were surrounded by local tramlines and longer distance rail lines (we used both), delicious cafes, vibrant laneways (think alleyways with cafes and shops enticing people in), and the stunning Yarra River.

Winding its way through the city, the Yarra River provides a scenic backdrop for joggers, strollers, picnickers, and visitors alike. After getting ourselves situated in a four-person shared room at our hostel, we hit the river walk around the afternoon rush hour. Sipping local drafts by the river, we watched folks teeming out of the Flinders central station and back-and-forth over the Yarra. During our time in Melbourne, we walked East and West along both sides of the river. Although fairly developed near the core of the city, the Yarra becomes less restricted as you follow its path West and North into Melbourne’s residential neighborhoods. Paved paths and hemmed gardens quickly give way to winding dirt trails and wild vegetation as the river bends over itself through Studley Park.

Sticking to central Melbourne, we toured its famous landmarks and cultural icons. Forming the southern border of Melbourne’s central business district, Flinders Street Station is a hive of activity. The French Renaissance-style train station offers local and regional rail service, and served as our home base of sorts. We escaped the midday heat and toured the Melbourne Museum and State Library Victoria. The former offered aboriginal and modern perspectives on Victoria and Australia while the latter served as a gleaming example of neoclassical architecture – a bit like the Library of Congress. Outside of these classic looking buildings, much of central Melbourne is contemporary, dense, and extremely pedestrian-friendly.

graffiti and beans

The surrealist David Lynch is quoted as saying, “even bad coffee is better than no coffee at all,” but the difference between a culture of coffee lovers and coffee consumers is stark. Melbourne cares deeply about good coffee – the streets and laneways are littered with third wave coffee shops all vying for you to sample their roasts. What we noticed, though, is that every bar, cafe, and restaurant served up exceptional coffee. The joy and love of the caffeinated little cups permeated everywhere we visited. We particularly enjoyed Duke’s Coffee Roasters at the corner of Flinders Lane and Royston Place.

Complementing these trendy coffee shops is an endless display of street art. Influenced by New York City graffiti artists in the 1980s, graffiti artists started colorizing Melbourne’s urban spaces beginning with the innermost suburbs. Early to embrace stencil art, the city now enjoys the moniker of “stencil capital of the world,” and its streets and laneways are welcoming canvasses to famed street artists such as Blek le Rat (the father of stencil arts), Shepard Fairey (famed for the Obama “Hope” print), and Banksy (you know, Banksy). Although local and state governments have been somewhat inconsistent in their support of street artists, the general trend is to protect and elevate their craft.

We spent hours walking from laneway to laneway taking in endless, colorful brick walls as we made our way through central Melbourne. Venturing out from the urban core, we took the tram to Fitzroy, a trendy neighborhood packed with nonchalant bars, restaurants, shops, and venues – think Mission in San Francisco or Williamsburg in Brooklyn. We walked up and down Brunswick street, which bisects Fitzroy, a half dozen times at different times of the day. This offered us a full and varied feel for this enclave of novelty stores, record shops, eclectic bars, and grungy stages.

southern shores

Enticed by the vibrant, colorful Brighton Beach bathing boxes, we boarded a southbound train from Flinders Station. A smooth half-hour ride brought us to Brighton, a quaint little beach town continuous with the Greater Melbourne metroplex. We snagged some snacks and hit the beach, which is flanked on both sides by 82 charming bathing boxes. Melbourne’s southern beaches and coastal communities took us out of the dense urban core of the city and transported us to something akin to L.A.’s coastline.

After a day on the beach, we hopped on a bus taking us north to St. Kilda. We were in search of the famous St. Kilda penguins that make an appearance at dawn and dusk each day. Since we were a few hours early, we toured the beach town’s lively streets and boardwalk, enjoying top-notch burgers at Monroe’s Burgers & Beers and thirst-quenching brews at Pontoon, complete with unobstructed views of the bay. Complementing this classic beachy vibe, the Palais Theater and Luna Park connect St. Kilda’s transit-oriented main drag with the boardwalk.

As the day drew to a close, we sauntered north along the shore while taking in the stunning sunset. Just as the sun dipped under the horizon and day turned to dusk, we took position along the end of the St. Kilda Pier in anticipation for the penguin show. As promised, about half an hour after sundown we noticed a flurry of movement just beyond the breakwater. Soon a small squad of penguins waddled their way out of the water, cooing to the expecting crowd of amateur wildlife photographers (no flash please!). Thoroughly satisfied by our penguin encounter, we boarded the next northbound tram back to our hostel.

We only had three nights in Melbourne, but this was enough to hook us on Australia’s second largest city. The town felt more like a home away from home than anywhere else we traveled in Australia, and we’ll be sure to return, maybe permanently!

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