18 October 2017

Four Days in Melbourne: Things To Do, Places to Eat & Drink

After two pleasant overnight flights with Singapore Airlines, I touched down at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport just after 7:20 am on Sunday morning and, thanks to the electronic immigration stations (alas, this meant no passport stamp for me) and a speedy SkyBus journey, I arrived at my hotel just after 8:15 am. This was too early to check in, but just the right time to head off in search of jet lag-busting coffee and breakfast. I slept pretty well on both flights and was more than ready to start exploring. My onward flight to Cairns was in the early afternoon on Wednesday, which gave me 3.5 days in the city. I’d have preferred to take a later flight on the Wednesday, but couldn’t find one that fitted my itinerary.

One of my main reasons for coming to Melbourne was to explore the city’s extensive and varied speciality coffee scene, which meant I spent more of my time in city visiting coffee shops and cafés than your average visitor might. I will be writing about Melbourne’s coffee shops in a separate post, but here are some of the other things I got up to. NB: in what Brits may find a refreshing flashback to GCSE geography, in Australian cities, the city centre is usually referred to as the CBD (central business district).

Things to do
Exploring on foot

I spent much of my trip wandering around the central areas of Melbourne, including along the waterfront — next to the River Yarra — and through the city’s network of historic, seedy alleys, which are known as ‘laneways’, and grand arcades and where Melbourne’s best street art, as well as numerous cafes, bars and shops, can be found. I also loved the colourful Victorian townhouses that can be spotted throughout the city.

My time spent working in the Oxford Tourist Information Centre has meant I’ve long been a walking-tour geek. As such, I took a three-hour walking tour with Dave from Melbourne by Foot ($40). There are tours that focus on more specific topics, including street art and coffee (in the case of the latter, I figured that I’d rather spend the money visiting more coffee shops of my choosing than on a tour), but Melbourne by Foot offers a great introduction to the city. Dave gave us a wealth of information about the city’s history and culture, street art (we saw AC/DC Lane, a not-yet-painted-over Banksy and several ‘guerrilla knitting’ examples), sport, coffee and much more. At the end, we received a list of food and drink recommendations, several of which I ended up taking. I would highly recommend taking this tour — ideally early on in your trip.

I didn’t have time to visit the Melbourne Museum, although it is supposed to be excellent. I did pop into the National Gallery of Victoria’s Ian Potter Centre in Federation Square, which houses the NGV’s Australian art collection. The permanent exhibitions are free. There was also a temporary exhibition called The Pool, which highlights Aussie pool culture, and includes a swimmable pool. The international NGV is located just south of the river.

Markets and shopping

I visited Queen Victoria Market, a sprawling open-air market just north of the CBD, on my first morning. There are clothing, gift and produce sections and a gourmet deli hall. I also went to South Melbourne Market, which has dozens of independent shops, cafes and eateries. I didn’t try the ‘dim sims’ but apparently they are a speciality worth trying! Also of note is a shop called The Pet Grocer, where you can buy ‘chewy roo lung’ and other ‘goodies’ for your pet! Both markets are closed on certain days so check trading hours (here and here) before making a visit.

I didn’t do very much shopping (the perils of taking only a small suitcase for a four-week trip), but the streets between Little Bourke Street and Flinders Lane in the CBD have numerous shops, from department stores like David Jones and high-end boutiques, to chains and independent stores.

Parks and gardens

The weather was beautiful during my trip, so I spent a lot of time outside. In the springtime, Melbourne is green and blossoming, and the Royal Botanical Gardens were particularly verdant. I went running around The Tan, a (mostly) flat running path that loops around the Botanical Gardens and the King’s Domain. Nearby, you can visit the striking Shrine of Remembrance, which sits atop a hill. East of the CBD, is the grand, sloping Fitzroy Gardens, which is home to Cook’s Cottage.

St KildaThe bohemian suburb of St Kilda lies just south of Melbourne and it’s an easy 30-minute journey on the tram. As it was so hot while I was there, I ended up spending most of my time on the sandy beach — the sea was a bracing 15C, even though the air temperature was almost 30C — and on the pier, which gives great views of the CBD and sometimes the local penguin colony. Brighton and Bayside beaches, further south, are supposed to be better, but I knew I had better beach opportunities later on in my trip.

Day trips and excursions
I wanted to spend as much of my short stay as possible in the city so didn’t take any day trips, but various companies will take you out to the Great Ocean Road or to Phillip Island to watch the penguin parade, among many other destinations. The Melbourne Visitor Centre, located in Federation Square, has myriad leaflets and brochures and can make bookings.

Food and drink
Eating out is expensive in Melbourne, even compared to London. That said, tax is included in the prices and tipping is not required (although welcomed; a couple of the more touristy places I visited presented me with the option to add a tip on the card machine — I did it once and then regretted it, and then declined the second time and regretted that). Note, though, that some cafés and restaurants charge a 10% surcharge on weekends, Sundays and/or public holidays, which covers the higher minimum wage for wait staff on these days.

Unlike in London where brunch can be difficult to source on a weekday, many of Melbourne’s best speciality coffee spots also serve brunch throughout the week and until about 3 or 4 pm. I’ll be listing my favourite coffee shops of my trip in a separate post but I’ve included below a few of the cafés that focus on brunch-type dishes as well as coffee. If you have a sweet tooth, your tastes will be well-catered-for at pretty much any coffee shop: most serve a combination of pastries, cakes and cookies. I also went to a shop called Doughnut Time, where I was only mildly embarrassed to order a doughnut called the Liam Hemsworthy.

Code Black Coffee (North Melbourne). It proved somewhat challenging to find a coffee shop open at 8 am on Sunday morning, but I found my salvation in Code Black. I only planned to have coffee and a pastry but ended up having superb avocado toast with pistachio dukkah, balsamic apple syrup and the most flavoursome beef tomatoes I’ve ever had.

The Kettle Black (South Melbourne). Located in a gorgeous Victorian townhouse near the Shrine of Remembrance, The Kettle Black will probably require a wait at the weekend. It’s worth it, though. I had the day’s brunch special: miso-cured salmon with peas, barley, ginger and a poached egg. It was delicious. If you like a) ricotta and b) Instagramming your food, you should order the ricotta hotcakes — one of the prettiest brunch dishes I’ve ever seen. Beware, though: the portion is huge.

Proud Mary (Collingwood). I went to Proud Mary for the coffee (obvs) but was impressed by the creative brunch menu, which includes small, medium and large dishes. I went for one of the medium options: salmon ceviche with blood orange and hibiscus, avocado and quinoa. It was the perfect lunch dish and the flavours combined beautifully. Even classic brunch dishes like avocado toast get a twist here — the avo toast comes with kimchi and kohlrabi — and everything is prepared exquisitely.

Seven Seeds (Carlton). The first time I visited Seven Seeds, I took one look at the brunch menu and regretted that I had already eaten breakfast and it was too early for a brunchy lunch. I went back the following day to try the eggs and waffle Benedict with pulled pork, which was divine and beautifully presented.

White Mojo (CBD). For my last brunch, I went to speciality coffee and brunch cafe, White Mojo, tucked away down the quiet Hardware Street. There were lots of tempting options on the menu, but I settled on the double cheese chilli scrambled eggs with bacon, served in a black brioche roll. It was as delicious and decadent as it sounds, the chilli adding a nice kick to the dish.

Chin Chin (CBD). One of the advantages to being a sole traveller who has been awake a really long time is that when you rock up alone at Chin Chin for dinner at 6 pm, you can actually get in without a wait. I think my waiter thought I was boring for ordering the pad Thai but I was in need of comfort food and carbs, and it tasted great. The sakura vermouth, mezcal and grenadine cocktail, and the panna cotta with watermelon granita were just as good. A similar — if almost as busy — choice is Supernormal, a block west on Flinders Lane, which several friends recommended.

Meatmaiden (CBD). If you like barbecued meat — or meat in general, in fact — you will probably have a good time at Meatmaiden. I had beautiful brisket, but the steaks looked fab too. Unfortunately, they were all out of the bacon sour cocktail I wanted but my smoked old fashioned was excellent — very smoky indeed!

Tipo 00 (CBD). A Melbourne by Foot recommendation, Tipo 00 is a lovely, intimate pasta bar on Little Bourke Street. It’s worth calling ahead to reserve a spot, but I was able to nab a spot at the bar. I had a fantastic white negroni and then gorged on gnocchi with braised wagyu beef and cavolo nero, which left no space for dessert, sadly. The food and the service were excellent.

Practical information
Getting there. From Tullamarine Airport, the SkyBus runs into the city every 10 minutes. A return journey costs $36 and it takes about 25 minutes.

Getting around. Melbourne’s wide boulevards meant that unlike other Australian cities, it could retain its tram network. Trams are free within the CBD (including route 35, which runs a circuit around the centre, providing an informative commentary). Outside this central zone, you will need to buy a Myki card (pronounced Mikey, not Mickey), which costs $6. You can buy a starter pack for $15, which includes the card and $9 credit — enough for one day’s travel on trams and buses (each journey costs $4.10 within the central two zones but there is a daily cap of $8.20).

Cycling. Melbourne has a couple of cycle schemes — a cycle hire scheme, which has docks of bikes around town, and the new oBikes (more info here). For the latter, you use an app to locate nearby bikes, which don’t need to be docked, and then use the app to unlock them; they come with helmets (it’s against the law to cycle without a helmet). I also spotted a cycling helmet vending machine in Southern Cross Station.

Lodging. I found Melbourne hotel prices quite expensive, and ended up staying at The Atlantis Hotel, in the northwestern corner of the CBD. My room was quiet and comfortable, if unspecial, and the hotel had a small gym and pool in the basement. The free wifi was so slow as to be essentially unusable — even loading Google Maps or the BBC News proved too much, so I was glad I have free data roaming on my phone. It was about a 20-minute walk downhill to the heart of the CBD, and it was also within the free tram zone and a very short walk to Southern Cross station, which is also where the SkyBus arrives.

Wifi. You can get free wifi in the CBD by connecting to the VicFreeWiFi network. This was the only way I was able to download podcasts during my stay. I’ve heard that hotel wifi in general is poor in Australia so I don’t think I was just unlucky…

Water. Water fountains, most with water-bottle refilling taps, are frequent throughout the city and in parks, so try to take your own re-usable bottle. Tap water is offered in most cafes and restaurants.

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