Melbourne, Australia may be Australia’s Second City to Sydney, but it has a unique culture and vibe all its own. Melbourne’s city center is often described as more European than Australian, with abundant walkable avenues and a verdant waterfront.
With four distinct seasons (sometimes in one day), it even feels more like Europe. For the past seven years, locals voted Melbourne the happiest city in the world. Likewise, the city has been recognized as the most liveable city on the planet several times! Melbourne boasts world-class museums, exceptional food and wine, astounding natural beauty and genuine Aussie friendliness.
All three major US airlines serve both Sydney and Melbourne airports, and both Qantas and Virgin Australia fly nonstop to North America and have partnerships with American carriers. That means there are often opportunities to use frequent flyer miles and credit card points to fly free to Australia, stay at hotels free in Australia, or at least significantly reduce out-of-pocket expenses.
The majority of travelers I help travel to Australia include both Sydney and Melbourne in their itinerary, and I recommend about three to four days each. Here is a short list of things you may want to include on your trip to Melbourne, Australia – from where to stay to what to do and where to eat.
Melbourne has something for everyone, from a chic city center and exciting sporting events to rugged mountain hikes and wildlife encounters close by. Whether you’re a traveler who loves to browse art galleries or one who prefers to drive coastal roads with the windows down, you’ll find plenty of things to do in Melbourne.
What to See in Melbourne
Assuming most travelers only have three to five days in Melbourne, I divided this list into interest sections. Skip to your favorite activity, or read them all for a comprehensive list of what to do in Melbourne, Australia.
Art and Culture
There are dozens of museums in Melbourne, from classical art and Aboriginal culture to sports and immigration. Some highlights include the Melbourne Museum, the largest museum in the Southern Hemisphere, and the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). Both state-run museums highlight Victorian and Melburnian culture and art alongside international works by Matisse, Kahlo, and others.
Inside the Melbourne Museum, visitors can also find the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Centre, a gallery where Aboriginal artists share modern interpretations of their ancient culture. Likewise, there is a similar exhibition at the Ian Potter Centre, part of the NGV, which boasts the largest collection of Aboriginal art. The NGV International and the Ian Potter Centre both offer free admission.
Travelers interested in either the founding of Melbourne or the history of the people who live there should visit the Jewish Museum of Australia, the Immigration Museum, and the Chinese Museum. Each highlights a different culture’s introduction to and immersion in Melbourne, Australia. Like almost all other Australian cities, Melbourne was first a penal colony and later a gold rush city. Later immigrants include Greeks and Italians, both of whom carved out distinct identities in the city.
If wandering museums gets old after a bit, you’re probably the type to want to explore Melbourne’s architecture and street art scene. Believe me, this could take all day. Melbourne’s Victorian and Art Deco buildings are incredibly well-preserved and still in use, while the modern skyscrapers don’t detract from the overall human scale of the city.
From Fitzroy to Flinders Station, hundreds of alleys across Melbourne have been decorated with vibrant graffiti. Even better, visitors are likely to spot artwork done by big name artists, including (it’s rumoured) Banksy. Favorite destinations include Hosier Lane and Croft Alley.
Nature and Wildlife
Melburnians are spoiled when it comes to nature and wildlife. Only four hours in each direction are world-class nature sites, including the Great Ocean Road, Wilson’s Promontory, The Grampians, and Phillip Island.
The Great Ocean Road needs no introduction; its iconic Twelve Apostles, London Bridge, and Loch Ard Gorge feature in art, books, and films worldwide. The road technically starts in Torquay and ends in Warrnambool. Port Campbell National Park and the Twelve Apostles Marine National Park are only a small portion of this road. It’s an activity easily done in just one long day, however I recommend staying overnight in Port Campbell or Petersborough before returning to Melbourne. This allows you more time to immerse yourself in the stunning natural setting.
Wilson’s Prom, a local hotspot, lies four hours in the other direction from Melbourne. Here, visitors can hike to mainland Australia’s southernmost point, watch for kangaroos and wombats, or go glamping at Tidal River. The Grampians are inland, past Ballarat, a former gold rush town. The cliffs rise up from the plains and the views from the top are epic. Its a great area for hiking, as there are trails and viewpoints across the National Park.
A popular tourist activity in Melbourne is spending a day at Phillip Island, known primarily for its penguin parade. There are other things to do out here, though, including wine tasting, go-karting, and a koala conservation park. If getting out of town just doesn’t fit into your itinerary, head for St. Kilda, a beachside suburb in Melbourne, to spot fairy penguins coming ashore at sunset.
Eating and drinking go hand in hand with almost all of the activities listed above. Melbourne has several wine regions, including the Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley, only an hour from the city center. Locals and visitors alike head out here on sunny days to traipse through orchards and vineyards, taste local wines, and even tour cideries and breweries. There are also vineyards on Phillip Island.
In The Grampians, there are two different food and wine festivals, while in Ballarat there’s an annual summer beer festival. At the Great Ocean Road, visitors can take on the 12 Apostles Gourmet Food Trail, which visits cheesemongers, fruit farms, chocolate factories, whisky distilleries, and ice creameries.
Melbourne is spoiled for dining choices, which I detail more in a food and drink section below. Michelin stars aren’t awarded down here, but several starred chefs have opened either restaurants or street stalls in Melbourne. Whether you want classic Italian, homemade Chinese, or Colombian coffee, you will find it in the city. There are over 4,000 restaurants in the ten square blocks of the city centre, if that gives you any indication of your options!
To get the best feel for food and wine in Melbourne, Australia, I suggest a food tour. Not only do tours showcase the best of the city’s culinary exploits, you’ll also get a great feel for the history and culture of the city and how its changing. Some of my personal favorites include a coffee tour and a degustation and tapas tour.
Sports fan have plenty to rejoice about in Melbourne. Australian Rules Football was founded in Victoria, and Melbourne plays host to a number of major sporting events year-round.
In January, the Australian Open sets up court at Margaret Court Arena, in the city center.
In March, Formula 1 racers take on the Australian Grand Prix, while in November there’s the world-famous Melbourne Cup, Australia’s Kentucky Derby-level horse race.
The city lights up with fashion, celebrity, and glamour during all major events.
There’s also cricket and rugby, both beloved in Melbourne. And what’s great about Melbourne is that you can often snag last-minute tickets to even the finals.
If you prefer surfing or rock climbing, you don’t have to go far. The pro surfing circuit has a home at Bells Beach, one of the world’s ultimate surf breaks. Rock climbers seek out the arduous clifffs at The Grampians.
Whether you want to do it or simply watch it, there is a sport for you in Melbourne.
Where to Stay in Melbourne
Melbourne, Australia is a world-class city with world-class hotels. Brand names include Hyatt, Westin, Langham, InterContinental, Park Hyatt, and Marriott, among others. With easy transportation across the city, where you stay will depend on your loyalty points or personal style.
Business travelers tend to lean toward the Melbourne Marriott, a recently-renovated hotel at the corner of Exhibition and Lonsdale Streets near the theatre district, or the Radisson on Flagstaff Gardens. Leisure travelers, by contrast, might pick from some of the boutique, luxury hotels in the city.
The Lyall Hotel and Spa, Park Hyatt, and Art Series beckon to those here for pleasure. Both Crown Towers and The Langham are on South Bank, a new(ish) district south of the city with easy access into the CBD and to the surrounding suburbs.
The Grande Dame of Melbourne hotels has to be the Hotel Windsor (above). This classic hotel, built in 1883, sits across from Parliament at the top of Collins Street, commanding a view of the city and demanding our gaze. It is a favorite among celebrities and heads of state seeking discretion and five star service. Members of the Qantas Frequent Flyer program can both earn and redeem Qantas Points if they book the Hotel Windsor through Qantas.
In the next five years, expect to see a new Ritz-Carlton, W Hotel and Mandarin Oriental gracing the Melbourne skyline. This is great news for those with Ritz-Carlton Rewards, Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest points!
Where to Eat and Drink
As I’ve already hinted at, there are literally thousands of options when it comes to where to eat and drink in Melbourne. From tiny haunts in dark alleys in the heart of the city to market-style eateries owned by accoladed chefs, no matter what you want you will find it.
Melburnians typically start their day with a coffee. And no instant coffee will do; Melbourne loves their coffee. There are dozens of local roasters in the city, each with a loyal following and at least one or two cafes. A coffee tour by one of my favorite suppliers serves to showcase the coffee culture of Melbourne and how its shifted over the decades.
Food-wise, there’s everything you could possibly want. Head for Chinatown on Little Bourke Street for some of the best dumplings you’ll ever eat outside of China. Hop over to the adjacent Greek Precinct for spanikopita and galaktobouriko. One of my favorite restaurants needs no introduction: Chin Chin, an Aussie-Asian fusion joint on Flinders Lane, owned by Chris Lucas. Chin Chin does not take reservations for parties under eight people but the wait – upwards of two hours even on a weekday – is well worth it.
Once you’ve put your name on the list at Chin Chin, head around the corner for a cocktail. Hidden on Malthouse Lane, Eau de Vie cocktail bar is a Melburnian favorite. The menu, which changes often, currently includes wacky concoctions like Lady White Snake, Marshmallow Fizz, and a Yuzu Mule.
Hidden Bars and More in Melbourne
Finding hidden bars is something of a local game. New bars open regularly. At first glance it might appear that there are no rules when it comes to where or how you get your cocktail fix.
A science lab? Croft Institute in Croft Lane is recognisable only by the tiny sign at the end of a graffiti-covered, dead end alley. Can’t decide between a cushy cocktail bar or a grungy dive?
You can get the best of both worlds at Berlin Bar, an upper-story bar accessed by a doorbell, once again located down a dark alley. Here, guests can choose between West Berlin, a classic cocktail bar with velour cushions and gleaming chandeliers, or East Berlin, which features an undecorated metal bunk bed, red lights, and a staticky television.
How to Get to – And Get Around – Melbourne
Many visitors from the US combine Melbourne with (at least) Sydney on their trip to Australia. Qantas, Virgin Australia Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines fly nonstop from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) into Melbourne Airport, Tullamarine (MEL).
If Sydney is on the itinerary too, it’s worth checking to see if a round trip into Sydney (Kingsford Smith) Airport (SYD) is the best, or if an open-jaw into SYD and out of MEL (or vice versa) is better.
Melbourne is a very easy city to get around. The Central Business District (CBD) grid lies at an angle to the rest of the city grid. There are trams, trains, and buses all in one network. To ride, visitors must purchase the MyKi card (pronounced “mickey”), either from a kiosk or ticket machine. Simply jump on, scan your pass, and settle in for the ride. You don’t need to touch the pass when you get off.
There is a free tram zone within the CBD, bordered by La Trobe and Flinders Streets on the north-south and Spring and Harbour Esplanade/Collins Street on the west-east. If you are only riding within the free zone, you don’t need a MyKi card.
To explore beyond the city, it’s far easier if you hire a car. There are several global companies like Avis, Europcar and Hertz located in the city centre. Don’t forget Aussies drive on the left and ensure you study up on the driving rules!
Our resident destinations expert, Sarah, posts about a new destination every week. If you have suggestions for a topic, email firstname.lastname@example.org.