Overview

Melbourne, Australia, offers a wonderful mix of Victorian architecture with world cultures. From its favored site on the banks of the Yarra River, Melbourne offers travelers some of the best shopping and theater in Australia, a varied arts scene, top-notch food and wine with restaurants to fit any taste and budget, and excellent hotels.

Melbourne also has a thriving fashion industry, sporting and leisure activities, a greenbelt of parks and boulevards with a distinctly European feel, and an unrivaled festival calendar. Its dynamic and varied lifestyle, cafe culture, affordable cost of living and low crime rate make it one of the world's most livable cities.

Geography

Melbourne's city center sits on the banks of the Yarra River, about 4 mi/6 km upriver from Port Philip Bay. The portion on the north bank is known as the Central Business District (CBD), and the portion south of the river is called Southbank. The ambitious 495-acre/200-hectare Docklands project is extending the western border of the city.

The sprawling metropolitan area is made up of suburbs. Surrounding the city center are the communities of West, North, East and South Melbourne. To the south are Albert Park, South Yarra and, along the bay, St Kilda; Williamstown is on the western side of the bay. To the northeast are Collingwood and Fitzroy. The suburb of Carlton lies to the north, Footscray to the west, and Abbotsford and Richmond are to the east. All of these suburbs are nearly as old as the city center and are known as "inner suburbs." You can reach them from the CBD by foot, train or a short tram ride. To reach the "outer suburbs" (truly on the fringe of the urban area), you'll need a car or a longer train ride.

No matter what suburb you're in, Melbourne is relatively flat. In contrast to this flatness is a chain of hills to the east of the city. The Dandenong Ranges, 40 minutes by car from the city center, are a cool getaway as is a trip to the wineries of the Yarra Valley. To the southeast of the city, a string of golden beaches stretches more than 30 mi/50 km down the Mornington Peninsula to the head of Port Philip Bay.

History

Melbourne was home for the indigenous Koori people for 50,000 years before the arrival of Europeans in the 1800s. The newcomers established a town, but it remained a small settlement until the middle of the century, when a gold rush in central Victoria saw Melbourne grow to become Australia's financial capital and most glamorous city. The boom gave the town its magnificent public architecture, gracious parks, tree-lined boulevards, opulent mansions and the nickname "Marvelous Melbourne." The city developed so successfully that it was the original capital of the Australian Federation. (Melbourne relinquished this role to Canberra in 1927.)

Though it was no longer the capital, Melbourne continued to be one of Australia's leading cities. It took the next step—to world-class city—when it hosted the Olympic Games in 1956. Melbourne has since attracted large numbers of immigrants from China, India, Sri Lanka, North Africa, Lebanon, Vietnam, Italy, Malta and Greece (Melbourne has one of the largest Maltese populations in the world and the largest population of Greek origin in the world outside of Greece). Annual festivals such as the Italian Lygon Street Festa, the Greek Antipodes Festival and the Chinese New Year celebrate the cultural diversity of modern-day residents.

Melbourne has become a vital international business location, with world-renowned research universities and local companies developing groundbreaking technology in biological sciences, information technology, security and communications. The Port of Melbourne is considered a world-class hub for shipping and cargo.

Sightseeing

It's not difficult to see something memorable in Melbourne. You can hardly walk two blocks without running into a quirky piece of street sculpture or stencil art, a group of buskers or an unusual take on a familiar scene.

Nevertheless, there are some areas and grand attractions that you shouldn't miss. The Melbourne Aquarium is a good first stop, especially for shark lovers. From there, you can cross the Yarra River and walk east along the riverside promenade making sure you take in the view from the Eureka Tower, Melbourne's tallest building.

Eventually you'll reach Princes Bridge, which leads back across the river to Federation Square. There you can rest at a cafe and take in the stunning contemporary architecture or visit the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, a unique museum devoted to film and video.

The Ian Potter Centre is also on Fed Square, home to the city's best collection of Australian art. (If you enjoy the pieces there, consider visiting the Heide Museum of Modern Art, which has more works by Australian artists.)

Stroll along the Paris end of Collins—named for the exclusive shopping and grand Victorian buildings—and visit historic points along the self-guided Golden Mile walking tour. Check out the bustle of Chinatown with its shops and restaurants over numerous city blocks.

Just north of the city center is the Melbourne Museum, which is a great place to learn about Australia's natural history and Aboriginal culture. Botanists should check out the Royal Botanic Gardens, and history buffs should visit Old Melbourne Gaol, the former prison that once housed Australia's worst criminals.

Wandering through one of Melbourne's colorful markets is a great way to spend the morning. Day trips to the wineries of the Yarra Valley or Mornington Peninsula, or the beaches of Philip Island are other options.

Nightlife

Dance clubs are spread throughout the Central Business District, although several venues in South Yarra and Fitzroy are worth the short cab ride from the city center. For live bands, hit the clubs and pubs in Fitzroy, Richmond and St Kilda. If you just want to chill out and chat, duck down any side street and chances are you'll find a cozy pub, while funky bars line the alleyways that crisscross the CBD.

In general, clubs stay open until at least 3 am, with some closing about 5 am. Cover runs A$5-$15.

Dining

In no other Australian city can you be more certain of being served an outstanding meal. In fact, Melbourne consistently rates as one of the world's top cities for food and wine.

Food fashions are continually changing in Melbourne. The most popular genre of cuisine falls under the heading Modern Australian. It's strongly influenced by European, Asian and Mediterranean cooking, with such flavorings as lemongrass and chilies, as well as the increasing use of Australian-produced olive oil. Regional specialties featured on menus throughout the city include Sydney rock oysters, Illabo lamb and luscious cheeses from King Island, Tasmania.

In addition to the local fare, you'd be hard-pressed to find a country not represented by an ethnic restaurant—Afghan, Argentinean, Ethiopian, Mexican and even Tibetan food outlets jostle for space with other vendors. For Italian food, head to Lygon Street (Carlton); for Jewish fare, it's Balaclava; for Vietnamese specialties, try Victoria Street (Richmond); for Chinese food, set sail for—where else?—Chinatown (Central Business District); and those hungry for Indian or Middle Eastern food should check out Sydney Road (Brunswick).

Restaurants are typically open noon-3 pm for lunch and 6 pm-late for dinner. Reservations are recommended for most evenings and are essential on Friday and Saturday nights.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one (appetizer and main course), excluding tip or drinks: $ = less than A$25; $$ = A$25-$40; $$$ = A$41-$60; $$$$ = more than A$60.

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