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10 Things No One Tells You About... Melbourne

Feb. 12, 2017
11 min read
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Mention Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, and you'll typically hear about two things: the nearby Great Ocean Road and how it's home to great cafés. But while the coastal road trip along the cliffs to the 12 Apostles is a must-do and the café scene is an experience in itself, there's still so much more hiding behind and beneath its lovely laneways. Here are 10 tips and tricks for making the most of a stay in Melbourne, starting with one of the most crucial: where to properly get your caffeine fix.

1. It's Australia’s Coffee Capital

You’ll still come across chains like Starbucks, but when it comes to coffee, the Melbourne’s cafés regard the drink as something sacred, with baristas working in similar style to sommeliers, happy to explain the beans and brewing method to match. Ask which café is best and everyone will give you a different answer. A few of the top spots are Cup of Truth, a subway-based stand with baristas trained at Vue de Monde, one of the city’s best fine dining establishments; chemist-inspired Sensory Lab, with a stand at department store David Jones; and small-batch roaster Padre, with four cafés around town, including one at Queen Victoria Market.

Coffee culture is strong in Melbourne, with specially-trained baristas whipping up craft coffee. Image courtesy of Sensory Lab's Facebook page.

2. Brunch is Epic Almost Everywhere You Go

As an American, I've had my fair share of epic brunches in foodie cities like New York and New Orleans, but brunch in Melbourne is an entirely different experience. This city places serious importance on the quality of its brunch fare, with cafés drawing cult followings for staples like avocado on toast and açai bowls topped with caramelized buckinis (buckwheat) and edible flowers. How to decide? Each neighborhood has top-notch picks, from South Melbourne's The Kettle Black, set in an old Victorian terrace house, to South Yarra's SOS Cafe with its Instagram-favorite tiramisu pancakes — and Sensory Lab brew.

Take a seat and linger over the brunch spread at The Kettle Black in South Melbourne. Image courtesy of Tim Grey.

3. Public Transportation Here is Hit or Miss

The Economist Intelligence Unit may have rated Melbourne the World’s Most Livable City for the past six years because of its first-rate universities, quality healthcare and gorgeous botanic gardens, but its public transportation isn't as reliable as you’d expect — the traffic here even rivals that of Los Angeles from time to time — it can take up to an hour to get across town during peak traffic hours, so locals mostly stick around their neighborhood. The Central Business District, or CBD, is based on a grid system and is as simple to navigate as New York City, so if you're staying here, you're better off saving yourself the headache and walking. It’s also easy to explore the beachside suburb of St. Kilda by foot, strolling around the shops, restaurants and seafront, where you might even come across a penguin colony along the St Kilda Breakwater. Trains run from the city’s suburbs into the CBD’s Flinders Street Station and can be accessed using a rechargeable Myki card, Melbourne's version of London's Oyster card, which can be picked up at 7-Eleven stores around town. If you’re trying to get from one suburb to the next, skip the hassle of navigating trains and trams and hop in an Uber instead. One type of transport worth the trek, however, is the Arthurs Seat Eagle gondola in Melbourne's Mornington Peninsula, which shows off some of the best views over the bay.

One of the best views of the city can be seen from the Arthurs Seat Eagle gondola in Melbourne's Mornington Peninsula. Image courtesy of Visit Victoria's Facebook page.

4. Rooftop Bars are a Year-Round Hangout

It doesn’t have to be summer (note: their summer happens during our winter) for the rooftop bar scene to be in full swing, but when the weather starts warming up, these spots are definitely the place to be. Options range from the whimsical, garden party-inspired Madame Brussels in the CBD (named after a 19th century brothel owner) with its faux grass and wrought iron furniture to the pop-up Rooftop Bar sitting seven stories high on top of Curtin House (which doubles as an al fresco cinema come summertime). A newcomer on the scene that’s already a hit with the locals sits on the rooftop of the recently opened QT Melbourne in the heart of downtown. One of the largest rooftop bars in the CBD, the Rooftop at QT shows off perfectly framed views of downtown and serves a menu of craft cocktails that makes the massive line out front well worth the wait. The cocktail list features a well-curated collection of wine and spirits from around the globe, but the local selections are even more impressive — go for one of the specialties like the Yarra Valley Sour, a beautiful blend of Four Pillars Gin (from the small-batch Yarra Valley distiller), orange blossom, egg whites, Pinot Noir and edible flowers.

Take a seat staring out at Melbourne's skyline at the newly opened Rooftop at QT. Image courtesy of QT Melbourne.

5. Glamping Includes Surf Beaches and Champagne 

An hour and a half outside of Melbourne near the spa town of Daylesford (known for its natural mineral waters and farm-to-table cafés), you can go glamping in the hills of Yandoit where Cosy Tents offers decked-out yurts stocked with the same kinds of amenities you'd find at a luxury hotel — think bottles of Moët & Chandon, handmade raw chocolates and a “brekkie” (Aussie speak for breakfast) box stuffed with T2 Tea and croissants delivered in the morning. Over on the Mornington Peninsula, meanwhile, you can take your pick of Happy Glamper’s 168 campsites, from surf beaches to calmer bays with camp kitchens and herb gardens nearby. The hardest decision you’ll have to make is where you’d like to sleep, opting between a 1950s vintage caravan, a 1966 Airstream dubbed “Peggy Sue” and a yurt-style tent surrounded by fairy lights.

Pop a bottle of Champagne in the countryside glamping near Daylesford. Image courtesy of Cosy Tents' Facebook page.

6. Poké Bowls are Having a Moment 

The traditional Hawaiian raw fish dish that’s sometimes served in bowl form over a bed of rice (in deconstructed sushi style) was a hit last year in US cities like Miami and LA, and it’s just now making its way Down Under as one of the hottest summer staples. Dedicated poké bowl shops have recently opened around town, catering to this new health-focused trend. One of the first to open was Pokéd in the CBD, with build-your-own bowls and custom-crafted options like Holy Shrimp!, sous-vide prawns with wasabi mayo and mix-ins like edamame and seaweed salad. Another favorite that just recently opened is the perpetually packed Poké Me in South Yarra, where you can choose from bases like pink rice and green tea soba noodles with sashimi-grade kingfish and slightly spicy tofu. Toppings here aren't boring, either, with everything from charcoal salt to crushed wasabi peas and Togarashi (a blend of seven Japanese spices).

Join the locals hopping on the poké bowl bandwagon at one of the city's first shops, Pokéd. Image courtesy of Pokéd's Facebook page.

7. You Don’t Have to Go to the Barossa Valley to Find Good Wine

You’ll find five wine regions sitting just outside the city, including one of the most well-known. Just an hour from Melbourne, the Yarra Valley is home to more than 70 wineries scattered around Healesville, Marysville and the hill country of Nillumbik, Hurstbridge and Kangaroo Ground — an easy day trip that can even be arranged with a tour operator like Wine Tours Victoria. Taste your way through a collection of sparkling wines at Chandon, whose technique is derived from the infamous Champagne house Moët & Chandon. Sit on the countryside-facing terrace for a wine pairing with Australian oysters and house-made terrine.

Set off on wine tours in the Yarra Valley, a quick day trip from Melbourne. Image courtesy of Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges' Facebook page.

8. Shop Like a Local in Fitzroy

Chapel Street was once seen as the city’s shopping hotspot, but this main drag is now more devoted to chains like Topshop and West Elm. If you’re looking for more local boutiques, head to the edgier suburb of Fitzroy and take a stroll down Gertrude Street for design shops, antique stores and fashion boutiques like The Signet Bureau, whose owners would rather call it a gallery space than a shop.

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Shop local designers like Booker and Co in Fitzroy at The Signet Bureau. Image courtesy of The Signet Bureau's Facebook page.

9. Pop-Ups Here Refer to More Than Just Restaurants

Locals love their pop-ups, gravitating from one trend to the next, whether it’s a pop-up devoted to Nutella, vintage furniture or Japanese homewares. During the summer months (December to February), pop-ups tend to take on festival form, with Birrarung Marr park transforming into a hawker food hall for the Night Noodle Markets and a croquet court and concert venue when the Royal Croquet Club takes over. In the city, the tiny, urban-inspired espresso stand Tom Thumb was meant to last just a year but became a more permanent fixture in the CBD, serving up a different single-origin coffee daily alongside English-fueled fare like crumpets.

Play a round of croquet while catching live music at the summer pop-up Royal Croquet Club in Birrarung Marr park. Image courtesy of Royal Croquet Club.

10. Island Hopping is Easy

From the port in Melbourne, you can hop a ferry to the rugged island state of Tasmania (a nine- to 11-hour ride) or cruise between the Bellarine and Mornington Peninsulas on a 40-minute trip across Port Phillip Bay, which can take up to three hours by car. A favorite, especially in summer, is Phillip Island, a holiday hotspot 90 minutes from Melbourne. A bridge connects the island to the fishing village of San Remo, but if you don’t want to hire a car, you can take the V-Line train from the city instead. Once you’re here, the highlight is the coastline full of surf-worthy beaches, native penguin colonies and gorgeous coastal walks along rugged cliffs and sea caves.

Get out of town for the weekend and explore the beaches along Phillip Island. Image courtesy of the Friends of Phillip Island's Facebook page.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Melbourne? Tell us about them, below.