Long seen as Australia’s second city, Melbourne is runner-up no more after officially edging past Sydney in population for the first time in more than a century. But if Sydney is the extroverted showboat full of grand gestures (opera house! beaches!), arts- and food-loving Melbourne plays it cool.
Visitors will discover odd and wonderful surprises, sometimes hidden in the laneways (what Aussies call alleys), including spaces like a church caretaker’s cottage turned cocktail bar or a limestone art gallery tucked amid rustling gum trees.
Get swept up in the city’s tennis obsession at the Australian Open in January, as well as its coffee addiction: Knowing the lingo – like the difference between a magic (a smaller, stronger flat white) and a long black (double espresso poured over hot water) – is just one way to get a dose of Melbourne’s leisure-loving culture.
After a gelato, enjoy leisurely plucking titles from the shelves at Readings, the flagship location of a much-loved independent chain of bookstores. (Check out the 2023 Stella Prize long list for help navigating of-the-moment Australian authors.) Readings also has a bookshop just for children a few doors down.
6pm: Crack into crab
You don’t have time to try Melbourne’s full cornucopia of cuisines, but you can make some headway at Manze, a new Mauritian restaurant in North Melbourne. Mauritian food – shaped by East African, South Asian and French influences – is not typical in Melbourne, but chef Nagesh Seethiah’s fun and free-form cultural blending is. The snacks are so full of flavour, they practically cartwheel off the plate. Expect dishes like pickled mussels or taro fritters in fruity, fermented chilli sauces and bold chutneys (from A$4.50).
The interior, with rattan chairs and breezy linen curtains, can fit only 24 diners. That’s fine: You’re sitting streetside in summer, cracking into blue swimmer crab in buttery, coconut-curry sauce (A$26) and drinking natural wine as 1970s Mauritian tunes swirl from the speaker. What more could you want?
8pm: Rock in an old cinema
Live music in Melbourne thrives in many forms, including sticky-floor pubs like the Curtin or the Tote. While Melbourne has lost some of its midsize music venues over the years, a number of old spaces have been preserved – and have even reopened – against the odds.
One newcomer on the north side is the Northcote Theatre, a landmark former cinema built in 1912 that welcomed live music into its 1,400-capacity auditorium in 2022. If you want to stay central, see what’s on at the Forum, another former movie palace that is a delightful mess of architectural styles. Many Melburnians have fond memories of seeing their favourite band there, under the auditorium’s twinkling “starry” sky.
WHERE TO EAT
Soi 38 is a Thai-street-food kitchen hidden in a parking garage.
Thai Baan draws diners to line up for its boat noodles, a Thai dish with a dark, aromatic broth originally sold by vendors in canals.
One or Two, down an alley in Chinatown, is a welcoming cocktail den that offers a brief respite from the city.
Stalactites is a long-standing Greek restaurant where families and late-night revellerscome together for the love of a midnight souvlaki.
Cathedral Coffee is a cafe by day, wine bar by night in an old arcade.
Gimlet at Cavendish House, with its charming, light-filled dining room, is the kind of place where you can order lobster, caviar or a late-night cheeseburger.
9am: Sip sencha in the sun
Melbourne perfected the elevated breakfast; at almost any neighbourhood cafe you can order poached eggs, sourdough and fresh-vegetable sides with a velvety flat white. Many of the most refreshing breakfast spots these days are Asian.
Go to Cibi, a Japanese cafe, design store and grocer (expanded in October) in the once-gritty, now-stylish north-side suburb of Collingwood. Light beams into the large industrial space, which feels calm even when all its mismatched chairs are filled. The classic order is a breakfast plate that includes grilled salmon, seasoned rice, miso soup and tamagoyaki, a rolled omelette (A$27). Afterward, browse Cibi’s attached design store, filled with specialty Japanese products like tenugui (hand-dyed cotton cloth) and daikon graters. Or pick up the cafe’s self-titled cookbook.